Liberals: Stop Being Ashamed of Michael Moore

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. Some do not even know of the medi-cal and medicaid plans where they live, or the medicaid and medi cal benefits available for them to access if they are a low-income family.

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

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

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

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.

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 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

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

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]

Buddhism Underground

This is the first in an occasional series about my exploration of Buddhism while riding the New York subway.

Every morning on the subway I see people poring over religious texts. Seemingly oblivious to the groaning, shuffling tube-world of the subway car, these serious souls – Christian women; Orthodox Jews of both sexes; Muslims (usually women); and Holy Sisters of the Word Search – pass their daily commute in silent prayer or study. I am the only one marking up a book about Buddhism.

Buddhism’s teachings have much appeal in a complicated life, but they can be a little perplexing at first, and I had initially hoped the book would provide some explicit guidance for putting its principles into practice in some way. Reading it for the first time, I kept waiting for the author to get to the – well, not to the point, because he did make the central point again and again – but to the secret, the method, the trick even – or at least, a conclusion. We expect a book, whether fiction or nonfiction, practical or fantastic, to have a logical narrative flow. If it doesn’t, we think it’s a bad book.

But Buddhism teaches that there is no secret trick, and, in a sense, no narrative, since there is no reality to the perceived distinction between this and that, then and now. Indeed there is no “I,” no cork floating in the stream, but only stream, only thus. Shouldn’t a truly Buddhist book, then, also be only stream? Buddhism counsels us to be aware when our mind is “leaning,” whether it’s towards something we want to have or away from something we want to avoid. If we “want” Enlightenment, if we “want” to gain something from reading a book, we’ve already defeated our purpose. The book, then, should not be an instrument of our “leaning” this way or that.

From the standpoint of a student of literature and child of Western culture, one of the fascinating things about Buddhism as presented in this book is its use of small words to mean big things.

Whole. Mind. See. Awake. Thus. These words refer to aspects of the same phenomenon: simply being present.

The more we search for Truth among our thoughts and beliefs, the more subject to doubt we become… Anything that can be grasped must of necessity depend on other things for their validity. Hence, they are doubtful and perplexing… Ultimate Truth…can’t be countered or doubted or discounted because it is immediate, direct experience itself.

Words can never fully embody concepts. And Buddhism says concepts are artificial anyway. So words, any words, are twice removed from the Whole.


One apparent problem – for me, anyway – with Buddhism is that it seems unscientific. Of course, deity-based religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are also unscientific, but they can co-exist peacefully with science because they rely on faith, which by definition does not require rational or scientific proof. (In fact, it’s when religion tries to pass itself off as scientific – as with “creation science” and its more insidious modern iteration, “intelligent design” – that bitter conflicts arise, with science put on the defensive by an enemy it cannot, by definition, engage, and religion – Christianity, in this case – devalued and shamed by its own professed champions.)

Buddhism, however, does not require “belief” or “faith” as such. In saying that all sensations, concepts and thoughts are artificial and unreal divisions of the Whole, it is profoundly unscientific, since science is the attempt to ascertain objective truth by studying observed phenomena.

Yet at the limits of science comes a recognition that we cannot ever completely arrive at objective truth; the best we can do is approach it asymptotically. The limits of our perception, the imperfections of our brains, will always be with us, preventing our understanding from becoming absolutely complete. So maybe Buddhism and science don’t conflict so badly after all.

We have to see where we can effectively apply our effort and where we can’t. When we’re not seeing we’ll put most, if not all, of our energy into the areas where we have no control. We’ll try to control situations, people, and things over which, in fact, we have little or no influence.

So says Buddhism Plain and Simple. And science, reason, and my therapist tell me exactly the same thing.

INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

This week’s all-female edition of the Indie Round-Up is brought to you by the Sisterhood of the Happy Pants.

INDIE ROUND-UP for August 25 2005

Cruiserweight, Sweet Weaponry

Like a female-fronted Green Day or a slightly sped-up Letters to Cleo (Telegrams to Cleo?), Cruiserweight weighs in with a strong album of pop-punk. The band’s crisp songwriting isn’t brilliant, but the tunes squawk by with such raunchy energy it matters less than you might think. Sung by Stella Maxwell in vibrato-free punk style, they express in equal measure youth’s bravado and confusion, though there is a little too much sameness to them – it’s the sort of music that’s best sampled in 25-to-30-minute doses, and the CD goes on too long.

Maxwell’s brothers Urny and Yogi along with David Hawkins round out the quartet, driving the songs with modern punk precision. This is a very, very good band that has already made some waves on college radio. A hit song or two could be all that stands between them and national prominence.

Denise Barbarita, Chaos & Congeniality

Producer, guitarist and singer-songwriter Denise Barbarita’s second CD explodes out of the starting gate with three chilly-sweet songs that restore your faith in the spirit of art-pop originality. Barbarita’s talents as producer and sonic guitar artist are matched by her vocal power and, most important, a fine melodic sense that lifts her best songs to majestic heights.

Starting the CD with the spooky “In Pieces” might have been a little risky but it turns out to be an excellent introduction to all her strengths. Imagine a Tori Amos (circa Little Earthquakes) style melody over a Led Zeppelin acoustic-guitar hum with a gushing U2 production, and you’ll have some idea of what this song is made of. “Happy Happy” is a a short and sweet knockout punch of an anger song (it’s the most requested at her shows), and “Appleseed” has a gorgeous melody, swelling choral backing vocals and sweeping waves of sound from keyboards, guitars and percussion that form a bed of lush aural blossoms for the song’s somewhat abstract narrative.

The acoustic guitar-driven “For What It’s Worth” (not the old Buffalo Springfield classic) highlights Barbarita’s powerful six-string work and rhythmic sophistication, and “Hush Hush” is a chunky riff-rocker that echoes the White Stripes.

The second half of the CD has a couple too many ballads for me, though everything is recorded with consummate taste and skill and everpresent creativity. Barbarita plays interesting and inventive games with her vocal delivery, which can make the lyrics difficult to make out, so including them in the liner notes would have been a plus. “Fractured” and “Only Blue” are jazz-tinged slow numbers, the latter an especially haunting song about the heartache of losing communication, lovely but requiring a couple of listens to appreciate its subtleties. (Listen for David Weintraub’s otherworldly electric guitar fills.)

Barbarita’s rock roots push back aboveground in the two-part hallucinatory jam “The Last Breakdown,” with her sharp vocal stabs pushing in and out of the mix like bursts of distant thunder and lightning. Make sure to stick around for yet more spookiness in the unlisted tenth track, a increasingly dissonant sort of raga-chant that might take you some place you’ve never been.

Extended samples are available at CD Baby here.

Tina Schlieske, Slow Burn

Mixing blue-eyed soul with southern rock and a dash of country, Tina Schlieske (formerly of Sire Records’ Tina and the B-Sides) presents a nicely produced new CD graced by heavy-hitter contributors like producer Sheldon Gomberg (Beck) and keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty, etc. etc.) But bland songwriting and tired-sounding singing make this CD a wallflower at the soul revival meeting.

I’d never heard of her, but Schlieske has a substantial track record and strong vocal chops – she was recruited to front Stevie Ray Vaughn’s band Double Trouble in 2001, and in live appearances is often said to evoke the spirit of Janis Joplin (you can hear that influence in many of her songs, most notably “Everyday”). But it sounds as if either her heart wasn’t really in this recording session, or someone was influencing her to hold back. Equally important, while Schlieske has an obvious love and affinity for seventies-style soul and for soul-influenced rock such as the Stones, Bonnie Raitt and The Band were doing three and four decades ago, she doesn’t breathe new life into the classic sounds, instead using her talents only to retread them. The result is a “been there, heard that” feeling, full of evocations and lovingly replicated trappings but little freshness.

Good songs can render such matters unimportant – a good song is a good song no matter its setting – but these are mostly pretty pedestrian. Even so, a singer of Schlieske’s ability ought to have been able to make more of them. But throughout this CD her voice sounds tired. (I can imagine this material sounding more exciting in a live setting.) A few songs stand out: “Son of a Gun,” echoing the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” is catchy and rocks hard. “Baby Blue” has an easy Motown-ish charm, and “Never Knew Love” is a tasteful take on the type of three-four ballad exemplified by Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman Do Right Man” and Janis Joplin’s “Maybe.” But despite the sharp production and a few flashes of inspiration, one can’t get away from the fact that the CD just plain sounds tired.

Pot City

The cover story of this week’s Time Out New York is about good places to go when you’re stoned. That’s right: high on marijuana, an illegal drug. Though it’s not exactly telling you to get high or where to get concentrates from, this is a big step for a news article to write about drug-related issues, namely marijuana. And despite a loose tie-in to the new TV show Weeds, the article really is what it purports to be. Hooray for freedom of the press, I say. They can’t take that away from us – not yet, anyway.

A sidebar notes that misdemeanor possession arrests are way down since 9-11, when the police discovered some (no pun intended) higher priorities. It also suggests that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t have a bug up his ass about pot the way his predecessor, the sainted Rudy Guiliani, did, and I’m inclined to agree. For a billionaire, Bloomberg’s pretty laid back. For that, and other more serious reasons, his re-election bid may be the first time in my life I vote for a Republican (or, in Bloomberg’s case, a “Republican”).

In a related development, this morning the Libertarian candidate for Brooklyn Borough President, Gary Popkin, approached me on the subway platform to get my signature on his candidacy petition. I signed, of course, though I disagree with parts of the Libertarian platform. Popkin’s website doesn’t mention anything about his views on the drug laws, but I’m guessing he’d be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana for medical use. That way, we’d definitely see more strains of marijuana with high CBD and low THC levels on the market; you can Visit this website to view these types. Decriminalizing marijuana is a big step, but definitely advantageous for many people who struggle with any medical issues. With the decriminalization of medical marijuana, perhaps even recreational use will be allowed and the stoners can enjoy an octopus bong to smoke out of legally. And if he wants to decriminalize it people will be able to get it without fear of police knocking on their door or a letter in the post, they’ll be able to get it from places such as and freely enjoy it in any form that it comes in.

Yesterday, Time Out New York’s special pothead issue; today, Libertarian ballot petitions. Coincidence? You decide.

CD Review: Helion Magister, Vaquero

Some music is just music. Whether it’s good, bad, or somewhere in between; interesting or boring; derivative or original, it’s just music. You listen; you like it, or not; if you do, maybe you listen again.

Then there’s that other kind of music, the kind that’s like the tip of an iceberg, or the nose of a starship emerging slowly from another dimension, or a feature film censored and watched on a black and white TV. Music with baggage. Music with a long tail like a comet.

Helion Magister is a new appellation for Michael Miner, who was an original member of the seminal San Francisco band The Great Society. Remembered today mainly for being the band Grace Slick left to join Jefferson Airplane (though the story was more complicated than that), The Great Society lasted but a year. It did, however, make some influential recordings, now rarities, which included – alongside the original version of Darby Slick’s classic “Someone to Love” – songs credited to one “D Minor,” the artist now known as Helion Magister (and Bullman Atavar Crowe and several other things).

Helion Magister has emerged after many decades with a new home-recorded CD on which he re-makes a couple of Great Society songs, adds some others in the same psychedelic rock vein (whether they’re new or have been knocking around for some time, no one knows) and branches out into the nuttier side of spoken-word noise-rock.

With the opening bars of the title track you know right where you are: back in 1966 San Francisco, tripping your brains out. A bluesy bass line, guitars twirling like spaghetti, tinkling hi-hat, and what sounds like a whip drive the incantatory vocals. “Daydream Nightmare Love” and “That’s How It Is” are re-imagined but recognizable versions of Great Society songs that in those days inclined towards Sonny-and-Cher pop – but don’t any more. In the former, vocal tradeoffs and tight harmonies evoke a sound familiar to fans of Jefferson Airplane, and a slightly loopy guitar solo boasts a playfulness evocative of Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Sam Andrew and James Gurley.

“Chick-A-Boom Baby” is driven by gutty bass, clanging guitar, banjo, and smokehouse harmonica (all played by Miner). It’s eight minutes long, with the structure of a song – lyrics, verses, and so on – but it fits no genre, nor does it need to. In this song it’s possible to forget the long tail, the baggage, the history. It’s just pure crazy original fun.

The Tejano-bluesy “Rock And Roll Is” closes out the psychedelic-rock section of the CD with Miner cawing “Rock and roll can still relieve your sorrow,” proving his own point. (Hey, it’s relieving my sorrow even now!) It sounds like Los Lobos if their instruments got wet and started shorting out but they kept playing.

Then come three songs that comprise a noise-rock sonata full of goofy raps, screeching sounds and funny voices: Spongebob Squarepants meets Captain Beefheart in a bowl of Green Jelly. There’s seems to be some kind of story about a highly disturbed married couple running through the three songs, but who cares when the third movement is called “Jello Butt.” The CD closes with a slow, entirely unclassifiable nine-minute opus mixing Jacques Brel, flamenco, Steve Hackett and some rather impressive multi-part madrigal singing.

Short but representative clips of all the songs are available at the Helion Magister website. If you are a fan of psychedelic music, or stuff that’s just “out there,” or what Miner curiously refers to as “good old rock and roll” – it’s worth a click.

And leave your baggage at home.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Sen. Rick Santorum. Among politicians, he’s unusually good at articulating the views of the Christian right, and he’s also willing to debate on the record.

Flogging his new book, It Takes a Family, on WNYC yesterday, Santorum accused the Left of promoting “radical individualism” at the expense of the family. The Right’s view of freedom, he said, was “a freedom with responsibility to something beyond yourself, a freedom to do not what you want to do – not simply “choice” – but the freedom to do what you ought to do.” Santorum admits that not all on the Right share this view. I assume he’s referring to the do-unto-others-and-then-the-hell-with-’em Corporate Right, which actually runs the US, but that’s a subject for another essay.

The Left, on the other hand, according to Santorum, defines freedom as personal autonomy, as encapsulated by the Supreme Court’s formulation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Santorum then presents his objection to the Court’s formulation:

People going around doing whatever they think is right is imposing a moral view on me… People doing whatever they want to do, and people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint, it’s a radically secular one, it is one that does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold… It is a decisively moral point of view. It’s one that I don’t agree with.

Let’s take a closer look at that argument. Santorum begins by taking a very questionable leap of logic. He infers that if you grant a right to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” one is also granting a right for people to be “going around doing whatever they think is right.” That’s a pretty distorted interpretation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Indeed, it’s not a big step from there to the kind of anti-science thinking that led to the persecution of Galileo among others. What the Court actually did is reassert the freedom of religion, using secular terms so as to also describe the broader freedom to think for oneself. Inherent in the Court’s statement, of course, is the idea that people may legitimately have opposing beliefs about “when life begins.”

Santorum’s clever tactic is to interpret the Court’s decision as an endorsement of moral relativism. And by claiming that “people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint” he makes it seem as if thinking for oneself is in itself a rigid belief system and, further, he implies that because humans who think for themselves may sometimes have immoral thoughts or reach morally questionable conclusions, the very act of thinking for oneself is morally suspect. Thus he redefines freedom of thought as something it is not (a point of view) and strikes out at that supposed point of view using his own “pro-family” beliefs.

His use of the phrase “radically secular” is telling. This phrase is meant to taint the neutral term “secular” with an extremist aura. That tactic didn’t work – in the long run, anyway – when the Moral Majority defined, and then set about beating up on, something they referred to as “secular humanism,” and ultimately talking about things being “radically secular” won’t work either, since – and Rick Santorum may not realize this – by and large religious people don’t feel threatened by the word “secular.”

Having misinterpreted an assertion of freedom as an endorsement of chaos, Santorum goes on to complain that it “does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold.” But the very “common values” of which he speaks arise from a specific interpretation of Christian morality (combined with a male-centric longing for a mom-and-pop America that never was) against which he sees an opposing “moral point of view” (thinking for oneself). Santorum wants to have it both ways. He wants to appear open-minded, willing to describe his morality as one among alternatives and open to discussion, but he also wants to dispense with those alternatives by redefining them as chaotic and amoral.

Not bad, Senator! I salute your obfuscatory abilities.

Blogcritics Reaches Milestone: 10,000,000 Unique Visitors

It’s insufferably hot here in NYC – because of global warming I suppose – but no major hurricanes have hit us – yet. And while the atmosphere cooks, so does the blogosphere: I’m happy to be a writer for a blog that just received its ten millionth unique visitor. Congratulations to Eric Olsen, the editors, and the Blogcritics writers.

In music news, the Soul of the Blues Festival is over, and it was an overall big success. Not that anyone wore overalls, but you get the picture.

Meanwhile, in Fort Greene, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Brooklyn, the recent opening of a “sex shop” on a busy commercial street left fans of rejoicing but also prompted this objection from an area resident: “To have what most people would associate with pornography right out there along with the basic services, it alarms them.” [Source: The Brooklyn Papers, July 23, 2005] That may be the worst objection to pornography I’ve ever heard. Porn may be all sorts of bad things, but for much of America, it’s nothing if not a “basic service,” find out here now the kind of porn Americans watch daily. There are millions of people across the world sitting at their computers accessing porn on websites such as Nu Bay but it is done so behind closed doors, it’s still a taboo subject even though it’s such a common past time.

There are also some adult porn websites that sound like they have child pornography images and videos on them because of what they are called, sites like, but these sites are 100% legal and only contain images and videos of adults.

And in the New York City suburb of Rye, at the famous Rye Playland amusement park, a little boy was murdered by gnomes and trolls. So don’t let anyone tell you monsters aren’t real.

Born in the USA, and Still Here…

People my age and older are always talking about how time is flying, how they can’t believe how fast the years go by. Now, I don’t know if my life is unusually chock-full of interesting content, or if there’s some other explanation, but it ain’t that way for me at all.

Oh, sure, I have occasional moments of time-telescoping. For example, I recently inherited a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, an album I had heard plenty back in the 80’s but never owned. Not remembering exactly when it had come out, I looked at the CD and saw 1984. Hey, that’s not so long ago, I thought: just a little more than ten years. Seems longer, somehow.


But sensations of the slow passage of time far exceed compressive experiences, for me, in both frequency and amplitude. Most of the time I find myself looking back at a recent event and thinking, I can’t believe that was only a week ago. And when I reflect on the fact that I’m 42, I don’t think, Holy crap, how did I get to be 42? No, what I’m thinking is, Whew. Half done!

Of course, if I keep eating healthy like I am, and step up my physical fitness a bit, I could end up living forever, like Ray Kurzweil promises. Hmm. Well, at least Mars has plenty of water. And low gravity, and lots of big mountains to climb. See you up there!

Soul of the Blues Festival

The Soul of the Blues Summer Festival is going extremely well. We’ve had three nights in a row of great music with enthusiastic audiences who are spending money – and we’re only just now getting to the weekend.

Props go to the Downstate New York Blues Assocation for not only hooking us up with some of Long Island’s best blues acts, but arranging for them to come and play our Festival even though we aren’t able to offer them a guarantee. Many of these highly accomplished regional acts rarely play in New York City for precisely the reason that clubs here can’t or won’t pay the talent except with a cut of the door. That’s just the way things are, and as a result, there’s a lot less blues in the greatest city in the world than there should be.

Our home for Soul of the Blues, Cornelia Street Cafe, is an ususually supportive venue for the arts. We appreciate – among other things – their toleration of music that gets a little rowdier (i.e. louder) and goes a little later than they’re used to. Long live the Soul of the Blues!

Details on this weekend’s Festival shows are here.

CD Review: Corey Harris, Daily Bread

Corey Harris has that rare ability to sound like himself and always at home no matter what musical veins he’s tapping. His spiritual-musical journeys to Africa, explorations of Caribbean styles, and American blues and soul roots all contribute to the smooth pleasures of his new CD.

It’s possible to appreciate this collection on two levels. You can listen for Harris’s scholarship (he was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s PBS series “The Blues” in 2003), observe his absorption and re-transmission of musical styles from all over the African Diaspora, identify the different roots – or you can just let it move and groove you. It may take a listen or two for the second approach to work, but Harris’s unprepossessing vocals and straightforward yet slinky songwriting run through the whole effort like ice in coffee, making it easy to adjust quickly to his wide-ranging palette.

The CD is heavy on reggae and ska jams, which are made extra sweet by Harris’s subtly artful arrangements and masterful variety of guitar sounds. But the soulful, down-and-dirty “A Nickel and a Nail” and the funny, Mali-inspired “Mami Wata” are more unusual and memorable. The snappy instrumental “Khaira” and langourous, vaguely Afropop-ish “Big String” are also stirring, in very different ways: even when Harris sings of lost love, terror or war, his melodies and music keep to a life-affirming mode. Only in the true love songs “The Sweetest Fruit” and “More Precious Than Gold” does his deft touch lose the faint, warm tension that makes most of this music so satisfying.

“The Bush Is Burning,” as you might guess from the title, raises the specter of terrorism and sharply condemns the Iraq war, but it’s the only overt political statement on the album. Elsewhere Harris hews to more spiritual or personal lines. He visits the blues tradition with “The Peach,” abetted by jazzman-turned-griot Olu Dara, who also adds some laid-back trumpet to two other tracks. The other contributing musicians are very good as well, most notably the percussionist Harry Dennis, Jr.

Recommended for fans of real soul music, “world music,” reggae, and most anyone who likes to groove.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

The Passion of the Right

Opponents of the death penalty may have finally found their “smoking gun” – a case in which an innocent person may have been executed.

Many people have been exonerated while on death row, but the United States has never had a case in which an executed person was later proven innocent. Now, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, St. Louis’s top prosecutor has decided to reopen the case of Larry Griffin, who was executed ten years ago for the murder of a drug dealer. A reappraisal of the evidence has indicated that others may have been responsible for the crime.

The death penalty is the prime example of a public policy based on passion rather than reason. It has been shown time and time again that the death penalty does not deter crime. Rather, it exists in many U.S. states because executing those guilty of heinous crimes fulfils a basic desire – both individual and societal – for revenge.

The thoroughly understandable animal instinct to strike back in kind against someone who has attacked you or your loved ones can be opposed only by reason. Opposition to the death penalty, common among liberals, is sometimes based on emotion or religious convictions. But unlike the pro-death penalty position, it can also be based on reason. In that sense it follows a pattern I have noticed in many domestic issues of the day, namely, that the political differences between “right” and “left” (or “conservative” and “liberal”) often map closely to the human mind’s perpetual internal conflict between instinct and reason.

The Terry Schiavo affair was a case in point. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s “professional” opinion based on viewing a video was – even if we are generous and view Frist sympathetically rather than cynically – an example of emotion trumping reason. In spite of his medical training, Frist, along with many other Americans, had an emotional response to seeing Ms. Schiavo apparently smiling and following an object with her eyes. Reason was represented in this case by the various medical professionals who had actually examined Ms. Schiavo over the course of her vegetative state.

Opposition to gay marriage, a position generally identified with a conservative point of view, makes no rational sense. It’s based either on religious belief or on gut feeling rooted in fear of the unknown or the different. Reason tells us that increasing the pool of people who are allowed to marry should, at best, strengthen the institution of marriage, and at worst, have no effect on married heterosexuals. (To test this statement, try to think of a possible rational basis for a married heterosexual to think that gay marriages could threaten his or her own traditional marriage in any way.)

Fear of the unknown and the different is a ubiquitious and instinctive part of human nature; only reason can overcome it. In this case, as in others, the liberal line is more closely aligned with reason, while the conservative position arises from faith (the opposite of reason) or, at its worst, prejudice and hatred.

To be sure, liberals often cleave to their positions out of passions just as strong as those found on the other side. I am certainly not out to condemn the passions – without them we wouldn’t be human. It would not be possible to strive for social justice, for example, without a mix of idealism (fed by passions) and policymaking based on reason. But the difference I have begun to perceive is that where many social issues are concerned, though both points of view have their attendant passions, only the liberal position can claim reason on its side.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Purify, Better To Have It

More than one man has worn the moniker “Bobby Purify” since the southern soul duo James and Bobby Purify – best known for its smash hit “I’m Your Puppet” – began its career in the mid-1960s. Though singer-guitarist Ben Moore wasn’t on board at the start, he’s been Bobby Purify for the past three and a half decades, and has now come out of retirement with an excellent new CD under the Bobby Purify name.

Produced by Dan Penn, the set consists of original songs composed mostly by the team of Penn, Carson Whitsett and Hoy “Bucky” Lindsey, laid down by Muscle Shoals luminaries including keyboardist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Jimmie Johnson, and sung with tender, good-natured soulfulness by Moore, who’s lost none of his smoky vocal lustre and gift for lyrical interpretation. From the gospel organ at the start of the title track to the Al Green-style “Things Happen” and the achy defiance of the Moore-penned “What’s Old To You,” the CD proves that old-style soul music lives on beyond the realm of nostalgia.

Purify and the writing team are adept at love ballads (“Forever Changed”) and social commentary (“Nobody’s Home”). The funkified “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” and the heartbreaker “Hate To See You Go” are also solid. And “The Pond” is a hilarious dog-eat-dog tale that reminds me of something Leon Russell might have come up with.

This CD is an enjoyable listen through and through, with plenty of well-crafted “songs of experience” and the rich, warm, classically soulful vocals you’d expect from Bobby Purify, who belongs in the pantheon of great southern soul singers. I’ll let Jerry Wexler (from his liner notes) have the last word: “Mr. Purify, along with his gospel and blues qualities, has that touch of the South and that pinch of country that puts him in the great lineage of the down-home r&b singers from below the Mason-Dixon line: the Arthur Alexanders, the Joe Simons, the Percy Sledges, the Clarence Carters – and yes, dare I say it, the Otis Reddings.”

NOTE: While the many comebacks, reissues and new soul music releases of the past couple of years may not constitute a full-fledged soul revival, they make it clear that the music is still here and ain’t goin’ nowhere. And that’s more than fine by me. The following are links to my recent articles on some other notable examples:

Janis Joplin
Victor Wooten
The O’Jays
Willie Hightower
W. C. Clark
Keb’ Mo’
Richard “Groove” Holmes
Gail Ann Dorsey

And allow me to plug the the upcoming SOUL OF THE BLUES SUMMER FESTIVAL in NYC, July 26-31, 2005, which I have organized with the help of the Downstate NY Blues Association. Readers in the area, please come by – I’d love to meet you.

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

This time around, from my mailbox to your computer screen, we’ve got Heartlanders, Hornicators, and the (so far, anyway!) Acoustic Album of the Year. Read on, dear listeners, for here is the one and only…

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 30 2005

Thomas Truax, Audio Addiction

Thomas Truax invents his own instruments, which in itself makes him worth a listen. With contraptions like the Cadillac Beatspinner Wheel and the hornicator, interesting and amusing sounds seem inevitable. I suspect Truax is better experienced live, however, than on CD. The eccentric material he writes to show off his odd contraptions and offbeat sense of humor is only intermittently fun and clever.

“My Wife Had a Dream,” one of the better numbers, boasts something of the geek-chic pioneered by the Residents and Kraftwerk and popularized by Thomas Dolby, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. “The Butterfly & the Entomologist” is a moody, surrealistic spoken-word tale featuring the aforementioned Beatspinner. As a piece of music, it suggests the echo of some obscure PJ Harvey wail, but once you’ve absorbed the unique sounds of Truax’s instruments, you may find the piece lasting several minutes longer than necessary.

“The Fish,” a hornicator feature with vocals and lyrics that seem to consciously evoke the B-52s (and Fred Schneider’s vocal style) is like a B-52s song minus the song. “Hornicator On The Orient Express,” which has no singing, is actually a better feature for the instrument, along with others both standard and unique – from violin to wind-up mobile – and what Truax and his collaborators can do with them. “When You Get Down” is a jaunty little tale of sexuality unbound, with a Peer Gynt quote that jumps right out at you, and “Swappin’ Spit” has some macabre drama to it. But on the whole, this music is more about the medium than the message.

Truax is currently on tour in Britain. I‘d look forward to seeing a live show when he gets back to New York, because it looks as if the stage is where the real Thomas Truax action is at.

Danielle Miraglia, Nothing Romantic

Danielle Miraglia’s country/folk/blues sound descends in large part from Mississippi John Hurt, and she is a worthy carrier of that guitar-picking tradition. Her voice, reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s, is strong but vulnerable, feminine but never precious, with a gutwrenching catch to it. Her guitar playing is both accomplished and soulful, and her songs tap into the ur-melodies and fundamental chord changes that form the essence of western music, while still saying something in a distinct and original voice.

Both as a writer and as a musician Miraglia maintains a deep connection to traditional styles of playing and singing. The folky “Snow Globe,” with only her guitar-picking as accompaniment, may be the saddest and best song about self-imposed isolation since Simon and Garfunkel’s “I am a Rock.” From its sparse beauty Miraglia segues into the draggy blues of “Sell My Soul,” the obligatory “I wanna be a star” confessional every highly talented, unjustly obscure singer-songwriter has to write. It has the kind of dirty-blues feel John Hiatt mined a few years ago on his masterful Crossing Muddy Waters album.

Normally I’m not much for feel-good folk weepies, but it’s hard to resist “Moment By Moment” with its earworm of a chorus and Kevin So lending backing vocal and keyboard support. “Say One Thing” is yet another winner, a harshly funny indictment of hypocrisies large and small:

Said the blind man, This is how I see it
Said the stalker, If you love that bird then free it
Said the white-hooded man, Love your brother
Say one thing and do another

Miraglia’s lyrics are full of such pithiness. “Better,” a clever and bouncy country-folk love song, leads into her masterpiece, “You Don’t Know Nothin’,” one of the best new folk songs I’ve heard in years. Its depiction and dissection of human misunderstanding is both sharp and tender. All you need to know about what drives people apart and what draws them together can be witnessed in a few hours spent in a bar. Many of us feel something along those lines, but Danielle Miraglia is that rare songwriter who can put it into words.

Returning to the country-blues groove, but in a minor key, “Cry” is literally about the grim frustration of being an infant who can’t communicate her feelings. Perhaps metaphorically it’s about artistic expression, but the lyrics draw such vivid pictures there’s no need to reach for meaning. It’s a fitting subject for a songwriter who’s so good at getting to the roots of things: what could be more rootsy than infancy?

The title track sounds like a traditional country shuffle about life on the road, and for the most part it is, but it turns the cliched American “romance of the highway” on its head: “There nothing romantic about a highway/No big revelations, nothing new/And I can write a road song any day/There’s nothing romantic about missing you.” Then, in “The Only Way to Win,” the protagonist pleads amusingly for misfortune and heartache so she can write great songs, sing the blues with authenticity and become a star.

In the pretty closer, “The Wind,” Miraglia sings folk with authenticity. But it’s the kind of song any reasonably talented folkie could have come up with. Danielle Miraglia’s talents go far beyond that modest level. This CD kicks Americana ass.

Available at shows and at CD Freedom.

Danielle Miraglia is performing at the Soul of the Blues Summer Festival in New York City on the night of July 28.

Rob Russell & the Sore Losers, Lucky On The Side

Shouting like Phil Lynott, worldly and passionate like John Mellencamp, Rob Russell wails his heart out in every song on this CD. But lots of singers can wail; you still need good songs, and these guys have some really fine ones. If there were still a radio format that played straight-ahead grown-up rock, the insistently catchy opening track, “What Do You Know,” would be a hit.

“American Bastard” is a pumped-up (in fact, slightly overblown) evocation of the musical life:

I’m just the bastard of ceremonies
Singing with a fair degree of acrimony
How am I gonna please a bunch of drunks like these?

It’s pretty good, but the CD’s second real standout track is “Swing Swing,” a gorgeous power ballad with a Springsteen-like harmonica intro and a passionate intensity all Russell’s own.

“The Great Depression” and “After the Flood” are workmanlike heartland rockers with an Eagles influence. Even in these less hooky songs, Russell’s vocals lift the work a notch above typical rock. “It’s Time,” a very Eagles-like midtempo ballad, is a good example of Russell’s ability to invest plainspoken lyrics that might look cliched on the page with intense emotion.

All these walls of silence and sound
We build them up,
we burn them down
Got to build a home on solid ground
I think it’s time

Russell delivers vocals like these as if both his life and yours depended on you understanding every word. Throughout this CD, his keen tenor catches the ear and won’t let go.

The melodies and harmonies in “Believer” sound pleasingly Mellencampy, but the best slow song next to “Swing Swing” is the lovely, jangly country-folk tune “World Turns Blue.” “Cured” and “Hey Hey Hey,” for their part, tread the middle ground between heartland and southern rock, and that’s for the most part where Rob Russell and the Sore Losers have positioned themselves. Not all their songs click perfectly, but the best ones are very good, and few bands have the benefit of such an emotionally gripping singer. The band robustly backs up Russell’s powerful voice; the whole production sounds solidly live and up-front, though the album clearly doesn’t have the benefit of a major label production budget.

Available, with extended samples, at CD Baby.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Janis Joplin, Pearl: Legacy Edition

Pearl was Janis Joplin’s final, and sadly posthumous, studio release. As the album was being recorded in the Fall of 1970, several signs pointed to a positive turnaround in Janis’s life. She had cleaned up her drug habits at least partially, assembled a band (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) exactly to her liking, and begun moving in a new, mature musical direction all her own. She had also finally found a producer, Paul Rothchild, who – as road manager John Cooke describes it in his liner notes to the new Pearl – Legacy Edition – “was unlike any producer she had worked with before… working with him was the best experience of her recording career.”

Plenty has been written about Pearl and I wouldn’t venture to have anything significantly new to say. I’ll just mention that if you haven’t listened to Janis for some time, it’s worth revisiting her last studio album. There will always be some die-hards who think Janis never should have left Big Brother, and there will always be those whose favorite album is I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama, but the fact is, for as long as she lived Janis was always a work in progress. Maybe she always would have been. Pearl represented the summit of her self-creation to that point, and it was the only studio album she truly enjoyed making.

The bonus tracks here include the fascinating demo version of “Me And Bobby McGee” from the Columbia/Legacy Janis release, where you can hear the artist in the process of developing the vocal parts she burned permanently into popular culture just over a month later with the studio recording that ended up on the album. There’s also an alternate version of “Cry Baby” with a longer, goofier rap than the album track – it’s not as tight, but shows that good times were being had in the studio. A previously unreleased alternate take of “My Baby” seems incomplete without the final version’s backing vocals but it is interesting to hear a work in progress almost ready to be served. There’s also an instrumental called “Pearl” which the band recorded after Janis died. This has never before been issued, and it’s a beautiful and poignant tribute.

The fruit of Janis’s successful collaboration with Rothchild and the new band is evident on the album, but the live feel captured on Pearl was, necessarily, not an exact match to the band’s sound in concert. The recent release of a film of the Festival Express tour, in which Janis (with Full Tilt Boogie), the Grateful Dead, The Band, Buddy Guy and others travelled together by train across Canada in June-July 1970, stopping for several concerts, provided some excellent documentary evidence of Janis’s musical development during her last year on the planet. Now, with the two-disc Legacy Edition, a full collection of live Festival Express recordings is readily available. Together with Pearl itself and the bonus studio tracks, the Festival Express recordings comprise a worthy document of the tragically brief, explosive final phase in the career of a singer who was so ahead of her time we may never catch up.

About half the Festival Express tracks on Disc 2 haven’t been released before. The rest have appeared on various live collections over the years. They’re a little tinny-sounding overall, but the band’s energy and prowess is evident, the quality of the vocals satisfyingly warm and close. The present release is valuable both for the new tracks and for having them all collected in one place in a sensible sequence, giving a better picture of a Full Tilt Boogie Band concert than has been previously available.

The frenetically fast “Tell Mama” is a testament to the band’s chops, but also includes a Janis rap that takes the audience up, down, sideways and everywhere in between. Whatever drugs the musicians were taking that made them play that fast didn’t interfere with Janis’s virtuoso ability to play the audience like an instrument.

“Half Moon,” from the same Toronto show, also gets the speed-demon treatment, but ends with a spacy, jazzy twist. Like The Band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and other top bands of the time, Full Tilt Boogie succeeded (as its predecessor, the Kozmic Blues Band, didn’t) in solidifying as a group, melding top-notch musicianship with a loose but controlled energy that matched Janis’s.

“Move Over” and “Maybe” got straightforward treatments at the Calgary and Winnipeg concerts respectively, and the previously unreleased “Summertime” from Winnipeg is masterful in its way, though only loosely rooted in Sam Andrew’s innovative Big Brother arrangement. Janis’s vocals here show her own mature, serious, intensely focused, innovative spirit. Always famous for taking existing songs and making them uniquely her own, Janis with the Full Tilt Boogie Band not only put her own stamp on these compositions but made them into masterpieces of originality, no longer needing the crutch of her old Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates, who had matched Janis in exploratory spirit but not in charismatic genius. Full Tilt Boogie, by contrast, was entirely Janis’s vision – this band did exactly and only what she wanted. And with them Janis took rock and blues and soul to places only she could have imagined.

Janis’s version of “Little Girl Blue” is so much her own it’s practically unrecognizable, but that’s well known from the studio version. “That’s Rock ‘N Roll,” a propulsive but unremarkable jam showing off the band, leads into “Try,” where, in talking to the audience, Janis sounds stoned or drunk; then she slurs powerfully (a contradiction in terms for anyone but Janis) through an anthemic rendition – already known to fans from the Janis Joplin in Concert album – of her signature compostion, “Kozmic Blues.”

I’ve never liked Janis’s later renditions of “Piece of My Heart.” She and the band rush through this one as if it were just a tired hit – and perhaps that’s how it seemed to them, a song from an earlier era played only to please fans. (Compare it to Big Brother’s eye-opening version on Live at Winterland ’68, when the song was exciting to the band and new to the audience.) During this “Piece of My Heart” from two years later, even Janis’s singing seems tired.

Clearly, that perfunctory concert closer was going to be followed by some hellacious encores. An extended version of “Cry Baby” was the first. Initially sounding exhausted and flat, Janis nevertheless clearly had her heart in this performance, especially in the long central rap, where she wrapped her blues-mama sermon-blanket over the audience. “Get It While You Can” and “Ball and Chain” made suitably titanic final encores. During the latter, Janis preached a message which it helps to bear in mind when we listen to this work from her last blast and wish she’d lived to sing another day. “Tomorrow never happens,” she tells us. “It’s all the same f*cking day, man.”

That goes for yesterday, too.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

CD Review: Bobby Pinson, Man Like Me

There aren’t too many things more American than a set of songs delivered in a country-western twang, with hard-edged guitars, a dose of Jesus, and lyrics about cars and growing up. That’s Bobby Pinson‘s recipe, and projected through his gutsy songwriting and soaring, slightly unpolished baritone, it’s a winning combination.

Unlike a lot of Nashville “product,” Pinson’s new, self-penned CD feels uncompromised. Take out the twang and a lot of this material would be right at home on a John Mellencamp album, but that doesn’t make it any less authentically “country.” The songs are sentimental but (almost) never cloying, with classic melodies, well-crafted lyrics full of life lessons and Springsteenesque storytelling, and a thrumming country-rock kick. The first single, “Don’t Ask Me How I Know,” is a witty example of a “list” song, its funny and poignant items pregnant with vivid experience that develop from the humorous to the touchingly sad:

Don’t ride your bike off a ramp that’s more than three bricks high
Don’t take that candy from the store if you ain’t got the dime
Don’t pick a fight with the little guy that doesn’t talk that much…
Don’t ask me how I know…
Don’t rush off the phone when your momma calls
You ain’t that busy
You ought to make that drive to say goodbye
To your grandpa before he goes
Don’t ask me how I know

Complete with a guitar riff that echoes Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” and a climactic minor chord, “Don’t Ask Me” could become a classic.

The title track is a more contemplative expression of the life-lessons theme:

Let your buddy leave a party
And don’t ask him for his keys
Rest that casket on the shoulder where your best friend used to lean…
That’s how you make a boy become
More than just his father’s son.

But this honky-tonk Polonius is more than an everyman-preacher. Other highlights include the elemental growing-up tale “I’m Fine Either Way” and the Eagle-esque lost-love rocker “Way Down.” “One More Believer” is a slightly sappy but effective religious song that only the most militant of atheists could fail to appreciate. “Started a Band” is a catchy, humorous take on the ups and down of trying to make it in music.

Anyone who mines this standard territory risks over-sentimentality and cliche, and Pinson slides a little too far in that direction in “Ford Fairlane” and “Shadows of the Heartland.” But these are exceptions. Nearly all the songwriting on this album is solid, and some of it is sparkling.

Pinson’s voice combines the heft of Bruce Springsteen with the plaintive catch of Townes Van Zandt. It’s an instrument perfectly suited for his formula: four parts old-fashioned subject matter straight from the heart, one part modern angst.

Highly recommended for fans of country music, roots-rock, heartland rock, and good storytelling via song.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Americana Goes Hollywood

For the first time in its four-year run, the Americana Music Honors & Awards will be broadcast to 37 million homes via the GAC (Great American Country) cable TV network this Fall. Hosted by two-time award winner Jim Lauderdale at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, the awards show will be taped on Friday, September 9, 2005 at 7 PM, and broadcast Monday, September 26, 2005 at 8 PM ET. GAC also plans repeat showings.

Though it may appear to be just another awards show, the nationwide broadcast of the Americana Music Association’s annual festivities is a strong indication that the somewhat hard-to-define genre is here to stay. Americana may indeed be more accurately described as a musical movement rather than a genre. As the Association describes it:

Americana is American roots music based on the traditions of country. While the musical model can be traced back to the Elvis Presley marriage of hillbilly and R&B that birthed rock ‘n’ roll, Americana as a radio format developed during the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that defined the mainstream music of that decade. By also including influences ranging from folk to bluegrass to blues and beyond, Americana handily bridges the gap between Triple A radio and mainstream country.

The key phrase there is “a reaction to the highly polished sound” of mainstream country & western music. Americana artists may be, and often are, just as fine musicians as the famed Nashville “studio cats” you’ll hear on the latest Faith Hill crossover nightmare, but their music isn’t all about slick perfection, it’s about a simpler feel and lyrical authenticity. Unlike the period-instruments movement in classical music, however, Americana is not meant to re-create traditional music, but to suggest the honest, rootsy sounds of those idioms using modern, if generally stripped-down, instrumentation. This week’s chart, for example, is headed by John Prine (who, interestingly, significantly predates the term “Americana”), and also includes black-sheep country singer Dwight Yoakum, Bruce Springsteen’s latest, Shelby Lynne, Loudon Wainwright, and even blues diva Marcia Ball.

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

INDIE ROUND-UP for June 16 2005

Sonya Heller, Fourth Floor

Fluid melodies, sultry, jazz-inflected vocals and introspective, literate lyrics define Sonya Heller’s most recent CD, Fourth Floor. The tunes meander too much to be pop and the writing’s too folky to be jazz; instead Heller hits a sophisticated sweet spot somewhere in between. The CD’s mood is pretty steady throughout, but her vocal range and flights of fancy keep it interesting.

Her supporting musicians, especially producer Hui Cox, make important contributions to the sophisticated sound of this recording, but it’s Heller’s softly funky acoustic guitar and controlled, tranquil, yet worldly and sometimes experimental vocals that drive the music. Think Joni Mitchell meets David Crosby on the shady side of Annie Lennox Street.

Rick Cusick, East

Rick Cusick gets some comparisons to Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews, but I don’t get the Johnson comparison: Cusick has a much less rootsy style, doesn’t have Johnson’s sexy voice, and writes more interesting songs. He does share a certain laid-back grooviness with Matthews. But much of his rock has a seventies vibe more reminiscent of Peter Frampton, the Moody Blues, or a young Billy Joel. And – with the exception of “Radio Waves,” an up-to-date complaint about radio station consolidation – the lyrics have an old-fashioned, idealistic quality, as if from a more innocent time.

This works better in some songs than others. The romantic and reflective songs, like “Light I Light,” “Falling Into You” and the overlong “Ride,” are too syrupy for my taste. I like better the ones that carry more musical tension and some darkness, even if they’re less hooky, like “East,” “Osokin” and especially “Dream.” Cusick is best at these wordy story-songs. He does overreach a bit in the sprawling epic “Afraid,” where his characteristic disconnected imagery crosses the line from evocative to unfocussed. But “Go For Better Love” is a different kind of exception, an irresistible if lyrically jumbled pop nugget.

Although Cusick puts plenty of passion into his strong, clear tenor, the voice itself sometimes has a closed-off quality that prevents him from achieving the full earthiness of a Graham Nash or the immediacy of a Dave Matthews. Even so, this ambitious and well-produced effort pays dividends. Extended song samples are available here.

Elisa Korenne, Favorite

Singer-songwriter Elisa Korenne has been making the coffeehouse circuit, but on her new album she shows her true colors as a rocker. Like Paula Cole or Sheryl Crow, she melds rock with singer-songwriter pop in a balanced recipe. She doesn’t just graft rock guitar tracks onto her songs – she can actually write rock tunes.

“Find My Strength” is an example, and it probably seemed like an appropriate opening track because of its “hear me roar” theme and tribal beat, but it lacks a punchy hook. The up-tempo alt-rocker “Road Trance” with its Alice In Chains-style chorus and Beatlesque ending has much more hit potential and a modern sound. And the strong rocker “Marrow,” because it shows instead of tells, succeeds where “Find My Strength” doesn’t in establishing the artist’s persona as a powerful woman to be reckoned with.

That is no small matter. One hears a lot these days about how “chicks rock,” but the fact is, notwithstanding mini-movements like riot grrl, when it all shakes out it becomes clear that few chicks actually rock. Or perhaps it would be better put this way: chicks don’t rock nearly as much as they would if I ran the world. That’s why it’s so satisfying to hear an artist writing real rock songs and imposing her will on the genre rather than merely trying it on or playing at it. The world would be a better place if more women were less afraid to write (or declare): “I want to know you inside-out/Let me be a parasite/So I can love you with all my might…/I need emotion to feed my soul/I know emotion’s hiding in your bones/I want your marrow.” That’s strong stuff, especially from a white, female, non-blues artist.

Korenne does try on other styles, and they fit pretty well. “Flirt With Me” is a pleasing, grungy jazz number, and “Instead” is a gorgeous original folk song about lost love, sung in perfect a capella harmonies. The heartland ballad “Butte” and the clever, circusy trifle “Andy the Lightbulb Eater” both work nicely. I’m not sure what “About” is about – maybe its lyrics are beyond my dimwitted male understanding – but it’s a fine ballad. “Honest Lies” isn’t as memorable but has the penetrating line: “Nothing’s more seductive/Than being seen right through.”

The title track is an uncharacteristic lapse into limp female singer-songwriter cutesiness, only partially rescued by producer and multi-instrumentalist Danielle A. Weiss’s harmonica solo. Overall, this is a very strong album. The only real problem is that Korenne’s voice doesn’t have the heft to get the most out of her material. I expect if she strengthened her voice she could cut loose with it more: both her rockers and her ballads would benefit, and she could really wipe the floor with the Ani DiFranco clones and Joni Mitchell wannabees of the world, not to mention the males in the audience who might make the mistake of thinking Elisa Korenne was just another pretty face on the stage.

Song samples available here.


Item! Classical-fusion duo Chris and Adelmo, who meld opera and pop forms into a new and unique musical experience, held a standing-room-only kickoff recital last night with guests including crossover star Sasha Lazard, Antonique Smith of Rent fame, and Venezuelan pianist-phenomenon Vanessa Perez. Chris and Adelmo’s demo can be heard here. They are seeking marketing ideas, new material, and arrangers.

Item! Reclusive British singer/songwriter Vashti Bunyan is deep into the recording of her first new album since 1970’s “Just Another Diamond Day.” Vashti’s new album will feature original material written in recent years or during the recording. The new CD is expected out on DiCristina Staircase late this year.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]