What Should I Wear?

Got an interesting voicemail message today: apparently Congressman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) would like the pleasure of my company at a dinner with President Bush and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council.

I remain on a number of business mailing lists dating from when my wife and I had a corporation, and I suppose each party works off some sort of registry of companies from which it can seek support. But is the Congressman inviting executives from every company in the state? What if they all accepted? They’d need the world’s biggest pizza.

Maybe the price of admission is very high. Events listed on the NRCC’s events page seem to cost $500 and up for an individual, which doesn’t seem outlandish, although I suppose one with the President in attendance would be at the top end of the scale.

Maybe I really am special. Maybe they read my review of the Tuvan Throat Singers concert and want to discuss international relations. Maybe President Bush wants to invite me to Camp David for a heart-to-heart. Hey, I’m willing to give anyone a chance.

Privacy Groups Combat “Policy Laundering”

Responding to a new sort of globalization, the American Civil Liberties Union and two affiliated groups have announced an initiative to monitor and publicize the practice whereby governments, in the name of security, make cooperative agreements with one another in order to “escape domestic legal and political controls.”

The new generation of RFID-enabled passports, which the US is instituting for its own citizens and also requiring of other nations with which it has visa-waiver agreements, is an example. The privacy groups say that by presenting the rollout of this technology as the result of an international agreement intended to help fight terrorism, the US State Department can claim that the international community endorses the policy while in reality the other nations have been coerced into going along.

“In more and more areas, we are seeing security agencies pushing anti-privacy measures before international groups and foreign governments instead of through the domestic political process,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “This is the strategy we call policy laundering. The security agencies and law enforcement are ‘going global’ – and so must the protection of civil liberties… Law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies from different nations are increasingly working together out of the public eye to amass new powers.”

Jim Harper, director of information studies at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, has said (in an article in Wired) of the plan to embed RFID chips in passports: “In the U.S., it’s a non-starter politically.” It is difficulties caused by that kind of attitude that the privacy groups say policy laundering is intended to avoid.

Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and a member of the board of Savi Technology (an RFID contractor for the Department of Homeland Security), is one who believes in the use of RFID technology for personal identification. “It’s another security measure embedded in the U.S. economy,” Ridge said. “Biometrics and RFID will make us safer.”

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Real Liberal Values

The entrepreneurial spirit that made the US the world’s dominant economy can’t thrive without a strong middle class. But the middle class is being squeezed like a lemon, and soon nothing will be left but the pits.

Our national future dims every day as we fall behind other regions of the world in education, science and technology, culture, and progress towards a just society. When hard-working wage earners can just barely afford to make ends meet, we can’t save money, and we often go into debt and then try to resolve these debts by using the services of companies such as CreditAssociates and others. Then, no longer in the habit of saving, we spend what disposable income we have on iPods, video games, wildly overpriced children’s clothing, and gas-guzzling SUVs.

These habits have the curious effect of propping up the economy by pushing our trade deficit higher and higher. As long as we continue to buy their products, the Chinese and Japanese continue to finance our debt. This house of cards may come crashing down dramatically, or drift away on a breeze, but it certainly cannot stand for much longer. And when it falls, what’s left of the US middle class will be really screwed.

But we’re screwed already. Our federal taxes are used not for the infrastructure of our economy and investments in our future but on a military that’s employed in costly misadventures. Meanwhile the Bush team further reduces the tax burden on the wealthy, not even pretending to believe in any trickle-down economic theory. The benefits to the rich are pure giveaways.

The Democrats in Congress bear a share of the blame. They are as much in thrall to the robber barons as the Republicans are. Worse, the robber barons have actually become indistinguishable from the ruling politicians. The Bush family beds down with the Saudis; Cheney’s corrupt company is conveniently the only one that can handle fuel deliveries in Iraq (did anyone believe that one?); legislation is not only influenced but actually written by representatives of industry, then rubber-stamped by the supposed representatives of the people.

John McCain recognizes it: we must get big business out of the business of the people. But how? Our elected representatives depend on their business pals to get and keep their positions of power. Measures like term limits are useless, as they can always be overturned in the next term. Campaign finance reform bills are like chickens put under the care of the fox.

Liberal values – not far-left socialism, not Quaker pacifism, but the solid American liberal values that brought us, among many other benefits, the 40-hour work week, safety nets for the elderly and infirm, support for the arts (the lifeblood of a society), and, for a time, the highest standard of living in the world – retain some currency, if not with Democratic politicians, at least with Democratic voters. Liberal values hold that government has its place as an essential element in the construction of a thriving and just society. Liberal values hold that the goal of a just society is, in fact, a worthwhile one. (When was the last time you heard a Republican, even with all their railing against the judiciary, mention justice?)

Liberal values are what gave us a strong middle class in the first place. Without a return to liberal values, our country’s collapse will continue, for only united with a sense of its own value can the middle class make a comeback. If substantial segments of the middle class continue to vote Republican, they will vote themselves out of existence, and with them, the hopes of our nation.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Chips Off The Old Block

The models are about my height – just under six feet tall – yet seem to tower over me in the elevator. Their posture, their svelteness, their perfect hair and the unearthly regularity of their features gives them the aura of demigoddesses. It’s painfully difficult not to stare at them.

The models are on their way to a shoot at a photography studio located in the same building where I work, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. In fact, this area is known as the Photo District for its concentration of studios and supply houses. But my block has a lot more variety than that would suggest. It is without a doubt the only place in the world where you can find a shooting range (the West Side Rifle & Pistol Range), a strip club, an architect, a major art supply house, and a neogothic church housing a legendary nightclub, all on one block.

There are also more standard businesses: a caterer with a storefront, a couture women’s clothing store, a parking garage. But it’s a noteworthy, newsworthy block, anchored on the west end by Avalon, the nightclub formerly known as the Limelight, Peter Gatien’s notorious den of drug dealing and violence (cf. the recent Macaulay Culkin-Seth Green movie Party Monster.) In the middle of block lies the subdued-looking entrance to the VIP Club, a strip club whose previous owners, according to a recent article in the New York Post, were extorted out of $2.5 million by the Gambino crime syndicate. (These clubs somehow always manage to stay in business, though. Must be the quality of the martinis.) At the eastern end of the block – to make up for all that hard living, I guess – lies a Vitamin Shoppe.

New York City, with its thousands of blocks, is both unfathomably huge and sublimely small. In the very building where I work, a prestigious recording studio – since moved to more spacious quarters elsewhere – birthed Halley DeVestern‘s Sugar Free album. I worked on that album in 1996-97, years before my current day job. We got lunch at the Lemon Lime diner around the corner then; I get lunch there now – but less often, since I’ve started eating healthy. Now I often bring a salad from home and, on nice days, sit in Madison Square Park in the shadow of the New York Life Building’s golden spire. I used to work in that building. I probably used to work in your building, too. I’ll bet you used to work in mine. Let’s have lunch! I’ll fix your computer, and you can sing me a song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

The Bayoil Indictments

So, it seems a Texas oilman (hey, isn’t there one of those in the White House, too?) and two others have been indicted in the corruption scandal surrounding the Iraqi oil-for-food program of the 1990s. The UN, along with business interests from France and Russia, has been taking a lot of heat about the very same affair from anti-internationalist right-wingers in the US. Maybe this’ll shut them up for a bit. Yes, fellas, follow the money and you’re bound to find some corruption no matter what country you’re in.

These guys face up to 62 years in prison. If they’re convicted, I think they should be made to share a cell with their alleged partner in crime, Saddam Hussein. With limited shower privileges.

CD Review: Victor Wooten, Soul Circus

A “musicians’ musician” is one known primarily as a virtuoso sideplayer rather than an artist in his or her own right. Though such players are usually not household names, major stars utilize their services, and less gifted musicians – especially those who play the same instrument – hold such individuals in awe.

Among electric bassists Victor Wooten stands at the top of the musicians’ musician pantheon. He’s had a substantial career as an artist, but among music fans he remains best known for his work with Bela Fleck. There may be several reasons for this, but one is the mixed focus of his previous solo work. While the musicianship is never less than stellar, some of the work has been too smooth-jazz for many tastes, while at other times Wooten gets into an 80s pop vibe that has needed more hookier songwriting to pull off.

It’s a pleasure to report that, taken a whole, his new CD is his best work yet. Like a lot of virtuoso solo work, it’s complex and self-referential, but it’s almost never self-indulgent, and it boasts solid songwriting, a modern, accessible sound, and smoothly integrated contributions from various guest artists.

“Victa” is the type of personal statement that will be very familiar to rap fans, introducing the artist and his attitude. “Prayer,” one of the disc’s very best tracks, has a simple but tasty hook that sticks in the mind; the different time signatures in verse and chorus somehow add to the grooviness. The highly rhythmic “Natives,” another top track, features Native American Grammy-winner Bill Miller on vocals, flute and percussion.

A jazzy instrumental cover of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” is followed by the fun and funky “Stay,” whose verse is in 11/8 time. You might not be able to march to it, but you sure could dance to it. “On and On” features the vocals of guest Saundra Williams, whose extreme laid-backitude works better in the background than in front; the song has a pretty chorus, but more powerful lead vocals would have improved it. (The draggy rap by Arrested Development’s Speech, who makes more inspired contributions elsewhere on the album, seems dropped in from nowhere). “Cell Phone” is gimmicky fun, committedly a rap song and featuring cell phone rings actually integrated into the music in an unusually intelligent and pleasurable use of such sound effects.

The title track has a rich soul groove (and if you’ve never heard vocal “slap bass” here’s your chance). “Higher Law” is just so-so, but it’s always interesting to see an all-around player like Wooten (aided by older brother, guitarist Regi) take on rock. In contrast, “Ari’s Eyes” is that rarity, a soft ballad explicitly inspired by the artist’s child that’s not cloyingly sweet. Maybe that’s because it’s mostly instrumental. Normally, hearing someone sing about how much they love their kid just makes me want to retch.

This CD won’t induce any such feelings. Without blatantly showing off (except in the funky ode “Bass Tribute”), Wooten and his team – which includes numerous other members of his preteternaturally talented clan – inject enough variety to satisfy many tastes, while maintaining enough of an overall vision to make the CD hang together well. You could listen carefully and follow the notes and lyrics on the website – that would increase your appreciation of the album – or you could just put it on in your car and hit the highway, or put it on at home and seduce your music-loving lover. Your choice.

Available at Amazon.com.

[Cross-published at Blogcritics.]

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

This week’s crop of indie releases proves that the slightly amateurish can be more satisfying than the slickly professional(ish) – it’s all about inspiration and having something original to say.

INDIE ROUND-UP for April 7 2005

CD: Tim Young, Red

If you pine for the time when people could simply write songs and sing them, not caring whether someone called them rock, pop, folk, blues, country, or psychedelic – if you miss, I suppose, the late 60s and early 70s – you’ll particularly appreciate this batch of heartfelt songs from New York City troubador Tim Young. Young’s unschooled, urgent vocal delivery and lo-fi aesthetic combined with his solid and energetic guitar playing and fertile creativity places his music at the intersection between urban folk, heartland rock and outsider music.

I mention outsider music because Young’s vocals sometimes get so enthusiastic they become what one might call unmusical. But even with his flaws Tim Young is impossible not to like. Many of the songs are well-crafted; all illustrate the human condition in its complicated glory and shame. The title track, for example, uses nearly surrealistic lyrics to say something that seems both unclear and deeply important:

One time I wanted red hair
I wanted it black I wanted it red
I’m alive I’m not dead
Go on get lost see if I care…
I live in the clouds under the cemetery
So dark in here I can hardly see

“Disaster” sums up this dark take on life in more straightforward fashion: “I’ve done drugs I’ve gone straight/nothin’ ever eased the wait.” But in contrast, another track I really like is the love song “Reason.”

In his wide thematic variety, Young doesn’t always hit the mark; “Torture” sort of is. (Well, it’s not a pleasant listen anyway.) But the unlikeable moments on this long, sixteen-song collection are few. If you like this music at all, you won’t mind listening to a long CD of it. If you need a sonic reference point, think Eric Burdon or Them, but with a softer, more lyrical side and a touch of country. Really, Tim Young mixes genres until there is no genre, just songs. And while there may not be anything on this disc as catchy as “Gloria” or “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” there’s a full hour of meaningful music.

Available at CD Baby

CD: Jack Rooney, What Goes Around

Jack Rooney is another inspired amateur, and I mean that in the positive sense of the noun. “We all contribute our own uniqueness to this world,” he says in his liner notes, “and in that sense, we are all artists.” It’s a good point and a very nice take on humanity. Like Brian Eno circa “Another Green World,” Rooney makes mood pieces, some with vocals, some spacey, others in a light symphonic rock style. The vocals, which carry mostly positive, inspirational messages, are mixed low and sung largely without inflection. This is effective for the style, but at times Rooney’s lack of vocal technique is a drawback, as in the title song, an inspiring track with a hummable melody that’s just a little spoiled by poor intonation.

The primary instrument is the grand piano, which Rooney plays deftly. Then he layers on synthesized tracks, including percussion, which lean some of the music towards modern electronica. The CD would benefit greatly from professional production and mastering, but even in this raw state it’s warm and affecting. Without ever being unmusical, Rooney’s music reminds one of a state or time of innocence, when we weren’t all so jaded and perfectionist about how things “should” sound.

Jack Rooney’s previous CD is available at CD Baby.

EP: Courtney C. Patty, Silhouette of Me

It all goes to show that packaging and production aren’t everything. Singer-songwriter Courtney C. Patty has been on the Pacific Northwest music scene for some time now and released three previous CDs. Her new EP sounds lovely, her performances on guitar and piano and her accompanying musicians are first-rate, and her promotional package and artwork are professional-looking. But on the evidence of this recording, she has yet to find a distinctive voice as a writer and singer.

Strange to say, but even now, halfway through the new decade, female singer-songwriters are copying (consciously or not) Natalie Merchant‘s vocal mannerisms, as is evident right away in this EP’s opening track, “London Bridge.” It’s the best song of the four, but its tale of a relationship’s denouement seems tired, and it just grates on me when people sing “between you and I.” The song has a pleasing acoustic-rock groove and a good chorus, but its promise isn’t fulfilled in the rest of the set. In the underwritten “April Shower” Patty combines a Tori Amos breathiness with that little-girl delivery that too many singer-songwriters use as a shortcut to indicate vulnerability.

The two closing ballads are pretty enough, and tell heartfelt stories, but the music is just too bland to hit home. One wishes Patty’d let loose vocally a bit on these tracks, instead of keeping her voice so close to her chest. The whole EP is a bit like that: writing that’s not quite inspired enough to shine through the tightly controlled performances.

Available at CD Baby

[Cross-published at Blogcritics]