Thursday, December 8, 2016

the year in Music: a dozen classics to celebrate in 2016



Wow..... what a year. Don't let the door slam your back on the way out, 2016!!! This was not just the most contentious and vitriolic election I have ever lived through, but the first faculty strike my union has ever undergone.

On top of that, musical icons were dying left and right throughout the year. David Bowie passed away just 10 days into 2016. His final, Blackstar, received five Grammy nominations, including Alternative Album of the Year. Within a month, Glenn Frey (Eagles); Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) and Maurice White (Earth, Wind and Fire) had followed Bowie into the after life.

In late March, Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor (one of the founders of A Tribe Called Quest) died. April witnessed the death of one of country music's most beloved outlaws, Merle Haggard, on the 6th. Two weeks later, pop chameleon Prince passed on the first day of spring, April 21st.

Within ten November days after the contentious election of Donald Trump, three more music legends had also died: Leonard Cohen (Nov. 10); Leon Russell (Nov. 13) and Sharon Jones (Nov. 18). To music lovers, it felt as if heaven's concert conductor was assembling an all-star cast of angels to join the heavenly choir just in time for Gabriel to blow his trumpet for the seventh time.

Three of the musicians who died in 2016 left behind artistic achievements that rank among the best "final statements" ever recorded. They were so good they made dozens of "Best of the Year" lists, including mine.  Here, in order of my own preference, are my favorite CDs of the year.


1. Teens of Denial.  Car Seat Headrest (Matador). Car Seat Headrest sounds best when your lean your head as far back into your car seat head rest and crank up the front speakers. Out pours heart-pounding, foot stomping rock n' roll music with an attitude. Teens of Denial helped fill the emotional and recreational gap that came after my son's band took a break from playing small clubs in Philly. I'd been spoiled by the adrenaline rush Luke's band, the Late Greats, provided about once a month. Car Seat Headrest is fronted by Will Toledo, whose manic singing style suits the bombast of the band's music well. The first two singles -- "Vincent" and "Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales" -- got enough FM airplay to propel the band into Next Big Thing status. Both Rolling Stone and Paste placed the CD among the four best of the year. I never got tired of listening to this one.



2.  American Band. Drive-By Truckers (ATO). Released in late September, just six weeks before the presidential election, American Band  felt like the most-politically astute album of the year. When I purchased tickets to see the band perform on November 9th, the evening after election day, I had anticipated a highly charged party for local liberals. As great as their show was, felt more like an elegy than a celebration. Nevertheless, the power of its songs, especially Patterson Hood's "What It Means", spoke eloquently about the nation in a way that will resonate for DBT fans for decades -- if we're all fortunate enough to get that much time. Not quite country, not quite rock, American Band is a testimony to the strength of American music, if not quite the testimony to America's greatness the band was aiming for.



3. Give It Back To You. The Record Company (Concord Records). If blues is your favorite trick bag, this is a CD you need to hear. This L.A. three-piece blues band performed in July at the WXPN festival in Camden, N.J. and overwhelmed the surprised crowd with a powerful set of fist-thumping blues rock. I had a spot at the lip of the stage and I was lucky to see them early in their career, performing for just 400 or 500 screaming newbies. These guys will be playing summer European blues festivals pretty quickly. Chris Voz, the lead singer, guitarist, pedal steel player and harmonica player for the band, explained their festival performance came about when XPN's program director, Bruce Warren, heard one song on a cassette tape ("Rita Mae Young") and immediately put it into rotation at the station. In a subsequent radio interview on XPN, Voz said the band patterned their signature sound after one iconic blues album, "Hooker and Heat" a classic blues rock album that joined John Lee Hooker with Canned Heat. When they returned to the area to play at World Cafe Live in November, their polished set had only gotten better. They are not to be missed.




4. and 5. You Want It Darker.  Leonard Cohen (Columbia); and Blackstar. David Bowie (ISO).
Both Cohen and Bowie recognized the end of life was approaching when they produced these terrific swan song recordings. Both appropriately grapple with themes and images of morality and decay; suffering and pain; isolation and angst; God and religion; sin and retribution. Cohen's record feels like a throwback to his albums of the early '70s, sparse and stripped down to basic elements. There's nothing so uplifting as "Hallelujah" here. It has the observational ambiance of a Buddhist funeral service. On "Treaty" Cohen sings: "I heard the snake was baffled by his sin. He shed his scales to find the snake within." Bowie's "Lazarus" video was released just a few days before his death and images of the singer's face bound by a clothe that covered his eyes was almost too metaphorical for his fans to bear to watch. Blackstar is awash with snappy snare drum hits, jazzy sax riffs and ethereal synth sounds that create an elegy worthy of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's greatest glam creation. Both artists left lasting legacies of recorded music. Both left last albums that rank among their best.



6. Dolls of Highland. Kyle Craft (Sub Pop). Imagine, if you possibly can, Freddie Mercury had been at Big Pink in Woodstock, N.Y. when Dylan and the Band were playing barrel house blues riffs and yucking it up just for fun while Garth Hudson's 8-track recorder captured all the glory for posterity. That's the unlikely vibe Kyle has Crafted with Dolls of Highland.  Craft's manic vocal virtuosity can sometimes render the themes of his song lyrics irrelevant. But man oh man, does his band seem to have fun behind him as he wails. "Eye of the Hurricane" is the album's first single and when it explodes out of your car speakers, you can hear Craft wearing his Freddie Mercury love on his sleeve. Like Robbie Robertson watching the Band careen out of control behind Dylan on The Basement Tapes, Craft seems incapable of controlling his mates. Pitchfork's reviewer put it in perspective: "Craft's out-sized personality is matched by less flashy, more fundamental skills: vivid immersive storytelling and sharply focused songs that have the lived-in feel of 40-year-old FM radio favorites."




7. and 8. Lemonade. Beyonce (Columbia). A Seat at the Table. Solange (Columbia). In 2016, the R&B charts were dominated by the Sisters Knowles. Rumors flew like phoenixes when Beyonce's  Lemonade was released to great anticipation and media fanfare in May with an HBO exclusive video release. The album seemed to chronicle Beyonce's marital problems that first came to public light when TMZ revealed a video of little sister Solange striking and kicking at Jay-Z, Beyonce's hubby and hip-hop empresario. The CD's title is an obvious reference to the hackneyed totem, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade." But there's little sweetness in Beyonce's performance. She serves this up as a cup of bitter vengeance. But it's hard not to feel both inspired and terrified by her bravura performance as a bat wielding car-window masher. Solange's CD felt like an affirmation of Black Power and political will during a year when African American teenagers were routinely being gunned down by white police officers. With the rise of Trump, the end of the Obama era and the imminent dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, A Seat At the Table sounds like a wistful reflection on what many Americans will look back on as America's heyday, its finest hour. 


9. A Sailor's Guide to Earth. Sturgill Simpson.(Atlantic) . Two years ago my end of the year list had Simpson's sophomore effort, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music among my three favorite albums.  This year's recording is my favorite country album of 2016. It rocks less hard than Metamodern Sounds but that's no knock. This one feels more like traditional country and Simpson's remarkable baritone is reminiscent of Merle Haggard and Jamie Johnson at their peak: soulful, gritty and utterly distinctive. The album is a song cycle inspired by the loneliness he felt going on the road to promote Metamodern Sounds just as his wife was about to give birth to his son. "Hello my son, welcome to Earth" he sings at the outset of the album opener, directly addressing his baby boy. Other songs about family life, the blessings of marital bliss and hard-won life lessons follow. If country music floats your boat, this is one sea voyage you won't regret taking.


10. We Got It From Here....Thank You 4 Your Service. A Tribe Called Quest (Epic). After 18 long years, one of the most influential bands in hip-hop finally released their sixth and final album. It does nothing to diminish their legacy as one of the most forward-thinking groups in the genre. Sadly, the band lost one of its founding members, Malik "Phife Dawg" Taylor on March 22nd and by most media accounts, the rapper's illness put considerable road blocks in the way of finishing the recording. The album plows familiar Tribe territory: politically savvy lyrics mixed with jazz-influenced beats that accenuate their political darts. On "We The People", the album's opening salvo, Q-Tip throws down this caustic, Trump-trash-talking-point: "All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / All you poor folk, you must go / All you Muslims, you must go."   Malik Taylor rests in a better place. The rest of us have this recorded testament to their musical brotherhood to help us make it through the next four years. It's the party soundtrack for the resistance.




11. Magnetismo. La Yegros (Soundway.)  The lead singer and principal songwriter of this Argentinian cumbia/electronica band is Mariana Yegros. Without knowing a thing about her, I copped $15 tickets to see the band perform its 2016 album, Magnetismo at the Arden Music Hall near Wilmington about a month ago. The "crowd" was mostly gray-haired geezers like myself, approximately 100 of us, and they were settled back in folding chairs waiting for....what exactly? No one seemed to know. Only 90 seconds into the concert's first song, the folding chairs were kicked aside and the ambulatory audience found itself coming to the lip of the stage, clapping and hooting and raising Cain. By the third song the whole crowd was up and moving; a latin-flavored party had commenced. It helps if you know Spanish to truly appreciate this album. But even if you don't, you'll find yourself smiling as you listen to it. This was my favorite world music CD of the year.


12. Skeleton Tree. Nick Cave.  In a year in music that was considerably darker than most -- for lots of obvious reasons -- Nick Cave's artistic vision was the bleakest of all. Cave's album is informed by the passing of his 15-year-old son, Arthur, who fell to his death in July of 2015. Unlike any of Cave's previous records, this one doesn't rely on screeching guitar riffs. Instead, Cave has created a somber mood piece using eerie synthesizer noises, drum loops and stark piano solos; music that serves the reflective, elegiac lyrics and the somber tone of the songs. Knowing the tragedy that lead Cave to make this album makes it difficult to listen to this more than once a week. But when a time of loss comes into your own life, this album may feel like a life preserver.

Eight others that almost made my list, in alphabetical order by artist name.  Brandy Clark, Big Day in a Small Town; Heron Oblivion, Heron Oblivion Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Wings; Frank Ocean, Blonde; Okkervil River,  Away; Angel Olson, My Woman. Anderson Paak, Malibu;  The Rolling Stones, Blue and Lonesome

Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I learned on the APSCUF picket lines




The APSCUF strike against the Pennsylvania state system of higher education ended on Friday evening after just three short days. Both sides had compelling reasons for ending the strike as quickly as possible. Millions of dollars were at stake to be sure, but so was the very existence of our union. No one really knew what the end result of a strike would be.

The faculty were unemployed and without health benefits. Every time I got into my car to run a routine errand, I was acutely aware my overall health (not to mention my financial assets) was at risk if I got into an accident. The state system was facing the possibility of giving back close to $40 million in tuition to more than 110,000 students. Students would get the money back, but the course credits they were hoping to earn and all the time they’d spent on the first seven weeks of the semester would be irretrievably lost. Settling the strike quickly was a winning combination for everyone.

To the union, the collective sigh of relief was palpable.  Most of us love our jobs and we worried a prolonged strike would be both emotionally and financially difficult to sustain. We worried, too, about our students and how they would feel about us if the semester was cancelled. Most of us believed the strike would provide plenty of  “teaching moments” about the power of collective bargaining and the bonding of union brotherhood. Students would be witnessing democracy in action and a slice of PASSHE history. It was the first time the union had gone on strike and no one knew what might occur.

I don’t think many of my faculty colleagues would have predicted beforehand or believed afterwards just how well West Chester students embraced the lessons of the strike and how many lessons about democracy, generosity and brotherhood we learned from them.

For most West Chester professors, the highlight of our three days on the picket lines occurred in the early afternoon of Wednesday. Fifty of so of my colleagues were walking in a tight circle around a small tree on the corner of High Street and University Avenue, just outside what students call “the castle,” Philips Hall, where the university administration offices are located.

Picket lines were manned at seven or eight other places on the outskirts of campus (we were not allowed to physically walk onto the campus, that was considered crossing the picket line) but our central protest location was at Philips Hall.  We could vaguely sense something happening out in the academic Quad as the students approached. They were shouting something but we couldn’t hear it clearly.

Quite suddenly two lines of more than 100 students stormed through the arches of Philips shouting in unison: “Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty! Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty!” over and over, striding with purpose and far more energy than we possessed after hours of picketing. They joined our circle and it tripled in size immediately.  Chills ran up my spine at the moment and smiles broke out on every faculty face. We were wowed. When I mentioned to a colleague standing near me that it “felt like Aragorn riding to the rescue at the climax of Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King’ ", he agreed. I heard that same analogy three other times over the next few days.





I caught the eyes of at least half a dozen of my own students and shouted my thanks to them for taking up our cause. Some nodded. Some smiled. Some ignored me. Just like they do in class.  All of us felt exhilarated to be living a moment filled with such emotion and a strong sense of justice; of making the world right again.

I met colleagues from the English department on the picket line and actually had real-life, real-world conversations with them about what they were currently reading; what their kids were doing; what kind of research they were conducting; their perceptions of the final presidential debate. When I meet them in the hallways of Main Hall, I know them as colleagues whose commitment to education is always evident; who take pride in their work for the commonwealth and the university and who bring a sense of mission to the classroom.

We are "educating the 99 percent" is how more than one picket line poster put it. We serve the ideals of democracy by helping to educate lower and middle class students. We believe every person with the ambition to go to college can be served by an education, not just the wealthy. We see higher education not just as a path to financial security but as a means to give students the tools to become citizens with a common purpose: the strength of the nation.

Walking the picket line with my colleagues helped turn them into brothers and sisters, into lifelong friends. Additionally, I hobnobbed with many professors from other departments, some whom I had never met before and others whose faces I recognized over many years of teaching but whom I had never held a conversation with. It made me realize what a special community we are and how lucky I have been to hold this job and to use my life to such high purpose.

On Thursday two of my children joined me briefly on the picket line. Luke, a WCU alum and my oldest child, took time from his work day to join me in a circle of singers to robustly sing a union song and then spent his lunch hour walking the line with me, holding a placard. It was the first time in my life I had ever walked a picket line and I was sharing the moment with my son. We will both always remember and treasure that hour together.

Fifteen minutes after he left to return to work, my daughter Lili joined me. She’s a 20-year-old junior at West Chester and, to be honest, she had very little real interest in spending her new found free “strike” time hanging with faculty hippies and singing union songs. But when she caught sight of the carnival atmosphere in front of Philips and saw how many students were on the corner with us, she smiled at the scene and got into the slow rhythm of our sidewalk waltz.




I think…I hope…. she learned as much from the experience of democracy in action as the other students who showed their support. People who heard about our strike may assume we did it to save our faculty health benefits and to secure raises. I cannot deny those reasons were part of our motivation. But a more important reason for our strike was to maintain the quality of higher education within the state system. It is not lip-service to say this: we did it for our students.

Many of them joined us on the picket lines to thank and support us in our three day-long demonstrations. When students show that much love and appreciation, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and pride.


All of the faculty hope they realize how much appreciation we have for them, too. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Today I went on strike for the first time in my life



Within the next hour or so, I will be joining my colleagues at West Chester University on the picket lines in front of Philips Hall, the administration building at West Chester University.

I have been a member of APSCUF (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) since the fall of 1988 when I started at West Chester, one of 14 universities in the state system of higher education. Never, in my 29 years of service, have we gone out on strike. Today I am joined by more than 5,500 professors who serve in the state system of higher education. We stand in solidarity with our union.


I beseech current students, their parents, former students and concerned citizens who care about public education to join the fight to preserve quality public education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Please come stand in solidarity with us if you possibly can..... we are striking because we feel it is necessary to preserve the integrity and quality of public higher education in Pennsylvania.


This is our attempt to ensure the state provides universities where lower and middle class students can earn a college education at comparatively inexpensive rates. Despite deep cuts to public education by former Gov. Tom Corbett, tuition at West Chester is still less than $10,000 a year. Based on the "Best Colleges" 2016 issue of U.S. News, West Chester's annual tuition of $9,700 is a bargain compared to other local universities. For example: at the University of Pennsylvania tuition is $43,000; at Villanova  University it is $46K; at St. Joseph's University it is $43K; at Haverford College it is $51K and at Swarthmore College it is $51K.


Public education has become a political football in the last decade. Cuts to public education are not only a way for conservative politicians to shift taxpayer money from public education into private education (charter schools and religious-based private schools) it is also a way to damage teachers' unions, which remain some of the strongest labor unions in the work force. APSCUF's strike can be seen as one battle in the continuing political war on public education.


The union is pitted against a chancellor who has long-standing ties to the Jeb Bush administration in Florida and who's political allegiance is to conservative politicians. After serving as the chancellor of the Florida state system of higher education under Bush for four years, he was appointed by Pennsylvania Republican Governor Corbett three years ago to head PASSHE. Corbett became infamous for slashing the the state system's operating budget by nearly 20 percent in 2012, a total of $82.5 million. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, tried to restore some of these deep funding cuts to higher education since his election in November, 2014.


This is not a local stand-off. This is a fight for what is right for our commonwealth. Professors represented by APSCUF are taking a stand for lower and middle class students and their families. We believe in maintaining high standards of public higher education and we hope our strike sets an example for educators everywhere and for citizens in the commonwealth who believe public education is worth preserving.


We believe education is the best way to promote democratic values and raise the economic well-being of all Pennsylvanians, no matter what their social status is at birth. Everyone should have a chance to receive an education to achieve their life's goals. Our union members believe this is the ultimate goal of education.

APSCUF's goal is to make the educational dreams of lower and middle class students become reality. We believe higher education should not be limited to wealthy families. The class size and course load teaching schedule we carry tends to be heavier than what professors at other area universities are required to perform. This is a sacrifice we make and we believe in because it helps make tuition at PASSHE universities more affordable than more prestigious colleges.

Stand in solidarity with us. Please.

Friday, September 16, 2016

An Open Letter to Mike Pence




September 16, 2016


Dear Governor Pence:

You criticized Hillary Clinton recently for her comment dismissing some Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  You said in a stump speech at the Value Voters Summit in Washington D.C. “I campaign all across this country for Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s low opinion of the people who support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible terms. The people who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hard-working Americans....let me just say from the bottom of my heart: Hillary, they are not a basket of anything, they are Americans and they deserve your respect.”

On the face of it, your comment seems to make sense. But it ignores the fact that not all Americans who support your running mate are “hard working Americans.” Quite a few of them, in fact, are in hate groups that actively meet, actively spread hatred against African Americans and Hispanics, actively believe whites are a superior race and actively plot the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified nearly 900 of these hate groups who are active in the United States of America. The SPLC defines hate groups as having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”  Their activities that include “criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings leafleting or publishing.”

They are bigots who have thrown their political support 100 percent behind your running mate. In interviews with the press, you and Mr. Trump have delicately avoided saying anything at all that might discourage hate groups and the bigots who think like they do from voting for your ticket. To ignore the obvious racism and hatred these groups spread about other “hard working Americans” whose skin is brown or black is tantamount to endorsing their racist behavior and their racist orthodoxy. This, frankly, is a deplorable cop-out.

Since we live in a nation that is protected by a Constitution and by laws that proclaim people of all creeds, nationalities, sexual identities and colors are free to form a more perfect union and since you have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and the nation’s laws, it is safe to assume you believe hate groups who wish to take these freedoms away from others are not true Americans. Maybe you agree with me that the behavior of such hate groups, that are actively trying to deny the civil rights of minorities and gay Americans, can collectively be called “deplorable”.

I humbly ask you to please consider distancing yourself from the people who support your campaign who are voices of hatred. Whether you call them "deplorable" or not is up to you. But I hope you won’t mind if many other Americans find Secretary Clinton’s description of these kind of citizens to be appropriate. People who spread violence and racism are, in fact, deplorable. Democrats and Republicans should be working together to eradicate groups that discriminate against other Americans on the basis of their religion, their color and their sexual identity. Not to work for this kind of tolerance strikes many of us as irresponsible, cowardly, inherently a un-American and, yes, deplorable.

Respectfully,

Chuck Bauerlein

Downingtown, Pa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

West Chester Story Slam: Risk (Sept. 13, 2016)

I had a great time last night at the West Chester Story slam..... told an old story about sneaking into Game Six of the 1980 World Series with my brother, Paul. Unfortunately, I went WAY over the five minute time limit.  The story seemed to go over well with the audience.

You can see it here on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCLKdi5XFOI

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My walking tour of Casco Viejo, Panama City



When I read several online travel stories comparing the old section of Panama City -- Casco Viejo -- to Havana and New Orleans, I knew my experiences there would be memorable.  I spent eight of the best years of my life in New Orleans as a college student and then a reporter at the New Orleans States-Item. And Havana is my number one bucket list destination.

Casco Viejo was even more magical than I had expected. The picture above is the balcony view from my hotel, the Magnolia Inn. Some streets in Casco are even more narrow than the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. But anyone who has been to that charming part of the city will instantly recognize the wrought iron balconies that are a hallmark of both places.

I landed in Panama on the night of June 29th and my first foray into Casco was on the morning of June 30th. You could cut the humidity with a butcher's knife. Not even eight years of tropical humidity in New Orleans prepared me for Panama's damp atmosphere. Within an hour of walking around the area of the Magnolia Inn, I was drenched in sweat. But I had a new Nikon Coolpix camera with me and I was eager to discover what scenes I might see through its lens.

Visitors to Casco Viejo immediately sense the ambiguity of both architectural optimism and pessimism in the same neighborhood. UNESCO is pouring millions of dollars into renovation projects all over Casco, but snuggled right next to renewed, refurbished buildings are others in utter disrepair. Casco Viejo is in a state of transition that will take years or even decades to complete but that offer hope and inspiration for the future.


 .





It's a neighborhood of vivid, intense colors. Lush green parks and public squares filled with palm trees and flowering bushes and shrubs are interspersed throughout Casco Viejo and vie for the eye's attention with homes, store fronts and public buildings painted in a spectrum of tastefully subdued colors. 





I was searching for a place to have breakfast and came upon an open air cafe with the aroma of home cooked food wafting into the street. The counter could only accommodate eight people and, as this tiny eatery was directly across the street from the local police station, all eight spots were occupied by men in blue uniforms. I figured the food was both cheap and delicious and I was right. I waited my turn and asked for a menu (in English). There was none. And I am uncertain the woman behind the counter understood what I was asking for. Instinctively, she pointed to prepared food under glass a the end of the counter. Most of the policemen were eating round, doughy things called hojadres that looked a little like a doughnut and a little like a pancake. A pan full of fried chicken breasts were right next to them. I ordered a chicken breast with a side of what I thought was potatoes called yuca. It cost me $3.50 in American dollars and it was the best (and least expensive) food I ate in six days in Panama. 


When I got back to my hotel for a much needed morning shower (the first of three I would take that day, just to stay refreshed), I asked a friendly desk clerk named Emanuele where I might find a cigar for purchase. He directed me to a local corner store, where I purchased a Cohiba Robusto for $8, a very reasonable price for a fine Cuban cigar (they generally go for between $15 and $20 each here in the U.S.) but a lot more pricey than the cigars I generally smoke. When I mentioned this to Emanuele later in the afternoon, he recommended I try to find a street vendor who was locally renowned for rolling his own cigars with Nicaraguan tobacco, which was "just as good as Cuban tobacco" according to several Panamanians who overheard our conversation in the hotel lobby. Emanuele's hand drawn directions on a map of the neighborhood were perfect, although I walked past the rustic, tiny tobacco stand twice before finding it.  Because of our language limitations, the friendly fellow behind the counter had trouble figuring out what I wanted and handed me a pack of cigarettes. I said no and used my hands to show I wanted something bigger. He shot me an understanding smile and reached for a cigar box on the counter behind him. Inside were dozens of the ugliest, largest cigars I had ever seen. But they looked freshly rolled. He sold them for 55 cents each. I was suspicious a cigar so large and unsightly could possibly be very good, so I only purchased one. When I fired it up several hours later, I was surprised at the mildness of the smoke and how long the cigar lasted.  It took me 90 minutes and two slowly sipped shots of rum to finish it. The next day I went back and purchased ten more, to be slowly savored at home over the course of the month. 



It was the start of a perfect adventure in Panama City. Viva Casco Viejo! Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself on a trip to Panama, don't dare miss its oldest, most delectable neighborhood. 


Sunday, December 13, 2015

My favorite recordings of 2015

 Apologies to all of you Adele fans. I didn't include her on my end of the year list because it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to hype a CD that most of you have already heard and that will sell millions of units without any help from me. For the record, I quite like most of "25" and I like Adele. But I am pretty sure I will be sick of her album within a few weeks. These are my favorite recordings of the year. I honestly believe most of these are worth owning and some of them will stand the test of time. 


1.)    Courtney Barnett. “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.” (Mom & Pop). Barnett’s second studio effort is a masterpiece that feels at once both casually tossed-off and meticulously planned. Lyrically always inventive, Barnett delivers ear-grabbing catch phrases with the panache of an Academy Award winning actress and a Joyce-ian eye for detail and humor . The internal rhyme of this lyric from one of the CD’s stand-out cuts, “Pedestrian at Best”  gives a sense of its irresistible word play: “I must confess I’ve made a mess / of what should be a small success / but I digress at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess”.  And check out this observational moment from “Elevator Operator”:  “He waits for an elevator (one to nine) / a lady walks in and waits by his side / Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton / Vickers perfume on her breath, a tortoise-shell necklace between her breasts / She looks at him up and down with her botox frown / he’s well-used to that by now.”  Meanwhile, three cracker-jack band mates whip up a wall of noise as tightly poised as battleship cannon while Barnett herself conjures left-handed sonic hand grenades that would make both Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix jealous from their graves.  What’s not to like? This was my favorite record of the year.

2.)    Songhoy Blues. “Music in Exile” (World Circuit).  The title of the album is not meant to be whimsical. It’s as much of a political statement as anything popular culture has come up with in this year of cartoon campaigning and the demagoguery of Donald Trump. When jihadist terrorists took over their Mali city, Bambako, three years ago, this 4-piece collective decided to leave the country. They’ve lived on the road ever since, bouncing from gig to gig and one borrowed couch to another to crash on. That they managed to produce a searing set of blistering African blues as inspirational as this is miraculous. Combining the subtle guitar licks of their homeland’s greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the ethereal easiness of Moroccan bedouin music, “Music In Exile” feels timeless.  “Soubour”, the opening track, is a blues classic.   

3.)    Ryley Walker. “Primrose Green” (Dead Oceans Records). If the organic, natural feel of acoustic guitars floats your boat, this is the one record you need to own from this year’s great crop of albums. “Primrose Green” announced Ryley Walker as an artist to watch in years to come. It’s obvious from the first note that Bert Jansch’s blue print for Pentangle provided Walker’s artistic template. His songs showcase  virtuoso performances on his instrument and Walker’s gorgeous vocals evoke Tim Buckley and John Martyn in their prime. “The High Road” and “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” are tracks to seek out.

4.      Sufjan Stevens. “Carrie & Lowell.”  (Asthmatic Kitty).  Stevens has one of the most wide-ranging curricula vitas in modern popular music. A chameleon of the highest order, he’s dabbled in musical state histories (Illinois and Michigan); Christmas albums; orchestral works; folk music, ballet works and, now, a confessional  tribute to his parents and an intimate case study in bi-polar disorder.  He hasn’t made an album that feels this constrained since “Seven Swans.” He delivers these family tales in an introspective whisper that make the heartache and tragedy feel earned, almost sacred.


5.      
     Kendrick Lamar. “To Pimp a Butterfly.”  Eight out of every ten critics have it at the top of their best of the year lists. 11 Grammy nominations herald its historic relevance to the times and draw comparisons to Stevie Wonder’s heyday. In a year when Black Lives Matter protests were callously marginalized by Bill O’Reilly as “a radical group… not all that different from the Black Panther movement", Lamar’s angry album was as politically and culturally relevant as Bob Dylan’s finger-pointing songs of the 1960s and To Pimp a Butterfly became a timely soundtrack to the media’s sound bites of white cops shooting black teenagers.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as some other things I listened to this year, but it’s relevance to what’s happening in America is impossible to ignore.



6.      BC Camplight “How to Die In the North” (Bella Union). After two forgotten piano-based CDs that were ignored by fans and critics alike, New Jersey native Brian Christinzio moved to Manchester in the north of England and quietly went to work on this quirky, gorgeous record. “Bold, campy, heartbreaking and flush with moxie, Christinzo’s third outing is a left-field gem, an indie rock distillation of ‘60s and ‘70s chamber pop tropes that prefers Nilsson over Newman, Todd Rundgren over Lennon and McCartney,” is how James Monger’s review for the All-Music Guide review put it. “You Should have Gone to School" and “Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” best showcase the songwriter’s considerable humor and charms.



7.      Mbongwana Star. “From Kinshaha” (World Circuit) If you liked “Kongotronics” by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you’ll appreciate this Republic of Congo collective called Mbongwana Star. Employing the same “thumb pianos” as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios back in the 1950s, the recording has a live quality to it that makes it bristle with visceral power. Imagine you’re standing on a crowded street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big thing to come out of Africa and you’ll have a clue. “Malukayi”, one of the strongest cuts, features Konono.


8.      Father John Misty. “I Love You, Honey Bear.”  (Sub Pop). Josh Tillman’s second solo effort reeks of Left Coast hipster irony and white boy L.A. cynicism. Don’t let that scare you away. Think of Glenn Frey and Don Henley ooh-wooing their way through a Jackson Browne cover for an early Eagles’ album and you’ll know the well-produced studio charms of Father John’s sound. The sexually-frank bedroom details of his personal life might provide a tad too much information for the weak of heart, but so did the disintegration of Browne’s marriage back in the mid-1970s when “Late for the Sly” and “The Pretender” became classics. Like Jackson, Josh is a troubadour of the map of the heart.


9.      Waxahatchee. “Ivy Tripp.” (Merge)  Sleater-Kinney got better press and their “No Cities to Love” CD has landed on a lot of “best of the year” lists, but for my money “Waxahatchee” was the cleaner and more listenable feminist manifesto. A native of Alabama but a resident of Philadelphia, Katie Crutchfield put together a collection of songs that plumbs her past and uses the raw material of failed relationships for fodder in ways that even Carrie Brownstein would admire. “Breathless” and “La Loose” showcase Crutchfield’s fuzzy guitar rumblings, a hallmark of the album.


10.  Joanna Newsom. “Divers” (….) After keeping fans waiting five long years for her 2015 release,  Newsom finally delivered another terrific album. Newsom’s strength is an ability to create a world that seems entirely her own vision but that gives her fans access to a place of mysticism and renewal as frequently as they go to church (but that probably offers them a more uplifting experience). If Loreena McKennitt is your cup of mull, you should take a dive into “Divers.”


1    In alphabetical order, these ten records were in heavy rotation in my car stereo during the year and came close to making this 2015 list of favorite recordings. Brandi Carlisle, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”; The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”;  Patti Griffin, “Servant of Love”;  Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Ruffian’s Misfortune”; Jason Isbell, “Something More than Fire,” Kacey Musgraves, “Pageant Material”; James McMurtry, “Complicated Life”;  Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”; Satellite Hearts, “Desire  Forces the Flow”;  and Tame Impala, “Currents”.