Sunday, December 19, 2010


...that you probably have not. (Inspired by this list.)

1) Eaten chocolate cake with Ornette Coleman in his apartment.
2) Interviewed Lemmy in front of a live audience. (Video.)
3) Had my picture taken with Ozzy Osbourne backstage at Madison Square Garden.
4) Been a guest on live radio with Rob Halford of Judas Priest, and host Jim Breuer.
5) Received a phone call at home from Tony Iommi.
6) Nearly been thrown out of a Manhattan deli with Abel Ferrara.
7) Lived with a weird eco-militant/hippie cult.
8) Written liner notes for two CDs (one of which hasn't been released as of this writing).
9) Been flown to Stockholm to hear the last Opeth studio album and interview the band.
10) Self-published a book, and (as of this writing) three issues of a magazine.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Only four days' worth of new content at last week, because of Thanksgiving. Here are the links.

Monday: an interview with Secret Society bandleader Darcy James Argue
Tuesday: Dan Tepfer Trio, Five Pedals Deep (by new BA contributor R. Emmet Sweeney)
Wednesday: Ghost, Opus Eponymous
Thursday: William S. Burroughs' "Thanksgiving Prayer," plus video of W.C. Fields and Ricky Jay

Friday, November 26, 2010


From the Guardian:

Coldplay's next album will apparently be influenced by New York graffiti artists and the anti-Nazi resistance. According to Chris Martin, these different sets of non-conformists have inspired songs about "[being] free to yourself" and "[following] your passion".

Despite two charity gigs booked for next month, Coldplay are still hard at work in their London studio, preparing the follow-up to Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. No release date has been set, but the end seems to be in sight – in a new interview with Q magazine, Martin speculated about a possible album title. "It will probably begin with an M," he revealed. "Two words."

Ten quick guesses:

More Coldplay
Mmmmm Pizza
Mrs. Paltrow
Mmmkay Computer
Mandatory Disclaimer
Mediafire Link
'Member "Clocks"?
Motion, Lateral
Minor Chords
Motörhead Rules

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Here's something for you to be thankful for: I've reviewed 10 more albums for All Music Guide! (Yay?) Here are the links:

Atheist, Jupiter
Chord, Progression
Crimson Glory, In Dark Places...1986-2000
Deathspell Omega, Paracletus
Evil Survives, Powerkiller
Place of Skulls, As a Dog Returns
Salome, Terminal
Sargeist, Let the Devil In
Supersilent, 10
War from a Harlots Mouth, MMX

Friday, November 19, 2010


Lots of activity on this week:

• The first two issues are now available digitally on for $5 each
• You can get 20% off the print or digital version at through Nov. 21, using the promo code DONE305

Also, online-only reviews of the following ran:

Monday: Autechre, Oversteps and Move of Ten
Tuesday: Don Omar, Meet the Orphans
Wednesday: Crystal Viper, Legends (that's the cover above)
Thursday: The Fania All-Stars, Ponte Duro: The Fania All-Stars Story
Friday: Ehnahre, Taming the Cannibals

Monday, November 15, 2010


Strictly for the online edition, I review Friday night's Monarch/Tinsel Teeth (I left before the final band, Bloody Panda, came onstage) show at New York's Cake Shop. Here's a link.

I met Monarch vocalist Emilie Bresson (that's her in the crappy photo—also by me—above) running the group's merch table, and bought two CDs from her: Mer Morte (out now on Crucial Blast) and Sabbat Noir (out now on Heathen Skulls). Each is a single long track, heavy on feedback and atmosphere, and each is highly recommended.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Now that's a sinkhole:

Thursday, November 11, 2010


No particular theme this week, just five more reviews:

Monday: Motorpsycho, Timothy's Monster
Tuesday: Wadada Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell, The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer
Wednesday: Voltax, Fugitive State of Mind
Thursday: Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley, Ailanthus/Altissima (Bilateral Dimensions of 2 Root Songs)
Friday: Jerome Sabbagh/Ben Monder/Daniel Humair, I Will Follow You

Like the website? Buy the magazine!


Another fortnight, another ten AMG reviews...

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Llyria
Circle II Circle, Consequence of Power
The Ocean, Anthropocentric
Oceano, Contagion
Powerglove, Saturday Morning Apocalypse
Ross the Boss, Hailstorm
Shadows Fall, Madness in Manila: Shadows Fall Live in the Philippines 2009
Stargazer, A Great Work of Ages
Tank, War Machine
UnSun, Clinic for Dolls

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


I was on the radio yesterday, jabbering about Led Zeppelin (and, briefly, Manowar). If you want to listen to that (and really, why would you?), here's a link.

Friday, November 05, 2010


This was Metal Week at I reviewed five recent metal releases, covering exceptional work in various subgenres. Here are the links:

Monday: Blind Guardian, At the Edge of Time
Tuesday: Electric Wizard, Black Masses
Wednesday: Kill the Client, Set for Extinction
Thursday: Grand Magus, Hammer of the North
Friday: Interment, Into the Crypts of Blasphemy

The third issue of Burning Ambulance is progressing rapidly toward the finish line, so now's a perfect time to pick up issues 1 and 2. You can do that here.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Here's my latest batch of All Music Guide reviews. In keeping with the Halloween season, there's a bunch of metal, and some people in masks (the Girl in a Coma covers album). Enjoy!

Arson Anthem, Insecurity Notoriety
Autopsy, The Tomb Within
Conducting from the Grave, Revenants
The Crown, Doomsday King
Dimmu Borgir, Abrahadabra
Exploding Star Orchestra, Stars Have Shapes
Firewind, Days of Defiance
Girl in a Coma, Adventures in Coverland
Holy Grail, Crisis in Utopia
Kill the Client, Set for Extinction

Friday, October 29, 2010


I posted a bunch of stuff on Burning Ambulance this week. Here's the rundown:

Monday: review of Joe Morris's Camera
Tuesday: review of William Parker's Uncle Joe's Spirit House
Wednesday: interview with drummer Barry Altschul, by Hank Shteamer
Thursday: review of Many Arms' Missing Time
Friday: review of the Ornette Coleman Quartet's Reunion 1990

I hope you enjoy all this stuff, and I hope it'll convince you to buy issues of Burning Ambulance, the third of which will be coming out very soon.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Okay, one comment: AWESOME.

21 BY 20: JAZZ IN 2010

It's getting toward year-end list-making time again. Here are 21 jazz albums, by 20 artists or groups, that were worth my time in 2010, and which I think would be worth your time, too. Some of them may not sound like jazz to you. That doesn't make them any less worthwhile.

Carlos Barretto Lokomotiv, Labirintos (Clean Feed)
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Llyria (ECM)
Regina Carter, Reverse Thread (E1)
Decoy, Vol. 1: Spirit & Vol. 2: The Deep (Bo' Weavil)
Marc Edwards/Weasel Walter Group, Blood of the Earth (ugEXPLODE)
Elephant9, Walk the Nile (Rune Grammofon)
Amir ElSaffar/Hafez Modirzadeh, Radif Suite (Pi)
Exploding Star Orchestra, Stars Have Shapes (Delmark)
Rich Halley Quartet with Bobby Bradford, Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival (Pine Eagle)
John Hébert Trio, Spiritual Lover (Clean Feed)
Dave Holland Octet, Pathways (Dare2)
William Hooker, Earth's Orbit (NoBusiness)
Keefe Jackson Quartet, Seeing You See (Clean Feed)
Lawnmower, West (Clean Feed)
Little Women, Throat (AUM Fidelity)
Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman, Dual Identity (Clean Feed)
William Parker, I Plan to Stay a Believer: The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield (AUM Fidelity)
Odean Pope, Odean's List (In + Out)
Dan Pratt Organ Quartet, Toe the Line (Posi-Tone)
Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley, Ailanthus/Altissima (Triple Point)
David Weiss & Point of Departure, Snuck In (Sunnyside)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Charles Murray, best known for spewing racist pseudoscience to the top of the best-seller list a while back, recently wrote an imbecilic, ill-informed Washington Post op-ed (but I repeat myself) arguing that there's a "New Elite" in America, and it's not based on wealth or actual power, most of which is in the hands of sociopathic, it's based on what TV shows you watch and how snobby you are about them. It's been taken apart here and there, but of course the mark of true elite status (like Murray's) is that you don't have to give a fuck what people say about your little vomit-burps, you just issue them (in national newspapers) and move on while bloggers pound their heads on their desks.

The one moderately entertaining result of this foofaraw has been a quiz entitled "How Elite Are You?" Here are the questions, with my answers:

1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?"
I can and I do.

2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?"
Sure, I guess, but I've only seen maybe a half dozen episodes from beginning to end. Ask me about The Shield instead.

3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?"
Drew Carey.

4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end?
No, but I catch a few minutes here and there.

5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga?
Animatedly? No. Have I tried yoga? Yes.

6. How about pilates?
See above answer, minus the trying-it part.

7. How about skiing?
I went skiing once in high school and didn't like it.

8. Mountain biking?
Had a mountain bike in high school; wouldn't call it a subject worthy of "animated" discussion.

9. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is?

10. Does the acronym MMA mean anything to you?
Yes. (Here's where I recommend my friend Eugene's book.)

11. Can you talk about books endlessly?
Hell yes.

12. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel?
No, but I know the basics.

13. How about a Harlequin romance?

14. Do you take interesting vacations?
I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with this word "vacation." Put me down for a "no."

15. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada?

16. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor?
No idea where that is.

17. Would you be caught dead in an RV?
I think I've been inside an RV a time or two.

18. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship?
No interest in contracting oceangoing dysentery, thanks.

19. Have you ever heard of Branson, Mo?

20. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club?

21. How about the Rotary Club?

22. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town?
Grew up in one.

23. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees?
I've never asked any of them, but I'd bet a sizable number of my neighbors are surviving without the benefits of higher education. As am I.

24. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line?
Dude, I'm a writer. What do you think?

25. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian?
I don't know 'cause I don't ask. Maybe.

26. Have you ever visited a factory floor?

27. Have you worked on one?
No. I have worked in warehouses, though.

Monday, October 25, 2010


The Burning Ambulance blog is now Stop by, won't you? (Issue #3 of the print edition is gonna be awesome, and it's coming sooner than you think, which makes now a perfect time to buy #s 1 and 2, if you haven't already.) Fresh content up today, too: a review of Joe Morris's new guitar/violin/cello/drums CD, Camera.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


The new Shakira album, Sale el Sol, arrived in today's mail, and having nothing better to do, I listened to it. It's being marketed as her return to her Latin roots after last year's Euro-style dance-club disc She Wolf, which didn't do nearly as well as expected. Most of the songs on this one are sung in Spanish, but if you think that's gonna inspire Shakira to greater heights of vocal passion than she's mustered in the past half-dozen years or so, forget it.

The opening title track is limp rock, with a fuzzy electric guitar riff (by who knows who—the producers and guest vocalists are all credited, but none of the instrumentalists are, demonstrating convincingly that this is a pop album and not a rock record). The second track, "Loca," is electronic merengue, but it feels like it's playing at half-speed. Up next is an even more watery acoustic-guitar-and-piano ballad, "Ante de las Seis," and that's followed by another electronic, beat-driven number, "Gordita."

This is the first remotely interesting song on the album, because it features a guest spot by Residente de Calle 13, and he's jabbing at Shakira, speaking for (I'd bet) a sizable portion of Latin rock fans when he says that he liked her better before she moved to Miami and dyed her hair:

Shaki tú estás bien bonita aunque también me gustaba cuando estabas más gordita
Con el pelito negrito y la cara redondita
Así medio roquerita

Shakira tries to keep up, turning the song into a half-dirty (for pop) duo, but it's got nothing on Residente's back-and-forth with Mala Rodríguez on "Mala Suerta con el 13," from Calle 13's own Residente o Visitante CD. And the album's momentum sags a bit after that.

"Addicted to You" is an English-language song that seems about 90 seconds long; "Lo Que Más" is another boring ballad; and "Mariposas" is a Spanish-language take on the girl-and-her-piano almost-rock songs VH1 plays all morning.

"Rabiosa" is one of three songs that appear in two versions on Sale el Sol. This first one is another electro-merengue track, like "Loca" featuring El Cata, but this one's slightly faster and it could have been pretty good if Shakira's attempts at sexy moaning didn't sound like she was waking up from a siesta.

"Devocíon" is a postpunk track driven by throbbing bass and atmospheric keyboards straight from the Cure's Disintegration, and her vocals are probably the best on the whole record. This is the best song on the whole disc; for pure passion, I'd put it right up there with "Timor," the last track on Oral Fixation, Vol. 2, and the last track of hers that really surprised me (in a good way).

"Islands" is in English, all distorted keyboards and New Wave pulse; it's not bad, but I can't see it being a hit, 'cause it doesn't have much of a chorus.

"Tu Boca," which frankly I was expecting to be another drippy ballad, is actually another postpunk rocker, with tons of bass and a melody that reminds me of Natalia Lafourcade's second album (credited to her band Natalia y la Forquetina), Casa. Shakira even heads into Natalia's upper-register vocal territory on a few lines. This song and "Devocíon" are the two keepers.

The last song on the album proper is "Waka Waka (Esto Es Africa)," and I have nothing to say about that.

The bonus tracks are a remix of "Loca" featuring formerly-overrated, now-forgotten UK "grime" rapper Dizzee Rascal; a remix of "Rabiosa" featuring Pitbull; and an English-language version of "Waka Waka." None of them are particularly good. I used to like Pitbull a lot, but he'll appear on just any damn thing these days, and he always sounds the same. He hasn't been at full strength since his second album, El Mariel.

This is a short album (without the three bonus tracks, it'd be less than 40 minutes long) and not a particularly good one. Two genuine keepers ("Devocíon," "Tu Boca") and one mildly diverting novelty ("Gordita") out of 15 is not nearly enough to make Sale el Sol worth your money.

Monday, October 18, 2010


On Saturday night, I went out (with my mom) to see Vicente Fernández at Madison Square Garden. I took a bunch of pictures, and wrote a review, for the Village Voice website. Here's the link.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


On Tuesday (10/19), Rhino is releasing a limited-edition boxed set (three CDs, one DVD) of Ravi Shankar's collaborative albums with George Harrison. From the press release:

The DVD is a rare concert performance of Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India recorded at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1974. The albums include the acclaimed Chants Of India (1997), The Ravi Shankar Music Festival From India (studio version 1976) and Shankar Family & Friends (1974). The 56-page book includes a foreword by Philip Glass, a history of George and Ravi “in their own words” and rare photographs from both family archives.

The personal and musical friendship between Ravi Shankar and George Harrison has been known and well documented for decades now. It was a friendship that was powerful enough to make an impact on the large, musical life of the late nineteen sixties and it reverberates, as clearly, even today – from the Foreword by Philip Glass

In 1973 George Harrison signed Ravi Shankar to his Dark Horse Records label. The first joint recording project between George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, Shankar Family & Friends brought together renowned Indian classical musicians such as Ustad Alla Rakha, Lakshmi Shankar, and Shivkumar Sharma alongside Western jazz and rock musicians including George, Ringo Starr, Tom Scott, Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner and Billy Preston. One half of the album comprises instrumentals and songs, while the second half is a thematic ballet to a yet un-staged performance.

Ravi Shankar’s Music Festival From India (live from the Royal Albert Hall) was the first artistic event organized and sponsored by George Harrison’s Material World Charitable Foundation, bringing together a 17-piece Indian classical ensemble as well as a solo sitar performance by Ravi Shankar accompanied on tabla by Alla Rakha.

In 1997 George Harrison and Ravi Shankar again collaborated on an album. This time Ravi created music for ancient Sanskrit chants with the challenge of maintaining the authenticity of the ancient verses. Released in 1997, Chants Of India are timeless, Vedic verses chanted for the well being of man and mankind.

I'm most interested in the Shankar Family & Friends album, because it's a weird, somewhat kitschy blend of Indian music and prog-rock. (In that way, it sort of reminds me of Carlos Santana's weird, mystical albums from 1973-75—Love Devotion Surrender with John McLaughlin and Illuminations with Alice Coltrane in particular, but also Welcome—which have always been among my favorite parts of his catalog, right next to the triple-vinyl/double-CD live disc Lotus. To be honest, I really don't have much use for anything Santana did after 1975.) The songs on its first side are nice, but it's the second side, which is taken up with the score for a never-produced devotional ballet, that's the real hot stuff. The mix of sitar, tabla and harmonium with flute, horns, analog synths and occasional guitars all swirls together into something that sounds like a lost Popol Vuh soundtrack to an imaginary, never-produced, Indian-set Werner Herzog/Klaus Kinski movie. When people describe something as "so '70s," they usually mean it in a scornful, disco-era-Bee Gees way. But this music is totally '70s in a stoned-but-totally-earnest way that yes, screams 1974, but that's a good thing. I've said many times that I'll take music from 1969-75 over music from 1964-68 without blinking. You wait: before the end of the year, Madlib or someone similar will be sampling "Nightmare: Lust" from this album.

I get the feeling that even on Chants of India, the one on which he got co-billing, Harrison's role on the records compiled here was basically that of patron, producer and fan. And that's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. I was never a Beatles fan, nor a fan of the various members' solo work. (See the title of this post? The only other Beatles-related thing I care about is Live Peace In Toronto, the John Lennon/Yoko Ono album, and I really only like the screechy second half, not the rockabilly covers that kick it off.)

By the way, the packaging on this box is fucking glorious. I'm not kidding at all; the last thing I got that was even half this awesome was the Revenant Albert Ayler box, Holy Ghost, and this doesn't have that thing's annoying aspects, like the pressed flower and all the other stuff. It's just an incredibly beautifully printed hardcover book, some oversized sleeves for the CDs (with poster-ish liner notes) and a magnificent outer case. Plus a "certificate of authenticity" 'cause it's a limited edition. But it's just fantastic to look at. Click the image at the top of this post to see a blown-out picture of the whole thing.

Monday, October 11, 2010


John Cole:
Some days I wonder why I even worry about politics. I’m single, white, straight, somewhat educated, over the draft age, and I’ll make it. I don’t smoke pot, I don’t want a gay marriage, I’m not a minority, I’m not disabled, I don’t have any pre-existing conditions, I’ll never have an abortion, I’m not going to be discriminated against in the workplace, no one is going to beat me up on the street for who I am, and we’re not going to be able to do anything about the big issues of the day like global warming.
Now you know why there are very few political posts on this blog. I have political views, but as (I think) Thomas Frank once put it, "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy." The real-world applications of my political views work out to yelling at the TV and muttering, "Fuck all these assholes."

Monday, October 04, 2010


It's been a while since I posted links to AMG reviews, 'cause I haven't been writing as many of them lately. Here are the most recent ones.

Akwid, Clasificado R
Black Anvil, Triumvirate
Bostich + Fussible, Bulevar 2000
Vicente Fernández, Un Mexicano En La Mexico
Marcus Fjellström, Schattenspieler
Henry Grimes/Rashied Ali, Spirits Aloft
Hildur Guðnadóttir, Mount A
Infernaeon, Genesis to Nemesis
Vijay Iyer, Solo
Liv Kristine, Skintight
Kylesa, Spiral Shadow
Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green, Apex
Man's Gin, Smiling Dogs
Neurosis, Live at Roadburn 2007
Steelwing, Lord of the Wasteland
Trigger the Bloodshed, Degenerate
Various Artists, Dark Matter: Multiverse 2004-2009
Vindicator, The Antique Witcheries
Waking the Cadaver, Beyond Cops, Beyond God

I also wrote a review of Cluster & Farnbauer's Live in Vienna that didn't run; here 'tis:

Live in Vienna
This two-CD set, originally released on cassette, documents the only collaborative performance between the German electronic duo Cluster (Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Mobius, formerly of Conrad Schnitzler’s trio Kluster) and percussionist Joshi Farnbauer. Cluster was one of the major kosmische groups coming out of early ’70s Germany alongside Tangerine Dream and the work of Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze. Their endless interstellar journeys via analog synth had a somewhat creepier vibe than those of TD, and were less robotic/inhuman than Schnitzler’s work, without being as lush as Schulze’s. This live performance, perhaps due to the limitations of the source recording, has a thin quality, and the sound occasionally wavers, but overall it’s bound to be of great interest to fans of the duo. The music travels through a variety of moods and zones over the course of nearly 90 minutes; “Piano” and the closing “Ausgang” are quite beautiful piano pieces, the latter also featuring Farnbauer on delicately tapped cymbals. “Drums” features him cutting loose on a thundering beat that almost prefigures industrial, while “Metalle” gradually moves from humming soundscapes to droning Krautrock reminiscent of Faust’s collaboration with violinist Tony Conrad, Outside the Dream Syndicate. Farnbauer adds a great deal to this album/performance, absolutely earning his co-billing status, and new listeners will find this every bit as fascinating as longtime Cluster fans.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


The first three sentences of Sam Tanenhaus's fawning review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom told me a) that I didn't need to read it, and b) that I didn't need to read anything Tanenhaus might have to say about fiction in the future.

The sentences in question:
Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom,” like his previous one, “The Corrections,” is a masterpiece of American fiction. The two books have much in common. Once again Franzen has fashioned a capacious but intricately ordered narrative that in its majestic sweep seems to gather up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life.
To begin, The Corrections was no masterpiece. It was overwritten and simultaneously over- and under-thought. So the second sentence is more warning than tribute. And finally, who is this "we" of which he speaks in the third sentence?

When I was young and stupid, I laughed at complaints from readers who said particular books or stories didn't "speak to" them. I thought that, say, the girls in my high school AP English class who disliked Heart of Darkness because there were no female characters to identify with were being absurd. But contemporary literary fiction is so fucking infuriating on this score that frankly I'm starting to think even the most PC ranters may have understated the case.

Jonathan Franzen writes books about and for upper-middle-class, overeducated white people. Period. And as I am a white dude who started out middle-class and is now somewhere in econosocial limbo, and who is undereducated by the standards imposed by the elite media, he does not speak for me. In fact, he speaks to only such a shrinking minority of Americans that assuming his book does in fact reach a mass audience, it will likely be received as almost a kind of science fiction, a dispatch from a strange mirror-world. Without even cracking the covers of Freedom, knowing only what I know of it from reviews, I feel like Flavor Flav on Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero": "Look, don't nobody look like that, nobody even live like that, you know what I'm sayin'?"

I don't know anyone who lives like the people in Jonathan Franzen novels. I know they exist, but not around me. I live in a city of immigrants, a city where the store signs are in Spanish with English subtitles and the faces on the street are almost all one shade of brown or another. The nearest higher education facilities to me are Union County College and Drake Business School. And these people's stories are not being told.

Franzen and pretty much every other writer whose fiction is praised in the pages of the New York Times Book Review are the chroniclers of a gated community. They live in cultural and socioeconomic segregation so extreme it's like they're real-life versions of the characters in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. But instead of convincing themselves the world outside is too dangerous to interact with, they've convinced themselves that it doesn't exist—that their world is the only world. That's what Sam Tanenhaus means when he says "we." In his America, there are no poor immigrants, only educated people—mostly white, but skin tone doesn't matter as long as your CV's got the right institutions listed on it.

Fortunately, I'm not alone in rejecting Franzen's anointment. B.R. Myers, a writer whose thoughts on literature I have admired in the past, tore him a new one in the new issue of The Atlantic. And now Jessa Crispin, editor of Bookslut (a site I admit I have never visited), has decided she will not be reading Freedom.
The idea that as a literary person there are a certain set of books you must read because they are important parts of the literary conversation is constantly implied, yet quite ridiculous. Once you get done with the Musts — the Franzens, Mitchells, Vollmanns, Roths, Shteyngarts — and then get through the Booker long list, and the same half-dozen memoirs everyone else is reading this year (crack addiction and face blindness seem incredibly important this year), you have time for maybe two quirky choices, if you are a hardcore reader. Or a critic. And then congratulations, you have had the same conversations as everyone else in the literary world.

There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book. I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored.
I'm passing on Freedom because I read The Corrections. Once bitten, twice shy. I take the same approach to the works of many of the other Big Writers.

Philip Roth: read The Human Stain, liked it; read American Pastoral, didn't like it as much; no desire to read anything else.

William Vollmann: read Rainbow Stories, liked it a lot; read Butterfly Stories, liked it a lot; read Whores for Gloria, thought it was okay; read Rising Up and Rising Down (the short version), found it intermittently interesting; read 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs, didn't like it; read The Atlas, liked maybe half of it; made it about ten pages into Europe Central before donating it to a local library; no desire to read anything more by the guy.

Ian McEwan: read The Cement Garden, enjoyed it; tried to get through Saturday, gave up halfway through.

The fiction I have enjoyed this year has mostly been grubby genre stuff: Walter Jon Williams' This is Not a Game; Jeffery Deaver's Roadside Crosses; the Stieg Larsson novels; Charles Stross's Accelerando, Iron Sunrise, Singularity Sky and Glasshouse; Scott Sigler's Infected, Contagious and Ancestor; Justin Cronin's The Passage (if you don't expect much more than a ripoff of Salem's Lot and The Stand, it's pretty good); Stephen King's Under the Dome; and most recently, Harry Connolly's Child of Fire. If you want to go ahead and tick your way down the approved reading list, the Chronicles of Morose Upper-Class White People, you go right ahead. I'll be in the corner, reading pulp fiction and enjoying myself thoroughly.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


(Above: What might be one of the last photos of Noah Howard, taken in August of this year.) 

Saxophonist Noah Howard died on September 3. There's a great tribute post, with lots of rare music, at Destination: Out. I interviewed him back in 2006, for The Wire, and found him to be one of the nicest guys I'd ever spoken with, right up there with Charlie Haden. The story can be found in my book Sound Levels. Right now, though, The Wire has posted the complete transcript of our conversation at this link. Here's a little bit:
How did you get started when you came to NYC?
I always want to pay tribute to Sun Ra, because when I came to this town I was a really young kid, and I didn't have enough experience, and even if I had, I couldn't get into Basie's orchestra in the reed section, I couldn't get into Ellington's orchestra, and Sun Ra had the only orchestra. So we all played in the Sun Ra Arkestra. And I loved it - he taught me a lot of things. One minute we would be playing a Fats Waller thing from 1926 and then he'd go flip-flop, and we'd be into space. He trained and helped a lot of guys. Marion Brown played in that band, even Pharoah [Sanders] played in that band from time to time. And [John] Gilmore was a master saxophone player, a monster. Me and Marshall Allen, we're still friends. The last time I met Marshall, I was going to Boston to do a gig and he was going to Amherst for a gig. We spent the whole hour on the train talking. Cause we all come out of that era, and we love each other. We're survivors, cause most of our friends have gone to musicville - the upper room.

So how did you get signed to ESP?
Me and Albert Ayler were very good friends. Very, very good friends. And Albert was the star at ESP at that time. Everybody was working on the Lower East Side - we were all working at Slugs, on Third between C and D or something like that. That was the Birdland of the new music at that time. And Albert knew what I was doing, he heard me. I was working my way up from the bottom. They wouldn't give me a week, they would only let me play on Sunday afternoons, and then both Sunday and Mondays, and gradually moving up the ranks like that. The other guys were a little bit older than me, like Pharoah and all those guys, so they got the big slots. So what transpired was, Albert was like the Sonny Rollins of this new label that was putting everybody out. So he said, 'Listen, call this guy and go see him.' Bernard [Stollman] was living on Riverside Drive in the upper 90s. Albert told me to send him a tape, so we recorded some stuff from a rehearsal, he put it on and sat there and listened and after about sixty seconds, he said 'So when do you want to record?' I said, 'Excuse me?' This was on a Saturday, and he said, 'Is Monday okay? Are you available Monday at 10 AM to go in the studio?' So I said yes, and went out shaking. This guy had just offered me a recording contract! We had been rehearsing, the band was together, but it just hit me in the face because I didn't know it was coming down.

And here's the link again. Go check it out. Howard was a smart, funny dude, and his music is well worth your attention. His two ESP-Disk albums, Noah Howard Quartet and At Judson Hall, are available as digital downloads, The Black Ark is in print on CD from the Bo'Weavil label, and some other stuff is out there here and there. Dig in.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I know a few Canadians, and whenever the subject of a Canadian celebrity or Canadian cultural product comes up, the Canadian person will almost always say that the famous Canadian in question is "quite well-known and loved in Canada" or some similar description.

This makes me wonder: Who do Canadians hate? Among their own people, I mean. I know they all hated our last President, for example. But I've never heard of a Canadian celebrity who's famous and loathed, the way, say, Paris Hilton is here in America. There must be some of these people; I know Canadians are a genial and open-hearted people, but even they've got to have someone they really wish wasn't part of their culture.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Well, not really. I'm busy as hell. But in terms of content worthy of a blog post, it's a slow day. So here's Prince.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


[The other week, I interviewed Sonny Rollins for MSN Music. The abridged version ran here; this is the full transcript of our conversation. Some questions are now moot 'cause the 80th birthday concert has already happened; see my last post for details. But anyway, here 'tis.]

You were considering going into the studio back in December, right? Did that happen?
I do intend to go back in the studio next year. So if I had claimed that earlier, I didn’t get in the studio this year, but I do plan to get in there next year, depending on my schedule.

Some jazz musicians are well known for their compositions, but you’re more recognized for your abilities as a soloist. Do you ever wish you’d devoted yourself more to composition?
Well, writing tunes, composer, those can be qualified, I guess. I spend some time when I’m composing. If I have to compose, I have to spend time at it and I usually do this if I’m composing for a project of some kind. I’m an extemporaneous improviser, that’s what I do, so I compose things as vehicles to get to that part of my output, you know, they’re vehicles for me to get to my extemporizing. But some people – I haven’t done any Stravinsky-like works. I was involved in a tenor saxophone concerto but that’s about it. What do you want me to say? That I’m a great composer, that I’m not a great composer?

Well, I'm just curious, what’s your process?
Well, my process is generally if I’m walking through the airport and I have an idea I always have a piece of paper and I jot it down. If I’m at home going to sleep, I always jot it down. If I’m in the car and I get some idea that I think would work out to be a composition I pull the car over and write it down. Then I also go to the piano sometimes and work out things. But that’s something that unless I’m composing for a project I don’t really do. And then a lot of things come to me while I’m practicing, while I’m playing by myself, some idea might strike me that I think might work as a tune.

A lot of what are known as jazz standards were originally songs from Broadway shows or from movie musicals. Where are new standards coming from?
Well, a standard I think really implies Broadway shows or movies or something like that. So if you mean songs that everybody will start playing, well, I always have the hopes that some of the things that I’m composing might turn out to be played by a lot of other people, but the thing is that these days with the business of music being what it is, most people will compose a line for themselves and therefore they’ll be able to get the copyright, the publishing money, et cetera, et cetera. So that whereas years ago, musicians were apt to record standards and well known songs they did it probably because of the fact that the business of music set it so we didn’t own our own material. A lot of jazz musicians now will write something that they own. They probably won’t become standards, but they fit the needs of the particular player.

You never moved fully into fusion the way groups like Weather Report or Return to Forever did in the 1970s. Did that sound not interest you?
Return to Forever? Well, that’s not my métier, you know. Those were all great groups, great musicians and everything like that, but I’m Sonny Rollins. I’m not the sort to follow the bus. I have my own idea, my own things that I feel are best expressed through my particular talent. So I keep current but in another sense I’m not a copier, if you know what I mean. But I certainly appreciate all of the things Return to Forever and all those guys were playing, the musicianship and everything, but it’s got to fit me also. I have something unique, or so they tell me, so that I have to kind of work on developing that and have the confidence to feel that that’s of equal stature or at least in the same ballpark with Return to Forever or whoever else is coming out tomorrow.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re a yoga practitioner, and are you also a vegetarian?
I eat fish. I’m not a complete vegetarian. I do eat fish and yogurt, and other than that, vegetables. So no, I’m not a complete vegetarian. I do eat fish, I’m careful which fish I eat and everything like that, and I do eat yogurt. But do I eat red meat? No. And I don’t eat chicken. That’s about as close as I’m gonna get to being a vegetarian.

And how does your diet or exercise impact the physical aspects of music-making?
You mean through my diet? Well, you know, not particularly. I think what I was doing at that time was trying to perfect myself as a human being. I was trying to sort of get myself able to survive and to thrive in this world we live in. It wasn’t so much about the effect it would have on my playing, and I don’t really know what effect it did have except that it made me a more confident human being. So I’m sure that impacted my music. But I can’t draw a line and say, I stopped eating meat and that’s when I started playing better. I couldn’t say that. But by stopping eating meat and other detrimental habits I was engaged in, by discarding all of those habits I became a more aware, conscious person, and I’m sure that had an effect on me and of course on my music.

You’ve got some special guests coming to your 80th birthday concert – have you rehearsed with them, or does everyone just sort of know what song is going to be played and is prepared?
We haven’t rehearsed yet but we’ve talked. We’re going to start rehearsals, some extensive rehearsals, soon.

Do you listen to young players? How do you find people when you’re recruiting bandmembers?
Well, I have friends of mine in the business who send me records or CDs I guess of people who they think I should hear and that they’re excited about. So I sort of try to keep up through my friends in the business, because I myself don’t go out. I live some distance from the city and I’m somewhat of a recluse, I could say, so I’m not around to hear anybody in person. But I do listen to people when I’m playing festivals, sometimes I have an opportunity to hear other groups, and then I keep up by guys sending me records – ‘You should hear this guy, Sonny,’ blah blah blah, like that.

Are there particular performances that linger in your memory, or does a show disappear as soon as you play it?
Well, unfortunately, shows disappear the next day after I play them. But I do record my performances, so if there’s something that happens that’s of exceptional quality I can refer to it later. As a rule, it’s very difficult to really – and I don’t listen to my records, I don’t listen to the mix of what I played that night. I don’t do it. So I would say that unless it was something exceptional that I played and the night itself was exceptional, I probably forget about it in a day or two.

Have you ever retired a song because you’ve decided after hundreds of versions, I’ve said everything I can say with this melody?
Yes, that has happened, but strangely enough, after I’ve retired a song for the reasons you suggested, that I’ve played it so much it plays itself, it comes back to me some years later and then I want to play it again. There’s certain songs that’s happened to that I used to play and then I’d gotten everything I could get out of them and I’d stop playing them for a year, two years, three years, four years, whatever. And then somehow they’ll come back to me and I’ll feel like, wow, I can do something with this song, it has such a strong affinity with who I am that I think I want to try it again, I have some more to say on it.

A lot of the records that people associate with you most strongly are of you playing with no piano. Is the enforced chord structure of the piano something you rebel against?
Well, the piano is an instrument which has 88 keys on it as you know, and it is a very dominant instrument. In other words, if you play in a piano trio, piano and a bass player and a drummer, the piano fills up the whole landscape. As well it should in that configuration. But as a performing artist and as a person who composes in my own mind while I’m playing, I’m creating my own landscapes, and the piano can be too dominating. I’ve played with some great piano players in my life, fortunately, but I’ve gravitated to the pianoless format because it gave me more of a chance to think and to create my own images of what I want to create. And it’s hard to do that with a piano. I remember when I had a piano player with me – a very fine piano player, by the way – I’d go into the club that night, if it was a club I was playing or a concert or whatever – and the piano player would be playing, you know warming up, and these chords would be so dominant they would crowd out of my mind anything that I might be thinking. So I realized that for the type of work that I do, it’s better for me to have – if I want a chordal instrument or a harmonic instrument, I get a guitar, because a guitar has the chords and harmonics but it’s not constantly playing. It’s not always there. I want the freedom, I want the space, I want to create my own images, and I can’t do that with a piano.

What kind of drummers are you generally attracted to playing with? Cause when I saw you in 1997 you had Al Foster behind you, a really heavy hitter…
When you say heavy hitter, you mean it in what sense?

He hits very hard and swings very hard, and there are other players who have a more subtle, dancing rhythm…
Like Roy Haynes, you mean.

Exactly. Or like Tony Williams was.
Right, Tony Williams. Who I played with. So which do I prefer? Well, it depends. Sometimes I prefer one approach, sometimes I prefer another. It depends on the talent of the particular drummer. If I have a drummer playing with me who has the hard approach like Al Foster, he might bring enough to the table that I can accept everything else because what he brings is strong enough that it makes up for the fact that he’s not as subtle as somebody else might be. So it depends on the individual. Roy Haynes was an example of a subtle drummer. Tony might also be described as a heavy hitter, he might not have swung the way that Al Foster did. He played a lot of drums, with a lot of volume going on. I don’t know if you agree with that or not.

Well, when he was playing with Miles there was a lot of light touch going on. They would really pull the rhythm apart.
Yeah, back then you had Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and they were playing more, accompanying Miles. But once he left Miles, I wouldn’t put him in the category of a light-hitting drummer. But it depends on the musician. There’s so much to music that I never want to inhibit a person from playing the way they play. And so I’m very careful. When a person has great musical sensibilities, great time feeling, then I’m inclined to give them a head, so to speak, and that would be playing less time than I would play with a lighter touch. I’m very open, I don’t have any strict dictums that I say people must do this or that. I believe in the freedom of jazz. I think jazz is suck a beautiful force because it is free and it lets people express themselves. As long as we are on basically the same page, which you have to be otherwise it’s cacophony and not harmony. As long as people have that sensibility, then I like things to be not planned out. Miles was like that too. Miles never wanted to talk to anybody and tell them what to play, and I’m like that. I hate to talk to musicians. If they’re capable of playing with me then they should know what to do. And Miles was like that, too. Yes, you have to at times, but generally, no. I don’t want to talk and have to explain well, this is what you should do and this is what happens here and this happens there. I think I shouldn’t have to do that, so I believe in that jazz is free expression. It’s the only music that gives the performer that much freedom, and that’s sort of the aspect of it that I love.

Is there still an element of surprise? Can a musician you’re playing with still catch you off balance?
Well, throw me off balance, I don’t like the term much. But sure, I’m open to anything a guy plays. I don’t prescribe what my accompanists should play at all, so yeah, I hear lots of things that make me say, wow, great. And I surprise myself. I’ve played and heard things come out of me that – of course, the way I improvise is I don’t think. The thinking goes to the subconscious. I just learn the basic materials, harmony, melody and all these things, then I forget it so that the subjective can really come to the fore. That’s what I feel is real jazz improvisation. I’m not looking to just play the same licks as before over and over again. I think that’s not really improvisation. So I surprise myself at times because as I said I’m not thinking. As a matter of fact, you might have read this before because I’ve said it a couple of times, but I used to pick out little clever riffs, I’d hear it somewhere and think, wow, that would go well with this particular song in our repertoire, I’ll bring this into the gig tonight and I’ll fit it in there and everybody will think Sonny Rollins is really clever. But I can’t do it. I can’t do it, because the music is going so fast that by the time I’m trying to think of a way to put this clever little riff in, it’s too late, it’s gone by already. The moment that it would fit. So you see it’s impossible to think and play at the same time when you’re doing real improvisation. And I’ve tried it, but now I think the heck with it. I’ll try to get to a state where your subconscious is working. That’s real improvisation. Then something’s happening that hasn’t been played out already. And that’s what I do, that’s what I try to do, that’s what I’ve been working towards all my life and I’m still working towards it, you know.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


So the Sonny Rollins 80th birthday show at the Beacon Theatre in NYC last night? Pretty fucking amazing. His regular band (guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins and percussionist Sammy Figueroa) was strong enough, but they only played two numbers ("Patan Jali," "Global Warming") before the guests started showing up. First was trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who did "I Can't Get Started" on flugelhorn and a really hard-swinging "Rain Check" (including a long passage of trading fours with Rollins, while Watkins set off one bomb after another) on trumpet. Then came Jim Hall, who looked about a thousand and five and was dressed like he'd come straight from the early bird special at Denny's, but who kicked a shocking amount of ass on "In A Sentimental Mood" and "If Ever I Would Leave You." Then the original band was replaced by a rhythm section of Christian McBride and (an unannounced) Roy Haynes. They played "In My Solitude," and Haynes took a solo that was like controlled demolition. Then they launched into a hard-swinging version of "Sonnymoon For Two," at which point Rollins announced one more guest was backstage. They vamped for a minute or two, building suspense, and then out walked...

Ornette Coleman.

The crowd went apeshit, and these two octogenarians, who'd never shared a stage before, absolutely tore it up, Rollins going further out than he has since Our Man In Jazz and Ornette squealing and bending the blues any way he felt like. It was awesome.

That was the end of the main set; the whole band (minus Ornette) came back for a closing version of "St. Thomas," but post-OC, it was a slight step downhill. Still, this was a once-in-a-lifetime show, and I'm kind of amazed I was there.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Kiss, with The Academy Is... and The Envy
Blossom Music Center, Sunday, September 12
Can you remember what a single song from Kiss' 2009 album Sonic Boom sounds like? Didn't think so. But don't worry about it — Kiss are keenly aware that they're a retro band and have been since they put the makeup back on in the mid-'90s. That's why something like 80 percent of their live show is made up of songs recorded before 1980. (That song you don't recognize that they're opening sets with? That's "Modern Day Delilah," Sonic Boom's single.) Kiss have always known what their fans want and they slap it down in front of them, in super-sized portions. It's the musical equivalent of a giant greasy bacon cheeseburger served by a waitress in platform boots and a thong bikini. Sure, they've slipped a few times — Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Music From the Elder, maybe the whole no-makeup era — but in a lot of ways they're the ultimate American rock & roll band. Bruce Springsteen might play for three hours, but does he breathe fire? No, he does not. Plus, he keeps breaking the mood with acoustic songs that bum everybody out. Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and their support staff know better than to pull that kind of bait-and-switch. A Kiss show is about explosions, lasers, fire, blood, and songs you can shout along with. And when you leave, you'll do so knowing you've been entertained.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Hank Shteamer, a writer I know, posted a list of 10 jazz releases he felt were making 2010 a particularly good year for the music, along with a bunch of honorable mentions. I agree with a bunch of his choices, but the year has in fact been so strong that I've got a list of 13 of my own, which doesn't overlap with his primary 10 at all. (A couple of his honorable mentions make my list, though.)

Here we go:

Carlos Bica, Carlos Bica + Matéria-Prima (Clean Feed)
Regina Carter, Reverse Thread (E1)
Decoy, Vol. 1: Spirit/Vol. 2: The Deep (Bo’Weavil)
Marc Edwards/Weasel Walter Group, Blood of the Earth (ugEXPLODE)
Amir ElSaffar/Hafez Modirzadeh, Radif Suite (Pi)
Fight the Big Bull, All is Gladness in the Kingdom (Clean Feed)
John Hébert Trio, Spiritual Lover (Clean Feed)
Dave Holland Octet, Pathways (Dare2)
Lawnmower, West (Clean Feed)
Earl MacDonald, Re:Visions – Works for Jazz Orchestra (Death Defying)
Dan Pratt Organ Quartet, Toe the Line (Posi-Tone)
David Weiss & Point of Departure, Snuck In (Sunnyside)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


Yeah, Atari Teenage Riot are back, for no reason anyone can explain to me. They've got a new member now, named CX Kidtronik (he's the black dude with the Mohawk), and he's about as threatening to the power structure as Turbo B from Snap!, whose delivery he's stealing. Which means he fits right into the whole ATR "gestural revolution" weltanschauung. Anyway, they're gonna put out a new album—the song they're performing in the clip above, "Activate," is the first single. If you want to download it, click. I have fond(ish) memories of ATR's singles, which are handily encapsulated on the 1992-2000 compilation. But are they in any way necessary in 2010? Are they anything but a pathetic joke on themselves? No.

Sunday, September 05, 2010


I wrote the cover story on Joe Morris that's in the new issue of Signal to Noise, and I'm really happy with it. (So's Joe, if my Facebook page is any indication.) I hope you'll check it out; StN's website is about as minimal as it's possible to be, but they do at least have a list of places that sell it (U.S. only).

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


New month, new batch of reviews for All Music Guide. Enjoy!

Apocalyptica, 7th Symphony
Boris/Ian Astbury, BXI
Christian Mistress, Agony and Opium
Drunken Bastards, Horns of the Wasted
La Otracina, Reality Has Got To Die
The Royal Arch Blaspheme, The Royal Arch Blaspheme
Klaus Schulze, La Vie Electronique, Vol. 3
Svanfriður, What's Hidden There?
Chris Washburne & The SYOTOS Band, Fields of Moons

I also wrote a review of Hawkwind's new album Blood of the Earth that didn't run:

Blood of the Earth
Hawkwind’s 2010 album serves mostly as a warning—that too much drug-taking will permanently destroy your aesthetic barometer, and your ability to recognize when it’s time to pack it in. None of the churning hard rock vigor of their early ’70s work (when the bass was being manhandled by one Ian Kilmister, who’d go on to form Motörhead) is present here; the drums on opener “Seahawks” are a loop, over which some chanting, bits of noisy metal guitar that are way too low in the mix, and heavy-handed synths are laid. Oh, and ocean sound effects. Can’t forget those. The title track is nothing but whooshing and humming synths; it sounds like a slice of a boring in-between passage from a particularly uninspired DJ set by The Orb circa 1993. Things do finally rev up to Space Ritual levels of intensity on “Wraith,” but while the band’s talent for writing garage-rock riffs and riding them to the edges of the universe hasn’t abated, modern production techniques make the music too slick. “Green Machine” is a journey to the land of synths, ’80s Tangerine Dream style; “Inner Visions” features more looped percussion and synth electric violin; while “Sweet Obsession” tries to rock and fails, as does the band’s re-recording of “You’d Better Believe It,” an anthem from the glory years. This isn’t a good album, but it will only disappoint people who thought Hawkwind still had something to offer post-1975.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I haven't made a big deal about it here, other than posting a link in the right-hand column, but I'm the editor of an intermittent journal of the arts called Burning Ambulance. We call it a "quarterly," but the first one came out in late February and #2 is out, well, now.

The idea's a pretty simple one: I gather a bunch of smart, funny, talented writers and talk them into long-form pieces about subjects that interest them. I write one or two myself. That's it. No consideration for what "everyone" is talking about this month; no worries about timeliness; nothing but love.

This issue features a cover story, by me, on alto saxophonist Darius Jones; a profile of the New Orleans metal band Eyehategod by "Grim" Kim Kelly (plus a half dozen poems by their vocalist, Mike IX Williams); an exploration of the music of Cris Aflalo and Heloisa Fernandes, two neotraditionalist composer/performers from Brazil whose work is much more interesting than a lot of what comes out of that country these days; a fantastic essay on Hollywood's attempts to come to grips with (and exploit) punk rock in the late '70s and early '80s by Phil Nugent, whose blog should be a daily stop for you and everyone you know; a beginner's guide to J-pop; and a tribute to Bill Dixon by musicians who worked with him, including William Parker, Alan Silva, Barry Guy, Rob Mazurek, Warren Smith, Joe McPhee and others. You get all that for just $10 (plus shipping), or $5 if you want a digital download instead of a handsome, perfect-bound hard copy. Interested? Click here.

Monday, August 30, 2010


So I saw this video at The Awl, posted as part of some absurd non-story about the writer's inability to understand his own attraction to violence; he writes, apparently in total seriousness, that "watching my five-year-old son shoot imaginary bullets out of a cardboard paper-towel tube or a wooden flute with flowers painted on it or, when there's nothing else available, his fingers, reminds me of when I did the same at the same age, and of the futility of my parents' refusal to buy me toy guns, and of my refusal to buy them for him." It's like nothing in the world ever happened until it happened to this dipshit. Anyway, here's the video. Thoughts to follow.

Yelawolf is a guy whose name I've been hearing for a few weeks now, always spoken/typed by a small clutch of folks whose self-appointed purpose in life is to know the month's buzzworthy rapper and insist that he (it's always he) is the most important thing to happen to "the game" since...I don't know. I don't give a shit. I'm not gonna listen to Gucci Mane, I'm not gonna listen to Lil B, it took me a year or so to download Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III (I think that was the one—it was a two-CD "mixtape") after everyone started blogging (and even writing articles in print publications, for money) that it was the greatest hip-hop event of the decade. I know these names because the websites I visit make these names unavoidable. I don't care, but I know, just like I know the names of all three Kardashian sisters.

Moving on. Yelawolf. He's not a particularly deft rapper, at least not based on this song. The chorus is unimpressive—when he chants "Don't make me go pop the trunk on you" it actually diminishes the momentum and suspense he's built up during the verse. Each verse rises to a crescendo, and then the chorus kind of staggers to a halt, forcing the song to basically start all over again. Imagine someone running up a ramp holding a bucket. You're thinking when he gets to the top of that ramp, he's gonna throw whatever's in that bucket and it's gonna fly everywhere. But when he gets to the top of the ramp, he swings the bucket and it's full of a thick, soggy substance—congealing oatmeal, say, or tapioca pudding—and instead of flying out it just kind of slops onto the ground.

What's interesting to me about Yelawolf is that like Eminem, he's got a lot of (maybe subconscious) Goth in him. Listen to the piano in this song. OK, it's not Goth per se, it's more like a Nine Inch Nails ballad—"Hurt" or "The Day The World Went Away" or any of a half dozen others. This song doesn't match up with its video; the visuals remind me of the opening credits to Justified, which featured a kind of hip-hop/bluegrass blend that was a) much more interesting than "Pop the Trunk" and b) worked perfectly with the images on screen.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


I went into Takers with my brain clenched. I was expecting it to be terrible. I considered the casting of T.I., Chris Brown, Paul Walker and even Idris Elba to be warning signs. I've seen former castmembers of The Wire popping up in hip-hop videos lately, and Elba's done some other movies aimed at urban blacks—he co-starred with Beyoncé in 2009's Obsessed, remember, and he did a Tyler Perry movie, Daddy's Little Girls, too. So I was expecting it to be a 90-minute version of one of those hip-hop videos that finds the rappers and their friends and hangers-on reshooting one of their favorite gangster movies—an imitation of an imitation.

Well, Takers is much better than that. It's not original—it's a genre picture, a heist movie. Genre movies have rules, and Takers only breaks one, and when that surprise comes, it's a solid choice on the filmmakers' part.

There are two basic heist-movie stories, the "one last job" story and the "job too big to pass up" story. Takers is the latter, with some twists thrown in. Elba plays the leader of a five-man, high-end heist team; they pull off a Heat-style bank robbery as the movie begins, getting away by hijacking a news helicopter. Then they're contacted by T.I., the sixth member of the crew, who went to prison following a 2004 job. He comes out early, and returns offering an even bigger job than the one we just saw them complete, albeit on a rush schedule. It's an armored car robbery, not unlike the one in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job, a fact that's explicitly acknowledged in dialogue. There's about 30 seconds of "it's too quick...can we trust him?" dialogue within the group, before they're all in. As you knew they would be, 'cause otherwise there's no movie.

Meanwhile, there's a parallel narrative about the obsessed detective, played by Matt Dillon, who's tracking whoever was behind the movie-opening bank job. That's all pretty much straight out of Heat, except Dillon doesn't shout as much as Al Pacino. (In fact, he delivers most of his dialogue in a sullen mutter.) And while that story's not as interesting as the criminals' preparations for their big job, it's handled better than many writers would have done. Dialogue between Dillon and his partner is expository but not clunky. There are some decent twists along the way, too.

What I like best about heist movies is the part where the team does the actual physical work of preparing—dressing up like city workers and crawling through the sewers to lay charges, jackhammering through the floor of the building next door to the one they're going to rob, tapping into the alarm system and stealing the passcodes, that stuff. Takers does that stuff well. Some of the things it doesn't do well, like showing us how all the members of the crew save one get away from the second-act climax, or doing more to establish the power of a love triangle (it doesn't help that two-thirds of the characters involved in said triangle are given almost no motivation...not just to be together, but to exist at all), are forgivable in my eyes because the important stuff is handled efficiently and without showiness. The filmmakers also keep the thing I was most worried about having to endure—music video-style passages where the thieves stand (or sit) around looking cool, drinking expensive liquor with anonymous and underdressed women draped over them—to a relative minimum. Oh, and in general the movie is very well shot and edited—it's digital, but since it takes place in 2010, that's not a mood-shattering distraction the way it was in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, set in the 1930s but seemingly filmed on a Flip video camera.

Ultimately, to me, the most interesting character in the entire movie is played by, of all people, Paul Walker. He's an underrated actor, because he doesn't ever seem to be working very hard, and he allows everyone else in a scene to out-shout him, when they're not physically throwing him around or otherwise making the viewer forget he's there at all. Put him next to a cartoon character like Vin Diesel in the first and fourth Fast & the Furious movies, and he comes off like a paperweight. Put him next to Jessica Alba and her absurdly undersized bikini, in Into the Blue, and his presence is once again an afterthought. Here, he plays Idris Elba's #2 man, and while T.I. and Chris Brown and Hayden Christensen (playing his latest in a long line of smirking d-bags, this time with the addition of a silly hat and paint-on tattoos) are making spectacles of themselves, he hangs in the background and is silently competent. To paraphrase Mark Wahlberg's character in The Departed, he's the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy. And sure enough, when the movie reaches its final confrontation, it's Walker who emerges unscathed and...well, I'll let you go see it for yourself.

Like I said, Takers is a heist movie. Heist movies, like all genre movies, have rules, and this one plays by them, until it doesn't. It also nods to its predecessors in various ways, big and small, obvious (and acknowledged) and not. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd compare it to Heat, but without the pretentiousness that makes stretches of that movie a slog. Heat wants to be grand opera; Takers wants to be exactly what it is—a good genre movie, worth your ticket and your time if you're a fan of the genre. Period.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Los Tucanes de Tijuana, 2006:

Los Tucanes de Tijuana, 2009:

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I was really nervous about talking to Weird Al. I wasn't sure whether he would respond well to my questions; most journalists seem to set him up to deliver one-liners, and I was much more interested in talking to him as an artist, getting an idea of his comedic philosophy and working methods. But he seemed to enjoy that, so I wound up with much, much more material than I could ever fit into an 800-word feature for the Cleveland Scene. I'll provide a link to that when it runs. But in the meantime, here's the full transcript of our conversation.

What do you make of the quote from Michael O’Donoghue, the Saturday Night Live writer who said “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy”?
[Laughs] Hm. Michael was an interesting guy. He was very antagonistic and he liked to get a rise out of people, and his satire was probably some of the darkest satire that existed at the time. I loved it. He was a guy that would jam needles into his eyes on Saturday Night Live and do an impression of somebody that had just jammed needles in their eyes. I don’t know if I can agree with that statement totally—I see why he said it and I understand the point he was trying to make, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making people laugh. I think there’s a need for that. I think escapism is a valid goal, something valuable to offer people. I know that my music has helped people out of some rough patches in their lives and there’s no shame in making people laugh. But I understand Michael’s point as well.

Your material is very family-friendly and rooted in pop culture and everyday life. Do you have a personal taste for darker satire or edgier comedy at all that doesn’t make it into your own work?
Well, I’m a fan of many different kinds of comedy. I’m a fan of a lot of different comedians whose work I love and admire but I wouldn’t be doing that kind of material myself. It’s just not the kind of comedy that I personally would feel comfortable putting out into the world. Especially because my fan base expects a certain thing from me now, and if I were to alter it tremendously I think a lot of people would be offended or disappointed, so my comedy doesn’t necessarily describe my entire musical or comedic tastes.

Was there ever a time when you considered moving to a dirtier or harder-edged act?
Not really. I mean, you know, my act always was and is an extension of who I am. So I’m not really holding anything back, let’s say. My act is exactly what I feel like putting out there. So it’s not like I feel restrained in any way, really.

Do you feel like comedians who do “zany” material get less respect from their peers than those who go the more abrasive route? Or have you always found yourself welcomed as a performer?
It’s an interesting question. There are artists that work clean, and I guess I would fall into that part of the Venn diagram, and sometimes they’re viewed as being softer or less biting or even by some people less funny. You know, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to work clean, I don’t have any problem with people that don’t want to work clean. It’s just my personal choice. I think that people that use profanity for a cheap laugh are kind of going the easy route and I always think it’s better to really earn the laugh instead of getting them through shock value, necessarily.

Some comedians have said there’s no subject they wouldn’t joke about, no matter how serious. I’m curious if you’ve ever rejected material for the opposite reason—that it’s too easy, too banal.
Yeah. Not that I haven’t made the obvious joke on occasion. Sometimes it’s inescapable. But whenever possible, I try not to go the obvious route, make the obvious joke, make the obvious choice. And it’s usually funnier to try and surprise people and come up with something that they weren’t expecting.

Yeah, one example of that approach that really leaps out for me was your use of "American Pie" for the Star Wars song "The Saga Begins." Can you tell me how that piece came together?
For that particular song, I knew that I wanted to write a song about the upcoming Star Wars prequel, and I was trying to think of what song would be the best vehicle to tell the story, and I was considering a lot of songs that were popular at the time but they all seemed just of the moment and very ephemeral, and Star Wars as a franchise just seemed a lot weightier than that. So I thought it would be great to maybe pair that with a real classic, iconic American rock song. And when I was going through my head some of those kind of songs, I happened to think about “American Pie,” which I had just heard recently at a club, and I thought of the first line of the song, “A long, long time ago,” which was kind of echoing the beginning of Star Wars. And I thought, well, that’s great, not only does it have the same kind of beginning, but it’s a long song, it really lends itself well to the kind of narrative structure that I’ll need to be able to tell this story. So it just seemed to work very well for me.

Your last full-length album was released in 2006; what’s the current plan for the next full-length? Will it be out by the end of this year?
I don’t know when. There’s a chance it could come out later this year, but it’s just as likely if not more so that it’ll be next year sometime.

Do you feel like the approach you took with the Internet Leaks EP, putting songs out one by one as inspiration strikes, then compiling a half dozen or so, was a good way to go?
Yeah, I don’t know if I’d do it again, I might, but it was a noble experiment. I wanted to try it out because the whole recording industry has sort of been falling apart in the last decade or so and everybody was just trying new things. And I just thought it would be kind of fun, for me particularly, to just put songs out one at a time because that focused attention on just that one song, instead of a song perhaps being lost in the context of an entire album. And also, the whole iTunes distribution system allowed me to be a lot more topical than I would have been conventionally. With my T.I. parody, “Whatever You Like,” I was able to go from concept in my head to having it for sale on iTunes within, I think, two weeks. It was an insanely short turnaround period. And I was able to get my parody out there in the marketplace the same week the original was still Number 1 on the Billboard charts. I don’t you’ve ever had that happen, either. So even though it may not have been as big a commercial success, Internet Leaks did get nominated for a Grammy, and I think it kind of kept fans satiated last year, because otherwise they wouldn’t have had any new product from me. So I think it accomplished everything I needed it to accomplish.

It does seem like that model would work for somebody with your career. Because now it’s three or four years between albums, industry standard, where in the '70s acts like Kiss and Ted Nugent would put out two albums a year sometimes…
In the '80s I was about one every year. That’s just kinda not the way it works anymore.

So it seems like the quick, “Here’s a new thing, click here to buy the song for 99 cents” model would seem to be ideal for you.
Yeah, it seems like it would be a great model for me to pursue, so I’m trying to learn from my experience last year and hopefully build on that.

How much time do you spend writing? Are you constantly working on material?
I’m not always writing. I kind of turn my brain off for long stretches of time. I’m always kinda open to inspiration, like if I get a song idea that can come at any point, and I’ll write that down in the notebook. But once I’m actively writing a song I focus pretty intensely on that until it’s done. I’ll spend a week or two just coming up with ideas for a particular song. It’s something that I really spend a lot of time on, because I do comedy music and I have a lot of fun with it but it’s sort of serious business for me, because I know that I have to live with these songs for the rest of my life and I want to make sure they’re as good as they can be.

So do you generally have a concept and then match it to a song, let’s say, if you’re gonna do a parody, or to a musical style—is it lyrics first and music later, or vice versa, or something else?
Are you talking about the parodies or the original songs?

The song parodies and the style parodies as well—are those typically concept first, and then figure out in what style you’re going to perform it?
A lot of the time with the style parodies it’s sort of mix and match, because I’ll have a list of styles that I think will be fun to try to tackle and also a list of subject matter that I think would be fun to try to do my take on. And often times I’ll look at the two lists and draw imaginary lines between things and see if anything kind of amuses me. Like on Internet Leaks, I’d always wanted to do a Doors pastiche, and I just saw the word “Craigslist” next to the Doors and I thought that was funny because it just seemed so anachronistic and just so totally wrong that I thought it would be kinda funny.

That one really struck me, when I saw it on YouTube. I was astonished by your resemblance to Jim Morrison, for one thing.
I had to channel the very soul of the Lizard King. It was very difficult.

How much of the music are you responsible for? Does your approach—not just the song parodies but the style parodies—demand that you become expert on multiple instruments, or do you just learn how to do what you need to do?
I have the absolute minimum amount of skill required to be Weird Al. I do write all the original songs. I don’t play the guitar, I play only keyboard instruments, but I’m able to make demos for the band which are sufficient to give them an idea what the songs should be like. Often times I’ll also give them copies of other songs that are meant to sound like my songs, so they can more get the feel for it, especially if it’s a guitar-dominated kind of song. But I give them enough direction and allow them to have whatever kind of musical input they’re willing to give and together, mostly by working with people much more talented than myself, I’m able to get my material together.

Your studio albums frequently have a large number of musicians on them to work out the arrangements—horns, strings, stuff like that. Do you use tapes live, or do you re-arrange things in a more stripped-down, live-band way?
We do all of the above. Sometimes we’ll strip it down, sometimes my keyboard player will play the horn parts, and sometimes if it’s a really complex song the horns will be part of the video track, if we have video playing behind us onstage. We try to make it a full production, and that sometimes will involve pre-recorded tracks, but if we can pull it off at all, we try to do everything live.

How do you decide to drop something from the live set—is it when the cultural relevance of the original dips beyond a certain point? And does the Internet, on which everything lives forever, make that a more difficult call?
Well, it’s largely personal taste, whatever gets dropped from the set list. There’s a half dozen or so songs that I think I’m going to be required to play for the rest of my life, because they’re my biggest hits and fans would be, I think, fairly disappointed if we stopped playing those songs. Other than that, I try to mix up the set list as much as I can from tour to tour. But of course, part of that decision revolves around whether or not I think a song is getting dated. We’d been playing “It’s All About the Pentiums” on every tour since that song came out, and I finally decided to give it a rest on this tour because, among other reasons, it had references to Y2K and computer systems which ten years ago would have been pretty happening and now they’re pretty pedestrian. So without changing the lyrics, I thought it’d be easier to give that song a rest for a while. What was the second half of your question?

Does the fact that everything lives forever on the Internet make it a tougher call? Like, maybe people are still laughing about stuff you think is dated?
Yeah, and there’s the whole nostalgia factor as well. I mean, people like a lot of songs that I did early in my career that conjure up great memories for them and bring them back to their childhood, but the songs themselves maybe even aren’t all that good or they’re dated in terms of their pop culture references or for any number of other reasons just wouldn’t be appropriate to continue to play live. But people can continue to enjoy them on their CD collection or online and I’m not taking it away from them.

Does pop-cultural atomization represent a challenge for you? It doesn’t seem like there are many truly broad-based popular musicians anymore.
Well, yeah, that’s been a pet peeve of mine for a while. I often talk in interviews about how when I was starting out, the mainstream hits were pretty well delineated. You knew who the superstars were, you knew what the big hits of the day were, and now with all the genres and subgenres and compartmentalization of our culture, it’s kinda hard to figure out what the mainstream hits are. Certainly there are still major stars, there are still hit songs, but I don’t think they’re as easy to recognize as they were fifteen or twenty years ago.

And the stuff that is hitting is Autotune R&B, which doesn't seem like it would be particularly fertile ground...
Yeah, I mean...yeah. I’d have to say it’s become a challenge.

Obviously at this point you’re a known quantity and people are coming to your shows to see you—you’re not springing yourself on people the way you were in the beginning. But back then, how did you deal with hecklers and stuff like that?
Well, I had the advantage because I have a musical act, and I didn’t have a whole lot of patter between songs, so if you could yell loud enough to be heard over the electric guitar, more power to you.

Your music is filled with pop-culture jokes, so what do you think of the current wave of comedy movies that are just a string of pop culture references, with almost no jokes attached to them?
You’re just hitting the nail on the head. That’s another one of my absolute pet peeves, is all these so-called parody movies which are not really parody movies so much as reference movies. If you want to look at how to do a parody movie, go to Airplane!, go to Naked Gun, go to Top Secret!. The Z-A-Z [Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker] team knew how to do it right. Even they seemed to have lost their way a bit in later years, but they gave us the template for how to do those kind of movies correctly. And what that devolved into over the years was a string of movies that are just filled with pop culture references that don’t really do much other than point out various pop culture things. I never really understood the appeal of those kind of movies, but apparently they make enough money so that they continue getting made.

You have a screenplay of your own in the works, yes?
I got to my fourth draft of a screenplay. I was doing it for Cartoon Network, they had commissioned me to do a screenplay and a couple of months ago they had a major policy change where they decided they’re no longer in the business of making live action feature films. So my screenplay along with a half dozen or so other projects went into turnaround. I got the screenplay back and hopefully I’ll get it produced elsewhere, but right now it’s sort of in limbo.