Archive for September, 2005

New York Notes

Wednesday, September 28th, 2005

From the Dept. of Euphemisms: Newsday reports that the former schools superintendent of suburban Roslyn, NY pled guilty to stealing over a million dollars from his district. Apologizing in court, Frank Tassone said, “I will make restitution to the Roslyn schools and I am sorry for my poor judgment.”

Speaking of judgment, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, owner of the late World Trade Center, is finally on trial for the 1993 WTC bombing, which killed six people and injured thousands. The PA is accused of neglecting security in the underground parking lot where the truck bomb exploded. But public anger is concentrated on another seemingly all-powerful Robert Moses-era public authority, the one that runs the public-funded mass transit system without seeming to answer to anybody. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority will end this year with a $933 million surplus. Common sense – and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi – says the money should go toward putting off planned fare hikes, or at least making debt payments. But the agency wants to use it to improve valuable property it owns on the west side of Manhattan (where the Olympic stadium would have gone if NYC had won its bid for the 2012 Games).

Something is wrong with this picture. The MTA is supposed to serve commuters, and manage its funds to that end. But because it is not a government agency directly answerable to elected officials, but a quasi-independent Authority, there’s not much anyone can do to control it – not even Mayor Bloomberg, who’s had some success getting things done in this impossible city.

The MTA claims developing the West Side Yards would net big profits down the line, improving the agency’s long-term fiscal health. While in the wider world it makes sense to think long-term on such matters, the MTA is not a corporation answering to shareholders, but an agency responsible (morally, if not in actual fact) to the public. Public needs are both long- and short-term, and a sensible balance must be struck. In this case, since the segments of the public most dependent on the MTA’s services and most in need of low fares are the poor and middle class, who tend to live paycheck to paycheck in this ridiculously expensive burg, holding down fares is the right thing to do.

The MTA’s history of cooking its books is another argument for keeping it on a short leash and in the here and now.

Howard Dean, by the way, is trying to convince me that Mayor Bloomberg is not a fake Republican and I should vote against him in the upcoming election. If the Democrats had a great candidate, the decision would be easy, but I’m not too impressed with Fernando Ferrer, who vacillates between foot-in-mouth disease and cautious-wuss syndrome. Yes, Bloomberg contributed $7 million to the RNC, but that wasn’t what gave Bush his victory. New York’s such a tough town to govern that when we’ve got a mayor who’s doing a pretty good job, we hesitate to kick him out.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Magnatune Pushes the File-Sharing Envelope

Monday, September 26th, 2005

The Internet record label and store Magnatune has announced a new policy whereby uncompressed, CD-quality music purchased from its site can be legally copied and shared up to three times. While Magnatune, which now represents over 200 artists in a variety of genres, offers its music in compressed MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats, it is unusual among online music-download retailers in that it also provides the sound files in uncompressed formats (such as WAV) for download (or, for an additional charge, a packaged CD complete with artwork).

Even with broadband Internet access, downloading uncompressed music files can be a lengthy procedure because of their large size. Hence the popularity of compressed formats such as MP3 (typically unrestricted) or AAC (Apple iTunes‘s copy-protected format), which enable users to share and download easily and devices like the iPod to hold thousands of songs. But some listeners object to the loss of sound quality caused by compression, and some consumers object on principle to paying for a product that is of lesser quality than what was originally released by the artist and record company. Although some recordings and some types of music withstand compression better than others, and not all ears are equally discriminating, ultimately a compressed recording will never sound quite as good as the original version such as you find on a commercially packaged CD. Magnatune caters to those who want the option of acquiring the music without compromised sound quality.

Downloading a CD’s worth of uncompressed music from Magnatune costs less than what one would typically spend on a packaged CD – $8 is the usual suggested price, and, unlike at iTunes, the new Napster, and other download retailers, Magnatune does not sell sound files burdened with copy protection. However, while Magnatune’s MP3 versions are distributed under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial reproduction and distribution, the uncompressed files are not; until now, buying them gave you just the same rights you’d have to the music you’d buy on a commercial CD, which do not (surprise!) include the right to rip and burn copies for your friends.

Now, however, Magnatune customers can legally distribute up to three copies of uncompressed music. Why? Founder John Buckman explains it this way: “People fall in love with new music by being exposed to it by others. It’s such an obvious point, and everyone knows the truth of it, yet the music industry has always fought it.” Buckman’s betting this form of grassroots peer-to-peer marketing will draw more music fans to the site and prompt more sales. Given the relatively small, boutique nature of the label – artists are hand-picked by Buckman and his small staff, with a browsably small quantity in each genre – I wouldn’t bet against him. One of the functions of a record label has always been editorial filtering, and the major labels’ failure to adapt intelligently to the digital age leaves plenty of room for small, discriminating labels – whether traditional, or entirely Internet-based like Magnatune – to step into the breach.

In the Garage

Friday, September 23rd, 2005

This week, instead of reviewing indie CDs, I’m rooting around in indie heaven (or indie hell, depending on your perspective): Garageband.com, a true Internet survivor.

Since 1999 the site, which counts George Martin, Jerry Harrison, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite as members of its (strangely, all-male) Advisory Board of 39 industry heavy hitters, has provided an intriguing form of peer review for over 150,000 bands and musicians.

The idea is simple: each indie artist who wants to get a song onto the site has to first listen to and review in writing one song from each of 30 other artists. Reviewers are expected to write something thoughtful and preferably specific about what they liked or didn’t like about the songs, which are presented anonymously in same-genre pairs, and indicate which of the pair they preferred, whether it’s a type of music they typically listen to, whether they’d be likely to buy it, and so on. The general public is welcome to register and participate in the reviewing process for their own edification as well.

It sounds a little cumbersome, but if you approach it in a spirit of adventure and helpfulness and you possess even an average facility with words it’s fairly painless. It’s probably a little like speed-dating, actually: you simply can’t spend a lot of time on any one song, or it’ll take up your whole day. Extra-busy (or language-impaired) bands can, incidentally, bypass the initiation by coughing up some cash to get their song straight into the review pool. But that’s taking the fun out of it, if you ask me.

Once you’ve reviewed a song, the site tells you the name of the band and lets you add the song to your playlist if you like it. Meanwhile, an actual human being at Garageband gives each review a quality rating. Higher ratings entitle you to extra benefits.

I’ve been mucking around in the slush pile for a few days and am well on my way to earning the right to put one of my own songs into the pool. The reviewing process is both encouraging and discouraging. Most of the music is terrible, which is encouraging, since it leads you to think, rightly or wrongly, that your own music is much better than most of what you’re hearing. It’s discouraging, though, to realize how many thousands and thousands of hopefuls are out there competing with you, and how even if only one percent of the artists were really good, that’s far, far more than there’s room for at the top of the heap.

Why is it worth it to artists to participate? If you believe the website’s hype, many have gone on to bigger and better things, some signing to major labels. (cf. American Idol‘s Bo Bice). What makes this hype, even though Garageband is unlikely to be literally lying, is that savvy, industrious indie bands aren’t going to sign up on a single free website. They’ll be all over the Internet, promoting here, competing there, looking for every possible connection and medium of exposure. Rather, Garageband stands out for other reasons: its peer-review pool concept, its longevity, and its fine user interface. (The site itself works quite well. Years of development have not been wasted.)

On the minus side: the tinny, low-fi sound quality makes it tough to evaluate some aspects of the music. You have to pretend you’re listening to a transistor radio that’s under a blanket. Then you’re OK. But get some more hard drive space, Garageband. Everyone’s doing it: Google, Yahoo, you name it. Get some space so you can host higher-quality files.

Now, about that all-male advisory board…

Liberals: Stop Being Ashamed of Michael Moore

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Michael Moore may be an oversimplifying loudmouth, but it’s time for us Liberals to get out of the habit of ignoring or apologizing for him. Moore’s rhetoric is blunt, his arguments frequently and sometimes even recklessly one-sided. But what he’s fighting against is all those things too, and dangerously so.

Predictably, Moore’s September 11, 2005 letter to Bush voters excoriates the Bush administration for its lackadaisical attitude towards emergency preparedness, laid bare by Hurricane Katrina. Also predictably, the letter wanders off topic and loses focus. But its central paragraph expresses a truth that wealthy politicians and their corporate overlords neither understand nor acknowledge:

Our vulnerability is not just about dealing with terrorists or natural disasters. We are vulnerable and unsafe because we allow one in eight Americans to live in horrible poverty. We accept an education system where one in six children never graduate and most of those who do can’t string a coherent sentence together. The middle class can’t pay the mortgage or the hospital bills and 45 million have no health coverage whatsoever.

The absurd economic inequities that shame this “richest country in the world” do indeed make it vulnerable, just as Moore says, in a wider sense than what we mean when we talk of containers that aren’t inspected or levees that aren’t high enough. We are more vulnerable because of the prevailing “Conservative” view that Government shouldn’t be busying itself with social justice or even caring for the needy. Critics often accuse Bush & Co. of damaging the US’s moral stature abroad by warmongering and backing out of treaties. But Katrina has shown us that this Government is morally bankrupt even within the framework of America’s own ideals. “Opportunity for all” is a sick joke to too many millions of poor people in this country. The Administration, with its rampant cronyism (symbolized by now-ousted FEMA chief Michael Brown) and infantile approach to priorities (evidenced by withdrawal of support for New Orleans’s protective infrastructure) has done virtually nothing since 2000 but turned existing problems into disasters.

The Right doesn’t apologize for its Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters. Sensible Liberals needn’t disown their own provocateurs and windbags.

CD Review: Jake Shimabukuro, Dragon

Monday, September 12th, 2005

Although still best known in Japan and his native Hawaii, Jake Shimabukuro has become the pre-eminent worldwide ambassador for the ukelele, an instrument with more depth and soul than most of us know. If your image of the ukelele is Hawaiian kitch or Tiny Tim (a serious musician, but one who never overcame his popular image as a novelty act), any of Jake’s CDs will come as an edifying surprise.

His 2004 release, Walking Down Rainhill, showcased an impressive variety of technicial and compositional styles, from the sunny pop of “Rainbow,” which was used as Hawaii Tourism Japan’s theme song, to the gentle jazz-waltz lullaby “6 in the Morning,” to the hyperkinetic bop-rock of “Wes on Four.” Jake’s solo rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was a loving and lovely tribute to George Harrison, one of his idols.

Walking Down Rainhill did require from the listener a degree of tolerance for the generic, “international” instrumental pop style for which artists like Yanni are both loved and despised. Fortunately, Jake’s music shows no signs of becoming full of itself; a little too much the opposite, in fact: on his new CD, Dragon, to be released next month, he seems to be taking it just a bit too easy. The album hangs together well, but there’s less variety and experimentation, resulting in a batch of songs that go down smoothly but – with some exceptions – don’t engage the listener as acutely as Shimabukuro does at his best.

In one sense, it’s a triumph for Jake and his ukelele that they can take us on a relaxing musical journey while making us almost forget that the maestro is playing an instrument with only two octaves and four humble strings. But a little more spice and a little less sweetness would have made for a more exciting dish. The CD opens strongly with the wah-wah-driven, Latin-fusion kicker “Shake It Up!” Jake’s exquisite tone and musicality can’t, however, make “With U Always,” “Me & Shirley T.” or “Circle of Friends” more than blandly enjoyable. The title track features Jake’s passionate soloing and almost unbelievable arpeggio technique, but is overloaded with orchestration.

“Floaters” is an exquisite solo piece that’s much more transcendent, and “3rd Stream” is an impressive, fusiony fast-fingers display with a jaw-dropping uke solo. Together the two tracks comprise the heart of the CD, distilling the best of Shimabukuro’s two sides: his lyrical sense, and his ability to compose a solid band number that shows off both his amazing playing and his compositional skill.

Some of the other tracks are either too heavy on the sap, like “Touch,” or just not very interesting, like “Toastmanland” and “Making a Perfect Yesterday.” Fortunately, listening to the liquid-crystal sound of Jake’s ukelele is a pure pleasure in itself, particularly where he keeps the orchestration less obtrusive, as in the sweet ballad “Looking Back.”

Jake Shimabukuro certainly isn’t looking back: He’s been touring with numerous top artists, including Bela Fleck, and more recently Jimmy Buffett. On the strength of all that exposure, Jake Shimabukuro and his uke should be getting wider recognition in the US, which, although the new CD is somewhat uneven, he deserves.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

INDIE ROUND-UP for September 8 2005

Thursday, September 8th, 2005

This week I focus on the most recent releases from two artists I will go out of my way to see. Not that I really have to go out of my way; both have performed this past year at the intimate Living Room right here in New York City. One’s a Texan and as American as they come, the other a European citizen of the world. One has a dark, grouchy rootsiness, the other an ethereally passionate one. Both have had major label contracts in the past…but that was then. They sound very different, but each exemplifies why music is such a large and essential part of my life.

INDIE ROUND-UP for September 8 2005

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Ray Wylie Hubbard, Delirium Tremolos

Ray Wylie Hubbard gained notoriety during the dying days of the Nixon administration when his parody “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” became an outlaw anthem for Jerry Jeff Walker. Then he seemed to mostly disappear.

After a period of personal problems and lack of musical success, Hubbard rejuvenated his recording career in the 1990s and really hit his stride with 1999′s Crusades of the Restless Knights, which established him as a major voice on the Americana scene. His deep-blue folk-rock songs and husky, lived-in singing voice (gone scratchier with age) puts one in mind of Johnny Cash’s late recordings and rank him in the top tier of Americana with the likes of Jim Lauderdale, Gillian Welch and Greg Brown. Uncharacteristically, Hubbard’s latest CD is mostly covers, which disappointed me at first, but after several listens I like it very much, if in a slightly different way. In Hubbard’s own songs, even the funnier or lighter ones, there’s an intensity of focus and a not always faint pall of sadness. In some of these covers, though the latter is present as ever, there’s less of the former.

That’s not to say Hubbard doesn’t fully inhabit the songs he covers. Eliza Gilkyson’s “The Beauty Way” gains a richness of spirit from his straightforward, gravel-road delivery. “Rock and Roll Gypsies” has lyrics too awkward to light up its heartland-simple melody, while Hubbard’s own “Dallas After Midnight,” also simple in structure, is a textbook example of spare, evocative ballad writing. Its tale of a conscience-stricken robber is of a piece, in mood, with the plain and effective “Torn In Two,” by producer Gurf Morlix, who plays marvelous guitar (steel and otherwise) and bass on the album. “Drivin’ Wheel,” another cover, is a bit too slow and boring for my taste until the repeated chorus at the end is rescued by groovy backing vocals by Patty Griffin. The CD picks right up again with a rousing rendition of the Woody Guthrie gospel lyric “This Mornin’ I Am Born Again,” set to music by Slaid Cleaves, who, along with Griffin, Gilkyson and Bob Schneider, contributes vocals to the choir.

“Dust of the Chase” is an iconic minor-key Hubbard outlaw poem:

Patience is a virtue that I don’t possess
And I can’t deny that heaven lies beneath a cotton dress
How small a part of time we share till we hear the sound of wings
I am lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings

He turns the Elmore James blues “Roll and I Tumble” into a throbbing tribal wail of despair, but finds some redemption in his own “Cooler-N-Hell”:

A pack of Chesterfields, sunglasses and a suit
A half pint of gin and a gold tooth
Lightnin’ Hopkins and a pentatonic scale
Some things here under heaven are just cooler-n-hell…
Yeah, some of this stuff down here is just cooler-n-hell.

If I were to add my own verse to “Cooler-N-Hell” it would include Ray Wylie. He closes the CD by chanting an eight-minute, slowed-down version of James McMurtry’s novelistic “Choctaw Bingo,” about a bunch of characters heading for one hell of a family reunion. Music may have started as a mnemonic device or a means of communicating danger, but Ray Wylie Hubbard’s songs – even those he chooses to cover – remind us that what it does now – no matter how hard we try to tear ourselves apart – is make us all one big family.

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Katell Keineg, High July

Katell Keineg would be in my verse of “Cooler-N-Hell” too, but an icier cool. Though she’s a warm and giving performer (and decidedly disorganized on stage – it’s part of her charm), her voice, while it has its own peculiar beauty, is not usually sweet or even conventionally pretty. It surrounds or punches you, the combined keen of all the bereft mothers and disappointed girlfriends who have ever lived. And in spite of all the sharp sadness she musters, her most memorable songs are often uplifting, happy, even funny. The joyous “One Hell of a Life,” from the Jet album, is the biggest crowd-pleaser at her shows:

Don’t go writing on my grave
I’ve said it all before the end…
When I’m dead, please don’t philosophize
Or feel regret, just remember me when I said
I had one hell of a life, one hell of a life,
I had one hell of a life.

Recently Katell re-released her two classic 1990′s Elektra albums herself. But as for new work, she had, until this year, released only an EP and a three-song CD single (reviewed by me here and here). High July, her first full-length CD of the new millenium, starts appropriately with the eerily beautiful “What’s The Only Thing Worse Than The End of Time?”:

I was born in millenium tension
It’s all gone now…

I described her as a citizen of the world, but she really inhabits the whole Universe, with songs inspired by cosmology (“Waiting For the Weight of Space,” from the earlier EP), history and art (“Brother of the Brush,” Jet‘s “Ole, Conquistador”) and even politics (the delightful, uncharacteristically straight-ahead rocker “Shaking the Disease”) as well as love and relationships. Keineg’s lyrical thinking is deep and complex, her melodies hummable, frequently memorable and brilliantly constructed of tension and release. A common pattern is to divide a long song into a soft, ballady section and a heavier, two-chord rave-up section, as with “High Marks” and “On Yer Way.” In her hands such devices give the music signficance and weight well beyond that of the commonplace pop ingredients she also uses.

“Beautiful Day” starts as a lovely, soft pop tune with an unleavened positivity that at first seems something of a departure for Keineg, but then the bauble becomes vaguely sinister in an extended, philosophical bridge; doubled vocal tracks and small suggestions of minor chords complete the transformation. “Captain (Steal This Riff)” is a tense, feathery anthem that evokes the spirit of David Bowie’s “Heroes” but ends with a startled cry of “Oh my God.”

“Seven League Boots,” which includes Susan McKeown and Natalie Merchant on vocals during the rip-roaring chorus, is like a miniature, aural Fellini movie, though I can’t figure out what it’s about – Keineg’s strange vocal quality and slightly awkward accent make the lyrics hard to understand on this song among others, and I can’t find the lyrics published anywhere.

The album is her most uneven work to date, and three of the best songs have appeared before. Still it’s a thought-provoking collection with quite a few high points and several must-have songs. For the Katell neophyte, I’d recommend first checking out her debut, O seasons O castles, and then Jet. (Longer excerpts than Amazon.com provides can be heard here at CD Baby (where, incidentally, you can purchase High July for considerably less than the “import” price you’ll pay at Amazon.com).

Katell performs mostly in Ireland, where she makes her home, and once or twice a year in New York City where she’s spent considerable time as well – in fact, the cover photographs are of Coney Island. If you’re ever anywhere near either of those places, look up whether she’s playing. It will be worth going out of your way. And then you can join the community of Katell fans. We recognize each other by the beatific expressions on our faces.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD REVIEW: Danny Barnes, Get Myself Together

Wednesday, September 7th, 2005

An accomplished and big-hearted artist, sideman and musicians’ musician, Danny Barnes (formerly of the proto-Americana band Bad Livers) has more credits than you’d want to read. But you don’t need to know that he tours with bluegrass master Tim O’Brien and taught avant-jazz guitar great Bill Frisell how to play old-time music. Barnes’s new solo album of homespun bluegrass and traditional-style country is a thing of beauty, humor, and deep but simple pleasures. As facile with flatpicking, slide and bluegrass guitar as he is on banjo and vocals, he delivers a set of originals and cover tunes that climbs all over the landscape of Americana music like a truck rumbling from state to state, climate to climate, all inside one big country.

From his bluegrass version of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (featuring fiddle wunderkind Brittany Haas) to the four-part gospel harmonies (all Barnes) on Blind Willie Johnson’s “Let Your Light Shine on Me” and the gorgeous banjo-and-fiddle treatment of the traditional “Cumberland Gap,” Barnes fuses reverence for classic old songs with his own full-blooded yet somehow self-effacing string virtuosity.

Barnes’s original songs aren’t amazing, but his flair for amusing turns of phrase and flawless feel for the old song forms make them interesting and enjoyable, and his tongue-in-cheek hillbilly vocals are a perfect vehicle for the clever, sometimes darkly funny lyrics. His attitude is summed up in “Get It On Down the Line,” a hilarious pastiche of cornball growin’-up-poor country cliches which Barnes himself can’t manage to sing without laughing:

When I got old enough to realize the life we had was tough
I asked my Daddy why he thought that shack would be enough
Three consumptive children and a life that ain’t never fun
Here is what my Daddy told me, Son,
You can work in a coalmine
You can make a little moonshine
Or you can get it on down the line

Danny Barnes’s quintessentially American music is quirky, sincere, modern and rooted all at the same time. I recommend it highly to fans of all kinds of rootsy music.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]