Cerebral Decanting

Music Reviews every Wednesday .....

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

by Jason Gubbels

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




Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 123) Winter 2014 Bombs


Let’s usher in spring by sweeping out some of the most over-hyped/over-praised/over-baked releases of winter 2014.

Also, another reminder that “Listening Notes” is shifting over to its new home at Odyshape —    http://www.odyshape.com

Bruce Springsteen, High Hopes     (Columbia)

Nobody has more of a right to revisit their back pages than this perennially forward-looking workaholic. And perhaps no song in Springsteen’s mighty back catalog is more deserving of revisitation than the Live In New York City-consigned “American Skin (41 Shots),” recent events having magnified the song’s relevancy beyond municipal outrage to encompass the lonesome deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. But even that song seems undone by the fussy studio sheen ladled over it, a fate befalling every other tune here, none of which are standouts. From the synth-choked wiseguys number and the cluttered Celtic jig to the Saints cover muddied with “Penny Lane” horn charts and a title track bloated by Audioslave pyrotechnics, this grab bag’s mushy center cannot hold. Yet there’s a unifying factor in place - showboating guitarist Tom Morello, or as Bruce likes to call him, “my muse”. Morello certainly goes for finger-flurrying broke on yet another version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Still, somebody should remind Bruce’s ax-wielding afflatus that Steinbeck’s metaphors are generally ham-fisted enough to render window-dressing superfluous.

Hospitality, Trouble    (Merge)

Having loved the baroque-pop flourishes of single “Friends of Friends” without ever quite connecting with the sweet melancholy informing the entire song cycle, I’ll admit underrating this Brooklyn outfit’s 2012 debut, although not by much. Or maybe the art-prog archness of their scattershot follow-up simply helped throw the debut’s harmless twee into sharp relief. Hospitality have indeed discovered guitars, as see the rather catchy “I Miss Your Bones,” complete with spiky solos that at least one wishful thinker has compared to Marquee Moon. They’ve also discovered vintage synthesizers, which helps explain the daft twaddle of the nearly seven-minute “Last Words”. Frolicking amidst cascading mellotron and crescendoing moog, savoring every thudding silence or downshifting tempo, Amber Papini and co. will clearly give anything a shot. What is it that bands have too much of these days? Right - ambition.

Rick Ross, Mastermind     (Maybach / Slip-n-Slide / Def Jam)

Of course this is ponderous cheese - it’s Rick Ross, self-inflated pomposity is what he’s pushing. Amid grandiose production and soaring strings he doth bellow and hector, so committed to pursuing his South Florida crime narrative that listeners get treated to both gunshots and a Scarface shout-out within the opening seconds. No regrets, no second thoughts, no insights, really. Not even many jokes, unless you snicker when the mastermind compares scarfing sushi at Nobu to Afghan soldiers wired with explosives. Just the self-pitying soliloquies of a fictional drug lord, complete with audio verite clips proudly documenting that one time he got shot at. Fucks the game raw, he wants you to know: “Pussy boy, we all could die tonight”. 

Sun Kil Moon, Benji     (Caldo Verde)

Back in his Red House Painters prime, Mark Kozelek applied thick dollops of distortion to flesh out his skeletal compositions, and the results were generally engaging in a rainy afternoon kind of way. Lately, he’s mostly just skeletal, pursuing formless musings in sluggish all-acoustic formats. As befits an artist nearing 50, Kozelek’s thinking a little bit about death, which means sweet if hardly distinguished tributes to his parents. But his conception of mortality seems commingled with morbidity, as it so often does in the minds of men younger and more callow than Kozelek.  Which means James Oliver Huberty, Adam Lanza, and Richard Ramirez The Night Stalker all make grisly appearances, while the album opens with a low-energy narrator drawling out a family tragedy’s gory details: “Carissa burned to death last night / in a [pause] freak accident fire / in her yard and Brewster her daughter came home from a party and found her / same way as my uncle / who was her grandfather”. Sure got a way with words, don’t he? And we haven’t yet considered the ten-minute “I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same”.

Linda Perhacs, The Soul Of All Natural Things     (Asthmatic Kitty)

I know the guy from Opeth has raved over Parallelograms, this dental hygienist’s 1970 freak-folk obscurity. That doesn’t mean the private press crowd is onto something. Yet those adherents marvel over the way Linda Perhacs’s cosmic wonderings haven’t aged a day after forty-odd years out of the studio, as if New Age blather has never ripened into a stinky cheese before. I sorta prefer 2014’s string-choked merely corny Linda (“True as the light of a new day / I want to be freely with you”) to 1970’s folkie-guitar animal magnetism Linda (“Dolphin / take me with you”). Gotta say, though, she’s definitely lost her knack for snappy song titles. If Parallelograms boasted “Chimacum Rain,” “Hey Who Really Cares,” and “Porcelain Baked-Over Cast-Iron Wedding,” things are sounding a lot more teleological these days. “River Of God”. “When Things Are True Again”. And, uh oh, “Song Of The Planets”.

Cole Swindell, Cole Swindell     (Warner Bros)

Anybody wearied by Eric Church’s chest-thumping mythos or turned off by Eric Paslay’s business degree should attend to this objet d’art as a graphic reminder of what it’s like to really sink your teeth into a Nashville shit cake. A living breathing bro-country cut-out evincing zero personality, there’s no Florida Georgia Line table scrap Swindell won’t slurp up. Does he cruise some back roads? Does he kick it with a couple of down home boys? Does his girlie dance in his truck bed under the Tennessee moonlight? Does he pop the cork and tap the keg? Does he rhyme “tonight” with “damn right”?

The Hold Steady, “Teeth Dreams”

Craig Finn’s the kind of rock and roller who references W.B. Yeats and John Berryman because he’s dog-eared their paperbacks, not just because he likes the way the syllables roll off his tongue. So when Finn named an entire Hold Steady album after Jack Kerouac’s On the Road soliloquy about boys and girls in America having such sad times together, you could tell he held the line in high esteem, enough to pit it against the foreboding presence of Berryman the Confessional Poet, who takes the plunge off Minneapolis’s Washington Avenue Bridge midway through “Stuck Between Stations.” Finn’s a smart reader: he knows Kerouac’s literary reputation wilts before that of Berryman’s. Yet Kerouac got the pull-quote while Berryman merely symbolized artistic exhaustion in the face of “colossal expectations.” Finn’s always preferred tales of pensive youth to snapshots of depressive adulthood.


From my SPIN review of the new Hold Steady album Teeth Dreams. You can read the rest of the review at SPIN’s site, here:


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 122) + News


Very excited to announce that my weekly tumblr / music column [“Listening Notes”] has a new home on the website ODYSHAPE (yep, that’s a Raincoats reference), where it will share space with other weekly columns from several other talented writers. The site is a lovely thing, all my past columns are easily searchable, and you can leave comments. Please take a look, not just at my latest notes (uh, dance music of the Chicago/Baltimore/Detroit circuit) but at the other good stuff going on over at ODYSHAPE.



Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records 1986-1997 (Strut)

Anybody bewildered by electronica’s micro-genre tendencies should take a simple maxim to heart: follow the disco beat. Because when we’re talking stateside dance music of the African-American variety, that’s what lurks behind all those 909s and 303s, the 4/4 kicks and the 2/4 claps and the 8/4 hi-hats. And we all love disco, don’t we? The good folks at Soul Jazz have expertly (not cheaply) traced the first line of Chicago’s acid house scene as it emerged from discotheque ghettos, and now Strut adds to the discussion via this two-disc overview of Ray Barrey’s scrappy house label Dance Mania. If you want to ease in, the most obviously disco-indebted cuts are Victor Romeo’s full-on diva club mix “Love Will Find A Way” or the too-fast-for-soft-porn soft-porn haze of Vincent Floyd’s “I Dream You”. Then take your pick from Chicago house’s many strains: the funky (a killer organ hook cementing “Ride The Ride Rhythm”), the noisy (DJ Funk’s brutal street mix of “The Original Video Clash”), the weird (Strong Soul’s disjointed “Twinkles,” glitchy as Autechre), and the it’s-1986-and-we’re-gonna-sample-James-Brown (Duane And Co channeling Eric B on “J.B. Traxx”). Perhaps the notes overstate Dance Mania’s raunchiness - most tracks here are in fact instrumental. Yet there’s plenty of evidence supporting Barrey’s contention that singles were progressively sleazed up to get the men onto the dance floor alongside their ladies, which helps contextualize “Feel My M.F. Bass,” “Hit It From The Back,” and most especially Jammin’ Gerald’s “Black Women,” a comedy record of epic proportions. I prefer Parrish Mitchell and Wax Master’s 1995 disco/hip-hop crowd-worker “Ghetto Shout Out!!,” which shuffles along a clipped “Billie Jean” bassline while the DJ jacks thusly: “Cabrini-Green in this muthafucka / [Hell yeah!] / Jane Addams in this muthafucka / [Hell yeah!]”.

Blaqstarr, The Blaq-Files 2002-06 (Jeffree’s / Mad Decent)

This isn’t the Blaqstarr who brought the global squelch to M.I.A.’s Kala, nor is it the Blaqstarr who tripped psychedelic on his own underrated Divine EP. This is four cuts from a local guy still employing the DJ prefix, back when he was just another Baltimore drill-blast king dropping one-note club bangers into a fiercely competitive and insular dance scene. Who knows why these decade-old tracks are being newly remastered and released - the man himself mentions a kick-off for the new stuff he’s been promising for years, while electronica adepts note these joints have been circulating as crummy mp3s for nearly as long. Whatever the story, this is winningly obnoxious noise: single-minded, harsh, insistent, sometimes even hooky. And admirably committed to making sure his targets follow proper dance steps, which lends the entire enterprise an old school charm. “Slide To The Left” morphs three years later into “Lemme hump U/ from the right,” and then it’s “Hands Up Thumbs Down”. Don’t worry, the instructions will be repeated. And repeated.


Moodymann, Moodymann (Mahogani)

Meandering far too much for those uncommitted to parsing second-wave black Detroit dance culture, Kenny Dixon’s sprawling self-indulgence nevertheless betrays a method. Every obscure soul snippet or Richard Pryor punchline wedged between Moodymann’s grooves helps suggest the free-form jumble of Motor City pirate radio, hence a chopped-and-screwed Lana Del Rey vocal tag (“Born 2 Die”) alongside Ray Charles (dancefloor pulser “No”) and Muddy Waters (a percolating “Sunday Hotel”). If such contact points don’t suggest the level of anti-purism on display here, consider the red solo cup / rollerskate antics of the blaxploitation cover art and Dixon’s predilection for offhand vocals, most of them his own. Rasping along like Gil-Scott Heron, he’s salacious if rarely insightful on matters not pertaining to his beloved home town, which you’d best believe he cares about. Whether hovering atop delicious synth-bass on “Freeki Muthafucka” or running a dirt-funk throwaway hook into the ground on “I Got Werk,” this is junk of the gloryhallastoopid variety. And while the 11-minute dissection of “Cosmic Slop” is neither sloppy nor cosmic enough, that metalloid Clintonian riff retains its primacy.

La Fheile Padraig: John Millington Synge Rides To The Sea


The Aran Islands form a small group of three, Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer, set far out in the Atlantic between the coasts of Galway and Clare. The land is poor and stony; small fields intersected by stone walls which retain this shallow soil, itself formed in part from rotten seaweed. 

There is not timber or turf for fuel, or grass for the horses in the winter months. Prolonged storms meant that the islands were inaccessible for long periods of time, and, for lack of the fishing, might bring families near to starvation. 

The islands shelve upwards from east to west, rising to high cliffs on the open Atlantic; there are many monuments, among them the massive Bronze Age forts of Dún Aonghasa, ruins of castles and oratories, relics of early Christian settlements. 


In 1897, when Yeats advised John Millington Synge to go there, the communities of the islands were probably among the most primitive in western Europe. Synge’s temperament, his ‘negative capability,’ and his study of Gaelic made him the friend of the people. It is not too much to suggest that he found himself and his genius among them.

It is thus that Yeats speaks of him in the elegy ‘In Memory Of Major Robert Gregory’:

… And never could have rested in the tomb

But that, long travelling, he had come

Towards nightfall upon certain set apart

In a most desolate stony place,

Towards nightfall among a race

Passionate and simple like his heart.

- which we may set against this passage:

"They live in a world of grey, where there are wild rains and mists every week in the year, and their warm chimney corners, filled with children and young girls, grow into the consciousness of each family in a way it is not easy to understand in more civilized places."


"As they talked to me and gave me a little poteen and a little bread when they thought I was hungry, I could not help feeling that I was talking with men who were under a judgment of death. I knew that every one of them would be drowned in the sea in a few years and battered naked on the rocks, or would die in his own cottage and be buried with another fearful scene in the graveyard I had come from."

Since the sea takes them, the islanders do not learn to swim, for that would only prolong suffering. And there are strange stories connected with the ritual of drowning; of a man’s hands being smashed with a stretcher as he clings to the gunwale, for you must not take back what the sea has claimed; how, if your cap blows off, you must not look at it, but ask another whether it is floating crown or brim uppermost, and if the brown is on top, you must leave it, for the sea may think that you are beneath it, and take it as a simulacrum of you.

All are aware of an immanence of the supernatural, of omens, far older than Christianity:

"Before he went out on the sea that day his dog came up and sat beside him on the rocks, and began crying. When the horses were coming down to the slip an old woman saw her son, that was drowned a while ago, riding on one of them. She didn’t say what she was after seeing, and this man caught the horse, he caught his own horse first, and then he caught this one, and after that he went out and was drowned."


Riders To The Sea is unique in dramatic history, for it is the only one-act play that can be described as a tragedy in the fullest sense. At first sight the plot would seem to be too simple, the characterization too faintly sketched, to enable the playwright to build up and communicate the typical momentum, the high seriousness, proper to the form. 

Some critics have found, indeed, that it is too fatalistic to be tragic, that it affords no scope for conflict. From the outset the protagonists seem to be enclosed in an inflexible circle of destiny, in which the prayers and consolations of Christianity are powerless; the resolution of the play rests upon a resignation that is more stoic than Christian, a sense of relief that further loss is possible, when humanity confronts the ultimates of death:

"No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied".


What, then, can make the play great tragedy?

It has something of the simplicity in depth of much Greek drama, and of the Scottish ballads, where the conditions of the essential conflict are known and accepted as an aspect of the human situation; so that we can dispense with detailed exposition of plot or character. The conflict is between the sea and humanity, singly and collectively. 

And we may quote from Yeats’ essay “The Emotion of Multitude”:

"Indeed all the great Masters have understood, that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich, far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear moonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon."

—T.R. Henn, from “John Millington Synge: The Complete Plays,” Methuen Drama World Classics, 1963. Synge’s one-act play “Riders To The Sea” was first performed February 25, 1904 in Dublin by the Irish National Theater Society.



Autumn Sonatas: Ingmar Bergman And Musical Inspiration


Questioned about his relationship to music in an interview from 1982, Bergman asserts, “Music has always been […] one of the most important sources of inspiration for me, perhaps even the most important.” Even if no musical references appear in Winter Light, the film’s origin is nonetheless musical. According to Bergman, the film began with his discovery of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, which he heard on the radio, giving him the idea to shoot a film in an isolated church in the Swedish countryside.

Music not only gave birth to Winter Light, but also to The Silence, which Bergman claims was born out of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. “My original idea was to make a film that followed musical rules, instead of dramaturgical ones, a film that functioned through association – rhythmically, with themes and counter-themes. As I was putting it together, I thought much more in musical terms than I had done before. All that remains from Bartók is the very beginning. The film follows Bartók’s music rather closely, with the dull continuous tone, then the sudden explosion.” The film begins in the muggy atmosphere of a train, where the passengers fall into torpor. The rhythm is slow and heavy. Then comes the “explosion” – a restless city, with its cacophony of car horns and people shouting. Hour of the Wolf, according to the filmmaker, is based on The Art of Fugue. As in Bach’s work, with its open ending, Bergman’s film stops in the middle of a sentence and remains unfinished (we’ll never know what happens to Johan).


How does music inspire Bergman? “I don’t know exactly, but sometimes a piece of music creates an emotional link, a situation. […] Music frees up something that wants to be expressed and told.” An emotional discharge sets the imaginary into motion. Käbi Laretei tells, for example, how Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor gave birth to the final scene in Cries and Whispers (where the Mazurka is featured). The title of the film can be linked to an expression used by the critic Yngve Flyckt, when speaking of the final movement in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-Major.

'If I had been given that gift and hadn't become what I am, I would most probably have become a conductor,' writes Bergman in The Fifth Act. Indeed, the filmmaker considers his work similar to that of a musical conductor, and he continuously resorts to musical metaphors. First and foremost, he enjoys comparing scripts to music scores. In the preface to Persona, he states, “I didn’t write a film script in the usual sense of the word. What I wrote seems to me to be more like a music score that I will conduct during the filming.”


“You write down a melodic line and after that you work out the instrumentation with the orchestra.” The actors are compared to valuable instruments. “You know, just as I have hugely enjoyed working with these actors, so does a violinist enjoy playing a Stradivarius.” The beat, dynamics, articulation and expression, rhythm and musicality – these words are frequently used during rehearsals.

When asked about Bergman during the shooting of The Touch, Max von Sydow replies, “He gives you a rhythmic sketch of your role – the pauses, the increasing speed of the action, the point where the explosion comes, or where it should have come when it doesn’t. You think of musical similes.” Also, “I have witnessed him as a man who intrinsically feels the rhythm of the text, and very early on communicates this to the actors.” Once again, music is used as a model. “It is such a precise art, everything is in the score. We must try to work with as much precision, with silences and accentuations.”
Therefore, Bergman claims to be very attentive to the precision of the voices and intonation used on the set. “Hearing is the most important sense of all. When studying a scene, I often close my eyes and listen. If it sounds right, it looks right.” He further extrapolates, “Your hearing is always more sensitive and in tune with your feelings than your sight.” This method caused confusion on the set of Autumn Sonata, with Ingrid Bergman blaming the filmmaker for not looking at her during the filming.


Bergman confesses, “Cinema has much to learn from the pulse of music and its rhythmic dimension. Everything is rhythm, more so in film than in anything else. As a creator of films, I have learned an enormous amount from my devotion to music.”

—- Charlotte Renaud, from “An unrequited love of music,” IngmarBergman.se, 2008


Listening Notes, Ultra-Brief (Pt. 121)


Laura Cantrell, No Way There From Here     (Thrift Shop)

From her pleasant solo albums to her expert Kitty Wells tribute, nothing in this Nashville-born, Queens-based performer’s corpus suggested she had the resources for a country/folk-pop collection this remarkable. Yet there’s nary a duff track in sight. “Country/folk-pop” may seem a mouthful, but that’s what it is, crisply acoustic and hook-laden, replete with variety yet never once ostentatious (a tricky feat when one considers a jangly opener mixing clarinet with a guitar riff reminiscent of “Wish You Were Here”). Another quality lacking in ostentation: Cantrell’s vocals, so unadorned they risk merely pretty, yet capable of a simplicity and grace that can bring to mind none other than Dolly Parton (“Driving Down Your Street” is a sweet stalker anthem Dolly and Porter might once have traded verses on). And while her co-writes get bolstered by the not-inconsiderable likes of Franklin Bruno and Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, the dominant narrative voice is all her own - understated tales of smart women maintaining dignity in the face of disappointment. They drink black coffee, they write perfect songs, they send out unanswered letters and bemoan crummy set lists. In Cantrell’s able hands, even crying in front of the washing machine assumes a nobility. But she’s nobody’s victim, as made clear when she takes a stance against the casual calumny faced by her fellow sisters-in-heartbreak. “All the girls are complicated,” she avers. “They’re just working out who they are”.

Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans     (ATO)

This isn’t the arrival of Mike Cooley - he’s been an able-bodied contributor for well over a decade (just try and imagine Brighter Than Creation’s Dark without him). Yet there’s still something unprecedented about his casual domination here, trading credits and vocal turns with Patterson Hood at a speed more appropriate to Mould/Hart, his observational details so pinpoint perfect (girls as plain as primer coats, the speed of a stream of tar) you hope songwriting rivalry won’t soon send him the way of Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker. Musically, this is ragged-but-right, sloppy enough to justify those reckless Exile On Main Street comparisons (“Shit Shots Count” practically blushes at its brazenness), yet career-peak lovely on “First Air Of Autumn” or “Hanging On”. As always, their concerns remain rooted in working class southern gothic, “the moral lessons of a charmed life,” except for the many lives that aren’t charmed at all. Which means you’ll hear of cross-shaped swimming pools and doomed couch-ridden women drinking Tab by the liter. But both Hood and Cooley know uncharmed lives have root causes, and as proud relics of the once-Solid South, they put politics front and center. Not just the easy stuff, like bosses who aren’t nearly as smart as they’d like to be, but the roots of disenchantment and the cultural devastation wrought by divide/conquer. That’s why the title number outlines Lee Atwater’s calculated power grab, and why “The Part Of Him” follows with a present-day Atwater disciple whose own Nixonian tendencies prove his downfall.  “Wingnut raised and corn fed / Teabags dragging on the chamber floor” - that’s Hood at his least generous. But as they say, shit shots count if the table’s tilted. 


Hamell On Trial, The Happiest Man In The World    (New West)

Like his idol Bill Hicks, one-man-band Ed Hamell can be a bit of a crank, and like too many men in general, his fascination with prostitution and strippers risks paternalistic sentimentality. Yet he loves whores for the same reason he despises lawyers, and harbors few illusions as to why individuals settle for demeaning jobs: that clerk who moonlights as a pole dancer has a special needs child. The homeless, charitable organizations, health care, unemployment, mastectomies, dementia - all get touched upon within these ragged tales of blue-collar blues. But Hamell’s sick jokes, dreadful puns, and sheer goodwill help ensure the triumph of spiritual uplift. And those wary of one-man-band limitations will be cheered by the full-band fiddle/drums/piano/etc backing that roughly grace the majority of these thirteen tracks. He’s disappointed in his fellow man, sure: “Ain’t it a stone-cold bitch what the country’s going through”. But a little fellowship helps, as when he pledges his retirement community heart to Kimya Dawson on the woozy folk-rap of “Together”: “I’m gonna love you ‘till your bones are weak / I’m gonna love you ‘till the veins show through your cheek”.

They Help And They Don’t: Dana Spiotta Writes Of Food Stamps

[taken from Dana Spiotta’s 2001 novel “Stone Arabia”. Narrator is leading character Denise Kranis] 

1.  "Food stamps, don’t kid yourself, they help and they don’t.

When I was pregnant with Ada, they asked me if I wanted WIC coupons. (I don’t remember what WIC stood for. Women in Calamity? Wombs in Crisis? Whiners in Christ?) They told me my income qualified me for WIC pre- and postnatal care and WIC essential food items. I used them for a long time.

I got cheese and juice, and later, after she was born and I discovered that my postpartum migraine meds made it a problem to breastfeed, I used WIC for the very expensive formula Ada required. I needed the help.

2.  But the coupons were a pain. Each month you had to pick them up in person. You could only go to the supermarkets that accepted them. You could only buy certain things with them. And everyone in line saw you use them. And you knew whatever else you bought (God forbid you bought cigarettes or beer or even a candy bar), even though you paid your own money for it, would be scrutinized by everyone in line.

It didn’t have to go like that — but it did, and the message was clear to me. I used to drive all the way over to the west side so I could use the Albertson’s there. I dreaded running into people I knew.

First I had to get someone to open the locked case where the formula was kept. (I never asked why baby formula had to be kept in a locked case. I din’t want to know.) Then I felt helpless as I watched the checkout girl sigh when I showed her the coupons — using them was a complicated transaction involving signatures and product codes and manager approvals. 

More than once I would drive out of my way, find the smallest line, go last, and then discreetly hand over the coupon to have the checkout girl call over the intercom loudspeaker for the manager and then wait, holding up the line as the girl held my coupons aloft.

3.  Later, when I got health insurance through another state program, one that issued a regular insurance card that didn’t identify how it was funded, I remember how the nurse at my doctor’s office asked me, “WIC, right?” I said no, and I handed her my new insurance card, and she said, “Good for you!” with a big smile. I smiled back, because what else was I supposed to do?

So the food stamps may not have been the whole story, but they certainly made up some significant chunk of the story.”

— Dana Spiotta, from “Stone Arabia: A Novel,” Scribner, 2011