Music Review: Dinosaur Jr. Goes Beyond

by Hilary Crowe

Like Iggy Pop’s bodacious-for-a-60-year-old bod, Dinosaur Jr.’s own body of work has aged remarkably well. Unlike the Stooges' new release, however, Dinosaur Jr.’s newest album is one of their best to date, even better than their eponymous debut of 1985. Despite grunge music’s popular explosion in the ’90s, a style they helped pioneer, the band collapsed under the weight of guitarist/vocalist J Mascis’ creative control issues, leaving friends and fellow Amherst, MA natives Sonic Youth to soldier on and keep gritty noise-rock alive and well. But the band to not-so-quietly usher Generation X into high school and college is back to tie up loose ends and show a new generation of misguided, socially maladroit youths a thing or two.

Dinosaur Jr. first began oozing back onto the radar in 2005, when Merge Records reissued their first three albums. Over the next two years, the band reunited to support the resurrected recordings and found a few embers among the post-break-up ash. The resulting effort, Beyond, was released this month. Beyond takes everything that was great about the original three Dinosaur Jr. records, before a bellicose Mascis booted bassist Lou Barlow in 1989, and melds it into a mish-mash of beleaguered ballads and reeling rockers, with their signature visceral vocals and crumbling chords as potent as ever. It seems that after years of lying underground, decomposing, the newly unearthed Dinosaur Jr. has accumulated a renewed power and wisdom to fuel the fire of yesteryear.

The album opens with “Almost Ready” and Mascis’ familiar whine-roar and degenerate drawl is just as loud and recognizably Dinosaur Jr. as it was 20 years ago. Reminiscent of “Out There” (Where You Been, 1993), it took me the entire three minutes of the song to wipe the sloppy grin off my face – it’s like Mascis, Barlow, and drummer Murph (Emmett Patrick Murphy) never skipped a beat between 1988’s Bug and now. But this album is a slight departure from the slacker anthems the band composed back then; there’s a bit more honesty and hope in these songs, a lighter load for the band to bear on Beyond. Perhaps because the trio of talented musicians has finally decided to get off their slacker asses and unabashedly harness their prolific power and sonic sensibility for the first time. Sure the new songs aren’t as dirty or gritty as when this beast of a band was finding its footing in its early years (how can they be expected to top “Little Fury Things” or “Sludgefest?"), but this album is something for which Dinosaur Jr.’s fans have been ready for awhile.

Laconically lyrical as always, Mascis still lets the riffs do the walking, and their gut-busting six-string-soup reeks of fuzz and growls despite being liberally peppered with slower songs than previous albums, such as the comfortingly typical-sounding “We’re Alone.” But Dinosaur Jr. has a new recipe for a few of these down-tempo ditties; “I Got Lost” is more ethereal and bare, featuring acoustic rather than electric guitar and some orchestral musings. However, such departure from the beaten path is the high-water mark of maturity – the songs are still incendiary, but smolderingly so; reminiscent, yet delightfully different.

True, this album (released by Fat Possum Records) is not as great as You’re Living All Over Me, released in 1987 on Black Flag’s SST label, the latter being their defining opus and record that garnered them much underground admiration and respect. But with Beyond, Dinosaur Jr. makes a solid and successful effort to get back to what garnered them the admiration of Sonic Youth and others in the first place (“It’s Me” even sounds like it belongs on You’re Living All Over Me). The essence of a Dinosaur Jr. album, Beyond included, can be likened to that of fried chicken: crackling, crunchy, and greasy – heartbreaking but good for the soul. And, if you’re like me, all that sounds absolutely beautiful. Dinosaur Jr. may never have been as big as the acts that their sludge-fest, tar-pit tunes helped spawn (Nirvana, for one), but Beyond is more than a reunion release from a seminal ’80s underground band – it’s a remarkable album by any standard.

(Photo of Dinosaur Jr. playing Urbino, Italy in 2005 by Marco Annunziata via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. More of Annunziata's work can be found at his website or by contacting him at: marcoannunziata@marcoannunziata.com. Dinosaur Jr. is touring, and opens a three night stand in Chicago tonight, May 31.)

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What No One is Asking About Cycling's Doping Scandal

by Jeff Siegel

The man who won last year's Tour de France has been accused of doping. The man who won the 1996 Tour de France admitted doping. The man who won an Olympic cycling gold in 2004 was suspended for two years for doping. The man who won a Tour, an Olympic gold, the Tour of Spain and two world championship time trials was forced out of cycling because of doping accusations.

None of them, however, are named Lance Armstrong – and therein lies the question that no one in cycling seems to be asking. Could Armstrong, who won a record seven Tours de France, have beaten these guys clean?

This is not to suggest Armstrong is a doper. He passed every drug test ever given him, and, as he likes to say, is the most tested cyclist of all time. He has won libel suits against those who accused him of doping. His story – the difficult childhood, the near-miraculous recovery from cancer, the cycling success – even dents the facade of a cranky ex-newspaperman like me. (Who, by the way, may have written the very first story ever about Armstrong when he was a junior high school student in suburban Dallas beating grown men in triathlons.)

I know cycling reasonably well, having written about it in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cyclists are phenomenal athletes who can ride a bike up the side of an Alp. What in sports is more difficult? The Tour, which has a bunch of stages that do just that, may be the most excruciating sporting event in existence. Yet Armstrong, riding clean, beat all those dopers – who were pretty good even without their pharmacological boost?

The point is almost not whether Armstrong is that good (he may very well be), but that the very existence of all those cheaters – and the list gets longer every 15 minutes – makes the question necessary. It's just another of the wonderful legacies they're leaving the sport. So why hasn't it come up in the discussions about dopers and accused dopers like Floyd Landis, Bjarne Riis, Tyler Hamilton and Jan Ullrich? Is it because all those drug tests that Armstrong passed makes it moot? Or is it because, with just one hero left in a sport that makes baseball look like the poster child for clean living, the answer is something that no one wants to know?

(Photo of Lance Armstrong at the 2004 Tour de France obtained via Yotofoto, using a GNU Free Documentation license.)

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iVoryTowerz Radio: Summer Sounds

This week, pull up a chair on the porch, light the grill, and let the podcast play the sounds of summer for 2007. There's an extra dollop of new music in the playlist this week, as we search for an underground summer hit. But you can count on the usual: a trip through more than 65 years of modern music, centering on rock but including dashes of country, folk, and funk along the way.

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)


"This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie
"Amazing Grace" by George Jones
“The Vatican Rag" by Tom Lehrer
"One of Us" by Joan Osborne
"Down on Rodeo" by Lindsey Buckingham
"Four Strong Winds" by Ian & Sylvia
“The Well and the Lighthouse” by The Arcade Fire
“Let's Not Get Carried Away” by Wilco
"Icky Thump“ by The White Stripes
"Tarantula” by The Smashing Pumpkins
Cover Me: "Show Me the Way" by Dinosaur Jr. (request)
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Black Rain” by Ozzy Osbourne
Jeff’s New Wave: “Rock Lobster” by The B-52s
"Good Ol' Funky Music" by The Meters
"My World is Empty Without You" by The Supremes
"I Need More Love" by Robert Randolph & The Family Band

(Mp3 Runs - 1:24:43; 78 MB.)

(Photo by prototype7 of Havana, FL via stock.xchng.)

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The Republican Fallout Over Immigration

by Frank Wooten*
(Special to iVoryTowerz)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is an immigration reformer, and well to the left of most Republicans on this issue. He supported the immigration reform bill last year at great political risk and is doing the same this year, while the other Republican Senator from South Carolina, Jim DeMint, demagogues it. Graham's getting booed at political functions around here, branded as a heretic who's siding with Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D-MA).

Graham's talking tough border enforcement because: a) he believes in it (you don't necessarily have to be a racist to believe the U.S. shouldn't have wide-open borders); and b) he's trying to gain support for the bill – and not lose too many voters for next year's re-election fight – by emphasizing that his push for providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is
balanced by an effective effort to regain control of our open-sieve border.

Hard-liners in South Carolina are already plotting to run Thomas Ravenel, our highly ambitious state treasurer and a major immigration hawk, against Graham in the primary next year.

What I ask the immigration hawks is this:

You call a $5,000 fine, learning English, going back to your country of origin and waiting for a decade or more before you become a citizen "amnesty?" What level of punishment against the 12 million or so illegal immigrants already living here, most of them working and paying taxes and many of them longtime U.S. residents, do you propose -- short of deportation? If we don't give them some possible path to citizenship, why would they come forward (the path in the bill is already so onerous that few will come forward)? And if any path to citizenship, no matter how tough, must be rejected as "amnesty," what's your counter-plan? Mass deportation of
12 million people? Who's going to carry that out? The National Guard, its ranks already thinned by foreign missions? And even if we kicked out 12 million people, who would stop them – and others from Mexico and other parts of Latin America – from coming back across our border?

My take: We could vastly diminish the flow of illegal immigrants into our country – if that was our sole goal and nothing else mattered. Call the troops home, assign them to the border, set up machine gun towers every 200 yards or so, use helicopter gunships with infrared scopes, dig huge trenches to slow the targets down, and start slaughtering human beings on a mass scale. It wouldn't take long to discourage illegal immigration that way.

Then again, it wouldn't be a very American – or humane – thing to do. I guess we couldstill brag that while the East Germans used to shoot people for trying to leave, we were only shooting them for trying to come in, but that subtle distinction wouldn't get us off the hook for being butchers. And short of making border crossing a highly deadly risk, we probably can't slow it down too much as long as those folks can find better pay – and a better life –
on our side of the border.

So if the hard-liners really want to "seal" the border, then let them say how they intend to go about it. If they really want to get rid of the "aliens" in our midst, let them say where they'd put the detention camps where we would hold them after rounding them up and before sending them south. I believe that most of the illegal immigrants from Latin America are productive U.S. residents who fill jobs that need to be filled. I do think we need to slow the flow a bit – or at least try – with more border security, but no, we don't have enough prison cells to carry out Graham's latest idea, which is clearly an attempt to cover himself with a rebellious
political base.

I don't think illegal immigrants should automatically be deemed citizens. But we shouldn't make becoming a citizen so hard that they don't bother to try – and the longer they've been here without getting in trouble, the more credit they should already have toward citizenship.

*Guest blogger-commentator Frank Wooten is a writer and member of the editorial board for The Charleston Post and Courier. His views do not reflect the official views of his newspaper.

(For another take on the immigration issue, please see Jeff Siegel's "The Immigration Bill Sellout.")

(The photo shows members of the U.S. Air Force and National Guard troops digging a trench as part of a border barrier installed near San Luis, AZ in March of this year. This is a Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. John Wiggins, USAF; the photo is in the public domain.)

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The Closing of Venezuela's RCTV & Leftist Orthodoxy

by Rick Rockwell

As Sunday dawns in Venezuela, the military is moving against the media. Backed by a court order issued at the end of the week, Venezuela’s military is seizing the broadcast equipment of RCTV, the nation’s oldest network.

By midnight, the network will go dark.

In the U.S., during a holiday weekend, few will notice. Most could care less. Why should we care about free speech in Venezuela?

Some who know a bit about this case may even question whether this is about free speech or is it really about how a state reasserts its authority over international conglomerates. Nevertheless, a struggle that tests the rule of law and international human rights conventions in Venezuela is underway. This is also a struggle that shows the power of propaganda used by both sides.

Trying to dial down that spin is nearly impossible, but here is what is evident:

  • RCTV and other Venezuelan networks backed an attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez in 2002.

  • The Venezuelan government controls broadcasting concessions (as the governments in most countries do) and has decided not to renew the license of RCTV.

  • International groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have condemned the closure. These groups have called upon the Venezuelan government to allow RCTV to remain on the air until its legal appeals are exhausted in Venezuela’s courts and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Marcel Granier, the CEO of the firm that runs RCTV has lobbied extensively in the U.S. and Europe for his network. Few realize that Granier’s firm has holdings in Florida (Coral Pictures, which distributes programming in 42 countries) and that RCTV has many ties to business in the U.S., founded as it was by the Phelps family, which emigrated to Venezuela from the U.S. The Phelps family has intimate ties to the aristocracy in both countries and has supported conservative causes, including helping the plotters in the failed coup. So the closure of RCTV has as much to do with conservatives and conglomerates in the U.S. and how they oppose Chavez as it does with Venezuelan politics.

Measuring the media response, Granier is winning the propaganda battle, even if he is losing the media war.

During his lobbying trip to D.C. this month, Freedom House* held a session to condemn RCTV’s closure. Writing in The Washington Post, Jackson Diehl interviewed Granier and condemned Chavez. (Notably, Diehl’s opinion piece was filled with the type of misinformation that is common in the U.S. media about Venezuela. Diehl says that Chavez controls four networks in Venezuela when there is only one state-controlled network, at least until after midnight tonight. He calls Granier a grandfather figure. He cites polls from Venezuela about the RCTV closure when some experts know the polling firms in Venezuela are part of the anti-Chavez opposition, far from independent.)

Granier got results. The European Union’s Parliament passed a resolution condemning the closure. The U.S. Senate also passed a similar resolution. That resolution was co-sponsored by Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Chris Dodd (D-CT), who happens to be running for president and is a real expert on Latin America. By the way, Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Barack Obama (D-IL), the Democratic front-runners in the presidential sweepstakes also backed the resolution. So Granier and RCTV have wide bipartisan support in the U.S.

But support for Chavez and his actions can be found on the far left. The argument there is that RCTV must pay for its traitorous actions, and that it is absurd to argue that a national government cannot control its own television broadcast spectrum without international interference. Those are good arguments but they haven’t played themselves out in the courts in Venezuela nor in the international courts where Venezuela has treaty obligations. (For additional background on why some on the left feel Chavez is the persecuted one in this case, please see: "Latin America's Many Fronts in the War on Words.")

On the left, this is a case of orthodoxy trumping reason. Yes, from all appearances, Chavez has a solid basis of fact to support the shutdown of RCTV because of its ties to the failed coup and because it has not fulfilled its public service obligations to the people of Venezuela. However, to deny the network all of its legal appeals while closing it down speaks about the rule of law in Venezuela. Those of the orthodox left see anyone who would argue for compromise in this case as part of the conservative groups aligned to support conglomerates and the aristocracy. Instead, perhaps the argument for giving RCTV more time is really one for supporting human rights and justice: even the guilty must receive a fair trial.

For more background on this story, please see these previous entries:
*Rick Rockwell served as a consultant to Freedom House on press freedom issues in Mexico and Central America in 2005 and 2006.

(The photo of President Chavez was taken late last week, as he made announcements concerning the future of Venezuelan broadcasting. The photo is from the Venezuelan government and in the public domain. For a discussion on the RCTV closure, please see the latest episode of "Latin Pulse," which will be broadcast on Link TV beginning Monday, May 28. To see a reaction report from Gallup and the BBC concerning the RCTV closure, please check below.)

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Latin America’s Many Fronts in the War on Words

by Rick Rockwell

When it comes to free speech in Latin America, a familiar parental refrain can be heard: two wrongs don’t make a right.

Instead, in this case it is closer to five wrongs don’t make a right.

What is under discussion is why international pressure seems to be focused primarily on Venezuela and the dispute over the closure of television network RCTV. Some on the left say, this issue is being magnified far beyond its importance, and, by the way, problems in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere are much more important to the cause of free expression. (For a deeper discussion of the RCTV closure, please scroll up to the latest post or see: "The Closing of Venezuela's RCTV & Leftist Orthodoxy.")

Here’s the logic: because the issues in Mexico and Colombia are more lethal, complex, and long-term they should be discussed but Venezuela should be ignored. By following that logic, it would mean conservative commentators are correct: leftists only believe in transparency and a multitude of opinions on topics when it is convenient.

During the past few weeks, this author has been included in a series of discussions with representatives of the Venezuelan embassy to the United States. Inevitably members of the Venezuelan diplomatic corps provide various examples of other free press issues that don’t get near the attention that President Hugo Chavez and his plans to shutdown RCTV receive in the global media. (Nevertheless, the move to shut down RCTV has also encouraged further attacks on the media, such as the recent assault on the network Globovision.)

Truly, politics does motivate much of that coverage, but the truth is, unlike the problems in Mexico and Colombia, which revolve around decades of corruption and the problems presented by powerful drug cartels, the situation in Venezuela is rather linear. Simply, the issue in Venezuela is about the state versus corporate media. If Chavez and the media could find a compromise, the issue would dissipate.

However, the problems in Venezuela only highlight a trend among leftist governments in Latin America to confront the media. This is a trend pointed out by the Committee to Protect Journalists earlier this year. And it is also a complex trend because the media in Latin America often represent oligarchies and entrenched conservative power bases, which make them the natural opposition to reformist leftist governments.

Take these examples:

  • Last month, the government of Alan Garcia in Peru moved to close various regional television and radio stations due to what courts called excessive criticism of the government.

  • This week, President Manuel Zelaya, the leader of the Liberal Party in Honduras ordered all the country’s broadcast stations to include 20 hours of specific government content as a way to counteract what Zelaya called media lies about his administration. Honduran law gives the president powers to order the broadcast of important material.

  • Free speech advocates have also criticized the anti-media tactics used by left-leaning presidents in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina.
In many of these countries, the media system is highly concentrated. Leftist reformers want more latitude in leveraging the economic and political clout of these media outlets. However, the governments often use the considerable mechanisms of the state and go too far.

So, yes, Chavez and his struggles against the media are not the only example and should not be the only discussion when it comes to free expression. In Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala, free speech faces the difficult prospect of fighting highly corrupt systems, which support drug cartels. In those cases, conservative governments are all struggling to hold their states together, imploding as they are under the weight of violence and profiteering. Although conditions for free expression have been improving steadily since the early 1990s throughout Latin America, as the wave of democracy crested, current times show some of these advances are threatened, as the enthusiasm for democracy ebbs.

For more background on this story, please see these previous entries:
(The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free. For a debate on the conditions for free expression in the Americas, please see the latest episode of "Latin Pulse," which will be broadcast on Link TV beginning Monday, May 28. To see Venezuelan National Guard troops preparing in Caracas to prevent protests connected to the RCTV closure, please see below.)

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If Joe McCarthy Ran a Prostitution Ring...

by Molly Kenney

She claims the names she has could bring down Washington giants, and she has already taken a few victims. Federal prosecutors accused Deborah Jeane Palfrey with operating a prostitution service in the Washington area, which has earned her the nickname, the DC Madam. Until a court order stopped her earlier this month, Palfrey tried to release her client list to the media to identify defense witnesses. Before this order, one of her identifications led to the resignation of Randall Tobias, Deputy Secretary of State, last month.

Seemingly inspired by the career of master blacklister Senator Joseph McCarthy, Palfrey’s identification of witnesses is being used to out public figures. As she was quoted as saying in The Washington Post, Palfrey has decried the “injustice” done to her by preventing her from releasing the names. Many people are calling for Palfrey’s definition of justice, but in reality, what Palfrey’s audience wants is a juicy outing of Washington’s elite as johns instead of Reds.

In response to several stories about the case, patrons of ABC News’ The Blotter, among others, have overwhelming supported Palfrey in their shared quest to incriminate, rightly or otherwise, high-ranking Washingtonians. Lending Palfrey support is lending her ammunition in what could become a smearing of reputations based solely on one woman’s personal agenda, political or otherwise. If she is to be prosecuted for her crime, the clients who joined in the illegal activity should as well but not via a media circus. Only thorough investigation and a media perspective that considers Palfrey’s true reliability, as a previously convicted individual and an admitted worker on the border of the legal and illegal adult industries, will control the damage that could be caused by this one woman and her downfall.

It is impossible to keep things clean when the equation involves a madam, sex for money, and politicians. It is inevitable that such a drama will be riveting. Whether or not the judge in her case allows the release of the phone lists, the names of Palfrey’s high-paying clients will get out. And the media and their audience will eat it up. In Washington, it can’t be called justice. It’s fleeting entertainment.

(Editor's Note: Palfrey's attorney appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 25th to halt the racketeering case against her until federal prosecutors release her bank accounts for her use.)

(Photo of Deborah Jeane Palfrey via The Smoking Gun. In 1992, Palfrey began serving an 18-month sentence in California for running a prostitution ring; the photo is from her incarceration and is in the public domain.)

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The Retail Job Search Blues

by Caitlin Servilio

Last week, I had a job interview at a major retail chain store. It’s true, working for a chain isn’t exactly my dream job — part-time, minimum wage retail slavery isn’t the dream job of very many people. Though I suppose I should get used to it as an aspiring artist — but I figured, well, a job is a job, right? There’s no shame in good, honest, sales associate work. So I put on nice clothes, checked that I had my resume and references in tow, and drove to the mall, making sure to arrive 15 minutes early.

However, when I got there, I was greeted by the sight of three other teenage girls and two older women already waiting by the Customer Service Desk.

“Oh, no,” I thought to myself grumpily. “All these people are being interviewed ahead of me . . . I’ll be here forever.” (Ironic foreshadowing here.)

A manager walked over and said, “If you have a 10:00 appointment, follow me, please.” I stood up.

And so did everybody else.

“We’re going to do something today that many of you will never have done,” the manager said while beaming gleefully. “A group interview!”

My fellow interviewees and I stared at each other. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one thinking, “What the @^$%?! Is this some kind of joke?!”

However, it was no joke. The six of us were gathered in a room and asked a series of regular interview questions . . . only we all answered the same question, in varying orders. Despite the efforts of the manager to keep the order different, there was inevitably one girl who always ended up being the last to answer. I felt sorry for her as she stuttered out for the third or fourth time “Um . . , I agree with what everyone else has said.” Needless to say, it was one of the most odd, awkward and uncomfortable experiences I have ever had — and more than a little like the Miss America Pageant; I half expected a swimsuit competition to follow the interview segment.

A Typical Moment in the “Group Interview”

Manager: On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your energy level on the job? Caitlin, why don’t you start?

Me: Well, like anybody, I certainly have a few days when I might be tired or upset for some reason, but in general I’m very cheerful and upbeat, so I would say an eight.

The Next Woman: (competitively) Well, I’m a nine! Definitely a nine!

I can just imagine the thought process that went into the creation of the concept of the “group interview.” Complaining about how many applicants there are for the same crappy job, two managers wish there was some way they could be finished with all of them in time for lunch. Suddenly one sits up, eyes alight. “Hey, I’ve got a brilliant idea!” he exclaims. “Let’s just do them all at the same time!”

I mean, I know the job of a sales associate isn’t really rocket science, but it’s still a trifle insulting that nobody could sit down with me for 15 minutes and give me their undivided attention while I babble on about how my experience and skills make me a perfect match for their company. It seems like more and more, skewed ideas about efficiency and time management are replacing any kind of effort by managers to treat employees with respect and a modicum of human dignity. (Like that time RadioShack laid off 400 employees . . . by e-mail.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be overjoyed if I get this retail job. I’ll be thrilled to fold clothes in eight hour shifts and I’ll be even more ecstatic to listen to the same mall-music-mix repeat every 45 minutes. After all, a job’s a job....

And Now...Caitlin's Job-Hunting Music Mix

(The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, the despair, the humiliation, the unabashed groveling . . . a mix that captures the spirit of job-hunting in modern America.)

“Lookin’ for a Job” by Todd Snider
“Under Pressure,” by Queen
“Railroad” by the Zutons
“Straight to Hell” by Gisli
“Fitter Happier” by Radiohead
“Gouge Away” by the Pixies
“Gunslinger (Runnin’ Out of Time)” by Over It
“Day Job” by the Gin Blossoms
“The Chimbley Sweep” by the Decemberists
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” by Billy Joel
“Novotel” by Adam Green

(To catch up on more background regarding Caitlin's search for the perfect supporting job, please also see: "Hello America, Miss Manners Calling.")

(Photo of the ubiquitous retail store entrance from qnr of Augusta, ME via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Johnny Cash is Dead, and the Music Business is too

by Jeff Siegel

Everything that is wrong with the music business is in Johnny Cash's final record.

It's not the album, of course, which is called American V: A Hundred Highways and is pretty close to brilliant. Cash's original, "Like the 309," should have been in heavy rotation in almost every format on radio. Rather, it's the way that the industry works to make sure that as few people as possible have heard it since its release last July.

I consider myself reasonably astute when it comes to pop music, following not only trends, but new releases, the business side of the industry and the like (though I'll confess I've never seen American Idol). I have a more than decent collection of blues, punk and New Wave, and progressive country, as well the eclectic kind of mix someone with varied interests picks up in 30 years of buying music. But if we had not played Cash's "Like the 309" on our iVoryTowerz podcast, I would not have known about it.

How can this happen?

• First, despite his status as one of the pioneers in American pop music, Cash usually doesn't get played on the radio. His audience is supposed to be too old and too country for pop stations and not pop enough for country stations. That his music is good is irrelevant.

• Then there is the business of payola, in which most of the major stations in the country will only play music if they're paid by the record companies to do so. Which is legal, by the way, in some instances.*

• Since downloads are evil and will not be tolerated, I'm not going to hear about the song from someone who downloaded it. (Interestingly, I ran across a piece quoting Elvis Costello on this heresy. He didn't seem too concerned.)

• And let's not forget about the death of the music store, which Elvis mentioned in his remarks. There are few people in the business left to tell me about new, good music.

For what it's worth, I bought American V after we played "Like the 309." The song is that good. It's a shame more people won't get the chance to hear it.

*For a full discussion of this issue, please see "Radio's Payola Settlement: Where's the Outrage?"

(The photo of Johnny Cash is by Joe Baldwin from Look, April 29, 1969. The photo is now part of the Library of Congress collection – card catalog: lmc1998005787/PP – and in the public domain. To see the video for "God's Gonna Cut You Down" from American V: A Hundred Highways, please check below. )

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iVoryTowerz Radio: Will the Circle be Unbroken

Back to basics this week on the underground podcast: yes, there's new rock but also material covering about 45 years of modern music. Come along through a musical journey that also touches on the blues, folk, and Irish punk, among other genres. If you like the undiscovered and the eclectic, this is the podcast for you.

(This podcast is no longer available for download.)


“Spindrift” by Rush
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Antisaint” by Chevelle
"Head On" by The Pixies (by request)
“Love that Dirty Water" by The Standells
"Louie, Louie" by The Kingsmen
Jeff’s New Wave: “Sad About Girls” by The Attractions
"Paczack's" by Ceann Na Caca (by request)
"Drunken Lullabies" by Flogging Molly
“Streams of Whiskey” by The Pogues
“I'm a Crawling Black Snake” by Lightning Hopkins
"Trouble Gonna Take Me to my Grave“ by Big Joe Williams
"Lie No Better” by Etta James
Cover Me: "State Trooper" by The Cowboy Junkies
"Sit Down Young Stranger" by Gordon Lightfoot
"Christmas in Washington" by Joan Baez
"Will the Circle be Unbroken" by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band & Friends
"Like the 309” by Johnny Cash*

(Mp3 Runs - 1:21:14; 75 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics.

*For further commentary about this selection, please scroll up to the next post, or click here.

(Photo by sandcastlematt of Somerville, MA via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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Concert Review: The Clientele in the Live Music Capital

by Allison Doolittle

Last weekend in Austin, bands at the “Chaos in Tejas Fest” pumped screamo-rock into the ready ears of over a hundred teens clad in black t-shirts and decorated with chains and tattoos. Inside the same venue, Emo’s Lounge, a completely different vibe was brewing. Fans of The Clientele swayed to tranquil, nostalgic melodies at the indoor stage.

Unlike the musicians outside, the British foursome, known as The Clientele, wore casual grunge clothing, much like their audience. The lead singer and guitarist, shaggy-haired Alasdair Maclean, sweated in his long-sleeved black sweater with several moth-holes. Bass guitarist, James Hornsey and drummer, Mark Keen wore plaid shirts, casual pants and no makeup or hair gel. Mel Draisey, a trim and blond twenty-something in a black retro dress was the band’s newest member, playing keyboard, violin and even tambourine.

While the “Chaos in Tejas” band jeered at and dove into its audience, Maclean and his band barely interacted with their fans. “That was pretty miserable. Next time I’ll remember to tune before the song,” Maclean said after one number. With a few exceptions, The Clientele remained largely aloof from its audience. Maclean’s smile only emerged when the audience angrily responded to his comment that he’d heard "Austinites are snooty" at his last gig in Denton, TX .

The band played thirteen songs in a set that lasted about an hour and 15 minutes. Roughly half of the songs were from the band’s latest CD, "God Save the Clientele" (Merge 2007). Songs from this CD were fast-paced with cheerful melodies, providing a pleasant juxtaposition to the slower tempos and angst-filled lyrics of the band’s earlier releases.

“We could be just anywhere but no one’s going anywhere/ Pick up my name. Pick up my number/ Come on darling, let’s be lovers,” crooned Maclean in “Bookshop Casanova."

In most of their songs, The Clientele's themes centered around love, or the lack thereof. Avoiding topics like politics, religion or philosophy, the band created a dreamy, socially disconnected persona. Their tapping feet and nodding heads suggested that the audience identified with this mood.

The Clientele’s three-part harmonies, mellow tempo and even its rough sound quality were reminiscent of 1960s folk rock, especially the Beatles and the Byrds. The band also cites newer influences such as Felt, Galaxie 500, and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. The vocal and melodic evidence of such strong influences renders The Clientele’s music rather unoriginal. However, Maclean’s guitar solos provided a fiery interruption to the lighthearted set, especially in “The Garden At Night.” He closed his eyes and bounced up and down, strumming with four fingers. During one vigorous riff, Maclean's capo flew off the guitar and into stage left.

Emo’s itself was quite intriguing. The room was steeped in cigarette smoke. Audience members clutched their Shiner Bock beer bottles. Brick walls, concrete floors, and bare rafters provided unique acoustics. The stand selling t-shirts, CDs and records from The Clientele was stationed beside a massive mural of a suicidal elephant surrounded by peanuts with wings. The stage in the corner was four feet high and covered with remnants of brightly colored tape where previous rockers marked their territory.

The Clientele finished at 1:20 a.m. Fans applauded but were not treated to an encore performance. After the band vacated the stage, one fan snatched the set list from the base of Maclean’s mic. Scanning the titles scribbled in red marker, he confessed that he couldn’t read it.

Though the concert may not have impressed one encountering The Clientele for the first time, at least it was a contrast to the "Chaos" outside.

(Promotional photo of The Clientele playing in London from Merge Records and the band's website. Pictured are (left to right) three members of the group: guitarist Alasdair Maclean; drummer Mark Keen; and James Hornsey on bass. The band continues its U.S. tour in Los Angeles, tomorrow night, May 24.)

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Music Review: Jeff Buckley's So Real

by Vincent Lee*
(Special to iVoryTowerz)

As we close in on the tenth anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s passing, yet another CD of his work is released posthumously. This album, So Real: Songs from Jeff Buckley, marks the sixth album to hit stores since his tragic drowning in May of 1997.

On the surface, So Real seems to be nothing more than a greatest hits record. The album is a composite of songs from Buckley’s two studio albums with a few live tracks thrown in for good measure. The only newly released material found here is Buckley’s cover of The Smiths’ song “I Know It’s Over” and an acoustic rendition of “So Real.”

As a coda to his live performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Buckley would frequently recite the words to “I Know It’s Over” to the tune of Cohen’s buoyant ballad. The version found on So Real is a fully fleshed out live performance of The Smiths’ track from their most acclaimed album, The Queen Is Dead. The acoustic version of “So Real” is nothing more than what it sounds like. Both of these songs are solid but not extraordinary.

Past the two previously unreleased tracks, the other 12 songs are great yet somewhat unbalanced. Seven are pulled from Buckley’s debut album Grace, though some are not the original studio recordings but live takes. The remaining three songs include material from Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk and one cover song from Live at Sin-é, making So Real nothing more than Grace plus some pretty songs.

In terms of fulfilling its duty as a greatest hits compilation, this album is slightly above average. Devoted Buckley fans will likely ignore its release, seeing it as a pointless purchase. However, those unfamiliar with his careful, poignant songwriting may want to take note. While the album only glosses over Buckley’s brilliant (but all too short) career, it still provides enough to whet any listener’s palate for more.

*Guest blogger-reviewer Vincent Lee writes for The Broadcaster of Hershey, Pennsylvania; he will be attending the University of Maryland in the fall.

(Cover graphic from Columbia Records. To see Buckley and his band play "So Real," please check below.)

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The Immigration Bill Sellout, Part I

by Jeff Siegel

If the United States had the immigration policy it does today at the beginning of the 20th century, I would not be here to type this. Most likely, I would not have been born, my grandparents murdered in a pogrom in the Russian Empire or my parents gassed in a Nazi death camp.

Which is why it is difficult for me to understand the grim determination of so many to keep illegal immigrants out of this country. I understand their reasons, as wrong-headed as they may be. But I don’t understand their obsession with the subject, their fixation to throw out every single Mexican who is here illegally. Rarely have so many good people, to paraphrase U.S. Grant, spent so much energy on such a terrible thing.

In this respect, immigration opponents today are no different than their brethren 160 years ago, when the Know Nothings roiled the national landscape in the years before the Civil War. Their platform was simple: Severe limits on immigration, especially from Catholic countries and aimed at halting the influx of Irish fleeing the potato famine; restricting political office to native-born Americans; and mandating daily Bible readings in public schools. Immigration again became an issue in the decades after the Civil War, when the Naturalization Act of 1870 limited entry into the U.S. to “white persons and persons of African descent,” in an attempt to halt Chinese immigration.

The beginning of the modern immigration system was the Immigration Act of 1924, the culmination of a variety of restrictions in place since the end of World War I. It limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to two percent of the number of people from that country who were already living in the U.S in 1890. Its goal? Stop the massive influx of southern and eastern Europeans – Italians, Poles, and Jews among them – who had entered the country beginning in the 1890s. One estimate says that 2.6 million Poles came to the U.S. between 1870 and 1914 – an astounding number, given that the population of Warsaw was just one-half million in 1900.

So today’s quota system and fascination with Mexican immigration is nothing new. Some of it, as with the Know Nothings, is racism. The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, which is trying to prevent landlords from renting to illegal immigrants, is a white-flight suburb that has lost its reason for being. Forty years ago, when Dallas’ schools integrated, whites moved to Farmers Branch to avoid integration. Today, it suffers the fate of similar suburbs across the country, with older housing, an aging population that is also increasingly black and brown, empty storefronts, and Anglo residents who aren’t quite sure what happened. Hence the need for a scapegoat, a role made to order for illegal Mexicans -- just as it was for the Irish in the 1850s, when someone had to be blamed for the social unrest and economic crises that preceded the Civil War.

(For the second part of this review, please scroll down or click here.)

(The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

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The Immigration Bill Sellout, Part II

(This is the second part of an essay about the proposed Immigration Bill by Jeff Siegel. Please see Part I, to begin.)

Yes, but the anti-immigrant side says, it’s also a question of law. They’re here illegally, and so they must go. Which is true, up to a point: Because immigration is not like murder, a moral imperative. It’s illegal because we have decided it is good public policy to make it illegal. It’s worth noting that Southerners considered it good public policy not to let blacks vote (or drink from the same water fountain, for that matter) for 100 years after the Civil War. This is something that many African-Americans, who are ambivalent about immigration, need to keep in mind.

In 1890, it was good public policy to make immigration legal. What has changed since then? That’s the discussion we should be having, and which we aren’t. Instead, it’s name calling, and I can only guess what I’ll be called for writing this. I’d argue that regardless of anything else – whether illegal immigrants take jobs from those of us who are here legally, whether what they pay in taxes covers the services they use, whether they bring crime with them – it’s good public policy to allow immigration from Mexico because it boosts the Mexican economy and helps stabilize the Mexican social system. Mexico remains a grindingly poor country with high unemployment and underemployment. The last thing any American should want to see is a Mexico with millions of young men who once worked here and who sent their paychecks home, sitting around without work and getting angry because they have no work. That’s how revolutions and civil wars start.

Instead, we get the Tom Tancredo approach. The Colorado Republican Congressman is among the most vehement opponents of illegal immigration (which is saying something, given the vitriol), and though I don’t want to reduce his opposition to a soundbite, it’s difficult not to: “So, we have a responsibility to secure our borders, and as much as Mexico would like to help, we’d be grateful. Good fences make good neighbors,” he said during a Washington Post online chat last year.

Ironically, that’s the point of the compromise immigration bill that is making the rounds of the Senate, and which Tancredo hates as much as he hates the idea of illegal immigration. The bill is still based on the premise that immigration is bad public policy and that it needs to be tightly controlled. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), one of the bill’s champions and a long-time supporter of immigration rights, said that fixing the nation’s “broken borders” is long overdue. With friends like that, who needs Tancredo?

(To read this entry from the beginning, please see Part I.)

(The graphic is from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free. To hear Sen. Kennedy's pitch to support the bill, please see below.)

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DVD Review: The Last King of Scotland, Part I

by Hilary Crowe

Like many a Western co-ed, Ugandan politics are not my forte, and Idi Amin wasn’t even a blip on my radar. This could have easily been filed under high school film strip garbage, “Idi Amin: the Man and the Myth.” But director Kevin Macdonald calls on his Oscar-winning documentary film-making mettle to peddle this staggering masterpiece of historical fiction and is aided by fellow Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker.

The Last King of Scotland (released last month on DVD by Fox Searchlight Pictures) is based on the 1999 fiction novel of the same name by British journalist Giles Foden. So, it is easy for the average viewer to mistakenly take this as fact. But among the DVD’s few extras is a half-hour documentary on Amin’s 1971-1979 regime, complete with interviews and anecdotes from Ugandan locals and actors who lived under Amin, journalists who covered him and lent themselves to producers and actors for advice, and former advisors and physicians to Amin. Here is where the viewer is able to separate fact from fiction, and realize that the movie, though told through the eyes of fictitious physician Nicolas Garrigan, is about Amin (played by Whitaker), and captures the man’s enigmatic persona better and more pointedly than any straight-forward documentary film could ever hope.

Despite these sobering stories of corroborating carnage, it’s difficult to view Whitaker’s Amin as barbaric or capable of having any blood on his hands whatsoever. A supreme nationalist, he loved his country and its history. One would think, then, that he loved his people. Most people are skeptical of such self-proclaimed liberators, as they seem to slip into the regime routine by the morning after – absolute power corrupts absolutely. But with the charismatic Amin, this does not seem so. Whitaker gives a human face to the Jekyll-and-Hyde character, an adorable, bear-hugging jester one minute, paranoid political pariah the next.

(Publicity photo of Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland from Fox Searchlight Pictures; Whitaker's performance won this year's Academy Award for Best Actor.)

(For the second part of this review, please scroll down or click here.)

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DVD Review: The Last King of Scotland, Part II

(This is the second part of a review about the DVD release of "The Last King of Scotland," by reviewer Hilary Crowe. Please see Part I, to begin.)

This rollercoaster ride around the dictator’s frayed nerves and government is led by Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Naïve, restless, and fresh out of med school, he spins a globe looking for an adventure, but never dreamt of the one that finds him when he is hand-picked, literally, as Idi Amin’s personal physician after treating Amin’s sprained wrist. Amin (Forest Whitaker) is injured after the presidential motorcade hits a cow. Taking the dictator’s gun, Garrigan puts the cow out of its misery. Amin reads the bloody, brazen move to mean Garrigan is fearless, and decides he – and his Scottish heritage – is worthy of respect. Garrigan, in turn, is seduced by the charisma, power, and affection displayed by Amin, blinded by rose-colored glasses and propelled deeper into the dictator’s inner circle of hell, so much so that the media calls him Amin’s “white monkey.”

“Nicolas, you are my closest advisor,” Whitaker croons in a perfect accent. Garrigan now has blood on is hands, too, and it’s not the healing kind.

Many critics think Garrigan to be weak, evidence McAvoy has done one hell of a job despite the unjust absence of Whitaker-worthy accolades. You aren’t supposed to like him. The limp-wristed playboy Garrigan is just as detestable as Amin, if not more so. Garrigan clearly represents white colonialism (duh), usurping Ugandan women and resources while turning a blind eye to the atrocities from a comfortable distance. It is an allegory about the interface of divergent cultures, the bastardization of the Western world in Africa. Dashiki-clad subjects serenade Amin’s entourage with “Loch Lomond,” while the dictator sits in a kilt and watches, elated. After he finds his wife has been unfaithful, Amin and his henchman sit dazed in front of Deep Throat, asking Garrigan if such an anatomical anomaly is possible, to which he replies “All aberrations of nature are possible,” a statement that is all-too relevant on all of the film’s many levels. The absurdity of it all is laughable, but this is no laughing matter. Amin is as much a hapless comedian as he is an unscrupulous dictator, whose wishes for an independent, strong, black Uganda are foiled by his roots in colonial and Western culture, his English loyalties replaced with affections for fellow freedom-fighting Scotland.

That said, the main complaint of viewers and reviewers is that white people seem to need other white people to make them care about the turmoil in Africa, and how it is so tragic that the real story of the 300,000 Amin killed is obscured by the flowering relationship between the madman, his doctor, and the collateral human damage. But that’s not the aim of the movie or its novel basis – it’s no biopic. It’s fiction, drama: meant to show what havoc the naïve who are drunk on power and excess are capable of ravaging, even if their intentions are not ill.

If you wanted another Hotel Rwanda, this isn’t it. As the subject of brutal African regimes slowly but steadily gains international attention, the film captures what is so obvious it is often overlooked: the African problem is not a simple matter of black and white. How do these dictators like Amin come to power to such fanfare, only to turn those smiles upside down? Such an issue is as duplicitous and dynamic as the dictator himself. Actions may speak louder than words, but even when Amin and his “white monkey” Garrigan act foolish, there’s more depth of thought than meets the eye. Smart and brilliantly brought to life, The Last King of Scotland is not to be missed.

(To read this entry from the beginning, please see Part I.)

(Publicity photo of The Last King of Scotland from Fox Searchlight Pictures. In the film, Forest Whitaker (center) stars as Idi Amin; he's flanked by, among others, James McAvoy (left) who plays Nicolas Garrigan. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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