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Sunday, October 31, 2004

Movie: Maria Full of Grace. Colombian girl gets pregnant, quits her degrading job after a nasty incident, hooks up with a drug runner, swallows many capsules of heroin to smuggle them into New York, runs into problems there, becomes an American (sort of). More slice of life than plot machination, and gets by with a bit of luck. Universally praised, probably because it takes a viewpoint way out of the ordinary. That's true enough, but the plot never appealed to me, and I wasn't wrong about that either. B+


Music: Initial count 9818 [9801] rated (+17), 1064 [1065] unrated (-1). Another slow, unproductive week. This is getting to be a drag.

  • Banned in D.C.: Bad Brains Greatest Riffs (1979-89 [2003], Caroline). Well, it's not like they had any hits. I can take or leave their thrash, but the shank fares better. Just not enough of it. B+
  • Anouar Brahem: Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002, ECM). Oud-piano-accordion trio, its blissed-out simplicity less typical of the pan-Arabic jazz fusion of someone like Rabih Abou-Khalil than of producer Manfred Eicher's ECM cottage sound. B
  • Don Byron: Nu Blaxploitation (1998, Blue Note). A glorious mess, with its raps, funk horns, interview segments, spoken bullshit, Biz Markie, and just a dash of Byron's klezmer clarinet. Branford isn't even in the game. B+
  • Terri Clark: Greatest Hits 1994-2004 ([2004], Mercury). Another Canadian cowgirl, born in Montreal, raised in Medicine Hat, moved to Nashville in 1987 and landed a record contract seven years later. Shades of Shania Twain, but she's more neotrad, more feisty, probably not quite as talented, or maybe that's as well managed. Good sign though that the best songs are toward the end ("I Just Wanna Be Mad," "I Wanna Do It All," "Girls Lie Too," "One of the Guys"). B+
  • Coolio: Fantastic Voyage: The Greatest Hits (1987-97 [2001], Tommy Boy). Don't know how much to credit his gangsta cred, but he's got a good ear for samples. B+
  • Count Ossie/Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: Tales of Mozambique (1975 [1997], Dynamic Sounds). No dates, no credits, but Ossie died in 1976, and one source claims this was recorded in 1975. The saxophone is obviously Cedric Im Brooks. This isn't as expansive as Brooks' own recordings, but that's because the drummer holds court. Nyahbinghi is so loose and informal it's hard to sort out, but this both sounds like the real thing and like everything you'd dare hope for. I haven't digested Grounation yet, but this is a single CD, and that alone makes it a better place to start. A-
  • The Dandy Warhols: Welcome to the Monkey House (2003, Capitol). B+
  • Iris DeMent: Lifeline (2004, Flariella). Love her voice so much we can even take pleasure in her singing gospel during a week when I'm thinking some 55 million Christian ignorami and their fellow travelers deserve to spend eternity listening to Merzbow. It's been a long time since last we heard from her, and this is a bit obvious in concept, but none of the songs are rote. She wrote one, and it fits. She's not one of the ignorami, and even if she were we'd forgive her. A-
  • Haruna Ishola: Apala Messenger (1967-71 [2001], Hyena/IndigeDisc). From Nigeria, recorded in swinging Lagos, but sounds much less cosmopolitan. The talking drums are central, the vocals mere chants swirling around the percussion. B+
  • Little Walter: Hate to See You Go (1952-60 [1990], Chess/MCA). One of those compilations disguised as a new album that Chess pumped out in the '60s (in this case 1969) for lack of new product. I figure the intersection with The Best of Little Walter is 0, The Best of Little Walter, Vol. 2 is 3, His Best is 5, The Essential Little Walter is 12, Blues With a Feeling is 4, although different comps have different takes. I haven't heard the first two (shorter LPs that have been dumped onto CD and deleted, ranked by Robert Santelli as the #3 and #19 blues albums ever). This one has also been dumped and deleted, and it doesn't have much not on The Essential Little Walter, although the intersection with His Best isn't prohibitive. The usual rap on Little Walter is that he isn't much of a singer; the usual defense is that he's one helluva harmonica player. But on this particular comp I'm every bit as taken by the band(s). A
  • Low: A Curtain Hits the Cast (1996, Vernon Yard). Duluth-based "slowcore" band, guitar-bass-drums with some keyboards doubled in. Doesn't seem like much at first, but it develops some resonance, haunting and lovely when it works, slow and lazy when it doesn't. The band has put out a lot of work over the last ten years, including a box of marginalia this year. This is the first I've heard, and the verdict thus far is inconclusive. B
  • Musiki Wa Dansi (1982-91 [1995], Africasette). Tanzanian dance hits, guitar dominated as you'd expect, by several bands (Orchestra Maquis Original, Juwata Jazz Band, Mlimani Park Orchestra, International Orchestra Safari Sound) I've barely (if at all) heard of. Sparkling collection. A-
  • Chris Potter Quintet: Presenting Chris Potter (1992 [1993], Criss Cross). He was 21 years old when he cut this his first album as a leader. The quintet lineup is well above first rate, with John Swana (trumpet), Kevin Hays (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Lewis Nash (drums). He wrote six of eight songs, adding one each from Monk and Miles. Half of this fits the sobriquet "impressive debut"; the other half I'm less sure about. B+
  • Chris Potter: Moving In (1996, Concord). Quartet with Billy Hart (drums), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Brad Mehldau (piano, except two cuts). Potter plays tenor sax on seven cuts, soprano on two, and bass clarinet on one. B+
  • Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Inner Voyage (1998 [1999], Blue Note). The trio sounds introspective. Special guest Michael Brecker sounds like Michael Brecker, which is OK for what it is but doesn't tip the balance much. One song that does is the Monk piece, done with just the trio, and they get to stretch out and have some fun with it. B
  • Gonzalo Rubalcaba Trio: Supernova (2000 [2001], Blue Note). This is more like it. Rubalcaba's trio includes Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Ignacio Berroa (drums), with a couple of guests adding even more percussion. This keeps the music moving, and keeps the focus on Cuba. B+
  • The Silos: When the Telephone Rings (2004, Dualtone). Amerindie group from the '80s, back after a long hiatus. Seemed marginal then, but this one seems richer and deeper, like the composting has done them some good. A-
  • Dan Wall: On the Inside Looking In (2000, Double-Time). Wall plays B3 organ, soulful backing for a very solid performance by Jerry Bergonzi on tenor sax. Mick Goodrick (guitar) and Billy Drummond (drums) help. B+
  • John Zorn/Wayne Horvitz/Elliott Sharp/Bobby Previte: Downtown Lullaby (1998, Depth of Field). Aside from a couple of screechdowns, this centers on the dense rhythmic drive of Sharp and Horvitz, with Zorn squawking on top. As is often the case with Zorn, when it works it is magnificent. And it works just often enough to make you wonder why he don't keep doing it, or why someone else doesn't pick up where he leaves off. B+

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Cooked dinner (4 guests): dried cod with tomatoes and peppers, red bean stew, deep fried zucchini, shrimp in garlic sauce.

Friday, October 29, 2004

I hadn't watched a single baseball game, either on TV or in person, all year long, but enjoyed what I saw of the post-season. My command of baseball arcana was encylcopedic up to the latest labor lockout, but I lost interest then and never caught up. I can't tell you a thing about the Cardinals pitching staff except that they weren't up to Fenway this year. What I know about the Red Sox, or even the Yankees, isn't much fresher. I've never even visited Houston, so we'll ignore them here. But I lived in St. Louis, New York City, and Boston at various times. Still, my fandom was formed way back in my Wichita childhood -- mostly under the influence of a cousin, Ken Brown, a fanatic Yankees fan. I remember that when Wichita had a AAA farm team for the Milwaukee Braves -- the Yankees' rivals in the 1957-58 World Series -- we went to the Wichita ballpark and rooted for the visiting Denver Bears: the Yankees AAA farm team. Years lived in St. Louis and Boston never dented my preference for New York. The Cardinals, of course, actually had a substantial fan base in Wichita when I was growing up. We got their radio broadcasts regularly, and the lineups -- especially of their '60s teams, such as the one that beat the Yankees in 1964 -- are seared in my mind. And of course I know a lot about the long history of the Red Sox, the "curse" and all that shit.

The background of the "curse" is pretty simple. From the founding of the American League in 1901 to Boston's last World Series victory in 1918 the Red Sox were one of four dominant teams in the league. The others were Detroit for three years of Ty Cobb's prime (with Sam Crawford and Bobby Veach making up one of the all-time great outfields), Philadelphia with their $100,000 infield (Frank Baker, Eddie Collins), Chicago with several teams (the last being the Joe Jackson "Black Sox" of 1919), and Boston. The early Red Sox were led by Cy Young. In the mid-'10s, once Philadelphia's infield cashed in, the Red Sox posted their strongest teams, including pitcher turned slugger Babe Ruth. Red Sox owner Harry Frazee then sold off most of his stars -- delivering Ruth, Carl Mays, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Wally Schang, and eventually Red Ruffing to the Yankees, who also hired Red Sox manager Ed Barrow as General Manager. The Red Sox spent the next fifteen years in or near the cellar, while the Yankees have dominated the AL just about ever since. To add insult to injury the Yankees also beat the Red Sox in two pennant playoffs in the pre-wild card era, and kept the Red Sox out of the World Series with a game 7 win in 2003.

Still, the Red Sox "curse" is the most sustained civic whine in baseball history. Chicago has fared worse with two teams. The Philadelphia A's were sold out more cynically in 1915, and didn't return to competitive status until the late '20s, after which they were sold out again -- Jimmie Foxx going to the Red Sox. The Phillies had good years in 1915, 1950, and c. 1980. And what about Washington, due for their fourth batch of Senators next year, culled from the famished Expos? They haven't had a good, let alone great, team since Calvin Coolidge was President and Walter Johnson was pitching. The Red Sox, on the other hand, have had competitive teams almost every year since Tom Yawkey bought the team and brought Foxx in and Ted Williams up -- 65 years ago. Someone should add up the W/L totals from 1939-2004 and see how cursed the Red Sox have been. I'd guess that the Yankees have done a bit better, and maybe the Dodgers, but who else would come close? Giants? Cardinals? Braves?

What's made the Red Sox so successful over such a long time is pretty much what made the Yankees even more successful: money. The Yankees had more money, but not by a huge amount, especially during the Yawkey era when the Red Sox players were paid a lot more than the Yankees players. But the Red Sox underperformed anyway. I have two theories on that: 1) The Green Monster, which was one of several factors that made Fenway the best hitter's ballpark in the major leagues. Consequently, the Red Sox hitters always looked better than they were, and the pitchers always looked worse -- and the extra wear wore even the best ones out fast. 2) Race: the Red Sox were the last integrated team in the major leagues, and long after that made black players feel unwelcome. (The Cardinals, by the way, were the last NL team to integrate, but anyone who remembers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock knows that the resentment didn't last there, not like it did for Red Sox like Jim Rice.) The Red Sox still pretty white to me, but I get the feeling that that's less of an issue these days. The ballpark is also less unbalanced, about 6% pro-hitter vs. 15% in the past. The Red Sox have had some great pitchers in the last 20 years -- Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez -- and you have to go back to the pre-"curse" (pre-Green Monster) days to find comparables: Cy Young, Smokey Joe Wood (briefly). (Ruffing, Pennock and Hoyt were busts in Boston who became Hall of Famers in New York.) The Red Sox won this time on superior pitching, and the hitting stars were Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Branch Rickey used to say that luck is the residue of design. Maybe this end of the "curse" has some design to it as well?

One story I haven't heard this year is what role Bill James may have played in the Red Sox victory. Last I heard he was working for the Red Sox as Senior Baseball Operations Advisor. I'd be curious how this Red Sox team looks to him, although being an insider for once may inhibit him from saying. It looks to me like they've focused a lot on getting first rate pitching while realizing that they can get by with relatively immobile good-but-not-great hitters like Millar, Mueller, Bellhorn and Nixon.


Noted the cover this week of The Economist: Ariel Sharon with an olive branch in his mouth. Evidently it's supposed to represent him as a dove, but it looks to me like he's just ate the West Bank.

Dennis Ross and others were on Charlie Rose last night talking about Yassir Arafat's illness. They started getting so enthusiastic about peace prospects post-Arafat that I wondered if they were going to break out the champagne. Reports are that Arafat has a blood platelet shortage, which is suspiciously similar to what killed my father. It's a pretty gruesome way to go out.

There was a time when Arafat might have been able to use his popularity to sell a bad deal to the Palestinians, but those days are long gone. In fact, he did sell Oslo, but Israel reneged on the deal. Since then the prospect of a more compliant Palestinian leader has lessened, while the demands of the Israeli right have escalated. The more interesting question is where might Israel go if/when Sharon dies.


Finished reading James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans. I was thinking of writing a "sense and nonsense of the neocons" piece, but the more I think of it the less sense I can find. The basic ideas are:

  1. The movement was defined in opposition to Henry Kissinger's detente policies. The argument was that detente signalled that the U.S. had been weakened by the Vietnam War debacle, and was therefore resigned to an equilibrium with the Soviet Union, abandoning the hawks' previous rollback policies. The neocons argued that the U.S. wasn't weakened; that all the U.S. had to do to reassert its strength was to muscle up its military might and to sharpen its rhetorical fangs.
  2. The neocons argued that foreign policy should be based on a moral position -- the promotion of freedom and democracy -- rather than the usual narrow definition of national interests. They evolved this position opportunistically (pulling the rug out from under Marcos in the Philippines was a key event), and their notion of morality leaves a lot to be desired -- basically they elevated U.S. national interests to a moral principle.
  3. In the post-Soviet period their ideals of military might escalated again. The new goal is not merely to deter a Soviet attack; it is to make the military so awesome that no nation can even conceive of an advantage to challenging the U.S.

The next book I started was Stan Goff's Full Spectrum Disorder, a powerful antidote to the idea that the neocons live in the real world. More on this later.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Birthday. Age 54. Didn't do much. Didn't even cook.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Music: Initial count 9801 [9780] rated (+21), 1052 [1065] unrated (-13). Not a very productive week. Probably distracted by election -- spent a lot of time sorting out email addresses for my Kerry letter -- and lack of pressing deadlines, but I should settle on a review list for Jazz CG this week, and should finish off a Recycled Goods that has been sitting on the shelf for over a month now.

  • Broken Social Scene: Bee Hives (2001-03 [2004], Arts & Crafts). Haven't heard their two albums, which are likely to be interesting. This is a set of B-sides, mostly instrumentals, and it's engaging enough that for a while I was regretting that I wouldn't have the time to see how much it grows on me. Now I accept this as probable marginalia and look forward to discovering more. Last track, "Lover's Spit," reminds me of Coldplay, toned down a bit and therefore cooler. Not a bad deal. B+
  • Minnie Driver: Everything I've Got in My Pocket (2004, Zoë). The actress cuts a record. Fairly ordinary MOR singer-songwriter fare, but she has a marvelous voice and great poise. Need to give it another spin, see whether any of the songs (other than Springsteen's "Hungry Heart") stick. (Well, nothing else grabbed me. She's a very good singer, but that's not enough.) B
  • Johnny Dyani/Mal Waldron Duo: Some Jive Ass Boer: Live at Jazz Unité (1981 [2001], Jazz Unité). Dyani's pieces dredge up his South African heritage; Waldron's sound like Waldron, which while less exotic are every bit as distinctive. The collaboration "Strange Intrusions" suits them both well: Waldron builds the piece with rhythmic figures, while Dyani walks his bass. B+
  • Ricky Fanté: Rewind (2004, Virgin). At first this sounds an awful lot like Otis Redding. But in the long run it doesn't sound like Redding all that much. B
  • Floetry: Floetic (2002, Dreamworks). Two English chicks, black, one sings, the other raps. The result is lazy beats, excess emoting, marshmallow-soft neo-soul where flow is everything and everything is nothing. Possible hope for the future: "Subliminal." C+
  • Angelique Kidjo: Black Ivory Soul (2002, Columbia). From Benin, although Paris is more like it. As is often the case, the token song in English suggests that there's not much to her, other than an easily digested beat -- probably because it's more European than African -- and nicely packaged exociticism, hardly exotic at all. B-
  • Le Tigre: This Island (2004, Strummer/Universal). I can't claim that, cut for cut, this is punchier or popper than Rilo Kiley's album, but at this level I don't care. This sounds like damn fresh postpunk for four tracks, then they pull "it's just a joke, man" out of the far recesses of their memory (it's from Pere Ubu), and I'm hooked. The most topical one, "New Kicks," isn't antiwar so much as pro the antiwar movement, a celebration in a framework that usually descends into lament. Much more, too. A
  • McEnroe and Birdapres: Nothing Is Cool (2004, Peanuts and Corn). Buck 65 fans will note a baseball quip in midstream that sounds just like their man. They may also be suspicious of the beats. I figure all Canadians sound alike; at least that's my thesis until proven otherwise. Not too sure about the anti-smoking song, which is a bit precious, but this ends with a "fuck George Bush" one, to which I say "amen!" A-
  • Mr. Lif: Sleepyheads: Unreleased and Hard to Find (1995-2002 [2003], Thought Wizard). Mostly old vinyl, cut as he got his shit together, and selected to obscure the development. A-
  • Nelly: Suit (2004, Universal). There's a real solid A- record somewhere in these two, but it certainly includes "Pretty Toes," "N Dey Say," and "Die for You" -- maybe more. B+
  • Nelly: Sweat (2004, Universal). As with OutKast's double, the indubitable hits are on the slow goofy one but the hard funky one holds up better. I don't take Nelly to be the more impressive auteur, but he gets help (the Neptunes, the Lunatics) when he needs it, and he's got that St. Louis thang, which I'll take over the Cardinals any day. A-
  • Phish: Slip, Stitch and Pass (1997, Elektra). Never listened to this band before. They have a rep as the new Grateful Dead, which I can hear a bit of and imagine quite a lot more. But there's more songs here, even if the first one sounds like it was cribbed from Talking Heads. This one suggests that they can be a fun band, but that's because their eclecticism is no doubt more amusing live than packaged like this. B
  • Rod Stewart: As Time Goes By . . . The Great American Songbook Volume II (2003, J). Haven't heard the first one, but I get the concept. Old pop songs, lavishly arranged by Phil Ramone, Richard Perry, and Clive Davis. He's a passable singer. Well, he's better than that, but he's not as great a crooner as singer. The arrangements are suitably lush, but have a little snap to them. And there are great songs here -- "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Where or When," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Our Love Is Here to Stay." B+
  • Sarah Vaughan: The Benny Carter Sessions: The Explosive Side of Sarah Vaughan/The Loney Hours (1962-63 [1994], Roulette). Two early '60s albums on one CD, two orchestras arranged by Benny Carter. The first is sharp and brassy, evidently with musicians borrowed from Count Basie. The second deploys strings, predictably less fun. It also is less of a challenge to Vaughan, whose undoubted greatness as a singer is always in danger of lapsing into narcissism. This holds up past the first half, but slips badly toward the end, especially on "These Foolish Things" and "The Man I Love" -- songs you'd expect her to know what to do with by now. B
  • Dwight Yoakam: Dwight's Used Records (1993-2004 [2004], Koch). Non-album items, mostly guest duets and covers culled from tribute albums. Hard to put one's finger on what's wrong here, but one possibility is that he lays the neotrad on so thick because it's easiest that way. B

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Finished "Vote for John Kerry (It's Important)" letter -- some edits beyond what I had written in this notebook a few days ago, in part prompted by comments from Tom Carson. In the course of working on this, I wrote a number of draft fragments which never managed to go where I wanted. Which is not to say that they're worthless -- they just weren't right. They're also cluttering up comments in the file, so I'm moving them here:

Democracy in America is a tease. People keep telling me that my vote makes a difference, but they say the same thing to the other hundred million people who vote, not to mention the other hundred million people who don't vote. Then they tell me that if I don't vote it's my fault when the wrong guy gets elected, but whenever I do go to the polls all I see on the ballot are wrong guys. Or guys I don't know, or guys I can't trust. Sometimes they won't even tell you what they'd do if elected. (Remember Nixon's 1968 secret plan to end the war in Vietnam? How many votes would he have gotten had he disclosed that the plan was to drag the war out another seven years, destroy a couple of neighboring countries just for spite, then lose?)

Sometimes you can't even guess what they'd do. For instance, one of the big problems of the '70s was "stagflation" -- a stagnant economy wracked by runaway inflation. When Nixon tried to deal with that problem, his solution was very un-Republican: wage and price controls, the imposition of a federal bureaucracy to micromanage the economy. That didn't work, and the problem didn't go away, so Jimmy Carter tried something very un-Democratic: he used market mechanisms, raising interest rates until he strangled the economy. That worked inasmuch as it put an end to runaway inflation, but it also had some downsides: Carter lost the next election; workers never again had the clout to get wage raises to match the cost of living, resulting in permanent loss of real wages; and we wound up with the unelected Alan Greenspan running the economy. Could anyone, regardless of how well informed, have anticipated that their votes for those candidates would have yielded such results?

I came of political age during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, which is to say the era of the Vietnam war and the civil rights struggle. This was a time when most liberals were hawks, and most conservatives were also hawks, and racists too. The most profound political statement I heard during those years was from Muhammad Ali: "No Vietnamese ever called me 'nigger.'" People who remembered Hubert Humphrey from 1948 might have cut him some slack in 1968, but I didn't. My mother was an Arkansas Republican and my father was a Kansas Democrat, but both voted for George Wallace in 1968, and George McGovern in 1972 -- they were repulsed by the war and by politicians like Nixon, and were indifferent to race. I wasn't indifferent: I had no option in 1968, and lost bad in 1972.

So from the beginning I've rarely had any trouble explaining why "none of the above" was fit to win. But I also noticed that it made little difference who won, and no matter how bad any presidential candidate looked or sounded they didn't do much real damage to my life, or to the lives of most Americans. Sure, real wages continued to drop and workers' rights continued to be diminished, but most people still had hopes for a better standard of living. Racism was refashioned under the unassailable rubric of anti-crime, but the gains of the civil rights movement were real. And the U.S. was constantly engaged in small scale wars abroad, but they didn't feel like wars -- not like Vietnam and Korea and WWII -- so we grew comfortable with the notion that we were at peace with the world.

But all that ended with the election of 2000 and the inauguration of George W. Bush. It's not that we didn't suspect that Bush would be bad for us, but we had gotten used to the idea that nothing real bad ever happens -- that we had survived the father, so too could we survive the son. When I wrote about Bush at the time, I predicted much of what we had seen before, a lot of thievery and skullduggery. In other words, even skeptical as I was, I couldn't imagine what would come. The conventional wisdom is that the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, but in retrospect the fuse was lit the day Bush took office -- the day by which he had put together the team that would drive America into a neverending war against our so-called enemies, a war he now tries to convince us only he can lead.

On the surface of it, Bush's term as President has been a gross failure. War has returned, more deadly, more costly than any time since Vietnam. Jihadist terrorism, even discounting the war zones, is more widespread than ever. The burden of war and terrorism has slowed the economy [ . . . ] Such arrogance would be pathetic if it were clear that America's voters would overwhelmingly thwart his aims. But as the 2004 election approaches, Bush's re-election prospects are reportedly 50-50, the race too close to call. For once, we do have an election that matters. As as the great democratic tease insists, I feel -- however ridiculous this seems when you look at how powerless one person is against the raw numbers -- compelled to do what little I can prevent the disaster of four more Bush years.

Another one:

But, you might ask, how can I be certain that re-electing Bush would bring disaster? Sure, Bush has thrown us into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that show no signs of letting up, but U.S. casualties in those wars are relatively few compared to other wars -- fewer deaths than in the Sept. 11 attacks. But aren't those wars necessary to stand up to the threat of terrorism, and isn't it noble that we should promote freedom and democracy in those parts of the world where tyranny has provided an incubator and haven for hate? OK, the economy has fared poorly, largely due to fear of terror, but most people still have jobs, and many have taken advantage of record low interest rates to buy or build new houses, etc. And admittedly there are other problems, but isn't the first obligation of government to defend the homeland and keep us secure?

I'm writing this to explain why I'm convinced that it is important for every one of you to vote for John Kerry for President this year.

I'm doing something here that I've never done before: I urge you to vote for John Kerry for President.


I was intensely interested in politics when I was a teenager. Two close cousins, who were practically the only college educated people I knew, majored in and taught political science. I subscribed to the Congressional Record, read Congressional Weekly/Quarterly at the library. I researched and plotted election maps going back to the Civil War. I could tell you the names and dates of every U.S. Senator in the 20th century. In 1972 I finally got my first chance to vote, and everyone I voted for lost. The country muddled through. The President I voted against resigned in disgrace. The war he cruelly prolonged went away. I continued to follow politics, but didn't vote again until 24 years later, when I got another chance to vote against the same unscrupulous Senator I had tried to save us from in 1972. I've voted since then, but like the half of the electorate who don't vote and who knows how many others, I've never felt like I was part of the process, or that my vote mattered in any significant way.

I've written a lot about politics over the years, but what I'm doing here is something I've never done before: I'm campaigning. I have to admit this feels awkward, but given how alarming news is these days, I feel an overwhelming urge to try to do something, to make a difference. So this letter, sent to as many friends and family as I can find addresses for, is my small contribution. I'm asking you, pleading, begging even, to vote for John Kerry this November. This is important, and I want to explain why. But first I want to remind you a bit of where I'm coming from.

From the start I was very committed to a set of ideals that I believed to be America. I was born in the middle of the country, in the middle of what people came to call "the American century," and I was an almost stereotypical American: white, protestant, working class, no sense of belonging to any ethnic group. My parents grew up on farms and moved to the city to work in WWII factories, my mother a housewife. I was precociously smart, active in church and scouts. My parents had little education, but they had strong work ethics, managed their expenses, saved, and built a comfortable home. I believed that America had fought noble wars to gain independence from England and to put an end to slavery, and that from those wars was forged a land of freedom and opportunity. It turns out that what I believed in was myth, at best a kernel of truth wrapped in hope, but the only political agenda that I've ever had was that that myth should be made real.

I'm not a person given to sympathy -- I'm not what you'd call a "bleeding heart liberal," and I detest condescension. I started out being very selfish and ambitious, but I've moderated over time, mostly finding that those attributes don't work very well. The one attribute I do strongly believe in is respect -- the Golden Rule is really about respect but doesn't go far enough. Much of what is wrong in the world can be characterized as a breach of respect -- respect not given or respect not deserved. Three more keywords go with respect: honesty, responsibility, and trust. When one deals with people who are honest and responsible, who respect others, those are people you can trust. The problem is that just about everything we do in the world today depends on our ability to trust that other people, mostly people we don't even know, are not going to hurt us. So if our everyday lives depend so much on trust, that means that we critically depend on the honesty, the responsibility, the respect of the people around us, including the President of the United States.

I'm not going to make any claims about John Kerry being trustworthy, but this election isn't about Kerry -- it's about George W. Bush, his administration, the people he serves, and their tactics for seizing and retaining power. And while politicians in general have lowly reputations, Bush is in his own league.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Music: Initial count 9780 [9746] rated (+34), 1065 [1073] unrated (-8). This has been an extremely frustrating week: most of it was spent slogging through the new jazz file, where professional responsibility dictates that few records can be dispensed with on the first play. Meanwhile, I've been trying to articulate my pro-Kerry letter, which has been hard in several respects: concentrating the invective on Bush, avoiding invective about Kerry. Many topics, not the least of which is Israel, didn't fit in because Kerry has nothing useful to say about them, even though it's unlikely that he'd be anywhere near as bad as Bush. So the count as of Saturday was +16, my least productive week since I got back from my summer trip. But the count climbed quick as I played some cheap shots, and took an extra day to close. This coming week should be, uh, better.

  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: At the Jazz Corner of the World (1959 [1994], Blue Note, 2CD). Typical, really. Band at this time featured Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt. B+
  • Eric Burdon: My Secret Life (2004, SPV). Still around. He's spent a lifetime diving over the top, so nothing he does here should surprise, but his cover of "Heaven" (you know, the Talking Heads) is spectacularly inappropriate. "Devilside" is more his speed: bad blues rock like they haven't made since the Climax Blues Band sunk into oblivion. Title song is Leonard Cohen's: he does it heavier, jerkier, more melodramatic. What the fuck do you expect? B-
  • The Essential Leonard Cohen (1967-2001 [2002], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). The early albums I don't know very well. Two late ones, I'm Your Man and The Future, I regard as indispensible. This gets to I'm Your Man near the end of the first disc, and intersects most of the way throught he second. So I don't regard this as indispensible; just a luxury. The early albums are SFFR, and nothing here makes me think that won't be worth the effort. A
  • Pierre Favre Ensemble: Singing Drums (1984, ECM). Four drummers -- percussionists anyway: Nana Vasconcelos sticks with berimbau, tympani, conga, water pot, shakers, bells and voice, while Favre, Paul Motian and Fredy Studer occasionally play drums in addition to various percussion instruments. To get the singing sound they keep a soft-toned gong-type thing going. Still, they have trouble giving it any shape. It mostly just flitters away in the background. B
  • Fe-Mail: Syklubb fra Haelvete (2003, Important). Noise duo consists of Maja Ratkje and Hild Sofie Tafjord, presumably the two young women on the cover, formerly of the anarchistic improv quartet SPUNK. I gather they're from Norway. Their website has some picture of them in concert, tweaking nobs and patch boxes, poking at laptops. Not my thing, nor something that I know much about, but not without interest at points. I'm inclined to turn the volume down a bit, which is probably not the point. B-
  • John Holt: 1000 Volts of Holt (1974 [2001], Trojan/Sanctuary). Subtitled "18 Beautiful Songs" -- most of these are way too familiar, things like "Mr. Bojangles" and "Alfie" and "Girl From Ipanema" and "Just the Way You Are" and one called "Killing Me Softly With Her Song." But Holt earns his lovers rock rep anyway. B+
  • Israelites: The Best of Desmond Dekker (1963-71 [2002], Sanctuary/Trojan). Roughly equivalent to the Rhino Rockin' Steady, which goes on a couple of years but has fewer songs. More concise than Rudy Got Soul, just one disc of major hits vs. two with a lot of filler but more background. Dekker was probably the single most important Jamaican star of the ska era. Take your pick. A-
  • Gregory Isaacs: All I Have Is Love: Anthology 1968-1995 ([2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Isaacs is a rare artist whose average work is as satisfying as his great work. There are better anthologies of his highlights (Best of Gregory Isaacs, Volumes One and Two, My Number One, Ultimate Collection are obvious and overlapping), but these two discs full of relative obscurities measures up so well that you have to concede his magic. A-
  • Lee Konitz/Franco D'Andrea: Inside Cole Porter (1996, Philology). Inveterate outsiders, if you ask me, the snatches of recognizable Porter are few and far between. Still, I find these duos a bit more interesting than the Konitz-Alan Broadbent series, possibly because the pianist works harder to get to the roots of the songs, or maybe because the songs themselves have more guts. B+
  • The Magnetic Fields: I (2004, Nonesuch). Fourteen more love songs, more or less. I never had the attention span to properly sort through his tour de force 69 Love Songs, so I appreciate the concision here. Just wish more songs made me want to sit through this one. B
  • Maneri Ensemble: Going to Church (2000 [2002], Aum Fidelity). Strange. I hated this when I first got it. It's been sitting around a long time. I'm preoccupied with other tasks, so I threw it on figuring I'd at least get it off my to-do shelf, off to wherever I file these things. It's still a tough record to get, but it's getting to me. The latest Maneri has Joe and Mat (pere et fils) teamed up with Barre Phillips, which is a pretty lean combo. This adds three more players: Randy Peterson (drums), Roy Campbell (trumpets), Matthew Shipp (piano). The drummer really helps, not so much by giving the beatless trio a beat as by cutting the shit. Campbell adds a lot too, like Cherry adds to Ornette. Left to his own druthers Joe Maneri can be a deadass bore. But the star here is Mat Maneri, whose viola thickens and quickens everything. Around 25 minutes into the first cut they sound like Stravinsky, in his heavy metal period. The following two pieces are less interesting -- less active, to be precise. B+
  • Bob Marley and the Wailers: Trenchtown Rock: The Anthology 1969-78 ([2002], Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). From the very start, a screed called "Adam and Eve" confirming that "woman is the root of all evil," they were something special. This misses the Wailers' early Studio One period (highlight: "Simmer Down"), picking them up when they worked with Lee Perry. And this overlaps their early Island records -- the ones that made Marley a star -- by tracking their Jamaican equivalents. So the high points of the second disc are available elsewhere, in better configurations. As for the Perry period, it's a mixed bag. While Bunny Livingston and Peter Tosh went on to distinguish themselves as solo performers, the trio was less than the sum of its parts; Bob Marley was already the dominant voice, but only on his own was he able to make that clear. B+
  • The Mercenaries: The Hanging Tree (2003, Melted Vinyl). They sound a bit like some sort of Appalachian Pogues -- their folk/country-rock comes off thick and heavy, which worked better with the Pogues -- probably because they were closer to the origins of punk, they were more intent on getting the attitude right. Clever graphic trick on front/back covers. B
  • Prefuse 73: One World Extinguisher (2003, Warp). Sounds a lot like the Avalanches, except the samples aren't obvious, nor do they convey the sense of humor the comparison suggests. Maybe they're not samples. B-
  • Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus: Dadawah: Peace & Love / Nyahbinghi (1974 [1998], Trojan). Minimalist Jamaican roots, Ras Michael's first two albums hew closely to Count Ossie's fundamentalist cult music, aka nyahbinghi. This is roughly the same work as was included on Sanctuary's Nyahbinghi box, a bit less polished than the 1985 album Rally Round (Shanachie), but his penchant for sanctified nursery rhymes is already fully formed. A-
  • Glenn Spearman Double Trio: Smokehouse (1993 [1994], Black Saint). Two drummers, two saxes, one piano, one bass -- not a symmetrical double trio, but not exactly a sextet either. Solid avant fare, doesn't explode, but lots to listen to. B+
  • Tethered Moon (Masabumi Kikuchi, Gary Peacock, Paul Motion): Play Kurt Weill (1995, JMT). Very slowly. B-
  • James White and the Blacks: Sax Maniac (1982 [1996], Infinite Zero/American). When James Chance calls one number "Sax Machine" he makes his concept too plain: skronk a la James Brown. But the one he calls "Irresistible Impulse" is just that. B+

Friday, October 15, 2004

This is a rough draft of a letter I intend to send to friends and acquaintances urging that they vote for John Kerry. It need some rough edges polished before it goes out, so right now consider this to be unfinished.

I've always viewed politics as a spectator sport, usually managing to keep detached, recognizing that all politicians are flawed, most are often wrong, but few are truly disastrous. But in my lifetime I've never seen one as completely hideous as George W. Bush. Democracy gives us an opportunity to correct such mistakes, and begs us to participate. Given the stakes, I've been searching for some way to do something. The best idea I've come up with is to write a letter in my own words and try to explain to one and all why Bush is so bad for America, and to urge everyone who reads this to vote for John Kerry. This has been a very difficult letter to write -- the main problem being that I have much too much material to present succinctly. Since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I have read over 100 books on history, economics, and politics, trying to understand this world and how it's gone so wrong. Only a tiny bit of what I've learned appears below. I keep turning over in my mind a book I should write some day that might put this learning into some usable form. Perhaps I'll use a title that Rush Limbaugh once abused, "The Way Things Ought to Be." But time is running out now. I hope that this is enough to say to convince you of my point. If not, please respond and I'll try harder. It is very rare that so much so obviously rides on this election. Above all, this election is a test of our awareness, our ability to reason, whether we care for one another. Jack Germond finished a recent book about American politics with these lines: "We get about what we deserve. So I guess we deserve George W. Bush." We have one more chance to show that we deserve better. Please vote for John Kerry. And please feel free to pass this on to anyone you think this might help. We all do what we can do.


In August of this year the U.S. government released a series of reports, which showed that during the three-plus years that George W. Bush has been President the U.S. had lost jobs, that the jobs that we still had paid less, that the number of people living under the official definition of poverty had increased, that the cost of health care had risen dramatically, and that millions more Americans do not have health insurance. These are all serious problems. We can argue to what extent Bush is responsible for them, but the most telling thing is how Bush reacted to the bad news: he ignored the reports and insisted that his policies and leadership were working. Even if you knew nothing else about Bush, you'd have to wonder about a President who can't even recognize that such basic problems are problems worthy of his attention.

The August list doesn't come close to listing all of the problems that we face today. On September 11, 2001, nine months into the Bush presidency, four airliners were hijacked and crashed spectacularly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people. Nobody blames Bush for this, even though we now know that it wasn't just bad luck that his administration wasn't able to detect and thwart the attack: they had other priorities, like turning the budget surplus into a tax windfall for their richest backers, building an extravagant anti-missile defense system, and dismantling government regulations limiting things like arsenic and salmonella. But September 11 was so shocking that even Bush had to pay attention. The attacks were linked to Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi jihadist who lived as an honored guest of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. So Bush plunged the U.S. into war to capture or kill Bin Laden and topple the Taliban, whichever came first. Then, with Bin Laden still at large, he launched a second war in Iraq.

Those two wars have cost the U.S. well over a thousand additional lives, something approaching $200 billion, and much of the sympathy and respect that we had enjoyed around the world ever since WWII. Meanwhile, Bin Laden's allies have multiplied, striking dozens of times from Indonesia to Morocco and Spain, from Kenya to Turkey. Some claim, citing the football cliche "the best defense is a strong offense," that we are safer because of these wars, but having killed tens of thousands of muslims and reduced two countries to vicious civil wars; many others can't help but wonder how anything good will come from so much violence.

Just as Bush sees no problem in lost jobs, more citizens under the poverty line, fewer citizens with health insurance, Bush also cannot admit that he has made any mistakes during his march to war, nor by how those wars have been handled. Bush had a broad, albeit naive, consensus to go to war in Afghanistan, but he had no such mandate for Iraq. The decision to invade and occupy Iraq was made wholly within the Bush administration, then cynically marketed to America and (for the most part unsuccessfully) the world. An excuse was fabricated that Iraq had WMD -- weapons of mass destruction, a term coined to imply that Iraq had nuclear weapons when all one had to prove was that they had chemical weapons -- and that Saddam Hussein would turn those WMD over to terrorists to attack the United States. When renewed on-the-ground inspections correctly showed that Iraq had no such weapons, Bush rejected the findings and invaded. Only when the invasion was launched did Bush add a new rationale: to liberate the Iraqi people, spreading democracy and freedom. Some Iraqis seemed to buy that at first, but the only step the U.S. has made thus far to build a democracy is to set a date for elections, conveniently after Bush's own election date. Both in the U.S. and in Iraq Bush believes that it is less important that an election reflect the choice of the people than that Bush's own candidates win.

It is clear now that Bush and his party will say anything to get their way. Their 2001 tax cut was initially marketed as needed to return a tax surplus to the people, then when the economy tanked and the tax cut promised to throw the government back into deficits the tax cut was sold as a stimulus. Bush's tax cut was extremely biased to favor the very rich, and much of it only kicks in up to ten years down the road, where it looms like an IED threatening to derail some future government. The only parts of the tax cut that can be thought of as stimulating were rebates tacked on by opportunistic Democrats working under the cover of Bush's rhetoric. But in the third Bush-Kerry debate, Bush repeatedly talked about his "middle class tax cut," how he "cut taxes for all Americans," about the 10% tax bracket for the lowest income group -- without ever mentioning that the poorest Americans still pay 10% more (not to mention their payroll taxes and sales taxes) than the richest Americans pay on their now tax-free dividends.

Bush's relentless tax cutting is one of several fronts in his war on government. This matters because Republicans fear that a government which reflected the interests of the vast majority of Americans could turn on the rich. Republican strategists point to the differences between states like New York and Alabama: the more a government does to help ordinary citizens, the more voters are willing to tax the rich to get more; conversely, governments that do nothing worthwhile are distrusted by voters, who see no value in them. The Republican solution to this is to cripple government, and they do this in several ways: they try to starve programs by reducing revenues; they put mismanagers in charge to undermine programs they don't like; they outsource government jobs to private contractors, who provide political kickbacks in a new patronage system; they create diversions to spend unproductively, especially through the military. The idea here isn't to destroy government; just to keep it weak, dominated by private interests, and useless to support ordinary people.

For people so quick to wrap itself up in the flag, it is shocking how little commitment Bush's party actually has to America's citizens and their welfare. Bush makes no effort to stop multinational corporations from avoiding U.S. taxes. Bush refuses to subject us to the World Criminal Court, but he has no qualms about the WTO rewriting U.S. law where it doesn't satisfy foreign capitalists. Bush promotes the loss of American jobs under the guise of free trade, encouraging companies here to reduce wages here by outsourcing or by negotiating under threat. For jobs that cannot be exported, Bush has proposed a "guest worker" program to import cheaper labor "for jobs Americans don't want to do." The U.S. effectively subsidizes other nations' economies by running huge trade deficits -- a sacrifice no other nation makes, but then the U.S. is governed less by workers' votes than by lobbyists' money. And the money Americans spend to buy Saudi oil gets reinvested in global capitalism, some of which trickles back to operatives of the Bush party. Bush has been similarly accommodating to polluters, for that matter to businesses of all kinds.

Bush was born and bred to serve the very rich, as was his father and his grandfather before him -- three generations of Yale Skull and Bonesmen, never moneyed enough in their own right, but skilled at plying their connections. He identifies not with a nation but with a class. Why anyone excluded from that class -- depending on your standards for association, somewhere between 90 and 98% of all Americans -- would support a politician with those allegiances is a mystery. The Republicans have become expert at exploiting wedge issues (abortion, guns), at codifying hatred and resentment (race, gays, liberals, the government), at confusing patriotism with a huge military meant to protect capitalism worldwide, at usurping the mantle of religion. They have trained us to expect little, to accept that poverty is our failing -- not theirs. And they have made us fearful that those they have injured all around the world hate and lash out not at them but at us. They reinforce these messages over and over: they have obscene amounts of money, they control most of our sources of news and opinion, they have an endless supply of apologists, and they scientifically craft their messages using the tools of advertising.

In the best of times Republican politicking might be enough to propel even someone as transparently a servent of the very rich as George W. Bush to the presidency, but Bush has a big problem this year: reality. In less than four years Bush has taken us from relative peace and prosperity to a disastrous war and an economy which exposes the fundamental problems of a government which favors the rich at the expense of everyone else. A good part of this problem is systemic -- the decline of real wages for the workers who built America has been going on for thirty years, as the gulf between rich and poor has been broadening, concentrating power for the rich and reducing opportunity and a sense of fairness for everyone else. But much of the problem is due to the arrogance, ignorance and incompetence of the Bush administration. Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq. Had they merely been content to depose Saddam Hussein virtually everyone would have applauded them. But they had visions of refashioning Iraq in the image of Texas, a haven of crony capitalism owned by outsiders (including a few transplants, like the Bushes), and they proceded to blunder their way into a poisonous civil war. Similarly, they've managed to turn a tiny but politically marginal terrorist group, Al Qaeda, into martyrs in a clash of civilizations. And they've managed to make the U.S. appear to be the most dangerous of all the world's rogue states.

Bush has been so disastrous that even some of the very rich feel the pain. He has an opponent in John Kerry who is every bit as deeply rooted in the upper class as Bush -- even to the point of being another Yale Skull and Bonesman, an astonishing parallel. But Kerry comes from a different strand: less arrogant, less ignorant, Kerry recognizes that America is more than just a government of, by and for the rich. More importantly, Kerry realizes that contempt for the poor, workers, scientists, the rest of the world is not just bad in some soft-headed liberal ethics sense. He understands that it doesn't work -- it makes enemies where one desperately needs friends. I have never seen a presidential election where the choice was so clear.

On the other hand, as I write this polls report that Bush and Kerry are stuck in a dead heat. And there is good reason to worry that Bush, being in power, will pull out all the stops in trying to wedge the election his way. (For example, he can raise the official terror alert level, which has in the past correlated favorably with his polls. He can launch a major offensive in Falluja, which will help him play the role of Commander in Chief. He might luck out and produce some "high value" Al Qaeda target, as they more/less did during the DNC.) The polls translate to some fifty million voters for Bush, a staggering sum given his record. If Bush somehow manages to win the message will be sad for America. Not only would it expose us to four more years of disastrous mismanagement, it plainly broadcasts to us and the world that the citizens of the United States just don't care -- about the world, about us. A victory for Bush would show us to be extraordinarily gullible, or downright vile. The chances that the world will not notice are nil, and the costs are incalculable.


I want to add a postscript on Ralph Nader. I know a lot of people who voted for Nader in 2000. I was one of them. I was thoroughly disgusted with the way that Clinton and Gore had handled foreign policy, especially Iraq, and the Republicans in Congress were consistently as bad or worse. The dangers inherent in those policies, including terrorist attacks such as 9/11 and the bitter anti-American resistance in Iraq, were evident even then. I don't know that Nader actually understood this, but where Gore and Bush, at least publicly, agreed on almost all foreign policy issues, Nader seemed to be a real alternative. This year is different. First, Bush must be held accountable for his wars. Second, Kerry is different from Bush in critically important ways. Third, Nader has nothing more to offer. He's not a deep or particularly broad thinker, and he's not a practical politician. In 2000 he was at least a celebrity face for the nascent Green Party movement, which could credibly argue that the Democrats had bought into the Republican agenda. That isn't true now, because under Bush the Republicans have dove off the deep end. And Nader isn't with the Greens now -- he's just a celebrity crank. If he had been strong on issues -- if, e.g., he had fought the mad rush to war after 9/11, if he had developed his critique of intellectual property into a comprehensive alternative to the pharmaceutical industry, if he had a viable idea of how to grow businesses without corporate abuses -- not supporting him might be a tougher call. But he never came close, and his current campaign is merely pathetic. It's sad, but Nader has become detached from reality. Anyone whose critique of capitalism can't distinguish between Bush and Kerry or whose ethic of politics doesn't understand that things have to stop getting worse before they can get better has also lost their grip on reality.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Music: Initial count 9746 rated (+26), 1073 unrated (-9). The long delayed Recycled Goods column has appeared. I've mostly been working on catching up with previously unplayed jazz records. The slight dropoff in the ratings count (after five straight weeks of 30+) is because more of the first plays merit further evaluation.

  • Badly Drawn Boy: One Plus One Is One (2004, Astralwerks). Singer-songwriter Damon Gough, has a knack not so much for pop hooks as for elaborately crafted song structures. He makes effective use of a chorus here, especially on the one about "the year of the rat." When one song ends murky, the next one starts up with crisp acoustic guitar. The covers depict collections of meticulously displayed antiques, an attention to detail and the arcane that fills up his albums. One can't help but be impressed by the detailed attention, but caring is another matter. B
  • Badly Drawn Boy: Have You Fed the Fish? (2002, Artist Direct). This one has set on my shelf for two years without any real desire on my part to figure it out. Not that it's not an impressive piece of work; rather, I don't much care. But I can't hold that all against him. Besides, I want to move it to a more obscure shelf. Probably his best album -- that's what other say, and I don't hear anything that motivates me to argue otherwise. B+
  • Bhangra Beatz: A Naxos World Collection (1993-99 [2002]). Budget intro to Britain's Bhangra scene. B+
  • Cedric Im Brooks: United Africa (1978, Water Lily). Brooks started and wound up in the Skatalites, but during the '70s he hooked up with Count Ossie of nyahbinghi fame, then expanded his radical roots music to incorporate jazz and soul. His mid-'70s work recently rediscovered by Honest Jons is astonishing. This slightly later item is a bit less compelling. A couple of instrumentals, a couple of chants, a remake of "Satta Masaganna" -- about average. B+
  • Éthiopiques, Vol. 6: Mahmoud Ahmed: Almaz (1973 [1999], Buda Musique). Little doubt but that he was the major star of the mid-'70s musical renaissance in Ethiopia -- that brief period of time from when the ancient ruler Haile Selassie was weakened until the savage revolutionary Mengistu took power. Before and after there was no music industry, so it is not terribly clear just how this came about and how it played out. But thanks to this encyclopedic series of records we have some clues. I've found the two Ahmed discs very difficult to sort out -- I think the latter has a slight edge on groove, but this has major moments. B+
  • Éthiopiques, Vol. 7: Mahmoud Ahmed: Erè Mèla Mèla (1975 [1999], Buda Musique). Until he slips a ballad in for the 11th cut, this is primarily a groove album -- the groove itself being simpler and less compelling than much of what we're used to in African music (mbalax, soukous, mbaqanga). Getting a bead on such a groove isn't going to be easy. One can say, especially given the ballad as evidence, that Ahmed is a formidable vocalist. And groove is what we care most about in African music. A-
  • Éthiopiques, Vol. 15: Jump to Addis (2001 [2003], Buda Musique). Subtitled "Europe Meets Ethiopia"; cut in 2001 with a core of Europeans -- Olaf Boelsen (alto/soprano sax), Damien Cluzel (guitar, fretless guitar), Koen Nutters (bass), Bernt Nellen (drums) -- and a wider range of Ethiopian musicians. Much more upbeat than the old music, much more polished. Still, not as bright as soukous, say; perhaps there's still a cloud or two in the sky? B+
  • Asnaqètch Wèrqu: Éthiopiques, Vol. 16: The Lady With the Krar (1974-76 [2004], Buda Musique). The krar is a kind of lute, a plucked string instrument with a soundbox. Wèrqu was an actress and dancer before developing as a musician in the brief musical flowering of mid-'70s Addis Ababa. The pieces here are quite simple: just her rather hypnotic singing accompanied by the krar. It grows on you, but never overwhelms. Another footnote to a series that is mostly footnotes, but given the sordid history of Ethiopia each one is remarkable in itself. B+
  • Fred Frith: Clearing (1996-2000 [2001], Tzadik). Solo guitar, much of it prepared, which dramatically increases the sonic range. Frith has been doing this sort of thing regularly since Guitar Solos in 1974. I'm at a disadvantage in having heard none of them since I owned the 1974 LP, but this one is fascinating and exhilarating more often than not. Cautious grade (subject for future research): B+
  • Gogol Bordello Vs. Tamir Muskat: J.U.F. (2004, Stinky). What is "New York Progressive Underground Discotheque"? "Gypsy-Disco-Funk"? "Arabic-Dub-Sextura"? "Balkan Beat"? "Pizdetz Dancehall Meltdown"? It's all pretty much a mystery to me. The beats are hard, the rants are loud, the raves are something else. But what? I'm not sure. An interesting novelty, I think. B+
  • Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos: While the Music Lasts (2004, Verve Forecast). Your basic singer-songwriter semi-hiding behind a band, writing and singing easy-going songs of no particular distinction. Norah Jones appears as a backup singer, and Bill Frisell guests on guitar; not that you're likely to notice without recourse to the liner notes. B-
  • Mamani Keita & Marc Minelli: Electric Bamako (2003, Palm). One from Mali, one from France. Electrified stuff works. When they slow up and get spacey, that works too. A-
  • The Notorious Cherry Bombs (2004, Universal South). Country supergroup, most notably including Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. Of the two, Crowell has the edge, which makes this smarter and shrewder than it might have been. As far as I know, Gill has never turned out a good album under his own name, but he's a superior singer, and if you keep him honest he's got some old-fashioned chops. Inspirational verse/song title: "it's hard to kiss the lips at night/that chew your ass out all day long." B+
  • Ozomatli: Street Signs (2004, Concord). Got a copy from the library. Played it four times. No doubts about the grade, but don't have much else to say. Maybe later. A-
  • Michel Petrucciani: Solo Live (1997 [1998], Dreyfus). Cut shortly before this marvelous pianist died. Not his very best, but still bracing. B+
  • Best of Pixies: Wave of Mutilation (1987-91 [2004], 4AD). Three songs from the 1987 EP Come on Pilgrim, more from four following albums up through 1991's Trompe le Monde. The cuts proceed chronologically and, guess what, they get better as the years roll by -- just like the albums. In which case, why not just go for the appropriate albums?
  • The Ponys: Laced With Romance (2004, In the Red). Young alt-rock group, got a good sound, some muscle. Don't know about the lyrics, which I rarely bother with unless they come out and grab me. But I've played this three times recently. Don't have time (or need) to figure it out more closely, but if you're into this sort of thing it's more likely to go up than down. B+
  • Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo (2004, Or Music, 2CD). Escovedo has been turning out alt-country records since the early '90s. He has a following, including liner notes writer Dave Marsh, but hasn't made much of an impression on me yet, in rather limited experience. Recently he's become the double victim of Hepatitis C and no health insurance. This record is a noble effort to compensate for the latter, and the turnout is impressive. Still, they bit off more than they can chew over two discs. The better stuff is concentrated on the first, including pieces by Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Jon Langford & Sally Timms, Jon Dee Graham, and Peter Case; Rosie Flores is the only comparable artist on the second disc, although the rest is pleasantly listenable. B
  • Howard Riley Trio: Angle (1968-69, Columbia [UK]). Piano trio, with Barry Guy (bass) and Alan Jackson (drums). Barbra Thompson also appears on flute. This seems to have been an especially fertile period in British jazz, and it is interesting that such avant records were released by a major label. Riley's follow-up, The Day Will Come, is a landmark. This falls slightly short, but not for Barry Guy's effort -- he dominated the album, producing a huge range of noise. A-
  • Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1 (2004, Fat Wreck Chords). 26 previously unreleased/rare tracks, mostly punk du jour, which doesn't do much for clear articulation but conveys an appropriate sense of rage. Predictably, the best bands rule: Anti-Flag, Ministry, NOFX. But music is rarely able to convey political analysis; for that, the literal minded should turn to the DVD. B+
  • The Ravi Shankar Collection: Portrait of Genius (1964 [1998], Angel). This is the only Shankar in my collection, so I have no way to rank it vs. everything else he's done, and there's shitloads. But it doesn't quite achieve the intensity of what I remember from Monterey videos. But then this is classical music, he's a master, and this is one of the standard pieces. If/when I know better I might have to readjust the grade. B+
  • Snowboy: The Soul of Snowboy (1993-98 [1999], Acid Jazz). Having been blown away by Snowboy on world-electronica compilations, I wanted to heard more. I was hoping for more pieces like "Jazzakuti," with its hot sax over latin rhythms. There's some of that here, but also vocal tracks that while not bad are nothing special either. Mark Colgrove (aka Snowboy) remains something of an enigma here. He is onto something, but this isn't consistent enough to show us what it is. B
  • Luciana Souza: Brazilian Duos (2001, Sunnyside). Voice and guitar, pretty simple. B+
  • Angie Stone: Stone Love (2004, J). Better than average contemporary soul album: hip hop elements, mostly sung, mostly tight, moderately funky, not totally together. B+
  • Denny Zeitlin/Charlie Haden: Time Remembers One Time Once (1981 [1983], ECM). Piano/bass duo. Haden's bass takes a bit of volume to come out clearly, but is worthwhile, as is Zeitlin's piano. B+

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Watched the Bush-Kerry debate. I thought that Kerry was very effective, both in selecting his points and driving them home. While it's true that Bush turned in a much more polished performance than, frankly, I thought he had in him, he's still stuck with his record and the philosophy behind it -- take the money and run, while blowing up a bunch of shit and spewing smoke all over the place. As such, he spent most of the debate attacking Kerry over labels and symbols and quotes and misquotes. To castigate Kerry as being a "liberal" may be enough to satisfy his base, but it doesn't mean much of anything -- and given Bush's record may rekindle some affection for liberalism. It should also be noted that while this performance wasn't nearly as embarrassing as the first debate, it was hardly flawless. Bush's future in stand-up comedy is more tenuous than his WMD claims. And his claim near the end that if Saddam Hussein was still in power we'd be safer today was presumably just a case of his continuing inability to diagram the multiple negatives in his own sentences.

Kerry made much of his many plans for solving, or at least addressing, various problems, making the impression that there is more thought behind his proposals than he can convey in such a short-attention context. And every time he strongly reaffirmed his intents, that he can do the job, that he will do the job. I have my doubts, but it is clear that people respond to strong, affirmative conviction, and that was his message. On the other hand, Bush's plans/programs are mostly euphemisms that hide more than they disclose -- "healthy forests," "energy bill," "tort reform." Kerry made the point, effectively I think, that Bush's bills are not so simple -- one of several examples was the late term anti-abortion bill that made no provision for a doctor to save the life of the mother.

One of Kerry's biggest problems in this campaign is how to speak directly to the people -- to get past what Bush calls "the filter." Opinion polls show that most people are deeply troubled by what has happened during Bush's presidency, but the constant hammering of Kerry by the Republican "noise machine" has kept many people away from embracing the alternative. The alternative is Kerry, and no one who watched this debate with an engaged and open mind came away with any doubts about who to vote for in November.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

John Edwards failed in his debate with Dick Cheney tonight. He failed in at least three ways: (1) He failed to show us that he adds anything to John Kerry's ticket. In repeatedly referring back to Kerry's words in Kerry's debate with Bush, he merely acted like Kerry's lawyer, and sounded like Kerry's mouthpiece. The arguments were invariably fresher the first time around. (2) He failed to articulate a coherent argument against the key political tenets of the Bush-Cheney administration, especially the recourse to war to solve America's terrorism problem. To put it bluntly, by accepting the Bush-Cheney premises the only thing he allows himself to critique is the implementation, and this reduced to a set of leaps of faith: that Kerry will be able to succeed at the same tasks that Bush-Cheney have fouled up miserably. (3) He failed to seize this opportunity to show that it is the articulate but evil Cheney who is the mastermind of the Bush administration, and that the hapless Bush is merely a stage prop.

Conversely, Cheney's success in the debate was achieved almost exclusively by his ability to focus on the contradictions inherent in the positions of Kerry and Edwards. Cheney is right that his opponents have taken positions opportunistically, and he is right that by doing so we cannot anticipate how they will behave when faced with future crises. Moreover, this happened not just on Iraq, where the Democrats' equivocations are well known, but also on issues like taxes, health care, even gay marriage. Even if one could sort those charges out, the choices Edwards was left with were to look unscrupulous or merely foolish. Kerry, to his credit, managed to make his debate be about Bush; Edwards let Cheney make the debate be about Kerry.

The core issue that nobody talks about in this election is the price we pay for having turned a need for counterterrorism into war -- the program summed up in that catchy phrase, the War on Terror. The fact is that war, both as practiced by those who resist the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq and by the U.S. ourselves, is terror. The more we make war, the more we make terror, the more a fearful world resents and resists us, the more terrified and vindictive we become. The direct costs in people and wealth are only the beginning. War and terror cast a pall over society and the economy. They make us fearful, hateful, vicious, vindictive, brutal, shortsighted. Even in the U.S. today, where the threat of terrorism is still mostly hypothetical, the need for ever greater security taxes everything in the economy -- it makes not just the poor but everyone poorer, it even makes the lives of the rich more precarious.

The problem with war is not just that it is indiscriminate -- that it inevitably kills people and destroys things that it was not intended to, and therefore can never be just. It's also that war is an unacceptable affront to the way we live every day. Within the U.S. we do not accept war as a way of life. We live in a world of law and order which almost always frees us from violent conflict. And the rare breaches of law and order -- what we call crimes -- are almost universally abhored. So why then does Cheney and Edwards, Bush and Kerry, insist that the U.S. reserve the prerogative to inflict war on others? Why not promote the extension of law and order beyond the borders of the U.S., so we Americans can enjoy the same security and trust abroad as we enjoy at home? This ought to be the point where Cheney, the conservative servant of the rich, and Edwards, the populist champion of the poor, disagree sharply. Conservatives since Hobbes have considered the "war of all against all" to be the natural state of the world, only conquered by force of arms which protect the rich against the poor. However, history shows that Hobbesian nature can be overcome: that by extending a fair share in society to all we can live in a world of no war. In not recognizing that much Edwards slipped into the vulgar definition of populist: demagogue.

But does this debacle change the election? Hell, no! Nobody should be condemned just because they get stuck with a lousy lawyer. Least of all, all of us.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Music: Initial count 9720 rated (+31), 1082 unrated (+18). This is the fifth straight week with +30 rated, and the first of those five weeks to see the unrated count increase. I suppose I should be thankful for the largesse of the industry, but I feel overwhelmed. I can play ten or so CDs per day. To rate, much less write about, five per day is to work awful fast. Most of what I get is jazz, and most of the jazz I listen to sounds fine -- lots of B/B+ records out there, some of which would undoubtedly grow on me if I gave them the time and attention.

  • John Abercrombie: Cat 'n' Mouse (2002, ECM). The first half or more of this album make for something I've never heard before: a really superb performance by violinist Mark Feldman. He leads the way on most of the cuts, and is sharp, clear, and fearless. It no doubt helps that the rhythm section is Marc Johnson and Joey Baron. The latter, in particular, always seems to do the right thing. Abercrombie continues to develop. This may be the best album of his that I've heard, but he's emerged as a consistently interesting player, which is a big advance from his early work. A-
  • Bad Livers: Hogs on the Highway (1997, Sugar Hill). Austin TX band. Most of the songs are written by Danny Barnes, who sings and plays banjo, sometimes other instruments. Band also features fiddle, bass, and mandolin or guitar, with occasional switches to more exotic instruments (tuba, button accordion, mbira). This has some western swing influence, and of course it's hard to play banjo without conjuring up a little Earle Scruggs. Within those parameters, this seems pretty straight and conventional. B
  • Terence Blanchard: Wandering Moon (1999 [2000], Sony Classical). After maybe five plays I still find this too inscrutable to say anything substantial about. It is lovely in a rather transparent way, something that every time I play it just slips into the background. So take this with a grain of salt. Penguin Guide gives this 4 stars. B+
  • Kate Campbell: Moonpie Dreams (1997, Compass). I haven't gotten to her new/old releases yet, but picked item (her second album) up from the library. First song is "When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas" ("and buffalo made their home in Tennessee"), which would be when? I'd guess that the buffalo got routed from Tennessee long before the panthers (mountain lions) gave up the Ozarks -- I saw a huge bobcat down there recently, and my Uncle Ted was known as Bear Brown for a poaching incident. Still, I don't recall any mountain lion stories in the family, and my ancestors moved there in the 1860s. She's a good songwriter, a plain but effective singer. The record grows on you, even the horns. B+
  • The Very Best of Cher (1965-2002 [2003], MCA). This came out along with her "final concert" tour last year, and it works reasonably well as a career-spanning resumé -- covering not only her freak hits of the last twenty years but going back to her early solo hits ("Bang Bang," "Half-Breed," "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves") and the two biggest hits with Sonny What's-His-Name? The order is mostly LIFO, but it ties things up by ending with a new remix. The booklet has iconic photos, and presumably adulatory notes that I didn't bother to read. It's all you need -- probably more than you need, actually, with the surplus on the recent end. Considering her musical prospects c. 1970 she's hung on pretty well. Also, I have to say, she's done terrific work as an actress. B+
  • Peter Cincotti (2003, Concord). This first album by the 19-year-old pianist-singer impresses in unexpected ways. His instrumental of of the BS&T warhorse "Spinning Wheel" has an intriguing playfulness to it -- he's spoken of wanting to hear Errol Garner do the tune, which isn't the effect I'd describe, but he goes somewhere with it. Three songs are originals -- his music, with lyrics by two other Cincottis (Cynthia seems to be his mother; Pia his sister). The first, "I Changed the Rules," has a sly hipster vibe and strong solos on tenor sax (uncredited, presumably Scott Kreitzer, who is credited on three other songs) and piano. The covers are a mixed bag. He sounds much in control on "Ain't Misbehavin'" and turns in an excellent "Miss Brown," another of the sax tracks. He slows the Beatles' "Fool on the Hill" down to an unobvious verse used as an intro to a Nat Cole song, and takes "You Stepped Out of a Dream" like he's studied Sinatra all his life. Don't care much for the weepy closer, which I gather he plucked from the Muppets. Phil Ramone produced, brought in pros on bass (David Finck) and drums (Kenny Washington), and kept it simple. B+
  • The Very Best of the Eagles (1972-2003 [2003], Warner Bros., 2CD). Actually, I got the "Special Limited-Edition Bonus DVD" version from the library, but we'll pretend the DVD doesn't exist. One track at the end is dated 2003, which I reckon could have been cut earlier; two tracks are from the 1994 Hell Freezes Over album; everything else is 1972-80, and the first disc ends with the magnificent "Hotel California" from 1977. The first disc is their famous L.A. faux cowboy music: lazy, sexist, catchy in an annoying way. Second disc starts with five more cuts from Hotel California, an Xmas single, and six from The Long Run, a live track from 1980, and the post-primetime pickings. This one gets dull quick. "The Long Run" itself is a note-for-note rip from a Nick Lowe song. I don't know what they mean by "talk is for losers and fools" but it smells fishy. Gram Parsons died and this sorry-ass band tried to cash in. B-
  • Ghostface: The Pretty Toney Album (2004, Def Jam). Intro is the usual horseshit, which slops over the following pieces until "Beat the Clock" takes off on a synth riff. "Tush" features Missy Elliott for unsavory purposes. "Holla" picks over a classic soul sample. In between various motormouth raps ("Be This Way" is one of the better ones), guffaws, profanity, more horseshit. B+
  • The Gourds: Blood of the Ram (2004, Eleven Thirty). Austin TX roots rock band, six albums 1997-2002 on Sugar Hill, two more since. "Lower 48" is pumped up with Cajun accordion, pretty impressive. Nothing else quite matches it, as they cut a broad swatch through Drive-By Truckers-era southern fried rock, with a particular obsession with bleeding rams. B
  • Hank Jones: Hank (1976 [1991], All Art). Solo piano. All standards, sarting with seven Ellingtons, ending with things like "Alone Together" and "My Heart Stood Still" and "The Very Thought of You." All played simply, with just a whiff of elegance. But then that's what Jones does: later trios like The Oracle and his Thad Jones tribute Upon Reflection are built around the same simplicity, elegance, and tenderness -- that may be the best word to distinguish him. Feeling lowdown this morning, I just put this on to move it off my shelf, and I was the one moved. It won't work as background. It may not even work as foreground if you're upbeat. But today it hit the spot. A-
  • Luciano: Lessons of Life (2004, Shanachie). A star after ten years, but he still doesn't have much of a style -- a mash of roots and dancehall that doesn't stand up to the masters on either side. "Step Right In" and "Take a Sip" show what he does best, which is to make a groove infectious enough that you don't care how Buju Banton might have done it. Nor can you really blame him that his roots moves, like "Jah Give" come up short. What they lack is dread, and who wants to have to go through that? B+
  • Gillian Welch: Soul Journey (2003, Acony). She's the most deliberately unglamorous of folk singers. Her songs, cowritten with partner David Rawlings, aspire to Appalachain archaeology. Her Scots march "Lowlands" sounds timeless; "No One Knows My Name" refers back to a trad. piece done very starkly, "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father." The other trad. song is too recognizable to hide, but "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor" aims low, and convinces you that's all she wants. She's got enough budget to hire some extra musicians, but rarely uses them. Last time she threatened to rock. This time she pulls back, curls up, settles in. B+

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Wheels of Justice tour, sponsored by Voices in the Wilderness, came to Wichita and staged several events coordinated by the Peace and Social Justice Center. We heard two speakers, two times each:

  • Michael Birmingham: From Dublin, Ireland, a co-founder of the Irish Campaign to End the Sanctions on Iraq, he recently returned from having spent 18 months in Iraq, going back to before the Bush Invasion. He offered graphic testimony to the damage that American warfare has had on Iraqi civil society, especially in Sadr City, where he lived for much of the time. He pointed out that for most of the Iraqis he spoke with U.S. involvement in Iraq dates back to the war with Iran, which the U.S. fortified on both sides, and he offered a quote from Paul Bremer, dating from the '80s, that U.S. intentions in the region were that both sides should kill each other.

  • Mazin Qumsiyeh: A Palestinian-American professor of genetics at Yale, born in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem in a Christian family, grew up in occupied Palestine, educated in Jordan and the U.S., where he is now a citizen. Author of the book Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (2004, Pluto Press). He provided the usual general historical info, with more than the usual detail on pre-1880, but most of his talk was personal -- especially two children who were shot by Israelis but who survived and managed to get medical treatment in the U.S. that he facilitated. One was a 7-year-old girl who was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet. Tanya Reinhardt has written about how Israeli snipers have made a sport out of aiming rubber bullets at Palestinian eyes. This has always been hard to believe, not due to its cruelty (which quickly becomes commonplace) but because it's hard to imagine just how even a rubber bullet can be targeted so precisely that it only takes out the eye, but the picture testified that that was what had happened. Qumsiyeh is an advocate of the right of Palestinian refugees from 1947-49 to return to a unified single state combining Israel and Palestine under a framework of equal rights. I think he makes an eloquent, albeit impractical, case. But by tying his case to generally recognized (except by the U.S. and Israel) principles of human rights he keeps it from getting mired down in misleading details.

I bought a copy of Qumsiyeh's book, and expect to write more about it. The practical problem with what he's advocating are mostly on the Israeli side, so I wonder whether his vision of a single state built on human rights might be practically built on the Palestinian side of a two state partition.


Book: Michael Lind: Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (New American Books). This is as important and urgent as any book I've seen on the current political struggle, because it lays out the political, economic, and philosphical roots that makes the Bush administration so consistent in its policies and so destructive in its achievements. Lind argues that Bush is the second triumphal return of the South's plantation aristocracy -- the first being the deal that the South cut in 1876 (the other pivotal back-room minority election in U.S. history) to end Reconstruction, leading to the restoration of white supremacy in the feudal South. This is the complement to Kevin Phillips' book on the Bush family, American Dynasty.

The book also deals with what Lind calls the modernist tradition in Texas politics, dating back to the arrival of German liberals in the 1840s and folowing them through the New Deal and the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. In his chapter on "A Choice of Traditions" Lind tries to posit Texas modernism as an alternative not only to the Bush travesty but also to the coast-centric liberalism that is its popular alternative. That chapter is the weak spot of the book, even if it's not without suggestive value. But the new paperback edition needed an "Afterword" to catch up with the Bushes, and this one hits hard. The final lines read, "Trigger-happy, free-spending, Bible-thumping Southern conservatism of the kind symbolized by George W. Bush is doomed in the long run. The only question is how much damage it will do before its unregretted demise."


Sep 2004 Nov 2004