Monday, April 29, 2013

"Gealltanas go deo"

Scríobh mé an h-ám go riomh faoi ealáintóir seo. Is maith liom "Sléibhte Naomh Jacinto" le Emil Kosa, Jr. Mar sin, d'fhéach mé a fháil níos mó.

Mheas mé faoi tuatha áitúil in aice leis go raibh ag ainmnithe an Impireach Intíre is deánaí. Nuair bhí mé is oige, bhí mé ag cónaí ansin i tSliabh Shoiléir. Ach, tá ceantar i bhfad níos plódaithe anois.

Ar an abhar sin, lorg mé a fhoghlaim an maidir leis an spásannaí oscailte téaltaithe ann. Faoi deireanach, bogadh níos mó dhá mhillún daoine nua tar éis ann. Nílim fheiceail úlloird agus bhfíonghart m'óige inniu.

Is cuimhne liom briongloid go minic ar feadh mo saor faoi radharc chomh seo suas. Dar teideal Kosa é "Gealltanas go deo." Ar ndóigh, níl fhíos agam an eolas ar chor ar bith faoi an ionad go cruinne air.

Mar sin féin, tá amharc seo is cosuil lánléargas is gnách ar hagaidh an suíomh seo ann fadó. Is docha, nach mbeadh tú a fháil aiteannaí go leor ar bith níos mó ansin. Beidh mé ag choinneail ar lorg, fós.

"Forever's Promise"

I wrote a time before about this artist. I liked "San Jacinto Mountains" by Emil Kosa, Jr. Therefore, I looked to find more.

I was thinking about the local territory nearby that was called the Inland Empire lately. When I was much younger, I was living there in Claremont. But, the district's much more crowded now.

For that reason, I am searching to learn more about the vanishing open spaces there. Recently, more than two million new people have moved there. I don't see orchards or vineyards of my youth today.

I have had a dream often during my life about a view like this above. Kosa gave it the title "Forever's Process." However, I don't have any information at all about the precise location of it.

All the same, this view's similar to a typical panorama for this setting, long ago. For sure, you could not find many places like that any more there. I will keep looking.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Psychic Ills "One Track Mind": Music Review

This New York outfit, like its inspirations here, shuffles when it used to slam."One More Time" takes its lazy, jangling time recalling the Velvet Underground to wander down a slower, mellower direction than the group's earlier assaults. For a case in point, cue up the opener.

"See You There" channels a spacier, druggier urban attitude, shared by other bands promoting underground, neo-psychedelic stylings on the faithfully retrospective records from Brooklyn's Sacred Bones label. It's consistent, but as with some of the label's other releases, it fails to rouse me much from its morning-after bluesy mood--shaking free or falling back again into slumber. Vocals by Tres Warren sneer and paces stumble. While appealing in small doses, we've all heard long before from Lou Reed.

"Might Take a While" delivers on its hesitant suggestion of following through. However, Tom Gliubizzi's guitars (and keyboards on some tracks) don't accelerate, but stay modest, more like the later Feelies. While this will please fans of the Velvets and the many Hudson River-adjacent bands who carry on their legacy, if Psychic Ills revved up the speed and kicked out more jams, it would liven the impact of One Track Mind, which too often lives up to its title.

When "Depot" trades in the same pacing and stance as other bands the past forty-odd years who've mingled addled vocals, studio effects, and a slightly menacing tone backed by organ and high-hat, to bring in the time-tested chord progressions, the causes add up to a familiar effect. This type of song, respectful of a generation and more of rock brewed on chemicals, cannot shake off its old fashions.

I was thinking about Spiritualized and Jason Pierce's similar stylings when musing over earlier tracks, so "Tried to Find It" with its touch of gospel-ish female background vocals did not surprise. Certainly not orchestrated, but it shows that having worked with Sonic Boom (the other half of Pierce's previous band, Spaceman 3), the affinity fits the group.

"FBI" cuts haze, but boosts the reverb. It's spooky only in a predictable sense. No real doom or threat of an orange alert. It plods, with Brian Tamburello's dutiful drums and Elizabeth Hart's stolid bass.

"I Get By" resembles "I'm Waiting for My Man" in its classic backbeat. Yet, I welcomed it by comparison, for it picked up the pace. Production on some tracks is credited to Neil Patrick Hegarty (Royal Trux) and this song sounded sharp and clean. However, I find with Psychic Ills and similar bands on Sacred Bones, so much more edginess and experimentation on earlier (more underground in some cases) records was inherent. Later albums settle down for a more comfortable, less confrontational, conventional setting.

Harmonica announces "City Sun": its folksy rhythms stay polite if inconsequential. ("Western Metaphor" did not appear on the advance file downloaded for review; but I like the title.) "Drop Out" closes out this outing. We find ourselves waiting for our man to "get up and go out of here," but the sung promise hovers rather than delivers. The compressed, woozy nature of this song typifies the ambiance on this album. If this eases your hungover or strung-out mood, it may sooth better than if you're caffeinated and restless. (PopMatters 2-21-13)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The House of Love's "She Paints Words in Red": Music Review

Two decades after this British guitar-based, atmospheric band’s dissolution, this second album in a reunion phase joins singer/songwriter Guy Chadwick with bassist Matt Jury and original members, lead guitarist Terry Bickers and drummer Pete Evans. 2005 offered Days Run Away after 12 years off. Bickers and Chadwick had bickered. Their sundered pairing had mirrored, some observed, the Smiths’ Morrissey and Johnny Marr. As many had compared the House of Love as an earnest homage to that Manchester ensemble, it’s noteworthy that, after Bickers’ breakaway, the band failed to sustain the impact of its initial albums (confusingly with the same eponymous title).

The album’s title of this suits well the band’s commitment to a second album in its second incarnation. “A Baby Got Back on Its Feet” opens with a slightly deeper, mellower tone to Chadwick’s voice. The song’s pacing and moods mirror that of the band’s better tunes: shuffling, swerving, and slyly (no longer sneeringly) assured. “Hemingway” shifts to a skiffle sound, and an acoustic, jangling take in a singalong, if melancholy, take on love. Characteristically, the lyrics show “I’ve got a gun, gonna shoot someone for fun”, at odds as often when Chadwick plays off his morose verses against the band’s sprightliness.

The title track follows this pastoral saunter. It doesn’t go anywhere startling, but it’s a pleasant journey. As the most of this album itself, it prefers to amble along while the band’s past career found it edging, with Bickers’ intricate guitar patterns, into more threatening territory. The polite production here settles the listener into the band’s calmer delivery.

“PKR” presses the point home more insistently, with Evans’ percussion moving the propulsive patterns along with more energy. Held back, however, in reserve, as the House of Love works best when alternating between tension and release. It’s over, as many songs on this brief album, without fully exploring the space the song structure suggests. 

Therefore, “Lost in the Blues” appropriately replicates this predicament. “You just can’t get close/ To the one you really love” expresses the longing in Chadwick’s songs, revealed by the band’s respectable but very proper British fidelity to a reserved articulation of frustration. 

My favorite of the band’s albums is the Fontana label release with the butterfly cover (one of those self-titled, chronicling the period when Bickers would leave the band). “Long Lost Heart” in its brush drums and chordal progression over a slightly exotic beat recalls this period, if without that 1990 record’s thunderous Stephen Hague production. I presume a smaller budget means more modest ambitions in the studio, but this song holds up well enough against its more plush predecessors.

That late ‘80s/early ‘90s college rock era meant a distinctive Britpop sound for many radio stations, and “Money Man” turns to that dependable matching of hummable melodies with a slightly more assertive musical underpinning. Still, the chord progression reminds me of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” when it probably meant to follow in the footsteps of a lighter John Lennon ditty. “Trouble in Mind” also could fit for many a star of the ‘60s on a solo ‘70s LP. Its dabs of female backing vocals highlight the perspective of self-reflection after indulgence: “Were you stoned when you said… the only trouble here is in your mind?”

The track sequence by number nine needs a shake-up. “Never Again” features more of this album’s acoustic-electric guitar mix, but the move to a catchier riff (resembling Robyn Hitchcock’s own revivalism of late ‘60s songcraft) reminds me of a lost Kinks one-off from, say, Face to Face. “Sunshine Out of the Rain” sounds like you’d expect. It may plod.

Tambourines open “Holy River” and the guitars of Chadwick and Bickers open up a more expansive soundstage, similar to the first track. This promises more adventure. The lyrics speak of wanting to get away and swim, but typically, the analogy turns back to the lover’s mind which the singer longs to enter. “Eye Dream” concludes in this same twirl into the self. Certainly, one expects more than a lull after hearing “touch the sky and say I am God, I am dead”. Like “Sunshine”, nearly all of this album feels circular. The songs do not take advantage of the chance to escape, but prefer to keep within safe sight of where they start.

I wish more of this album took chances, but in settling for stability, it may please maturer listeners. We all grow along with the bands we grew up with. the House of Love offers an album that will likely satisfy whatever quiet hopes its fans have kept safe for the band.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Black Angels' "Indigo Meadow": Music Review

While this talented band's last album, Phosphene Dream, drifted into Revolver-era references, Indigo Meadow opts for acid pop. In an age when (perhaps ironically) many of us hear music on speakers in our phones or computers not much advanced from the transistor radios or boomboxes of youth, this album alters its treble tones for digital media states. It's classic, thickened, crunchy rock lightened for earbuds.

The title track features this spirited approach, with Kyle Hunt's keyboards and Christian Bland's guitars churn. But the chorus and background vocals lift the tune rather than compress it into density, as their earlier albums Passover and Directions to See a Ghost did so memorably. It moves swiftly and channels an accessible delivery that aims at concision.

"Evil Things" continues this style, which has grown more pronounced after the band signed with Blue Horizon. The mix buries the psychedelic intricacy of the busier instrumentation, elevating the tap and the echo. A more spacious production enhances the slightly raga-rock pattern that shifts that song, finally, into an overdriven riff above the keys. By now in their career, The Black Angels figure out how to balance their formative years--full of overwhelming power on their Light in the Attic label discography--with a streamlined, fuzz-driven, airier delivery.

"Don't Play With Guns" reminds me of the first years of FM-radio, an underground one-off from a tape sent by a local garage band. That is, it's catchy, direct, yet almost modest in its experimental but, chart-friendly blend. "Holland" slows the pace wisely, into more lysergic terrain, before "The Day" recalls Elf Power's use of horns and synthetic effects for a peppier, demented marching-band pace.

Similarly, "Love Me Forever" echoes in its measured, somber mood the efforts of Outrageous Cherry, who have followed a parallel trajectory of darker, lo-fi, late-1960s-inspired explorations before integrating bubblegum and Top 40 AM-radio vintage stylings from a slightly later era, when the 1970s ushered in groups aiming less at countercultural credibility than K-Tel compilation hits. In that direction, "War on Holiday" (as many tracks on Indigo Meadow) feels ripped from a Nuggets compilation. Its punchy swirl reminds me of XTC's affectionate alter ego, the Dukes of Stratosphear.

I miss the band's swaggering, sinister presence. The Black Angels have stopped crushing me by their relentless assault, and choose to tease and jangle into blissful submission. It's more psychedelic than neo-psychedelic, this phase. I'd apply their first singles and those first two albums to the latter category: they immersed elements of The Gun Club, Native American and Indian beats, and post-punk's bitterness into a brew that bettered The Doors and rivaled The 13th Floor Elevators from their Austin hometown. Indigo Meadow feels more grounded than The Black Angels' third full-length release. Phosphene Dream wandered along paths the Beatles, The Grateful Dead, and the British Invasion trod, making for a journey more pleasant than terrifying. Promisingly, their fourth album boosts aggression, their finest quality, while it tempers the menace of what for me remain nearly unparalleled presentations of a bold update of venerable Sixties sounds on their first albums.

As with Darker My Love, from Los Angeles (where the Angels now fittingly live) or Dead Meadow, carrying the heft of their stratified approaches may have wearied these young musicians, or perhaps they deliberately craft an aerodynamic model to reach a wider audience. The band is a quartet rather than a quintet as before, and this may account for this momentum. Yet, "Always Maybe" edges back to their determined, implacable pose; "Broken Soldier" keeps the thumping, martial, anti-war themes of Passover alive--as sadly these never appear to be dated.

The sonic template, all the same, keeps this album less intense, and far less thundering. It shimmers in a light rain interspersed with sunshine. Still, haziness persists. "I Hear Colors (Chromosthesia)" evokes woozily the dawn of acid rock, when Sixties pop melted into distended studio (and often personal by chemical) dissolution.

"Twisted Light" steps into the Gothic shadows, and as on Directions to See a Ghost or the best parts of the Phosphene Nightmare e.p., the guitars kick into overdrive and the layers of sound keep building momentum. The Jim Morrison or Jeffrey Lee Pierce vocal resemblance has faded, all the same. Bassist-singer Alex Maas changes to a clearer, less affected pitch. It may invite more listeners, but it lacks the incantatory allure of his earlier incarnation. Stephanie Bailey's drums hold steady in "You're Mine." On "Black Isn't Black" she slows the band to channel their masterful claustrophobia down a spooky, dead-end corridor.

Notably, that closing track is the one that turns back--or redirects--best the band's admirable intensity. The Black Angels, when they choose to accentuate this attitude, stand out among contenders who look to the past to revive our hope in present-day rock. Let's hope that Indigo Meadow signals a booster stage in the band's ascent, as they harness mighty engines on these delicate flights. (4-4-13 to PopMatters; 4-16-13 to Amazon US)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Kinski's "Cosy Moments": Music Review

Seattle-based, so the turns to '70s hard rock and gloomy grunge first diverging where we left off with the band six years ago on Down Below It's Chaos should not surprise. However, do we need a talented foursome, skilled in space-rock and trippier textures merging well psychedelic and propulsive post-punk, to show us how it can pull off sounds which forty years ago passed for progress, if not many hits? This sixth album left me, a faithful fan of their output, wondering.

Matthew Reid Schwartz sang on the previous album. For this instrumentally based foursome, this shift after a decade into its career signaled a wish to shift its approach. Welcome as such commitments can be, his sung style ambles between a workmanlike delivery and a slacker dismissal. Schwartz and co-guitarist Chris Martin display their talents best, for me, when playing.

"Long Term Exit Strategy" by its title may betray the band's restlessness at the duration between albums. Kinski had advanced, by Alpine Static in 2005, to pithy yet distorted freakouts that revealed the band's affinity for one-time partners on an e.p., Acid Mothers Temple. Its next record blurred  stoner rock with poppier ditties rather than obsessive epics; the more accessible song styles--fewer amps, pedals, effects--remain largely the same on this 2013 release.

That seven-minute-plus opening track shows Kinski in time-tested mode. The rippling, submerged feel of the guitar effect (yes, still there), and the lazy lyrics drift along, half-pushed, half-pulled, as the female backing voice woozily comes and goes.

"Last Day on Earth" compresses wah-wah pedals (still there) into a jittery, no-nonsense tune. This skips into "Skim MILF" with a similarly insistent pace. As if the Dandy Warhols met Oneida? Like those purveyors of ironic takes on rock conventions, Kinski hurries its take on them and dashes off.

This crunchy texture, eager to show off on "Riff DAD" a suitably boastful guitar pattern, encourages Barrett Wilke's drums to bash along. The song careens along, reminding me of the garage-rock ambitions I'd hear down the street from where I live, floating along up to me at twilight.

After three quick tracks, "Throw It Up" slows down to let Schwartz's vocals call and respond with Martin's backup. The structure remains simple, much more than earlier Kinski. Similar to Oneida, the progressive post-punk takes on hard rock have turned these contemporary interpreters into a direction that appears to imitate earnest pioneers of this genre but which--as song titles convey--keeps winking. The humor may remain in titles, but as for sounds, they could have been more gripping. As with Brooklyn peers in this niche these days, Kinski moves towards convention. There's less payoff here than six-and-a-half minutes earns. Acceptable, but like much of this album so far, it's content to slide.

It's therefore all the more heartening to hear the start of "A Little Ticker Tape Never Hurt Anybody": the interplay of guitars, a steady bass of Lucy Atkinson, and measured percussion promise the mathematical precision of this band at its best, played off against the swirls of keyboards and that spacier expansion. It churns away halfway in. The chugging drums, whooshing snares, and the clunky attempt of the guitars and synthesizers to take off make for more intriguing listening.

With a fine title like "Conflict Free Diamonds", what do you expect? Catchier, bolder. Finally, the vocals enrich its swagger and atmospheric dabblings. With its assertive approach, it drags you in.

This momentum with "Counterpointer" shows a well-chosen sequencing. Without vocals, it briefly allows you to hear Kinski as many of its best songs convey the band. It screeches to a halt, and the pause lets "We Think She's a Nurse" sneak forward, as if down a corridor. Wilke's beats and the return of guest keyboardist David Golightly enable Kinski to slow down and build suspense. This demonstrates the band's talent at surrounding guitars with layers of instruments, and letting space in around them to express ambiguity and curiosity.

Such emotions may explain the final song, a quick "Let Me Take You Through My Thought Processes" bashes along with sing-song but intoned back-and-forth aaah-aaah-aaah patterns and freaky guitar that prove it's been a fun, if rapid, ride down memory lane, or the dusky freeway.

Certainly, the clever titles common to Kinski's songs and albums indicate a smart ensemble. Matthew Porter's cover photo "Lower Canyon" fits the retro mood of this release perfectly. This first half of this may pale placed next to Alpine Static, but for those who may be put off by that album's sprawl and punch, Cosy Moments continues the slightly gentler, less fuzzy, nature of this restless sonic beast. Like its inspiration, Kinski can be fearsome (Klaus) but might surprise as lissome. (Nastassja). (PopMatters 5-29-13; 4-17-13 to Amazon US)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dump's "Superpowerless" + "I Can Hear Music": Reviews

James McNew's solo moniker plays off his talents in typically sly form. Does "dump" mean a heap of lo-fi recordings piled up and left for us if not him to sift? May it allude to defecation and its results? He's not telling, but Big Hassle releases, for the first time in wider distribution, his 1993 and 1994 albums. Recorded on a four-track cassette recorder, the choice of these as remasters by skilled technician Bob Weston may seem odd, given the quite humble origins of McNew's side project.

When the former bassist for Christmas joined Yo La Tengo for their album May I Sing With Me (1992), he gave Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley the additional talent of a third multi-instrumentalist. That eclectic indie-rock band, with its core duo of husband and wife, now added its solid anchor. McNew's wistful voice, if seemingly at odds with his stance on stage compared to his bandmates, continues to enrich YLT. Some of these Dump tracks feature Yo La Tengo, but as I was only provided a download file by the label, I cannot ascertain who contributed what to which of the many tracks.

Meanwhile, McNew's work under the Dump title continued with for his cassette of Prince covers That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice? (2001) and Grown-Ass Man (2003). As alongside Kaplan and Hubley, McNew on his own veers between many moods and explore sharply detailed or woozily vague song styles. As with YLT, McNew possesses a vast knowledge of music, able to pluck out odd or obscure songs to cover, along with fresh takes on more familiar tunes from rock and pop.

The blend of his quiet voice and pastoral wonder, as heard on a cover of Hoboken, N.J.'s Fish and Roses' "The Letter" on 1994's I Can Hear Music to splendid if modest effect with organ accompaniment, recalls the mid-period ballads of YLT, or its near-neighbors The Feelies. "Flap My Arms" chimes along with an effort, shifting between assertive guitar and more composed singing under the bashing. "Don't Let On" clatters on in the shambling style of New Zealand bands from the '80s on the Flying Nun label; the fidelity also recalls the limited budgets shared by that label's roster and McNew's tape.

"Wanted Man" from Bob Dylan has a bare-bones yee-haw jangle in Dump's version; I reckon McNew's selection to serenade with the Fugs' "Morning Morning" may surprise those even if they can match his vinyl collection. "Vienna" by Ultravox keeps the metronomic drone of the original, but strips away the sheen to reveal a drum and organ, with "this means nothing to me" as if sung to one's self, enhancing the desolation and increasing the impact, sans New Romantic gloss.

The homespun nature of this collection ambles along in similarly unassuming form. The Eno-esque "Dear Betty Baby" sustains the New Zealand marine swirl of its stoic pop. Even when the amps buzz, as in the title track, it's a bedroom type of album to play to one's self.

However, as the second disc's later tracks such as a pricklier "Acupuncture" insist, it's clear McNew listened to Pavement and Archers of Loaf as many of us did who gravitated towards the smarter side of post-punk, lo-fi, literate and quirky indie rock twenty-odd years ago. The Pavement-friendly, caffeinated yelps, strained phrasings, and lyrical swoops frequently appear on the previous year's Superpowerless; I note as a coincidence that McNew grew up in Charlottesville, where Stephen Malkmus had graduated in history from the University of Virginia before heading back to California.

There's even more covers on this single-disc album, assembled between 1991 to 1993. Its Pavement-like air ("Secret Affections" could have been a fine b-side off Westing by Musket and Sextant) may be a recommendation to many, or a dissuasion to a few. For me, this spunk conveys very well McNew's mutual influences. It's difficult for me to imagine those who don't like YLT liking Pavement or vice versa, but I betray my affections. "Moon River" gets a polite treatment, that's all. Sun Ra's "Outer Spaceways, Inc." freaks out in expectedly wobbly fashion--I found it annoying, but I am also annoyed by YLT's cover of Sun Ra. "Ode to Shaggs' Own Thing" reverberates with McNew's echoed guitar twang and organ pitched tribute to an even more eccentric ensemble.

Quincy Jones co-wrote with Georgia Hubley's animator parents John and Faith "So Sedimentary". Suffice to say it's a curio. Wreckless Eric's "Just for You" earns the underwater, tremelo treatment; NRBQ's "Throw Out the Lifeline" nods as did that band to the Grateful Dead. Don't come to this pair of albums with any more wish for high-fidelity than the Pavement b-sides from their reissues a few years ago. All the same, under Weston's attention to whatever detail could be rescued from four-track tapes, the results should meet the expectations of listeners who know what to expect from McNew.

Overall, while Yo La Tengo fans will naturally welcome these reissues, others eager to hear these covers may wish to seek out Dump's return to the stores. As originally these records were even by indie standards hard to find, it's a pleasure to hail their unassuming airs and off-beat excursions into the influences which continue to inspire Yo La Tengo and its nimble bassist and co-conspirator when it comes to switching instruments and kicking out jams or shuffling out unpredictable rock standards. (5-29-13 to PopMatters)
1) 4-13 separate reviews in different format here: Amazon US: I Can Hear Music.
2): Amazon US: Superpowerless.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Archers of Loaf: "Vee Vee": Music Review

Too Edgy For Pop, Too Sly For Punk?

This expanded re-issue of the band’s second full-length opens more space in its compressed production. Comparisons to Pavement fade. The Archers’ gnarled guitars atop a thicket of bass and a churn of drums always reminded me of Mission of Burma. Vee Vee signals a shift towards the sonic exactitude and undergrad smarts of the latter band. Producer Bob Weston, who had played bass in the Volcano Suns with the drummer of MoB, later worked with Steve Albini and Shellac, and eventually the reformed Burma. Weston’s drier, unfussy direction underlies the Archers’ 1995 album.

“Step Into the Light” resembles that Boston ensemble, with a more hushed entrance as the record opens. It swells and hovers as if somewhat alien. What follows is one of the best songs from the decade. “Harnessed in Slums,” for a band from a basketball-obsessed campus, tells the tale of those harnessed wanting to break free. It’s a memorable subject for a three-minute tune, and its rousing chorus and insistent tempos celebrate as they comment upon the cheerleading, ra-ra rants of such schools as their own University of North Carolina.

While the lo-fi tag hung around this Chapel Hill quartet, Eric Bachmann’s strangled vocals owe as much to punk as the more classic rock traditions mined by Pavement, and the results on this follow-up to Icky Mettle foreshadow the band’s attempt to leave behind their snarlier, harder edge for experimental textures, as on the start of “Fabricoh.” This hisses and crackles like the analog and vinyl formats technology was discarding, the lo-fi aesthetic giving way to shiny discs and ordered sound files. It also sounds – given that song’s telling title – as if the Archers fought off compromise which had lured their peers (Sebadoh?) and predecessors into pop after postpunk. This combination of anger and melody shows the band’s ability to appeal to what was still labelled as a “college rock” crowd. A dozen years after R.E.M.’s rise, adventurous listeners sought not the increasingly cheery direction of the Athens band, so much as an edgier (by then) Southern college town rooted in slamming menace as well as pop-directed swagger.

Bachmann’s vocals confront the listener, freed from the band’s backing as well as fettered to it. Music lurches in. Guitars wander up and down the scale, anchored by an assertive rhythm section. This heavy, formidable, and unsmiling approach demands attention from the listener. The band’s records never were easy listening. Yet, this progressed from the raw, shredded, full-throat shrieks of the often fearsome Icky Mettle through the Vs. The Greatest of All Time EP into more eclectic, precise music. The Archers knew to keep songs brief, as they distilled potent bile into a few minutes. While some of these songs do not stand out as dramatically as those on the first release, they remain consistent and intelligent.  “Underachievers Academy and Fight Song” recalls in its title a song by Mission of Burma. It awkwardly hops along with a whistling melody in a ramshackle mood, but I like it better than its grating inspiration, “Academy Fight Song.” It heaps a wobbly skiffle tune on top of a folkish delivery. It sounds like its title. It’s also one of those CD surprise songs that stops after a few minutes, only to burst into a few seconds of final sound three minutes late after as much silence. That college prank wears thin.

Superchunk, the band’s Tar Heel neighbors, was mining similar terrain early in its long career, so the second bonus track out of many unreleased and new ones on this expanded version recalls that other quartet’s feistier side, with a pop-punk sheen meets post-punk thud. “Telepathic Traffic” opens with a long stretch of instrumental unease. Then Bachmann erupts: “There’s no breath, there’s no ventilation.” The band, later in the ‘90s, would leave a thrashing volume behind for a no less sullen but keyboard-driven, experimental or electronic soundscapes. Hints of this evolution beyond punkish rock appear in this song’s side-winding, slippery, meandering progression.

Bachmann and Eric Johnson’s loud guitars, Matt Gentling’s amplified bass and Mark Price’s drums may have been played as loud as Zep but their melodies, like those of many Southern college rockers, reminded audiences of The Who or British rock from the late ‘60s. The Archers sidle up to pop, but shrink back into angry tirades enriched by post-punk, approaching MoB’s art-rock even more than on their debut. This mix of precision and demolition typifies the sprawling approach of such B-side forays as the anti-Christmas “Don’t Believe the Good News”, and shows that, far from an album, the band sustained innovation. Its woozy, morning-after or after-midnight warble resembles a Salvation Army band’s hangover.

The re-issue features on a second disc full of demo tapes, some labelled “boombox”, and out-of-print singles from the Alias and Esther record labels. These prove rewarding, surprisingly, for more variety than the bonus tracks on Icky, which blurred their harsher, unrelenting attitude. Some sound almost unrecognizable, as in “Don’t Believe”, with its lazy bottleneck guitar and metronomic backing, compared to even the one-off B-side!  Other B-sides echo ‘60s film soundtracks (“Mark Price, P.I.”) or cover (?) John Coltrane (he’s credited even if “Equinox” proves a previously unreleased if underwhelming take on a trucker’s shaggy-dog ghost story), as well as more of their trademarked loud-soft put-downs of romantic foils (“Bacteria”). The boombox tracks are as Spartan as you might suppose, guitar or drum machine in a dorm, perhaps? The songs are barely there, but you can hear Bachmann building them up, as if he woke from a dream to record them. This ambiance heightens the sense of the band’s college-town roots, and shows their talent at constructing such ambitious and aggressive songs, with penetrating lyrics, out of such humble beginnings. “Don’t have words for this part yet”, Bachmann comments over one guitar section.

Archers of Loaf, in its earlier recorded stages, may best be taken in small doses, for they can pummel your eardrums with a steady roar, angry vocals, and tragicomic lyrics, but for rousing, grumbling tunes, this album offers a more accessible entry. The band’s maturity comes on this more diverse, if more modest, second record. The bonus tracks may appeal “for fans only”, but they may find these obscurities and rarities entertaining, as well as the original record, long out of print on the defunct Alias label. Not as soft a record as the third, the overlooked All the Nation’s Airports, or the sad, keyboard based final CD White Trash Heroes, this sophomore record proves the most accessible Archers album for its scope and range. Remastered by Weston as fuzzy or sharp, this generous re-release (the second in a series by Merge Records, founded by Superchunk) should win Vee Vee another devoted following. (PopMatters 2-24-12 + Amazon US)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sléibhte Naomh Jacinto

Chonaic mé pictiúr eagsúlaí le ealaíntóir áitiúl go cumasach le déanaí. D'fhoghlaim mé faoi Emil Kosa óg go cumasach. Ní raibh fhíos aige roimh.

Bhí maith a saothar péintéireachtaí na gCalifoirnea nuair bhí sé níos lú phlódaithe.  Nílim ábalta fháil imeasc na céann go háirithe ina musaem i bPasadena ansin. Ach, chuir mé eile.

Tá sé ainmnithe "Sléibhte Naomh Jacinto" le Kosa. Phéintéail sé i 1930. Tá iontach agam faoi an ionad go beacht ansin--nó anois.

Go fírinne, tá mo mhac oige Niall féin ag fhéiceail na sléibhte céanna fós is cruinnithe. D'imigh sé go féile mhór go dtí gCoachella in aice leis Fuaráin na bPailme an lá eile. Bíonn cheolchoirm mór sa bhfásach an deireadh tseachtaine seo caite amach ann.

Mar sin féin, beidh sé níos lú ciúin ann, gan amhras. B'fhéidir gheobhaidh Niall radharc álainn seo nuair ag bhreatnaigh suas. Féadfaidh sé féachaint amach ar an h-amharc chomh Kosa fadó.

San Jacinto Mountains.

I saw various paintings by a fine local artist recently. I learned about talented Emil Kosa, Jr. I did not know about him before.

I liked his paintings of California when it was less crowded. I'm not able to find online an image of a particular one at the Pasadena museum there. But, I found another one.

It's named "San Jacinto Mountains" by Kosa. He painted it in 1930. I wonder about the location precisely then--or now.

Certainly, my younger son Niall himself is seeing these same mountains the most accurately. He went away to Coachella near Palm Springs the other day. There's a grand concert in the desert this past weekend.

It will be less quiet now, without a doubt. All the same, perhaps Niall will get this lovely view when looking up. He may gaze out at the vista like Kosa long ago.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Feedtime: "The Aberrant Years": Music Review

Push your head inside an amplifier. Imagine Wire's lyrical minimalism and compression of song structure, crossed with an Australian underground's mutation of blues into punk. These four CDs collect the four Feedtime records on Aberrant Records, plus the expected odds and ends. In the latter half of the 1980s, I purchased their self-titled debut, Shovel, and Suction. These three studio recordings  wedged this Sydney trio into the same art-punk niche where my records by Wire and The Gun Club nestled between frequent plays. Feedtime did not capitalize their name, their albums, or song titles, but I defer to editorial convention--tellingly this band covered a poem by e.e. cummings on their Cooper-S tribute album along with songs by The Easybeats, The Rolling Stones, Lee Hazlewood, and The Beach Boys among others.

Yet, Feedtime did not sound exactly like any of these bands. This anthology (each album in a paper sleeve with original cover art, enhanced by Leon O'Regan's liner notes) improves upon the original albums, available back when I bought them via Rough Trade, with a simmering buzzing intensity. They already approached maximum if not R & B than blues-punk. Certainly raw, they reissued sound oddly spacious within unsettling digital clarity. Allen's frazzled bass, Rick's churning "electric slide guitar," and Tom's primal drums thud like their names: no nonsense, no added frills.

Feedtime takes the promise of punk and places it within an eager delight in full-frontal playing. Naked, it struts and swaggers. From the clubs and dives of Sydney, where this music did not meet apparently with universal acclaim from punters, it rises above the limits of punk by a sly craftsmanship that, as with the blues and art-rock, points back to quality tunes from earlier eras and doggedly unfashionable influences among the masses. You can hear why motorcycles appear on "I Wanna Ride," logically titled. With an album named after a car, this music begs for the open road, even if the engine of that British mini may be challenged by the endlessly open outback ahead.

There's a sly, shadowy variety within these recordings. When I played them on their original release, they loomed as monolithic slabs. The proverbial repeated listenings tease out, if not a lot of nuance, than texture. Some songs recall British art-punk of a few years earlier; the band started in 1979 and lasted a decade. I admit my affection for this era, so I forgive Feedtime any "homages" to their predecessors, beyond those covered on Cooper-S. They rethink their songs into a rapid shuffle, throwing off Wire's ratty, stiff put-downs by a sheer devotion to accelerated, terse melody.

As with Wire, Feedtime's arrangements open up subtly beneath ruffled vocals and arch lyrical shards. "In the supermarket, they're all dead crazy," goes a line that passes in "Dead Crazy," logically enough. This features a circling guitar behind a mix that shoves the other tracks ahead, into a awkward, but proudly wry, dance.

"F#" growls with its own Wire-like attitude; followed by "Clowns" which sounds sprightly by comparison, extending the British-inspired music of the late 1970s into a clunky, brawling jig. "Southside Johnny" shows off the plummet of a slide guitar over insistent plunge down into doom. The first album follows in this pattern. You can hear what Feedtime listens to, but you also note how they change their LP collection into their own answer to barroom cover bands and roadhouse blues.

"Shovel" opens that album with cleaner production that this version conveys impressively, but the second record sounds far from slick. It's less scratchy, just as with post-punk's progression. But, while that genre added keyboards, Feedtime opts for a heftier rhythm section, with, happily, even more slide guitar. Vocals aim for more howling and less growling. "Nobody's Fault But Mine" echoes in a funhouse turned horror show of bickering overdubs. "Dog" squares off between martial drums, a slip of guitar, and chiming bass. Fans of The Stooges may admire this stage of Feedtime. Their struggle between escape and release within a two minute song goes on for dozens of songs.

Sub Pop commendably delivers an anthology from a prime influence on their hometown heroes Mudhoney, and Feedtime's return to the shelves proves timely. Too much "alternative" music this current (as with last) decade feels retro in the tired sense of wearied expectations. Listen to these sixty-five (!) songs and you may rediscover what punk promised, and the blues, and primitive rock.

The covers on Cooper-S don't differ much from one another. It's amusing to hear "h.d." by e.e. cummings pressed up aside "Fun, Fun, Fun" or "Play With Fire," as if Big Black met Galaxie 500 in terms of literary preferences sidling up to deconstructive takes on classic rock. The generous amount of songs here in a similar, abrasive mood slows down an already heavy sounding band. The best combination remains the droning assaults on "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "Paint It Black," the latter nearly unrecognizable except for its common note of plaintive dread.

Within a couple of minutes per song, Feedtime did what they needed to do. A few edge on Shovel and Cooper-S into post-punk in its theatrical, lumbering moments, but as all of Feedtime's songs are so short, these pass as rapidly as should-be hits such as the opener of Suction, the final album. The ditty "Motorbike Girl" feels as if "recorded" by Steve Albini in its dry pep. "Meter" bites off its words and radio chatter hisses. "I think there's been a total mistake" mumbles a voice as "Social Suction" opens into an anthem recalling the best of Commonwealth punk ten years before. Voices strain, tempos explore blues, punk, and rock in ways that surpass earlier albums in depth and scope.

Perhaps the Jesus and Mary Chain were competitors, by then, resurrecting the mid-1960s for a pre-grunge generation, but Feedtime in its last recorded incarnation hammers home its mournful squalls. Shuffles slide into shoves. Suction feels sucked out of its fetid, mucky depth, left in the antipodean sun to die, squealing and dessicated. That's a guarded, but honest, recommendation.

Hearing so many intricate, smart, but densely played songs at once may, despite brevity, in quantity lead to sonic overload. For any newcomers, from my intense experience to Feedtime even if spaced out over a subgenre's quarter-century, I advise limited exposure to build up tolerance over four discs.

This assertive yet diffident roots-punk music may not please many, but a discerning few will be pleased. The confidence Feedtime exudes comes from determination to create songs they loved. They combined art with intuition, craft with inspiration. This talent cannot be faked.

(Without italicized portion, to PopMatters 3-23-12. Reduced and simplified, to Amazon US 3-13-12)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg's "The Art of Punk": Book Review

Nine hundred images, mostly record sleeves from recalled or forgotten bands, illustrate this large-format presentation of the evolution, rise, and dominance of the punk aesthetic over the past forty-odd years. Russ Bestley and Alex Ogg contribute a deft introduction, short topical essays and captions. Interviews with familiar pioneers such as John Holmstrom, Jamie Reid, and Malcolm Garrett enrich the contents, along with lesser-known designers like LukTam89: this typifies the broader chronological and geographical scope that this edition emphasizes.

This range, from the counterculture of the early 1970s to the globalized anarchists and D.I.Y. provocateurs who continue the anti-corporate ideology far from the Broadway adaptation of Green Day's American Idiot or the shelves at the Hot Topic franchise, exemplifies the reach of a movement tired of the mainstream. But, it's a movement very eager, in many cases past and present, to court mass acceptance as well as media outrage, manufactured more often than genuine. Bestley and Ogg begin by covering terrain already trod by contributors to the interviews in Jon Savage's England's Dreaming {Tapes} and John Robb's Punk Rock: An Oral History. The analysis here fits into what has emerged as the conventional narrative. However, it expands the usual Malcolm McLaren-Vivienne Westwood-Situationists-Sex Pistols-Kings Road Chelsea chronology as it continues. 

Ogg and Bestley define punk's "visual legacy" by its "graphic codes--symbols of struggle and resistance, but also a complex subcultural visual vocabulary and, more cynically, a means to tap into deeply held anti-authoritarian sentiments by lifestyle branders": this combination, they argue, resonates today. The resulting study offers valuable texts to frame the images. Posters and photos intersperse with sleeves for more singles and fewer albums, representing the bulk of the product. 

This can prove as uneven as the sounds themselves these bands recorded. The authors mention the typographic pattern on the reverse of the Buzzcocks' seminal Spiral Scratch EP but do not include it. They note how The Undertones' single "Jimmy, Jimmy" incorporated a transparent sleeve, but they leave it off of a full page filled with colored vinyl that failed to be as innovative. They applaud the work of Raymond Pettibon for SST Records but this gains far less page space than that of Winston Smith's concurrent contributions for the Alternative Tentacles label. A welcome nod later to the adaptation of the aesthetic to current styles only whets the appetite for what should have been a long chapter on this under-examined aspect of punk's relevance, a subject demanding far more depth. A related subject, punk's interpretation by designers beyond the musical world, deserved elaboration.

With a large-scale format, the editors fumble some opportunities for the wisest use of a generous page layout. A poster for Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex gains a big share of space arguably unnecessary to demonstrate its quickly and cheaply reproduced, and rapidly overused, incorporation of photocopied tones and harsh colors. On the other hand, Jamie Reid's soon-withdrawn appropriation of a tourist advertisement for the Pistols' "Holidays in the Sun" shrinks to insignificance. 

Yet, other sections succeed. Reid's clever parody (also soon withdrawn) of an American Express advertisement for the post-Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols' appropriately titled and conceived fiasco The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle benefits by a large scale reproduction. A glance at send-ups of punk by enterprising bands or conniving labels shows the double-edged predicament of making fun of the clowns. Peter Gravelle's outtakes from the photo session for the pie-smeared faces whimsically adorning the debut LP from The Damned reveal the humor inherent in punk. As the photographer observes appropriately, whipped cream optional: "You'd always get, out of five, maybe one good-looking kid, two that were average, one that was a bit geeky, and one you'd have to try to hide." 

The tension and opportunity inherent for The Damned and others who managed to survive the first surges of punk in the late 1970s revealed more chances for self-mockery, as well as self-promotion, whether or not McLaren stayed on as Svengali. Bestley and Ogg decipher New Wave well. Major labels, with the cash lacking for indies such as New Hormones who released Spiral Scratch or New Rose who put out The Damned's first singles, tried to imitate the product and the sounds and the look of punk, but marketed more widely, with arguably greater or lesser amounts of ambition or cynicism.

Colored vinyl, collectibles, limited editions, novelties: the majors gleefully sought to separate fans from their wallets. However, the often maligned New Wave boasted, as its name defined, an avant-garde pedigree from film and the intelligentsia; arguably preferable in some musicians' as well as some marketers' minds to a term associated more with male prison rape prior to John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil's caricatures and long-lived promotions for the Ramones. Ogg and Bestley allow Holmstrom the room to roam into his invention, thanks to the Presidential Seal and a visit to Washington D.C., of the most enduring of logos, that for the back-to-basics leather-jacketed NYC band which preceded the rise of the media-savvy Pistols. 

As with the lucrative deals given the Pistols and the merchandising rewards for the Ramones, the division between those who stayed true to an imagined punk purity and those who sold out to the New Wave blurs. The editors conclude about this A&R fueled "battle of the bands": "Like its hipper cousin post-punk, new wave has been retrofitted to suit a neat and precise historical framework, placing it more firmly within the corporate stereotype it initially set out to oppose." Their judgment serves as an applicable verdict for the visual and aesthetic energy of punk and its restive relations. (Amazon US 10-14-12; slightly altered for PopMatters 10-23-12)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Joe Beil's "Beyond the Music": Book Review

Interviewing an actress, bicyclist, Catholic Worker, chef, chocolatier, Cuban-American fan of Green Day, Fulbright Scholar working for Cambodia, a psychologist specializing in males, and lots of graphic designers, printers, and publishers, Joe Biel reveals the range of those who use the mechanisms of punk's self-motivated and communally based ethos to change our world by action. Biel, as a filmmaker and zine journalist, collates his conversations from 2008-2012 with over forty who try to make a difference. He introduces this collection with an analogy to "relentless dandelions." That is, tenacious "pioneer plants" dig in taproots deep to extract minerals below an exhausted topsoil, enrich their ground, host other creatures, and out of the darkness, nourish energy.

Aaron Smith, working for the venerable and often rabble-rousing Harper's, connects its radical tradition within the mainstream to his own efforts to parallel the capitalist system. Yet, decades after punk first burst out, after there is "a 'DIY' section in every chain bookstore across the country," he asks, what about its too-often "self-congratulatory impulse"? He elaborates: "The underlying assumption seems to be: If we form enough collectives, print enough stickers and get people reading zines, everything will be alright." Detect Smith's cautious tone and you will hear the theme of realism combined with the abundant idealism articulated by many in these discussions with editor Biel.

As punks age, the camaraderie and intensity which attracted them as teens to the movement shifts into a desire to branch off from the mosh-pit, the noisy clubs, and the relentless demands of life lived rough. You learn here how to assemble a light table from dumpster diving, and how police barricades can be dismantled for window frames when squatting. (While a sense of humor may be recommended, many in these pages--too closely typeset in a font difficult for greying readers like myself to easily navigate--appear quite serious. Perhaps the disproportionate amount of interviewees who left the East Coast and Midwest for the Bay Area and especially Portland stands to blame or credit.) However, as some here gave up living rough circa the Reagan Administration, many of their lessons reflect years of paying bills, needing healthcare, raising children, or learning how not to do everything for free to help a community which may expect too much from too few over the long haul.

Illustrator Matt Gauck raises the moral dilemma: "Is it more punk to steal from Whole Foods, buy food for cash from a supermarket, or use food stamps at your local co-op? I love questions like that, because I'm not sure about the answers, but it helps define where punk fits into the grander social scheme." Biel founded Cantankerous Titles as an offshoot of his Microcosm Publishing to push such challenges into the movement, and to address the DIY system's workings, which tend to be ignored by studies of punk emphasizing the music, the fashion, and the commodification of its sounds.

He highlights the spunk of the participants, and those who try to sustain workable solutions outside the mainstream. The problem, as the recent economic meltdown exposes, is the lack of viable, true, alternatives that can survive the capitalist crisis. Putting people before profit remains altruistic, rare, and fragile as a method to make a living in a harsh climate with frayed protection against disaster.

Anarchists typify one time-tested possibility. Ramsey Kanaan of first AK and now PM Press, Sparkplug underground comics distributor Dylan Williams, and successful mainstream (?) short story writer (and former guitarist for Hellbender) Wells Tower exemplify those able to continue careers. The NYC-based artist Fly, with her spirited if understandably weary tales of life lived rough on the Lower East Side, serves as a telling case study in the desire expended to carry on outside the typical trajectory, once launched by punk into the possibilities outside the expected path. Mark Andersen's concluding essay, with its reference to Jello Biafra's analogy of punk as a virus spread by intimate contact, demonstrates the force that pulls a boy out of 1977 small-town Montana into Positive Force DC, one of the first punk collectives.

Others may, to use a few of many examples: convert restaurant grease into vegetable oil for fossil-free fuel; co-found Dischord Records; star on Friday Night Lights; investigate political malfeasance on behalf of Pro Publica; start up not one but two enduring progressive publishers; edit zines; lobby for a skatepark in a barrio. That last example is from the neighborhood next to mine, showing how the punk-driven activism may well happen around the corner from where you read this.

Forging community spaces becomes crucial for many advocates. A bookstore, an alliance to fight sexual assault, a group therapy resource for non-profits, bio-energy, a radical d.j., or vegan dessert cookbooks show the ways in which better choices may enrich customers, clients, and consumers. Theories may attract some into these causes, but Biel stresses how action emanates from the grind, the discipline, and the motivation. These require commitment to a choice that makes the political slogans and catchy lyrics once shouted a more subtle, if no less compelling, call to transformation. (Amazon US 11-9-12 and to PopMatters 11-19-12)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Stewart Dean Ebersole's "Barred for Life": Book Review

How "The Bars" signify not only Black Flag's relevance three decades after their career, but the impact of punk upon those who in this collection were usually far too young to have seen a gig makes this photographic and journalistic anthology compelling. As I was born the same year as Dez Cadena and Henry Rollins, and as I grew up watching this L.A. scene, I admit some surprise.

Everybody interviewed with the icon is younger (with one exception: Ron Spellman, a second-generation tattoo artist a few years older) than me--or therefore the famous Hank whose arms, torso, and back became ever more inked as his power as the band's longest-lasting singer dominated the band's image and presence. Why tattoos perch or crawl over the bodies of the hirsute or hairless hundreds in these pages portrayed, whereas earlier punks did not tend (as chronicler Stewart Dean Ebersole, Spellman, and Chuck Dukowski concur) to decorate themselves with so many or so "graphic" an array of body art remains more an observation than a consideration. Yet, the generational gap between those who come after the band who choose to don The Bars and those who heard the band in its heyday persists.

While I wish this aspect was explored more, this isn't a sociological treatise. It's an angular presentation that mingles Ebersole's own rambling memoir of life in Red Lion PA with his coming-of-age with the Flag. Interspersed are intelligent interviews with band members, Spellman, and photographer Glen E. Friedman. (Greg Ginn no longer talks to the press; Rollins talks to them but not here.) I share what Ebersole wrestles over: feeling that by the 1984 "My War" LP (if not the title track, which was punchier than most other tracks) the band's move away from hardcore to jazzier and sludgier textures did not do the ensemble justice. Ebersole returns to this over and over, and many who identify (as all tattooed do here) their favorite song, singer, and album by the band list "My War" often in both categories. The editor locates this pivotal point (before the band ended in '86; note the current revival on two tours by a version of Black Flag and one of Flag) as a very punk rock one.

That is, the band challenged its followers not to expect conformity, and undermined its own fan base. "Upon exiting, Black Flag seemed to kick down the temple." (255) They always tried to take charge. Friedman reminds readers how the band, under SST's aegis and Ginn's command, forged a collective identity itself at "The Church" and its relentless devotion to rehearsing and touring, and managing itself. While Ginn's brother, Raymond Pettibon, earns full credit for his design of their logo, I recall that its symbolism might have eluded those who first saw it on records and flyers (if not yet tattoos). The four black rectangles always remind me of a row of amps.

The band's name evokes for me--as Chuck Dukowski reminiscences--the bug spray slogan "Kills Ants on contact" famously borrowed by the band in a Hollywood Blvd. counter-PR, anti-Adam stunt, and the popular insecticide of the era. The anarchic connection appears to have motivated Ginn to change the name of the group from Panic, coupled with his brother's icon as a memorable non-verbal logo and a rallying image of its vision. Ebersole finds that its lyrics (unlike the Dead Kennedys or I may add the Clash) have not dated as much for they were not paired to Reaganesque depredations. The deeper anarchic resonance may, however, intentionally or accidentally matter less to some who don the four staggered, as if pixillated, dramatic and stark black bars.

Billy Atwell sums this up (one of nearly four hundred wearers featured) as therefore pure hardcore. "They say something without saying something at all." (89) Ron Reyes reflects: "People don't get the cereal brand they eat in the morning tattooed on them." (125) So, what does this "secret handshake" register as? As I lack tattoos, and as Black Flag is a band I like with some songs but pass by with many more from that problematic later period, I approached this volume of those who had heard this music a decade or two after me--and often far from its home turf--with curiosity.

Scanning the testimonies from band members, Ebersole and his mates (his own tattoo is via a girlfriend's birthday gift), and those inked, the whole counterculture-as-commodity connection appears underexamined. (A couple of slips on pg. 276: Kira Roessler went not to "Yumi" but "Uni[versity]" H.S. near UCLA; so did Paul not "Bean" but "Beahm" aka Darby Crash.) Rightly, many who were in L.A. around '80 lament the turn to violence that kept such as me from the mosh pits as they grew increasingly full of the jocks who used to pummel the artsier and the lonelier who tended to comprise the first punks and the band themselves (not sure about Rollins, although certainly he was less pumped up when he joined...). Ebersole notes NYC scenesters featured more tattoos but that this faded with British bands and then earlier American ones--only to return with Rollins and mid-80s hardcore. But I kept wondering if this ink-as-marker identification was less radical or subversive than its wearers often assumed. As with many features promoted by those who place themselves outside the norm, the norm tends to catch up, surround, and profit off of their promotion.

One encounter moved me. "Chaz" returns from Iraq after leaving part of his leg behind. At Walter Reed VA, he wakes from a coma and tries to get back together. He finds Henry Rollins as part of a USO tour standing there at bedside. Chaz tells him about his ambition, and he soon dons his Bars.

I am not sure how many have tattoos of the Bars on more inaccessible or intimate areas; the ratio of males to females here appears to balance that of those inked overall in American (and Canadian, British, and Continental) cultures where many get by as bartenders, skilled workers (or not workers!), artists, or creative or casual laborers a bit off the corporate or mainstream grids. I kept turning the pages--which mimic punk collage as you need to find your way around the text and images and odd juxtapositions--expecting to find a familiar face. While I did not, I saw people that I'd like to meet--an indication of Jared Castoldi and Ebersole's casual but approachable style behind the lens. (Amazon US 4-4-13;
PM Press site for title)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bill Ash's "Under the Wire": Book Review

Growing up in Dallas when it still echoed from the Wild West, following the boxcars as a hobo during the Depression, Bill Ash prepared for far tougher times ahead. Rejected the first time he tried to cross the border to join the RAF in Canada, he beefed up (literally) on stew and bulked up enough to be accepted two weeks later. As the U.S. had not entered WWII, Ash had to renounce his citizenship, so eager he was to serve not the Crown itself but to fight the Nazis. That he did--in the skies over the Channel--before his beloved Spitfire plane crash-landed. After a series of brave French families and Resistance fighters harboring him, he found his door kicked in and himself a doomed prisoner. 

Tortured and sentenced to death by the Gestapo in Paris, he luckily was traded off to the Luftwaffe, who could benefit from him as a bargaining chip for their own downed pilots' welfare. Imprisoned in Stalag Luft III among other camps deeper inside the Reich, he used his skills learned from privation, hunger, isolation, and survival during hard times to endure solitary in the "Cooler"--before again he tries to escape--whether in Occupied France, Germany, Poland or Lithuania. 

I wondered for a while reading this what the prisoners of war had to bargain or bribe with, to get information from the guards. Their Red Cross packets with chocolate and cigarettes did the trick. The details of how prison life led to socialism and liberation promoted as such enlisted men soon turned out Churchill after the war in Britain gains insight; one can only wonder how Ash and officers might have fared if they were not officers, who did not have to work, and so found time for reading, writing, and escaping. 

There's not the sentimental tales of how the Germans were just like us etc., however. You get a few notices of decency on the other side, if mainly when the forced march drives them all out of their last camp as the Russians close in. The chaos of the end of the Reich reverberates in Ash's telling. It's a spare story, as Ash possesses an inherent loyalty to oppose abuse--his torment under the Gestapo sobers him. Meanwhile, he'll take chances to keep sane, as when he scrambles into a huddle near a guard's site, as that man listens on the radio to the same Bach and Beethoven which have comforted Ash often.

Certainly, the inherent drama in Ash and comrades' constant, instinctive "resistance" to the Axis impels their drive to escape and the thrust of this unprepossessing narrative. The tension of being beneath the dirt, the scraping into muck and sewage with a tin scoop attached to a bedframe stick in a two-foot square confinement where only one hand can reach into the absolute darkness, the sludge and grime, the brisk breath and a sight of light that signals a breakthrough beyond the camp: this all emerges in Ash's modest style. At the Polish camp of Schubin, Ash joins dramatic tunneling: the results of what he and 33 others met after they met fresh air on the other side of the fence is compelling. Back at Stalag Luft, he's in the cooler when others make their true-life Great Escape.

He tells his tale clearly, and energetically. Educated at the U. of Texas before the war, Ash possesses his learning quietly, preferring for a straightforward approach. Yet, this passage shows the eloquence he can attain: "Human beings are surrounded by a universe many sizes too big for them and the ability either to shout out in anger or to laugh in the face of chaos are the only truly noble options available to us. That shout, or that laughter, even in the black infinity of the universe is an absolutely new and pure thing filling the void and going on, echoing off among the nebula, with an entirely human significance."

This isn't my usual genre, but an offer from Brendan Foley, who contributes the forward, enticed me. I agree with a previous reviewer that a map or two would have helped; the snapshots add faces to some names. It can be rather breezy in tone despite the brutality: certainly officers were spared much of the pain of the war, as Ash notes, even as he tried to escape. 

Adding value to this re-issue on Kindle e-book is the afterword; Ash follows up on those who helped or hindered him, from information gleaned when the book was published in hardcover. Foley and Ash join well to provide a compelling tale of how one man and his comrades felt so driven not to surrender, and to reject the meager security of life behind the barbed wire to rush towards free air. (Amazon US 4-3-13)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke": Book Review

Without a preface, as if a dramatically told and chronologically arranged series of note cards, he spends nearly 500 pages laying out historical cards, from WWI to the end of 1941. They reveal a hard-hearted Hitler and many Nazi minions, naturally. Baker hears Kristallnacht applied "because the word 'crystal' simultaneously distracted from, and raised a toast to, the ferociousness of the rioting," as well as echoing Edward Bernays' Crystallizing Public Opinion, a favorite book for Goebbels' propaganda model. They also attest to a childish, conniving Churchill (no surprise to any who knowing the fate of the Irish sent over to deal with Winston as part of the British diplomatic team outwitting the republican raw recruits given the task of hashing out the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921-22) and a firm FDR opposed to doing much to allow many Jewish refugees in or out.

Rabbi Stephen Wise is quoted as preferring that Jews meet their fate in Germany rather than be resettled in Tanganyika, so tainted is that former German colony; pacifist Gandhi opposes Zionism as counter-productive to Arab interests and as sustaining poorly implemented British colonial aims; American Quakers travel in vain to Goebbels to try to talk him out of intransigence; Huxley insists: "An evil act always produces further evil acts." (61) In the context of mass aerial bombardments carried out in Yemen by Britain and Italy in Ethiopia, his Peace Pledge Union rejects "collective security" to threaten dictators with violence. He opposes war totally. Yet, presciently, Huxley confronts the logical difficulty of dealing rationally with a mad dictator, or one so Machiavellian that total war looks a better gamble than submission to foreign governments. Milton Mayer muses that Hitler menaces America in 1939 "not because he won the last war, but because he lost it." (150)

While one may argue Baker arranges his notes to advance only his side of the argument, he does take pains to include outrages from both sides. This itself, for those of us used to a tilt given our own national involvement, can be unsettling and may not convince those who may rightly claim the Axis and fascism is far more culpable. But, I read this presentation as determined to address the Allied rush to war and its refusal to negotiate, unpalatable or uneven as this direction may be for today's audiences. Baker advances the cause of retribution as the fault of all involved, who get caught up in hate, revenge, and the lust for profit.

One advantage of this study is that Baker, as he says on its final page, reminds us of the Quaker pacifists and others opposed to war: "They failed, but they were right." An unpopular stance, as Jeannette Rankin, Montana representative and the first woman elected to Congress, demonstrated. Along with fifty colleagues she voted against the U.S. entry into WWI; alone, she did the same the day after "the day of infamy" nearly twenty-five years later.

Courageous opponents such as Himmler's Finnish masseur Felix Kersten, the German dean in Berlin the Rev. Bernhard Lichtenberg, and the Union Theological Seminary's Eight who were jailed a year and a day for refusing the call-up to the military merit mention. What Vera Brittain decried as the worst possible way to deal with Hitler, "reciprocal violence," rules as the British scrap for another fight, whether with France or with Germany, from Versailles on. The "merchants of death" fuel bombers dropping munitions on civilians. The Nazis blame the Jews for this.

Hitler's belligerence finds its match with Churchill's petulance. He shuts off food relief to Poland, enforces a blockade against supplies to the lands Hitler has conquered, and he pushes RAF attacks on cities, vowing to terrorize a term he revives, the Huns. He laments to DeGaulle the delay in the German attacks against Canterbury, Oxford, and Coventry, hoping they will draw the U.S. into the war. When Coventry is about to be bombed, English intelligence intercepts the Nazi transmission. Yet, hours ahead, no warnings are called in to the city. "Winston Churchill asked for heavy publicity to be given to the Coventry raid. He did not visit." (254)

The steady slide into patriotic cant, falsehoods phrased as truths by ministries and politicians,  conscription by the U.S. for the first time other than when at war, jailing of draft resisters follows. Baker cites Hitler on January 30, 1941, vowing to fulfill his "prewar threat: If international Jewry pushed Germany into a world war, the Jews would be finished in Europe." (283) Roosevelt, eager for any "incident" justifying entry to back Britain, is revealed as an impatient ally itching for a scrap. Churchill, as seen by Australian P.M. Robert Menzies, falls victim to his knack for the "glittering phrase" that compels Churchill to believe his boasts.

Baker shows how the RAF, soon under "Bomber Harris" would continue its remorseless retaliation as retribution (these three terms appear over and over in his sources by late summer of 1941). "The bombing offensive fed Hitler's wrath, in direct connection with his concept of the 'Jew's war' against him, and helped unite his nation behind him and justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews." (qtd. 391) Historian Schlomo Aronson's assertion supports Baker's cause and effect. Churchill's bellicosity and his courting of FDR's lend-lease of weaponry to Britain implies that the Allies were partially responsible for the mayhem and backlash of the Shoah. This view inspired Baker's Harper's May 2011 essay "Why I Am a Pacifist," which continued the story after the end of 1941, and predictably sparked a firestorm of controversy. (Amazon US 3-25-13)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pharaoh's hard heart

Commenting on my review last year of the "New American Haggadah," Matthew A. Levine asked c/o Amazon:
I just wonder about the version of the ten plagues that you mention, is the comparison to FDR, Truman, and Lincoln really applicable? Even though I personally don't believe that violent means are ever justified, at least, according to the official version of history, in these cases it was necessary to achieve a good end. According to the Passover story, the Pharaoh was ready to let the Jews go free, and then God "hardened his heart," so in this case liberation could have been achieved without any violence whatsoever. What was the point of that, and how can it possibly be morally justified?
This refers to my statement in the original review: "the Ten Plagues again by [Jeffrey] Goldberg find memorable comparisons. The power of a God who hardened the heart of the evil Pharaoh grows mysterious. Lincoln, FDR, and Truman all are shown as presidents who took the lives of many innocents in their determination to bring about a greater good. If emancipation ends or fascism succumbs, do the ends justify the means?"

I responded: "Matthew, that's precisely the type of question this Haggadah might inspire for a seder, or your own reflection. I recently re-read Nicholson Baker's 'Harper's' essay about the reaction to his own claims in 'Human Smoke' about the folly of violence even in WWII, and his remarks remind me of yours about the hardening of a heart, and how war might have done that to the Allied foes. Perhaps the collective authors strain for relevance and parts of this smack of appealing to a certain demographic, but if its contents can spark a question such as yours (and mine), it's worthwhile."

At the risk of ostracism as a wicked son (if without a Jewish father), this recent exchange stimulated my Pesach planning. My wife wondered if a seder could avoid a mention of "God," and given the spectrum of those attending this year spans secular to atheist, and skeptics with a healthy proportion of lawyers, I figured the timing was perfect for contemplating taking this on tour, if around my table.

(Update: it went well enough, given my own probable or inevitable lapse into professorial mode. After a viewing of the South Park episode, I didn't get into the WWII-Shoah context much which may have been just as well. The youngest son answered many questions from my older son's guest who did not know about the tale much. We skipped the Four Questions, but made up by our Maggid, the narrative we retold--I checked three guests' claim that Moses found out he was Hebrew from a garment shown him by sister Miriam. Not in Exodus; a charming but non-scriptural addition?)

My investigation--as a not-wicked but too-diligent son of my own has waylaid my (admittedly Reform, so perhaps while it may lean towards refuseniks even they may not agree with Baker's pacifism) Torah, detouring me from study of its gleanings--has led me to study Baker's Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization.  Levine acknowledged by his own glance at its Amazon raters (where my review at that link appears 3/25/13) a massive negative swell of criticism directed at it. I was dimly aware of it when it came out in 2007 but very attentive to "Why I Am a Pacifist" in Harper's for May 2011.

In the book, Baker cites Hitler on January 30, 1941, vowing to fulfill his "prewar threat: If international Jewry pushed Germany into a world war, the Jews would be finished in Europe." (283) Baker does not hold the Allies as free of culpability. The RAF, soon under "Bomber Harris," would continue its remorseless retaliation as retribution (these three terms appear over and over in his sources by late summer of 1941). The defiant British refused to negotiate and the more Hitler bombed their homeland, the more Churchill calculated FDR would send aid and be drawn into global war.

"The bombing offensive fed Hitler's wrath, in direct connection with his concept of the 'Jew's war' against him, and helped unite his nation behind him and justify further Nazi atrocities against the remaining Jews." (qtd. 391) Historian Schlomo Aaronson's assertion supports Baker's cause and effect. Churchill's bellicosity and desire for FDR's lend-lease of weaponry to Britain implies that the Allies were partially responsible by warlust of accelerating the mayhem and backlash of the Shoah.

Civilians displaced by carpet bombing were told the Jews were at fault, and German residences were appropriated by the Nazis who then sent their former occupants off to ghettos. This blame game, as American armaments intensified British raids on innocent Germans, may have hastened the Final Solution. U.S. entry spurred ever more destruction of the Jews, as they lost their hostage status as bargaining chips with the Allies. Death camps emerged, the first readied as it were the day after Pearl Harbor. Analyzing this escalation inspired Baker's Harper's May 2011 essay "Why I Am a Pacifist," which continued the story after the end of 1941, and predictably sparked a firestorm of controversy.

So far, reflecting on Pharaoh's tale, with little commentary--as a fundamentalist might advise-- Exodus makes me wonder about who's to blame. I can't avoid the mention of God, but he may share in the blame game, if not by venerable scholars; Biblical marginalia favor an Augustinian approach. That is, the Pharaoh could have chosen mercy, but he let himself act tough, as this fit a severe ruler in the Middle Eastern model and it showed all the more the comeback of the Hebrews against overwhelming odds and a Memphis home team's martial and mental advantage at Luxor Stadium.

In a 2011 Slate essay, "Sympathy for the Pharaoh," Michael David Lukas considers various rationales advanced by theologians and critics. He notes: "Towards the beginning of the story, Pharaoh hardens his own heart (or it "is hardened" in the passive voice). Following the sixth plague, however, Pharaoh seems to lose his nerve and God steps in, hardening his heart for him." While the likes of Martin Luther King and Erich Fromm aver that the hardening is due to Pharaoh's own defiance of compassion and his decision to use free will to defy Moses' appeal, Lukas reminds us that such apologists for justice and resistance to evil stay mute as to why God steps in to harden the heart that appeared to waver after the infliction upon the recalcitrant Egyptians of boils. (I confess this always impressed or repulsed me as particularly nasty, given my adolescent reaction to skin blemishes.)

My family's search for inspirational fare led to "Jewpacabra," aired March 14, 2012, episode 4, season 16. We join the action as Cartman's dream of being transported back to ancient times leads to why frogs are raining down, God's hand in this curious trajectory, and how that seems unfair to frogs. 

Kyle: It doesn't matter. Because God is going to harden the Pharaoh's heart!
Cartman: What does that mean?
Kyle: It means Jehovah is going to use his powers to keep the Pharaoh from letting us go.
Cartman: Well that doesn't seem very fair, Kyle. I mean, if God is going to make Pharaoh say no, then why would he punish him for saying no?

South Park's script is on to something, as satire snaps. A few minutes it devotes to the depiction of the plagues and Passover: here it hones in on this conundrum. Cartman continues to dream as P's son:

Cartman: Daaad, when's it gonna stop raining frogs?
Pharaoh: It'll be okay, my son. The weather will clear.
Cartman: But my friend Kyle, he says that the reason we've had all these plagues and stuff because you won't let all the Jews leave.
Pharaoh: [sighs] It's a complicated political issue, my son. An economic social issue that needs time. We can't let them leave, but is it really all that different from when the north didn't let the confederate states leave the USA?
Cartman: Wow, that makes sense. Don't think anyone can deny that. [a bloody frog lands over the edge]
Pharaoh: Poor frogs. I feel so badly for them.
Cartman: But dad, my friend Kyle says that if we don't do whatever the Hebrews want us to do, God is gonna kill little Egyptian boys.
Pharaoh: Hah, I don't think God would do such a thing, little one. No matter what happens, we can't let ourselves believe in the Hebrew version of God. We believe in a just Lord who would never murder innocent children.
Cartman: I love you, dad.
Pharaoh: And I love you son. And our love grows.

Speaking of dad, I've mused at DeMille-epic length about my own college-age antiwar stance four years ago at Pax Christi-Passover; the elevation of a pope named Francis may align with this spring's paschal ritual. In that 2009 entry, I raised many of recollections as a child hearing my dad remark "nobody ever wins a war; there are only losers" and my own naming after my mom's only brother dead on the shores of 1944 Saipan lingered. Raised with Vietnam footage on network t.v., I recalled to Niall the "Welcome Home POWs" bracelets worn by my hippie-spawned grade-school classmates from the far more liberal side of town. I credit as an teen my own surprised encounters via Thomas Merton's autobiography and J.F. Powers' incarceration to learn that Catholic Workers and pacifists during even the "good war" and the "greatest generation" existed as fellow communicants next to my presumably unaware mom and dad as they worked day and night in factories for the "war effort."

No, they were no saints, no Franciscans jailed as Fr. Louis Vitale has been (see "Pax Christi"). During the days of the Evil Empire and the contras, I showed my dad an article by L.A.'s Cardinal Timothy Manning decrying the "culture of war" and our local "defense industry." My dad and mom had worked at such factories (as did Layne's--both our dads were turned down for induction due to punctured eardrum and stuttering respectively); my machine shop, further-deafened by tool-and-die, dad looked the prelate's op-ed over with a glance and almost sneered: the Cardinal never had to worry about how his bills were to be paid or where his next meal was coming from.

Yes, I have seen the numbers cut into the arms of the elderly; Leo and I heard Dario Gabbai tell of his fate as a sonderkommando fueling the furnaces of Auschwitz. The more I study Irish republicanism over decades, the more attentive I am to what I didn't notice once upon a time: the perpetuation of "whataboutery." What about Hitler, what about the Battle of the Boyne, what about the Irish Civil War after the one that tried to gain independence, but left in the wake of a cleverly phrased and jerry-rigged treaty dividing the Free State a legacy of bitterness for generations. Baker's allies would insist any treaty brokered ought to be preferable to more death. It's hard not to disagree, despite my clan sympathies. I remain cognizant of perhaps cognitive dissonance here, but I state my case nonetheless.

Teaching PTSD vets, kids with plates in their backs and pins in their knees, wives with babies to care for while their husbands are off in Afghanistan, students called up for reserves, active duty, or desert training in the middle of a term; survivors of firefights in Fallouja who went three months without bathing in over a hundred lbs. of cloth and gear in 140-degrees: what some must undergo to qualify for an education on a GI Bill. I despise a nation and a mindset which rewards only those who may have risked their life and their sanity to cull a few thousand dollars for improving their livelihood and their mentality. I'm not naive enough to acknowledge my own desires lurk for revenge or reprisal; my Fenian blood can run deep. Yet, my maturity demands that I seek and support calmer ways to redress wrongs and right injustices. As Einstein challenged in 1930: "If only 2 percent of the men liable for war service were to refuse, there would not be enough jails in the world to take care of them." (23)