"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, February 26, 2004

In Your Ear -Ani DiFranco, Asylum Street Spankers

In Your Ear

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer


Educated Guess

Victor, 2,400 yen

The Little Punk Folkie That Did is back. After a decade of making albums with a backing band and producer, Ani DiFranco holed up alone in a New Orleans shotgun shack with an eight-track recorder and emerged with Educated Guess, a 14-track one-woman effort for which she did everything but personally stuff liner notes into CD cases.

Educated Guess marks a return to DiFranco's roots as a solo performer armed only with her acoustic guitar, her taut, airy, potent voice and lots of attitude, but also shows far a greater degree of musical and social sophistication and maturity than early albums.

The anger, militant feminism and strident liberalism of the early years is still there, but the bull in the china shop has become a matador, cloaking the sharpest lyrical steel in a velvet cape. She's still in your face, but you can never be sure whether it's to plant a kiss or an uppercut until the lyrical jolt has been delivered. Songs such as "Origami" and "Animal" demonstrate that DiFranco has not mellowed with age, she's just gotten craftier.

The layered, ringing guitar on Educated Guess shows off some impressive technique and compositional chops. DiFranco may not be the fastest or fanciest on the fretboard, but she is certainly one of the most original.

On first listening, the high-pitched chirps, wails and echoes of the backing vocals DiFranco has laid down seem superfluous, distracting and at times even grating, but repeated listenings show them to be the key to the deeper inner funkiness of "Bliss Like This" and an appropriate accent to the minor key mournfulness of "Bodily" and "You Each Time."

Three tracks are poetry recitations with accompanying soundscapes, ranging from the short personal "Platforms" to the longer sly broadside of "Grand Canyon."

DiFranco's all-too-brief tour of Japan--one show each in Tokyo and Osaka early next month--is not to be missed.

The Asylum Street Spankers


Buffalo Records, 2,099 yen

Hot on the heels of the release of their concert DVD Sideshow Fez late last year, the acoustic daredevils of The Asylum Street Spankers are back with Mercurial, a studio album of covers that have been a staple of their unbelievable live performances.

The band that has audiences on three continents asking "What the hell was that?" serves up smooth old jazz (Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby") and smoking traditional blues ("Got My Mojo Working") straight up, with a chaser of hard-to-believe covers of The Beastie Boys, The B-52s, Black Flag and Jazz Butcher. Gangsta rap meets the Grand Ole Opry on "Hick Hop" and kitsch meets cool on "Shine on Harvest Moon."

The Spankers are far more than a simple though deeply weird comedy or novelty act. Veteran jazzman Stanley Smith's cool clarinet accents and Nevada Newman's slide guitar solos alone more than establish the Spankers' music credibility. Singer Christina Marrs could make the pope kick a hole in a stained-glass window with her frankly erotic version of Bessie Smith's "Sugar in My Bowl," while the antic efforts of violinist and dobro player Korey Simone and singer, harmonica player and general ringmaster Wammo are best described as acid burlesque.

In the unlikely event that this album alone isn't enough to make you smile, during March, Buffalo Records is giving away copies of a 17-track CD label sampler (including tracks by the Spankers, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ryan Adams and String Cheese Incident among others) with the purchase of any of the roots label's CDs--while supplies last.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Vietnam War hero's platform lacks detail

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America

By John Kerry

Viking, 202 pp, 24.95 dollars

Written as a campaign book by the four-term senator from Massachusetts, A Call to Service is unlikely to win any awards for the quality of its prose. Simply put, this book is a short but dull read that seems to be compiled from fleshed-out campaign speeches. Imagine a 200-page campaign leaflet without any gaudy photos or distracting colors.

While it might be naive to assume that John Kerry's incessant mentions of his Vietnam service have nothing to do with comparing his impressive record (four years of combat duty, one of them commanding a 50-foot river patrol boat, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with combat V and three Purple Hearts) to the somewhat dubious wartime record of his Republican rival, it is clear from reading A Call to Service that Kerry's war service and subsequent time as a leader in the antiwar movement were the defining experiences of his life.

Those hoping to read the nitty-gritty details of Kerry's Vietnam exploits will be disappointed as the author only alludes, albeit often, to his adventures there. Policy wonks seeking a chance to examine the senator's proposals on education, health care, environmental protection, energy, defense and the economy also will come away virtually empty-handed. The second most frequently used phrase in the book--after "When I was in the Navy in Vietnam"--seems to be "While the proposal is too detailed to explain, let me give you the basics."

This is paraphrasing of course, but Kerry seems to start every explanation of his presidential platform by telling the reader that the proposal is very detailed and has been carefully worked out, but that we don't really need to know the details, just what the result will be.

On the surface, the proposals contained in A Call to Service seem reasonably progressive: increased funding for education while ensuring schools remain accountable, a return to legislation and budgeting to provide for the general welfare of the nation as opposed to aiding special interests, tying international trade treaties to human rights and environmental protection, and making the U.S. federal government's employee health insurance system accessible to uninsured citizens. The lack of nuts and bolts details provided is a little frustrating and makes it harder for Kerry to prove such policies are viable.

As mentioned earlier, Kerry constantly alludes to his service in Vietnam, but rarely dwells on it and never attempts to make it the basis for his credibility. It is simply that his service seems to be the crystal through which he views his life since then. Kerry says "when I was in Vietnam" much the way a newly arrived expatriate is apt to start sentences with a phrase like "back home" or a recent graduate might say "when I was in college."

An interesting aspect of the book is the number of times he stresses his personal friendship and good working relationship with former Republican presidential candidate and fellow Vietnam veteran, Arizona Sen. John McCain. The introduction to the book is such a ringing endorsement of McCain that it seems to belong at the front of McCain's Faith of Our Fathers instead of Kerry's campaign manifesto.

Such a lack of real substance is sadly typical of most campaign books, which seek to present an attractive picture of the candidate without providing too much detailed policy for opponents to attack. In this regard the book, like the candidate, is standard Washington issue.

Copyright 2004 The Yomiuri Shimbun