Monday, December 29, 2008

Year-End 2008

Check out Cokemachineglow's year-end coverage, including the top 50 albums of 2008. I wrote the blurb for Gang Gang Dance's long-awaited Saint Dymphna, which won the No. 3 spot on the list:

To read the reviews of Saint Dymphna is to be assaulted with a string of increasingly disparate references: ambient, dub, grime, reggaeton, My Bloody Valentine, Magik Marker, In The Nursery, Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, "Brazilian guitar," "various strains of Central African music," etc. Effectively, Saint Dymphna isn’t an "exercise in trendy appropriation" or a "pastiche," but it is "a worthy amalgam" and, as the Glow put it, "possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year."

I can just hear the band members’ sighs. “We just make music, man,” said guitarist Josh Diamond in November, when I asked him if he felt Saint Dymphna was more mainstream than 2005’s landmark God’s Money, which some critics have suggested. “It’s not up to us. People can decide whatever they want, if it’s more mainstream or less.”

To be sure, nobody can deny that a dizzying mix of worldly elements weave through Saint Dymphna's exploratory 44 minutes. A syncopated reggaeton beat drives the otherworldly “First Communion”; Tynchy Stryder brings grime to the electro-rocker “Princes”; a robotic old-school techno beat collides with vaguely Arabesque guitar licks in “Blue Nile”; new wave romanticism, rave bombast and Pro Tools-style studio trickery merge in “House Jam.” But Diamond is right: different listeners can make many different connections, depending on who they are and what captures their imagination. Streaming into my ears, this record conjured the celebratory abandon of intricate Arabic dabke (or “stomping of the feet”) and the cosmopolitan boldness of Bollywood, without the daring string sections. But with each listen, the associations gradually melted away. And I realized that Saint Dymphna‘s slow builds, hypnotic transitions and sustained bursts of catharsis are inimitably distinct.

Naked City’s schizophrenic "Speedfreaks" practically defined musical pastiche. This is the polar opposite. Both are children of the composition era, in which the old ritual and consumer-based contexts have given way to a nuanced exploration of media itself. But while Naked City’s jazz-metal noisecore merely proved to be one of John Zorn’s wackier experiments, Gang Gang Dance’s raw polyglot tongue—Diamond’s incandescent and percussive MIDI-wired guitar, Lizzie Bougatsos’ wispy and echo-warped voice, Brian DeGraw’s intricate employment of crappy Yamaha drum pads and warm modular synths, former drummer Tim DeWitt’s nimble beats—seems to have revolutionary potential. Like jazz, hip-hop, and punk, working alongside the best of electroacoustic pop contemporaries Black Dice and Animal Collective, Saint Dymphna has the potential to galvanize new unities out of elements that once appeared completely unrelated. This can help create a whole new musical—if not social—framework.

Yes, I have some abstract and incredibly high dreams for society. But what I want from Gang Gang Dance is reasonable: just keep doing what you’re doing. Our associations may differ, but this is something we can agree on. “The only sort of plan is to try and move forward,” Diamond said. “To try and not rest, or like get stuck in some specific frame.”

This is my blurb on High Places' self-titled full-length, which came in as No. 50:

I love fast music full of unadulterated aggression. I love dark, feverish ambience. This especially when the destruction of the world and the set-backs in my personal life join together to ruin my day, putting a subdued grimace on my face and a groan of hopelessness into the bottom of my throat, training my eyes to the eternal forward, enabling me to block out the world as I walk as fast as I possibly can down the sidewalk. In my mind’s eye, I’m weaving through the wreckage of life.

Inevitably, I grow weary. I take a big, deep breath and put on High Places. These implacable, sugary melodies, Mary Pearson’s dreamy, reverberated vocals, Rob Barber’s interlocking percussive amulets and drum pad—all of it is so remarkably soft and yet so detailed that it can never grow tiresome. In my mind’s eye, the waste has cleared and my future child and I have followed a rainbow-colored cobblestone pathway to the county fair. It’s not any old county fair, mind you, but one in a faraway wonderland populated by pixies and frog princes. Each of them is equipped with a valuable lesson to be learned, about exploring different perspectives, about taking nothing for granted, about harnessing constructive powers to face the challenges in life.

Sometimes, I find myself listening to this record two or three times in a row. Inevitably, I’ll put on something a bit more aggro. The grimace and the groan and the frustrated tunnel vision will return. But I will always have High Places—and my child will have it, too. And if I grow tired of the record, it’s only because I’ll have listened to it too many times to count.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Biggest Weapon in Northern Uganda

Update, 12/31/08: In late November, when a government ultimatum expired, Kony failed yet again to sign a final peace agreement that would end the war. A week after this article went to print, the Ugandan, South Sudanese and DR Congo militaries kicked off a renewed military campaign against the LRA. Now, reports are circulating (here, here, here, here, and elsewhere) that LRA fighters slaughtered over 400 villagers over Christmas in northeast Congo. The LRA denies the allegations. For more, check out the Ugandan dailies The New Vision and The Daily Monitor, as well as the great Ugandan news magazine The Independent.

Lucky Bosmic Otim, a popular musician from northern Uganda, is practically impossible to reach by phone. He has one, but it’s always turned off. The only way to contact him is through his friends, whose cell phones have invariably been turned off as well. When I finally met him last June, at his wife’s house a few kilometers outside the provincial capital of Gulu, he explained that his fame has attracted undesirable fans.

“The rebels, they used to call,” he said. “They wanted me to be part of the peace talks. When they call you like that, it’s very, very, very bad.”

Bosmic was referring, of course, to the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel outfit that has terrorized the north’s predominantly ethnic Acholi population for over twenty years, kidnapping children, forcing girls into sexual slavery, training boys as fighters, and turning them against their own villages, neighbors, even families. But since the Ugandan government’s peace talks with the LRA ushered in a period of peace in this war-torn region two years ago, Acholis have begun to rebuild a society devastated by violence, poverty, disease, and mass displacement. And a fledgling music industry has exploded, with musicians like Bosmic rocketing to stardom.

While many hits sung in the Acholi language of Luo deal in love—like Jackson’s “Atye ii Mar” (“I’m in Love”)—a strain of popular songs by artists like Bosmic, Jahria Okwera, and Jeff Korondo are raising questions about the complicated, controversial issues that haunt Acholi life, like domestic violence and the return of battle-hardened child soldiers. “They’re all educative,” said Nicky Afaye, a producer at the leading Mega FM radio station. “They all endeavor to really speak about peace.”

For his part, Bosmic, a lean twenty-four-year-old with an intense, searching expression, is perhaps most famous for his reggae-tinged entreaty “Peace Return,” a chart-topper at Mega FM driven by a syncopated piano line and a synth flute melody. The song echoes a desperate refrain commonly heard in the north: “Peace return/To northern Uganda/It’s our prayer.”

Judging by Bosmic’s penchant for battle fatigues—as he sat on a grass clearing with his two-year-old in his lap, he was decked out in a grey camoflage jacket, green designer camo pants, small dreads with orange tips sticking out of a maroon beanie, and a wristband in Rastafarian green, yellow, and red, embroidered with a marijuana leaf—he addresses the subject with militant zeal. “They call me a freedom fighter,” Bosmic said. “But ours is not through guns. Our guns are the microphones. The mic is the biggest weapon.”

As with many others here, war and all of its attendant problems have dominated Bosmic’s life. He was born in Kitgum, a province close to the border of South Sudan, but his parents died in a civil war in the ’80s, when a southwestern Ugandan resistance movement led by Yoweri Museveni overthrew the government and established a de facto military regime with democratic flavoring—which Museveni still rules over today, still as president of Uganda.

After he was orphaned, Bosmic came under the care of the bishop at a Protestant church in Gulu, where he played a traditional stringed instrument called the adungu and sang for the church. “When I was in the church, others were already singing this ‘world music,’” he said. “But to me, they were not bringing out the message I wanted to pass to the world. Their music was full of obscenity, talking about love only. We have got so many orphans who need help in the world. We have got victims of war, wars around the world. So I thought it wise I should join, so that I also pass the message to the world.”

As he grew into his teens, Bosmic began writing lyrics loaded with Christian themes and political messages. Eventually, inspired by the late South African reggae artist Lucky Dube, he himself took on the name “Lucky” and produced a string of Afrobeat-style songs using the music programming software FruityLoops, the inexpensive, easy-to-master backing band of most northern Ugandan singers.

With cheap cassettes of his music sold in the market, and his songs playing on Mega FM, Bosmic quickly took on a devoted following, mostly in the Acholi districts of northern Uganda. He incorporated English lyrics into his songs to reach a wider audience, and became something of a regional icon when the low-budget music video for “Peace Return” showed up on YouTube a year ago, boosting international awareness of this often-overlooked war.

There is a telling contradiction between the stark messages of Bosmic’s lyrics and their backdrop of reggaeton beats, squeaky-clean instrumentation, and uplifting melodies: His music bursts with hope, but songs like “Suicide Drinking” are also dogged by anger and frustration about a broken Acholi society.

Gulu, a small town where hundreds of international aid organizations and local, small-time NGOs are headquartered, is full of bars and clubs. In the three weeks my traveling partner and I spent there, a party scene thrived. Scores of locals and expats alike spent long nights drunk on Ugandan beer and liquor, shooting pool and grooving to Bob Marley, American R&B, dancehall covers of songs like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and Acholi crowd-pleasers with relentlessly fast beats.

Music and dance are cornerstones of culture in Acholiland, the central districts of the north. Norman Okot, a music and dance trainer at Health, Education, Literacy, and Sports (HEALS), a Gulu-based nonprofit for war-scarred children, told me that the Acholis have a dozen traditional dances, each geared toward a specific activity: the Bwola, or royal dance, for the coronation or death of a king; the “war dance”; and the Laraka Nraka and Ajere, courting rituals for boys and girls. “Anything to do with life in Acholi, whether life, or death, or pleasure, is always accompanied by dancing,” Okot said.

So it is with northern Uganda’s contemporary music. The north’s nightclub scene, locals told me, often serves as a venue for dancing and drinking away the horrific memories of war and the difficulties of everyday life. “If you go to my village, there is a dance hall,” said Stellah Akello, an Acholi college student from a village near Gulu. “If you go to my mother’s village, there is a dance hall. People are tired of war. They want peace of mind.”

Yet the happy excesses of the clubs sometimes mirror the more poisonous excesses of the men who wallow in the hundreds of Internally Displaced Person camps scattered across the region. An estimated two million people have been displaced during the war. Many of them were forced to move into these unsanitary camps of crude mud-brick huts, starkly different from the lush forests of trees, elephant grass, and corn and cassava crops that surround them. Traumatized and unable to work their fields because of the LRA rebels stalking the bush, many men in the camps turned to alcohol. Today, aid workers and camp residents say, lots of men still laze away their days drinking locally brewed beer, while their wives take care of the family.

Alcohol, aid workers and residents say, fuels the gender-based prejudice, domestic violence, and rape endemic in Acholiland. Sometimes, aid workers and residents say, men will even steal the food aid their wives pick up from the World Food Program in order to buy more alcohol.

In “Suicide Drinking,” Bosmic blasts the widespread use of alcohol as an escape. “They are trying to drink off their lives,” he said.

It may be peaceful in northern Uganda these days, but the war isn’t over yet. The LRA has continued attacking villages and abducting children in villages near rebel hideouts in Central Africa, destabilizing the region and stoking fear. In Uganda, thousands of IDP camp residents have no means to go home. By all accounts, Ugandans will only believe the war is finished once Kony has signed a final peace agreement. But he failed to show up for the signing last April, and rebuffed negotiators again in late November. The Ugandan military has considered taking on the LRA in a renewed military campaign, but Acholis will only be able to fully restore their society after the war ends, international aid workers and Ugandans say. And reconstruction is, itself, an extremely daunting undertaking. “Where do we begin? Educationally, we are nowhere. Economically, we are nowhere. Politically, we are nowhere,” Bosmic said. “We are crippled. We don’t have legs.”

To Bosmic, the Acholis’ only remaining wealth is the thick greenery and fertile soil of the land, which they have depended on for survival for hundreds of years. Last June, he pulled out a notebook with lyrics scribbled on the lined pages, and showed me a new song he was about to record.

The song is called “Kakana,” Luo for “My Tribe,” and it sends a sobering warning: “Don’t sell off your land.”

This article ran in the December/January issue of The Brooklyn Rail.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ricardo Villalobos, "Vasco" (Perlon)

Rooted in a purist anti-'ardkore mindset that spawned a variety of at-home listening styles in the early ’90s, “minimal” usually brings to mind the mutated techno of Berlin’s Basic Channel and the vaguely paramilitary ethos of Detroit’s Underground Resistance. Minimal house that later emerged from labels Mille Plateaux, Perlon, and countless others, trading cold robotics for wet timbres, dancier beats, and more heavily affected vocal layers, gave the spacey vibe and hypnotic repetition a streak of seduction and soul. But while the Chilean-born, Germany-based producer Ricardo Villalobos has long been a minimal techno-house posterboy, his Vasco is a dynamic and refreshing work all its own, transcending minimal bounds in bold colors.

Vasco might have been the landmark album few expected had it been released before the Vasco 1 and Vasco 2 EPs, which came out months ago. As one commentator at Resident Advisor points out, Vasco‘s potential impact might be diminished by the fact that only the underwhelming “Skinfummel” is hitherto completely new. But the DJ-dance industry doesn’t tend to humor the dreams of the auteur and Villalobos is more likely to be satiating the sweaty with beautiful ephemera at Fabric, London’s famed nightclub, alongside old-school techno DJ Richie Hawtin (a definite Detroit betrayer, bless his soul). In moments like these, there’s no saying what Villalobos will do. In the end, all is forgiven for the fifteen more minutes we get to hear of “Minimoonstar (Full Session),” that which forms Vasco's calm heart.

“Minimoonstar (Full Session)” comes across as a brilliant jam, but it seems more apt to think of it as an exercise in ornamental focus. Overlaid with flourishes of resonant bass strings, guided by synth marimbas that twist around a jaunty motif, the fresh drums’ deceptively easy beat undergoes subtle shifts—a roomy snare fill here; a shimmer of the high hat there; a clicking kick accent. A treat to the end, the beat does not change so much as evolve. “Electronic Water” keeps the pacing, while the atmosphere is more viscous. Beginning with a jerky bass hum and a subdued, compact beat, ricocheting steel drums gradually gain velocity. After an abrupt resonating clang, upper-register tones flicker as a wet bass squiggles around and occasionally reveals itself as (what sounds like) an affected steel drum. “Electronic Water” is not a track to dance to—it’s one to drool over while in the depths of a La-Z-Boy and listening on hi-fi speakers—but “Amazordum” is, featuring a disco-tinged four to the floor stomp that seems almost crude compared to the gentle, melodious loops that interlock with it and the glassy, punctuating lead. “Skinfummel,” driven by a vocal sample of a French woman that gets chopped up into splatters and doused with echo, closes Vasco on a mild, weird note.

Vasco can feel like a limber and glossy foil to Jeff Mills’ frenetic Waveform Transmission Vols. 1 and 3, but it can also seem more akin to So Percussion’s mind-melding adaptation of Steve Reich’s Drumming. In the mellowest of ways, it’s one of the boldest minimal albums of the year—and surely one to carry us into the next.

Rating: 81%


This review was published today on

Monday, December 1, 2008

Fennesz, "Black Sea" (Touch)

Christian Fennesz’s compositions marry the romantic sentimentality of the Beach Boys with the musical transcendentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen. And while Fennesz’s electroacoustic phantasmagoria has taken many forms—heavily distorted grumbling overlaid with angelic synths, planes of oscillating fuzz, even a couple bizarrely straightforward singer-songwriter tracks—water served as a consistent theme in his 2001 masterpiece Endless Summer and equally as masterful 2004 follow-up, Venice. For its part, Fennesz’s follow-up to those records most resembles the element of water. Vaguely melodious, embedded with overtones, sometimes placid and sometimes stormy, Black Sea is like a wave in that its diverse parts meld together to form a powerful, all-encompassing entity.

Fennesz’s compositional process makes songwriting and sound engineering a singular act. With his electric guitars, a laptop, and a variety of waveforms and effects, Fennesz creates ribbons of guitar plucking, chunks of white noise, and fragments of synth sounds, then mutates them and finally patches it all together into something implausibly fluid. Listening to Black Sea, you will probably feel like you’re drifting. In the opener, gasps of a heavenly chorus dissipate under a wave of squiggling electronics. In “Glide,” gentle hums embedded in distorted clouds gradually form a wandering chord progression and stabs of subsonic bass. (Unfortunately, the vinyl edition does not include “Vacuum” or “The Colour of Three.”) The white noise-tinged electronics, plinking guitar, and groaning bass in closer “Saffron Revolution” gestate like a thick fog that floats along and eventually fades away. Even the silence between the tracks seems integral to the album, serving as a bit of respite before the next miasma.

For its occasional forays into tiresome mid-level fuzz, some listeners might dismiss Black Sea as sonic wallpaper. Not only would that overlook all of the record’s incredible details—like the buzzing electronic yawns in “The Colour of Three” and the cathartic blasts of mutated splashes in “Perfume For Winter”—it would miss the point entirely. Black Sea‘s impressionistic strands do not play specific roles so much as melt into their corresponding elements, much like the phased motifs of minimalist composer Steve Reich, to subsume all of music’s parts into a unique sonic form. The subtle and savory contour of the texture, working as melody, harmony and rhythm, is an end in itself.

The uninitiated listener might compare Black Sea to being lost in deep sea, where there are no pathways, no buoys, and plenty of hungry creatures below. On the other hand, Fennesz fans might compare Black Sea to the arrival of a long-awaited vacation—one that might just take them to the unique resort city of Odessa, Ukraine, where they can splash around in the Black Sea’s beaches. Either way, Fennesz’s latest album needs a patient and curious listener who is willing to rethink the very things they listen for in music.

Rating: 79%

Cokemachineglow combined rating: 75%


This review was published today on Cokemachineglow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Old Favorites - Miriam Makeba, "Makeba Sings"

Miriam Makeba, the multilingual singer affectionately known to the world as “Mama Africa,” had a turbulent life, in large part because of the odious presumptions and endless roadblocks of apartheid. The Afrikaner government of her home country, South Africa, tried to negate her with thirty years of exile—barring her even from attending her own mother’s funeral. But instead of silencing Makeba, her exile laid bare the cold cruelty of South Africa’s dysfunctional system, as well as racism across the globe, amplifying her rich, soaring voice on the world stage.

By the time South African apartheid fell in 1994 the world was a more open place, but Makeba’s work was not finished. She devoted the rest of her life to a litany of good causes, and spent her final moments two weeks ago singing at a concert in Italy, in support of Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who has faced dire threats for his bestselling book about the Naples mafia. At 76, still radiating energy but possessed of a thinning voice, Makeba sang her mouth-popping international megahit “Pata Pata,” then walked off stage, collapsed, and passed away.

History will remember Makeba mostly for her activist triumphs, no doubt. When it came to her music many of her obituaries dwelled on her two most famous songs, “Pata Pata” and “The Click Song,” and mentioned little else. But just as she was an important activist, in many places Makeba was as ubiquitous a pop presence as Louis Armstrong. Accordingly, she has left a huge body of recordings—including 28 studio and live albums, eight greatest hits compilations, and scores of videotaped live performances—that can be mined for lesser-known gems. In memoriam, music blog Global Groove has posted a download of Makeba’s out of print 1965 RCA Victor LP Makeba Sings. Released the same year as the Grammy-winning An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba, Makeba Sings finds the bold singer in a relatively straightforward context, delivering heartwarming tunes with fluttering tropical arrangements, the kind typically reserved for Disney scores. What peels this LP away from the bland conventions of retro calypso and exotica is Makeba’s searing voice, which spans at least three languages in 35 minutes and imbues captivating tracks like “Cameroon” and “Kilimanjaro” with an almost startling intensity.

If anything, Makeba Sings shows that Miriam Makeba was too smart, too passionate, and too dynamic a presence to be crammed into the staid format of the exotic ditty. Even if, like me, you were too young to witness her triumphant testimony against apartheid at the UN and never managed to attend one of her many farewell concerts, it can make for a nicely nostalgic listen. Put it on when you grow weary of wading through the blizzard of live concert footage, LP rips, and photo-montage tributes posted on YouTube.

This review was published Wednesday on

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Interview: Chris Doeblin of the Independent Booksellers of New York City

Last month, as I was working on a book store guide recently published in the New York section of the Onion AV Club - posted here - I sent some questions to the owner of the academic shop Book Culture, Chris Doeblin, about the Independent Booksellers Of New York City, a trade alliance he recently helped found. Over e-mail, Doeblin writes about IBNYC's origins, their push for an "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week," and more. (Edited for length and clarity.)

But first, some breaking news: IBNYC affiliates will celebrate "America Unchained" this Saturday.

From the Friends of the IBNYC Facebook page: On Saturday, November 22, communities around the country are urged to “unchain” for just that one day—to maximize the impact of your dollars and inject potentially millions more into the local economy through joining other residents to do their shopping, dining out and other business only with locally-owned independent businesses. IBNYC bookstores throughout the city welcome you to their stores that day - and some will be sponsoring special events, which are listed here:

Peter Holslin (PH): Tell me about the history of IBNYC – who started it, when, and why?

Chris Doeblin (CD): I initiated a couple of conversations with Beth Puffer, General Manager at Bank Street, Henry Zook, owner of Book Court and Sarah McNally, the owner of McNally- Jackson booksellers. Each of those conversations was enthusiastic and supportive, so with Sarah and Jessica Stockton from her store, my Exec. Manager Annie Shapiro and marketing manager Kelly Amabile, we invited the rest of the stores in NY, got a space a Random House and had our first meeting in May. Over 20 stores were represented.

My initial reason, still holding by the way, is to create an organization that can, over the long term, gradually raise public awareness of the benefits our stores offer to NYC and to create a shift in interest and dollars spent to independent business. It's the cultural greening of literary/retail NY. The group will do this gradually through public presentations and events, articles in local media etc., and by publishing a guide to our businesses, a map [and] a web site.

We get to work together, which is a wonderful thing. The level of professionalism, acumen and experience that we find in the meetings we've had is a joy.

PH: What's been going on with IBNYC lately? Are there any events coming up? Is the list/map expanding?

CD: We just had our third meeting and several new stores came- The Strand and Powerhouse Books. Several weeks ago we came out at the Brooklyn Book Festival. We just completed our proto map and guide, complete with our logo. Among our long term goals are the creation of an "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week" that would be filled with events, guest booksellers, free books author visits and of course publicity. Over time, I think this is something we can really build on and get our message out. It's better to shop at the Independent Local Bookstore. We also are aiming to perfect our guide to stores in the map form and on line.

PH: How have people responded to the alliance?

CD: Very strongly! We've set up no hurdles in terms of attendance or dues and we continue to have people come to us to attend meetings or join. We've got a long way to go, but as long as we have a sufficient and sufficiently diverse number of volunteers for the board and our committees, we should carry on for many years.

Many from outside the booksellers group, people on the publishing side for example, are very supportive. I have also received a great deal of support from other booksellers in other parts of the country that participate in independent business alliances. Steve Bercu from the Austin bookseller BookPeople, for example, wrote to me. AMIBA has been very supportive and we've decided to ally with them to make our incorporation easier and to share in their wealth of experience. I am really impressed so far.

PH: Can you tell if the alliance is yet bolstering independently-owned bookselling businesses in the city?

CD: So far, yes. I think, for example, the people we reached at the Brooklyn Book Festival have re-elevated their consumerism towards independently-owned book shops. I think once we have a successful "I Love My Indie Bookstore Week" and get masses of people thinking about the benefits of having our shops in our communities, we'll start to say we are on a roll.

PH: How have independent booksellers in the city been affected by and chains like Barnes & Noble? Are these seen as scourges, the death knells of independently-owned bookselling?

CD: The effects of the B&N and other chain stores expanding is over, long over. There will be more and more closings of their stores following the several that have already closed. And given this recession on the horizon, Borders could be closing all its locations by the spring of 2009. This of course won't be all good news for the indies, as publishing corporations react to those losses. But the independents alive today in New York are strong, professional, savvy at marketing and much more likely to survive the upheaval ahead.

Amazon is a monster and yet many of of us benefit from selling through Amazon. Of course, that continues to affect us. Of course, the tide of consumer sentiment that supports the inherent good one does in shopping at local indies is only beginning to come on and for a city like NY, with so much available within walking distance, I estimate that we're also at the end of the purely negative effect that Amazon has had. It has been nearly 12-13 years. But yes, many many books are shipped into NY to our clients and neighbors. But, you see, we're past the thrill of ordering on line we are already at a point where going into an IBNYC bookshop is a wonderful and valuable experience. What a joy it is to spend time and visit in one our shops - that sentiment has only grown more acute as choices have diminished. We benefit from that.

PH: Do you have an idea of how independent booksellers have been affected by the recent economic crisis?

CD: It's too early to tell, but book stores have historically done very well in recessions. I remember the 80's and early 90's and it's a good niche to be in.

PH: How do you envision the future of independent bookselling in New York City—and how will this future affect the city's literary culture and diverse civil society?

CD: I continue to see intelligent, successful young people choosing bookselling as a career and turning from other work to this work. This is the most optimistic indicator to me. I also sense a growing worry amongst publishers that they are losing control, fiscally and over their authors and marketplace. The answers for many of the publishers lies in the indies. They need a diverse marketplace for retail.

I see a literary and civil marketplace that embraces and nurtures more carefully some of the aspects that do rebound the benefit or our communities and the kinds of lives we can lead in our city. Indie bookstores and all bookstores to a great extent are certainly part of that. We are part of the cultural code that people want to live with and share. Over time, authors, publishers and readers will gradually and continually grow even more supportive of indies in particular. A very small upturn in our businesses would have a huge affect on our perpetuity, our job creation, etc.

A little change will have a huge impact. So I think for those of us that don't have our pants on fire already, the future is bright.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Binary Marketing Show, "Yield What You May" EP

The two unassuming southerners who make up The Binary Marketing Show are friends of mine, but I’m not the kind of person who would write a glowing review of something that actually sounds awful. I am more of a humanitarian type, one who would risk looking foolish to try to save somebody or something he loves from self-destruction—and if there is one band in this world that always seems on the verge of exploding into a mess of brilliant strands that never regroup, The Binary Marketing Show is that band. Its very essence centers around workicide: the band describes its 2007 full-length Destruction Of Your Own Creation as “synth folk textures in a context of hopeless and nihilistic fanaticism,” and most of the dozen or so performances I’ve seen (usually after I’ll get a text message alert about the show at the last possible minute) consist of cathartic, frustrated improvisations on the skeletons of their intricate electro-rock recordings.

Yield What You May is by turns disjointed and pulverizing, but the EP also has its moments of sweet bliss. Instrumental “Trust And Candor” opens with a twisting mash of musique-concrète, and gradually gives way to Jason Meeks’ galloping drums and a syncopated 8th note build-up that seems stolen from a circus carousel’s organ. Then, cymbals and toms burst in and meld with layers of reverberated trumpet in a dramatic climax that evokes heavy rain. In “In Tongues And Ideas,” the jarring shake of an electronic hi hat guides beatific, shining layers of guitar as Abram Morphew sings in a homey southern twang, “And everyone bumps into one another / But we are hardly aware of each other / And this separates you and me / Might as well be infinity.” The blissful chorus plays host to driving strains of cascading guitar and a ghostly keyboard line, as the two cry in unison, “Whoa oh oh, oh oh oh, oh oh.” The closer, “Six To Eight Hertz,” with an off-beat accordion-like rhythm line and a testy back and forth between Morphew’s vocals and crashing drum fills, suggests—as Binary Marketing Show so often does—that the EP’s dying moments will brim over with power and glory. Instead, the two suddenly and unpredictably descend into a sublime half-beat chord progression and drums playing in reverse, making a calm lull that sucks up into silence. Perhaps the two are suggesting that all of this should just be remembered as a tempestuous hallucination, or not remembered at all.

On a Brooklyn rooftop one night this summer, I realized that this duo commands a restless sound that needs to be nurtured, not killed. In the first few minutes of their set, the party’s lanky birthday boy shot into the air like a rocket, sparking the modest crowd into a frenzy of dancing. The next twenty-five minutes felt like we were all one exhilarated organism. Take that, workicide.

Rating: 70%

:: Stream the entire EP

This was published yesterday on Cokemachineglow.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

"Rubber Chicken" by Caspa

Whoa. This tune merits some explanation. The dubstep producer’s success is definitely not measured by the girth of his or her wobbler bass. But the fact that the dizzying subsonic effect has wiggled its way into Britney Spears’ 2007 hit “Freakshow” demonstrates that it hasn’t only become the shake by which you identify dubstep, but a colour friendly to even the most trite fodder of the masses. Senior dubstep producers like Skream and Benga, who nurtured the style with reggae, dubplates, and the delightfully pseudo-analog FruityLoops TS404 patch (and who now share an affinity for wobbling with certain Estonians) must be well aware that there is something about that deep gestation that draws you in. In quarter- and eighth-note tremors synched up with sultry half-step beats, the wobbler disturbs and coaxes, eases and throttles.

Caspa's “Rubber Chicken,” which appeared on vinyl in 2007’s Tempa Allstars Vol. 3 and got mixed by Youngsta into the Rinse label's new I Love Dubstep CD compilation, is so overwhelming that, frankly, it took me a great effort to finally listen to this all the way through, only to listen a dozen more times. And that happened in my room, where it flowed out of a paltry pair of computer speakers—imagine being in a giant, foggy black club amongst a crowd of sweating people and having this thick tone pulse through your body with megawatt speakers…

At my next engagement with Dub War here in New York City, I’ll say bring it on.

This track review was published today on Cokemachineglow.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


So reports Page One of the curious "New York, Saturday, July 4, 2009" edition of "The New York Times" I obtained tonight.

The lead article, by Jude Shinbin, reports: "WASHINGTON - Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom were brought to an unceremonious close today with a quiet announcement by the Department of Defense that troops would be home within weeks."

It continues: President George W. Bush, "noted that the Iraq War had resulted in the burning of many bridges. 'Yet our history with allies runs deep,' he said, 'and we all know that friends forgive friends for anything. Or nearly.' A spokesperson for the French Ministry of Defense confirmed that France would assist the U.S. withdrawal. 'The U.S. helped the Soviet Union defeat Hitler. We do recognize that.'"

Also in this issue, columnist "Thomas J. Friedman" announces his resignation: "I have no business holding a pen, at least with intent to write. ... to have been so completely wrong about so huge a disaster as what we have done to Iraq - and ourselves - is outrageous enough to prove that people like me have no business posing as wise men, and, more importantly, that The New York Times has no business continuing to provide me with a national platform."

Keep your eyes out for a copy of the "Times" that might be floating around the streets near you...

Update, 11/12, 1:07 pm:

The real Times notes that the infamous Yes Men have taken credit for the fake newspapers. In a statement issued today, they wrote: "In an elaborate operation six months in the planning, 1.2 million papers were printed at six different presses and driven to prearranged pickup locations, where thousands of volunteers stood ready to pass them out on the street."

Independent Bookstores of New York City Unite!

As it appeared in the New York City section of The AV Club in the 10/23-10/29 issue of The Onion. [It's not available online and I'm having problems with posting a pdf.]

Shop Write
A few small bookstores worth haunting

Small bookstores in our famed literary city are precious wellsprings of inspiration for aspiring novelists, forums for chain-smoking anarchists, prime loitering spaces for jobless weirdoes, and more. But ever-rising rents and the encroachment of corporate chains and online booksellers have killed off many treasured shops, and the economic meltdown suggests a bruising season to come. To save indie shops from extinction, a new alliance called Independent Booksellers Of New York City has put up a website ( with a list of over 70 affiliated stores, a map of their locations, and a pretty pink bird. Among some of the uncommon favorites:

(172 Allen St—Lower East Side)

Organized as a feminist worker’s collective, Bluestockings is run by hip 20-something volunteers (women outnumber men 4 to 1) and a staff of co-owners who describe themselves as “reluctant capitalists.” The focus has always been on feminist texts by authors like Jennifer Baumgardner and bell hooks, but there are also essential titles on politics, economics and activism from the likes of Naomi Klein and Michael Albert. All day, young anarchists and old Democratic Socialists alike pore over the ’zines, drink the coffee, and prepare for the leftist revival. Evenings play host to activist-led discussions, such as recent lessons for how to divine compost from garbage.
Emblematic impulse buy: DivaCup menstruation kit
Model patron: Thurston Moore

Oscar Wilde Bookshop
(15 Christopher St—East Village)

This historic shop has served the gay community in Greenwich Village since 1967 and favors everything from Ellen Hart’s series of “Jane Lawless” mystery books to Randy Shilts’ definitive tome on homosexuality in the U.S. military. The friendly staffers are knowledgeable within their specialized focus, and they’re eager to share what they like about undiscovered gems. All of which makes for a warm and welcoming environment, especially for those who fear being outed in a bustling aisle of Barnes & Noble.
Emblematic impulse buy: Firefighter/merman Christmas tree ornament
Model patron: Vaunted memoirist Alison Smith

Brownstone Books
(409 Lewis Ave—Bed-Stuy)

Urban planner Crystal Bobb-Semple opened this family-oriented shop with her husband eight years ago to build up community along a sleepy avenue in her family’s picturesque neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. (There’s also a branch at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music in Fort Greene.) The focus tends toward what the owner herself deems “important books” (The August Wilson Century Cycle, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao), and the tiny space makes for quite a neighborly place, with events that have featured a children’s book illustrator and the inspirationalist behind The Hustler’s 10 Commandments.
Emblematic impulse buy: Moleskine notebook
Model patron: Queen, a former Black Panther

Melville House
(145 Plymouth St—DUMBO)

Situated in a neighborhood peppered with the offices of literary journals (The Brooklyn Paper, The London Review) and lots of other bookshops, this showcase for the publisher Melville House carries its own titles plus essentials from fellow indie houses like Verso and Soft Skull. Laid-back events marry cheap beer with timely presentations: It might have even been reassuring to visit during the second presidential debate, when Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur discussed his new book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers To Democracy in America.
Emblematic impulse buy: Bobble-head doll of Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem
Model patron: A multimedia artist pushing a stroller

Freebird Books & Goods
(123 Columbia St—Red Hook)

Freebird is an ideal place to laze away a Sunday, and not just for the special section labeled “Great Jackets, Bad Titles, And Just Plain Weird” (see: Loxfinger: A Thrilling Adventure Of Hebrew Secret Agent Oy-Oy-7). The soft-spoken owner might just brew you some coffee and offer fascinating insight into the yard of Red Hook shipping containers across the street. The monthly events are impish (recently, visitors celebrated Thomas Pynchon’s birthday by faxing the author congratulations), and the “post-apocalyptic book club” might yet prove prescient.
Emblematic impulse buy: Moxie soda
Model patron: “Sweaty Eddie,” junk salesman —Peter Holslin

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Interview: Josh Diamond of Gang Gang Dance

Gang Gang Dance is renowned for explosive, brain-melting sonic adventures inspired as much by African indigenous music as London grime. But this Manhattan-based foursome is no one-trick pony: last spring they pulled off an elaborate audio-visual presentation at the Whitney Biennial in New York, in August they conducted an orchestra of 88 drummers on the Brooklyn waterfront in an epic cross-country collaboration with the legendary Japanese band Boredoms, and most recently they released Saint Dymphna, a transcendent record that the Glow’s own Mark Abraham calls “possibly the most complex and weird dance album of the year.“ The day after Barack Obama was voted in as the first African American president in US history, guitarist Josh Diamond spoke with CMG on the phone about channeling the right energies, using a guitar hooked up to MIDI, upcoming plans to record a new album, what happened to former drummer Tim Dewitt, the purity of Japanese food, and more.

CMG’s Peter Holslin (CMG): How do you feel about the outcome of the election?

Gang Gang Dance’s Josh Diamond (GGD): I’m psyched man, I’m really psyched. I’m a little bewildered, as well, because it seems like this unbelievable potential for our country to finally be more progressive. You travel around the world, and most places get it by now, and it’s so frustrating. I mean, New York gets it. There’s a lot of places that get it.

[Barack Obama]’s a real caring human being, you can really tell. And it’s just beautiful. I think it’s beautiful to go from slavery to today. I just feel there is a chance, you know, for some progress. And I haven’t felt that way in a long time and, if anything, was really cynical for the last eight years. You just feel the weight of everything. I know that there’s pit falls as well. I know also that the world is pretty fucked right now, and we’re pretty fucked in a lot of ways. But I think that there’s a chance for Robin Hood. For true Socialism.

CMG: So, I just want to get this straight: Is Gang Gang Dance named after the Gang-Gang Cockatoo?

GGD: No, we found out about the Gang-Gang Cockatoo later. It’s named after this record that Brian [DeGraw, the band’s keyboardist/percussionist] got. I never remember the name of the band, but it’s like, he went to a record store and bought all these different, really diverse records and brought them to the counter and the guy was like, “Oh, you like all this stuff? Try this record out.” It was some band and the title of it was Gang Gang Dance. He took it home and it was the worst record he’s ever heard in his life.

CMG: So when you found out about the cockatoo, what was your reaction?

GGD: Is that the bird that won’t stop singing?

CMG: Um, I don’t know.

GGD: Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is. It’s nice to have strange connections. There was another one, it was a video of Ashanti’s. She was describing this dance move that she did and she said it’s not quite hip hop, it’s not R&B, it’s not funk, it’s kind of experimental or whatever. She said it’s called ‘gang gang.’ So that’s a little connection too. Pretty cool.

CMG: So you’re heading to Milwaukee right now, a few days into your tour. Is there any place that you’re looking forward to, or not looking forward to?

GGD: Right now, particularly just with this new kind of potential environment we have here in the United States, I’m looking forward to seeing all the places, you know?

CMG: Do you prefer to play in any specific kind of environment?

GGD: Oh, for sure, for sure. We started off this trip opening for Of Montreal and we were playing these big theaters and a couple of them were kind of nightmarish for me personally. There’s seats, and everybody’s sitting down in assigned seats. The vibe is just gone. I like playing places where you feel the audience there with you. I like the smaller clubs, where we shine.

CMG: Gang Gang Dance has a very distinct sound, but there are also elements of reggaeton, grime, and other styles of music. Are you planning this out, or are you just inspired in such a way that elements of different music end up in your songs?

GGD: It’s the latter for sure. We improvise. It’s a really natural thing. This is my therapy session.

CMG: How do you feel about Saint Dymphna? Do you think it’s a more mainstream record as most reviewers, and as your press materials, have said?

GGD: As far as the mainstream thing, I think it’s still pretty weird. The production quality is a lot clearer than our last record, which people pick up on. I don’t know, we just make music, man, that’s what happens. It’s not up to us, people can decide whatever they want, if it’s more mainstream or less. We didn’t plan it to be any particular way.

CMG: From what I’ve read, it sounded like the process of making Saint Dymphna was pretty fractured and frustrating. How did the record come together?

GGD: It didn’t come together for a long time, it was a fractured process. And I think maybe there was a bit too much in our minds at the time when we started making it. There was a lot of pressure inside the band to make this more ambitious thing, whatever that was. I think that force, the pressure to do that, was messing everything up. We have a really natural way of making music. Things work out the best for us when we actually just accept ourselves.

But that was only one thread of the fractured process. We’d start recording and then we’d have to go on tour. We would go to a studio and make some headway, and then, like, not finish what we were working on and have to take, like, two months off, and gather money, or go back on tour, and come back to try and start where we left off. By that time, we couldn’t even go where we left off, you know?

CMG: It’s like you have this energy going, and then once you cut it off, you’ve lost it…

GGD: It’s lost, to a large degree. We also had a really hard time, like, putting the right energy into making the record. But finally, in the last month and a half, that’s really when the record was made. We had one last push, we recorded almost all of the record. We used a couple of old recordings but almost all of it was recorded then. And we mixed with our sound engineer, Sean. It was a much more natural process and I think we finally just were like, ‘OK, we’re gonna get this done.’ It was just so relieving to have something. I’m proud of it, I just can’t deny that there was turmoil in making that record, you know? But we’re going to record a new one, to make up for that.

CMG: It’s in the works right now?

GGD: We’re gonna record in January. We’re going to the desert, to Joshua Tree, for a month. And we’re going to make demos on our own, and then our sound engineer, Sean, is going to fly out. We’re just going to record it all in the family, you know? I think it’s gonna be awesome.

CMG: When you look back, how do you feel about the band’s development? Have you ever had an idea of what you wanted to do, where you wanted to go with your music, some sort of plan or goal or something?

GGD: It’s intense to look back on it because it’s almost been a decade of my life, with the band and my friends making music. But looking back is always way different than looking forward and I don’t think that we had a plan. Certainly not in the beginning. Really, I think that we just really believe in our music and we try and be as pure as possible and as close to that kind of ideal, the ideal that we believe in our music. To continue making music, all the time. The only sort of plan is to try and move forward, to try and not rest, or like get stuck in some specific frame.

CMG: How did you, personally, start making music?

GGD: I played the violin from the age of four to the age of, like, fifteen. Music has just been something I’ve always done.

CMG: As for your guitar—is it run through a MIDI processor?

GGD: I don’t know, I could get techy on you…it is a MIDI processor, but it’s a pick up that is able to split the signal into like six different signals, then it’s a box that recognizes the pitch and converts it to MIDI.

I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I’ve had different guitars that have different pickups and I finally got a nice piezo pickup. If anybody wants to do it, those are the best ones for the job. The real weird thing about it is that it’s basically failed technology. This stuff has been around for years and nobody really wants to use it. It doesn’t sell very well, it has no money behind it. It works pretty well, actually.

CMG: Why do you use synth sounds on a guitar, instead of using a normal guitar or a keyboard?

GGD: Well, as far as the normal guitar thing, I like to think of our music as very colorful. I feel like there’s a lot of different textures and colors it makes. That’s what makes our music special. I felt, with a guitar, it felt too limited. No matter how much you change the sound, it always sounds like a guitar. And as for not playing on a keyboard, you just play differently on the guitar, there’s different ideas. To me it just works. I’ve been doing it for many years, and it just makes sense to me. It might not make any sense to anybody else, but…

CMG: Has your increased popularity over the past few years brought the band more funds, for new equipment or better production quality? How has that affected the band, if at all?

GGD: There’s up and downs for us, all the time. There are some times that we’ve had in the last few years where we did get some money, to be able to get equipment and to be able to…like, we payed for our last studio time by ourselves. I think that we’re more fortunate than a lot of bands out there. This summer was really hard financially, and all of last year before we didn’t have this new record out. They didn’t wanna book us anymore. They were like, “Come back when you have a record out.” And we were out of fashion and out of favor. And we’re in fashion, I guess for the moment, and we’ll probably fall out of fashion, but still make music. I just think there’s an even flow.

We don’t make very much money. We’re below the poverty line, as far as this country is concerned. I would like things to change a little bit as I’m getting older. We’re all getting older. And it’s not age, specifically, but it’s the demands on your life, you know? When you’re doing this, it’s very intense. I’d like to have some sort of…not reward, but it’d be nice to feel more secure.

CMG: Do you have a day job?

GGD: I bartend in New York, at a bar in Brooklyn.

CMG: What happened to your drummer, Tim Dewitt? I read that he got shot, which is very saddening to hear. Also, he’s not credited as a band member on Saint Dymphna.

GGD: He’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he’s OK, totally fine. I don’t know, he wanted a break from the band. He wanted to, I think, make his own music for a while. I don’t think he was happy living in New York City. He had a hard time there. He would’ve been happy just being on the road all the time. Going home for him is like ripping his heart out or something like that. He’s still one of my best friends. He makes amazing music right now, and producing, learning how to produce records. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the future. I mean, we saw him in Chicago and he almost jumped in the van with us.

CMG: Gang Gang Dance is often glommed together with Animal Collective and Black Dice. Since 2000, a lot of similarly weird acoustic-electronic hybrid bands with quasi-tribal, experimental and worldly elements have emerged. Do you think this is a movement, a phenomenon? Or is this just part of a cross-cultural musical conversation that’s been going on for decades?

GGD: [Chuckles] Intense. I don’t know, that’s a long question. Well, you named some of our contemporaries. We used to share a practice space with those two bands. That was years ago and it was like this little strange vortex. It was all three of us in the same room, in the practice space. The one thing that really stands out to me about that is we were all very different. There were a lot of similarities at the same time, but the sounds of the bands were very distinctly different. And that was beautiful.

I think we were just trying to make our own music, and that’s how we made it. And we still try to do that, you know? And now there’s all this press, and attention, and this idea that there’s like this thing going on, which isn’t anything. It goes on in different places as well, in Indian music you hear music from ’60s rock and roll and stuff like that. Whatever. One of the most beautiful things you can do is just make your own music, do your own thing.

CMG: How do you feel about the term “world music”?

GGD: I think it’s a capitalist term. It comes from, to some degree, trying to categorize something so you can sell it. I think that that’s a large part of it. Categories can be helpful, in some ways. I can go to a store and I can look in the world music section, and I can go to the section on Africa.

The term “world music” is very trivial. I mean, ideally, I’d like there to not be any borders in the world the phone cuts out for a couple seconds, cutting him off mid-sentence. That’d be Utopia, for sure. Even now, we have Obama and it’s interesting, because I think that patriotism is OK to a certain degree as long as it doesn’t turn into some sort of crazy nationalist thing. But, it’s interesting. Now, we’re Americans again. I felt like we’re Americans today.

CMG: What are some of your nonmusical sources of inspiration—like books, places, food?

GGD: Japanese food. And Japan is wonderful. We went there this summer. I’ve been to Japan twice. It’s inspiring for me to go through Japan. Just the way that people treat visitors when you go there, with humility, and hospitality, and respect, and patience. People are beautiful there. There’s just a different kind of way to take in a visitor, an outsider, to their home. That’s been really inspiring. I try to take some of that with me when I leave. I’m still workin’ on it. It’s really intense, man. For me, that’s a heavy thing, to be treated so well, so beautifully. And Japanese food, it’s just really fresh and healthy and if you stay there…like we were there [this summer] for like ten days and it just makes your body feel good. It’s just really pure food.

This interview was published yesterday in Cokemachineglow.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Asad Qizilbash, "Sarod Recital/Live in Peshawar" (Sub Rosa)

For centuries, Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar has withstood the plunder of invaders and served as asylum for refugees. Today, flanked by war-torn Afghanistan and war-torn Kashmir, it’s a magnet for bloodthirsty members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But things aren’t all bad: Sitting on the Iranian plateau at the edge of the Khyber Pass has had the effect of making Peshawar a cosmopolitan place rich with diverse languages and cultures. All of this explains a lot about Sarod Recital/Live In Peshawar, a performance alternately mournful and free by Pakistani sarod player Asad Qizilbash: the stark red of the cover, the fact that the producers edited out the audience’s applause to ensure their safety, and the guttural wails of Qizilbash’s courtly instrument.

The sarod, a wood and skin lute with between 18 and 25 strings that sit on a fretless piece of metal that lets the strings glide up and down the octaves, is itself a contested thing. There is some dispute over whether it originated in Persia or India, but either way both influences are apparent—considered a bass version of the Persian rubab, it’s often performed in the classical Indian style of raga, whereby the musician improvises on a recurring motif. Qizilbash draws heavily on the teachings of Indian sarod master Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with his adventurous glissando phrasing and bold staccato plucking; his work is heavier than the oft-bland tracks on The Rough Guide to the Music of Pakistan, and his sarod is deeper and more muscular than the sitar.

In elongated, improvised strands, the three tracks on Sarod Recital soar and quiver. The moody, 27-minute improvisation “Raga Darbari” moans with passion. Its opening minutes are an impressionistic dawn full of searching slides and gentle plucks, conjuring the hues and textures of mountain terrain and the frenzied bustle and spicy aroma of an age-old bazaar. Five minutes in, Mustafa Khan enters with a throbbing tabla beat as the sarod’s heavy strings stab, jerk and slash, mirroring the sadness and spilled blood of battle. Halfway through, at the fourteen minute mark, Qizilbash’s fingers flail and whirl around a galloping melody that echoes in your head after the record has finished. Treacherous and full of wonder, it’s like watching the crags pass as you ride into Afghanistan on a horse.

In the American media, Pakistan gets a terrible rap. The picture hardly strays beyond the political gamesmanship of various statesmen and paramilitary types and the looming threat of nuclear weapons. Sarod Recital/Live in Peshawar shows a far more complex Pakistan, a lustrous place built by an array of peoples, including Buddhist ascetics, Sufi mystics, and the red-hatted Shi‘i Muslim warriors of the 14th century known as the Qizilbash; a place at once traditional and modern, with a culture inhabited by cardamom tea, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s velveteen voice and the Hellfire missiles of American Predator drones.

Rating: 70%

This review runs today in Cokemachineglow.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Change has come

CNN's video of President-elect Obama is streaming into my ears. When I first heard, I was in shock with such happiness! So many times on this blog, I've bemoaned so many of the tragedies America has wrought, I've cried for the fog of propaganda to fade away. Life has become unreal and horrific. Now, I cry for this. I feel reality again. I am inspired. I gush tears of joy.

Ballot be casted!

Yesterday was a nonpolitical day - I usually listen to WNYC and beloved Brian Lehrer, BBC World and Democracy Now!, but I just couldn't take it, it almost hurt. Only one thing matters at this point: the vote. Instead of saturating myself with news on news coming from DR Congo and Somalia, and the massive mash of election and economy coverage, I bathed in the hours and hours of music I've acquired lately from various sources. The crunked FruityLoops dubstep of Benga, the dark crooner Mahmoud Ahmed and his funky horn band, the hypnotic Gang Gang Dance, Zé Di's explosive samba, the wailing sarod of Asad Qizilbash, the gentle, lush, slightly dissonant indie pop of Broadcast. In the afternoon, I bought compact, rather insufficient computer speakers and plugged them in when I got home. Can you believe that, in a full year without having stereo speakers, I only went out to buy some yesterday - and they were mere computer speakers? Oh, what you have missed for so long, with only the tinny amplification of a Macbook! To full blast the new speakers went, creating a rhythmic, melodic and harmonic massage.

Well, a few minutes ago I walked a couple blocks to the local elementary school and voted for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Now it's just a matter of waiting out the day - all of us, Brian Lehrer, the NY Times election team, the Arts and Letters editors, the Iraqi journalists on Inside Iraq, contributors to Cokemachineglow and Resident Advisor, the young people in black winter coats and black eyeshadow waiting in line behind me, my coworkers, all of us have to endure the excitement, anticipation, anxiety and tension of this day. Hearing the results that will come in late tonight, literally seeing and hearing them, knowing that they are truth, might feel like drowning. Or, it could be like breathing air again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Headhunter, "Nomad" (Tempa)

Rating: 80%

Nomad opens mysteriously, with a mild vacuum and electronics like gales of wind. The steady kick drum quietly enters and gains velocity. An implacable piece of electro-percussion pans back and forth, scampering like a horned lizard. Over two minutes pass before a seductive synth line and a grooving high hat alight on the creeping bass. Who is this nomad, and through what hazy region does he travel? It seems that this is an outsider of the future, either on the run from a cyborg-killer or looking for the nearest nightclub.

In fact, the nomad is the boyish Headhunter, the Bristol, England, producer of the ever-evolving dubstep genre that emerged from the UK Garage scene alongside grime several years ago and quickly took on a global following. Nomad, Headhunter’s first full-length release and first offering in CD format, is steeped in dubstep’s traditions—the sprightly half-step beat, the ominous two- and three-note synth lines, the heaving, subsonic bass that blasts out of the sub-woofer directly into your solar plexus—and sure enough, Headhunter employs the trademark “wobbler” bass in the aptly-titled “Baseflow.” Dubstep tunes from the likes of Skream and Benga are spacey and dark by nature, but hits like “Midnight Request Line” are tinged with hyphy-esque funk. Headhunter’s Nomad, taking cues from the mutated sonic vocabulary of minimal techno connoisseurs like Berlin’s Basic Channel, is altogether headier and more unreal. This is a futuristic, moody and vaguely menacing kind of dance music.

Saturated in colorful trails, bursts and spurts, driven by an ostensible half-beat shuffle—think “dun dun POP dun,” not “dun POP dun POP”—and overlaid with fast, intricate and infectious patterns of claps, shakers, congas and snares, these ten tracks meld together in such a way as to imitate the evolutionary phases of some half-organic, half-robotic being. “Prototype,” with its creepy echoes, propulsive bass and whipping snare, brings to mind Johnny Mnemonic’s would-be assassin, whose thumb doubles as a razer-sharp lash. It’s capable of triggering a quasi-spiritual trance on the dance floor, and just as well the soundtrack to the nail-biting final showdown between Molly Millions and the assassin up in the windy, decayed geodesic domes of Nighttown. The pursuit gives way to the plodding kick drum, lazy snare, and squawking, wandering bass of “Technopolis,” which segues into the leering “Grounded,” in which rapid-fire congas, propulsive taps and popping sounds deliciously snap together in intricate concert. Liquidy layers and juicy layers, all sandwiched, pushing deeper and forward, finally give way to the breathtaking “In Motion,” an anthem for cyborg sex if there ever was one, with cool, shimmering high hats, a punching synth hit that seems lifted from Nintendo and a bass that groans and beckons: Prithee, dearest cyborg, satisfy my loins for all time.

“Physics,” “motion,” “flow”...if Headhunter was Robo-God’s messenger, his statement to the growing international dubstep clan would be clear, familiar and irresistible: move that body.


This review was published today on Cokemachineglow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Songs on love, in all its joy and despair

Love songs can compel one to do crazy, bold things; they seem to imbue relationships with magic. But love is fluid, taken for granted and thrashed, and often it finally dies under strain. From that void of emptiness and despair come the heartbreak songs. This cosmic bond rarely survives the sojourn through hell, to produce an inspiring work like Windy & Carl’s Songs for the Broken Hearted. Continue...

Published yesterday on Cokemachineglow.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Toast To Us

If Hawnay Troof was a workout routine and not a hyperactive electronic dance act, Vice Cooler would be its spasmodic Richard Simmons. At the band’s September record release party at the Williamsburg performance space Death By Audio, Cooler set the beats on his Dell laptop to an ear-pummeling volume and gyrated his heart out. Wearing a black dress shirt and beige suit, he barked into the microphone, jumped, wriggled, and spun. He crashed into the audience and fell to the floor. Back on the twelve-inch-tall stage, he drew the audience into his reverie, beckoning with spirit fingers. “Don’t you touch me. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” he sang, leading some forty audience members in the chant from “Connection,” the dizzying hip-hop track from his new release, Islands of Ayle. “Why can’t you feel me? Na, na, na, na!” Continued at the Brooklyn Rail... Photo by Savage Pink.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Deeper into the dark

This morning, my boss and I were called into the conference room to sit in on a meeting between Mr. M., VP of G/MP, a modestly-sized and resilient publishing house of stationery and children's educational toys, and the president, Mr. G.

Sharply dressed, his collar unbuttoned, his arms taut, his eyes piercing, his expression serious, his deep wrinkles and leathery white skin augmenting the sagacity of his words on business, G.G. sat at the end of the dark wood table and calculated in his head - twist this, cut down on that, pour money into this, bring up those numbers. The VP, an immense fellow with a cool demeanor, sat to G.G.'s side, nodding, interjecting, consulting documents. My boss sat across from me. Brainstorming about ways to maximize profitability, the three of them engaged in a numbers conversation that seamlessly shifted from subject to subject and grew faster and faster, to the point that it became incomprehensible to me. Suddenly, a live recording of the Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed and his band popped into my head. I listened to the imaginary alto saxophone wend its way through a sultry and ominous melody.

These days feel like October 2006, when the Military Commissions Act appeared and shot through Congress in a flash: Being thrashed and upturned, experiencing fundamental change, falling ever deeper into the "death-spiral." Only then, I applied sharp focus to the ghastly tectonic shift meant to swallow up the invisible Others. Now, I am aloof, focused on countries continents away, other peoples and cultures, but the devastation is descending on me and my ilk.

The other day, on my usual calling spree, I asked Stewart, the owner of a book store in Illinois, if he'd like G/MP's catalogs. He gave a deep sigh. Sure, why not? "We're not doin' a whole lot right now," he said. "But who knows? Better times will come."

On Cokemachineglow, a track review of Alva Noto's "U_03"...

Suffocated by my Macbook’s worthless speakers, “U_03” sounds like a fax machine on the fritz. But in the hermetically sealed soundscape of my headphones, this track sounds like a fax machine—or even one of these fancy multi-use appliances—that has been dismantled and rebuilt into a cyborg that communicates in funky rhythms. Alva Noto mastermind Carsten Nicolai, an intense looking German who mines jpg data files, telephones and indeed fax machines for sonic material, starts the piece out with a rapid succession of high-pitched blips and abrupt kicks that pan right and left to make a tight beat. It gets heavy—really heavy—when deep and buzzing electronics suddenly burst forth. Verily, upon this aural plateau, the fax machine cyborg ghost rides tha whip.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The river, the desert, the wild...

On Saturday a jolly band of misfits joined adventurer Rob Buchanan on a row up the Hudson river to the mythic ruins of a castle along the Palisades, near a sandy bank a quarter-mile past the George Washington Bridge. The tip of the island sat before us. We assembled benches from logs, collected fagots to make fire, played the celebrity game (Wim Wenders and William Carlos Williams, if just a W!), and drank white wine and beers and cider into the night, while the remaining dots of cityscape radiance endured.

When all was quiet on the lawn of the ruins, overgrown with lush green grass, I slept beside Martine Holmquist, an old friend of mine. But the sudden rattling of rain drove me to consciousness. Dreamily content, massaged by the oppressive sound of the water, I immediately fell back asleep. After I emerged from the tent, I took strange-tasting instant coffee, in my glass jar-cup, and for a moment it felt as if I hadn't had coffee in days, weeks, months. Ha!

Back on the Whitehall gig, in the fog and sprinkle, the world was a damp and cold gray. It felt broken.

This week on the Glow, a review of Group Inerane's Guitars From Agadez:

The Tuareg people, camel-herding nomads of the unforgiving Sahara in West Africa, are known to perform a unique kind of blues known alternately as Tichumaren (which means “music of the unemployed” in their native tongue of Tamasheq) and simply “guitar music.” In the ’90s, it sprung up as a form of local communication—often the only means of distributing information, cassettes of Tuareg bands like Tinariwen spread from refugee camps in Lybia and Algeria into the villages deep in the Sahara and Sahel deserts, telling the news and calling for freedom from oppression. But over the past several years, the genre has rocketed to international fame and taken on new meaning. It has spoken to oppression worldwide: In 2003, the Navajo traditional/punk band Blackfire performed in solidarity with their subjugated kindred spirits at the “Festival in the Desert” in Mali. And Tichumaren has unified musicians hitherto unrelated: lately, Tinariwen has teamed up with the French band Lo’Jo and… Robert Plant! Guitars From Agadez, the latest installment of what Sublime Frequency calls the “Tuareg Guitar Revolution,” is a set of live recordings by Group Inerane, a ragtag band of men and women from Niger, headed by Bibi Ahmed, a master of languid guitar grooves. The record is a nice historical document, but it’s the band’s hypnotic desert blues that will make English-language listeners smitten. Continued here...

And a Q&A with Portugal. The Man's John Gourley:

When they’re not touring, half of the foursome Portugal. The Man resides in the northwest. The other half hails from the sylvan wilds of Alaska. Songwriter John Gourley, for his part, is a native of Wasilla, the epicenter of the state’s evangelical movement and the home town of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Last month, Gourley posted a touching missive against the Alaskan governor on his band’s website. Over e-mail a day before the vice-presidential debate last Thursday, he didn’t have any juicy tidbits on Palin to share, but he shouted out to his musical allies, recommended some Alaskan bars, explained how his father might’ve met Jesus and discussed the band’s new album, Censored Colors. Read more...

Photo by Nadia Chaudhury.

Friday, October 3, 2008

In the den of Republicanistan, Palin rules

Last night, I joined a team of bleeding-heart liberals to cross into "Republicanistan" and crash a watching party for the New York Young Republican Club at the Houndstooth Pub in Midtown. I had pretty low expectations for the Vice-Presidential debate after reading Jack Shafer's primer and I expected to lose composure at some point and blow our cover. In the end, the experience was not nearly as infuriating as it was surreal and depressing.

The debate began shortly after our team downed some Jagger shots and briefly chatted up the well-dressed, 30-something technocrats sipping cocktails in the bar's dimly lit basement space. Watching the debate on FOX News, I whooped and hollered on cue for the first half, simultaneously trying to keep up the act and focus on the actual words of the candidates. I got the impression, though, that us city-dwellers weren't the intended audience. With Palin's cornpone talk and Biden's invitations to visit his working class home town, they clearly were trying to court the small-town "Main Streeters" of America's battleground states.

Both of them put up a pretty good fight, but I don't think either of them came out particularly victorious. But Palin's getting a lot of credit for not doing anything extremely stupid. As the NY Times notes, “She succeeded by not failing in any obvious way.” For me, Palin proved to have the most memorable comments.

Early on, with total lack of irony, she parroted Barack Obama's platform of change: "I do respect [Biden's] years in the U.S. Senate, but I think that Americans are craving something new and different and that new energy and that new commitment that’s going to come with reform,” she said. “I think that’s why we need to send the maverick from the Senate and put him in the White House, and I’m happy to join him there.”

Later, she repeated McCain's economic policy: a key to economic stability is cutting excessive government spending. Clearly, the Republican ticket wants it both ways, since they simultaneously plan to continue the War in Iraq, which is estimated to cost $2 billion a week.

She proceeded to lambaste Barack Obama for not supporting the so-called surge that, she said, "has proven to work." McCain did the same thing in last Friday's Presidential debate. The weird thing is that, in fact, the surge has proven not to work. Let's not forget that America started the surge in 2007 to make "breathing space" to build a viable Iraqi government. When he unveiled the plan, President Bush said that, "over time, we can expect to see Iraqi troops chasing down murderers, fewer brazen acts of terror, and growing trust and cooperation from Baghdad's residents. When this happens, daily life will improve, Iraqis will gain confidence in their leaders, and the government will have the breathing space it needs to make progress in other critical areas."

But has the Iraqi government made any progress? No. Iraq's parliament is just as fractious, corrupt and unreliable as it was over a year ago. Recently, an Iraqi journalist for McClatchy newspapers named Laith wrote that, over a year into the surge, most Iraqis still have no faith in their government: "All the Iraqis realized that our political parties don't care about us and that money and power are their only concern. We just wait for the last day of the age of this failure government and parliament. Until that day; those people means nothing to us but a thorn in the heart of Iraq that casues pain and bleeding."

Experts credit the "Sons of Iraq," who turned against Al Qaida in Iraq and joined forces with the US military, for bringing down the violence. They also note that Muqtada al-Sadr brought down the violence when he enacted the Mahdi Army cease-fire. But according to this transcript, Palin never even mentioned the words "Anbar" or "Mahdi" (although she did say the word "maverick" 15 times) during the debate. At any rate, there are signs that the peace is about to crumble again into sectarian conflict and political infighting. [Lunch break is almost over: I'll have to post a blizzard of hyperlinks later.]

My carefree whooping came to a halt when Palin declared, "Now, Barack Obama had said that all we're doing in Afghanistan is air-raiding villages and killing civilians. And such a reckless, reckless comment and untrue comment, again, hurts our cause. That's not what we're doing there. We're fighting terrorists, and we're securing democracy, and we're building schools for children there so that there is opportunity in that country, also. There will be a big difference there, and we will win in -- in Afghanistan, also." I could no longer cheer for such inaccurate and preposterous acts of rhetorical gymnastics.

This marked a turning point in the debate, after which everything got progressively more disturbing. At one point, Palin made a crack about Biden's late wife, once a schoolteacher. "You mentioned education and I'm glad you did," she told Biden. "I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?" To that, the Young Republicans cheered.

I dwell on Sarah Palin here because she is a dangerous campaign tool who has trivialized the election. Lately, I've wondered if there is a medieval demon-impostor I can compare her to. Over e-mail today, I brought the question to my mom, an expert on Rennaissance literature. She had a fascinating and insightful response:

I’m more familiar with early modern imagery . . . But in both periods, you have two strands: either religious imagery of anti-Christ figures/ female monsters or secular imagery of folksy, secular Robin Hood heroes. Most of the folksy lore pits “haughty and wealthy elites” against “the folk,” “the many-headed monster” of the peasantry. Robin Hood lore is rich in the early modern period, but what you see is either 1) that the aristocrats were right all along to fear the vulgar, rough peasants who would wheedle their way into high places of authority or 2) that the rough peasant is a hero, by overthrowing an always corrupt or inept aristocracy.

The female monster tradition is probably the tradition that best characterizes the current situation, but it is viciously misogynistic. It draws upon the “lipstick on a pig” metaphor—you may see a beautiful appearance, and you may be captivated and charmed, but this woman is really the whore of Babylon, and will lead you to Hell. Or worse, she is a pig.

The problem --for thoughtful people-- with this literary tradition is that there’s no position to occupy to critique the folksy hero—except to take the side of the haughty elites. You are either folksy, vulgar and peasant OR you are an aristocrat who holds yourself high above the lowly, little people. There’s no way to critique the false posturing of the peasants who would rise to power without validating the aristocrats.

Basically, Sarah Palin is drawing upon this whole tradition—and the polarization works in her favor— as have the Republicans and the red state/blue state distinction for the past 8 years. This distinction serves a figure like Sarah Palin very well—because it distracts both red state and blue state believers from the contradictions within these categories. Red Staters will not critique Sarah Palin, because she “stands for” their resentment of the elite, Washington insiders, and everything you want to associate with them. Whether she is qualified for the position is irrelevant—her genuine, authenticity as a folksy outsider is all the qualification she needs.

Check out these lyrics by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Red, White and Blue” from their Vicious Cycle CD, produced in –you guessed it—the big year for political music, 2003. And a performance-- Here’s the Sarah Palin anthem if there ever was one.

But where would Lynyrd Skynyd be without plastic LA friends and music producers?????? Indeed, this positioning is pretty dishonest.



"Red White And Blue"

We don't have no plastic L.A. Frynds,
ain't on the edge of no popular trend.
Ain't never seen the inside of that magazine GQ.
We don't care if you 're a lawyer, or a texas oil man,
or some waitress busting ass in some liquor stand.
If you got Soul
We hang out with people just like you

My hair's turning white,
my neck's always been red,
my collar's still blue,
we've always been here just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say we've always been, Red, White, and Blue

Ride our own bikes To Sturgis
we pay our own dues,
smoking camels, drinking domestic BREWS
You want to know where I have been
just look at my hands
Yeah, I've driven by the White House,
Spent some time in jail.
Momma cried but she still wouldn't pay my bail.
I ain't been no angel,
But even God, he understands.

My hair's turning white,
my neck's always been red,
my collar's still blue,
we've always been here
just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say
we've always been, Red, White, and Blue

Yeah that's right!

My Daddy worked hard, and so have I,
paid our taxes and gave our lives
to serve this great country
so what are they complaining about

Yeah we love our families, we love our kids
you know it is love that makes us all so rich
That's where were at,
If they don't like it they can justget the HELL out!


My hair's turning white,
my neck's always been red,
my collar's still blue,
we've always been here
just trying to sing the truth to you.
Yes you could say
we've always been,
Red, White, and Blue

oh..oh..Red, White, and Blue....
Red, White, and Blue
oh..oh....Red, White, and Blue

Palin portrait courtesy the Alaskan government.