Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Mere Fool Would Ignore This

Unless you don't give a toss about your own life, you should watch this impressively morbid 1970s British public safety film featuring rather excellent voiceover narration from Donald Pleasance:

Found via this very good interview with Jon Brooks aka The Advisory Circle.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Tábua De Esmeralda

This may be the first in an occasional series of pieces on albums that I consider personal, perennial favorites.

Jorge Ben's 1974 album A Tábua De Esmeralda is a strikingly lovely example of Ben's charismatic singing and trademark fusion of styles. His beloved samba is the touchstone, but there are also strains of soul, rock, funk, and folk present. Tábua exemplifies one of the strengths of the album format: the power to evoke a particular mood over a long period of time--in this case, a kind of relaxed but stimulating bliss--and the album is notably sonically consistent. You might call it homogeneous or monotonous at first glimpse, except Ben's guitar playing is so beguiling and there are so many inspired details in the production and arrangements that the true unifying element in the sound of the record is ornate beauty, and why would you object to that?

A few of the tracks end by dissolving into gentle psychedelia: "O Homen Da Gravata Florida" gradually reverberates into the ether; "Errare Human Est" echoes off into space. While on others, the use of a small string section and chorus provides additional color, especially on "Zumbi", a song that Ben would radically revise as stomping funk for his equally stunning 1976 album África Brasil. The only outlier is "Brother", Ben's soulful testifying ode to Jesus and a rare instance of him singing in English. As is often the case when Brazilians sing in English, the result is a little goofy, but I find Ben's voice endlessly pleasing and the song has enough of the rest of the album's gently insinuating charm to carry it through (also his pronunciation of "music" as "music-y" is rather endearing). Another highlight is the album's final song, "Cinco Minutos (5 Minutos)", which features Ben's memorable falsetto.

Much to my recurring regret, I do not speak or read Portuguese, but I do think it's worth noting that even I can recognize that A Tábua De Esmeralda has some common themes. The title can be translated as The Emerald Tablet, which is the name of a foundational text for medieval alchemists as well as esoteric Christianity more broadly; this tablet is purported to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, a figure (sometimes considered a deity, sometimes a man) from antiquity who has knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and magic and is name-checked here and on África Brasil. Some of these ideas and references recur in Ben's work, and while the language barrier is ultimately insurmountable for me, I do think even this shallow understanding of the subject matter helps partially explain the enchanting atmosphere on this brilliant album.

Listening notes: If you're in the U.S., you can listen to this on Lala, and Amazon and iTunes (and possibly other digital retailers) also have it for download. If you want a physical copy, Dusty Groove has it in stock, but like most Brazilian CDs these days, it's rather expensive at $22.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Short Story, Short Post

My friend Ted has a great little short story (like, tiny) up here; you should read it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Education Rock

That last post ended up as more of a dry lecture than I'd hoped, though I think the idea has potential and I might return to it. But, like any teacher worried that he's strained the patience and attention spans of his students, now I'm going to play you a bunch of purportedly educational videos. Here are a few songs you can use to elucidate a variety of concepts in literary studies. Sadly the song that provided the title for this post isn't available on YouTube, but you can hear it on Lala.


Obviously a nearly infinite number of songs could illustrate this concept, but I find Bo's dedication to the "bucket = lover" metaphor in this song weirdly compelling.

Forced Rhyme

Internal Rhyme

I couldn't decide between these two songs, both of which are perfect examples of the odd way that internal rhyme is pleasurable to the ear.



The Wu-Tang Clan are masters of the acronym; see also: Witty Unpredictable Talent And Natural Game, Criminals Robbing Innocent Motherfuckers Everytime, and Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Okay, school is over, go watch cartoons.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Terroir is a concept used by wine connoisseurs that I've often thought should take on wider application. It refers to the effects that the physical location of the grapes has on the finished bottle; as Wikipedia puts it "the special characteristics that geography bestow[s] upon particular varieties." For oenophiles, exploring terroir requires exacting analysis of soil quality and climate--all of which is beyond my limited knowledge of wine. But beyond geology and meteorology, there is a poetry to the idea: through the miracle of viniculture--a kind of alchemy or transubstantiation--by drinking a bottle from a specific corner of Bordeaux or Napa Valley or Mendoza, you're imbibing the place itself.

Terroir often comes to mind when I think about reggae. Reggae can be daunting for neophytes because the unique social and cultural circumstances that led to its development and continue to influence it are quite different from the models of music production we're used to in the rest of the Anglophone world. One of the difficulties is figuring out a point of entry: reggae is collected and classified in different and confusing fashions. Since Jamaica has always been primarily a singles-driven market, you can find compilations based around singers, groups, producers, engineers, backing bands, labels, studios, and theme (though I would steer well clear of those). Adding to the confusion: sometimes the backing bands are the same group of musicians in slightly different configurations; the number of singers or groups with one single who are never heard from again is countless; some producers simply ran the business end of things and had little impact on the sound of the records they produced; lots of singles appeared and reappeared on different labels; and so on.

However, certain studios have such a distinct sound that experienced listeners can identify them immediately, and if you like that sound, it's possible to enjoy nearly every piece of music made there. There are a number of studios that could be said to exhibit terroir, but I'm going to talk about two very different places: Studio One and Wackie's.

Studio One

Clement "Coxsone" Dodd's Studio One is a giant in the history of reggae, easily the most famous studio and record label in Jamaica. The rhythms made there in the late 1960s and early 1970s are foundational to Jamaican music and are still revived today (see this old post for an example of what I'm talking about). When the studio was reopened in the late '70s after a period of dormancy, it played a significant role in changing the music again as the roots sound transitioned into dancehall. That reopening was a direct response to the fact that most of the popular rhythms at the time were being recycled from Studio One's heyday (Channel One's name wasn't a coincidence). Ska, the music that launched indigenous Jamaican music, began there, and the studio remained massively important through the rocksteady and roots years. But apart from decisively shaping about fifteen years of the music's development, it is the trademark sound of records from Studio One--primarily a product of the engineer and the equipment--that makes them so special.

It's a little difficult to say what exactly that "sound" is, but the most obvious factor is the legendarily heavy bass sound. Like many Jamaican studios, Studio One grew out of Dodd's work as a soundsystem operator. Jamaican audiences were used to the intense levels of bass the soundsystems pumped into the open-air dancehalls, so when Jamaicans first began recording their music, the engineers recorded the bass at levels their counterparts in the U.S. or UK would have considered way too high. Sylvan Morris, the main engineer at Studio One, went even further.

As detailed in Michael Veal's book Dub, Morris built a special box to record the bass sounds coming out of the back of the speakers and used an equalizer that further boosted the low end of his recordings. The result is that the bass is usually the most prominent sound in any given Studio One record, a warm, deep, and physical sound that is hugely different from any American or British music until hip-hop or techno, both of which are clearly indebted to reggae.

Other elements added to the signature sound of the studio, including a tape-based echo unit named the Soundimension (a name the Studio One house band adopted as their own) and less tangible factors like the amazing speed with which new recordings were made, the tight-knit nature of the main musicians, and the inventiveness of keyboardist Jackie Mittoo who created many of the most enduring Studio One rhythms before emigrating to Canada in the late '60s.


Another label-studio combination, Wackie's was founded in the Bronx by Lloyd "Bullwackie" Barnes in the mid-1970s. Barnes was born in Kingston in 1945 and emigrated to New York in 1967. Like Dodd, Barnes began as a soundsystem operator, but, again like many Jamaican sounds before his, Barnes eventually decided the gang violence that dances inevitably attracted wasn't worth the risk. According to this brief history: "after picking some bullets out of a speaker after a party he decided to give up the soundsystem business." And so, Barnes, who had been a backup singer in Jamaica, switched directions and began producing, recording, and distributing music made by a small group of fellow immigrants in the Bronx as well as Jamaican artists--Horace Andy and Sugar Minott both recorded some of their finest work there--passing through town.

Easily the most significant producer of reggae in the U.S., Wackie's has, until recently, been mostly ignored. This has something to do with the indelible connection between the UK and Jamaica overshadowing reggae made elsewhere, but the biggest factor is the limited quantities the records were pressed in. Nonetheless, those rare records found their way to Germany where they played a large role in the development of dub techno, exemplified by Basic Channel and Pole. Basic Channel in turn has reissued a huge portion of the Wackie's catalog, reintroducing their music to a global audience and bringing these records more attention than they could have possibly had when they were originally released.

The Wackie's sound is even more distinctive than Studio One's--even songs recorded elsewhere and then mixed at Wackie's bear the studio's unmistakable fingerprints. Those fingers mostly belong to Douglas Levy, the studio's main engineer (as much as I like this terroir idea, obviously this piece is a testament to the unsung role of the engineer), who as Prince Douglas made perhaps my favorite Wackie's release, Dub Roots. The influence of Lee Perry's maximalist approach to recording and dubbing--as opposed to King Tubby's process of subtraction--is pretty obvious, but the Wackie's sound is nonetheless singular. Almost alone among dub mixers, Levy often treated the bass guitar with effects, creating a psychedelic, liquid bass sound that is disorienting compared to the heartbeat/pulse-like role the bass usually takes in reggae. This rubbery bass combined with the heavily processed sound of the other instruments and early adoption of a variety of synthesizers and effects units gives some Wackies productions a proto-digital quality--I can see why they would have appealed to German techno heads since they often remind me of the electronic side of krautrock (Cluster and Harmonia) as much as of their Jamaican counterparts.

Other distinct elements include a very flat, usually phased drum sound, huge amounts of echo, simple guitar lines that aren't far from the wiry post-punk sound being played in downtown Manhattan* at the same time, and a general dubwise approach to the production. Ultimately, though the sound is ineffable; it's as much a mood as a recognizable set of sonic signifiers.

*Wackie's location in the Bronx leads people to wonder whether you can hear a New York influence in the records, especially with hip-hop being born at the same time in the same borough. Ultimately, I don't really hear it on a literal level, but there is an urban coldness to Wackie's productions that could reflect the concrete, high-rises, and winters of the American ghetto.

Terroir Postscript

I've given a lot of credit to the engineers here, mostly because they put the final stamp on any recording that passes through their hands (I suppose you could make arguments for mastering services and pressing plants--and there are some famous examples of the latter that people claim have identifiable effects on the finished records) and they are often ignored. But the reason terroir appeals to me as an apt metaphor for musical production is the constellation of factors that influence recording a song in a room: the musicians, instruments, recording equipment, the producer, the engineer, and the acoustics of the room itself. I've focused on reggae studios because I'm more steeped in it than other genres--though the big omission here is Lee Perry's Black Ark--but there are plenty of other good cases, including Hitsville, Muscle Shoals, the Van Gelder Studio, and Abbey Road.

[Obviously I don't agree with some of the narration in that clip!]

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mr. Hauntologylisationalism Is the Boss

There appears to be a resurgence of interest in hauntology afoot. Or perhaps it's more of a consolidation of interest, a recognition of the idea/genre as not merely a trendy buzzword but one of the defining themes of the past ten years or so, bringing together concepts such as nostalgia, media technology, decay, and memory. This old-ish post on the Wire's blog is something of a Rosetta stone for the concept, touching on some important online writing about the topic as well as linking to most of the major groups and musicians usually considered hauntological.

If reading about hauntology doesn't interest you then you should at least start downloading Jon Brooks' affable Cafe Kaput podcasts. Brooks is better known as Ghost Box artist The Advisory Circle, whose wonderful Other Channels is probably my favorite record from the label and whose Mind How You Go has just been reissued. Brooks' podcasts feature tracks from a wide range of music genres and periods--even advertising jingles--but much of it is drawn from '60s library music records and soundtracks, so they're very current for their time and yet totally obscure, giving you the uncanny sensation of hearing pop hits from an alternative timeline.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Here is a mesmerizing trailer for Dash Shaw's recently published BodyWorld, which was originally a webcomic:

I didn't get very far into BodyWorld in its online incarnation. I don't think that's necessarily a reflection on the work; so far the few webcomics that I've enjoyed all follow a more-or-less basic gag strip format or a fairly linear narrative structure. BodyWorld gives the impression of being a lot more complex, even dauntingly so, but the print version looks stunning, and the ambition of Shaw's hefty Bottomless Belly Button paid off
surprisingly well so I'm quite looking forward to reading this soon.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday in the Park

Dois por Christina. Do click that link if you haven't visited in a while; earlier this year her site was beautifully redesigned and updated with a bunch of great new photos, especially in the Greenpoint section.

Here's Gilberto Gil performing "Domingo no Parque" ("Sunday in the Park") with Os Mutantes as his backing band:

And here he is solo in 1972 performing "Expresso 2222" after returning from two years of political exile in London; you can feel the intense joy and energy of his return to Brazil in both his performance and the audience's :

Have a nice Sunday, Christina!

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Anyone interested in writing should go subscribe to Jane Espenson's blog right now. Until a few days ago it had been dormant for over a year, so I'm very pleased she has started it back up again. If you're not familiar with Espenson, she is a highly experienced TV writer and producer. I first encountered her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (where she wrote series highlights like "Band Candy" and "A New Man"), but she has a pretty amazing range of credits from Gilmore Girls to Battlestar Galactica.

Her blog is aimed at aspiring TV writers, but anyone who writes anything--especially comedy--could benefit from her advice. Her current post is about how when movies transitioned into sound, a huge number of new writers were needed to provide dialogue and that many of them were either novelists or journalists. I think her conclusions are basically sound, though I couldn't help but think of The Wire, which included novelists George Pelecanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane on its writing staff. Of course, series creator David Simon is famously a journalist, but I think this combination is what made the show so special. Simon's journalist past (not to mention the journalistic tendencies of this particular group of novelists) informed the show's naturalism, while the novelists' scope and foresight helped the show develop the rich depth over five seasons that has secured its current place as the consensus choice for greatest TV series thus far.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Act Now, Supplies Are Limited

This has been a thrilling week for people who enjoy depressing news--so much so that I'm not sure where to start. I could make this an Even More On That Video post by linking to John Caruso's sickening collection of quotes and stories illuminating the military frame of mind. Or I could point to this Glenn Greenwald column that features this quote from the commander of the war in Afghanistan: "We've shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force." Perhaps I should say something about this study that found that 32% of the people killed by drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004 were civilians? But I think we can all rest easy in the conviction that that policy won't have any long-term repercussions.

Or we could talk about the totally unsurprising revelation (from a former aide to Colin Powell) that "George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld covered up that hundreds of innocent men were sent to the Guantánamo Bay prison camp because they feared that releasing them would harm the push for war in Iraq and the broader War on Terror." And that "the majority of detainees--children as young as 12 and men as old as 93, he said--never saw a US soldier when they were captured. He said that many were turned over by Afghans and Pakistanis for up to $5,000. Little or no evidence was produced as to why they had been taken."

Then there's the genuinely surprising news that Los Angeles County now leads the nation in death penalty convictions. But there's some good news about a general decline in death sentences included in that editorial, so that won't work for our purposes. But here's something: "the Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen," meaning that the Obama administration has just sentenced someone to death without a trial. I know there was a lot of excitement around Obama's election, but we didn't actually make him the King, did we? If I missed that, I apologize.

Cripes! I am sorry that I just ruined your day, especially since it's Friday and it's very sunny here in Chicago. Here's something that will cheer you up: you, yes you, can own this inspirational poster for the low price of $15.00! I have seen this thing in all four dimensions and the art and the timeless sentiment expressed by this odd infant are very much worth your money.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More On That Video

Blogger keeps giving me an error message when I try to respond to stickyfingers' comment to the below post, so I'm going to just put it here instead. She said: "This is awful. One of the oddest parts, of it, though, for me, is how easy it is to watch. And how distant all those guys sound -- there's clearly a lot of mis-communication and mis-interpretation going on. Whose actually 'seeing' the street? You know, from street level? And how does a shoulder camera look like an RPG?"

Exactly--the video is being presented in some contexts as an outrageous war crime, but I think as awful as the results of their actions are, it's more telling that the soldiers might not actually have violated any rules. I meant it to serve more as a reminder of what we do when we go to war, both to the innocents who inevitably die (or suffer from unpredictable, long-term physical and mental traumas) and to the soldiers who must surely be deeply damaged by conceiving of the world and other human beings like this for several years. This probably makes me sound hopelessly naive, but I would have thought Vietnam would have been sufficient to have made America beyond reluctant to engage in armed conflict without an extremely compelling reason.

To quickly answer a few of your questions: I read a bit more about the video after I posted it, and some of the dead men may have been armed (though in my obviously amateur opinion, it does not look that way in the video); what they thought was an "RPG" might have been a long telephoto lens; and I believe the street level view is from a nearby tank that they're in radio contact with, presumably the one that shows up later. Anyway, most of what I just wrote was taken from this, which is definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


There was a puzzling wave of back-patting about Iraq a few weeks ago triggered by the recent elections. This purple finger phenomenon (essentially: now that Iraqis have voted, the entire war, the lies used to justify our invading a sovereign nation, and the many lives lost for it are all completely vindicated--indeed, ennobled--forever) was a routine occurrence on the right during the Bush years, but I was surprised to see a form of the argument still being made. Conservative columnist Daniel Larison had a thoughtful response; IOZ had a more vitriolic but also persuasive point.

In 2010 congratulating ourselves on what we did to Iraq is as intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant as hoping Iraq devolves into chaos to prove that you were right to oppose the war in the first place. For the sake of the actual human beings who live in Iraq, I hope for the best possible outcome from our unjustifiable invasion of their country, but I also hope the smug hawks read stories like this one about a study that reveals that "Iraqi children born in the most violent areas are shorter than those born in other parts of the country." And I hope they watch the video below of an attack in 2007 in Baghdad where U.S. soldiers in helicopters killed a group of men, including two Reuters journalists, and wounded two children who were in a van that arrived later to help the wounded. Here is a Reuters article about the video and its long-delayed release.

By the way, I completely understand if you'd rather not watch this video; I avoided it when it crossed my radar yesterday. And yet the worst thing about it is that there's nothing all that shocking in it--you hear some chillingly heartless comments from the soldiers, but in some ways (since I don't personally know any of the victims ) the most horrifying thing is how banal the incident is, how routine it is for these soldiers to fly around exterminating people from above, and how quickly they can justify possibly having murdered children.