Friday, February 24, 2006

Click on this bbc link and watch all three performances by Joanna Newsom. Start with "Peach, Plum, Pear." I went out and bought the album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and have been listening to it daily for a week. Here's a Pitchfork review of the album, and a Newsom interview.

The album was released back in 2004, and had escaped my attention until a couple of weeks back when I heard a cut - "Peach..." on a friend's ipod. I walked to my pc and ordered the album. I do this all the time, impulsively plunk down money for an entire album on the basis of an infatuation with one song, and the majority of time I quickly discover why the record company picked that particular song to promote and radio stations to play. My rec room is full of cds that haven't been spun since the second week I owned them. This one, it's been ripped to the home and work pcs, and is in the short rotation in the car. I like it that much.

As the BBC link implies, Newsom is associated with bands like Animal Collective and singers like Devendra Banhart or, as the BBC calls it, "the New Weird America," a somewhat purposely (I assume) ironic label since Animal and Banhart and Newsom are producing folk-tinged music with relatively simple instrumentation. To produce naive music in a time of computer loops and easy sampling and elaborate production in itself isn't new or weird, but when combined with what seems to be a genuine wonder at the pleasure of making the music, there is a charming joy of discovery emanating from the songs. Note I do not say "innocence." Why this is "new" and "weird" - and those are certainly adjectives that apply to Newsom and Animal Collective - warrants further listening and thinking. (And I'm going to revisit Banhart - his Cripple Crow of last fall left me indifferent, and I'm not all the familiar with his earlier.)

But here's what hooked me: her voice reminded me of, of, of.... I couldn't figure it out. It took me days. How soon we forget: Victoria Williams. The wonder of hearing a single song - I discover a new artist that intrigues me, I rediscover a musician whose music I used to adore.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Waambulance! (or, Paybacks are Hell)

It's not xenophobia, it's not anti-Arab, it's not anti-UAE, it's not national security, it's not globalization.

Here's the issue: Karl Rove, the GOP, decided, in the aftermath of 911, to wage war by narrative. Us strong, them weak. Us resolute, them vacillating. Us Churchill, them Chamberlain. Facts are to be selectively promoted or ignored dependent on how they advance the storyline: John Kerry's self-inflicted wounds? Does not matter whether they happened or not, the rumor was true in that it advanced the narrative of John Kerry that the GOP wanted advanced.

Fine. We understand the terms of engagement. Now, given ample ammunition, in the war of narratives, to advance our storyline - that we've been falsely accused of treason, weakness, anti-American sentiment, of supporting the terrorists; that Bush is a moron, a craven crony, a hopelessly incompetent and morally dishonest leader - we advance our storyline. Maybe the deal with the UAE company doesn't compromise national security, maybe it doesn't reward companies and individuals who might proudly claim, behind closed doors at private parties, to be Bush Partners, maybe there's a perfectly valid reason why the Bush Administration did not follow standard procedures of consultation with Congress, maybe if my grandmother had wheels she'd be a bicycle, but none of that matters in a war of narratives.

As the old saying goes, you fight the war you got. Post-911, a conscious decision was made by the GOP to slur anyone who did not goosestep to war with the President as a cowardly weakling at best and a traitorous anti-American at worse, and they never let a contradictory fact once impede that narrative. Now that the same weaponry is turned against them, listen to them whine, like little rich kids denied access to their trust funds, like bullies hit on the nose, like fat kings with gout.

That our narrative is truer, well, that just makes it sweeter, yes?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dance, Monkey

I confess to having heard, thinking back, a few Arctic Monkeys songs before I knew they were Arctic Monkey songs, and I neither liked nor disliked them - they sound like another variant on the Bloc Party Kaiser Chiefs Franz Ferdinand 80s raiding party line of impossibly lanky stupidly haircutted bands. They all riff on Joy Division and early Cure and all the bands that were important to me when I was in my 20s, so I enjoy the songs as much for the pings they elicit in my memories as for the music itself, which I hasten to add can be quite good on occasion.

But when I'm told:
the hyperbolic wags have outdone themselves with the breathless buzz surrounding the Arctic Monkeys, an ascendant post-punk quartet that is, apparently, the greatest U.K. band since the Sex Pistols -- or at the very least, since the Stone Roses. Or Oasis. Or maybe the Verve or the Libertines.

Whatever. NME magazine recently declared the Monkeys' debut, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," the fifth-greatest British album ever . According to this heretical new NME math, the Monkeys are greater than the Beatles.

my instincts immediately shift to the suspicion that I'm being worked. The reviewer concedes The Arctic Monkeys aren't that good, but the album is:

brash and boisterous, (and)... crackles with unbridled adolescent energy -- so much so that it often sounds as though it's about to combust. It's the most exciting new album to have roared through my headphones since, well, the start of this year (whatever that's worth).
All Things Considered has an audio review broadcast Tuesday. They make much of the band being young and from Sheffield, a midlands city gone to decay with the decline of the British steel industry, claiming The AMs speak to British youth in ways their rivals do not. So here is a band hyped for both its music and its street credibility. That they are not, in fact, mannequin good-looking (like the ridiculously pretty The Strokes) also feeds the street cred. Here's a Guardian review that implies that The AMs' hype has a bit to do with the DIY/internet angle (much like CYHSY). Here's a Salon review of a live show.

I still neither like nor dislike the music enough to advocate anything more than trying it yourself, but I do find it interesting that a band making relatively similar and not distinctively (to me) superior music to a whole passel of bands working the same lineage is generating a press buzz aimed at superstarring the band. Almost every review I've read compares the AMs to the same bands and mentions their Sheffield background, which means that reviewers around the world are hearing some superlative quality in the music of The AMs that elevates their music above those bands to which they're compared, but also means that the fact that the AMs come from an urban-poor economic background somehow more deeply authenticates their sound. My guess, and it's a guess only, is that the latter has more oomph, if for no other reason than it grants weight to the genre as a whole - it's not a bunch of upper-middle class college kids playing at angst and anger. The DIY angle serves to demonstrate that the AMs aren't a prepackaged band produced to mimic a sound record companies think will sell.

All of which to say, I am predisposed to distrust the hype, often at the band's music's expense. The emphasis on the reviews of the AMs is not on the music but on the band. I wonder if Bloc Party had been from the crumbling Sheffield and its members promoted as angry sons of laid-off steelworkers seeking meaning in post-industrial Britain their music would be just as praised. I'm not saying The AMs' music is not good - it leaves me relatively indifferent, but that's taste. And I acknowledge, even pride myself, that this type of hype - "the fifth greatest British album ever(?)" - makes me suspicious. I acknowledge that I'm petty enough to resent being told to love this album or else. I wonder if there are as many people who can't judge The AMs' music fairly because they've bought the hype as there are people like me who can't judge The AMs' fairly because they won't.

* * * * *

Have another High Violets song. I like this one I posted earlier much better, but....
Lunch in Prague (or, The Succinct Version)

Mohammed Atta may or may not have met a man who may or may not have been a mid-level Iraqi secret agent for lunch in Prague in the years before Atta flew a plane into the World Trade Centers, but this meeting that may or may not have happened was a central piece of the Bush Administration's propaganda for the justification of the invasion of Iraq. Even to this day, Republicans - for instance, Orrin Hatch just a couple of days ago - still insist that there was a crucial connection between al-Q and Saddam.

Dick Cheney, in his interview on The News Hour a couple of weeks back, insisted that the Administration could not brief all 100 Senators and 435 Representatives, much less 70, on the secret and Constitution-violating surveillance program:
That's not a good way to keep a secret, to brief 70 members of Congress when the practice is well established and has been used in the past to brief just eight, just the speaker, the majority leader, the minority leaders of both Houses, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of the committees.
We were taken to war, that decision still being justified in part by a phantom connection between al-Q and Saddam. This administration refuses to abide by laws written specifically to allow the government to legally spy on its citizens, and it justifies that decision by claiming the necessity of utmost secrecy, to the point that it will not trust members of Congress - or the judges on the secret court itself.

So, just for symbolism's sake, let me get this straight: The Bush Administration desires a deal that will give a foreign government whose connections to al-Qaeda are far more extensive and verifiable than Iraq's ever were access to the secrets of security at major American ports.

The ramifications and implications - symbolically, metaphorically - of this are mindboggling. It literally deconstructs virtually all the stated justifications, explanations, and excuses this administration has used for war, foreign and domestic policy, and especially attacking its opponents. Mindboggling.

UPDATE: Read this. The metaphor continues to evolve:
Bush tried to push back with blunt force yesterday, threatening to veto any legislation aimed at stopping the deal. Opponents, unfazed, are saying that they have the votes in Congress to override any such veto. Now the administration is trying another tack, saying that the president didn't know about the plan and that others in his administration should have done a better job of informing Congress along the way.
It's unbelievable it's so believable.

Monday, February 20, 2006


I've been asked, when am I going to write about the new Beth Orton. Now, I suppose.

It's fine. Really. Here's the thing: she is perfectly entitled to make the album she wants to make, the way she wants it to sound. She said, in an interview between live performances of songs she did on KEXP back on January 9, that she wants to pare down her sound, make it, eventually, as part of her musical evolution, "just me and my guitar." Comfort of Strangers isn't just Orton and her guitar, but it is audibly less airy and mysterious and beeping and booping and loopy and mystical and spooky and forlornly wispy than her previous albums. Think of the two versions of the title cut from the album Central Reservation, one sparse and acoustic and folk, the other textured and layered and filled to bursting with sound. To me, the first is a fine song, the second a fabulous creation.

In one of my first posts for BDRIB I wrote about the new Eno album and my response to it, wondering about what responsibility I had as a long listener to Eno in the expectations I brought to a new album. I've written that I love Beth Orton. And while there are clear differences between Eno and Orton, both in their music and in their respective importance in music history, there is one key difference in my reactions to both of their new albums: Eno left me blah because he hadn't changed his sound, Orton left me blah because she has. Which means I feel a greater responsibility to revisit Comfort of Strangers, relisten a few more times at least. If she, as an artist, makes a conscious move to a different sound then I, as a fan and advocate, need to be sure it's not just my expectations that have been disappointed when the new music leaves me underwhelmed. I need to give the music a chance to underwhelm me itself.

A new book of essays by William Gass has just been published, and it's reviewed here by Michael Dirda in the 2/19/06 Washington Post Book World. Here's Gass on another WG, William Gaddis:
"(he) never toured, read in circles, rode the circuit. He rarely gave interviews or published opinions. He didn't cultivate the cultivated, nose around the newsworthy, network or glad-hand, sign books or blurb. He didn't teach, prognosticate, distribute awards. He was suspicious of wannabes, wary of flatterers; he guarded his gates. He didn't write the way he did to prove how smart he was, to create a clique that would clack at his every move. Or to get reviewed. Or to receive the plaudits of some crowd. Or to be well paid and bathe in a tub of butter. Or to be feared or sneered at or put down by pip-squeaks. He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it."
And on art, literature:
"A book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. . . . In this country, we are losing, if we have not lost, any appreciation for what we might call 'an intellectual environment.' . . . Libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities . . . so that now they devote far too much of their restricted space, and their limited budget, to public amusement, and to futile competition with the Internet. It is a fact of philistine life that amusement is where the money is. . . . Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in."
I discovered Gass through his connection to Stanley Elkin, the great late American novelist: they were friends and colleagues at Washington University in St Louis. I've read Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and, to my mind, his masterwork, The Tunnel, one of the strangest and terrifying and maddening and repugnant novels I've ever read.

The implications of the novel are frightening: no one I've read has more fully explored the relationship between individual instincts towards authoritarianism and the willingness to proxy those instincts lazily to acting authoritarians. It's gross and magnificent. To be fair, it is also deeply hated, both on moral and artistic grounds - James Wolcott, who I admire greatly, ripped it smartly. It is excessive and horrifying. It accuses each of us of an intellectual entropy that feeds a moral lassitude that others exploit, with our tacit permission, through sloppy yet effective appeals to both our basest instincts and our grandest self-delusions. (Do try, if you wish to read the book, to get the hardcopy edition - the book is full of cryptic diagrams and comics and doodles and flags, in color in the hardcopy, black and white only in the paperback.)

The essays are worth reading for their content - Gass is never less than provocative - but they should be read for his use of the English language alone. Open up any collection, choose randomly two paragraphs, and read them aloud just for the sounds. That the beautiful language has smart things to say just increases the pleasure exponentially.
a traversing

by Pattiann Rogers

The easy parting of oaks and hickories,
bays of willows, borders of pine and screens
of bamboo down to the crux, grasses, bulrushes
and reeds parting down to their fundamental
cores, the yielding of murky pond waters,
layer upon layer giving way to the touch

of the right touch, the glassy, clear
spring waters, bone and gristle alike
opening as if opening were ultimate fact,
the parting of reflection allowing passage,
and the cold, amenable skeleton of echo,
the unlatching of march becoming as easily

accessible as the unlocking of mercy,
as the revelation of stone splitting
perfectly with the sound of the right
sound, everything, a nubbin of corn,
a particle of power, the pose of the sky
relenting, and the sea swinging open

like the doors of a theater giving entrance
to everyone, no fences, no barriers, no blinds
to the parting of the abyss, not bolted,
not barred from the utmost offering
of the dusk, enigma itself falling away
until all may enter all and pass among them.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sunday Reads

Francis Fukayama, he of the "End of History" and an influential thinker in the neo-cons, reassesses neo-conservatism - and quits the club - in the shadow of the Iraq War in this article in today's NYT magazine. The concluding two paragraphs:

The Bush administration has been walking — indeed, sprinting — away from the legacy of its first term, as evidenced by the cautious multilateral approach it has taken toward the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Condoleezza Rice gave a serious speech in January about "transformational diplomacy" and has begun an effort to reorganize the nonmilitary side of the foreign-policy establishment, and the National Security Strategy document is being rewritten. All of these are welcome changes, but the legacy of the Bush first-term foreign policy and its neoconservative supporters has been so polarizing that it is going to be hard to have a reasoned debate about how to appropriately balance American ideals and interests in the coming years. The reaction against a flawed policy can be as damaging as the policy itself, and such a reaction is an indulgence we cannot afford, given the critical moment we have arrived at in global politics.

Neoconservatism, whatever its complex roots, has become indelibly associated with concepts like coercive regime change, unilateralism and American hegemony. What is needed now are new ideas, neither neoconservative nor realist, for how America is to relate to the rest of the world — ideas that retain the neoconservative belief in the universality of human rights, but without its illusions about the efficacy of American power and hegemony to bring these ends about.

It's astonishing the disconnect neo-cons refuse to see: you cannot proclaim that your cause is the "univerality of human rights" while simultaneously introducing overwhelming military force to those whose rights you're claiming to serve, regardless of whether a despot is deservedly removed or not, and you cannot devise interrogation tactics specifically designed to offend and humiliate and subordinate those very peoples whom you claim to bring a promise of human rights. Fukayama says of the failure of "benevolent hegemony":

"it is the idealistic effort to use American power to promote democracy and human rights abroad that may suffer the greatest setback. Perceived failure in Iraq has restored the authority of foreign policy "realists" in the tradition of Henry Kissinger. Already there is a host of books and articles decrying America's naïve Wilsonianism and attacking the notion of trying to democratize the world."

These foreign policy "realists" have never been out of authority. They have been more than happy to allow the neo-cons to present America's motives as wondrous and generous and generated by nothing more than a idealistic wish for all peoples on the planet to be as good and as happy and as unoppressed as they view the lives of Americans. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, benevolent hegemonists? General Electric, Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, the Saudi monarchy, benevolent hegemonists?

There are two ways of looking at a belief that the world would welcome American hegemony, benevolent or otherwise: that's right, boys and girls, we're back to tool or fool. Fukayama lays out his claim to fooldom. Don't expect Krauthammer or Kristol or Kagan to be joining him soon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dana Milbank, in today's Washington Post, lays out a challenge for Democrats: who will we blame when we fail to take advantage of Bushco and Republican vulnerabilities in the November election: Hillary, Bill, Lieberman, Reid, Kerry, Gore, Dean, Murtha, Pelosi, Biden, or Rove? Of Rove, he says, "Nah, that's to obvious."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And a listen:

Marquee Moon, Television's best of many great songs.

The Sunday Times of London reported
this past Sunday that the CIA fired their top counter-terrorism official for lack of enthusiasm and support for actions our President insists he has the right to order, but doesn't:
Vincent Cannistraro, a former head of counter-terrorism at the agency, said: “It is not that Grenier wasn’t aggressive enough, it is that he wasn’t ‘with the programme’. He expressed misgivings about the secret prisons in Europe and the rendition of terrorists.”

Grenier also opposed “excessive” interrogation, such as strapping suspects to boards and dunking them in water, according to Cannistraro.

Further down in the article, it's reported that Porter Goss, CIA Director, is worried about leaks, as in, those things we say we don't do that we do do and our ability to do do what we say we don't do is endangered by people leaking information that we do do what we say we don't.

Many on the Right are apoplectic that more shots from Abu Ghraib have been released, arguing that it's old news rehashed to re-embarrass the Bush Administration. This misses the point. If in fact it's old news, the Director of the CIA would not be firing his head of counter-terrorism for opposing tactics displayed in the Abu Ghraib photos since they wouldn't be happening now. And since Goss's anger at Grenier is not because he objects but because he leaked, if it was old news - if it wasn't occuring now - there would be nothing for Grenier to leak.

The Bush Administration, slow to respond to the destruction of a major American city, slow to report that the Vice President shot a man, responded angrily and within minutes to the United Nations' call to close Guantanamo, a base whose primary and elemental asset is that it is not on US soil and is not held to US laws. They are far more interest in preventing reportage of torture than they are in stopping torture, in which they have no interest. They are working harder at making sure you don't hear about torture than they are working to stop the torture itself.

What's distressing though: this is old news. I said to myself, another post about torture? What can be said that I hadn't said here and here and here and here and here and here and....? What needs to be remembered is that in torture, as in domestic spying, as in permanent tax cuts, as in all the goals of Bushco and the Right, these are just launch pads that, once secured as status quo, serve as the baseline for worse torture, more domestic surveillance, more tax cuts which, once secured, serve as the baseline for worse and worse and worse..... And the key to establishing a status quo is to make the awful acceptable, make the newsworthy a snore.