Sunday, December 7, 2014

The year in pop music: a ten best list for 2014

These were the CDs I enjoyed listening to the most this year. These all stayed in my car CD player for long stretches of time and bore up to repeated listenings. Not everyone will enjoy each of these picks. But if you read carefully, you're likely to find something that will make you glad youpurchased it or you might find something here to stuff in your family's Christmas stockings.

Happy listening!

1) The War on Drugs: “Lost in the Dream.” This album was released in March and has been in heavy rotation in my car ever since. It’s the band’s third and most fully realized album.  Starting with the epic two-chord romp "Under the Pressure," Adam Granducial and the band offer a mesmorizing collection of entirely engaging rock songs. They tend to start with predictable rock instrumentation but blossom into more interesting set pieces that feature floating ambient passages, assorted blasts of brass instruments and synthesizers. Songs like "Red Eyes" and the gorgeous "An Ocean in Between the Waves" channel the energy of Bruce Springsteen with the introspective navel-gazing of Jackson Browne’s most introspective songs. The album’s ten songs are a sprawling pastiche of deceptively simple yet utterly unforgettable reflections on modern living. "Lost in the Dream" is a meandering masterpiece of shifting moods and dreamy vibes, always anchored by Granducial’s guitar. 

2) Ought. "More Than Any Other Day". This Montreal-based post-punk band had one of the most explosive debuts of the year. My son and I caught their sparsely populated set at Johnny Brenda's for just $8 and thought we were seeing the Talking Heads, circa 1978 at CBGBs. It won't be so easy (or so cheap) to see them next time around. The energy they brought to their high-powered rock n' roll set was exhilerating to witness. The band takes a collaborative approach to their songs. They tend to start slowly and gradually build to climatic crescendoes of slashing dissonance and vocal angst. Tim Beeler's vocals (like David Byrne's) may grate on some ears, but there's never any doubt he's totally invested in the performance of the song. "More Than Any Other Day" rocks harder than any CD I heard all year. 

3) Sturgill Simpson, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. This is the second Simpson album release this year. The album’s title clearly borrows from the landmark Ray Charles' country set. But the musical precedents he’s channeling are Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Jimmy Webb. The album’s first single, “Turtles All the Way” takes an unpredictable and somewhat disconcerting psychedelic approach that works surprisingly well considering the genre Simpson is working in. His rich baritone and his phrasing sound as if he’s been taking voice lessons from Jamey Johnson. If you don’t like your country music in its most distilled form, you probably won’t dig Sturgill Simpson. But if Willie, Waylon and the boys are still rattling around your memory bank, you’ll love this one.

4) Ex-Hex. Rips. In her earlier work with Autoclave and Helium and, more recently, Wild Flag, Mary Timoney’s virtuosic guitar work always threw up in-your-face riffs that reeked of snarky confidence. If you loved her then, you’ll really  love her new album with an old collective known as Ex-Hex, who debuted in 2005 and has been on hiatus since. A punky, feminist romp, “Rips” is an economical, throwback to classic rock albums on the 1970s. This one is similar to Elvis Costello’s first record. Every song is a gem and all 12 of them clock in under 35 minutes.  Highlights include “Hot and Cold,” “You’ll Fall Apart” and “New Kid”. But trying to pick just three cuts off an album of 12 great blistering rock and roll songs is like choosing which fingers you want to slice off your hand.  “Rips” rips.   

5) Beck. Morning Phase. It’s been six years since Beck released an album. He had some serious health issues that kept him from working or recording in the interim, but the time off seemed to add layer of reflection that’s been missing from his songwriting since “Sea Change,” his most introspective record. Like that one, “Morning Phases” shows a more philosophical side of Beck that makes this latest recording a distinct pleasure to hear many times. “Sea Change” broke from Beck’s heavy use of sampling and electronic gimmicks an acoustic presentation of the songs. So, too, does “Morning Phases.” The songs possess a warmer, gentler tone and show the subtle side of an artist who destined for the rock n’ roll hall. “Cycle,” “Morning” and “Waking Light” are songs to start the day with.

6) Teddy Thompson. Family.  Just last month Teddy Thompson (Richard and Linda’s son) released his latest collaborative project, called “Family.” His mother and father and his sister, Kami, all contribute songs to the record, as do Kami’s husband (James Walbourne) and their stepbrother, Jack Thompson, from Richard’s second marriage. In an interview with the New York Times, Teddy said “at first, I thought it would be fun and easy,” but he soon realized “I was definitely trying to repair some kind of damage.” Kami, in the same story, said the family reunion concept was “like a family song-writing competition – it’s a bloody nightmare. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?” If “Shoot Out the Lights” (a ‘70s classic five-star recording ) was the Thompson’s truth about their divorce, “Family” shows that they’ve weathered the emotional storm just fine. 

7) Temples. Sun Structures. The nostalgic trip-fest of the year goes to this debut CD from Temples, a band from Kettering, England. Lead by guitarist and vocalist James Bagshaw, the Temples’ template takes 1967 psychedelic era pop and reinvents it, adding layers of sonic tricks that are pleasurable if a tad polished. Their best songs sound like T. Rex at their glittery finest but on a few others, the sheer studio sheen makes it seem as if the band is trying a little too hard to replicate a ‘60s pop confection. I caught their gig at the Union Transfer and the band pushed the songs forward with a gritty, guitar attack that suited their material better. “Shelter Song,” the title track and “Mesmerize” all sound like top of the pops chart-toppers from the late ‘60s. Temples is a band to watch.

8) Allo Darlin’ – We Come From the Same Place. Anglo-Australian band Allo Darlin' released their third album this year and it’s another batch of well-crafted, hook-laden songs written by Elizabeth Morris, the band’s songwriter and lead singer. She’s supported here with effortless ease by her band but it’s Morris’s show and she delivers these introspective, anecdotal stories with lines that sound like tossed-off couplets but reel you in close for a hard look at her heart. “I wanted to impress you, and I think you knew” she sings in “Kings and Queens”.  There are the idiosyncratic characteristics here, especially her use of the ukulele as a center point for some songs,  but the band behind her rocks hard. This is an immensely likable pop album, reminiscent of Joni Mitchell in her prime.  

9) The Antlers. Familiars.  On “Familiars”, The Antlers abandon the electronic influences that informed the Brooklyn band’s first two records, 2011’s “Burst Apart” and 2009 “Hospice”, opting  for a jazzier vibe that showcases a reliance on horns. Peter Silberman’s controlled falsetto remains one The Antler’s most compelling assets. There’s not a cut on the album that one might hear on top 40 radio, and that’s meant as a compliment.  Nine compelling cuts that bring you to another world and craft a soundtrack that just needs the right movie to find its audience. The Antlers seem like one of the most interesting bands making music today.

10 Roseanne Cash, The River & The Thread. Cash’s string of terrific CDs released in the last seven or eight years continues on this well-crafted set that has flown under the radar since it was released in January. (I didn’t discover its many charms until about a month ago.) Much of her most recent work was imbued with a sense of memory and grief, coming on the heels of the death of her mother and her iconic father. The River & the Thread finds the veteran Nashville songwriter crafting songs of immense detail and emotion she delivers in her trademark plaintive voice. The uptempo rocker “Modern Blue”sounds like an outtake from her classic “King’s Record Store” but the rest of the record travels down blues and folk roads, with the able contributions from her husband, John Leventhal. "A Feather's Not a Bird" and "Etta's Tune" are highlights.

In alphabetical order, here are some CDs that almost made my end of the year list: Anansy Cissy, "Mali Overdrive"; Gary Clark, Jr., “Live”; Joe Henry, “Invisible Hour”; Parquet Courts, “Sun-bathing Animals”; Cookie Rabinowitz, “Four-Eyed Soul”. Spoon, "They Want My Soul", St. Vincent, "St. Vincent"; U.S. Rails, "Heartbreak Superstar"; Sharon Van Etten "Are We There"; Woods, “With Light & With Love”.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The right-wing uproar over President Obama's "latte salute": why I vote Democratic

By now most of you may have heard the president "disrespected" the military and the American flag when he disembarked from the presidential helicopter earlier this week and tried to salute two Marines standing at attention at the bottom of the chopper's exit ramp with a cup of coffee in his hand.

The rightwing propaganda machine went into overdrive outrage mode, castigating the president for this slip-up. The film clip of this incident is about  20 seconds long and nothing in American politics short of  Zapruder's footage of the assassination of President Kennedy has been discussed and dissected as much as this innocent moment.

I happened to be speaking about television news ethics in my "Introduction to Mass Media" class this week. Coverage of the president's "latte salute" incident served as a perfect example of all that is wrong with national TV news coverage. It ignores the most important aspects of public policy and it inflates, out of all rational proportion, the most trivial things that transpire.

In short, this incident has been used as an attempt to serve a far right-wing agenda (Fox News) or to chase high ratings and advertizing dollars (ABC, NBC, CBS). In either case, the national networks do not serve democracy. The root of our national conundrum is that America's TV media are owned by large corporations that are more interested in generating  mega-profits than in protecting the public interest.

President Obama's latte salute was the subject of a blistering battle of words and ideology on the Facebook page of a former fraternity brother who lives in Louisiana.  The fact that he resides in one of the reddest of red states (a state steeped in a legacy of racism) made the interchange between his Facebook friends particularly interesting and angry. One of the comments on the thread suggested Obama's salute was unpatriotic and showed disrespect of both the military and our nation's flag. 

After a day of bile and abuse, my fraternity brother decided his thread was "toxic" and promised to take it down. I wanted to get in one last response to his GOP friends before it was abandoned. My post was an appeal to GOP voters in Louisiana to consider voting Democratic in the November elections.

I want to reach out to Dave's Republican friends with some food for thought from an East Coast liberal. If this makes one or two of you think about your voting choices in the upcoming election, so much the better. 

There are lots of things to dislike the President for. Let me name three off the top of my head. One: He didn't include a public option in his Affordable Care Act. This might have saved hundreds of millions of middle class Americans money when they have to see a doctor. Think how much you save when you mail a letter to California if you use the U.S. Postal Service instead of FedEx or UPS and you'll get the idea. 

Two: Every time he orders the execution of an American with a drone, he ignores our constitutional guarantee of  due process. Those Americans did not get a trial. They were judged, sentenced and executed by the president. This seems like a gross abuse of his powers. 

Three: He campaigned as an opponent to the War in Iraq and on trying to dismantle and reduce American's nuclear arsenal, weapons that threaten the very existence of humankind on Earth. Yet the New York Times ran a front page story this week about Obama's decision to spend billions of tax dollars in a plan to upgrade our deteriorating nuclear defense system. 

Ask yourselves, my GOP compatriots: why doesn't Fox news focus on these governmental decisions/issues that Obama has made but instead focuses on the President's "latte salute"? It's a question worth asking. 

Here's my answer: our left-wing, radical president took action in these decisions that supported huge corporations...exactly the kind of action Ronald Reagan would have taken. Why? For the life of me, I cannot understand why. But from my point of view, he sure ain't no liberal! He's as conservative as Reagan! 

Here's your party's ONLY agenda. The GOP wants to accomplish one thing: it wants to help the super-wealthy. It is owned and operated by the super-wealthy. Every time you vote for a Republican candidate, you are voting against the middle class and your own economic interests. Every time you get another Republican elected to Congress, the one-percenters break out the single malt scotch and toast your naivete. They are laughing at you behind your backs because, yet again, you drank the GOP Cool-aid. 

Here is the reality of the America we all live in, Republican and Democrat; Christian, Jew and Muslim; black, brown and white. One percent of the country's citizens own 90 percent of our collective wealth. Those same one-percenters control the flow of money; they control the banks; they control the media; they own your home if you still pay a mortgage; they own the future of your children if your kids have college loans. The ONLY agenda they have is this: they want to hang onto their wealth.The only thing they understand is money. They could care less about the good of the nation. 

Any vote for a Republican is a vote for the status quo. Think what you want, that's the privilege of being an American, but please DON'T think you are creating a "better world" or a "stronger union" when you vote for a Republican. YOU may believe in family values. So do we Democrats. WE are voting for change. The change we most desire is to live in an equitable society where the distribution of wealth is not so one-sided and doesn't favor of the wealthiest people on Earth. 

Please don't tell me they "earned" it with their sweat and toil, working with their hands. They earned it by convincing people like you to elect representatives who do their bidding, who create laws and open tax loopholes that allow them to horde wealth. They are lawyers, bankers, hedge fund managers and, most of all, corporate CEOs, defense contractors and war profiteers. They are not plumbers, electricians, carpenters or reporters. 

Please don't require me to salute the flag of a nation whose government protects the assets of the wealthiest people on Earth. Please don't call me a "traitor" for pointing out this sad reality: the super wealthy and their elected representatives are working hard to keep the rest of us down. Do yourselves a favor. Start reading a decent newspaper and get your heads out of the Fox News propaganda machine. To all of you who read this far with an open mind, I humbly thank you. God bless the First Amendment!

Let's try to see TV news for what it really is: a race for ratings, a chase for advertising dollars. Let's also stop pretending we are "informed" when we watch the news on any network broadcast. You won't find the truth on network TV. You have to search hard for the truth. Try reading the New York Times every day or watch John Stewart or Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Read the Nation or the Atlantic magazines. Watch PBS between 6 and 7 p.m.  And demand that news bureaus start to take their special place in democracy seriously. We need the media to hold power accountable for the wheels of democracy to spin smoothly. It's way, way past time for the media to start taking their jobs seriously. 

See the footage here:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Saying goodbye

By Chuck Bauerlein

Last January, my sister in Wisconsin wrote to the other siblings some news about my mother, Agnes. She is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s disease and her decline had taken an ominous turn. Mom’s physician had told my sister that my Mother was having trouble swallowing food.

Families who have witnessed their loved ones slowly dying know this is one of the final stages of this pernicious disease. When a person can’t remember to swallow his or her food, the body cannot sustain itself. Her doctor said she would likely have between six and 12 months to live.

I knew I might be pushing my luck if I waited to see her until this summer, but my work schedule was full and other siblings were going out to visit her, so I waited until this past weekend to go and say my farewells.

I arrived in Oshkosh on the evening of July 3rd, but didn’t go visit her until the morning to the 4th of July. She was sitting at her standard spot at a table with two other patients who could still talk. 

Her head was bent low and she was slowly taking food from one of the home assistants. I took over the feeding and spent an hour slowly helping my mom eat a small canister of peach yogurt and one scrambled egg, one small swallow at a time. She was able to wash the soft food down pulling cranberry juice out of a cup with a plastic straw.
Mom did not know who I was; she had no recognition of me. She ate with her eyes closed.

I talked to her and tried to engage her, or at least get her to open her eyes, but without any luck. I noticed several other patients in the room were not eating either. I don’t know if they were not hungry or if they, too, were in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and simply had forgotten how to feed themselves. There were nine patients total and very little conversation in the room – except for the nurse assistants encouraging them to eat.

Afterwards I took my mother in her wheelchair out to a small garden near her room. A pleasant Wisconsin summer morning unfolded before us, alive with birdsong and the scent of blooming flowers. Mom was oblivious. I reached out and took her hand in mine and was surprised when I felt her aged, translucent fingers squeezing mine. I talked to her, but her head remained permanently fixed in a bent position. She was there, but she wasn’t in the present.

Later in the day, a driver from her care facility brought her out to my sister’s farm in Neenah, about five or six miles away. My brother Mark, who lives about a mile from my mom, prepared a typical July 4th  feast of grilled corn on the cob, potato salad and hamburgers. Mark, my sister, her husband Michael and me and Mom sat under a huge shade tree and enjoyed the meal. Heidi spoon fed my Mother soft food that she managed to swallow.

The chitchat seemed to get through to my mother. An occasional smile would spread across her lips. Maybe she could recognize the voices of my Wisconsin siblings. Maybe they were familiar enough for my mother to recognize and remember the sound of their voices and evoke some distant memory. It was hard to know. But it was a wonderful moment to witness.

My sister took some pictures to commemorate my visit to Mother and our 4th of July. I reached around her shoulders and pulled her close and kissed her.

On Sunday morning, my brother came with me to visit Mom. It was after breakfast and we sat with her in the garden. His familiar voice cheered her. We talked about the Phillies’ sorry season or something as trivial. Her eyes opened wide for the first time in three days and she smiled. Mark noticed and talked to her and made a comment that made her chuckle. It was undeniable. For a minute or three, she was there with us. Alive again; fully in the moment. She couldn’t talk, but she could communicate with her eyes and her face was full of love and happiness.  It was a small miracle. I felt so blessed to witness it.

Later that evening, my sister Heidi came to help me serve Mom dinner at the care facility. The morose silence of the dining room was more than Heidi could bear and she suggested we take Mom outside to the garden. There we slowly fed Mom her meal and engaged in a lively discussion about Heidi’s work for a Wisconsin corporation.

In the middle of our conversation my mother started to laugh, a belly laugh from deep inside of herself. She was trying to with all her will to articulate a thought and utter a complete sentence. She was joining the conversation. Heidi and I looked at one another in complete astonishment. Then we both laughed. And Mom laughed with us.

Before I left Oshkosh on Monday, I went back to feed her one last meal. Peach yogurt and a scrambled egg again. It took 75 minutes for her to eat a meal I could have devoured in 90 seconds. But I was conscious of every bite; every swallow. And I reminded myself how there must have been hundreds of hours when my mother was patiently waiting for me to swallow my jarred apricots or baby formula when I was six or seven months old. And how many thousands of times my mother must have performed this same chore with my siblings over the years.

And the seconds of this feeding seemed to rush by like summer lightning and I knew I might never be able to perform this task again. Ever.

I took my mother out to the garden one last time. I took her withered, wrinkled  hand in mind and I told her I hoped I might come back to see her in November for Thanksgiving and she should try to hang on if she could. But I also told her Dad was anxious to see her and it was okay if she had to go.

I told my mother she had been an incredible mother to me and my siblings and how lucky I was to have her in my life for so long. And then I said goodbye. Mom managed to open her eyes for me and I looked into her eyes. I can’t know of course if what I saw was what she saw. But it felt to me as if she seemed to sense this might be the last time we might see one another on this Earth.

Then she squeezed my finger one last time and the light in her eyes seemed to flicker and fade. After a few more minutes in the garden I wheeled her back into the facility and put her in front of the community TV, where two other patients dozed peacefully. 

I pulled her shoulders into my chest and I told her I loved her very much.

I had a plane to catch. It was time to leave.  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

mid-year pop music report

Pop music continues to evolve and amaze. Here are some CDs I've been listening to. I have no idea how many of these will make my end of the year list, but for what it's worth, here are a dozen CDs in heavy rotation in my car CD player and at home in the disc changer. Seems a sure bet something here might catch your fancy, too!  

Antlers – “Familiars”. In an interview in Pitchfork,  The Antler’s primary songwriter Peter Silberman dropped Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void”  film as an inspiration for the band’s  2014 effort: “There are different ways to look at death and they don’t have to be depressing at all.” Like both “Hospice” and “Burst Apart”, “Familiars’’ is another trippy, introspective plunge into the netherworld of death and dying. But if you’ve heard this band before, you’ll know this also means another emotionally enthralling trip to a world of transcendence and beauty. “Intruders” and “Surrender” are two slowly developing songs that produce swirls of keyboard, horns and electric guitars  in ways that make the Antler’s music groundbreaking on a grand scale.

Arc Iris – Arc Iris.  Last year, Jocia Adams, a long standing member of the Low Anthem, Providence’s notable folk rock collective, left the band to form her own ensemble, called Arc Iris. I caught her set at the Boot & Saddle in April and it’s easy to see why the slow shuffle Americana music of the Low Anthem may have felt inhibiting to her. Her new collection of songs have an aural sweep that feels mostly like majestic prog rock from the mid-1970's.  Adams sounds liberated on this record, a fresh new voice worth finding.

Beck, “Morning Phase.”  After a six-year hiatus from recording, Beck came back this spring with one of his best recordings, “Morning Phase.” After several records that wallowed in reflective self-pity, Beck’s songwriting on this effort suggests the songwriter has finally come back around to smell the roses and enjoy the taste of honey again. The songs are more fully developed by his band and the music feels less stripped down that previous records. Sonicly, it’s his most ambitious and lush recording since “Sea Change.” A triumphant return to form for one of America’s most enigmatic recording artists.

Laura Cantrell,  “No Way There From Here". Cantrell’s girlish country warble  is in fine fettle on this new collection of well-crafted folk rock songs, her first release of original songs in nine years.   In Pop Matters, Josh Koch notes “the recording quality is stunning, there’s  a serious warmth to everything…. It’s an acoustic audiophile’s dream come true.” A pleasing mélange of instruments helps to elevate Cantrell’s recordings out of the realm of pedestrian country music into something that feels more organic and accomplished at the same time. Pedal steel, slide guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and electric guitars all blend into one distinctively wonderful album.

Anansy Cisse – “Mali Overdrive.”  Folks who know my musical tastes know already I’ve long been enamored by Mali musicians. Ali Farka Toure ,  Amadou and Mariam and Rokia Traore have all ended up on my end of the year list in the last five or six years. This year’s list is likely to include this beautiful collection of songs from Anansy Cisse, another great Mali artist whose legend is just beginning. The music is delicate and intricate, constructed on a foundation of traditional bass guitar and ngone and soku,  one and two stringed instruments in the guitar family indigenous to West Africa. The calabash, an instrument fashioned out of a gourd and strung with beads, provides percussive sounds. Cisse’s bluesy guitar and earthy, expressive vocals give this African music a distinctively American feel.  Worth finding and savoring.

“Invisible Hour,” Joe Henry.  Henry’s latest effort is a collection of powerful songs that investigates the inner-workings of marriage. The songs are reflective set pieces that delve into the subject matter with sensitivity and insight, full of observational moments and tiny telling details that have always been the songwriter’s forte. Without ever pointing the finger or placing blame with his characters, Henry brings both the joys and heartaches of marriage to this cycle of songs that make his listeners think and feel their way through the labyrinth of love. It may be the most remarkable exploration of the sacred institution since Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks.”  

Jon Langford – “Here Be Monsters”. The former front man for Britain’s Mekons has long brought a touch of Billy Bragg political populism to his craft.  Langford’s been living in the states long enough to know the more things change, the more they stay the same. Thankfully, we still have his critical eye and sense of sarcasm to carry us through the day. “Be Here Monsters”, played with his new musical collective Orchard Skulls, is worthy of his best, most chaotic work with the Mekons. A mature, seasoned songwriter, working at the top of his game.

Ought. “More Than Any Other Day.”  This one came as a recommendation from my 30-year old son. The kid’s got great taste! (Great singing chops, too!) Ought is a Canadian band that got together during the student protests in 2012 when the provincial government in Quebec tried to raise tuition by 75 percent, provoking school boycotts. Although none of the eight songs on “More Than Any Other Day” deal specifically with this political movement, they seem to channel the anger of those supercharged “Maple Spring” days. If these guys sound like anarchists, you know why. Played with the finger-pointing fury and fervor of American bands like Social Distortion and Flogging Molly.

Parquet Courts, “Sunbathing Animal.”  Parquet Courts manages to sound resoundingly fresh and relevant, despite wearing their musical influences proudly on their sleeves. “Sunbathing Animal” sounds alternately like Pavement, the Velvet Underground, Ween, Wire and Television, sometimes all at the same time. This post-modern mash-up of some of punk rock’s greatest bands  does more than honor the genre. Like most great bands, they seem to reinvent it and call it their own. “Black and White” has a propulsive pace that is downright addictive. “Sunbathing Animal” takes the perspective of a house cat trapped in an apartment. Primal punk: don’t punt! Purchase promptly!

Cookie Rabinowitz – “Four Eyed Soul.” My local public radio station has been playing this local neo-soul singer with the improbable name of Cookie Rabinowitz for about a month now. I caught his show at the “Make Music Philly” festival in a public  park in  Roxborough on Saturday evening. It was a dance fest of the first order. Rabinowitz sounds like he’s taken Sly Stone’s template and run it through a meat grinder with his Kanye CDs. Lyrically whimsical and unabashedly soulful, Cookie’s got a good thang going on with “Four Eyed Soul.” Don’t let those sports goggles fool you, folks! This cat ain’t no freakin’ geek. “I Want to Text You With My Mouth” and the CD's first single, "Self-Loathing". are as infectious as pop music today gets. Cookie cooks!

Temples - "Sun Structures" -- Temples – “Sun Structures”.  Noel Gallagher proclaimed  Temples, the hottest new band in Britain. But try not to hold that against them!  The Temples, following Tame Impala’s template, showcase a wide variety of 60s psychedelic sounds that owe as much to California acid-tripping bands like the Doors, the Electric Prunes and the Jefferson Airplane as much as the pop sensibilities of England’s T-Rex and the Zombies. Lead singer James Bagshaw carries a charming confidence through his performances on these songs. If “Rubber Soul” or the Monkee’s foray into psychedelic music, “Head” float your boat, you’ll probably have lots of fun listening to this updated version of music inspired by Haight-Ashbury. 

War on Drugs, “Lost In a Dream.”  You might have thought losing a talent like Kurt Vile would leave the gas tank empty for this local band. But War On Drugs, fronted by songwriter Adam Granduciel, seems to have lots of mileage left to go. While Vile has gone on to make his own terrific solo records, Granduciel has made his most relevant, ear-pleasing album to date. His trademark tasty guitar work is in evidence on the CD’s first song, the sprawling “Under the Pressure.” The rest of the record seems locked under the opener’s mesmerizing spell.  If you love guitar rock, you’ll love this.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The best Father's Day present ever: the accomplishment of a lifetime

Tomorrow morning, a new  community English center will open in the small town of Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua.

The moment it opens, it will be the largest foreign-language library in the entire country. It will change the culture of the entire town. It may help enable hundreds of lower and middle class Nicaraguan children and students in the region learn a new language, one that will increase their chances of rising out of the Third World and starting a better life.

Countless of volunteers worked on the building; washing and painting walls; scrubbing and waxing floors; building desks and book cases. Nearly $7,000 in various projects was raised to get the building refurbished. Hundreds of people in the United States donated a wide range of books to this project, from children's picture books to hardback, cloth-bound literary classics.

No one worked harder than my daughter, Isabel. It was her vision for the library that started the ball rolling. It was her personal project for the Peace Corps. It was her never-ending cajoling of needed supplies and donations that made this community center a reality. It was her baby from day one. Tomorrow morning, the baby is birthed and Nueva Guinea has a proud new library.

That this should come on the day before Father's Day is one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me. Sheer coincidence, for sure. I don't care much.

I am one very proud dad.

Isabel, you are one amazing person!!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Purpose of West Chester University

My friend and colleague at West Chester University, John Elmore of the School of Education, sent this letter out to university professors this morning. This concerns legislation that is being introduced to the Pennsylvania State Senate this afternoon by Andrew Dinniman (D-19th district) and Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson (R-6th district) which would allow West Chester to leave the state system of higher education and join the ranks of "state-related" schools like Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh. The Dinniman/Tomlinson proposal would have enormous ramifications on APSCUF, the state union of college professors. This educational initiative seems to be politically motivated by West Chester's university president Greg Weisenstein and the PASSHE Board of Governors. Elmore's letter was co-signed by two of his colleagues,  Curry Malott and Rob Haworth. Their argument lays out why this legislation is an attack on the principles of democracy. 

The Purpose of West Chester University

Over the past forty years, public universities – and the students and faculty who define them – have been poked, prodded, threatened, starved, and coerced into capitulating to the redefining of the purpose of public higher education. Here at West Chester University we have all witnessed the
incessant commodification of our campus, our curricula, and our students. We have all sat in
meetings where we are told that our students are now ‘customers’, our classrooms are now ‘delivery mechanisms’, our teaching is now a ‘product’, and even our public university itself is now a ‘brand’. We are told that these transformations are inevitable and that this is all necessitated by a never-ending economic crisis – “the new normal” – in a country, paradoxically, overflowing with so much capital investors struggle to find new investment opportunities. American workers, including professors, are therefore constantly reminded that we shouldn’t let our idealistic and antiquated perspectives on the value of public education, and the necessity of an educated citizenry within a democracy, stand in the way of ‘progress’. The latest version of that ‘progress’ is the proposed ‘opportunity’ for West Chester University to become a ‘state-related’ brand so that we might realize the real opportunity of selling a more expensive, and therefore more profitable, ‘product’.

We are certain that over the coming weeks and months we will engage in many debates over this
grand opportunity. We will undoubtedly argue over the potential effects such a change might have on faculty rights, collective bargaining, our union, our students, our sister campuses and our campus. These are all valid and critical concerns – even a casual evaluation of tuition and fee rates at the current state-related institutions offers clear evidence of what such a change would mean for our students, and thus a betrayal of PASSHE’s historic purpose, that is, “to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost.” However, what we would like to make clear is that what is being proposed here at WCU is not merely a different path to the same destination. This agenda emanates from a very specific valuation of what we do here and the very purposes of public education in general. In short, the efforts to privatize West Chester University are not value-neutral, nor are they unique to West Chester. This movement towards the privatization of public spaces can be seen in every aspect of contemporary society. Such trends are typically captured within the term “neoliberalism.”

Neoliberal theory is manifested in both economic policy and political ideology, which in concert
disperse formidable effects and transformations of the socio-cultural realities of society. This
neoliberal culture praises entrepreneurialism, self-reliance, and rugged individualism; equates
unimpeded materialism and the pursuit of self-interest with human freedom and social justice;
venerates the stockpiling of personal wealth; degrades collective and public responsibility; and equates any government intervention on behalf of a collective social welfare as counterproductive to human progress. David Harvey (2005) describes it well:

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political-economic practices that proposes
that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms
and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong property rights, free
markets, and free trade… there has everywhere been an emphatic turn towards neoliberalism
in political-economic practices and thinking since the 1970s (pp.18-19).

Arguing that self-interest and an unfettered free-market are the best, if not only, path to progress,
equality and a supposedly merit-based version of social justice, public institutions are viewed through the lens of neoliberalism as, at best, social distractions and, at worst, antiquated seeds of Bolshevism. For the advocate of neoliberalism, therefore, anything that operates outside the for-profit model, whether it is a public school, a library, or a post office, is actually counterproductive to human progress. For a participatory democracy, such a retreat from all things public means, in effect, a retreat from democracy itself. As Noam Chomsky (2010) declared, “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy” (p.75).

History clearly evinces that making visible the circumstances and power relations undergirding any form of hegemony, by way of the development of a critical and dialectic lens within the people, has always bee the most fundamental ingredient for counter-hegemonic struggle. Neoliberal advocates recognize this threat inherent to popular education and, in maintenance of its agenda, seek to nullify and obliterate any such form of democratic resistance to the expansion of private power and free market religiosity. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the destruction of public education has been a goal of neoliberal advocates wherever and whenever they have found opportunity to unfurl their flag. When taking such goals into account, the decades long effort to destroy public education, and offer private, for-profit alternatives - designed by neoliberal think tanks, funded by right wing political action committees, and championed by conservative politicians – should come as no surprise. We have witnessed the anti-democratic results of the neoliberal program for public universities in places like Wisconsin, Michigan and multiple other public universities across the country and around the globe.

We recognize that the positions we take here will be labeled by some as idealistic, antiquated, and out of touch - we can live with such scrutiny. We also recognize that not every faculty member on this campus made a conscious and political decision to be a part of public education and, therefore, may not have made our same connections between the existence of public education and the health of participatory democracy. However, we sincerely hope that our colleagues, regardless of their political orientation, will come to realize that we did not arrive at this crossroads of our own volition; we were systematically delivered here. The continuous budget cuts, draconian systems of oversight, marginalization of students and faculty, have all served as a cattle prod driving us to the point where we might be willing to abandon the promise of public education and the promise of West Chester University as a public good.

In spite of their fear mongering concerning an inevitable economic crisis, the values of those who
promote the neoliberal agenda are clear, and we do not share these destructive values. We believe the question for us as faculty members of West Chester University is this: Do we believe in the concept of a public good and its critical role within democratic society - and, if so, what responsibility do we have in defending the public good in which we have been entrusted? Will we defend public education or will we submit and become the latest example of its demise?

We should not allow ourselves to be distracted from this core question.

In Solidarity,

John Elmore, Curry Malott, & Rob Haworth

Professional & Secondary Education