Monday, February 29, 2016

Slán a fhágáil ag Harry

Bím ag scriobh seo inniu, 2ú Marta. Chaith muid ag fáil ár piscín, Harry, ag codhladh. Tá leoicéime aige.

Bhí sé ina stríoc bán ar a driomh dubh. Bhí sé cosúil le scúnc. D'iarr muid air "scúncín."

Bhí sé an-chíuín. Mar sin féin, "purred" sé. Ar maidin, tháinig Harry chun suí agamsa.

"Purred" sé is airde. Bhí Léna ábalta chloisteáil dó ar fud an tseomra. Is é mo chuimhne air.

Bhí sé féin agus a dheartháir Jerry ach ceithre mhí d'aois. Tá brón orainn anseo. Deanfaimid chailleain Harry.

Goodbye to Harry.

I am writing this today, March 2nd. We has to put our kitten, Harry, to sleep. He had leukemia.

He had a white stripe on his black back. It was like a skunk. We called him "little skunk."

He was very quiet. Nevertheless, he purred. This morning, Harry came to sit with me.

He purred very loud. Layne was able to hear him across the room. It is my memory of him.

He himself and his brother Jerry were but four months old. We are sorry here. We will miss Harry.


Friday, February 26, 2016

David Loy's "The New Buddhist Path": Book Review

 A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World
This book opens promisingly. David Loy favors a third course, bypassing the transcendental, nirvana- and karma-based model of a Buddhism aiming at next-world reward, as well as an immanent one that tries to reinforce the self's construction in league with mindfulness gimmicks, rather than reducing it. "If my ultimate goal is something or somewhere else, I don't need to be too concerned about the her and now. And if the goal of my practice is to de-stress so I can perform my usual work and home roles better, I won't be inclined to consider the larger social and economic implications of the Buddhist perspective. In both cases, the radical nature of the Buddhist critique of self is unappreciated, and the new possibilities that arise when we realize our nonduality with this world remain unfulfilled." (38) This plainspoken approach elucidates Loy's socially aware direction well.

Loy looks provocatively to the story of Adam and Eve to wonder if "our sense of lack" is built into our human condition. As a fable of self-awareness, Loy interprets the origin story about civilization's start and perhaps the start of religion. Maybe beliefs and practices are our way traditionally to cope with our feelings, he suggests, "of lack and disconnection by conducting rituals and offering sacrifices, to get back into the good graces of the gods and harmonize with the cosmic powers. Then we feel better--for a while." (46) Christianity explains lack as sin, and condition sinners to respond.

He shifts for most of the book into the emergence of what he regards as a self-generating cosmos. He bases this on quantum mechanics: "what we experience as reality does not become 'real' until it is perceived. Consciousness is the agency that collapses the quantum wave into an object, which until then exists only in potential." (62) Certainly tricky material, and the remainder of Loy's argument, while interspersed with well-chosen quotes from a variety of thinkers, verges off into what for me felt more New Age-inspired cosmology than a critique grounded in either physics or secular Buddhism.

Still, the remainder has its moments. Loy recovers his footing when he examines the weakness of ancient Buddhism as it emerged, its force weakened as it capitulated to the institutional regimes. Accommodating itself to the state, its challenges to 'dukkha' weakened. Loy reckons (116-117) this may be how Buddhism was "reduced" to a religion, unable because of its submission to kings to challenge them. Karma and rebirth teachings then were channeled into support of inequality. The elite enjoyed the fruits of their past lives and their earlier benevolence; the poor or disabled suffered their just reward. Monastic instruction encouraged a few to pursue perfection while kingdoms ruled over a laity resigned to supporting the cadre of those who had to rely on the favors of those kept in power.

In conclusion, Loy's book, ranging across enlightenment, evolution, and ethics, seems itself aligned with rather conventional Mahayana teachings. Published by Wisdom, a press that popularizes this fidelity, it may be unsurprising that Loy's message is a bit muted. Oddly lacking any mention of Stephen Batchelor's examination of similar themes in the Pali canon (which Loy reminds us is eleven times the length of the Bible), it nevertheless may serve as an introduction to such perspectives. (2-28-16 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Heatmiser's "Mic City Sons": Music Review

  Image result for mic city sons review

Like Faces and Rod Stewart or Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Heatmiser and Elliott Smith faced a quandary. When a talented singer-songwriter fronts a band with equally compelling musicians, how does he balance his burgeoning solo career with the demands of his formidable bandmates? Does he save his best songs for his own albums? Does he break with those who helped make his reputation, or can he work with them on his own albums under his own name?
After releases on the Los Angeles-based indie label Frontier, Portland-based Heatmiser had progressed since forming in 1991. Dead Air and the EP Yellow #5 blended grittier, downbeat songs from singer-songwriter-guitarist Neil Gust with his Hampshire College classmate Smith's delicate, downbeat songs. These tended towards introspection, as well as gloom and suspicion, so Heatmiser created a tense mood. Gust's lyrics skirted around tawdry gay sex in nasty places, while Smith's narratives plumbed addiction and depression. The band’s early records wallowed in post-grunge gloom.

While another Portland band, Pond (a deft, overlooked trio), was signed by Sub Pop in the post-Nirvana frenzy, Heatmiser remained in the margins. Its second full-length, Cop and Speeder, revved up the momentum, delivering the band's finest songs to date, pummeling and careening as Tony Lash's forceful drums locked in with thrusting bass from Sam Coomes. 
Tensions surfaced when Virgin signed the band to a major label. Smith's success on the low-fi Roman Candle and self-titled second solo album sparked jealousy between Smith and Gust. Smith resented being in a “loud rock band” and the band broke up around the release of its third album, Mic City Sons, which ended up getting distributed by indie subsidiary Caroline Records.

When I first heard this album 20 years ago, I knew more about Heatmiser than Elliott Smith. Mic City Sons opens with the kind of winning pop Smith went on to pursue alongside his darker tendencies. "Get Lucky" pitches its arena-rock singalong chorus and cocky riff at the mainstream, yet Smith's characteristic melancholy remains as he promises, "We're taking you to pieces." "Plainclothes Man" follows in more subdued style, and lives up or down to its everyday title.

On this album, Gust is relegated to a lesser role compared to Smith's ambitious filigrees and baroque style, as his Beatles influence began to dominate his persona. But, as a Heatmiser fan more than a Smith fan, I speak for the minority view. Gust digs deeper into the corrosion coating his mood. In "Low Flying Jets," his guitar trebled and echoed rings more memorably than the dirge-like pace of the song, but "Rest My Face Against the Wall" dourly conjures up the act exchanged between men in a dour, dismal place. His voice, like Smith, speaks from pain. 

Matching this tone, "The Fix is In" takes us into Smith's struggles with drugs. Like his solo work at the time, Lash's measured percussion and processed guitars create a somber atmosphere. Here, Smith’s AOR leanings contend with gloom. Gust perks up for the rawer punk-pop of "Eagle Eye" and "Cruel Reminder," whose choruses over reverbed guitars recall the band’s less-heralded work on Frontier Records.

Smith's simple "You Gotta Move" is followed by a Gust track sometimes mistaken for Smith. "Pop in G" inspires the album’s title after a city of microbrews and their drinkers: "{Mic city sons seem to dumb everything down}."  The album sags by "Blue Highway," with Gust coming in second to Smith for narrative appeal but it closes with two strong features for Smith.  “See You Later” and “Half Right," a hidden track that shows off the indie-rock sensitivity that would make his breakthrough. 

After Heatmiser, Gust formed the band No. 2. Oddly, its two albums opted for a softer touch more akin to a grumpy Smith instead of the amplification that better suited Gust’s voice and stories. Lash moved on to the band Sunset Valley before entering production work for noted Northwestern bands, including the Coomes –led Quasi (with Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss). Smith burst into fame and an uneasy entry into late-'90s troubadour prominence before going out like a roman candle. While most listeners may listen to Heatmiser primarily for its tragic co-founder, a closer listen should earn more props for his accomplished bandmates. (Spectrum Culture 2- 24-16 as part of the Holy Hell! --- Turns Twenty retrospective of albums recollected.) 

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Fall: "Wise Ol' Man": Music Review

Image result for wise ol' man the fall

As a faithful fan of the Fall, my shelves fill with their records. Over thirty albums in the studio, and triple that with compilations, concerts and ephemera, this prolific band has long left behind its limited punk or post-punk labels. Yet they continue to remain punk in the truest sense. For Mark E. Smith and whomever he recruits into the line-up produce music that sounds truest to themselves, and no other band. Few musicians or vocalists who started in 1976 can surprise or entertain us so today. The Fall's repetition sustains their prickly music, and their latest, and by now longest-lasting, version of the band has tightened its delivery. This combines discipline with chaos, and it buzzes, clangs, and rambles on, to irritate or inspire. Other British bands totter along on the reunion circuit, churning out their hits, but The Fall look forward, and even the one song remade here from their full-length debut, Live at the Witch Trials gains verve from its fresh restoration, merged with one of their newest songs.

The Wise Ol' Man e.p. introduces two songs along with remixes and alternate takes of others from Sub-Lingual Tablet. Smith's voice warbles his credentials on the opening title track as the sagacious frontman, over a forceful guitar riff from Peter Greenway. This song fits neatly into the band's sound for the last few years, where the instruments collide with the mutters and mumbles of Smith, who challenges and subverts any definition of what constitutes a singer. Smith does what he wants. 

Similarly, "All Leave Cancelled" bursts out, with production from Smith which plunges the listener into a maelstrom. While this may not be the best place for newcomers to The Fall to enter, for veteran  audiences, this satisfies better than some of the post-millennial period. Then, too many songs went on far too long, and felt like the tape kept rolling and the musicians kept doodling or dawdling. 

"Dedication not Medication" remixes that track from the last studio album. It and the instrumental of the e.p.'s title track move along fine, but for me they do not open up the energy or experimentation of the first two tracks. Another remake, of "Venice With Girls" from that album, adds swagger to that tune, and as it opened Sub-Lingual Tablet, on what is here deemed "side two," the band appears to realize its catchy presence and lyrical fun. "Face Book Troll" shows off another great title, and presumably a target of Smith's considerable wrath. It's enriched by the interplay of Elena Poulou's whirling keyboards with Smith's rants, backed by Dave Spurr's bass and Keiron Melling's drums. This segues into "No Xmas For John Quay" from their 1979 debut LP.  Hearing the latest ensemble tackle the shambolic, sneering ditty from Live at the Witch Trials proves a delight. The continuity between a Smith barely out of his teens and the grizzled man pushing 60 now reveals a twisted talent.

Closing this brief recording, "All Leave Cancelled (X)" continues the in-studio trend to take apart Fall songs and kick around the pieces before putting them back on tape. Commendably, Smith and company revel in what may seem to the unconvinced a mess, but to the committed, another success. I look forward to more such revelations from a band whom one can never consign to nostalgia. (Amazon US 2-24-16 + 2-23-16 to Spectrum Culture)