Sunday, January 23, 2005

Do the math

This just in from CNN: Americans don’t understand fractions.

Actually, that’s not really what this story says. Instead, it reports the results of a CNN/USA Today poll on whether or not Americans see George W. Bush as a “divider” or a “uniter.” Not surprisingly, given the recent election, opinion was split pretty much down the middle, with 49% of those polled believing that Dubya has divided the country, while another 49% are apparently of the opinion that he is a force for unity.

To their credit, the folks at CNN don’t point out that those who believe Bush is a “uniter” are patently wrong, as you can’t get much more divided than those results. Even more astonishing is that the results almost exactly mirror a similar poll taken in October. So for at least three months, there have been consistent messages in the media that Americans are, erm, divided in their opinion of the president, and yet a whopping one out of two citizens somehow have convinced themselves that a half equals a whole.

In a way, this explains a lot about the Bush presidency — how, for example, his administration has managed to convince voters that it’s not insane to increase spending while cutting taxes, or that it takes only 153,000 troops to control a country of 25 million people (and 432,000 square miles). Dubya and his supporters don't do the math. They don’t have to — they have faith. They believe in his vision of the future, while all those numbers add up to little more than pesky details.

That’s why no amount of schooling will convince them that Bush’s proposal for privatizing Social Security won’t work. If you believe that two-percent compounded interest will, over time, eventually become six percent, that’s good enough. Those who would argue otherwise are merely partisan nay-sayers, after all. Believe.

Not coincidentally, “believe” was the message not-so-subtly built into one the Christmas holidays’ big hits, The Polar Express. Nevermind that the actual plot consists of grabbing a non-believer by the scruff of the neck and rubbing his face in reality long enough for “belief” to take root. (This, apparently, is what passes for salvation in contemporary American popular culture.) No, the message viewers are expected to take away as they exit the googleplex is, If you truly believe, magical things will happen.

And so two-percent interest gets compounded into six-percent; spending more than you take in leads to prosperity; a half equals the whole. It only takes a little belief, America.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Five Finger Exercise

For the past couple months, we’ve had a guest in the house — a piano, on loan from one of my wife’s colleagues. Not a real, hammers-and-soundboard-and-strings piano, but one of the nicer electronic models, with realistic action and only one voice (as opposed to those pianos that double as harpsichords or organs or whatnot). Never having counted myself a pianist — although I had lessons (from my grandmother) as a child, piano always ranked behind various band instruments when it came to getting practice time from me — having a piano in the house hadn’t been a priority, and I’d spent most of the last couple decades letting my trusty DX-7 take care of any keyboard needs.

Now that it’s there, of course, it seems inconceivable that we didn’t have a piano before. It’s been humbling, of course, to note how badly my meager skills had deteriorated over the years; not only does my left hand stumble and miss when trying to keep up with the right, but my fingers inexplicably keep ending up on notes other than those I’ve intended, which is not a problem I have on other instruments. Still, I’ve dug out various music books and have been happy pounding away at the lower numbers in Bartok’s Mikrokosmos and plodding through the easier bits of the Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy on hand.

At this point, I should launch into some minor hair-pulling over not having spent more time practicing the piano in my youth, but to be honest I don’t particularly regret not being a better pianist — no more than the pianists I know regret not being able to play bass. Part of that stems from the satisfaction of knowing that I’m more at home with string and wind instruments (and while I do regret having lost my embouchure over the years, I’m sure my neighbours are quite glad I’m retired from lower brass). Mainly, though, I don’t miss being a better pianist because I know how much work it would have taken. It takes a lot of effort and thousands of hours of practice to become even adequate by professional standards of piano playing; even more daunting is the fact that one could devote a lifetime to practice and still never been any better than “good.” It’s a very hard road to travel, and some of the best pianists I’ve interviewed speak of never feeling as if they’ve mastered the instrument.

That’s one of the reasons I try to discourage friends, when they mention that they’d like to start their children on music lessons, from thrusting piano on their offspring. Don’t get me wrong — I think everyone should learn some piano, just as drawing and swimming should be universal skills. But it’s better for children to start with an instrument that seems to get easier as it goes along, as opposed to piano, which gets harder. Turning the squawk of a clarinet or the screech of a violin into a melody can be a source of tremendous satisfaction for a child, and the discipline gained through practice can be applied to more arduous tasks (such as learning piano) later on.

Of course, all that is based on the (possibly quaint) notion that instrumental proficiency is a talent worth having, and won’t be outmoded by sampling, sequencing and other digital manipulation skills. We all have our illusions.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World?

A few weeks ago, some of you (well, at least two, anyway) expressed concern about misogyny in rap — or, more to the point, concern that critics such as myself aren’t more exercised about it. Certainly, nobody I’ve read seems to have given a second thought to the casual use of the b-word in Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” nor have questions about his attitude toward women kept the song out of numerous Top-10 lists. Maybe having such a nice girlfriend makes our Mr. Carter above suspicion.

Still, I suppose the fact that there are concerns at all is progress. After all, just a decade ago most of the music press was so blinkered in its view of gender roles in music that the fact that women could make worthwhile recordings was considered headline news. Back in the dark ages before hip-hop was even heard of, the Rolling Stones managed to demean women in all sorts of ways (think “Under My Thumb,” “Brown Sugar,” the notorious Black and Blue ad, “Miss You”) and only endured tepidly doctrinaire attacks from the feminist left. Obviously, we’ve come a long way. Baby.

On the other hand, there are also those who believe that dead horses must continuously be beaten, and to that end we can’t repeat too often that Misogyny Is Bad. Mm’kay? It’s a stupid, hateful prejudice, and deserves to be stamped out along with other forms of sexual, racial, cultural and religious intolerance.

If only the question of misogyny in rap were similarly so black-and-white. Sure, someone who believes that any use of the terms “bitch” or “ho” is by definition misogynist (unless applied to female dogs and streetwalkers) will easily find rap guilty on all charges. But such an absolutist view is more than a little foolish, as it leaves no room for satire or sarcasm, among other things.

Focus on at the way specific rap songs address women instead of merely obsessing on foul language, and it begins to become possible to draw useful distinctions. Start with the distinction between seeing a woman as sexually desirable, and seeing women only as sexual appurtenances; the latter is by definition misogynist, whereas the former is, at worst, merely rude. But what about a rap like Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” which can be taken as a statement of black pride (in his rejection of “white” notions of physical beauty), or an utter objectification of womanhood (notice he doesn’t say anything about the women’s personalities)? It could even be both, although the notion that a work of art can embody contradictory ideas is one that gives a lot of people headaches.

Or take raps that refer to women as bitches and ho’s, and look at how the the men are being portrayed. Often, they’re thugs and players, killers, dealers and thieves. Not exactly positive role models, are they? At the same time, a song populated only by hustlers and hos isn’t exactly an accurate portrait of life in the big city (unless you actually think Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a real place). Nor is it intended to be. It’s a fiction, a fantasy, a figment of somebody’s (possibly warped) imagination, and while the picture it paints may be nasty, it doesn’t necessarily mean the artist believes all people are like this.

Of course, after years of palaver about “keepin’ it real” and how rappers are really “musical documentarians,” it’s no surprise that some listeners — particularly those too young, suburban and un-read to remember the lessons implicit in such arguments as Norman Mailer’s The White Negro — can’t discern the difference between actual attitudes and a professional bad-boy stance. Whatever its status as street culture might have been, hip-hop these days is as much a business as movies or video games.

“Misogynist,” like “racist” and “fascist,” is too serious a label to be applied lightly; indeed, the ease with which they’ve been tossed around threatens to make them as meaningless as “liberal” has become in American political discourse. Questioning what’s being said and why is important, as is looking at how the underlying social content is received by its audience.

But if all you want is a simple litmus test to determine whether something is bad and should be shouted down, well, fuck off. One Tipper Gore is more than enough for this world.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

That Was the Year That Was

Like most folks, I tend to put off unpleasant tasks, which is why the promised list of what I liked in 2004 — along with general comments about the year in music — has been so slow coming.

Simply put, while I found much that was admirable in last year’s cavalcade of pop, it was admiration in a detached, cerebral sense. To grab a critical fave at random, I found it really hard to get chuffed about Brian Wilson’s long-lost Smile album. Some of that is, of course, taste; unlike Wilson, I never dug the Hi-Los or Four Freshmen, preferring the more boppish Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and so those vaunted close harmonies Wilson dotes on have always struck me as being a tad soulless. And, to be honest, it’s not like I’ve spent the last 38 years wishing the original Smile had been released as intended. Still, listening to Wilson’s loving exhumation of that lost moment moved me not at all, and reading those it did move seemed a bit like listening to people enthuse over high school reunions — however much you might appreciate their feelings, it’s hard to share a sense of connection.

As such, I found myself at year’s end with a distressingly large stack of CDs I wanted to love but couldn’t. Among them: Bjork’s Medulla (smart and inventive, but not enough to overcome its chilly solipsism); Stars’ Set Yourself on Fire (title to the contrary, it seemed oddly lacking in heat, however beautiful the sound was); U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (is the world really so desperate for Big Rock that even mediocrity gets raves?); and Usher’s Confessions (a couple good singles, sure, but is being shallow and horny really the stuff of autobiography?).

Having said that, the obvious question that follows is: Well, what makes your favourites so great? Basically, what earned these discs their place had mostly to do with time spent in CD players. These are the albums I turned to for fun, for solace, for a burst of joy and for the simple pleasures of sound. There are 20 here, mostly because 10 wasn’t quite enough (and 20 seemed a good place to stop), and the rankings are less a value judgment than a vague reckoning of the intensity of my affection for this music. At this point in time, anyway — my sense of 2004 could be quite different in six months, but who’ll care then?

1. Youssou N’Dour Egypt (Nonesuch)
Perhaps the greatest singer on the planet, and certainly the best in pop. But the pleasures here have less to do with the lustre of his voice than with the ease with which he makes the pan-Arabic vocal tradition his own. Lush, heartbreaking, panoramic, gorgeous.

2. k.d. lang Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch)
A covers album of songs most singers wouldn’t think to cover, this is a wonderful piece of chamber pop, deftly straddling both the rock tradition lang started in, and the croonerish sophistipop she aspires to. She sounds great, naturally, but her real victory is in making the songs sound like they’re hers — no easy feat.

3. Utada Exodus (Def Jam)
Having suggested in print four years ago that this J-POP wunderkind could really make a mark in the North American market, I must admit to having been pre-disposed to liking this. But not even the ambition of her last Japanese studio album, Deep River, prepared me for the ambitious reach exhibited in the dance pop on offer here. Great beats, a distinctive vocal approach and a surprisingly vivid narrative — who would have thought club music would have room for troubadours?

4. Eddi Reader Sings the Songs of Robert Burns (Compass)
An album almost no one heard, and more’s the pity. Reader, who some may recall from her days with Fairground Attraction, cut several delightful-but-overlooked solo albums in the ’90s, and is by no means a folkie purist. But that’s precisely why these old Scots classics work — she makes the wit, the melancholy and the sass within seem as contemporary as an iPod. And her band ain’t bad, either.

5. K-OS Joyful Rebellion (Astralwerks)
Much as I admire the lyrical perspective — thoughtful, honest, courageous, it’s closer to the hip-hop core than any contemporary b-boy stance — what slays me is the way K-OS’ music recaptures the scavenger glee of the great rap DJs. Doesn’t hurt that he can sing, either.

6. Puffy Ami Yumi Hi Hi Puffy Amy Yumi (Epic)
A better best-of than Illustrated History, and proof that they rock bi-linguallly. Now if only Canadian TV would pick up the cartoon show that inspired this collection!

7. Scissor Sisters Scissor Sisters (Universal)
Campy, sure, and very much second-hand (although how much rock these days isn’t?), but delivered with enough glee to make those points moot. And who would have thought intentionally cheesy synths could ever sound cool again?

8. Kanyé West The College Dropout (Roc-a-Fella)
It shouldn’t be a shock that hip-hop is so multi-dimensional, but apparently it is. (And those who were amazed that somebody who could be down with Jay-Z would also be down with Jesus really need to pay more attention to the world around them.) Still, it’s nice to find a producer whose solo project is not only as good as his for-hire work, but frequently better. Neptunes, take note.

9. Keren Ann Not Going Anywhere (Manhattan)
Hardly an album I expected to adore, given its murmuring vocals and Nick Drake moodiness, yet within three plays I was smitten. Quietly smitten, but still. Great songs, but it’s the secondary hooks that keep reeling me back.

10. Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains The Big Eye in the Sky (Prawn Song)
Despite its jam band bona fides, what makes this Les Claypool project shine is how well the playing fits the writing (which relies more on hook than gimmick), and how well the disparate parts fit together. Special kudos to synth wiz Bernie Worrell.

11. Isis Panopticon (Ipecac)
Slow, dark and epic. But where most SD&E metal tends to evoke Black Sabbath and John Williams, Isis is redolent of the Cure and Olivier Messaien. A welcome change.

12. Chris Potter Lift (Sunnyside)
I’ve enjoyed saxophonist Potter previously in a variety of settings, from Dave Holland albums to live with Steely Dan. But the lean, swinging hard bop of this live session eclipses all that — and I love when Kevin Hays weighs in on “7.5” with a ring-modulated Rhodes solo that sounds like the world’s loudest cell phone.

13. Junior Boys Last Exit (Domino)
Using club consciousness to winnow out all that was great about ’80s synth pop — and managing not to sound retro, to boot! What’s not to like?

14. Branford Marsalis Eternal (Marsalis Music)
Given the brilliance of his cameos with Sting and other pop stars, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Marsalis knows his way around a melody. But what makes this ballad collection so compelling is the way he evokes the passion of Coltrane’s ballad work without playing off the well-worn bits of Coltrane’s vocabulary.

15. Lamb of God Ashes of the Wake (Epic)
It’s like System of a Down without the art rock excess, or Korn without the funk fixation. And smarter than 99% of all the guitar albums I heard last year.

16. Simon Rattle, Berlin Philharmonic Messaien: Éclairs sur l’au-delà… (EMI Classics)
If it were only a matter of getting to bask in a previously unheard Messaien masterwork, I’d be happy as a pig in muck. But hearing the wonders Rattles pulls from the Berliners — the transparency of the woodwinds, the bell-like purity of the brass — makes this treat feel like real revelation. Please, sir … more?

17. Keith Jarrett The Out of Towners (ECM)
Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette have been making exquisite albums for so long superlatives barely apply anymore. But DeJohnette, in particular, shines so brightly on this set that it was hard to pry it from the CD player. Besides, I’m a sucker for songs like “You’ve Changed,” which positively glows here.

18. Slipknot Volume 3: The Subliminal Verses (Roadrunner)
With Rick Rubin behind the boards, they finally achieve a studio sound as scary as their onstage look. More to the point, they finally justify all that extra percussion, making me wish more heavy bands made the beat as important as the crunch.

19. Auf der Maur Auf der Maur (Capitol)
Why this wasn’t a bigger hit (critical or popular) I’ll never know — the writing and play beat the pants off Queens of the Stone Age or Probot. Great live show, too.

20. Evgeny Kissin Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-flat, Four Songs; Lizt: Mephisto Waltz No. 1 (RCA Red Seal)
I’d listened to the B-flat sonata many times, but never really heard it before — the rich landscape, the almost picaresque narrative. Kissin evokes the drama and passion of romantic era virtuosity without resorting to flash or corn, delivering both depth and dazzle. If chamber music had rock stars, he’d definitely be one.

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