7.31.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: Hymn

This week, various themes intertwine on the underground podcast. Interested in the how gospel informs more than a little rock music, both historically and currently? Then tune this one in because that musical thread is woven into the fabric of the core of the program. But there's also a noticeable groove to this podcast. The usual mix is here: plenty of new music and a trip through more than 30 years of sound. The usual variety is here too: new wave, punk, indie rock, heavy metal, goth, blues rock, and even some comedy. Not a bad way to say good-bye to the end of July. Enjoy!


(To stream or download this podcast, please click here.)



Playlist


“(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” by Elvis Costello
Jeff’s New Wave: “White Riot” by The Clash
Cover Me: "One" by Warren Haynes
"The Funeral" by Band of Horses
“Radio Boy" by Eric Matthews
"I Won't Be Found" by The Tallest Man on Earth (request)
"We're All Lookin'" by Steve Winwood
"Street Corner Preacher" by Amos Lee
“Hymn 4 My Soul” by Joe Cocker (request)
“Show Me the Money” by Buddy Guy
"I Need More Love“ by Robert Randolph & the Family Band
"300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy” by Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows
“Slade Stone" by Villanova (request)
"Business Time" by Flight of the Conchords
"Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “Prophecy” by Judas Priest

(Mp3 Runs - 1:26:16; 79 MB.)

(Photo by armchaircritic via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)




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Alice Cooper Attempts (Yawn) Yet Another Comeback

by Rick Rockwell

It seems ludicrous but at 60 years old, Alice Cooper seems poised for yet another comeback.

The question though is not whether he will succeed, but whether it matters at all.

This return of Alice Cooper (original name: Vincent Furnier) is being fueled by the release of a new concept album, Along Came a Spider, out this week on Steamhammer Records (a division of German label SPV GmbH).


The tale of Alice Cooper takes fans on a ride down the long road through the valley of shock rock. And that ride, like any at an amusement park, brings you right back to where it began. Today, Cooper is a cult act; he gets little radio airplay and exists on the margins. Disc jockeys may actually get a thrill in unwrapping his forbidden delights late at night when their bosses aren’t listening, just like in 1969 and 1970, before Cooper and his band erupted full throttle into the zeitgeist. (This reviewer actually heard a disc jockey doing just that on commercial radio in the Washington, D.C. area and playing a cut from Cooper’s 2005 release Dirty Diamonds, a few years back.) And although Along Came a Spider is Cooper’s latest attempt at grabbing the spotlight again, the truth is he never went away. The record is his 25th studio outing, including his work with the original Alice Cooper band, before he went solo.

What happened to Cooper is he burned brightly for a very few years and then sank into near-obscurity, a sort of Nora Desmond of rock. He was everywhere in the 1970s. And the question today is whether Cooper’s managers and producer Bob Ezrin (who worked on and off with Cooper for 30 years) were the ones mostly responsible for his fame: creating both his sound and a rock ‘n roll horror show to frame it. Cooper peaked commercially in 1973 with Billion Dollar Babies, before going solo, and it has been a long downhill slide since. Some of this is attributable to his battle with alcoholism in the 1970s and 1980s: something he beat, but his career has never fully recovered. Or perhaps Cooper became passé when he decided to tame his shock rock for an appearance with the Muppets in 1978. (Full disclosure: this critic officially wrote Cooper off during a series of published negative reviews in 1980 of Cooper’s tour at the time, and his album Flush the Fashion.) By then, most realized Cooper was mostly schtick, a Halloween sideshow rather than true rock innovation.

Although categorized by some now as a heavy metal act, Cooper has returned to his 1970s sound on Along Came a Spider, a mix of searing guitars, growling vocals, and dark themes. (Cooper is considered a metal act today, because his stage show was so influential to many metal bands, although his sound is still 1970s glam-rock. Rolling Stone also wrongly calls Cooper the world’s “most beloved metal entertainer.”) The new album is a rock opera built around the story of a serial killer. Cooper has done this so much better before, (see “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” from the superior Love it to Death) that a listener can’t help thinking this is just a faint echo of his glory days. Lyrically, Cooper compounds this problem by linking at least two of the new songs to his solo debut Welcome to My Nightmare. Certainly, the guest stars are here to bolster Cooper’s attempts at revival: Ozzy Osbourne co-writes “Wake the Dead” and plays harmonica; Slash (of Velvet Revolver and Guns N’ Roses fame, who is also known as Saul Hudson) blisters through impressive guitar lines on "Vengeance is Mine." Although proficient at providing some over-slick rockers, Cooper and his crew have built a façade: enter the doors of this creepy funhouse and the inside is rather empty.

Unlike his heyday, Cooper seems out of synch with the times. An album like Along Came a Spider might have struck a nerve if Cooper had come out with this in the early 1990s when America seemed more fixated on serial killers than ever. At that time, serial killers were raised to high art with Silence of the Lambs (which Cooper borrows from liberally) winning a basket of Academy Awards, and great actresses like Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver teaming in a film like Copycat. Instead, these days Cooper’s latest plays like a bad knock-off of Saw III. But maybe that’s all you can expect of a theatrical rock star past his prime.

(The promotional photo shows Rob Zombie and Slash accompanying Alice Cooper during a performance in 2007; the photo is from Steamhammer Records. To see a trailer for Along Came a Spider, please go here. Alice Cooper and his band play tonight, Aug. 31, in Redmond, OR, as part of his world tour.)








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7.30.2008

Dear Journalists: Stop Complaining About the 'Net

by Tony Romm
Special to iVoryTowerz

Of the plethora of maladies to incapacitate communications media over the years, the popularization of the phrase "Web 2.0" might just win "most deadly." According to nearly everyone, Web goers today insist on interactivity, ground their desires in some warped definition of "egalitarianism," and shudder at the prospect that "gatekeepers" might somewhere, somehow constrain information flows. They even hold yearly conferences to discuss it, all under the ironic watchful eye of mainstream media (a phrase that suggests the internet today is, somehow, not mainstream). Journalists, of course, respond the only way they know how: by complaining and adapting. As The New York Times and The Washington Post have seemingly done every week for years, newspapers eulogize their professions, pretending for reasons still unclear that technology hasn't always kept the reporting community on its toes.

It'd be a waste of time to deride the internet's utility wholesale. Of course, the Web has offered journalists new storytelling tools, and blogs, including this one, have been at the forefront of many important news stories and issues. But it is, however, a pathetic exercise in narcissism to overstate the news media's gains in their own stated task: their role and duty to inform.


This January, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press surveyed those interested in politics, both young and old, to determine which medium they accessed most frequently for political news. Predictably, the rate at which Americans logged onto the Web for campaign content rose sharply between 2000 and 2004. Specifically, Pew reported that, "Nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they regularly learn something about the campaign from the internet, almost double the percentage from a comparable point in the 2004 campaign (13%)."
From the primaries onward, the statistics have made excellent campaign fodder; the numbers (or some variation thereof) have often creeped their way into any discussion of technology and the 2008 contest.

But what's to be said of another Pew study conducted months earlier, the oft overlooked report entitled, "Public Knowledge of Current Affairs Little Changed by News and Information Revolutions." In a comparison of Americans' public affairs literacy, the Pew study begrudgingly noted:

  • In 1989, for example, 74% could come up with Dan Quayle's name when asked who the vice president is. Today, somewhat fewer (69%) are able to recall Dick Cheney.
  • Nearly nine-in-ten (88%) knew that as part of his revised Iraq strategy, President Bush planned to increase U.S. military forces in the country. But only one-in-four Americans (24%) are aware that both houses of Congress passed legislation to increase the minimum wage and 34% knew that Congress voted to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. (Remember, this poll occurred in 2007, before both policies were actually implemented.)

Pew's landmark conclusion, in their own words: "There are substantial differences in the knowledge levels of the audiences for different news outlets. However, there is no clear connection between news formats and what audiences know." [Author's emphasis added.]

In other words, stop complaining, fearful journalists. Technology has always been the bane of a reporter's existence. Much as the penny press revolutionized print, radio forced magazines into niche publishing and television scared radio broadcasters into a similar arrangement, the internet has altered the playing field. Web 2.0 (and the feelings and terrors it embodies) should be viewed similarly: as a gimmicky name for a process that has always — and will always — make this profession the most malleable.

But to treat it as an insurmountable a wrecking ball that's going to destroy our careers is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The journalism community (and its academics) is the equivalent of the city hall beat reporter who sleeps with the mayor; they're the most extreme, too close to the action to view the larger picture objectively. The so-called "experts" overstate or underestimate from the comfort of an ivory tower lined with recent Pulitzers and prized newspaper clippings — yes, printed success stories, fancy that!

Truthfully, the internet is just as ineffective as traditional media forms at communicating the same information. All the videos, niche blogs, interactive Flash reports and messages boards in the world are complements to, not replacements for, the unique kind of enterprise reporting that’s allowed the most basic conventions of journalism to persist for centuries — no matter what new or crazy technology arises.

(The graphic is by Mike Licht from NotionsCapital.com via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)






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Two Dead in Tennessee — Where are Obama and McCain?

(Editor's Note: This is the second part of short series reacting to the Tennessee church shooting incident.)

by Jeff Siegel


On Tuesday (July 29), I called out Supreme Court Injustice Antonin Scalia and the Radio Right for their roles in Sunday's Tennessee church murders. Turns out I was more correct than I feared. The accused gunman owned books by FOX's Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage; and Sean Hannity. That's practically the Holy Trinity of the right-wing talk squad.

I also predicted that neither of the presidential candidates would have the guts to condemn the killings. And sure enough, that's what has happened.


I did a Google web and news search on Tuesday afternoon for "tennessee church shootings McCain" and "tennessee church shootings Obama." Nothing turned up other than news stories detailing the shooting and news stories talking about various candidate doings. I also checked each man's website, and there was nary a word about the shootings there.

Let's look at this and see just how cowardly their behavior is. Both men are running as religious moralists — that is, as candidates who advocate a specific system of principles and values that revolve around Protestant conceptions of societal good, and both have injected religious belief into the campaign in a way not seen in decades. McCain says "The Greatest Honor is to Serve the Cause of Human Dignity" in talking about repealing Roe v. Wade; Obama phrases it this way: "But, you know, my Bible tells me that if we train a child in the way he should go, when he is old he will not turn from it."

So why don't they respond when a man kills two people in a church? They're religious men, God-fearing men, who want to set an example for the rest of us, aren't they? The reason is politics, plain and simple. If either condemns the shooting, they'll risk offending the National Rifle Association, perhaps the most politically powerful lobby in the country, ahead of the November election. And neither will do that, ever — no matter what the moral imperative.

The NRA represents a sizable portion of McCain's base, while Obama and his handlers are constantly wary of offending that base, fearful that it could push a swing state like West Virginia to McCain and cost Obama the election. That, after all, is one explanation for what happened in 2000. It doesn't matter what either man would say; the NRA tolerates no discussion involving guns from politicians. Anything they say is wrong, and the NRA will punish them for it. Politicians know this, and their silence when horrible gun crimes happen — the Virginia Tech shooting, Columbine — is deafening.

This is hypocrisy of the highest order, and it doesn't really surprise me. It disappoints me, but that's something I guess I'll have to learn to live with in our post-modern political culture.

For other posts on the topic of guns and the lack of gun control, please see:

(The photo is by Mihai Andoni of Bacau, Romania via stock.xchng.)












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7.29.2008

These Murders are on You, Scalia

(Editor's Note: This is the first part of a short series on gun control arising from the Tennessee church shootings. To read the next part in the series, please go here.)

by Jeff Siegel


And on you, Rush Limbaugh, and on you, FOX News, and on every other hate-mongering, venom-spewing, ideology-bashing big mouth out there, who figures that they know everything, that everyone else is wrong, and that it’s all a game that you’re going to win because you’re more manly than the rest of us.

Two people are dead at a Tennessee church — a church, of all places — because some poor, deranged slob listened to that crap and figured that the source of his problems was a church that believed that God doesn’t discriminate because of race, creed, or income.

Supreme Court Injustice Antonin Scalia’s ringing endorsement of the right to bear arms — “(W)hen the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny" — was as large a piece of judicial activism as anything Justice Earl Warren ever did, and put the shotgun in 58-year-old Jim Adkisson’s hands. Limbaugh, FOX and the rest gave him the rationale. Liberals are scum, little better than a mad dog. And what do you do with a mad dog? You shoot it.

Or, as Molly Ivins wrote almost 15 years ago:

Bubba listens to Limbaugh because Limbaugh gives him someone to blame for the fact that Bubba is getting screwed. He's working harder, getting paid less in constant dollars and falling further and further behind. Not only is Bubba never gonna be able to buy a house, he can barely afford a trailer. Hell, he can barely afford the payments on the pickup.

That sounds, terribly and awfully, like Adkisson, according to the news reports. "It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred for the liberal movement," said a local police official.

The liberal movement? That would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. Liberalism is at its lowest ebb in this country in at least 50 years, and the only place where a liberal movement still exists is in the feverish minds of people like Limbaugh and Scalia. Feel insecure and inadequate about yourself? Then create a bogeyman to demonize. And if a couple of people get killed in the process, what difference does it make? They were just liberals.

One final note: U.S. politicians are running rightward these days as fast as their greedy little feet will carry them. You doubt this? Then pay careful attention, and note how many of them decry these murders as hate crimes, and who put the blame at the feet of Limbaugh and FOX News and Scalia. If one does it, it will be a lot. And mark my words: Neither of the presidential candidates will say one word about this, unless they're mouthing an empty platitude.

(To read the next post in this short series on gun control, please go here.)

For other posts on the topic of guns and the lack of gun control, please see:
(Photo by mrpattersonsir of Ayr, Scotland, via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License; the photo was discovered by using everystockphoto.)










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7.28.2008

Concert Review: The Bervin House's D.C. Punk Revival

by Abigail DeRoberts
Special to iVoryTowerz

Is D.C.'s dark hardcore revival finally here?

Sunday night (July 27) in a small, sweaty basement, D.C. DIY (do-it-yourself) hardcore showed a glimpse of promise for the future. After almost two years of decline, it seems that this could be the start of an exciting D.C. hardcore revival. Over the past two years, darker bands such as An Alarm, Mass Movement of the Moth, and Attrition have broken up and left the scene, which has thus been dominated by more pop/posi punk music* as of late.

Sunday's show was held at the Bervin House at 929 Farragut St., NW in Washington, D.C.


The Bervin House is a rare gem in D.C., as it has space to sustain a DIY ethic. The Bervin House continues to have punk shows, and support both traveling and local bands in an accessible location, even as the city's rents skyrocket.

The show was a mix of local and traveling bands, with three new D.C. hardcore bands and two hardcore bands from Chicago. The local bands, Starve, The Guilt, and Lost Again, are all breaking onto the scene and are still in their first stages. Eske (pronounced es-kay) and No Slogan (the group is also jokingly billed as Slow Nogan) are both more established bands in town from Chicago.

The Guilt started out the evening with high energy, stripping down traditional hardcore punk into a very raw sound. Drummer Joey Doubek, of D.C. sensation Mass Movement of the Moth, hits harder than is heard in most hardcore bands, which really helped the audience to feel the music. Lost Again, with members of An Alarm, Magrudergrind, and Time to Escape, continued the energy with a quick set of crusty, fast hardcore. Starve rounded out the D.C. section of the show with metallic punk and growling vocals. The two Chicago bands, Eske and No Slogan, certainly did not disappoint. Preserving the mood, Eske played straight up punk that everyone could enjoy, even throwing in a great dance breakdown in one of their last songs, and No Slogan's hardcore was good and fast.

In classic D.C. punk fashion, the show was DIY in a basement that was a little dingy and a little smelly, making for the perfect atmosphere. With three new bands that are all on the darker side of hardcore, this show has hopefully marked a transformation in the D.C. punk scene. Starve, The Guilt, and Lost Again are all filling a void in local punk music that has been there for years.

And while we're at it, what ever happened to Tradition Dies Here?

*Editor's Note: Posi punk is a genre term for bands that acquire a punk sound but not the punk political ethos. Some may actually consider such bands as post-punk. The term seems to have its genesis with referencing various British hardcore punk bands from the early 1980s that struck a lyrically positive tone, thus "posi" for a shorter reference.

(The promotional photo shows some of the members of No Slogan and is from the band's label Southkore Records.)














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7.26.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: We Are the World

This week on the underground podcast, a special program with a particular international flavor. Not exactly a world music special, but this program is definitely a show that highlights rock music and music that uses rock as a foundation from around the globe. Special accents this week come from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and Mexico. And as usual, the mix includes a healthy portion of new music blended with sounds from the past 40 years. Try this one on a late summer night with your favorite rum drink. Umbrellas optional. And of course, please listen and enjoy!


(To stream or download this podcast, please click here.)



Playlist


“Save Me” by E.T. Mensah & his Tempos Band
"Respect" by Lucky Dube
“Celia" by Toots & the Maytals
"Mind Control" by Stephen Marley
"No Hay Espacio" by Black Guayaba
"Interrogacion" by Fresa Salvaje
“Frenzy” by Los Dynamite
Cover Me: "Enjoy the Silence" by Lacuna Coil
“Senza Parole” by Vasco Rossi (request)
"Celebration“ by Premiata, Forneria & Marconi
"Twin Ghosts” by Jennifer Gentle
“Gobbledigook" by Sigur Rós
"Coyoacan" by Wolfkin
"Love in a Trashcan" by The Raveonettes
Rick's Metal Shoppe: “A Dangerous Meeting” by Mercyful Fate
Jeff’s New Wave: “We Are the World” by The Teenage Kings, Hukedicht & friends
"Rock the Casbah” by Rachid Taha

(Mp3 Runs - 1:33:44; 86 MB.) Program contains explicit lyrics.

(Photo by aussigall via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)




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7.25.2008

The XM-Sirius Merger: A Corporate Media Triumph

by Rick Rockwell

Bribery will get you everywhere, it appears.

Certainly, the seemingly inevitable merger of XM and Sirius, the satellite radio firms won’t be viewed as the result of bribery. But the lobbying that got us to this place, inches away from final FCC approval, and the final compromise plan to secure the last Republican swing vote certainly has the taint of a monopoly created behind the force of millions of dollars. Sort out the details, and the merger technically isn’t due to bribery, but call the messy resolution sordid, nevertheless.

As this is published, the final vote by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still hangs undecided. But The Washington Post is running with a sourced story that Republican Deborah Taylor Tate will cast the swing vote, perhaps as early as today (July 25), to bless the merger.


Predictably, that would put all the Republicans on the commission in favor of creating a satellite radio monopoly. That puts them in line with the politicized Justice Department, that is also putting corporations and big money first and saw no problem with the merger violating antitrust law. (As others have noted, if this merger passes antitrust muster why not merge Coke and Pepsi too? The same arguments could be made to qualify such a merger, and actually the XM-Sirius merger now provides precedent.)

Also, predictably, both Democrats on the commission stood with consumer groups, like Consumers Union, to oppose the merger.

As noted in this blog many times before, the merger is a government sanction for bad management, a bailout if you will. Both XM and Sirius spent hundreds of millions, needlessly really, on bidding for big name talent. The talent (if you call Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey talent) could not deliver the big subscriber numbers needed to make the services profitable. As it turns out, most folks aren’t interested in paying for Stern or Winfrey, but prefer to get them on commercial (so-called “free”) media instead. So the companies sought a merger as a way to fight their growing debt.

Now, the only way to stop the merger is if consumer groups find the financing and guts to go to court. The courts have not been kind to the FCC in recent years, overturning a variety of major commission rulings; that includes the recent court decision to block FCC fines in the infamous Janet Jackson breast baring incident at the Super Bowl. A court case is the only way to stop this merger insanity, at least until a revamped Justice Department in the Obama administration can make everyone come to their senses. (Given Sen. John McCain’s views on cable television, a McCain White House may have other thoughts too.)

Apparently, Commissioner Tate seems to be bending toward the merger if both companies agree to pay the federal government $20 million in fines.

So, let’s get this straight. The companies agree they have not kept promises to consumers about the availability of consumer-friendly receivers. The companies agree they have broken FCC regulations in regards to their ground-based repeater transmitters. So these fines are due to the government regardless of any merger proposal. But Tate is willing to exchange her vote of approval if the companies agree not to fight and just pony up the cash. Sounds like typical Republican shady dealing while selling out consumers.

As part of the FCC deal to approve the merger, Republican commissioners have fashioned a long list of items that the merged satellite monopoly must do — including price cuts — to appear to be serving the public. (After all, the core mission of the FCC is to get media firms to uphold the public interest.) But if the FCC is too weak to even fight the satellite radio firms over fines that the federal government has coming, how much enforcement is going into making sure a future monopoly is upholding the letter of this merger agreement?

This merger is about to prove that big money, expensive attorneys, and well-placed lobbyists win almost every time. And really, in the end, that makes bribery look bush league.

For more background, please also see:

(Graphic collage by koka_sexton of the San Francisco Bay area of California via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)










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7.24.2008

Guns & D.C.: Far from a Ceasefire

by Molly Kenney

A 13-year-old boy was killed by gunfire last week in the D.C. neighborhood of Trinidad, still surrounded by military-style checkpoints after months of intensive gun crime. And earlier this summer, after Washington, D.C.’s 32-year-long gun ban was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, police chief Kathy Lanier admitted that the Metropolitan Police Department has no idea how many guns are in the District.

So the gun ban didn’t work.



That much is clear from the District’s reputation as the homicide capital of the U.S., but recent gun violence, seemingly unchecked since April, has coincided with the Court’s rejection of the gun ban’s constitutionality. (Although D.C. has a poor reputation for violence, statistically, New Orleans has the highest rate of homicide for major cities in the U.S. The FBI also rates Baltimore and Detroit ahead of D.C., with worse homicide rates.) Second Amendment feelings aside, if the complete ban failed miserably at its goal of stopping gun crime, how will less stringent legislation solve the problem?

Last week, the D.C. Council announced the Firearms Control Emergency Amendment Act of 2008, an obvious scramble to fill the void left by the Court’s decision and enact some type of meaningful gun control. According to The Washington Post, the new act allows gun possession by an application that includes a written exam, criminal background check, fingerprinting, vision test, ballistic testing, and proof of residency. Handguns in homes are now allowed, though the act maintains the original ban’s restrictions on automatic and semi-automatic weapons, a move that will likely draw legal challenges. After wavering on the acceptability of loaded, unlocked guns, the Council decided that guns must be unloaded and locked in the home unless an immediate threat is present.

Several groups have already threatened to challenge the new law, largely based on its continued ban of automatic and semiautomatic weapons and the storage requirements. While D.C.’s gun crimes remain in the national news and the police struggle to count the guns they need to control, it’s up to the D.C. City Council to balance the cries for Second Amendment freedom and public safety. Can D.C.’s revised gun legislation limit gun control and control gun crime? It’s a long shot.

(Photo by e53 of Cedar Rapids, Iowa via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)









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7.23.2008

Vegas: Friendship, Poker & a Little Summer League Basketball Too

by Hayden Alfano

Las Vegas is full of superficialities: Silicon-infused women; men who pretend to be richer than they are in order to impress those women; casinos that act as though they want you to win. It’s a quality that is both my favorite thing about the city, and my least favorite thing about the city.

Love it or hate it, however, the overall fakeness of Vegas serves the purpose of illuminating, by contrast, the real and the genuine.

I bring this up because my most recent trip out there — ostensibly to check out the National Basketball Association’s Summer League — turned out to be about much more than just basketball. Sure, I got my first look up close at Kevin Love’s textbook fundamentals and O.J. Mayo’s picture-perfect three-point shot. But those things would have been around whether I made the trek from Washington, D.C., or not.



What was unique was the opportunity to hang out with a group of guys I feel like I’ve known for a long time, but had technically never met. We’re all members of the same fantasy basketball league. We exchange hundreds of emails and instant messages about basketball throughout the course of a season. Phone calls to discuss possible trades are not uncommon. But with a few exceptions, most of us hadn’t met in person.

As evidenced by the number of bachelor parties held there, Vegas is a mecca for male bonding. Add to the usual gambling, eating, and drinking — we actually stayed away from the R-rated activities Vegas is known for — a common passion for basketball, and a good time was, dare I say it, a slam dunk. We fell into conversation and merriment as easily as a group of old college buddies would.

There’s a stigma attached to those who have so-called “Internet friends.” The stereotype is the lonely dude lacking social skills who lives in his parents’ basement, and spends his nights drinking Red Bull and playing video games. While that may have once been accurate, the fact is that the world is so connected, and the Internet so ubiquitous, that we all know people we’ve never met in person, but talk to on the phone or exchange e-mail with daily.

I, for one, feel fortunate to live in a time when this sort of thing is possible, where people with common interests can form a virtual community that eventually translates in person.

By the time the week was over, people were already making tentative plans for next year. Those who couldn’t make it this time around but had followed the proceedings through scouting reports over the league’s e-mail list were envious, and expressed interest in coming along in the future.

When I go to Vegas, I typically return with a headache, a sunburn, and maybe a few extra bucks in my wallet if I play well at the poker tables. (Note to the IRS: I got killed on this trip). This time around, I left with a lot more than that.

(Editor's Note: For results of the Vegas Summer League, please go here.)

(Photo by http2007 of Le Plessis Robinson, France via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)








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7.22.2008

The Spirit of Evita & Argentina's Protests

by Suzie Raven

More than fifty years after her death, actress and the former first lady of Argentina, Evita Duarte Perón is still everywhere in Buenos Aires. (This Saturday, July 26 will mark 56 years since she died.) Billboards advertise "Evita's movement” and tourists always crowd around her family’s tomb at the city’s famous cemetery. Farmers wave signs with her name during protests against the government’s tax hikes on soybean and grain exports.



People remember Evita's seemingly constant struggle for social justice. She was instrumental in women’s suffrage, crafted a Declaration of Rights for Senior Citizens, and built twelve hospitals throughout the country. Dolane Larson wrote of the former first lady: “Evita was concerned with providing her special loves — the children, the seniors, the workers and the poor — with housing that was more than adequate (adequate was not acceptable to Evita)." As a champion of the workers, odds are that Evita’s heart would lie with the farmers in the country’s current struggle. (For more background on these protests by farmers, please see: "Argentina in the Protest Season.")

At the very least, Evita would be happy that the farmers have found a voice. During the protests, crowds would swell to more than 100,000 people. Noise exploded as the protestors banged pots and pans, beat drums and shot fireworks.

Even after weeks of daily protests on my street — I live a block from Argentina's Congress — I could never ignore the noise. The sound of fireworks consistently sent me and other students to the balcony. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner could not ignore it either, and would frequently take to her own podium at these rallies to respond to the opposition’s speeches. Even those unwillingly caught in the crossfire made their voices heard. They passed out flyers that said “Ni con el campo, ni con el gobierno,” meaning not with the farmers or with the government.

Evita, the Argentine workers' champion, would support this dialogue between citizens and the government. It’s not just a handful of people in suits sitting at a mahogany table making decisions. Four months of protests worked. Late last week, Vice President Julio Cobos broke a tie in the Senate and stopped the bill that supported Fernandez’ tax hikes on various farm commodities.

In Washington, D.C., when people are upset with President George W. Bush, they don’t take their pots, pans, drums, flags and fireworks to the White House Lawn. Too often, they assume nothing can be done, but the Argentine farmers proved that’s not true. Take note, disgruntled U.S. citizens.

(The photos of Argentine protestors are © copyright Suzie Raven, and used with permission.)











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7.21.2008

Music: Understanding the Dark Side of Rock

by Rick Rockwell

By happy coincidence, those who like their rock with an emphasis on the heavy have a few weighty milestones to consider from the masters this week.

Namely, Black Sabbath and Nine Inch Nails.

And if those names aren’t familiar to you, or if they make you blanch, fair warning: proceed forward at your own risk.



This week, Rhino Records releases a five-disc box set called The Rules of Hell, representing the middle era of Black Sabbath’s career, featuring vocalist Ronnie James Dio. This week also marks the official CD release of The Slip from Nine Inch Nails, in a special limited edition with a live DVD attached. (Regular readers of this blog know, this critic has already noted The Slip is one of the best releases of 2008, so far.) Although The Slip has been available online for months, some folks are a bit more traditional and want their music in a jewel case. The Slip, by the way, has not only earned some critical kudos but has been in and out of Amazon’s top new releases list for weeks.

But some folks still don’t understand heavy rock. Although The Washington Post noted that The Slip was the best music from Nine Inch Nails in a decade (and they are right about that), the band still only earned a “B+” on The Post's rating scale. The Post said The Slip should come with “a Prozac prescription.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps those who don’t understand heavy metal and industrial rock also don’t understand the meaning of the word “cathartic.”

As someone who has followed heavy rock for 40 years or so, and heard the beginnings of Sabbath, this same old battle just elicits a sigh. Metal wasn’t cool in the early 1970s, unless it was Led Zeppelin, a band that to this day refuses to admit it had anything to do with the invention of heavy metal. And later in its career, the Zeppelin would careen with the critics sniping at it for its metallic overtones. So even the Zep lost its cool. Too heavy.

Well, too bad for the mainstream critics.

Many never understood (and still don't understand) metal, and the heavy sounds that followed (goth, industrial, and the various metallic sub-genres) were just as much the sound of alienation, teen angst, and rebellion as anything produced by the punk movement, which critics deigned to be much higher on the rock ‘n roll pantheon. Some of the best heavy metal still speaks volumes even beyond adolescence, despite what some mainstream critics see as mainly the arrested development of metalheads.

That’s not to say The Rules of Hell represents a hidden gem. Frankly, it’s amazing Rhino is able to recycle such mediocre metal. Little did folks realize at the time, but the Ozzy Osbourne version of Black Sabbath was carving out wide swaths of the metal legacy, that would go on to influence generations of metal bands, grunge acts, industrial rockers, and yes, even some punks too. But that was over, for the most part by 1978. The version of the band with Dio as lead singer would feed off that legacy until 1982 when a revolving door of lead singers began and the group began a slow disintegration. (Dio is supposedly back in the studio working on a new album with other former members of Sabbath, now recording under the name Heaven and Hell.)

Certainly, bands such as Metallica picked up the heavy metal banner in the mid-1980s and have kept it flying.

But this critic rediscovered the cathartic release of heavy sounds in the industrial clubs of Florida’s Ybor City in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled, of course by Nine Inch Nails and Pretty Hate Machine.

To the uninitiated, yes, the mere titles of these albums are off-putting. They’re meant to be. Only those willing to confront the paint-peeling sounds of souls truly bared gain admittance. Sure, some of that is put-on. But at its core, real musical catharsis is possible in the metal and industrial genres. The best of this music is as sincere as any musical form, or art form for that matter. If you can understand how tragedy in drama can be uplifting, then you already understand the parallel concept of how this music is actually an escape from depression, not a cause for a further downward spiral.

(The photo of Nine Inch Nails performing in Munich is by Luca De Santis of Orzignano, Italy via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License. Nine Inch Nails begins its tour of North and South America on July 25 in Vancouver, Canada. To see Nine Inch Nails performing an R-rated version of "1,000,000" from The Slip, please check below.)















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7.20.2008

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight & the Oscars

by R. J. Forman

Here’s the problem with all this Oscar buzz for Heath Ledger: Should he actually be nominated, he’ll take home that golden man.

Although, he won’t actually take the statue home, of course, because he’s dead.

(And dead, all too soon, for that matter.)

He’ll win it because he’s dead and he was young when he died.

There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than youthful tragedy.

I mean, my goodness, look at the films they put out.



USA Today, for all its mediocre news, nailed this one.

In a piece last week, writer Scott Bowles said: “Ledger’s death has done more than ensure cinematic rubber-necking that will make The Dark Knight one of the biggest movies for the year. Critics…are hailing the movie as a masterwork.”

There are some who think it’s damn near impossible to win an Oscar posthumously. And they would be right if we were still living in a civilized time.

The Oscars have nominated six people who were deceased by award time.

Only Network’s Peter Finch won.

However, let us not forget that these days we love death…especially when it involves a young, pretty person and there’s a slight air of mystery or misery to their passing.

So let’s get back to Ledger.

He died January 22nd of what authorities decided was “an accidental overdose of prescription medications.”

First of all, you don’t “accidentally” overdose on prescription medications.

Second, the media ran wild with this story, giving it about as much coverage as they gave Anna Nicole Smith.

Boy, do we love when the young and beautiful die from pill popping.

Third, there's the debate about giving movies like The Dark Knight Oscar attention.

This is not to say that they don’t deserve it.

The trend is that superhero flicks get ignored.

And it’s not crazy to suggest that The Dark Knight would be completely forgotten by Oscar season were it not for Ledger’s death.

Ledger’s performance may be good. And the fact that he’s dead really adds to the level of eeriness surrounding his character, the Joker.

But if James Dean and Spencer Tracy (who, strangely enough, said he would only play the Penguin in the Batman television series if he could kill the Bat) couldn’t win their Oscars posthumously should Heath Ledger really win his?

(Promotional photo of Heath Ledger as the Joker from Warner Brothers Pictures. To see a trailer for The Dark Knight, please check below.)














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7.19.2008

Avatar: The Last Installment

by Rick Rockwell

One of the best programs on television wraps up tonight (Saturday, July 19), but if you’re an adult without children, you’re probably unaware it exists.

Those who regularly visit the most watched basic cable network, Nickelodeon, know this series is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Truthfully, your usually skeptical reviewer probably would never have watched the series, if not for his daughter and wife. But now the skeptic is the biggest fan in the house. The series has been on television since 2005, and the third and final season is about to come to a close (tonight at 8 p.m. EDT). Nickelodeon and its associated Nicktoons Network have been running repeats this summer until this week’s unveiling of the final few episodes, and it has become a guilty pleasure.

Sure, some parents are worried about the violence, intensity, and portrayals of magic and mysticism in the program, recommending that it is not appropriate for children under nine. This critic begs to differ.



Few would admit it, but some parents may be uncomfortable with how the program weaves eastern religious philosophy into the plot. Parts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism are apparent in this cartoon to anyone who has studied those religions. However, this series is an epic centered around the missions of a messianic teenager. Anyone who has seen this series, with the Avatar winging in silhouette against the sun on his glider knows he’s also a stand-in for Christ. (Importantly, though, the Avatar’s mission is not conversion, but to “restore balance to the world.”)

Yes, the program is violent, but it represents how teens come to grips with a violent world. Often the message is about attempts to avoid violence. One of the new episodes unveiled this week ("The Southern Raiders") struggled with the idea of revenge. Sure, deep subject matter, but a great talking point for kids who want to strike back against someone hitting them on the playground with a karate chop.

Also, one of the central characters in the second and third seasons is blind, and the series includes positive portrayals of the disabled, projecting them really as differently-abled. Of course, this also opens up discussions on those important topics.

Few children’s programs are sophisticated enough to run a satirical episode that basically pokes fun at the entire concept. But the producers of Avatar saw fit to do just that in the penultimate episode ("The Ember Island Players").

For those unfamiliar with the series, comparisons may be unfair, because this is truly an original concept. The humorous and romantic portions of Avatar pay homage to Japanese anime. However, the animated action sequences are similar to the best American graphic novels. Like the best cartoons, the plots work for those under ten, while also embedding jokes and cultural references for adults. The series is a fantasy epic that’s comparable to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, but throw in more than a dash of TV’s Kung-Fu for good measure and you’ll get an idea of the mood. Avatar takes place in an imaginary world with technology from the late 19th Century/early 20th Century, but this world is also filled with mysticism and magic. The Avatar’s mission is to restore balance between the four nations, which take their names from the elements and echo cultures from our world: Air (think Tibet); Water (think Inuit); Earth (think China); and Fire (think World War II-era Japan).

So for those who aren’t clued into the series, yet, the suggestion here is to pick up the DVDs or buy the episodes on iTunes. It’s probably too late to catch up to make tonight’s finale worthwhile, although Nicktoons will continue its marathon of episodes from the third season later today (at 2 p.m. EDT).

Or you can just wait until 2010. That’s the date Paramount Pictures has set for the beginning of a three-part Avatar live-action feature film series (although Avatar will be dropped from the title for legal reasons). Director M. Night Shyamalan has signed on to guide the film series (which he may need to revive a career that has foundered a bit with his last few films).

Name one other television series that deals intelligently with imperialism, spiritualism, philosophy, and teen angst, with multi-dimensional characters and can keep the under-ten set interested. Avatar: The Last Airbender has all that and more.

(Promotional graphic of Avatar: The Last Airbender from Nickelodeon. To take a cute personality quiz based upon the characters in Avatar, please go here. To see a trailer for the final episodes of Avatar's Season 3, please check below.)












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7.18.2008

iVoryTowerz Radio: From the Archives, No. 2

Another summer week when schedules intervene, so it's time to revive another of the best programs from 2007 (at least for a limited time). This week, the underground podcast goes deep into the archive for a show that hits plenty of musical buttons: progressive metal, blues, garage rock, Irish punk, folk, and country-folk, plus straight up rock 'n roll. As usual, we cover about 45 years of modern music and have some fun while doing it. Give a listen and you'll see this one was worth blowing the dust off. Enjoy!




(This podcast is no longer available for download.)




Playlist

“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.

(Photo by extranoise of Berlin, Germany via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

Originally podcast as iVoryTowerz No. 22.




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7.17.2008

Destroying the Village to Save It; Same Old Logic, New Locale

by Abigail DeRoberts
Special to iVoryTowerz

In certain parts of the District of Columbia — Columbia Heights, for instance — the only impetus necessary for a massive wave of gentrification is to put in mainstream chain stores like Target and Bed, Bath and Beyond; if you build it, they will come. However, young urban professionals need a bit more coaxing to move into other parts of the city. As a result, the city has taken on initiatives created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create what it calls “mixed-income communities.” Typically, these initiatives target low-income communities and public housing projects, and claim to be able to eradicate crime in the area by creating these mixed-income communities.

One of these was HOPE VI, a HUD program implemented in many cities and states throughout the country. In 2002, the Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg public housing project in D.C. was one of its targets. In line with the plans for HOPE VI, residents were immediately moved out of the area, and new developments were built. While HOPE VI’s contract included requirements for the inclusion of “low-income housing,” low-income was defined as 60% of the median income of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. The median income of the D.C. metropolitan area is one of the highest in the country at more than $78,000 annually; most former households in Arthur Capper/Carrollsburg made less than $10,000 a year. As a result, no families could afford to move back to their former neighborhood, and were permanently pushed out by an official HUD program. (For more information, see the film Chocolate City, a locally made documentary about the effects of HOPE VI on D.C. residents.)



D.C.'s government is at it again with Mayor Adrian Fenty’s so-called “New Communities” initiative. Almost identical to HOPE VI, “New Communities” targets low-income D.C. neighborhoods such as Northwest One, Lincoln Heights, and Barry Farm. These neighborhoods are to be demolished and then rebuilt by developers whose profit margin depends directly on the percentage of the development that will be sold at market-rate. As a result, and as funding gaps grow, developers are quick to abandon former plans of providing housing for low-income residents. Despite this, Fenty’s government remains set on following through with plans of demolition and redevelopment, unabashedly embracing these plans which will ultimately push low-income residents and people of color out of the District.

Such close alliances between local government and large housing development corporations continue to frighten residents and threaten D.C.’s culture and history. Low-income communities are becoming fewer and fewer and public housing projects are under attack from all sides. Government-sponsored displacement is irresponsible and directly ignores the needs of District residents. While there is resistance to all of these projects throughout the city, such resistance work is daunting, because those who oppose such redevelopment are so consistently ignored. It is imperative that the government pay attention to the needs of District residents and make their well-being a priority. If we don’t all begin to demand this soon, the “New Communities” initiative will live up to its name, and Washington, D.C. will be a new community entirely.

To read more on the problems of gentrification, please see "Privatization & Gentrification: Milton Friedman's Shock Troops."

(Graphic from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)










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