Archive for October, 2005

New York Notes: One Week Until New York’s Mayoral Election

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Many New Yorkers will be facing a dilemma in next week’s mayoral election. We think our mayor is doing a good job governing the city. But we loathe the national party to which he belongs.

Four years ago Michael Bloomberg used his personal fortune to fund his longshot campaign. During and since that successful run he never tired of pointing out how his billions make him impervious to the influence of special interests. A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg had switched parties in order to run, and most New Yorkers believed that he wasn’t a “real” Republican, that he actually had his heart in the right place, and that as far as governing went he could in fact be truly independent, driven only by the best interests of the city and his own ego (hopefully in that order). And I still believe that’s true to some extent.

But personal fortunes aside, politics makes strange and sometimes noxious bedfellows. It’s common knowledge that Bloomberg spent some $7 million of his own money funding the last Republican National Convention, among whose many offenses was its disgusting political exploitation of 9-11. But as Wayne Barrett recently reported in The Village Voice, Bloomberg has also cozied up to the Bush White House in numerous ways. By merely praising Bush, for example – whether in public or at a party event – Bloomberg helps the cause.

Even though Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent, seems capable, we hesitate to vote out a mayor who’s running the city well. This is the second hardest job in the nation, and if we’ve got somebody good, we’re loath to boot him out before we have to. We weigh Bloomberg’s ties to the Bush administration against our own ties to our life in the city we love. In our minds, New York is not like other American cities: we tend to think of it as a quasi-independent city-state, though it is no such thing. New York City’s economy and the nation’s are interdependent, as are their cultures, but we see ourselves, sometimes obnoxiously so, as above and apart. We often feel a stronger local allegiance than a national one. Hence our dilemma.

I’m not voting for Bloomberg next week, and if he loses, I’ll be pleased. Regaining the New York City mayoralty would be a shot in the arm for national and state Democrats. But I have to admit that I will also be pleased if he wins re-election (which is almost a certainty). And I’ll be less nervous about the immediate future of this great and unique city. Does that make me a strange bedfellow with myself? In the words of that famous New Yorker, Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Some eight million, in fact.

Book Review: TCP/IP Guide

Monday, October 31st, 2005

TCP/IP, the stack of technologies that underlies the Internet and the World Wide Web, is, not surprisingly, a large and complex topic. During my two decades in the technology field I’ve looked at a number of books on the subject, but tended to give up quickly and content myself with the discrete bits of knowledge essential for the job at hand. TCP/IP, however, is one of the few important topics about which it is really impossible to know enough, even for an information systems generalist like myself. For TCP/IP technologies have become as critical to modern business – and personal communication – as blood circulation is to the human body.

Charles M. Kozierok’s new TCP/IP Guide is the best-organized and easiest-to-digest “complete” TCP/IP book I’ve ever seen. I put “complete” in quotes because no single volume could possibly drill down to every last detail of every protocol in the suite, and Kozierok doesn’t claim to, not even in the 1,400-plus pages of this volume. What he does, however, is write clearly and engagingly, dividing the topic into short manageable chapters, covering pretty much everything a technician could ever need to know about TCP/IP, and providing just the right amount of background information and context to give the reader a sense of why and how the technologies we use every day were designed just so.

The last is no small thing. The why and the how are of more than academic interest. Knowing how technologies developed sometimes actually helps increase comprehension. And having some historical context makes the essentially dry and difficult subject matter more pleasant to read, which is also no small matter.

The book delivers to the attentive reader a working knowledge of TCP/IP in all its multifaceted complexity. Kozierok begins with some valuable chapters on the fundamentals of networking technology, the standards organizations that give rise to the flummoxing sea of acronyms every IT professional must learn, and the mathematics that underlies computing (if you’ve ever struggled to understand binary or hexadecimal numbers, the explanations in this book are as good as any I’ve seen). Then, the heart of the book explains the many protocols and related technologies that comprise the TCP/IP stack.

It’s structured logically according to the layers of the OSI Reference Model, starting from the physical transfer of data via wires, moving up through the complex logic that enables a giant network of millions of devices (e.g. the Internet) to interoperate smoothly, and ending with the top-level applications most everyone’s familiar with, such as HTTP and email. Thus, one can comfortably read or skim the book straight through. Afterwards, it will function as a useful reference – probably for a number of years, since the pace of TCP/IP development is quite slow. (Imagine trying to rebuild a bridge into a bigger, better bridge without ever being able to close it to traffic, and you’ll have an idea why the next generation of TCP/IP, known as v6, has been under development for a decade already.)

Since it does not presume much network knowledge, the book is appropriate for both neophytes and professionals. I’ve been around this technology for many years, and even in my quick read-through I learned quite a bit. I also remembered why some of the topics, like subnet masking and sliding windows, have previously caused my head to swim, and appreciated the clear, detailed but concise presentations in this book. The author truly has a gift for explication.

I can’t think of a reason why any datacenter or beginning IT technician wouldn’t want to own this volume. It’s well written and organized, as complete as nearly everyone could want, contains many useful tables and diagrams, and covers IPv6, the forthcoming next generation of Internet technology. It’s not inexpensive, but then again, on a per-page basis it kind of is. And it’s not one of those books that’s going to be outdated in six months’ time. (Also, as a side benefit, carrying it around will help build muscle mass). If TCP/IP technology is at all important to your job, pick up a copy of this book – you won’t regret it.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

DVD Review: Bobby Womack, Soul Seduction Supreme

Monday, October 24th, 2005

Bobby Womack may not be quite the hugest star R&B ever produced, but his career – now spanning over half a century – as songwriter, singer, guitarist, and soul man, marks him as one of the most important soul performers of all time, and the quintessential soul survivor.

Sam Cooke discovered the gospel group The Womack Brothers when they were kids in 1953. When, encouraged by Cooke, the brothers began to make the move from gospel to R&B, their father threw them out of the house. Recording for Cooke’s label as the Valentinos, the group toured behind James Brown, and later Bobby joined Cooke’s band as a guitarist. Bobby’s big break as a songwriter came during this period (1964), when the Rolling Stones’ recording of his “It’s All Over Now” went to number one on the U.K. charts. (Trivia time: “It’s All Over Now” was also, according to Songfacts.com, the first song Bruce Springsteen ever learned to play on guitar.) Rock and pop fans may also know (or be interested to) that Womack wrote and played guitar on “Trust Me,” from Janis Joplin’s “Pearl” album, and wrote “Across 110th Street,” a song (from the blaxploitation movie of the same name) which was revived as the theme to the hit Quentino Tarantino film Jackie Brown.

Soul Seduction Supreme presents nine songs from a late 1990′s concert at the Town and Country in London. A master showman, Womack plays the crowd, cavorts with his band, cracks jokes and sings his heart out. In between songs, the filmmakers visit him as he travels from gig to gig, fusses about money, relaxes in hotel rooms and in one somewhat bizarre scene, takes a bubble bath. There are also amusing bits where the band members practice and study, showing the joy, the drudgery and the anxiety that come with making music. And Womack’s philosophical but peppery reminiscences and reflections are of interest. But the DVD is primarily devoted to the performance, which is nicely recorded and fun to watch.

I was a little disappointed that it didn’t include Womack’s breakout hit “That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha,” but it’s otherwise a good selection of songs from the different stages of his career, from the early “Lookin’ for a Love” (re-recorded in the 70s, it was his only Top Ten hit on the pop charts) and “It’s All Over Now,” through “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” and the later “Love Has Finally Come at Last,” which was originally a duet with Patti LaBelle in the 1980s.

The main drawback is the lack of liner notes. Biographical information and discographies are easy to find on the Internet, but some information about the specifics of the tour and performance recorded here would have been nice. Still, this is a worthwhile DVD to own for fans of Bobby Womack or soul music in general.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Indie Round-Up for October 20 2005: Man Alive, Danny Draher

Friday, October 21st, 2005

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Man Alive, Open Surgery

One of the better punk-driven rock bands I’ve heard on disc lately, Man Alive hails from the unlikely location of Israel but is brought to you by the Militia Group, the lean and muscular West Coast label that also promotes Copeland (and other promising new bands). With big, husky vocals, a mix of punk shouts and sing-along melodies, and a forceful two-guitar attack, they owe much to their punk forebears (both “pure” and pop), but most bands with a similar sound don’t write as well as Man Alive.

Most of the songs are loud, crunchy, and on the fast side, though the slowish “Say What You Want” almost treads into Tears for Fears territory. In several songs (like “Stationary” and “Rewind”) the band fits multi-part arrangements, including time changes, into three-minute spans without breaking the integrity of the songs. The opening track, “Give Me a Sign,” is a catchy, anthemic distillation of stuttering, alienated youth:

Tell me how, how long were you planning to wait for
Are you in or are you out. Give me a sign, boy
You take it in. You take it in but you hold on for
For anything, for anything while everything passes you by

The real heart of the album is “Catch Phrases, Slogans and Chants,” an impassionate diatribe against conformity and in favor – surprisingly for a band with a punk attitude – of quiet:

There are times for silence
And there are times for action
But mostly there are times to listen
And listen with some love

Even with their agile songwriting and rough-edged sound, Man Alive doesn’t fully escape the sameness that persists in most of today’s punk-influenced rock. The context in which this band is good is a rather narrow one. Someone like the bluesman Danny Draher (see below) stays within a well-worn set of conventions too, but has a broader musical palette to work with and thus can record an album that’s over twice as long but never gets boring. Once you’ve listened to the 35 minutes of Open Surgery, though, you feel you’ve gotten everything Man Alive is about. It’s why people go nuts when a band like the White Stripes comes along – they’re excited to see someone using the old tools to build something even a little bit new. Man Alive uses their old tools very well, and they’re certainly a band worth watching. But I’ve received a lot of CDs in this genre recently, and when even the best of them (like this one) feels sort of old-hat, I wonder if there’s much juice left in the old punk-rock lemon.

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Danny Draher, Big Fun Tonite!

Veteran Chicago guitarist Danny Draher‘s debut CD as a leader is a blues album that sounds as good as it feels and vice versa. Draher touches on many of the song types you’d expect from a bluesman: long, slow jams like the epic “Don’t Know Much,” which features guest legends Dr. John on piano and Bernard Purdie on drums; funkified numbers like “My Desire”; the slow, crashing swing of “I Don’t Know Why”; tasty jump blues like “Garlic & Onions”; the rock-fortified “Disco Woman”; and arrangements that suggest earthy, sloshy big-band swing, like “32nd & 3rd,” where Chris Foreman provides an especially brilliant Hammond organ solo and the group gives a clinic in drawing high energy from a laid-back groove.

Recording all original songs was a good choice. Many blues artists mix covers with originals, and too often the originals don’t measure up in comparison, if only because the well-known traditional songs are so deep in the bones of the blues audience. Since Draher can write, play and sing well in all these blues modes I’m glad he lent his skills to his own material.

A sideman of choice for the likes of Etta James and Allen Toussaint, and a musician with a very long resume, Draher is a good singer who’s obviously absorbed some of the spirit of the great blues shouters: listen to “Goin’ Home” for some of the best evidence. But he makes his mark with his guitar, which speaks volumes, sometimes with few notes, often with many, but always exactly the right amount, and each infused with human warmth. His touch on the instrument is fluid but funky, deft but full-tilt, with plenty of tonal and stylistic variety, drawing as he does from the whole tradition of blues- and blues-inspired guitar, from jazz to pop, swamp to swing, Albert King to the Allman Brothers.

On most of these songs the only chordal instrument besides Draher’s guitar is the Hammond B3 organ (mostly played by the exquisite Foreman but with turns by other excellent players as well). Drums and sometimes bass are the only other presences on most tracks. Yet the small combos produce a wonderfully full sound because Draher surrounds himself with musicians who play, as he does, with equal measures of heart and skill. One of the best indicators of this is the beautifully syrupy instrumental ballad “Love For You,” which would sound perfectly at home on the dance floor at a Long Island wedding. Listen carefully to Draher’s and Foreman’s solos, though, and you’ll always hear something that goes just beyond the common tropes and cliches. In venturing their furthest from the blues, Draher and his group demonstrate best their mastery of and love for it. At nearly 80 minutes long, this CD leaves you wanting more, because it’s just plain fun, and that’s the ultimate test of a successful (and in this case overdue) debut.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

INDIE ROUND-UP for October 6 2005

Thursday, October 6th, 2005

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Copeland, live at Irving Plaza, NYC, Oct. 5 2005

Copeland (it’s a band, not a person) played an energetic opening set at the eagerly anticipated Bob Mould concert at Irving Plaza last night in New York City. Copeland is a tight quartet with a wall-of-sound two-guitar attack – except for a couple of songs where lead singer and rhythm guitarist Aaron Marsh switches to Rhodes piano – that charges and thrums through your whole body, especially out of Irving Plaza’s superior sound system.

Marsh has the look of a shoegazer but the voice of an angel. His soaring tenor, which frequently sails into an ethereal but assured falsetto, is the most remarkable thing about the band. Sounding at times like a less angst-ridden Thom Yorke, Marsh also can evoke the very young Roger Daltry. And when bassist James Likeness chimes in with his crystalline backing vocals, the harmonies and vocal quality bring to mind, just a tiny bit, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. Yet the band’s attitude and sensibility are youthful and thoroughly modern.

Their anthemic songs could use a little more variety; their set steps up to a higher level at the end when they play their best two songs, “No One Really Wins” and “Love Is A Fast Song.” Those two show Copeland’s real potential to be a pop-rock powerhouse. Their ability to win over the Bob Mould crowd in spite of playing a very different kind of music was also an excellent sign.

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Mould and his amazing band, incidentally, kicked butt. Watch and listen, punk-rock kiddies: that’s how it’s done. (I hadn’t seen him since 1984, when Husker Du opened for REM at Harvard!)

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Amelia’s Dream, Unravel

After a long hiatus, Amelia’s Dream is back with their third full-length CD. Recording Unravel live in the studio (vocals and keyboards were overdubbed) drew lively, powerful performances from the musicians, and the band’s songwriters, Amelia Gewirtz and Harold Stephan, have a knack for catchy, simple melodies; the best of their songs, like the contemplative “Blue Sky,” the rocking “Covered Up The Sun,” the celestial “Save Me” and the Nirvana-inspired “Only On The Inside,” have real staying power after a couple of listens.

The sound is a mix of raw pop and emo. Gewirtz’s voice resembles Sarah McLachlan’s but her singing is edgier; the “dark side” of this band may be its most appealing aspect, in fact. There’s even a bit of Pink Floyd in the crunchy minor-key attack of “Only On The Inside.” But their lyrical elements are strong too.

The band’s melodic habits can get somewhat repetitious; the CD could have done with a few fewer songs. Their 9-11 tribute, for example, could have stayed in the lyrics-notebook. But overall this album is a mature, emotionally powerful effort from a talented team whose past work has not surprisingly earned many TV and film placements.

Available here at CD Baby.

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Anny, Naked

Anny’s press materials describe her music as “ground breaking [sp] approachable mood music.” I don’t know why everyone thinks they have to be promoted as ground-breaking. 99.9% of the time it’s just hype, and anyway, breaking new ground is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for music to be good.

Anny is not blazing any trails. But her best songs comfortably merge two time-honored grooves: 1990s ectophile’s delight, and bygone happy-pop in the vein of Petula Clark and Abba. Taken in this spirit, they’re very enjoyable. The opening track, “White Lipstick Girl,” epitomizes this recipe: after the verse trickles by with vaguely mystical preciousness (“sugar plum fairies / dance in her eyes”), the chorus charges in with strongly belted, doubled vocals. “Home” follows a mellower version of the same pattern, with rich harmonies elevating the understated chorus to a grand style.

“I Want To Break Free” is a gorgeously arranged ballad with a delicious little pop melody, but it’s dragged down, to a degree, by some awkward, prosy lyrics. The same problem crops up in “Here You Are,” although the organ-drenched groove and Abba-esque harmonies on the chorus are hard to resist. And the artist’s most characteristic pattern returns with “Gonna Get Mine,” where a fluid, octave-jumping and breathily delivered verse leads into a stately declarative chorus.

I like her quietly soulful version of the Hall & Oates chestnut “Every Time You Go Away,” too. But after that the album sags a bit. Even “Purple God,” a song about a vibrator, isn’t as much fun as it should be. The last track, “End of the Road,” is worth a listen for its whooshing soundscape, but it doesn’t have much of a chorus and Anny gives in – as she does in a few other places – too much to a tendency to ape Tori Amos’s vocal mannerisms.

Bottom line: I liked two thirds of this album, which is a lot. Well-structured, original songs with solid, memorable choruses are quite difficult to write, and there are a number of them here. You can feel good about buying Anny’s music, too, because you’ll be supporting someone who works as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused children. Talk about your real heroes of society.

Available here at CD Baby.