Friday, May 30, 2008

The Magic of Tetine!

The first couple music posts on this site (Sardina, Uncle Tupelo) have been old school. So to drag you into the weekend, here's a dose of Brazilian/UK art rock from Tetine. The group is comprised of Bruno Verner and Eliete Mejorado, and along with the records that they've released on a smattering of indie labels, they've also had a prolific run putting together performance art and video in Brazil and in Europe.

They first came to my attention last year, when their sleazy baile funk send-up "L.I.C.K. My Favela" was making the rounds of various clubs -- along with the equally sordid electroclashy "Ai Amor Mi So Horny," which is playing at their MySpace page.

Now they've got a new record, Let Your Xs Be Ys, on Soul Jazz Records. As a whole, the album is smidgen moodier than their previous work, and the first single and video from the record, "Entertainment N 249" is already one of my favorite records of the year. The second single, "I Go to the Doctor," is also out, with a remix by fellow Brazilians Cansei de Ser Sexy.

Their web site is also chock full of stuff, including some of their artier performance videos. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

John Bolton's Great Escape at Hay

The Guardian has a photo gallery here. Picture #5 is the obvious highlight. And all that mud. Looks more like Glastonbury than Hay.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Hay (Festival) Fever

First it's Hanif Kureishi, slagging off creative writing courses as the "new mental hospitals." Then it's Guardian writer George Monbiot attempting a "citizen's arrest" of former U.S. State Department official and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton as he appeared at the literary festival to hype his new book, Surrender Is Not an Option. (Monbiot's "charging brief" against Bolton is here.)

The Guardian reported that Monbiot's attempt did not succeed. But it's very very likely that such attempts to arrest or indict high-ranking members of the Bush administration as they travel overseas will continue as the current administration winds down and is replaced in January 2009 -- and for a foreseeable time well into the next decade. (And, needless to say, such attempts will only intensify if the last week of the Bush Administration turns into a "pardon fest" of sorts.)

No less a personage than former President Jimmy Carter -- also at Hay, but not threatened with arrest by British columnists -- remarked upon it during his appearance this week at the literary festival. According to the official Hay Festival site, Carter made the remark in an interview (video here):

When pressed by Philippe Sands...on Bush's recent admission that he had authorized interrogation procedures widely seen as amounting to torture, Carter replied that he was sure Bush would be able to live "a peaceful, productive life - in our country" after he leaves the White House. Sands later said that he had "understood that to be 'clear confirmation' that, while Bush would face no challenge in his own country, 'what happened outside the country was another matter entirely.'"

Interestingly enough, it's not just the threat of arrest that may loom over those U.S. officials who are deemed by other international actors to have potentially authorized torture. Carter's own recent visit to Israel -- which included a trip to speak with leaders of Hamas -- may have set a different precedent. At that time, Israel's security agency, Shin Bet, refused to provide security assistance to the Secret Service to protect the former president during his trip.

Thus, the threat of arrest may not be the only factor constraining the travel of U.S. officals caught up in international wrangling over whether or not this country authorized torture. Other countries may simply refuse to extend the use of their security services to assist the Secret Service on such ex-presidential travels abroad. (Or vice-presidential travel, since Dick Cheney will also receive Secret Service protection for a time after he leaves office.)

And as for Mr. Bolton, well, his number one nemesis in the DC political analysis and blogging game, Steve Clemons at The Washington Note, has yet to weigh in on the Monbiot escapade. If he does, I'll definitely share it with you.

Jeff Sharlet's The Family

Reviewed here by yours truly in the latest BookForum. And as you'll read in the review itself, I'm not entirely convinced that soul-searching is the answer to this sort of stealth political fundamentalism.

See also Scott McLemee's take on François Cusset's French Theory:

The guiding question in Cusset’s book is, How did it come to pass that a group of French intellectuals who were seldom closely affiliated, pursued radically incompatible lines of thought, and were often quite passé at home turned by the mid-1980s into hotly coveted exports for the American intellectual market? Indeed, these thinkers were transformed into something like the various models of a single brand—repackaged, cross-promoted, and vended with the steep discounts made possible through economies of scale.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Don't Get Me Started: Creative Writing Classes

The creative writing world's collective hair has been set on fire by
Hanif Kureishi's observations on the life and education of the
contemporary writer
at the Hay Festival this year. In particular, his
notion that creative writing classes are "the new mental hospitals."

Clearly, Kureishi didn't mean mental hospitals in the Foulcauldian
sense. At least for his own students at Kingston University in London.
They're all "very nice" people -- residents of the bucolic loony bins
of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me With Science"video.

But Kureishi's also on to something about the function of writing
classes: from the heightened expectations of students (the notion that
writing classes are going to help you "solve" your life's unresolved
conflicts or "express" one's su/repressed emotions, or even become a
famous writer) to the high stakes involved in delving into such territory
in a classroom setting, graded or ungraded:

"One of the things you notice is that when you switch on the
television and a student has gone mad with a machine gun on a campus
in America, it's always a writing student," Kureishi told the audience.

That's a whopping exaggeration, of course. (Workshops don't kill.
People kill.) But in my own long experience (including obtaining
that "terminal degree" known as the MFA in writing), I've found
that the best writing classes are run like dance classes. There's an
emphasis on craft: exercises, repetition, execution. You acquire
tools and the confidence to face the blank page. Tricks to jump
start yourself. A formal vocabulary to articulate what it is that
you're up to. And you read read read read... a lot of different things...
but with an attention to the mechanics. How the poem or story or
play is put together.

There's absolutely a mentoring aspect to learning how to write. Ad hoc
groups also can be incredibly helpful at certain parts of the process. But
both of those things are *chosen* relationships. You can't hold a gun
to an established poet's head and demand that he/she be your mentor.
You like (and find helpful) the fiction writing group that you join,
or you stop going to it.

In my view, the entire academic infrastructure that's been built
up around creative writing (and there are similarities to journalism
here) has not really advanced the field much at all -- beyond merely
professionalizing it within academia. Workshops, in particular, are
among the worst venues in creative writing pedagogy. At best they
are a mild help to a writer's work -- and usually that help comes
from one or two participants. At worst, they can be vicious exhibitions
of the worst sort of pack mentality.

If Kureishi's remarks spur a look in the mirror in writing programs, they
might be useful. But I doubt that they will. Thus, they will be doomed
to be yet more snarky, bilious words uttered at Hay. Which makes them
nothing special at all.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sing for Your Visa....

In a post over at The Washington Note, Scott Paul tackles some of the visa blowback that's happening for U.S. citizens who want to travel overseas in the wake of post 9/11 visa hysteria. And just why are other countries hiking fees for visas and ramping up the information required for U. S. citizens to obtain visas? Oh, perhaps little indignities such as this, which happened to Soviet pop duo t.A.T.u:

In 2003, a consular officer in Moscow told me that when the Russian duo t.A.T.u. applied for a visa, they were asked to sing for the staff to verify their identities.

Did they sing this song? Or maybe this one's more appropriate...

BvB Reading List: 5/26

  • My new New York Review of Books arrived on Friday. Gotta say that even in the age of the web, the print version remains a great pleasure. Highlight? Michael Tomasky takes on three books about John McCain in this article. Zinger? Tomasky's acidic observation on the media's love affair with McCain: "The image of the straight-talking maverick who bled in a cell while Baby Boomers indulged themselves is just too hard-wired into their systems."
  • The McCain book that Tomasky liked best is Reason editor Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. (Buy here.) Also up at Reason's Hit and Run blog are highly diverting accounts and analysis of the Libertarian Party convention, which nominated Bob Barr to be its candidate yesterday. Candidate Barr is going to play a big role in the fall, I think. He may get to the threshold of support needed to be invited to the debates. And that would mean fireworks.
  • As I'm revving up to write the next play, a one-act on politics, I've been reading a lot of Ödön von Horváth, who was, after Bertolt Brecht, the most important German playwright of the 20th Century. His work is sharp and subtle, and if I can capture some of that in a play about the Democratic primary, I'll be really happy. Not much of him available readily in translation: for starters, I'd try this collection of four of his best plays, including Tales from the Vienna Woods, Italian Night, Faith, Love and Hope, and Kasimir and Karoline.

Top Five Videos Ever...

Maybe I'll get to 1 through 4. but this is in the top five:
Digable Planets: (9th Wonder) Blackitolism

Sunday, May 25, 2008

So Sad.....About Leeds

The battle back from a 15 point deduction fell short. Leeds United gets another year in the third tier of English soccer. Tears will be shed tonight.

NP: Luke Haines, "Leeds United" (Contextual article with lyrics here. Available from emusic. Play it loud.)

Image free wallpaper downloaded from the Leeds United site. Damn right they are the "greatest fans the world has ever seen." As Luke sings: "We were beaten I was gutted I was sick as a parrot."

Bubblicious Beat Reporting on the Campaign Trail

It was late Friday afternoon when a friend of mine caught me on the Google chat. He sent me a link to the New York Post's reporting of the Hillary Clinton RFK assassination remark in an editorial board meeting of the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Wow. A third rail comment of the first degree. So I went diving through the web to find other corroborating accounts of it. Came up very empty. The Argus Leader didn't even have the story.

Now, courtesy of Matt Phillips, writing for the Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire" blog, we know why the traveling press (though not the paper itself, which did a lame next-day story about it) missed one of the bigger gaffes in a turbulent campaign:

Clinton was scheduled to sit down with the editorial board at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader ahead of a campaign event at a Brandon, S.D., grocery store. The Clinton camp’s press people advised reporters that the editorial board meeting would be streamed online where reporters would be able to watch, take notes and report on anything worthwhile.

The press corps was sent ahead to the grocery story, Sunshine Foods, where they ensconced themselves in a reserved café area, picked at pasta salad from the spread, pecked away at their keyboards and tried to watch the Clinton meeting online.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens out on the trail, the local technology infrastructure didn’t seem quite ready for an influx of heavily wired journalists. Some reporters found the streamed broadcast of the editorial meeting excruciatingly slow, rendering it unwatchable. It didn’t seem that there would be any huge news out of a routine sitdown with the editors of a small-town daily, besides her batting away earlier reports that day that she was seeking to reach a deal with Obama’s campaign as way to exit the nomination race. She did, in fact, tell the editorial board that those reports were “flatly untrue… flatly, completely untrue.”

It was only after editors started wildly texting the beat reporters, wondering why the Post report was all over Drudge, that anyone covering Clinton on the ground in S.D. got around to it.

Addendum (3:31 pm): At the New York Times, Kit Seelye also weighs in from the front lines. Her account tracks largely with the WSJ's, but takes a bit more of a tack that Clinton was quoted out of context -- at least by the New York Post's initial account. But even she ends up with a note that "the day obliterated the arguments she had made in an earlier part of her interview with the editorial board — that she was 'more progressive' than Mr. Obama and would be a stronger candidate in the fall."

Name Change (Already)

There's already a Byrne Blog. Thomas Byrne, Fianna Fail politician in the land of me ancestors.

Name change effective immediately.

Russia/Serbia LoveFest Continues (in Eurovision)

So Russia's won the annual Eurovision song contest, held this year in Belgrade! Another blow has been struck in the battle over who will form a Serbian government! Or has it?

One could argue that having the contest in Belgrade was a victory for pro-European forces in Serbia. The contest -- though its songs are largely abysmal -- is one of those bits of glue (or cheese, or gooey sticky melted cheese) that holds Europe together. People say they don't watch it or pay attention but they do. And after some agitation to yank the contest from Belgrade after the riots over Kosovo independence, guarantees were offered and the City of Belgrade was made 100% safe for pop.

But who could have seen a Russian victory coming? The song ("Believe") by Dima Bilan was pretty terrible. (Despite the assist it got from US mega-producers Beanz and Timbaland.) And all of Europe, not just Serbia, votes on the winner. But it's hard to see the Russian victory being anything but a propaganda coup for isolationist forces. Right?

Yes, I'm kidding. But the issue of regional bloc voting has got longtime UK host of the program Terry Wogan mighty pissed, according to the Guardian's news blog. He believes that the deck is now definitively stacked against Western European entries.

I have to decide whether I want to do this again. Western European participants have to decide whether they want to to take part from here on in, because their prospects are poor.

Boo freakin' hoo, Terry! Europe is deluged by British pop music 364 other days a year. Can't the South, Central and East of the continent get a little love?

But when you look at the voting, it turns out Wogan's right. These regions are asserting themselves. Russia took 12 points (the highest total that can be awarded by a single country) from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia and Israel. That block was 84 points for Russia's winning total of 272 . Finland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Serbia each kicked in 10 points. Hell, even the continuing Russian-fomented unrest didn't effect Georgians -- who kicked in 8 points from Tbilisi with love. And Ukraine came in second with 230 points, largely culled from the region and its neighbors

Ah, for the days when it was all much simpler (1965, France Gall, singing a Serge Gainsbourg song -- "Poupee du cire, poupee du son" for Luxembourg) or more complicated (1998, Dana International sings "Diva" for Israel).

Photo is a delightfully "royalty-free" (!) goodie provided by the contest. Huzzah!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Uncle Tupelo: An Early Glimpse

If I was identified with any particular band as a music critic back in the Midwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Uncle Tupelo. It's been fascinating to watch as the story of their improbable rise and untimely demise thickens into myth, and how Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy have forged incredible careers for themselves out of that wreckage.

I still get a lot of questions about those times from the most unlikely sources, but it's only rarely that I feel compelled to write about those long-departed days. (I wrote enough as it is, much of it hungover, and it's only fair to let the Greg Kots of the world have their turn.)

This is one of those times, however. A couple weeks back, I caught wind that a bunch of very early video of Uncle Tupelo had gotten onto YouTube courtesy of a gentleman who goes by the moniker PantsElderly. Tupelo fans will want to check it out. (It'll kill the better part of the afternoon, especially if you also like Son Volt.)

Among the videos posted were two that were of particular interest to me. They were recorded back in May 1989 at a benefit concert at the Soulard Preservation Hall in St. Louis, MO. It was the very first time I saw Uncle Tupelo, and it has an odd back story that also involves Chicken Truck (who later became the Bottle Rockets).

The situation was as follows: After a long flirtation, I had just become the music critic for the Riverfront Times in November 1988. I was writing a lot about local bands, feeling my way through the scene in my most hectic semester of grad school at Washington University. (In addition to the column, I was teaching two English composition classes, finishing my poetry thesis, dramaturging Wash U's production of A Midsummer's Night's Dream and then wrestling my own first play -- Untangling Ava -- through its production at the university's Drama Studio.)

The first great band I saw in St. Louis was Chicken Truck, who played the 1989 New Year's Show at the in/famous Cicero's Basement Bar along with Rugburn. They tore the place up with blazing metallic versions of the songs on their legendary Rosetta Stone (the so-called "90 Minute Tape"), and they were the first band about whom I wrote a long feature in the RFT.

Chicken Truck had really just started gigging in St. Louis, and I think they were a little stunned by the attention. But I knew already that they were an amazingly original band. They played their own songs. (Believe me, it was rare in that era of STL rock. ) They had a vision, too, however warped. Songs on that original 90 minute tape became staples of the Bottle Rockets' subsequent discography: "Dead Dog Memories," " Get Down River," "Coffee Monkey," "Financing His Romance," "Perfect Far Away," "Waitin' on a Train" and a hefty amount of the first two records.

But little did I know, however, that by writing about Chicken Truck, I had stepped into a local rivalry of sorts. Uncle Tupelo had also just started busting out of their little cubbyhole in Belleville IL, and they were already gaining fierce partisans. Which sets up the Mississippi River Center benefit show.

Because I was still relatively new to the St. Louis music scene, I relied on people at the RFT to help me sort through it all. And the impression that they left me with was that Uncle Tupelo was a Grateful Dead cover band. (!) Which was, precisely, the last thing I wanted to be writing about.

So the benefit arrives and I head down to South St. Louis. Chicken Truck was third on the bill. Uncle Tupelo was last. I watched the Truck rip it up and headed to the bar. That's where I was accosted by Steve Scariano -- a St. Louis musician of some renown himself in subsequent years with the Love Experts and Prisonshake -- who was one of the band's early believers. (Did he work with Jeff Tweedy at Euclid Records yet? Not sure. Whatever.)

Anyway, Scariano tore into me. It was one of those finger in chest diatribes. In sum, the message was pretty simple: I was a total dumb ass for writing about Chicken Truck and ignoring Uncle Tupelo. I remember feebly protesting. Why should I write about a Dead cover band? (And let me say here that I think Steve did very much the right thing. So much so that I started engaging in similar theatrics almost immediately. Though I have to give myself a bit of a mulligan. In St. Louis circa 1989, it would have made perfect sense for a Dead tribute band to have headlined a benefit like this.)

So anyway, I stayed. And you can see some of what I saw in this video, and another one here.

It's really rare, I think, that you can relive such a seminal moment in one's own career. I've told this story like, 300 times (including to Kot in his Wilco book) and to be able to actually watch what set me off into evangelizing for this band to the point of ridicule is pretty amazing.

All the legendary things are here: Shambling, earnest and yet incredibly intense stage presence. A brilliant, full-formed original song ("Graveyard Shift") and a blistering rethink of an already savage Creedence song. Jay's skull and crossbones guitar strap. Jeff's mama with a bowl-style haircut. And check out the 1:27 mark in the "Fortunate Son" video, where Mike Heidorn tosses up one drum stick, then another. Yikes.

It was all there already pretty much. I'm really happy that I saw it. And eventually Tupelo and the Truck became fast friends, to the extent that lead Trucker Brian Henneman ended up as Tupelo's guitar tech/de facto encore guitarist. But those are tales for another day.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Sardina: A band from Indiana

I heard last week that the drummer for the Indianapolis band Sardina, LonPaul Ellrich, died very suddenly in his hometown. A tragedy. He was a wildly talented guy, as are the other three members of the band (Marty Green, Michelle Marchesseault and PJ Christie).

Sardina were one of the great Midwest bands of the 1990s. I was lucky enough to catch them live near the beginning of their run in 1993. The show was in the basement of a fish restaurant in Bloomington. They were opening for Arson Garden at a special show for Midwest alt-weekly types who were in Bloomington for a dopey regional alt-press conference.

That night, Sardina blew away Arson Garden--who were a great band in their own right, and at their peak around that time. They mostly played the lyrical, menacing and ebullient songs from their first demo, and the first band I thought of when I saw them was the Jefferson Airplane (think Crown of Creation and Bless Its Pointed Little Head). Marchesseault's voice had more grit than Grace Slick's voice, but as much (if not more) power. They were tight and could go from whisper to a roar in the blink of an eye. For this rock critic, it was love at first sight.

I saw them live a couple more times. They played St. Louis three times in the next few years, and I also caught them at a SXSW showcase in 1995. They got trippier as time progressed, but no less powerful and inventive, as you can hear on their page at the Indianapolis music site, Musical Family Tree. Their 1995 record, Presents, also available for a listen on that page, seems only to have gotten better with age -- a perfect mix of gorgeous pop and outright surrealism that should have yielded two hit singles. ("I'll Be Around" and "Hey")

But it didn't. And the band imploded by 1997. But they're one of the few groups of that era that's still in heavy rotation on my iPod. And word is that there may be more from the vaults that might be released in the near future.

Those in the Indianapolis area may want to check out the benefit concert for LonPaul Ellrich's son Rupert at Radio Radio in Indianapolis on June 15.

Bonus: Video of "I'll Be Around"

It's Here

Yep. I have taken the plunge. Please feel free to linger. Check out the articles on the right if they intrigue you. Patronize the blogs that have been linked at the bottom. Don't leave a mess.