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

Saturday, July 21, 2007

In Your Ear - White Stripes, Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams
Kevin Wood /Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Icky Thump
Wea Japan, 2,580 yen
Listening to the opening title track of Icky Thump, it is clear that Jack and Meg White have a firm grounding in the classics--classic rock, that is.

Backed by ex-wife Meg White's entirely adequate drumming, Jack White works his way through the classic rock guitar riff book, moving from Led Zeppelin to the Rolling Stones, with stylistic nods to progressive rock bands such as Genesis and Yes. There's even a synthesizer solo. And that's just the first song on the album. Later, the listener is treated to blues in a variety of styles on "300 M.P.H. Torrential Outpour Blues" and even a sort of retro-lounge on the duo's melodramatic cover of Patti Page's "Conquest."

"Effect and Cause" and "Rag and Bone" are light-hearted romps played for laughs. The latter, a shopping list of junk and where to find it, sounds more like a script for the inevitable video than an actual song, with Jack White even managing to rhyme "catacombs" with "microphones."

Musically, there is nothing groundbreaking here, nor are the lyrics especially deep. It may not be music for the ages, but the White Stripes are never short on weird energy and Jack White's classic rock homage reminds the listener of what made the classics great to begin with. This is a fun album that a lesser, poppier band would have reduced to a froth of jangly guitars light enough to float away. The heavy garage rock aesthetic of the White Stripes keeps it firmly grounded and encourages abuse of the volume dial.

Cassadaga Universal,
2,200 yen

Would somebody buy Conor Oberst a puppy or take him to see the White Stripes or something?

Somebody needs to cheer him up, because his doom-struck angst nearly spoils an otherwise great album of catchy Americana. Bright Eyes' Cassadaga, named for a tiny Florida town populated largely by psychics and spiritualists, is a pleasant rootsy ride through Middle America, with the best tracks, especially the lead-off single "Four Winds" and "Classic Cars" somewhat reminiscent of the best work of the Waterboys, despite Oberst's apocalyptic pronouncements.

Just as Oberst turns some of the album's hootenanny moments into "American Gothic--The Musical!", the opening track "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" is a decent song rendered almost unlistenable by the addition of what sounds like a medium babbling away over a Sturm-und-Drang orchestral overlay of the kind that came and went with Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother.

Luckily, the album's other dozen tracks are eminently listenable, even with Oberst's buzzkill overseriousness.

from an earlier effort:

Easy Tiger
Universal, 2,500 yen

The prolific Ryan Adams follows up his three 2006 releases with another dose of introspective ballads, folk-rock and lo-fi soul. Writing here with his band the Cardinals, Adams' songs continue to sound like the work of some alternate-universe better-voiced Neil Young that never met Crazy Horse. Adams and the band work their rock chops with "Halloweenhead," get all slinky and sinister on "Nobody Listens to Silence Like a Girl" and offer up an alt-country gem, "Pearls on a String," that is a sunny, all-too-brief, mandolin-driven slice of concrete-canyon cowboy heaven.

(The Daily Yomiuri, Jul. 21, 2007)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Responsible speech
Whenever someone is criticized for saying outrageous things, whether it is Ann Coulter or Michael Moore (not that I equate the two) or even Canadian Cynic, (read more than just the linked initial post and comments, this one went on for a while)the defense is usually that in a free society we all have a right to free speech. True enough, but there are limits on that speech - the old standby of "shouting fire in crowded theatre" being one limit, slander, uttering threats and perjury being others. The notion that there should be limits on what is referred to as hate speech has been denied in the United States but has taken hold in Canada.
From the CBC backgrounder:

(1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Wilful promotion of hatred

(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

(1) Every one who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.Wilful promotion of hatred

(2) Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of

(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or

(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Short version: It is okay to hate a given group-- say left-handed, redheaded Straussian economists and lawyers-- it is even okay to tell your friends in the course of conversation that you think they should all be horsewhipped. But when you step up on a soapbox, electronic or actual, and advocate horsewhipping any group of people, it is officially naughty - UNLESS your statements are truthful or the expression of a religious opinion.

I'm not sure how the idea of a truthful statement comes into this as I'm not sure how one would justify genocide - - does this mean it is okay to say "We should kill all the caucasians in North America because white North Americans caused and sponsored the slave trade and committed genocide against the First Nations' people?" --I'm guessing the answer is probably no, you could probably denounce whitey until you turn blue in the face, but I suspect calling for people to be killed would, or at least should in my book, land you in trouble. The last part seems to mean it is okay to advocate murder if Allah/Jesus/The Flying Spagetti Monster says you should kill all the Infidels/Gays/Republican Klansmen. And the only reason its is there is that Christian activists demanded that they be allowed to denounce gays and promote hatred against them.

Effort to bring in a similar law in the U.S. have been opposed by free speech activists, civil libertarians and Fundementalist Christians. The first two groups argue on constitutional grounds that freedom of speech should be absolute. The third don't want anyone stopping them from hating who they want to and encouraging others to do likewise.

I have some sympathy for the arguments put forward by the first two groups, but the third group, well, they should be proud of what they've accomplished so far on the ground.

It may be that by pointing out the role of churches in promoting violence I am promulgating hatred against religious people, but I think I can safely fall back on the defence provided for in the Canadian Hate crimes act that everything I'm saying is true. What was done can be proved and a direct link can be show between misdeeds by individuals and the speech of religious organizations.

Let me be clear--I don't think that all religious people are bloodthirsty radical zealots, but there are, as in any mass movement, a few who go to extremes. My complaint is that by lobbying for the right to keep promoting hatred against groups based religious opinion, the more mainstream organizations provide cover, encouragement and legitimacy to the extremists.

Right now the Catholic church and the Fundemantalist Born-Again churches agree that abortionist are evil and that God hates homosexuals. The Pope recently reminded Catholics of the longstanding Church doctrine that Roman Catholicism is the only legitimate form of Christianity and that the rest of the so-called Christian churches are just a bunch of misguided heathens. Would it be a major stretch to imagine the Catholic church lapsing back into its old practices of encouraging violent anti-Semitism, or for the Mormon Church of Latter Day Saints to go back to preaching that those of African heritage are inferior? Both positions would be protected under Canada's hate crime laws under the exception for "religious opinion".

Organized religion does a lot of good in Western society in terms of charitable works. Churches provide a supportive community for their members and exert a form of social control over their members. So do motorcycle gangs, though their aims and methods may differ somewhat. It is time that churches were treated like any other organization. They should not be excused from paying taxes, nor excused for spreading hate.

Operation Whizzing Stallion
Sage advice from FlyingRodent at Between the Hammer and the Anvil on how to make your inner life more fun. Bathroom breaks now have a new name.

More Schadenfreudilliousness!
Early predictions had His Nibs Conrad Black, Lord Tubby of Fleet Street, being hit with a sentence of not more than three years, despite his conviction on three counts of fraud and one of obstruction of justice. The maximum sentence would be five years for each fraud conviction and 20 years for trying to destroy the evidence stored at his company's Toronto headquarters. A tidy 35 years if he get the maximum and since it's U.S. federal time, Tubby would have to serve 85% of it thanks to decades of conservatives "getting tough on crime and ending our revolving-door prison system."
Word now is that instead of the earlier predicted 1 to 3 years, he could be looking at 10-20 years in the crowbar hotel. How's that Canadian citizenship you renounced looking to you now Lord Pork Chop of New Fish? How you enjoy the creamed chipped beef and lima beans -- remember, if you give them your dessert they may not shank you in the exercise yard just for shits and giggles.
The long story in the Globe and Mail on the plucky-little-billionaire-who-could's effort to show a stiff upper lip and convince the Canadian power elite of his blamelessness ends on a paragraph that is music to my ears:

Prosecutors estimate that even using the $3-million figure, he faces 15 to 20 years in prison. One source familiar with the case had this to say when asked about how much time he can expect: "There is no way Black is going to get less than 10 years."

At least he will be able to get Lady Barbarella that handcrafted vanity licence plate she's always wanted.

Monday, July 16, 2007

That light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train
I've been reading a lot of stuff on Iraq lately, both opinion and factual reports, and arguing with some blockheads over at Canadian Cynic in the comment threads about a few things related to operation sandbox meatgrinder aka the war in Iraq.

First we have people like Bill Kristol, the man who was the brains behind Dan Quayle, saying stupid things and then we have the President saying stupid things.

"First of all, I understand why the American people are -- you know, they're tired of the war. People are -- there's war fatigue in America. It's affecting our psychology. I've said this before. I understand that. This is an ugly war. It's a war in which an enemy will kill
innocent men, women and children in order to achieve a political objective
It doesn't surprise me that there is deep concern amongst our people. "

He did say one thing I agree with:
"We're at the beginning stages of a great ideological conflict between those who yearn for peace and those who want their children to grow up in a normal, decent society -- and radicals and extremists who want to impose their dark vision on people throughout the world. "

However, I think the radicals and extremists are led by Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, James Dobson, Pat Robertson and especially George W. Bush and others of their ilk who seem determined to destroy the United States by breaking it on the anvil of war. The administration has consistently abused and expanded its powers, ignored and willfully violated the constitutions and the law of the land in order to erode civil liberties and checks and balances on executive power. This is not a republican presidency any more, it is an imperial executive that rules by presidential edict on foreign policy and since the change in congress last fall, more and more by presidential veto on domestic policy.

We keep hearing from the Bushiviks that victory is at hand, that the insurgency is in its last throes. Frankly, the U.S. has turned the corner so many times in Iraq, it has come a full circle back to where it started. Iraq is broken, and will remain broken for the foreseeable future, possibly for the rest of my lifetime. There is every chance it will drag the rest of the region down into the flames of a tripartate civil war with it.

The United States will never win in Iraq -- insurgents with enough munitions and a certain level of support among the populace ALWAYS win eventually. And everytime there is an airstrike on the wrong house, or a U.S. soldier runs over a kid in the street or kicks in the door of the wrong family home in the middle of the night, it builds more support for the insurgents.

I'm very much inclined to say "You broke, it you bought it" and take the position that the United States has a responsibility to stay in Iraq until stability is restored and the insurgent threat is ended. If they had taken this tack in Vietnam, they would still be there and still be fighting the Viet Cong and the United States would look something like Russia right now, having bankrupted itself physically and morally in a pointless war and occupation. The insurgents are not going to go away and having an outside power that has been an enemy for last three decades there occupying the country will not hasten the process.

The U.S. is the bull in the china shop and at some point after the first set of china get smashed, its better to lead the bull out of the shop and back into its stall, rather than have it mangle the few remaining display cases and shit all over the floor while you look for your wallet to pay for the damage.

George W. and Bill Kristol and the other warmongers can talk all they like about their duty to Iraq and ensuring the sacrifices of troops have not been made in vain, but they already abnegated their responsibility by invading the place for no good reason in the first place. The Iraqi government's response to the whole question has been to keep fighting amongst itself over who gets the oil money. As far as the withdrawal of U.S. troops is concerned, the attitude of some is "here's your hat -- oh, leaving so soon?" while others would like them to get out of the way so they can just fight their civil war and get it over with.

After all that has gone on, it would be nice to see a positive ending, nice to think that all this death lead to something good instead of just more death. I'd love to see the United States win in Iraq, install an independent, western-friendly, representative, egalitarian, secular democratic government. I'd also love to do body shots off of Carmen Electra's cleavage between sets at my all star rock band's sell-out show at the Budokkan, but I've accepted the fact that neither of these things is going to happen.

There is not going to be a happy ending to this and the author of this entire story is George W. Bush. No one forced his hand, no gun was put to his head. He and his administration lied and cheated and cajoled and manipulated the United States into this war. Thousands have died and tens of thousands of Iraqis and others in the region have been inspired to hate the United States more than they ever did before. Meaning more terrorism, more repressive security measures, less democracy and freedom both in Iraq and in the United States and the rest of the world.

Osama Bin Laden (remember him? Whatever happenned to that guy?) handed George W. Bush the magic lamp on Sept. 11, 2001, and Dubya has been rubbing it for all he's worth. The Djinn is out of the bottle and as always happens with these things, George's three wishes (1. An excuse to seize unlimited power. 2. A way to get re-elected. 3. An excuse to invade Iraq) have backfired on America.

Somehow, someone needs to convince him there is no pony under the pile of horseshit, that it is no longer about winning, but about limiting the damage that is done. The neo-con's baby is dead, let's at least try to save the mother. Iraq is screwed for a least the next generation, probably more. Unless somebody grabs the wheel and soon, so is the United States.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Murder among the Frozen Chosen

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 411 pages, 26.95 dollars

A hard-drinking, broken-down-but-tough-as-nails detective investigating the murder of a junkie in a fleabag hotel soon finds there is more to the case than meets the eye. With just his .45, a few wisecracks and lot of stubbornness, the tarnished hero unravels a conspiracy that reaches from the mean streets to the corridors of power.

Michael Chabon's latest novel has everything a good hard-boiled detective story needs, right down to the sexy redheaded dame, the loyal sidekick and sinister crime lord. Except the soundtrack is klezmer instead of smoky jazz, the dame is the detective's ex-wife and boss, the sidekick is a Jewish Tlingit Indian, the crime lord is a Hasidic rabbi and the seedy, sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles have been replaced by the icy snow-covered sidewalks of the soon-to-be-defunct Jewish enclave of Sitka, Alaska.

Homicide cop Meyer Landsman has "the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket."

Landsman's beat is the Yiddish-speaking patch of frigid coast that the Alaskan Settlement Act of 1940 opened up to Europe's persecuted Jews. (On top of being a classic detective tale, this is also a work of alternate history.) The demise of the state of Israel after only three months in 1948 sent another wave of Jews to Sitka, already jammed with war refugees, and the U.S. Congress decided to limit their tenancy of "Jewlaska" to 60 years.

Now the 3.5 million "Frozen Chosen" are facing eviction, and everyone is scrambling to find a safe haven of their own, all except the Hasidic Verbovers, a closed sect that controls most of the crime in the enclave.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union marks the latest step in Chabon's journey from critically esteemed author of literary fiction such as The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys to a teller of two-fisted tales of adventure.

In addition to editing McSweeny's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeny's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, Chabon helped write the script for the film Spider-Man 2, and authored a series of comic books based on characters from his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

This latest novel, with its oddball premise and use of genre conventions, seems more in the latter camp, but the quality of Chabon's prose makes genre irrelevant--whether one prefers The New Yorker or comic books, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is an engrossing and original story told with craft, verve and style, to say nothing of the percussive poetry of the Alaskan shtetl.
Chabon captures the cadences and richness of Yiddish, with the Jewish lingua franca spread as thick as a schmear of sour cream on a latke.

In fact, the biggest speculation here is not historical, but literary, as Chabon seems to have asked himself, "What if Sam Spade had been created by Jackie Mason?"

The steady stream of Yiddish is a little arresting at first, but like any work written in a particular vernacular--think of Roddy Doyle or Irvine Welsh--once your mental ear becomes accustomed, it transports you into the world of the novel.

Not to be a noodge, but you'd have to be meshuga not to enjoy this book--it is so good, you'll plotz.
(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)

Long live the queen

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Her Majesty refuses to act her age.

Now nearly 80, an age when most people slow down if they haven't stopped altogether, Koko Taylor, the undisputed Queen of the Blues, still performs more than 100 shows a year.

She has just released a new record, aptly titled Old School, that some critics are calling her best work ever. Chatting over the phone from her home in Chicago, her regal poise notwithstanding, she sounds as energetic, playful and almost flirtatious as a woman a third her age.

This week, fresh from tour stops in Quebec and Albany, N.Y., she will be playing shows in Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo with fellow Chicagoan Lurrie Bell, the guitarist son of blues harp great Carey Bell. Their Japan tour culminates in the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo's Hibiya Park. Then she's off to Spain to play another music festival at the end of the month.

"Well, I don't play Japan every day, but I've been there a couple of times and I always enjoy every moment of it," Taylor says . "The only difference is I can't speak their language, but the people there seem to understand me fine when I'm singing."

It's all a long way from the little town outside of Memphis where she was born and grew up.

Taylor is one of the last of the old school of blues musicians, people such as Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy, who grew up poor in the rural South before the civil rights movement and came to Chicago to find a new life and eventually a new career in music.

Taylor talks fondly about the trip north with her late husband, guitarist Robert "Pops" Taylor in 1951, famously arriving in the Windy City "with 35 cents in our pockets and a box of Ritz crackers" according to her official bio.

Her husband drove a truck and Koko found work as domestic servant for 5 dollars a day. It wasn't easy, but it was better than sharecropping with her family back on the farm. Recalls Taylor: "It was tough down there when I was young...we used to cut cotton...work on the farm...we didn't have nothing."

On Saturday nights, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor would make the rounds of the blues clubs on the South and West side of town. In the liner notes from Old School Taylor recalls: "We didn't go to no clubs playing that fancy music. Everywhere we went was a blues club. Nothing fancy, nothing beautiful. It was just a hole in the wall where a bunch of us was in there listening to the blues, dancing, drinking, talking loud, doing everything else. It wasn't a place you had to sit up and look pretty, be cute and use a certain language and say something a certain way."

It wasn't long before both Pops and Koko were sitting in with the bands and eventually Koko caught the attention of the legendary bluesman Willie Dixon, who helped her land a recording contract at Chess Records. She had her biggest hit in 1966 with Dixon's song "Wang Dang Doodle"--still her signature tune.

"We used to practice in [Willie Dixon's] basement...we'd play for hours, sometimes all night... with his wife bringing us down food," she remembers.

Taylor says the constant travel is a bit wearing after 40 years, but she wouldn't have it any other way.

"My favorite place in the world is where the people is there and enjoying what I do. It don't matter where you go, people is people and I love people."

She's performed almost everywhere, been on television and in movies, won Grammys and has more Blues Music Awards (25) than any other performer has ever won. Asked if she had any professional ambitions still left unfulfilled, she laughs.

"Nothing but to keep on singing the blues. I've gone too far to turn around now. I'm 79 years old--Why would I try to turn around now and try to do something new?"

Old School, released last month in Japan by P-Vine Records, shows the Queen in peak form. Even after all these years, her voice still has enough raw power to knock down a wall. While she admits it is a chore, she is still writing songs too, having penned five of the dozen tracks. Old School is hardcore blues that sounds like it could have been recorded back in her days at Chess. There are no jazz arrangements or pop orchestration to smooth the rough edges and sharp corners, just power, warmth and foot-stomping shake-your-moneymaker beats. Taylor's authoritative voice reaches out and grabs you and doesn't let go. Her passion and genuine joy in what she is doing shine through in every note.

"God has been good to me. I'm doing what I love to do most of all," she says, before summing up hercareer: "I just do what I do and hope people like it."

Long may she reign.

Koko Taylor will play the Japan Blues and Soul Carnival along with Lurrie Bell, Mitsuyoshi Azuma and the Swinging Boppers, Jun Nagami and others on July 22, 3:45 p.m. at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo in Tokyo, (03) 5453-8899. Taylor will also play with Bell on July 18, 7 p.m. at Namba Hatch in Osaka, (06) 6362-7301; July 19, 7 p.m. at Bottom Line in Nagoya. (052) 741-1620; and without Bell on July 20, 7 p.m. at Duo Music Exchange in Shibuya, Tokyo. (03) 5453-8899; Bell will play on July 21, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Blues Alley in Meguro, Tokyo, (03) 5740-6041.

(The Daily Yomiuri Jul. 14, 2007)