Friday, January 30, 2009

Not a Clu; Junk Food for the Soul

In advance, I apologize. But having something accidentally fall into my hands that gave me so much amusement and joy, however fleeting, means I feel an urge to share it (inflict it?). The linked-below website has been bouncing around the bowels of the Internet for a few years now, and I seem to be an extremely late arrival to this particular show. Rather than try and offer any sort of contextualization or explanation, I think it's best to just transport you to the site in general and let you draw your own conclusions. If a picture is worth a thousand words, you'd best prepare yourself for some heavy reading. Add this guy to my list of personal web heroes who refuse to allow neither pride nor modesty get in the way of achieving electronic notoriety.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kristol Meh

If this week brought the news of a sad literary demise, it also brought a welcome one - the termination of Bill Kristol's New York Times opinion column. Just over one year into his gig writing for the paper of note, Kristol's pink slip arrived shortly before the presidential inauguration. And good riddance.

My dislike for Kristol extends beyond his politics. As a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century, key strategist behind the conservative wholescale rejection of the Clinton health care plan, foreign policy advisor for the McCain campaign, editor of The Weekly Standard, constant commentator for Fox News, and one of the most ardent supporters of the ongoing Iraq war, it's clear we have vastly different ideologies. And his role in urging the McCain campaign to choose Sarah Palin as running mate was apparently larger than he and others will admit (and perhaps for this tactical blunder, I should be somewhat grateful for Kristol). But that's mere politics, a distinction I'm always willing to accept when considering the opinions of others. What stunk up his gig at the Times was his sloppy and ill-informed writing, his smug reliance on talking points and received wisdom, his cavalier attitude towards his readers, his catastrophic miscalculations and errors. Simply put, his column was an amateurish vanity project.

If the Times was hoping to deflect Fox News attacks against liberal bias by hiring a prominent conservative thinker to their editorial board (what, Thomas Friedman isn't reactionary or simplistic enough?), they could have tapped any number of thoughtful, intellectual conservative figures. Instead, they turned to a hack who is, as Glenn Greenwald of Salon memorably put it, "not only chronically wrong about everything, but far worse, completely incapable of acknowledging mistakes". No doubt some will point to his hasty termination as more proof of media bias against conservative thought - the announcement was made with little fanfare, merely a "This is William Kristol's last column" tagline at the bottom of his piece - but there's probably more to the story than simple ideology. The fit between Kristol and the Times was always an odd one, which Kristol did little to address. Appearing on The Daily Show to defend, among other things, the picking of Sarah Palin during the presidential campaign, he derided John Stewart's liberal bias by announcing, "You're reading the New York Times too much," to which Stewart, logically, retorted, "Bill, you work for the New York Times".

Scott Horton wrote recently on sources within the paper making clear that it was Kristol's "sloppy writing and failure to fact check what he wrote" that ended the relationship. While I'm not the most ardent fan of any of the New York Times' columnists, either to the left or the right - we've come a long way from the days of editorial writers like H.L. Mencken - I do believe that with the dismissal of Kristol, the Times has made a positive purge in the name of journalistic integrity and good writing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Rabbit At Rest; John Updike, 1932 - 2009

I first discovered John Updike in the late 1990s, when my literary interests began moving decisively towards post-war American writers. I spent the week of midterms devouring Rabbit, Run when I should have been reviewing notes on John Locke. What captivated me about Updike's writing at the time was his prose style - flowing, gorgeous and elegant, he created passages that read like verse. His insistence on blending the sacred and the profane, the stars and the gutter, struck me as unique. His unapologetic blend of Christianity and carnality was intriguing. And once I began to investigate his other works, his output seemed remarkable.

Updike's voluminous publishing habits are well known, with over 50 books to his name, nearly one a year since the late 1950s, and a plethora of short stories, criticism, essays and articles. David Foster Wallace once wrote a gently dismissive article on some of Updike's qualities, and asked the question (or quoted somebody else asking the question), "has the man ever had an unpublished thought?" When reading an article for The New Yorker concerning his impressions on toilet paper or the like, one suspected the answer might be no.

But rather than overkill, Updike's prolific nature seemed a throwback to the Victorian "man of letters," in which intellectual figures were leaned upon for their thoughts and observations on wide varieties of topics, from the profound to the mundane. And while I own several volumes of Updike's collected reviews and criticisms, and am familiar with his short stories and poetry, his novels stand as his clearest contribution to American letters. His Rabbit series of four novels, each published a decade apart - Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) - follow the non-adventures of a thoroughly unremarkable individual named Harry Angstrom, nicknamed "Rabbit" by his former high-school basketball colleagues. As Rabbit progresses through the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, the reader winces at his callousness and poor choices while remaining transfixed and fascinated by his subtle changes and life experiences. By setting the novels in a specific and sympathetically-drawn milieu - middle class eastern Pennsylvania - Updike manages to explore and authentically capture a feel for American culture. The four books as a whole represent a high water mark in contemporary fiction (perhaps his most famous work, however, is 1984's The Witches of Eastwick, thanks to a not-entirely-successful 1987 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson and Cher).

Updike was in a class of his own, and while some have found him to be too genteel, too misogynistic, too sex-obsessed and/or simply too prolific, I suspect his reputation will undergo some type of recalibration. Although I've only read bits and pieces of Updike's non-Rabbit output (Couples has been sitting on my shelf for almost ten years), I'm truly sorry that 2009 will not see the release of a new Updike book.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Joining the Ranks

I take it as a point of pride to have consistently dodged the call to fall into line with our consumer society. Nobody could accuse me of not enjoying possessions, and anybody familiar with my walls of books and piles of recordings couldn't deny that I have a weakness for amassing "collections" (a term of some contention between me and my wife, but there's not enough time for this). But the All-American pastime of spending borrowed cash on massive purchases, of spending weekends inside malls and shopping areas, of leaping into the next announced uptick in digital technology - well, count me out. My vehicles have all been family hand-me-downs, all but the latest equipped with tape decks. We stubbornly cling to our increasingly outdated PC. I hold firm against the iPod revolution. And our television hailed from those proud days when televisions tipped the scales at 100 lbs. and hung over the sides of any respectable cabinet.

Well, no more. At least on the last item. Citing a need to shift our living space around and revamp the layout, it was determined that we must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. And so a blitz of consumer activity commenced last Friday. An innocent peek inside the soon-to-be-liquidated Circuit City resulted in picking up one of these flat-screened plasma things everyone has been braying about for years. But our ignorance on these matters became apparent when the store employees refused to load the purchase inside our compact car, due to concerns of destroying the plasma if laid flat. I was a bit dubious, but when told they'd hold it for less than 24 hours and expected us to show up with a truck, I found myself at the nearest U-Haul renting a white pickup truck for approximately an 8 mile distance. In a whirlwind tour of Point Loma's back streets, shopping areas, intersections and turning lanes, I managed to maneuver the truck in a way suggesting some comfortability (both physical and moral) with an over sized vehicle. My chest hair sprouted through my collared shirt as I blew through a yellow light.

The testosterone levels shrank notably when we leaned upon our good friend Sean to help us set up the plasma, seeing how room limitations would force us to mount the contraption. I've been known to walk away frustrated after trying to hang photos on the wall, so Sean's familiarity with locating wall studs and facility with power drills came as a relief. And my research into the necessity of purchasing gold-plated HDMI cables and how to avoid image retention and burn-in leaves me feeling vaguely in need of a shower. Still - I can't exactly claim to be ahead of the curve here. And with a large personal film library demanding some sort of respectful venue to be shown on, I have to admit I feel a bit less silly about making such an investment as those who plan to use it strictly for playing XBox or watching episodes of My Fair Brady.

So, to recap. I have spent time inside a Circuit City and a Best Buy. I have driven a pickup truck. I have bought into a new and hyped form of electronic entertainment. I have shown my patriotism by shopping. And yet....having held off for eight years on many major purchases out a sense of pride and decency, I'm grateful that any noticeable uptick in the local or national economy based on my actions this past weekend will go under Obama's historical record. The Jason and Jane economic stimulus package has already passed the House and Senate.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Death of a Format

A fellow member of a film board I belong to drew my attention to the announced death, last week, of the laserdisc format, something which may not surprise anybody out there, unless it's the shock that the format wasn't already declared dead. Yet despite Wikipedia's opening sentence on the subject reading "The laserdisc is an obsolete home video disc format," it wasn't until last week when the Japanese company pioneer officially announced it would discontinue its final three laserdisc player models.
A few weeks ago, I came across a large section of used laserdiscs for sale in an area record store, which got me to thinking once again on the laserdisc format. My father worked for an electronics company and stayed ahead of the curve with home entertainment, which resulted in our owning a sound home video camcorder years before it became popular with families. We also, at one memorable point in the mid to late 80s, owned three different home video formats at once - a laserdisc player, a Beta machine, and a VHS machine. Our family was truly a marketer's wet dream.

The laserdisc was what first introduced me to the wonders of watching movies at home, and I can still remember the thrill I felt when a store employee at the local electronics store, called Van Vreede's, set up a laserdisc display of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to demonstrate the power of the technology. We purchased a player and began renting laserdiscs. They were huge. They had to be flipped over constantly (early versions could only hold 30 minutes of video per side, which resulted in 2 or even 3 discs sets being the norm). And even after we moved to Beta and VHS, we kept our disc player for rentals - even a child my age could tell that laserdiscs offered quality miles beyond the fuzzy tape of Beta or, Lord knows, the truly horrid VHS.

In fact, it was the advent and marketing of laserdiscs that helped popularize and revolutionize the notion of a home video market. While Beta and VHS were extremely limited in visual quality and the restricted format of tape itself, laserdiscs offered multiple options for features beyond the feature itself. In fact, it was the Criterion Collection's 1984 laserdisc release of Citizen Kane which introduced the entire concept of a "Special Edition" for home video releases. Their second release, King Kong, featured an audio commentary track alongside the main feature. These new features would become standard operating procedure for the home video industry, and few if any DVDs these days are released without some form of supplemental material (the day I saw David Spade's comedy Joe Dirt was being released on DVD with multiple commentaries was the day I realized everything at some point goes too far). And while DVD swallowed the laserdisc market well over a decade ago, there are plenty of film aficionados who prize their players and laserdiscs for the excellent editions of classic and contemporary films released in the now-obsolete format.
Laserdisc ultimately lost the format war with Beta/VHS (and Beta lost the war with VHS). In both cases, the superior product lost. There's always something faintly absurd about format wars, anyway - the recently-ceded battle between Blu-ray and HD shows how easily entire marketing divisions can be scrapped based upon hints of consumer preference (in Blu-ray's case, it was something as simple as PlayStation 3's incorporation of Blu-ray that destroyed HD). But I'm saddened by the fact that laserdisc players will no longer be released. After all, vinyl was declared dead long ago, yet the audience for records and sales of vinyl continue to grow. I hardly think laserdiscs would ever have seen a resurgence in popularity, but their impact on history has been huge.
For those interested in a nice tour of other obsolete home video formats and an accompanying history, check out this website, Total Rewind, complete with an interactive map and guide to the murky world of vintage VCRs.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Back to School

The Spring 2009 semester has kicked off for San Jose State University, and so I begin another period of online study and coursework in the library field. The two courses I'm taking this semester represent areas I'm both interested in and have no experience with - Government Information Sources and Archives and Manuscripts. I can't say with any certainty that I'll ever focus on either of these areas in my library adventures, but I'm interested in becoming familiar with as many aspects of the field as possible. And anybody who knows me is aware of how much things like government information and archives mean to me.

So before I get bogged down with the drudgery of daily discussion postings and laborious readings, allow me to share something very cool that I'll be referring to often throughout the semester - the National Archives website. A wonderful online resource, this website allows individuals to access many of the documents preserved in the archival halls of the country, directs users to presidential libraries, and offers ways to request information not posted online. They also make available interactive guides to previous or ongoing archive exhibits. It's with no sense of shame that I report my favorite exhibit so far has to be the When Nixon Met Elvis display, complete with Elvis' original note to the President on American Airlines stationary in which he offered to fight the drug war by infiltrating the Black Panthers and SDS.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Beyond Fear

More words from the past, in this case, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1933 inaugural address, his first. His assertion, in the depths of the Great Depression, that "the only thing we have to fear itself" has become the most celebrated and quoted aspect of the speech, but often ignored in the history books is Roosevelt's strong attack upon the system of capitalism, how the abuses within the system led directly to the problems facing the nation in 1933, and the need for overhaul and strict regulation to make "income balance outgo". Such deviation from standard American business-think was startling then, and almost unthinkable today. If Obama's speech never approached Roosevelt's level of outrage, there were still echoes yesterday in his denunciation of financial abuses and greed. It's worth revisiting Roosevelt's words.

...our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply.

Primarily, this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failures and abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.

True, they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit, they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored conditions. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers.

They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish. The money changers have fled their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths.

The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit. Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money, it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.

The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow-men. our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order: there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments; there must be an end to speculation with other people's money, and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.

These are the lines of attack.

Best, Brightest, Worst, Dimmest

I know we're supposed to be looking forward, not backward, but I can't help but ponder the words of the late journalist David Halberstam, who saw things before many others did and was not afraid to speak truth to power. He published The Making of a Quagmire, a look at the origins of the Vietnam conflict, in 1965 - and offered succinct observations on the venture's inevitable failure. He was best known for 1972's The Best and The Brightest, a scathing indictment of the road to war in Vietnam and the failure of the nation's foreign policy. While the outgoing administration could in no way be reasonably considered "the best and the brightest," Halberstam's verdict on the Kennedy and Johnson administrations sounds awfully familiar:
...It is not the fact that it was a miscalculation of a LeMay or a Radford or even a Nixon, but that it was produced by the best and brightest men of a generation, that the decisions in 1965 were made by the McNamaras, Rusks, Taylors, Johnsons, and Bundys, and more, that having made them, they have not been big enough men to admit what went wrong. Thus there has been, I think, a drop in public confidence and faith in public institutions, as the men involved have all gone on to their newer and bigger jobs (while, more often than not, the few men who fought the policy at State and Defense have seen their careers seriously damaged and have quietly been moved out of the mainstream)....
...The absence of good reporting from Washington on how America went into the war is one of the major scandals of the journalistic profession and a serious reflection on the clubbiness of the top layer of the Washington press corps.....

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Non-Believers of the World, Unite!

I left the room while Rick Warren was making his blatantly sectarian plea for Jesus to swoop down from heaven and cradle the faithful in attendance, but was otherwise mostly riveted to the screen during this morning's inauguration. Not only was I able to watch as Bush and Cheney seemed to physically shrink before my eyes (Cheney's being confined to a wheelchair, his head barely clearing the lectern, seemed entirely appropriate), but I witnessed some deeply moving moments, such as when Joseph Lowery, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spoke in a weakened but passionate voice (and humorously paraphrased Big Bill Broonzy, in what must be an inaugural first) and when the new President noted that sixty years prior, his father might not have been served in a local restaurant.

I was impressed and touched by Obama's wise and brave choice to identify nonbelievers in his listing of the variety of faiths present in the country. As a rather outspoken nonbeliever myself (or atheist or anti-theist or whatever you like), it was pleasant to be included in the typical Christian-Jewish-Muslim-Hindu mix, and not feel as if I was somehow not welcome at the festivities. And yet it was a quotation from scripture that proved the other highlight of the inaugural speech for me - Obama's use and interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:11.

"The time has come to set aside childish things" is not an exact quote from Corinthians - the King James version reads; "when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." And the words actually refer to humanity's transformation upon the return of Jesus Christ, in which people will see Christ for who he really is. Yet I found the quotation moving and absolutely essential. I'm sure I'm not alone in finding many of my compatriots to be childish and petulant, to be dismayed by willful ignorance and bratty self-entitlement, and to wish our leaders and citizens worked to understand the fundamental root causes of societal problems rather than resort to slander or fear-mongering. As somebody who has wished for a more adult tone to emanate from Washington and across the country, I found the fact that our new president admonished the nation for childishness in his first 15 minutes in office to be both gutsy and necessary.

Let the pundits bicker over whether Obama and Justice Roberts bungled the oath of office or not (the wingnuts have seized on this already, even though they do seem to agree that it was actually Abraham Lincoln's Bible and not a Koran making an appearance this morning), and watch this space for what I'm sure will be my own impatience or unhappiness with the direction Obama chooses to take. For the moment, I'm able to take a deep breath and feel quite good about the individual many of us helped place inside the White House.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thus Always to Tyrants

Tomorrow I'll be watching the inauguration before heading off to a doctor's appointment (it will be early here on the West Coast), and while I'm looking forward to hearing Obama's speech and celebrating the start of a new administration, the uncorking of a pricey bottle of wine tomorrow evening will be less in celebration of our incoming leader and more a celebration for finally shaking loose the current occupant. My only wish is that he and his cronies were leaving Washington, D.C. for a retirement community in Guantanamo Bay, or at least an extended vacation in The Hague.

Eight years seems like an eternity now, and when I think back to where I was when George W. Bush first crept into power, it's hard to believe that I wasn't even a year out of college, living in my parent's basement in Neenah, Wisconsin, and working full time in a retail position at ShopKo. I recall reading about the ongoing recount in our disgusting little break room on the second floor. I remember a phone conversation with my in laws the snowy night after Bush v. Gore was handed down, conducted in a busy airport as Jane's flight for a medical school interview was canceled, and during which our anger at Bush's arrogance was brimming over.

That's the personal stuff. But I take the nation's descent into censorship and wartime patriotism pretty personally, too. I had a rough welcome to the GOP-stronghold of San Diego when my Harper's issue featuring a cover story on impeaching George W. Bush never made it to my front door - the only issue in nearly 10 years of subscribing to ever get "lost" in the mail. My replacement copy was sent in an unmarked brown envelope. And there's simply not enough room available to begin detailing my revulsion at the politicization of the justice department, the outing of CIA agents, the administration's embrace of torture, the shame of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands dead as the result of an illegal war, the murky world of Blackwater and atrocities against civilians, CIA blacksites and extraordinary renditions, the steadfast refusal to acknowledge global warming, and the fiasco of Hurricane Katrina. The tanking of the economy seems a mere maraschino cherry at the top of a sundae when considered alongside the damage visited upon the country.

Thanks for paying attention to AIDS in Africa, George. Really, I mean it. And those marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean are truly impressive. But get out of Washington and get out of my life. I hope you have to duck thrown shoes until the end of your days.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Artistry of Marilyn Crispell

Last night, a friend and I made the trek up to La Jolla to witness a solo performance by one of jazz and modern music's most original and talented individuals, the pianist Marilyn Crispell. The performance took place inside the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library in downtown La Jolla, an attractive library devoted to the arts. The piano was placed inside one of the larger rooms, and chairs had been set up amid shelves of books. It was cozy and a bit odd (and the lack of any elevated seats meant that only those in the first rows could see Crispell's hands on the keyboard), but this is how the Athenaeum has conducted concerts at this location for many years now, so I suspect they know what they're doing and the audiences don't mind.

Marilyn Crispell is tagged as a jazz pianist, but what she creates moves far beyond any simple genre designation. She first gained notice in the 1980s playing with Anthony Braxton, and has since recorded and performed in lineups varying from solo excursions to duo and trio settings. This was a solo performance, and the lack of any fellow musicians allowed her to follow her own logic and whims as the night progressed. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the evening's performance was how seamlessly she moved between composition and improvisation - it was difficult at times to know where one stopped and the other began.

Her style is complex and individual, but many often resort to comparisons to Cecil Taylor, perhaps the foremost free jazz pianist in American music. When Crispell swept up and down the keyboard in crashing cascades of noise, hammering away at high-pitched clusters or summoning up deep rumbles with her left hand, the Taylor comparisons are obvious. But she seems equally enamored with pure melody, and her abrupt transitions from dissonance to hummable lyricism was startling. My friend noted at times a resemblance to fellow ECM-labelmate Keith Jarrett, especially in her use of folk-like melodies and circular patterns of rhythm. This was difficult, gorgeous and impressive music.

Unfortunately, as has been my experience with Athenaeum concerts, much of the audience seems out of place. Many tickets, and all those in the first several rows, are set aside for donors and benefactors of the Athenaeum, and while these individuals may be generous with their funds and time (and their cause is certainly a good one), their taste in music seldom runs to the adventurous or even slightly experimental. I've witnessed this crowd stream out in droves during a Charles Lloyd concert, watched them fail to even applaud Jim Hall long enough for him to walk off stage. When Crispell took a short intermission, many seats emptied for good. This allowed others to move closer to the piano, but I wonder how many other San Diegans might have been interested in seeing this concert and were turned away thanks to reserved seating for generous but uninterested benefactors?

Still, I'm thankful for the opportunity to witness Crispell in performance in such a small venue. For over two hours of near-constant music, I was in the presence of a master.

Friday, January 16, 2009

As Tasty as Peas in a Pod

We were delighted to receive a new item this week in our farmer's box - fresh peas. And while I associate the arrival of peas with springtime, I suppose this is already getting to be that season for the San Diego area (while the rest of the nation shivers under extreme cold, we've been basking in record heat and sunshine, which may be good for outdoor activities but does not bode well for our future water supply). My childhood knowledge of peas pretty much revolved around the canned or frozen kinds, and I realized, staring at the pretty little pods in the bag, that I'd never actually cooked with fresh peas before.

I came across a wonderfully simple recipe for fresh peas that I thought I'd share, even if the majority of people aren't yet able to have access to the truly fresh stuff. The recipe comes from this cookbook on Florence, and like many other Florentine specialties, rely on seasonal freshness and only a handful of ingredients. I'm constantly delighted at the flavorful dishes I've managed to concoct from this book using only one or two food items, and this pea dish - or, piselli sgranati con cipolla e basilico - can now be added to the list. The relatively short cooking time allows the peas to retain their crisp bite, and the oil-onion-basil mixture brings a welcome earthy flavor profile to the mix. The recipe is for 4 servings, but we didn't have nearly enough peas for that amount, so I adjusted accordingly.

Freshly Shucked Peas with Onion and Basil

4 lb. spring peas in their pods
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper
handful of fresh basil leaves

1) Shell the peas into a bowl and set aside. You should have roughly 4 cups shelled peas.

2) In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and saute until softened and translucent but not browned, about 10 minutes. Add the peas and stir well.

3) Pour in just enough water to cover the peas, cover the pan, and cook until soft but not mushy, 7 - 10 minutes. Add the sugar, season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the basil. Continue cooking until the peas are tender but still firm, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a serving dish and serve.

Simplicity itself. This is a good one - file it away for springtime.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Restaurant Week

Although the current economic recession is certainly playing a role, Jane and I have been steering clear of restaurants since last summer largely due to our CSA membership and the weekly harvests we're now forced to shape our meals around. I've been living in the San Diego area for going on four years now, and one thing I've been struck by is how the area's food culture, and especially dining culture, is trapped in a lethal combination of being forced to cater to tourists (often quite non-adventurous tourists) while jacking prices sky high to counter any image of playing second-fiddle to either Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Not surprisingly, the quality of the food rarely justifies the prices. Flavors are often downplayed, spices run mild, vegetables get overcooked, and there's often far too much fussiness with too little whoomph. Perhaps the nadir of last year's food experiences came in the guise of a self-proclaimed "deconstructed insalata caprese," a riff on the traditional Italian assemblage of diced tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, mozzarella and vinaigrette. Reduced to several cherry tomatoes sliced in half with a few kernels of spongy cheese and an oil/vinegar blend, the concoction was presented inside a stemless wine glass, with a lone chive stalk drooping over the side. I found the dish gimmicky and unconvincing, and got pissed off at how difficult it proved to spear the tomatoes with my fork. No doubt it made some easily-impressed foodies squeal with delight - I'm not easily impressed, and I recognize an empty gesture when I see one.

(takes a deep breath)

However, San Diego is (or was) on the way to a successful reinvention as a serious food and dining city, which makes sense for an urban area that has continued to swell in size and attract outsiders from around the country. And one way to sample the many fine restaurants San Diego has, without spending the obscene amounts of cash ordinarily required, is to take advantage of the ongoing Restaurant Week, in which restaurants around the city offer fixed price set meals for reasonable prices - $20, $30 or $40.

Other cities are currently hosting Restaurant Week, of course (all have their own website, easily Googled, with lists of participating restaurants). New York's is perhaps the trendsetter in this regard, and it was New York's heavily advertised Restaurant Week shortly after the World Trade Center attacks that drew added scrutiny to the concept. Back then, it was pointed to as a device to get people out on the streets and into restaurants again, bringing back business to a damaged downtown. These days, it's the destroyed economy that's worrying restaurateurs across the entire country, and Restaurant Week 2009 is a good opportunity to throw some much-needed business at the struggling dining industry.

We've taken part in Restaurant Week several times since moving to San Diego, and the results have been mixed. With menus set at $30 per person, it's easier to try a new place or take a chance than if one feared dropping $100 or much more, and we have discovered restaurants we otherwise might never have tried. Some places clearly lack enthusiasm for the venture, trotting out tired or even low-quality fare for what they apparently assume will be an invasion by clumsy hayseeds - our experience at the preeningly condescending 1500 Ocean inside the famed Coronado Del Hotel was little short of a disaster. But other high-end restaurants go out of their way to showcase a varied and top-quality menu for customers they realize might not ordinarily make the trip - Bertrand at Mr. A's is about as fancy, upper tiered and well-regarded as any restaurant in San Diego, and yet Bertrand Hug showcases his regular menu and has given numerous interviews for the press in loud praise of Restaurant Week. Our late-night dinner at Mr. A's a year ago was a dining highlight for us, and we might never have tried it were it not for the special.

So, here we are, midway into San Diego Restaurant Week 2009. We visited the Kensington neighborhood's Blue Boheme on Sunday night, an authentic French bistro with a wonderful atmosphere, and a place I've often looked longingly at while standing in line to buy tickets at the nearby Ken Cinema. Truth be told, their regular menu looked more enticing than their special menu, but that may only be due to my weakness for moules, especially when offered up in seven different means of preparations with a healthy (or unhealthy) side of frites. Tonight we head up to La Jolla with a friend for a meal at Nine-Ten, a place with a fabled reputation we've haven't yet braved. This Friday, we stick closer to home with Shelter Island's Bali Hai, of which I know very little, other than the atmosphere screams pure Martin Denny.

It's worth supporting this venture, not only to enjoy great food without the sticker shock, but to help toss a lifeline to an industry that needs some help. Sure beats corporate welfare by a country mile.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Geeking Out: A Report from the Final Frontier

Somehow or other, I found myself this past weekend in San Diego's Balboa Park, inside the Air and Space Museum, paying $24 ($15 with military discount) to see a sprawling exhibit dedicated to the Star Trek television and film series. My connection to the world of Trekdom consists of a few reruns of the original series, a handful of Next Generation episodes stumbled across while flipping channels back in my Wisconsin days, and an somewhat inexplicable opening-week viewing of 1994's feature film Star Trek Generations, throughout which I was quite confused. Back in the day, I considered myself a Star Wars man, and felt crossing the line between fanboy and geekdom unthinkable. Now, with my interest in Star Wars faded to roughly equal to my past interest in Emerson, Lake and Palmer (read: nearly nonexistent), I find a slight fascination with the massive self-contained world created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966 that spawned ten (soon to be eleven) films and six series (if you include the oft-ignored mid-1970s animated series, which I certainly will).
But that's not why I found myself gazing at Captain Picard's starched uniform, peering at what claimed to be an original Tribble, and trying to remember if I'd ever heard of Data's evil brother Lore. No, I happen to be married to a rather dedicated Star Trek fan, who befriended an equally enthusiastic Trek booster, and as it was the films and episodes of Star Trek that had helped keep both of them sane during last year's 7 month deployment (in Jane's case, specifically the chest of Khan /Ricardo Montalban), I felt an obligation to trek (ha!) along.
So what can I say, other than I think I now know what my wife feels like when I geek out inside arcane record stores or gush over restored editions of Hans Jurgen Syberberg films? We got to sit inside an impressive replica of the original USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) control room, walk down an eerily accurate hallway from the Next Generation series, and stifled a laugh or two at a somewhat pathetic Breen leaning up against a corner (although certain Trekkies insist the Breens are no laughing matter, as they are credited within the series for destroying San Francisco). I must admit to a slight disappointment at not coming across any reference to the sinister yet comically-named tyrant of Beta III, Landru (who I had always hoped was spelled "Landrew," but oh well).
My Trekkie companions had a good time riding a shuttlecraft flight simulator for an additional $5. I opted out.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Yes, It's the Whisky Talking

As the flu and cold season peaks, Jane and I have both been fighting off bugs we picked up on our flight home from the Baja peninsula - ours was a particularly unhealthy flight. Jane's been fighting her case off much more successfully than I have, and part of the reason, we suspect, is the number of Toddy's I've been making for her to ward off the cold.

"Hot Toddy" is a catch-all term for mixed drinks served at a warm temperature. All tend to feature some kind of hot beverage, an alcoholic ingredient, and a sweetener. And while I've come across recipes calling for tea or cider with brandy or even rum along with honey, the recipe I'm sticking to is the original Scottish Highland blend known simply as toddy. I tend to trust the Scottish on this, as they both lay claim to the world's finest whisky and know a thing or two about warding off the chill and the damp.

So, for those curious (and let it be stated upfront that those killjoys over at the American Lung Association now recommend people with colds avoid alcohol due to its dehydrating properties), here's the recipe we've been turning to, courtesy of Culinaria Europe. (I cut the measurements in half, though - 1 cup of whisky is too much even for me!)

Hot Toddy

Boiling Water
3 tsp sugar
1 cup Scotch whisky (ed.'s note: make sure it's good stuff)
4-5 whole cloves

Place sugar into glass or mug and pour in 1 cup boiling water.
When the sugar has dissolved, add the whisky and stir well.
Drop a few cloves into the glass for flavor.
When drunk hot, a Toddy is a good remedy for colds.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Ausgespielt: Completing Berlin Alexanderplatz

I'd rather not compare watching a movie to conducting any sort of physical exertion, but having just wrapped up viewing Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz, I do feel like running a victory lap. Released in the fall of 1980 for West German television, this adaptation of Alfred Doblin's 1932 modernist novel ran for 13 episodes and featured an extended epilogue. The box set this recent DVD release came in has seven discs. The entire film is 940 minutes long, or 15 plus hours.

Such a massive offering seems appropriate given both the novel's reputation and the facts of R.W. Fassbinder himself, who spun out 40 films in a span of only 13 years before dropping dead at the age of 37. And while I've never shied away from tackling demanding cinema, this was an altogether unique experience. At one point early in the game, I had briefly floated the notion of watching the entire program in one marathon viewing session, battening down the hatches and stocking up on food, to best appreciate the narrative's uninterrupted flow. I'll be eternally grateful for rethinking that approach - this is a film constructed explicitly for a television medium, which means it plays best episodically, with some time in between each entry for reflection. A 15-hour session would have been too much, on both body and mind.

As it is, I'm still trying to formulate my thoughts on the whole project, and find myself both solidly impressed by the results Fassbinder achieves and deeply skeptical of the finished film. No doubt this partly arises out of a larger dislocation from Fassbinder himself - having viewed many of his films from all periods of his short yet varied career, it's hard to declare myself a committed fan. There's also my rejection of any work of art uncomfortable with humor - over 15 hours of viewing, I can't think of a single amusing sequence, and the only points at which laughter appears in the film often come as a result of something awful or bizarre. This failing probably has much to do with wider German shortcomings in the humor department. But my main objection is with the seemingly at-odds nature of the original novel and Fassbinder's approach.

Berlin Alexanderplatz was, among other things, a modernist breakthrough. Doblin's novel focused on characters, but also set about capturing the feel of an urban center like Berlin, and these impressionistic, experimental sequences have long dazzled many readers. Doblin actually rewrote his early drafts after being exposed to James Joyce's Ulysses, and the two works, along with those of John Dos Passos, share a basic kinship of narrative flexibility and experimentation (Doblin played down the Joyce influence, and in subsequent criticism and writings, many German critics and even Fassbinder himself have displayed a sadly typical German inability to acknowledge outside innovation when it gets in the way of proclaiming German supremacy...but I won't get into that now). One of the impressive aspects of the film is how consistently Fassbinder stuck to the original source, with a respect and attention to detail rare in film's complex historical relationship to novels.

And yet, the film fails to capture any sense of the buzzing and humming life of the city that was central to Doblin's original work. Berlin clearly functions as a main character of the novel. In the film, the city of Berlin barely registers - the majority of the work unfolds in a handful of specific living spaces, be it a place of lodging or a pub or a forest clearing. Fassbinder didn't have much choice in this matter, as he needed to complete the film in a short period of time and with limited funding, thereby necessitating a reliance on sound stages. Perhaps even greater was the reality of West Germany in the late 1970s - the city of Berlin was literally split in half, and many of the iconic areas mentioned by Doblin had either been transformed by bombs and development, or were closed off to outside observation. This certainly explains why there are no shots of the city skyline or full-screen considerations of large urban areas, but the result is an almost complete negation of one of Doblin's primary concerns. The fast-moving pulse of the city becomes nearly static, and the cool sheen of modernism turns into the slow blush of melodrama.

But many of these are unavoidable issues, and artists embracing limitations can often prove inspiring. What adds to my discomfort with the film, however, is a separate liberty Fassbinder takes, which seems to be a misreading, or at least an extremely idiosyncratic reading, of the novel and the relationship between the nominal anti-hero Franz Biberkopf and the true anti-hero Reinhold. Indeed, it was Fassbinder's early discovery of the book and his identification with the odd relationship between the two shadowy men that inspired him throughout his career. But it's unclear whether or not Doblin meant for this destructive relationship to be the central concern of the novel. Fassbinder once groused that the character of Reinhold didn't appear in the novel until 155 pages in, which he claimed was "150 pages too late." But while Reinhold's presence certainly helps drive the novel and determine the trajectory of Franz Biberkopf's life, I'm not convinced of their relationship, and I certainly don't find the film's treatment of it believable or insightful in any way.

With these two major reservations in mind, and leaving aside the controversial and rather unnecessary two-hour epilogue - in which Fassbinder drops the historical facade and indulges in pure late-60s performance art, slipping Kraftwerk and Janis Joplin onto the soundtrack as naked figures writhe amid ghastly cheap special effects, like one of those Sopranos episodes that spends too much time exploring Tony's dreams - I still admit to feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the entire experience. What Fassbinder was able to accomplish in such a short period of filming time is amazing, and the hastiness of the schedule is nowhere evident in a film notable for remarkable languidness. The acting throughout the film is impressive, and Gunter Lamprecht in particular emerges as an astounding creative force. His acting must be viewed as something heroic, and his ability to communicate Biberkopf's childlike innocence and frightening brutality simultaneously ranks among the finest performances I've ever seen. And there's so much more to digest.

I usually spend a greater amount of time thinking about a film than the running time of the film itself. If this holds true, I'm in for several weeks of ruminating over this project. I'm sure most of you won't ever decide to spend 15 hours of your life with a single German film, and I can't exactly urge to you. But the act of immersing yourself inside one work of creative art for an extended period of time is something everybody should try at least once. In the end, we emerge awed despite the flaws, and sometimes even because of them. A ten-line poem might offer something close to perfection, at least in the use of language or imagery. But for me, sprawling novels and massive films and huge musical offerings capture the messy reality of human artistic urges better - the imperfect, the indulgent, the infuriating. In this, too, I find beauty.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Good Reading From 2008

The following year-end list will be even more idiosyncratic than my preceding lists of favorite music from the year, largely because the vast majority of the books I read in 2008 were published years earlier. Not keeping up with contemporary fiction plays a large role in this, but so does a huge backlog of unread books from previous years. Still, here are a handful of books I thoroughly enjoyed and tentatively recommend (with some caveats) - a nice sampling of what I came across this past year.

Reporting Vietnam: American Journalism, 1959-1975
This two-volume, 1,700 page collection of journalism relating to the Vietnam war has been sitting on my shelves for almost ten years, having moved with me from Wisconsin to New York and California. I dipped into it previously, and read Michael Herr's Dispatches (included in its entirety here) for a senior college literature course, but it wasn't until Year 5 of the ongoing Second Gulf War that I sat down to devour the entire collection. This is an intelligently compiled, wide-ranging and important work. I learned much from my readings - not only of American atrocities abroad (Daniel Lang's lengthy New Yorker piece "Casualties of War" from 1969 on the rape, murder and cover-up of civilian deaths) and at home (the construction-worker led rampage against protesters in downtown New York in May 1970, of which I'd never once heard anything about), but of sustained and credible objections to the escalating campaign and muddled approach- objections raised far earlier in the war than the fables of 1968 would suggest. And to hear a young marine earnestly tell a reporter he'd rather fight the communists in Saigon than in San Diego is to witness ignored history lessons rearing their ugly heads once again.

Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste
Continuum's charming 33 1/3 series of short, smartly-penned analysis of landmark popular music albums has several volumes of interest, but by the far the most interesting and unique is Canadian writer Carl Wilson's look at the music of Celine Dion and her rather inexplicable popularity. By tackling an entertainer who is both one of the most reviled and most popular artists on the planet, Wilson is forced to write less about the album in question and more about definitions of aesthetics. In essence, this is an investigation into the concept of "taste," both good and bad. One need have no interest in Dion's music to appreciate Wilson's venture.

Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
Years ago, a college professor (far from the top of my list of favorites) repeatedly referred to Orlando Furioso as the greatest epic poem of all time, and while I've forgotten most of everything else he tried to teach me about Beowulf and Chaucer, I've never forgotten this blurb. And so, finally, I got around to investigating just what could be so fantastic about a 46 canto chivalric Italian legend from 1532. And while the prose translation by Guido Waldman could be improved upon, I think I get it now. This is rich, juicy stuff, loaded with fun, stuffed with action, dripping with romance, bursting with sex, and filled with incredible deeds of battle, swordsmanship and monsters - a blockbuster from an age when the medieval mindset was giving way to the Renaissance. I'm a little ashamed to admit that one of my favorite moments (or guiltiest of pleasures) among the 600+ pages is the recounting of an impotent dwarf's useless attempts to ravish a swooning maiden - a section, I later discovered, long left untranslated by the poem's several Victorian-era English interpreters.

John R. MacArthur, You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America
Journalist, author and publisher John MacArthur takes a welcome realist approach to dismantling the myth of American democracy. A major part of the book looks at the restrictions placed on presidential candidates and the inability for any true "outsider" to ascend the throne (his examples of how political parties will willingly sacrifice their own gains to prevent independents from succeeding is quite convincing), but he also concerns himself with less obvious examples of thwarted democracy - from the lack of engagement in local elections to an investigation of Chicago corruption. MacArthur attacks both parties at will - he spends pages comparing George W. Bush's wartime suppression of civil liberties to Woodrow Wilson's often-glossed-over brutal approach to stifling dissent and spreading fear through the installation of the Palmer Raids and the 1917 Espionage Act. But he also details the moral rot at the heart of the Bill and Hillary Clinton political machine, detailing their prominent role in destroying Howard Dean in the early days of the 2004 election, so as to keep 2008 open for Hillary's own run for office. This is, in many ways, a dispiriting read, but it's easily one of the more astute looks at the sorry state of American politics to be released in some time.

Bernd Brunner, Bears: A Brief History
Brief indeed, and pocket-sized - this wonderful little book, filled with vintage illustrations, comes from Germany and sets about exploring the complicated and often sad relationship between bears and humans. Brunner's central thesis is that a bear's ability to stand on their hind legs - that is, their ability to look like humans - is both what draws humans to them (as in teddy bears and wise old bears and the like) and leads us to exploit and harm them. There's little in the way of narrative and much in the way of gentle exploration, both of primary sources and Brunner's own thoughtful ideas. A novel approach to understanding human-animal relations.

Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
An excellent guide to the upheavals in classical music in the age of modernism and beyond, written with knowledge, wit and narrative strength. For those unsure of the many directions music took in the last century, Ross offers a strong overview that offers a balance between popular history and musical analysis. He details the life stories and interactions of the various composers in a way that brings drama to their lives, and he gives non-classical innovations their due, as well. He celebrates Benjamin Britten, clucks at Theodor Adorno, and places Thomas Mann's Doctor Faust center stage.

Joyce Carol Oates, We Were the Mulvaneys
In the time that has elapsed between when I bought this book (years ago - are we sensing a pattern here?) and when I finally got around to reading it, Oates's novel had been enshrined as yet another Oprah Book Club selection. This means different things to different people - badge of honor or scarlet letter - but Joyce Carol Oates herself means different things to different people. It's foolish to try and get a handle on her entire output (over fifty volumes of fiction alone), but I've enjoyed every novel of hers I've read, even if I'm also beginning to sense the limitations of her craft and, especially, themes. Still, this is a solid work, exploring the now-familiar ground of troubled childhoods and wronged young girls. But when the result is something as effective, disturbing and well-crafted as this, who's to say Oates should move on to other subjects?

David E. James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles
Hard to find, expensive, dense and by definition limited in appeal, this was nevertheless one of the more insightful and brilliant works I read over the past year. Honing in on Los Angeles as a key player in the creation and dissemination of avant-garde and outsider cinema, James carefully investigates any number of tangential cinematic worlds and genres. From early silent fantasies and labor-sponsored short films to the full-fledged experimentation of Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, he forcefully insists on considering Los Angeles cinema as something apart from and other than Hollywood cinema. This is pretty much for specialists, but I found it eye-opening and unique. For anybody curious as to how art can function or flourish in the shadow of industry, look no further.

In Memoriam:
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
Harold Pinter (1930-2008)
Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008)
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)
Studs Terkel (1912-2008)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Notable Recordings of 2008

My music consumption has fallen off over the last few years, a result both of living in an area somewhat lacking in good record stores and a decreasing interest in keeping up with mass culture (a dislike of the downloading format may have something else to do with it, I admit), but I still follow various music scenes and maintain a strong interest in exploring new and unknown artists. Despite the general slowdown in the music industry, certain areas are booming, with cd reissues and (especially) compilations seeming strong. Below, find a list of eleven music releases from the past year that I found especially interesting or enjoyable, in no order other than alphabetical.

Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark
Moving far beyond their early cowpunk reputation, this southern-fried band has blossomed into a strong songwriting outfit, with Patterson Hood especially finding a narrative voice completely sympathetic to the working class. Exploring milieus normally left to country and western (while never falling prey to either the knee-jerk patriotism or goopiness of modern country), this sprawling album drinks deeply from the Americana well and never once flags. They sing of gay cowboys and PTSD and weak beer. They mop up the floor with Wilco and ask for seconds. They lay down 19 tracks with no chaff.

Girl Talk - Feed the Animals
Those who decry the art of sampling and the hype of mash-ups need not apply. All others, pile on board. Gregg Gillis is a DJ of the populist variety - uninterested in perplexing listeners with obscurities, he delivers hooks and quotes familiar to all. And when the result is as consistently enjoyable and uproarious as Feed The Animals, I find his approach difficult to resist. By piling hip hop chants over totemic classic rock, he conducts an experiment in forced integration nearly impossible in today's Clear Channel-ordered world, where radio seems nearly as segregated as the nation's schools. The first song alone, all 4:45 minutes of it, boasts 25 samples. Wikipedia lays out the exact goodies for those curious, but many are easy enough to spot. And for Gillis, easy is the point. My favorite moment out of the whole project is when he punctuates the quavering silliness of Styx's "Renegade" with line's from Dr. Dre's equally loathsome "Bitches Ain't Shit." After all, manure makes the crops grow.

The Magnetic Fields - Distortion
Stephen Merritt's long-running indie project has always dabbled in the pastiche, but never more so than in this unabashed love letter to The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. Draping his characteristic winning melodies in unforgiving fuzz and feedback, they create a temple to bubblegum noise. What elevates this beyond a mere homage to seminal 80s British indie heroes are the wonderful lyrics. Skewering and scalding all within his irony-drenched path, Merritt comes on like a pomo Cole Porter. Whether he's sympathetically exploring a nun's repressed sexuality, dressing an ode to drunkenness in Gregorian chant intro, or adding a counter argument to the myth of the California female ("the faux folk sans derrieres"), Merritt and co. uphold their reputation as mischief makers of the cultured variety.

James Murphy and Pat Mahoney - Fabriclive.36
The brains behind LCD Soundsystem raid the vinyl vaults for their addition to the London nightclub Fabric's monthly cd mix release. And they rely heavily on sampling downtown disco grooves from the late 70s and early 80s. This is primal stuff, full of vintage crackle and pop, and willing to explore the link between Peter Gordon's post-punk disco outfit Love of Life Orchestra and Donald Byrd's ultra-cheesy "Love Has Come Around". This mix captures what was weird and wonderful about underground disco the first time around.

Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump
This 16-track compilation of Nigerian pop music ranges from the mid-60s to the early 80s, and samples a wide variety of styles, from pure Fela Kuti-derived afrobeat (Sir Shina Peters) to lightly skipping highlife (Ashanti Afrika Jah) to shuffling juju (Olufemi Ajasa) to 1960s psychedelic rock (Ify Jerry Krusade). The lack of formal continuity may offend African purists, but the rarity of these tracks and the beauty of both melody and groove hold the package together. A wonderful introduction to one small corner of a great cultural offering.

Conor Oberst - Conor Oberst
His transformation from wunderkind complete, the Bright Eyes leader cuts a solo album overflowing with what Bob Dylan once dubbed "thin wild mercury sound," a batch of folk-derived melodies instantly accessible yet consistently rewarding, with thoughtful, adult lyrics.
His propensity to run at the mouth tempered by concise arrangements, he's never sounded so comfortably lazy behind the microphone, and it suits him well. When he announces "I Don't Want To Die In The Hospital," it's with both pride and sorrow - a rebel yell against mortality, it's lament kicked into high gear by the rockabilly groove.

The Roots - Rising Down
Any hip-hop crew naming a cd after William T. Vollmann's 7-volume opus is clearly thinking outside the bling zone, and Philly's long-running outfit shows the young guns how it's done. Their hardest-slamming release yet, Rising Down is filled with dense tracks and plenty of guest rappers, but ?uestlove proves his mettle on a series of quick-witted tongue-lashings. And while Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III may boast more hooks, The Roots have better politics. They suggest a way forward for rappers concerned with history and committed to never going soft.

Steinski - What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective
The impact of music ad man Steve Stein on the world of hiphop and djing is as incalculable as it is unlikely. With fellow older white guy Douglas De Franco (Double Dee), they entered a Tommy Boy remix contest in 1983, and walked away with the prize after concocting a radically complex offering entitled "The Lesson," which leaned heavily on movie dialogue along with James Brown grooves. Prince Paul and DJ Shadow listened hard - Steinski continued releasing short slices of hilarity every few years. The dark hand of copyright law has kept many from hearing the full range of Steinski's output, and this Illegal Art compilation may not linger long. But across its two discs, find compelling arguments for collage's central role in 20th century art and a secret history of American pop culture. The inclusion of Steinski's entire album-length Nothing to Fear rough mix from a 2002 Coldcut radio show only makes this release more essential.

Sir Victor Uwaifo - Guitar-Boy Superstar 1970-76
A loving and thorough compilation of Nigerian musician Uwaifo, a skilled guitarist who explored the nuances of a rhythm and sound he dubbed Ekassa, based on coronation dances of Benin kings. His devotion to the guitar led him to embrace psychedelic effects and wah-wah pedals, but his songs are filled with beautiful melodies and gentle rhythms. This loving blend of folk tunes with modern instrumentation makes for timeless and joyous highlife music. A wonderful collection of previously obscure music.

Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Four bright young indie New Yorkers translate an unabashed enthusiasm for Afro-pop into bright and charming music that hurries along with a lightness that's commendable in these muddled times. The African connection is much more understated than many fans and critics would have you believe - while the guitars chime and interplay in a way that rings familiar, the rhythms remain solidly earthbound and 4/4. But to nitpick apart their sound is to miss the virtues of such pleasant and bouncing music.

Wayfaring Stranger: Guitar Soli
The good folks at the Numero label have committed themselves to tracking down the ultra-rare and the forgotten for their lovingly designed compilations. While their Eccentric Soul series remains their most important work in musical scholarship, I find this release, on the total opposite side of the spectrum, to be just as intriguing. 14 acoustic guitar instrumentals taken exclusively from out-of-print limited pressing LPs, this cd asks and answers the question, "How did John Fahey turn into Windham Hill"? And while such a premise may not sound very promising, the 16 forgotten musicians inside suggest that the 1970s were a fertile period for local skilled guitarists practicing expert bursts of finger style music. If none here have the brilliance of a Fahey, they all maintain darker and more folk-rooted moods than the New Age pretenders who would soon assume the throne. Definitely for those with deep record collections, Wayfaring Stranger stands as a reminder of the vast array of music produced across all levels of the recording industry.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wringing Out the Old

Happy 2009, but don't expect any lists of resolutions or a recounting of wild New Year's Eve parties from this corner. Bidding farewell to the old and welcoming in the new hasn't been a favorite activity of mine since I was young enough to think staying awake past midnight was a big deal. While making resolutions seems a noble enough gesture, too often those resolutions seem to focus exclusively on surface modifications and appearances. Likewise, the tradition of ushering out the preceding year in a frenzy of alcohol and war whoops has seemed increasingly morally ambiguous, especially over the past few years. While I've always had my reservations about New Year festivities, I think it was the celebration of 2004/2005 that left me most cold. With media coverage of revelers in Times Square and the steady pulse of activity from inside bars throughout the city of Albany, NY coming a mere five days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean, with a body count topping 200,000 people, the notion of cheering on the flipping of calenders seemed absurd. The growing deterioration in Iraq and news of torture from Abu Ghraib only added to the despondency of '04, and while an optimist might claim the cheering crowds were attempting to move beyond the horrors of the previous year, the pessimist in me doubted many were thinking much about the year's events at all.

So last night Jane and I had some friends over for a meal and a movie. They headed home shortly after 11 PM, by which time it was 2009 in Montana, while we managed to stay awake until around midnight, shortly before a dense ocean fog rolled into the neighborhood. 2008 was not exactly a banner year, both personally and globally. The fallout from the housing bubble, subprime mortgage crisis, banking failures, corporate welfare and the growing recession dominated much of the news cycle. Our personal story was largely shaped by Jane's deployment, which carved out five months of 2008. The loneliness of the separation was bad enough, but the lame nature of the deployment's schedule was equally frustrating. While port visits to the Maldvies, Bahrain, Dubai and Australia offered an opportunity to see several areas of the world she's unlikely to visit again, the fact that the ship bypassed Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong and the Seychelles (all ports that had been directly or indirectly promised) led many experienced Navy personnel onboard to declare the Cleveland's tour to be the "worst deployment ever". I'm thankful no violence occurred, either against the crew or anybody in the path of the ship - in that regard, a "boring" deployment is welcome. But the pain of cruising through the Strait of Malacca non-stop, with Singapore's restaurants and culture glittering on the shore less than 1.5 nautical miles away through the narrow Philips Channel, was harsh indeed.

So, it is with little regret that I bid a forceful farewell to 2008. As always, I look for silver linings in the details, and find them - a national shift away from over consumption and towards saving, say, or the promise of a new administration. I'll soon offer a list of favorite books and pieces of music from the preceding year, a perennial note of hope at each season's close. And the year has seen a welcome move towards spending more time with friends, entertaining at home, cooking, reading, traveling. With all the upheavals taking place around us - economically and emotionally - it's been a good year for taking stock and embracing the positive.