Cerebral Decanting

Music Reviews every Wednesday .....

Art/Lit (& Politics) other days......

by Jason Gubbels

Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 127)




Sisyphus, Sisyphus     (Asthmatic Kitty)

As befits anything commissioned by the Walker Art Center, this offering from former S/S/S collective Son Lux, Sufjan Stevens, and Serengeti favors atmosphere over exposition, and the mood is melancholic: sweet exteriors coating bleak topics. But it’s no downer. May Sufjan forever abandon narrative for melodic coloring - gasping “will you fill my lunar eclipse” over oceanic synthpop (“Take Me”) before shakily getting his mortal affairs in order on “I Won’t Be Afraid,” he’s never been more winningly androidal. Son Lux goes deep into a dreamstate 1986, from stripped-down drum machines banging out a “Booty Call” that’s almost anything but to the clanging melodic riff on “Rhythm Of Devotion” (is that TV On The Radio’s “I Was A Lover” horn blasts? couldn’t be!). And while David Cohn’s rhymes seem impersonal, he’s still puzzling over the little details and the big problems. Goofy small talk: “Me, I’m a Cancer / Got all the answers”. Teenage boredom dosed with Nintendo: “We felt like superstars / Porn and your mom’s lube”. Positivity: “And when you feel / Like drivin’ your car / Into a telephone pole / Just stop it”. Post-rehab bullet points tripping off the lips: “Depression / Repression / Expression / Obsession”. And on “Dishes In The Sink,” Cohn outlines with brief strokes a portrait of financial despair, in which vacations eat into health care and somebody mumbles one of this miniaturists’s saddest lines: “Ain’t around my son / So I bought the boy a ball”.   

Young Thug & Bloody Jay, Black Portland     (free download)

First thing everybody mentions is how weird this ATLien is, which he is, although don’t get carried away - Kool Keith and Lil’ B are far more wack. As a fan of oddballs, I think the strangest thing about Young Thug is his perplexingly featureless nom de plume, and would note that compared to the lo-fi lumbering of last year’s 1017 Thug, this succinct and genial mixtape seems committed to making nice. Production is crisp, cheesy synth strings rising and falling against subwoofer-clacking 808s, with Three 6 Mafia sampled for that old-time feel (“Sings”) and creature feature theatrics enlivening “Paranoia”. Can’t deny the hooks, either, from “4 Eva Bloody’s” jubilant emo karaoke to the Jamaican blues holler of “Florida Water”. Give sidekick Bloody Jay his tightly-wound and swaggering due, Klaus Kinski to the boss’s Werner Herzog. And behold Young Thug’s flow: halting, murmuring, unpredictable, maddening. He drops plenty of head-scratchers (“I like chicken, I like birrrrrrrrdddds”). But most of the time, you sense what he’s getting at, even when you don’t quite know what he means: “we ain’t ku klux klan / but that jet hold three k’s”; “jewelry colder than the attic”; “no phone, but I move on protocol”; “money stand like eight feet/ just like twooooo midgets”. 


Marsha Ambrosius, FVCK&LOVE EP     (free download)

You have to wait until track 4 for the panties to really come off, but when this Liverpool/Philly singer gets down to business after ten minutes of keytar foreplay and woozy interludes, things get fairly monumental. Over synths throbbing like the organ of her desire, electro-claps and bass oomph offer soft cushions for reasonable demands: “go further than you’ve ever been inside me, babe”. Ambrosius’s partner blurts out a few fun male boasts (“I know your body better than you”), but, really, she’s calling the positions (“69”) and the shots (“Come”). Things are slightly less rapturous in the morning, although “Friends & Lovers” only touches briefly on practical matters (“all my passwords you know”). A celebration of raw coitus unencumbered by the social contract(s) that so bummed out Babyface and Toni, and it does sound like fun.

Our New Mugwumps: Thomas Frank On Progressive Billionaires

1.  During the nineteenth century, a long string of saintly aristocrats fought to reform the state and also to adjust the habits and culture of working-class people. These two causes were the distinctive obsessions of the wealthy liberals of the day: government must be purified, and working people must learn to behave. They had to be coerced into giving up bad habits. They had to learn the ways of thrift and hard work. There had to be sin taxes. Temperance. Maybe even prohibition.

On the single greatest issue of the time, however, these sanctimonious reformers were of no use at all. They were in favor of clean government, to be sure, but when it came to organized money’s war on the world, which was then bringing impoverishment and industrial combat and dislocations of every description, they were indistinguishable from the most stalwart conservatives.

2.  Describing the patrician “Mugwump type,” the historian Richard Hofstadter writes,

[T]he most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire… . He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.

If that description hits uncomfortably close to home, well, good. We’ve returned to the Gilded Age, laissez-faire is common sense again, and Victorian levels of inequality are back.

3.  The single greatest issue of then is the single greatest issue of now, and once again people like [Michael] Bloomberg—a modern-day Mugwump if ever there was one—have nothing useful to say about it, other than to remind us when it’s time to bow before the mighty. Oh, Bloomberg could be relentless in his mayoral days in his quest for sin taxes, for random police authority, for campaigns against sugary soda and trans fats. But put a “living wage” proposal on his desk, and he would denounce it as a Soviet-style interference in private affairs.

During the Occupy Wall Street protests, he declared that we should stop criticizing investment banks; it would cost us jobs: “If you want jobs you have to assist companies and give them confidence to go and hire people.” Later on, when confronted with a successor who didn’t share his views, he graduated to straight-up trickle-down: “The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people.” Only by helping the rich, and helping them more, and then helping them even more, can we ever hope to do something for the poor.

4.  And consider the enlightened views of the nation’s other neo-Mugwumps as they address us from the charitable foundations, the NPR airwaves, or the city hall of the burg you live in. Listen to their endless plans for reforming education, for example, by which they always seem to mean either that we must unleash market forces in the schools or that students must make themselves more desirable to employers by studying one of the STEM fields. We get rules and more tests, the entrepreneurs get freedom. And I have yet to hear of a liberal billionaire who feels doubts about “free trade” with, well, anyplace.

5.  To say that there is no solidarity in this form of liberalism is to state the obvious. This is not about standing with you, it is about disciplining you: moving you out of the desirable neighborhoods, stopping and frisking you, prodding you to study the right things. Or, at its very noblest, it is about enlisting you in some fake “grassroots” effort whose primary purpose is to demonstrate the supreme moral virtue of the neo-Mugwump who’s funding the thing—to foam the runway for him as he makes his final approach to Heaven International Airport.

In this new political world, it often feels as though we non-billionaires have been reduced to spectators. Between the Koch brothers of the right and the neo-Mugwumps of the center, we seem to have no choice anymore. Yes, the final decision on Election Day is still up to us, same as it is on “American Idol,” but the spectacle itself is arranged by exalted people who are as distant from us as Zeus was from the ancient Greeks.

— Thomas Frank, “Straight into the Fox News buzzsaw: Why elite, billionaire liberalism always backfires,” Salon, April 20 2014


Caribbean Reality And Wildest Imagination: R.I.P. Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Paris Review / Peter H. Stone:

How did you start writing?

Gabriel García Márquez:

By drawing. By drawing cartoons. Before I could read or write I used to draw comics at school and at home. The funny thing is that I now realize that when I was in high school I had the reputation of being a writer, though I never in fact wrote anything. If there was a pamphlet to be written or a letter of petition, I was the one to do it because I was supposedly the writer. When I entered college I happened to have a very good literary background in general, considerably above the average of my friends.

At the university in Bogotá, I started making new friends and acquaintances, who introduced me to contemporary writers. One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect… .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

So I immediately started writing short stories. They are totally intellectual short stories because I was writing them on the basis of my literary experience and had not yet found the link between literature and life. The stories were published in the literary supplement of the newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá and they did have a certain success at the time—probably because nobody in Colombia was writing intellectual short stories. What was being written then was mostly about life in the countryside and social life. When I wrote my first short stories I was told they had Joycean influences.

Paris Review:

Had you read Joyce at that time?

Gabriel García Márquez:

I had never read Joyce, so I started reading Ulysses. I read it in the only Spanish edition available. Since then, after having read Ulysses in English as well as a very good French translation, I can see that the original Spanish translation was very bad. But I did learn something that was to be very useful to me in my future writing—the technique of the interior monologue. I later found this in Virginia Woolf, and I like the way she uses it better than Joyce. Although I later realized that the person who invented this interior monologue was the anonymous writer of the Lazarillo de Tormes.

Paris Review:

Can you name some of your early influences?

Gabriel García Márquez:

The people who really helped me to get rid of my intellectual attitude towards the short story were the writers of the American Lost Generation. I realized that their literature had a relationship with life that my short stories didn’t.

And then an event took place which was very important with respect to this attitude. It was the Bogotazo, on the ninth of April, 1948, when a political leader, Gaitan, was shot and the people of Bogotá went raving mad in the streets. I was in my pension ready to have lunch when I heard the news. I ran towards the place, but Gaitan had just been put into a taxi and was being taken to a hospital. On my way back to the pension, the people had already taken to the streets and they were demonstrating, looting stores and burning buildings. I joined them.

That afternoon and evening, I became aware of the kind of country I was living in, and how little my short stories had to do with any of that. When I was later forced to go back to Barranquilla on the Caribbean, where I had spent my childhood, I realized that that was the type of life I had lived, knew, and wanted to write about.

Around 1950 or ’51 another event happened that influenced my literary tendencies. My mother asked me to accompany her to Aracataca, where I was born, and to sell the house where I spent my first years. When I got there it was at first quite shocking because I was now twenty-two and hadn’t been there since the age of eight. Nothing had really changed, but I felt that I wasn’t really looking at the village, but I was experiencing it as if I were reading it. It was as if everything I saw had already been written, and all I had to do was to sit down and copy what was already there and what I was just reading.

For all practical purposes everything had evolved into literature: the houses, the people, and the memories. I’m not sure whether I had already read Faulkner or not, but I know now that only a technique like Faulkner’s could have enabled me to write down what I was seeing.

The atmosphere, the decadence, the heat in the village were roughly the same as what I had felt in Faulkner. It was a banana-plantation region inhabited by a lot of Americans from the fruit companies which gave it the same sort of atmosphere I had found in the writers of the Deep South. Critics have spoken of the literary influence of Faulkner, but I see it as a coincidence: I had simply found material that had to be dealt with in the same way that Faulkner had treated similar material.

From that trip to the village I came back to write Leaf Storm, my first novel. What really happened to me in that trip to Aracataca was that I realized that everything that had occurred in my childhood had a literary value that I was only now appreciating.

From the moment I wrote Leaf Storm I realized I wanted to be a writer and that nobody could stop me and that the only thing left for me to do was to try to be the best writer in the world. That was in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1967 that I got my first royalties after having written five of my eight books.

Paris Review:

Do you think that it’s common for young writers to deny the worth of their own childhoods and experiences and to intellectualize as you did initially?

Gabriel García Márquez:

No, the process usually takes place the other way around, but if I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. Pablo Neruda has a line in a poem that says “God help me from inventing when I sing.” It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

— from an interview With Gabriel García Márquez for Paris Review, Winter 1981/Issue 82, conducted by Peter H. Stone.


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 126)


Allen Lowe, Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 (or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora)     (Constant Sorrow)

Under consideration is whether the minstrel diaspora enriched more than it degraded our musical tributaries, a vexing issue Lowe’s been assessing for years while exiled in Maine. Coming from a white bohemian spouting “music heals” faux-naiveté or a mealy-mouthed academic dissecting vernacular poetry, it could all be so glib. Instead, a composer/performer uses 57 tracks and four discs to come to grips with what he calls “Ernest Hogan’s America”. If Lowe’s archival projects That Devilin’ Tune and Really The Blues offered shadow soundtracks to an ersatz America, 2011’s Blues And The Empirical Truth and now Mulatto Radio are through-composed commentaries - dixie stomps and circus blues, barrelhouse gospel and delta slime, emancipation rags and Haitian vacations, Bunk Johnson and Lennie Tristano. Read the liner notes for the in-jokes (“I Had Rhythm”; “Descent Into The Mailroom”), swipes at those adjudged gatekeepers (Wynton Marsalis) or hucksters (Robert Glasper), and admiration for heroes Blind Boone and Zora Neale Hurston. But study the performances to understand why the indignities suffered by Bert Williams in life and Paul Whiteman in the afterlife pain Lowe equally. The assembled players work wonders: pianist Lewis Porter and trumpeter Randy Sandke, Ray Suhy applying slide to banjo and wigging out on electric guitar, dearly departed Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre serving as AACM energy music ambassador, and the leader himself on an alto grown hoarse with the blues. Although isolating any moment seems a disservice given the all-encompassing canvas, I keep returning to “I’m An Old Regular Baptist,” in which white Appalachian hymnody rises to a witches and devils pitch courtesy of three-man horn army Ras Moshe/Kalaparusha/ Lowe. Like other performances here, it’s Lowe’s honest reckoning, the transubstantiation of charged rhetoric into chords and choruses. Long may he grumble and scrutinize.

Tom Rainey, Obliggato     (Intakt Records)

I’ve admired Rainey since first discovering his clattering drumwork on Tim Berne’s splatterpunkjazz Science Friction, and while his old boss’s Screwgun/Thirsty Ear sessions still account for the bulk of Rainey’s output, he’s steadily accrued solo studio time over the past four years. Third time out, he surprises all by assembling a fearsome crew of Downtowners on knotty label Intakt for a traipse through the Great American Songbook, Brubeck and Monk included. But while Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Ingrid Laubrock (sax), and Kris Davis (piano) all play these storied tunes with more restraint than usual, the deconstruction is still radical. These are standards as gateway to cool impressionism, as witness Duke Ellington’s 1938 “Prelude To A Kiss” opening with rumbling drum solo before giving way to hushed tone poem, or the way Brubeck touchstone “In Your Own Sweet Way” is respectfully rendered nearly unrecognizable. Yet note how “Reflections” is palpably Monkian, filled with ambling good humor even while pared down to drums/bass/sax. Once in a while, the company even cooks, like the short takes on showtune “Bells Are Ringing” and Calamity Jane number “Secret Love,” the latter featuring an inspiringly sloppy two-horn melody statement. Change of the century, no. But how about the art of the improvisers?  

Afghan Whigs, Do To The Beast     (Sub Pop)

Even minus original member Rick McCollum, aka 90s alt’s only decent slide guitarist, this Cincinnati crew’s first studio release in sixteen years claims all the familiar Whig qualities. Hipgnosis-y cover art framing literal coke head. Greg Dulli’s Ass Man Of Darkness shtick. Cinematic aspirations aplenty, right down to “Algiers” and its ludicrous shot-by-shot music video remake of High Plains Drifter. Ashford/Simpson strings meshed with pedal steel, Shirley Jackson shout-out, seductions like “I’ve come to make you pay” and “easy, easy to forego” - could it be anybody else? If their misanthropic sprawl has always made you chuckle into your shirt sleeves, this won’t spark any reevaluations. If hooks matter far more to you than atmosphere, texture, and persona, ditto. But it’s possible to prefer the songcraft of far less grandiose types while still valuing a gang of boogie brothers who knew how to brood long before fellow ambient-gloom Ohioans The National were polishing their stage act. Perennially out-of-step and sleazy as ZZ Top on a bad-sex binge, they once again specialize in my kind of bombast.

Afghan Whigs, Do To The Beast

Allowing for grumbling from small cohorts of naysayers, it seems safe to posit that the Afghan Whigs have overseen the most artistically successful alternative rock reengagement of recent years (outside of Kathleen Hanna’s triumphant 2013 Julie Ruin return, that is). Perhaps you’re among the naysayers. You might point to the low bar set by the recent run of remarkably dispiriting ’90s alt reunions: the Pixies cycling furiously through Kim Deal replacements, or Billy Corgan noodling away inside Madame ZuZu’s. You might roll your eyes at the lothario shtick Greg Dull’s been finessing since 1986. You might ask where in the Christ original guitarist Rick McCollum is [……..]

-- from my SPIN review of the new Afghan Whigs album, Do To The Beast. You can read the full piece over at the website:


Tea For The Swillerman: Cat Stevens Flexes His Prose


The announcement of my enrollment into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will certainly bring happiness to a lot of my loyal fans, and fulfillment to all those who have long campaigned for it – not to mention how kinda tickled it makes me feel too.

But the happiest of all will be those curious characters and dusty vinyl discs that have been hiding in the shadows and waiting around all these years. I can see Teaser now, just before the sun sinks below the curvy hills, jumping on top of a dustbin and over the cracked wooden fence, vigorously shaking the Tillerman who abruptly wakes up, blinking and bemused:


"Is it tea-time?"

"No! We’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Uncle!"

"Screemeeow!" The Firecat adds as it thumps into Teaser’s behind.

"Ouch! Come on! Let’s go tell the Buddha-boy," Teaser shouts, as he runs across the field with the Firecat racing behind him, trying to keep up.

"Watch out for the Bull!" cries the Tillerman, but too late. "Roaaaar!!" The Black Bull suddenly appears from behind a giant oak tree, but before it can charge, a little Buddha-boy jumps in front and catches its horns with his two hands; the Bull halts. Calming the Bull, the boy gently strokes its nose.

"There, there… Ommm." The Buddha-boy looks at Teaser. "What’s the rush?"

"I wanted to tell you, we’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! Isn’t that something?"


The Buddha-boy smiles serenely as the Bull purrs under his gentle hand. “Oh,” he says, nonchalantly. “Yes, it’s something… but is that all there is to life?”

At that moment, the Foreigner walks by and sneezes.

"Bless you!" Teaser says.

The Foreigner looks at Teaser. “Praise to God!” rejoins the stranger, who is wrapped in a long shawl made of coconut-palm leaves. “From Jamaica… my boat, she come.” He pauses and shivers. “It big, big cold in your country. Me go back now.”

"Goodbye," Teaser bids the Foreigner farewell. "Tell your people back home that we just won a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

The Foreigner looks back, rather unimpressed, “They like Reggae… and Fats Domino. Bye, bye.”


Teaser looks around for the Firecat, who has hidden behind his trousers, obviously not liking like the look of that stranger. “Oh, there you are! Come on, we’ve got to tell the Polygons…” but before he can finish the sentence, a small flying saucer lands with a ‘plonk’ on the field. Out steps Trezlar the Third.

"What’s all the ruckus about?" The chubby little Polygon asks.

"We’re all included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Trezlar."

"Ooooh! Does that mean I have to share my Banapple Gas with you from now on?" Trezlar asks, clearly concerned with keeping as much of that precious planetary nourishment to himself as possible.

"No, no. Don’t worry. It just means we’re more famous now and might have a few more fans."

"Will they want to share my Banapple Gas?" Trezlar persists.

"No, don’t fret. But get ready for more play time."

"That sounds good," says Trezlar, as he boards the small saucer and waves goodbye, disappearing up into the night sky.

Teaser and the Firecat see the Moon rising as their moonshadows stretch across the ground.

"Time to go home, Firecat."



For those who are not familiar with my albums, those characters and that little story may be slightly baffling; but for those who had them, they may remember the small watercolor worlds which my album covers magically opened up in their minds, and the hours of contemplation spent looking at those quirky figures and imagining, while the soundtrack of their lives played on in the background.

— taken from The Cat Looks Back: Yusuf Islam on His Rock Hall of Fame Honor, Rolling Stone.com, April 4 2014


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 125)


Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce, Complicated Day     (Enja / Yellowbird)  

From early days with the Lounge Lizards and Jazz Passengers to his solo conceptual constructs of mythical taverns, this idiosyncratic downtown poet/saxist/bandleader has always exuded a conversational NYC warmth even at his most arch and/or difficult. But rarely before has Nathanson given himself over so utterly to the pleasures of songform. While the assembled brass does rise in sometimes-cacophonous unison and the human beatbox stylings of Napoleon Maddox do burst forth, these seven originals and three interpretations [Isaac Hayes! Frank Loesser!] mostly exist to showcase the easy bonhomie of untrained yet pleasurable voices taking conversational turns at the mic between horn solos - cordially kooky vocal jazz of the Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough variety. The comradely mood jibes with Nathanson’s familial concerns, from that love poem Roy promised his wife he’d never recite in public to the way the proud father steps aside to feature teenage son Gabriel on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now”. Right, who needs another version of “I Can See Clearly Now”? If you haven’t yet heard it performed as lilting son montuno, perhaps you. It’s one of several delights on an album with pleasure to spare, ending with the sextet benevolently offering shalom: “Let a warm wind carry you home”.

Miles Davis, Miles At The Fillmore - Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3     (Columbia / Legacy) 

Unlike previous offerings in this clumsily-entitled excavation series, these 1970 Fillmore East concert recordings don’t capture a hitherto “lost quintet” - they simply restore four nights of performances to unfettered full extent. Which means if “Directions” being chopped down from ten minutes to two plus change on the original two-LP Miles Davis At Fillmore always struck you as an outrage, this will be essential listening. If, on the other hand, you’re grateful producer Teo Macero exerted editorial control over a sprawling unit (“Wednesday Miles”; “Saturday Miles”), this may seem mostly of historical/archival importance. As both a Miles connoisseur and Teo admirer, I feel obliged to point out that this unit wasn’t really so sprawling (a quick glance reveals remarkable consistency in both set list and running length) and that the greatest indignity visited upon Miles during his Fillmore residency was opening for Laura Nyro. With four discs under review, there’s caveats for sure: the “bonus” Fillmore West stuff tacked onto Discs 1 and 3 are inessential murk, Steve Grossman’s clock-punching solos chew up time, and “Bitches Brew” proper remains the slow indulgence it was in the studio - bells and whistles and Airto Moreira hooting. But phooey. Jack DeJohnette smokes, Dave Holland rocks the pocket, and Chick Corea/Keith Jarrett plow into mostly unchartered dual-keyboard territory, with Jarrett in particular mining a nasty organ overdrive that takes care of John McLaughlin’s missing guitar. And Miles has yet to discover the wah-wah pedal, which means his trumpet displays a forthrightness he’d soon abandon for texture and technology. As the final night’s surprise appearance of then-new and overtly rockish “Willie Nelson” suggests, things would soon tighten, then loosen, then darken. Few ever sold out with such vengeance.


Roscoe Mitchell With Craig Taborn And Kikanju Baku, Conversations 1     (Wide Hive)

Avant as hell, which isn’t surprising coming from one of destination out’s longest-running emissaries - in case you haven’t revisited it lately, rest assured Mitchell’s 1966 Sound can still peel paint. Opener “Knock And Roll” and closer “Last Train To Clover 5” present the saxophonist at a high-energy peak, his horn flurries offering noise-hounds pure catharsis. Elsewhere, Mitchell tirelessly explores the kinds of tricks that have turned so many away from the likes of AACM: squeaks, hums, spit valve rumblings. Which means sometimes the most fascinating conversations taking place are between pianist/keyboardist Craig Taborn and unknown-to-me percussionist Kikanju Baku. Taborn’s occasional synth/organ squawk can be fun, even when (or especially when) his tricks devolve into space noize. But Baku simply goes nuts, sprawling over his well-equipped kit, chimes and gongs and blocks all surging into the Hamid Drake hi-hat freneticism of “Cracked Roses”. It’ll take care of your avant fix. Just don’t expect any tunes.


Cosmopolitan Moonshine: The SoGoth Populism of the Drive-By Truckers

Take it from this Katherine Anne Porter / Zora Neale Hurston fan – some of the finest contemporary short fiction to come out of the American South hails from the shaggy-haired and power-chord festooned likes of Athens, Georgia-based rock outfit Drive-By Truckers. Two decades into a songwriting career informed by both country music’s rural/urban divide and the cultural semi-bohemianism of indie rock’s club circuit, lit majors and Tin House subscribers remain largely absent from a rowdy Trucker fan base that can rival fellow classic-rock bards The Hold Steady in the beer-chugging department. Yet while both collectives embrace a bar band exterior that belies their more eggheaded tendencies and blue-collar leftism, Truckers songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remind me at times less of Hold Steady bellicose frontman Craig Finn and more of John Darnielle, the tirelessly productive creative center of long-running DIY project The Mountain Goats.

What unites such sonically disparate types as Hood/Cooley, Finn, and Darnielle is a commitment to forthright narrative often lacking or at least undervalued within an indie community that regularly prefers obscurantism or sound poetry over storytelling. Yet while Finn’s Hold Steady panoramas consider the fragmentation of hipster/hood rat claques amid a general search for spiritual truth, Hood/Cooley spend less time examining the periphery of mainstream culture and more time pondering the daily trudge and brief highs of the kinds of working class lives receiving little artistic attention outside of country radio. And if the ongoing Mountain Goats project draws strength from Darnielle’s own peripatetic tendencies, with locales and existentialist storylines constantly shifting from West Texas and northwest Illinois to San Luis Obispo and skid row Seattle, Hood/Cooley remain stubborn regionalists, few of their narratives drifting far outside a Deep South orbit, brief jaunts into neighboring states rarely offsetting the heavy familiarity of North Alabama / Southern Tennessee / Western Georgia.


— taken from the first of a two part essay on the Drive-By Truckers, written for new literary(ish) website Entropy.


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 124)


It’s all going down over at ODYSHAPE —



Company Freak, Le Disco Social      (Opus Label)

If Jason King’s career in academia (NYU/Tisch), broadcasting (NPR), and arts journalism (Village Voice, forthcoming Freddie Mercury bio) doesn’t immediately suggest he’s the right man to head a retro-disco “international dance music collective,” well, rest assured - he is the right man. Every track here is dancefloor-ready, thanks to vintage synths, Steve Rodriguez’s slap/pop bass, succinct horn charts, and David S. Ware alumnus Guillermo E. Brown swinging through the studio. But the secret lies not so much within King’s grooves as in how the maestro defers to his vocalists, which include Rihanna counter-melodist Shayna Steele and Broadway maven Vivian Reed, who peerlessly deadpans “give me sex all day and night” on floorbanger “Sexaholic”. Unlike Daft Punk, King’s worshipful respect is aimed neither towards the machines nor the Eurozone but at such standout gay black males as fashionista extraordinaire André Leon Talley (“fabulous and free”) and Queen of Disco Sylvester (a synth-encrusted pound through 1982 Hi-NRG hit “Do Ya Wanna Funk”). And the collective refreshingly sees nothing wrong with dropping a little agitprop into the club, as witness King’s expert limning of anti-democracy forces on “Crackdown”: “Crush the opposition / Squash the 99% / Good for them / But not for me”. Which is to say this is also smart stuff. Just think how dumb a track called “Istanbul Disco” could be. Now dig the way Turgut Özüfler opens the number on solokanun. Only then do King and co. wisely bring the stupid: “Get into the groove / I like the way you move”. 

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Here Be Monsters     (De Goot Recordings)

While the Waco Brothers and Pine Valley Cosmonauts assume fairly well-defined roles within the hierarchy of Jon Langford side projects (country and covers, respectfully), Skull Orchard as both standalone 1998 album and loose musical confederation was once cheekily summarized by the man himself as a repository for stuff deemed “too Welsh”. There’s little evidence of the Llanwern steelworks this time out - as suggested by the cartographic puzzle enshrined on the cover, Langford’s examining peripheral knowledge and the edges of culture both known and unknown. But he’s also returned to the political specificity that helped distinguish Skull Orchard proper from the more enigmatic polity of the Mekons, meaning the multinational-skewering “What Did You Do In The War” shifts the onus off individual soldiers even as “Drone Operator” drops the blame right back onto an average joe who uses his fire-at-will security clearance to bolster smarmy pick-up lines (“I’m like a god with a thunderbolt”), all to the strains of a guitar lick swiped from Coltrane/Cannonball’s “All Blues” vamp. Elsewhere, the usual Langford concerns appear: surveillance states (“Call this number if you hear rumors”), artistic struggles (“Aim too high / And live in obscurity”), uneasy camaraderie (“Go down to the pub and drink some rum / And learn how other people get things done”). And then our unreliable narrator takes time on a joyfully quasi-autobiographical “Lil’ Ray Of Light” to consider the relative fame of his lofty rock and roll deeds: “All the puff pieces and picks of the week / Never got it right”.


Schoolboy Q, Oxymoron     (Top Dawg / Interscope)

Following a year in which black pop scored too few appearances within Billboard’s upper reaches, it’s satisfactory that this hardcore weirdo debuted at number one, although the hip-hop victory seems pyrrhic given Schoolboy’s refusal to grant any female character not his daughter an ounce of humanity. Really, even for us artistic apologists, this is dire stuff - “bitch, she gon’ work on that corner / I don’t care if that ho got pneumonia”; “don’t trust no ho / I might sock the bitch”; “fuck your bitch in front of your children”; and, for the romantically-inclined, “put my semen all down her throat”. As that last line suggests, Q’s quatrains could use a little tightening. Still, this has its moments, like a positively bouncing “Man Of The Year” or the oddball Gary Burton sample that drives “Blind Treats”. Meanwhile, the cold delineation of Crips-induced petty street crime on “Hoover Street” suggests he can craft compact tales when it matters. But we Black Hippy enthusiasts await Kendrick’s autumn offering.

An Enduring Legacy: Scott Walker’s Polluted Vision


Gov. Scott Walker signed Republicans’ polarizing mining bill into law Monday, completing a months-long, all-out campaign to jump-start a giant iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin.

The legislation will dramatically reshape Wisconsin’s mining regulations to ease the permitting process for the open-pit mine Gogebic Taconite wants to dig just south of Lake Superior. Environmentalists maintain the measure guts the state’s environmental protections, but Republicans say it will help create thousands of jobs.

"Wisconsin’s seal and the state flag both depict mining in our great state," Walker said in a statement after he signed the bill at Oldenburg Group Inc., a Rhinelander mining equipment manufacturer. "In light of our mining tradition, I’m thrilled to sign legislation into law protecting environmental safeguards, while providing certainty to the mine permitting process. … I am hopeful today’s actions will result in the creation of thousands of private sector jobs in the coming years."

Gogebic Taconite, a unit of the Florida-based Cline Group, has been eyeing an iron deposit in the Penokee Hills, which run through Ashland and Iron counties about 30 miles from Lake Superior. Wisconsin’s business lobby says the mine would create hundreds of jobs for the impoverished region and thousands more in the state’s heavy equipment manufacturing sector.

But company officials refused to move forward until lawmakers eased the regulatory path for them. Eager to deliver on job creation promises they made on the campaign trail, Republicans introduced a bill in late 2011 that would have overhauled the state’s regulations. Environmentalists and Democrats railed against the measure and it ultimately failed by one vote in the state Senate after moderate Republican Dale Schultz sided with minority Democrats against the plan.

Republicans gained a two-member majority in the Senate in last November’s elections, though, making Schultz’s stance irrelevant. The GOP introduced a nearly identical bill in January that lawmakers crafted with Gogebic Taconite’s input and put on the fast-track; the Senate passed it during the last week in February, and the Assembly followed suit last week, all without a single Democrat supporting the measure.

The legislation gives state environmental officials up to 480 days to make a permitting decision; right now the process is open-ended. It also bars public challenges during the process, allowing them only after the decision has been made.

The law creates a presumption that damage to wetlands is necessary and limits permit application fees to $2 million. It splits tax revenue on iron mining companies’ revenue between local governments and the state — right now all mining taxes go to the locals — and exempts companies from paying the state’s $7 per ton recycling fee on waste rock.

— Todd Richman, “Scott Walker signs mining bill into law; opponents prepare for legal battle,” Associated Press, March 12 2013


A company that wants to dig a massive iron mine near Lake Superior appears close to obtaining a stormwater permit that will allow it to widen and build new roads on the mine site to allow removal of 4,000 tons of rock for testing.

Meanwhile, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources air quality official said Wednesday that the agency decided it didn’t have authority to regulate any possible asbestos-like material that may be exposed during the bulk sampling operation.

Earlier this week, the DNR granted Gogebic Taconite an exemption from any requirement for an air pollution permit, which would have required detailed plans for controlling and monitoring dust released into the air when crews use machinery to hammer rock, screen it, load it into trucks and take it away, said Kristin Hart, a section chief in the agency’s air management program.

The company plans to test the rock to find out the type of equipment needed to extract iron.

The air permit exemption was issued because projections indicated that sampling would generate less than 10 tons of dust in a year, Hart said. But the company must keep materials wet to minimize the escape of particulate matter, she said.

Asbestos-like material has been found on the mine site, but Hart said state law allows her department to regulate hazardous materials only if they come out of smokestacks. Federal agencies regulate asbestos mines, but its not clear which laws apply here, she said.

Gogebic Taconite has stated it doesn’t believe much of the cancer-causing material is present, and it has refused DNR requests for an accounting of what it finds during bulk sampling. 

—- Steven Verburg, “Gogebic Taconite may soon have permission to start bulk sampling at iron mine site,” Wisconsin State Journal, February 6 2014


Wisconsin has been an environmental leader since 1910, when the state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment promoting forest and water conservation. Decades later, pioneering local environmentalists like Aldo Leopold and Senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day in 1970, helped forge the nation’s ecological conscience.

But now, after the recent passage of a bill that would allow for the construction of what could be the world’s largest open-pit iron ore mine, Wisconsin’s admirable history of environmental stewardship is under attack.

The mine, to be built by Gogebic Taconite (GTac), owned by the coal magnate Chris Cline, would be in the Penokee Hills, in the state’s far north — part of a vast, water-rich ecosystem that President John F. Kennedy described in 1963, in a speech he delivered in the area, as “a central and significant portion of the freshwater assets of this country.”

The $1.5 billion mine would initially be close to four miles long, up to a half-mile wide and nearly 1,000 feet deep, but it could be extended as long as 21 miles. In its footprint lie the headwaters of the Bad River, which flows into Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world and by far the cleanest of the Great Lakes. Six miles downstream from the site is the reservation of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, whose livelihood is threatened by the mine.

To facilitate the construction of the mine and the company’s promise of 700 long-term jobs, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation last year granting GTac astonishing latitude. The new law allows the company to fill in pristine streams and ponds with mine waste. It eliminates a public hearing that had been mandated before the issuing of a permit, which required the company to testify, under oath, that the project had complied with all environmental standards. It allows GTac to pay taxes solely on profit, not on the amount of ore removed, raising the possibility that the communities affected by the mine’s impact on the area’s roads and schools would receive only token compensation.

The legislation has generated fierce opposition since it was first introduced in 2011. The following year, the bill was actually defeated in the State Senate, 17 to 16, owing to the defection of one Republican, Dale Schultz. After the vote, the Republican majority leader, Scott Fitzgerald, told me that “the corporation and their attorneys drafted a bill that may have been acceptable in other states,” with the implication being that the company had perhaps gone too far for Wisconsin.

Since then, however, Democrats have lost three Senate seats and an even more industry-friendly version of the bill was revived and passed. According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a campaign-finance watchdog, GTac executives and other mine supporters have donated a total of $15 million to Governor Walker and Republican legislators, outspending the mine’s opponents by more than 600 to 1.

Most distressing to many native Wisconsinites, including me, was the way the bill violated a bipartisan, reform-minded civic tradition called the Wisconsin Idea. For more than a century, the Wisconsin Idea had encouraged the use of scientific expertise to inform public policy, but the mining bill dangerously ignores geological reality.

Before the passage of the bill, Marcia Bjornerud, a geology professor at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., testified before the legislature that samples she had taken from the mine site revealed the presence of sulfides both in the target iron formation and in the overlying rock that would have to be removed to get to the iron-bearing rocks. (When exposed to air and water, sulfides oxidize and turn water acidic, which can be devastating to rivers and streams, along with their fish populations.) Sulfide minerals, Professor Bjornerud said, would be an unavoidable byproduct of the iron mining. But the bill does not mandate a process for preventing the harm from the sulfide minerals that mining would unleash.

Equally troubling was the more recent discovery by Tom Fitz, a geology professor at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., of a highly carcinogenic asbestos-form mineral at one of GTac’s sampling sites. The fibers of the mineral, which would be dispersed in blasting, are like tiny, breathable needles.

The Bad River fear the contamination of the fish they depend on for food and the destruction of sensitive wild rice beds that they harvest on the coast of Lake Superior. Mr. Wiggins has voiced his opposition to the mining legislation in private meetings with Mr. Walker, led Wisconsin’s tribes in demonstrations at the State Capitol in Madison and allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars of the Bad River tribe’s scant resources to legal fees to fight the mine.

The Bad River and several other tribes assert that the state has no right to permit the enormous mine without their agreement since the site lies in “ceded territory,” an area covering a large portion of Northern Wisconsin where tribal members maintain special hunting, fishing and harvesting rights enshrined in federal treaties. Last June, one of the tribes established an educational camp near the mining site to draw attention to how the mine would violate its treaty rights, as well as to highlight sustainable alternatives to mining. GTac responded to a minor altercation with protesters unconnected to the camp by hiring an Arizona-based private-security firm, which sent guards armed with semiautomatic weapons to patrol the mine site. 

In the Chippewa tradition, a decision is made based on how it will affect people seven generations forward. By contrast, the company’s optimistic estimate for the life span of the first phase of the mine is 35 years.

—- Dan Kaufman, “The Fight For Wisconsin’s Soul,” The New York Times, March 29 2014