Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mid-year pop music report

Friends who know me well, know my affinity for all kinds of popular music. I freely admit to being a music junky and that I spend far more money on this hobby than almost anything else. They also know I send out a list of my favorites at the end of the year with my Christmas cards.

My music geekdom extends to discussing my favorite CDs of the year with several close friends and the friends of my son, Luke, and engaging them in entertaining, if esoteric, conversations about which are the best CDs and songs of the year.

I have never gone quite to this length.... putting out a mid-year CD report of the top CDs of the year so far. But I figured: surely there must be other music fans in the tri-state area who are curious about the state of popular music in 2010 and who might actually enjoy some tips on what to buy this summer. My year end lists tend to undergo many changes (after intense debates) before I am finished with them. But it's a good bet at least a few of these CDs will make my 2010 year-end round up.

For the first half of 2010, these are ten discs I can say stood up to repeated listenings. I have listed them alphabetically.

"Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate". (Nonsuch). The incredible Mali guitarist, Ali Farka Toure, passed away in 2006. But he left some real treasures in the can, including this wonderful collaboration with fellow African, Toumani Diabate, the master of the kora, an African stringed instrument. They cut this album in London, in 2005, as Toure was dying. Cuban bass player, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, backs them. They previously worked together on a world music classic, In the Heart of the Moon, released in 2005. This one may be even better. Steeped in the blues this disc is full of deeply felt and very moving music, played by two giants of the continent. This is Toure's swan song.

Apples in Stereo, Travelers in Space and Time (Yep Roc Records)
Apples in Stereo specialize in piano based rock. Their sound features lush harmonies and retro hooks that cop the song styles of classic '70s bands. This year's model follows the Jeff Lynne playbook. If you were a fan of the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Electric Light Orchestra back in the day, you'll be primed for this suckerpunch of sweet ear candy.

Beach House, "Teen Dream" (Subpop). Dreamy, blissed out folk pop by two of the most innovative musicians working in America today, Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand. Chiming guitars fit hand in hand with rippling keyboard riffs as their drum machine adds tasteful taps and tics that serve as an understated backdrop for their songs. Lyrically, the CD contains Scally's most clear-eyed look at the fragile nature of relationships between men and women. "Wry and wise enough to know better about idealizing love, and romantic enough to still believe in it" as the All Music Guide review eloquently puts it.

San Patricio, the Chieftains featuring Ry Cooder (Blackrock Records). Another Ry Cooder mashup of musical styles. This time he's joined Ireland's revered Cheiftains with a wide variety of Mexican musicians to give tribute to a small battalion of Irish soldiers who, abhorrant of America's declaration of Manifest Destiny, deserted the American Army in 1846 during the Mexican War and followed their conscience to fight for Santa Ana and the Mexicans. Buoyant in some places, reverantly reflective in others, the songs give poignant testimony to this band of brothers who were labeled as traitors here but are still warmly regarded as freedom fighters by our neighbors south of the border.

Freelance Whales, "Weathervanes" (Frenchkiss). Won't likely be everyone's cup of tea, (Judah Dadone's vocals tend to sound a little too precious for fans who like their rock hard -- think Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie with a backing sound borrowed from Sufjan Stevens and you have some idea) but the music is mesmorizing, quirky and fun. Few bands would have the sheer gumption to include a banjo so high in the mix but it makes for a distinctive listening experience. WXPN listeners have been onto this one for most of the year already. A band to watch.

The Gaslight Anthem, "American Slang," (SideOneDummy). The local city paper gave this one a rave, 4-star review recently and claimed it was the "soundtrack of the summer of 2010." Hyperbole aside, more than a few of my Springsteen friends have glommed onto the Gaslight Anthem and love how the band has appropriated the Boss's signature sound to revisit the cityscapes and crippling blue collar angst of Springsteen's best early songs. "American Slang" might pale in comparison to Springsteen's classic "Born to Run" album, but what doesn't? If you love Bruce, take this one out for a spin. You won't be disappointed.

The Hold Steady, "Heaven Is Whenever" (Vagrant). Comparisons to Springsteen are an albratross the Hold Steady have had around their collective necks for several albums now. Craig Finn's acerbic descriptions of deals gone wrong and the drug-induced escapades of dead-end hood rats bear most of the responsibility. But the band rocks as hard as any American band working the bars these days and their live performances are worth seeing. I miss Franz Nicolay's keyboard playing on this disc, but Finn sounds fine and the band is as tight as ever.

Mumford & Sons, "Sigh No More" (Glassnote). Britain's answer to the Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons plough the same fertile territory of acoustic hillbilly folk/rock. Their vocal harmonies are equal to the Avett's plaintive yearnings and they play their instruments (an appealing assortment of banjos, acoustic guitars, horns and fiddles) with the same kind of abandon. My favorite new band of the year.

The National. High Violet (4AD). Hardly any pop bands feature baritone singers these days, so Matt Berninger's vocals give the National a distinct, unique sound. This is their most mature effort and my favorite disc of the first half of the year. May not jump right out of your speakers, but give it time. This one mellows like a fine cabernet and will grow on you more and more as time goes on.

Roky Erickson with Okkervil River. "True Love Cast Out All Evil". (Anti). Roky Erickson was the songwriter and lead singer for the '60s garage band, The 13th Floor Elevators. He fell on hard times for the past decade with a variety of mental problems, but this collaboration with Austin's Okkervil River is surprisingly vibrant and emotionally effective. This is haunting folk music.

Five others that are worth hearing and may grow in me yet as the year progresses:

Spoon, "Transference" (Merge)

The Len Price 3, "Pictures" (Wicked Cool)

Ike Reilly, "Hard Luck Stories" (Rock Ridge)

Radio Department, "Clinging to a Scheme" (Labrador)

LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening" (Virgin)

Many thanks to Bill Hartnett and Dominic Umile for their suggestions and input on this mid-year list.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Meet the Patriots

The Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the nation's most highly regarded social reform groups, publishes a quarterly magazine called "Intelligence Report." The summer 2010 issue came out this past week and it's a useful primer of the New Patriots -- the "new generation (that) leads the reborn antigovernment movement."

This is the face of the future of America and it is not pretty. Oh, they smile all right. But their's is the smile of a cat that swallowed the canary. They represent the most dangerous arc of ultra-conservative politics since the Red Scare days of Senator Joseph McCarthy and their hateful bile and outright lies are aimed at bringing about armed insurrection against the government.

"Patriots" is the word they use to describe themselves. "Take back our country" is their rallying cry. But the nitwits who buy into their screeds don't question this bumper sticker "wisdom". They respond to it with visceral glee and campaign dollars. What they advocate is nothing short of sedition. Who they are is the opposite of patriots. Traitors is the word that comes to mind.

"Intelligence Report" has 35 capsule summaries of the worst of the lot. Most of them are names you've never heard of -- yet. I don't have the stomach or the inclination to give you all 35 profiles. But here are some of the worst offenders and what IR has to say about these creeps.
Jon Roland. "When a militiaman claims the federal government is trampling the Constitution, he might have Roland to thank... In the mid'90s, Roland founded the Constitution Society, a Patriot organization whose website assembles writings of all manner of constitutional issues, including a section on the alleged right to assemble a militia. The site delves into the world of conspiracy theories by providing links to sites questioning the Oklahoma City bombing and the role of researchers in creating the HIV virus."
Cliff Kincaid. "Whether he's sounding the alarm about the Vatican's role in the 'New World Order' or the prospect of the U.S.military becoming a sinister homosexual fighting force, Kincaid persistently churns out columns savaging liberals, making groundless claims and trumpeting far-right conspiracy theories.... He is the founder and president of America's Survival Inc., a group that said it monitors the United Nations in order to "expose the influence of global institutions" on people's lives."
Gary Franchi. "Franchi is one of the leading promoters of a resurgent Patriot conspiracy theory that alleges the government is creating concentration camps for U.S. citizens. In 2009, he produced 'Camp FEMA: American Lockdown,' a video contending that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is behind the camps that could be used to house political dissenters. The camps 'are on existing military bases now, it's not a big secret.' "
Norm Olson. "Few people played a bigger role in transforming Michigan into a hotbed of militia activity during the '90s than Olson. Today, the founder of the Michigan Militia is living in Alaska and working with others to build the Alaska Citizens Militia. He told the Reboubt Reporter that he was convinced Americans would be forced to repel "tyrannical, oppressive federal aggression......America is very very ill," he said, "and people across the country are preparing themselves."
Mike Vanderboegh. "On March 19th, Vanderboegh, enraged at the imminent passage of health care reform, furiously called on Americans to break the windows of local Democratic Patry headquarters offices around the country. 'If you wish to send a message that [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and her party cannot fail to hear, break their windows,' he wrote. "'Break them NOW. Break them and run to break again. Break them in broad daylight.' Over the next few days, party office windows and those of several members of Congress were indeed smashed with bricks in several states, criminal attacks followed with glee by Vanderboegh in his blog's 'Window War' feature."
Does anyone besides me hear the echoes of the rise of the National German Socialist Workers' Party in all of this? Can our own version of Kristallnacht be far behind?
Let's call these people what they are: the lunatic fringe. Neo-cons. Radicals. Arch-enemies of the state. Traitors to the constitution.
They bring shame to the word "conservative." Where is the conservative outrage?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Merchant Wows WCU Poetry Conference

Natalie Merchant, the renowned American folk-rock artist, closed the 16th Annual Poetry Conference at West Chester University's Swope Hall with a 90-minute performance of poems set to music that was as informative as it was musically captivating.

Backed up a tasteful 3-piece acoustic band and armed with a powerpoint presentation of black and white photographs, Merchant's performance to the assembled poets and professors was an enchanting mix of lecture and music. She performed 15 or so "songs" from her most recent release, Leave Your Sleep. Critics have called it the most ambitious project of her long and auspicious career.

She took nursery rhymes, poems, and lullabies of 19th and 20th century British and American writers as source material for her record, setting them to original music. Some are well known children's standards and others barely known at all. Some of the authors she covered in last evening's performance were e.e. cummings, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Edward Lear, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mervyn Peake, Ogden Nash, Nathalia Crane, and Robert Graves.

Among the highlights of last evening's performance were Nash's wonderfully whimsical "The Adventures of Isabel", Crane's "The Janitor's Boy" (a paean to unrequited teen-age lust) and Stevenson's somber "The Land of Nod," written in a feverish stupor near the end of his life when he weighed less than 110 pounds.
Merchant's performances of the poem/songs were always engaging. She used her arms and hands expressively to accentuate the lyrical meaning of the songs. Seeing her perform in such an intimate setting (the event was held in the Madeleine Wing Adler Auditorium, which only seats 300 or so patrons) made the evening a special event.
What made the evening especially memorable were Merchant's small touches: the black and white photograph portraits of the poets she projected onto a back-dropped screen and the stories she told about the poems she choose for her project. These intimate history lessons, though academic in nature, were perfect for this scholarly audience and not the kind of performance she would likely duplicate in a concert setting for her regular fans.
It was a bravura performance and a worthy way to end Professor Michael Peich's tenure at the helm of the annual poetry conference. A panel of tuxedoed poets, lead by the former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia, held a "celebrity roast" of Peich at the Holiday Inn afterward Merchant's performance.
Most of the jokes, stories and poems recited in Peich's honor were far too ribald to repeat here.
It was a night to remember.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Observations of the Shanghai World's Fair

This is a picture of my 22-year-old daughter, Isabel, taken in Shanghai, China. For the past 10 months, she has been living and working in Shanghai as an aupair for a Boston couple with three young children.

Several days ago, she told me she was going to be visiting the Shanghai world's fair. I asked her to write some of her impressions of her visit to the World's Fair. This is her report.

She graduated from Henderson High School almost exactly five years ago on this day. It seems amazing how far she has traveled in just five short years. Nothing could symbolize that sentiment more than her report from Shanghai. Me, her mom and siblings and many of her old friends look forward to seeing her at the end of June and of hearing more about her adventures in China these past 10 months.

Isabel's report from Shanghai:

I’ve been in Shanghai for 10 months and it is impossible not to get swept up in the frenzy and excitement of the World Expo. Haibao, the expo’s jolly blue mascot, is scattered by the thousands around the city. The city has been remodeling 24/7 in preparation; expanding, cleaning, building, planting, painting, de-Chinglish-izing, and convincing Shanghainese not to wear quilted pjs outside on the street.

A large clock at the central transportation hub of the city counted down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the highly anticipated opening of the Expo on May 1st. With all the intense hype here, I assumed the rest of the world was equally absorbed in the Christmas-like splendor of the Expo. “What do you mean, you haven’t heard of the World Expo?!” I retorted to friends from home when they admitted ignorance of the event. “It’s only the world convergence of technology innovation, a forum to showcase new ideas and highlight the advancements of each country…” But then again, maybe I’ve been sipping too much of Shanghai’s Haibao-blue Kool aid.

I originally planned to spend a few hours casually walking around the expo. My Chinese friend Sully was appalled by this plan, and stated that it was an absolute waste of a ticket to spend less than an entire day experiencing it. We arrived at 9:30 am for the day’s opening, herded with thousands of other visitors past metal detectors and security screening. The Chinese expo volunteers smiled broadly and looked sheepishly excited to try out their English on a real foreigner.

Looking around, I was hard pressed to see another foreign face. Shanghai’s campaign for its citizens to learn some English phrases in preparation for foreign visitors paid off and many Chinese expo goers approached me smiling saying, “Hello! Where are you from? Welcome to Shang-hai!” They were equally surprised when I answered back, “Ni hao! Wu shi Meiguo ren.”

After spending almost one year in China, I’m pretty desensitized to crowds, but 600,000 people visited the expo on Sunday. That’s approximately the population of the city of Boston. It was a sea of people and we moved with the current even if that wasn’t our intended direction of travel. Everyone moved with purpose and excitement, racing through the gates to queue up for the different pavilions.

The atmosphere was festive and bubbling with excitement. Grown Chinese men looked child-like in their excitement as they plowed ahead through the crowds with wife and kid in tow. There were many families, but every age seemed to be represented. Teenagers with friends, companies treating their employees to the event, flag touting tour groups from all over China.

Lines for some pavilions stretched past four hours in length. I was half tempted to invite my friend’s grandmother just so we could get wheel chair priority and skip the lines. Sully and I avoided the expos big draws like Italy (with its designer cars and dresses), Switzerland (with a real alpine chair lift) and Belgium (with a working chocolate factory) and instead zoomed into lesser hyped, but still impressive pavilions, like Luxembourg, Slovenia and Czech Republic.

Large stages were set up around the expo and musicians from around the world played throughout the day. We listened to an acoustic guitarist from South Africa sing easy, soulful pop songs. In the African pavilion, a ten person drum troupe from Kenya performed as dancers twirled in red satin dresses. High school marching bands, dance troupes, choirs, orchestras, acrobatics will all be showcased throughout the Expo’s six month opening.

Almost every country’s pavilion had a café attached serving traditional food. There was a spectrum of foods and prices. Both Italy and France had beautiful sit down restaurants with legitimate chefs flown in for the occasion. Many of the pavilion gift shops sold fine wines and packaged food from their country. The expo offered everything from Chinese baozi (a bready dumpling) for less than $1, Western staples like McDonalds and Papa Johns, well known Shanghai restaurant chains like South Beauty, and even $100 a head fine dining options. After 6 hours walking around, Sully and I sprung for a grande Starbucks latte to rejuvenate.

I was impressed by each pavilion’s tri-lingual volunteers who switched effortlessly between welcoming visitors in Mandarin, English and their country’s native language. At the Australian pavilion, Chinese visitors broke out into delighted giggles and cheers when a red-headed 20 year old Aussie volunteer addressed the crowd in perfect Mandarin. The expo was stationed with hundreds of volunteers, all eagerly waiting someone to ask for directions or a pavilion recommendation.

Each pavilion seemed like a futuristic fete of architecture and art. Many featured impossibly large LED screens. Others looked like they sprung from the imagination of Dr. Seuss. Most pavilions represented their country with 3-D videos, photographs and interactive exhibits. Some exhibits just seemed like a travel brochure advertising the touristic appeal of their country, but most pavilions used technology creatively to showcase their country and represent their vision for the future.

As the sun set, the pavilions were ablaze in a spectacle of colors. Most families headed home around this time; tuckered kids asleep on parents’ shoulders, still clutched Haibao souvenirs. Singapore was our last pavilion for the night and I struggled to stay awake in the darkened theater as four Singaporean pop stars serenaded us on a 3-D screen. We walked out feeling satisfied but exhausted. 12 hours, 20 pavilions, and one extra-large coffee later, I left the expo having only seen a fraction of it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A perfectly imperfect game -- why baseball still matters

By now you have probably seen this picture: the crestfallen and humbled ump, his eyes rimmed red with emotion, shaking hands with the young pitcher who lost his chance at history when the same ump blew a close call at first base on the final play of the game on Wednesday.

Jim Joyce (the man in black) and Detroit pitcher Armando Galaragga, forever will be linked in baseball lore for their roles in this episode. And nothing could be a better advertisement for baseball, the grandest sport of all.

Just four days after Phillies' ace Roy Halladay pitched the 20th perfect game in the history of the major leagues, Galaragga took his perfect game into the ninth inning. He got two quick outs and, on a 1-1 pitch, raced to cover the first base bag when Chicago shortstop Jason Donald hit a high chopper to the right side of the infield. Detroit's first baseman (who probably should have stayed at his position and let the second basemen handle the ball) knew the hitter was fleet and that the play needed a quick ending. He hit Galaragga in stride at the bag with a hard, quick throw.

The pitcher's foot came down awkwardly at the rear of the bag (possibly obscuring Joyce's view of the play) and a raucous Detroit crowd cheered history in the making -- until Joyce crossed his arms in the universal sign for "safe"..... and the game continued. Galaragga's manager, the esteemed Jim Leyland, heatedly argued the call, but Galaragga just gave the umpire an impish smile, as if to say: "I think you might have missed that one ump."
His reaction to this catastrophe (how often do you miss making history by a heartbeat? By another person's mistake?) spoke volume about his character and about the sport itself. He smiled at his misfortune! He didn't utter a single word of protest. You just had to love him for that. No posturing. No red veins popping out of his neck. He was just a guy who seemed content in knowing he had just thrown a perfect game but that human error had cost him a place in the record books: and that was okay.
What a lesson for the fans, especially Little Leaguers and their hyper-competitive parents!!
In slow motion, it's obvious Joyce missed the call. In fairness to Joyce, it's a lot easier to make this call in slow motion. In the heat of the moment, with history hanging in the balance, it's a heck of a lot harder to be right. Joyce apologized and, to his credit, admitted his mistake publicly.
To his credit, Galarraga accepted his apology and moved on. He patted Joyce on the shoulder when he gave the ump his team's line-up card at home plate before last night's game. The umpire shook his hand and returned the pat, albeit a little more emphatically than Galaragga's tap.
This morning, one of the announcers on ESPN noted that the blown call at first base will likely cost the pitcher several hundred thousand dollars in autograph opportunities over the span of his big league career.
The Tigers gave him a red convertible for his near miss with history.
He got something a lot more valuable than money and a brand new car if you ask me.
Armando Galaragga always will be known as a stand up guy, a player who loves and respects the game so much he didn't complain when history eluded his grasp.
There is no Hall of Fame for decency and human kindness. But people don't forget such acts. We celebrate them. They are bigger than perfect games.