Archive for January, 2005

If Only She Meant It

Friday, January 28th, 2005

It must be my birthday – actually, it is! – because Maureen Dowd has answered my prayers and announced the end of her unhelpful, sophomoric columns.

If only she weren’t being facetious. The childishness (Alberto Gonzales is “Torture Boy”???), ad hominem attacks and throw-the-words-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-land writing will continue giving the Anti-Bush League a bad name.

The Bush Economy

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Amid the warnings of further military, social and ecological disasters bruited about during the 2004 election season, I tried to point out that in a second Bush term the economy was probably going to suffer along with our military families, our senses of common decency and national pride, and our Earth.

I wish John Kerry had taken my advice and stressed economic matters during the campaign. The Bush team won by scaring the public about terrorism. It wouldn’t have hurt the Dems, and might have helped, to try a few scare tactics of their own concerning the pocketbook issues on which some Americans do tend to vote. Now we are facing four more years of Bush, and as his domestic agenda takes form, more commentators are seeing the light – or the dark, as it were, for I expect dark economic times ahead.

Robert Kuttner, for example, lays out a scenario for US bankruptcy. Central banks are switching to Euros. And how soon before the headlines blare: “Bush To City: Drop Dead”?

Here’s a broad-ranging round-up of criticism of Bush economic policies.

Back That Court Up

Wednesday, January 26th, 2005

The 5th Circuit has ruled in a battle between two rappers over the phrase “Back That Ass Up.” I can’t even think of anything to say about this. It’s just perfect as it is.

CD Review: Blaine Larsen, Off To Join The World

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

Through ignorance or bad advice, very young artists often bite off more than they can chew, applying precociously mastered technical skills to adult material they can’t quite get their souls around. Teenage country singer Blaine Larsen, who sings in a clear, rich baritone that sounds at least a few years more aged than he is, has not made this mistake. He and his producers have written and chosen a nice variety of songs expressing real-life matters from a youth’s point of view, and Larsen has the voice and the skills to put them across.

A number of the songs are frankly autobiographical. “The Best Man,” which pays tribute to a devoted stepfather, has a sweet, if obvious, lyrical payoff in the last verse. I was nervous about a song called “In My High School,” but while its depictions of “jocks” and “rednecks” and “outcasts” carry no surprises, its sentimentality stops short of the cloying: “In my high school they hold assemblies for the football team / But never for the kids with different dreams.” Heck, you can’t argue with that.

The clever, banjo-powered love song, “That’s All I’ve Got To Say About That,” along with “Teaching Me How To Love You,” which features Larsen’s most affecting vocal, show his ability to sing convincingly about both the light and heavy sides of love. “Yessireebob” is a cute novelty number that highlights a playful sense of humor, and “The Man He’ll Never Be” couches a softly intense vocal performance in a lovely, folksy minor-key arrangement that brings the young Paul Simon to mind.

The up-tempo “That’s Just Me” is a by-the-books “I’m just a gool ol’ country boy” tune, but it’s hard to resist. The waltz “Off To Join The World” echoes “Mr. Bojangles” and puts an amusing twist on running away with the circus. And the CD closes with one of its best tracks, “How Do You Get That Lonely,” about the suicide of a teenage friend. Thus the circle of a modern teen’s experience is closed with a tragic last link.

Of course, the music industry chews up and spits out a hundred Blaine Larsens every week, and the persona expressed in our young hero’s music is so goshdarned nice that one almost fears for him. But with a deep, welcoming voice, strong songwriting ability, excellent guitar skills, impish good looks and a smart team behind him, he probably has a better chance than most. This would be a good record from any artist, and it’s certainly a fine start to a career.

NOW Calls for Resignation of Harvard University’s President

Tuesday, January 25th, 2005

The National Organization For Women (NOW) has called for Harvard University’s President, Lawrence Summers, to resign because of his suggestion that women may be innately inferior to men in their ability to excel at math and science.

That disturbs me.

Summers’s statement was a suggestion, not a claim, and there’s evidence to refute it, but isn’t science supposed to ask all questions and consider all possibilities? We’re talking about the brain, one of the most complex and, as yet, least understood subjects of scientific study. As The New York Times reports:

Researchers who have explored the subject of sex differences from every conceivable angle and organ say that yes, there are a host of discrepancies between men and women – in their average scores on tests of quantitative skills, in their attitudes toward math and science, in the architecture of their brains, in the way they metabolize medications, including those that affect the brain.

Summers may have spoken in a provocative manner to a sensitive audience, but he was doing what institutions of higher learning are supposed to do: seeking the truth by asking questions. NOW’s knee-jerk reaction serves neither science nor feminism.

CD Review: Willie Hightower

Monday, January 24th, 2005

Willie Hightower’s time in the spotlight was far shorter than you might expect from the quality of his recordings, the best of which can stand tall beside the classic work of Sam Cooke (his number one influence), The Temptations and Smokey Robinson. Hightower recorded on Bobby Robertson’s independent labels and on Capitol, and with Muscle Shoals producer Rick Hall (who’d made his name working with Etta James, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin). So the elements of success seemed to be present. I suppose the problem was timing: Hightower’s late ’60s recordings came at the tail end of the era of “classic” soul, when tastes were changing.

This collection should help bring Hightower, who is still active, out of his unjustified obscurity. “Walk A Mile In My Shoes,” one of his two Billboard-charting singles, is one of the greatest soul records ever made. The other hit, “It’s a Miracle,” is a gorgeous, celebratory love song sung with achingly pure, strangely sad tones unlike anything Cooke had in his vocal arsenal.

Tracks like “If I Had a Hammer” and Hightower’s own utopian “Time Has Brought About a Change” reflect the passions surrounding the civil rights movement: “Once I wasn’t considered a man / Given no respect at all / But now I’ve got my pride deep down inside / And no one will ever take it again.”

“It’s Too Late” is another track worthy of classic status. Hightower wails this dark you’ll-come-crawling-back poor man ballad like his life depended on it.

Willie Hightower brought a strong, beautiful and versatile soulfulness to a set of fine songs over his recording career. This great collection, which appears to contain all his important recordings, will be a welcome delight to all lovers of soul music and an important discovery for many – like myself.

CD Review: The Great Unknowns

Friday, January 21st, 2005

Joining an increasingly extensive and rich body of new roots music is this first release by The Great Unknowns, a quartet of seasoned musicians fronted by singer Becky Warren. Warren, who co-writes the songs with guitarist Michael Palmer, has a voice reminiscent of Lucinda Williams’s, but her tones are easier on the ears, and though the Unknowns’ songwriting isn’t as sharp as Lucinda’s (but whose is?), it’s good enough to earn this CD a place on my Americana shelf. With layered, guitar-heavy but understated arrangements and clean production, it’s a sweet listen nearly all the way through.

Warren sings these original but quintessentially American tales of lost love and wandering souls in a drily expressive drawl, like an alto Patty Griffin, or a less affected Adam Duritz. You can hear both a pervading sadness and a persevering spirit in her unhurried delivery. The band has a knack for concise, penetrating lyrics: “Since you’ve been gone/My heart is a fist.” “Don’t try to blame it on no one else/You broke my heart all by yourself.” And, from “Something To Do,” a Patty Griffin-like plaint which ought to turn up on the Americana charts: “I’m just something to pass the time when you feel blue/Just something to do.” “Round Hill,” another highlight, has a chorus that climbs into your ear and settles in for the long haul.

Of the slower songs, I liked “Don’t Come Home,” sweetly sad with its 6-8 sway, and “Deliver Me Home,” whose angular melody and unexpected minor chords give a nod to The Band. “We’ll Be Okay,” though, doesn’t rise above its lyrical cliches (did we really need another song that goes “We’ll spread our wings and fly away”?). And I wouldn’t have opened the CD with the shambling “Las Vegas.” But overall, the sharp wisdom of the lyrics, the grown-up, straight-ahead power of the music and Warren’s sweet-and-sour vocals make this debut a keeper.

CD and Concert Review: The Explosion

Thursday, January 6th, 2005

As long as there are kids and parents, there will be authority and rebellion, and as long as there is authority and rebellion, there will be punk or something like it. If you define punk broadly, as music that symbolizes youthful rebellion, then jazz was punk in its day and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in theirs.

But jazz has long since gone highbrow, while rock-and-roll became an object of nostalgia hardly two decades after its invention. New generations may discover and appreciate those forms, but they don’t adopt them in large numbers. So one may justifiably wonder why the loud, high-speed, often angry form of rock created in the 1970s by bands like the Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks is still vibrant and popular today. It’s not old punk fans from back in the day filling the clubs to see bands like The Explosion, who played last night on a bill with Rise Against at BB King’s in New York City. It’s today’s teenagers and college kids on the floor, pointing their fingers, jumping up on stage and smothering lead singer Matt Hock in bear hugs.

The Explosion is a 21st century punk band that seems to be approaching the top of its game. While clearly inspired by the Buzzcocks and others, their intelligent, self-aware lyrics make it clear that they appreciate the wider picture of where punk – narrowly defined – fits both in music history and in the context of youthful rebellion.

For one thing, the band is politically outspoken, as in their protest song “Atrocity”:

I try to sleep, I grit my teeth,
I’m so afraid, what will tomrrow bring?
I won’t fight in any wars
and I can’t stand to see much more atrocity

“No Revolution” seems to blame apathy on existential doubt, and is worth quoting at length:

When the blood was red and the lies were black and white
They put their hands together they thought they had the right
We know they made mistakes but we still imitate
Keep the spirit alive when there’s nothing left at stake
Now our heroes seem further away
Your fists in the air but nothing has changed
Would they shake their heads would they feel ashamed
Fists in the air for a fucking name
All we know is what came before
There’s no revolution anymore

And the fans sing along, fists in the air.

What makes the band’s seriousness work is the high-spirited energy of the songs, some of which have the kind of great hooks that will always make crowds sing along (when not bodysurfing). Those hooks, along with charismatic stage presence and solid musicianship, probably had something to do with the band’s signing to Virgin Records after becoming successful in their hometown of Boston. Look at on-line fan reviews of their major-label debut, Black Tape, and amid the raves you’ll find a couple of cantankerous cries of “sell-out,” but the fact that The Explosion has recorded new songs that are a bit longer and better produced than those on their indie releases doesn’t make them Green Day. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

On the CD, Hock does more singing – as opposed to shouting – than he does in concert. That makes the lyrics intelligible without reducing the music’s intensity. The best tracks include the irresistible “Filthy Insane” (a desperate protest from a frustrated office drone), and the catchy anthem “I Know.” I also like the protest song “Here I Am” and the elemental speed-chant “Go Blank.”

So why does music like this still sound fresh to young fans? “That old-time rock and roll” had great hooks too. Maybe it just comes down to speed and volume. Nothing expresses anger and frustration better than screaming and making a lot of noise and smashing things up, as The Who discovered forty (!) years ago. BB King’s in New York, which has a little bit of the flavor of an old-time ballroom, was actually a pretty good venue to see punk bands. Moshers and surfers jostled up front, while the raised areas in back and along the sides provided refuge for those who just wanted to listen. On a bill with three other bands, The Explosion had time for only a 30-minute set, but they crammed a lot of songs in and put on a tight, energetic show. Good songs, good musicians, an excellent CD and great live energy make The Explosion well worthy of carrying on the tradition of their punk forebears.