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June 2005
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Support Your Local Unsigned Band

Sixeyes is the Canadian music/MP3 weblog of Alan Williamson headquartered in or around -- I am guessing here from circumstantial evidence -- Toronto.   From that distant outpost, however, comes news of top quality popular music sprouting right here in Los Angeles.

Dutchmans_goldThanks to Sixeyes' glowing review, and the accompanying MP3 downloads, I was induced to procure The Dutchman's Gold, a 7-song EP from unsigned Angeleno band, The Brokedown.  I am (to paraphrase Babar the elephant) well satisfied with this purchase.  The EP is pure pleasure from its Peter-Max-meets-the-Roadrunner cover art to the lingering steel guitar at the end of the final song.

Alan Williamson's review sums it up musically as "kind of like the early seventies California vibe of The Eagles, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jackson Browne, and Neil Young crossed with The New Pornographers."  Those are good reference points -- although The Brokedown do not suffer from the Overweening Sense of Their Own Importance that afflicts, particularly, the Eagles.  Influences and echoes of 40 years of pop craft are evident throughout these tunes: Badfinger meets Wilco meets Joe Jackson meets The Cars with a dash of Merseybeat and a recurrent frosting of "Surrender"-era Cheap Trick, and those are just the first few reference points that spring to mind.  The band exudes confidence, enthusiasm and skill throughout the proceedings, which end much too soon. 

Will The Brokedown change your life?  It will not.  And isn't it about time you admitted you are a bit old to have your life changed by a band, f'revvinssake?

Will The Brokedown inject a refreshing blast of joy into a long day or a lazy afternoon?  It most certainly will, and what more can you wish from the power of pop?

Heartily recommended, and obtainable directly from the band here.


For Further Reading: Earlier in the year, Fenster Moop waxed all enthusiastic over the power pop genre for the benefit of his fellow Blowhards: "The way I see it, power pop is less a genre than a thread, a continuous line that runs between some of the most playful and spirited music of the past thirty or so years."  The Brokedown mingles well in that illustrious company.

Attention TJ Shoppers: the New York Times is on Your Side

Here's a grand opportunity for California customers of Trader Joe's markets, allowing you both to save money and to savor an advantage over those pesky New Yorkers:

Through Lifehacker (the Really Useful component of the Gawker Media empire) comes a link to a New York Times item selecting the 10 Best Wines Under $10.00.  The good news for Californians is that two of the wines listed are readily available at TJ's, and are priced some $2.00 less than your East Coast friends will be obliged to pay.

  • The Times'  top choice among sub-$10 red wines is the 2001 vintage Côtes du Rhône from J. Vidal Fleury, a blend mostly of grenache and syrah described as "fruity, earthy and balanced without the candied or too-sweet qualities that may make for great popularity in the marketplace but will not impress discerning wine lovers."  I will vouch for the accuracy of that description, having coincidentally had this wine with dinner two nights ago.  In New York, you'll pay $8.00; in sunny California, Trader Joe's will sell it to you for a mere $5.99.
  • Number 3 among the reds was the 2003 bottling of the ever-popular Big House Red blend from Bonny Doon Vineyard.  "Not complex, but full of spicy fruit flavors."  $10.00 in New York, but for you lucky West Coastaceans a paltry $7.99.  (What will you do with all the money you save?  That's right: you'll have enough left over for a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck!)  [Bonus Link: an animated version of the Big House Red label art is viewable here.]
  • The wine-swigging Timesmen also commend an Old Vine Zinfandel from Bogle Vineyards, a wine I have not spotted at TJ's although the store stocks several other Bogle bottlings.  Headquartered in unfashionable Clarksburg, in the Sacramento Delta, Bogle is a reliable source of affordable wines of quality.  And I can promise you they are less expensive here than in New York. So there.

Wine Wins Poll Position in Beverage Derby

The Los Angeles Times on Monday reported on a Gallup poll in which wine finally edges out beer as the drink that American drinkers most frequently drink.   In proper Times fashion, the story is burdened with an inexplicably arch tone and an unfulfilled yearning to find some Larger Forces at work:

What could it mean?  For the first time since the Gallup Poll began keeping track in 1992, more Americans have reported that their alcoholic beverage of choice is wine, not beer.  Months after Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was caricatured as a Chardonnay-sipping Francophile, and somehow less American for it, the French national beverage seemingly has become our preferred swill.

According to Gallup, 39% of American drinkers said they drink wine most often, while only 36% said they drink beer most often.  (The rest prefer liquor, and a small percentage said they like all three equally.)  Technically, the pollsters said, the numbers put wine and beer into a statistical dead heat (when the margin of error is considered).  Still, the trend inspires speculation: Is the slippery-floored college keg party going to be replaced by civilized gatherings with string quartets?  Will American guys trade their beer and baggy board shorts for Petite Sirah and man bikinis?  Is our country, in other words, on some ineffable road to effete?

Qu'est-ce que c'est?  (That's French for "Huh?!?")

Tom Wark is on the case at Fermentations, slicing through the silly stereotyping and expanding on the forces that most likely explain wine's slow but successful rise closer to the top of the beverage heap.  Tom points to:

  • Price/Value/Availability:  "It really doesn't matter what the product is, once price comes down enough and once the perception of the price of a product is understood as a value, more people will consider purchasing it.  This certainly has occurred with wine."
  • Popular Culture:  "[T]he ability of pop culture [such as the film Sideways] to inspired sales trends is undeniable and probably even more impacting than mass marketers even appreciate."
  • The Times article itself includes this little jibe at Sideways:

Gallup Poll Senior Editor Lydia Saad agreed that Sideways might have had an effect on wine consumption, but she is not sure why.  'I couldn't follow the movie very well — maybe I was watching it too late at night — so I don't know.'

  • Health & Fitness:  "[The] consistent barrage of good wine and health news surely has had a cumulative effect."
  • Demographic Trends

Yet it seems the real increase in wine consumption is coming from women and young people.  The poll showed that 52% of men still choose beer over wine, suggesting that a whole lot of women are buying the wine.  In addition, the millennial generation, those essentially in their 20s, are adopting wine at a much faster rate than Gen X or the baby boomers.

Do, please, read Tom's complete analysis if these sorts of questions interest you.


For Further Reading:  Even if you are not a wine drinker yourself, you can enjoy Tom's recent post, "The Art of the Vineyard", in which he expands on an idea that I have posited previously: that winegrowing is the most aesthetically pleasing form of agriculture I know. 

Long Beach Opera's Pinky Ring

ALVY:  Stop calling me Max.

ROB:  Why, Max? It's a good name for you. Max, you see conspiracies in everything.

ALVY:  No, I don't!  You know, I was in a record store - listen to this - so there's this big tall blond crew-cutted guy and he's lookin' at me in a funny way and smiling and he's saying, 'Yes, we have a sale this week on Wagner.'  Wagner, Max, Wagner - so I know what he's really tryin' to tell me very significantly ... Wagner.

-- Annie Hall (1977), screenplay by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman

At the turn of the 21st Century, Los Angeles Opera announced ambitious plans to mount a complete production of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, to be conducted by Kent Nagano and to incorporate designs and effects from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.  That production should have come and gone by now, but 'twas not to be.  The LA Opera Ring cycle was first delayed by terrorism and a weakened economy, then apparently done in altogether by the scandal-tinged disappearance of a major source of funding.

Odin_the_wandererBut all is not lost for Wagner-craving residents of the Greater Los Angeles Area.  The spunky and adventurous Long Beach Opera -- which has always aimed to emphasize opera as compelling theater -- has announced that it will offer a Ring cycle of sorts in January 2006.  And I, your intrepid albeit foolish cultural correspondent, will be there to report.

Although this will apparently be the closest Southern California has yet come to producing a Ring cycle, this will not be a full-on, as-Wagner-wrote-it, Ring.  Rather, Long Beach will present the "reduced" version devised by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick for the Birmingham City Opera in the UK in the early 90's, slimming down the libretto's by about a third and reorchestrating the score for a significantly smaller orchestra.  (The performances will be staged in the intimate confines of the 825-seat Center Theater, which probably could not contain a full Wagner orchestra and an audience at the same time.)  Even in this diminished form, the cycle runs ten hours spread over two long days.

Researching further, I discovered that Long Beach Opera is mounting this production in conjunction with Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, and that the first two operas (The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie) were performed in Pittsburgh earlier in the month.  (The remaining two parts are scheduled for Pittsburgh next July, and will apparently get their premieres in Long Beach.)  The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered a preview (proposed photo caption: Wotan and Bruce Willis, separated at birth?) and has since published reviews of Rhinegold and Valkyrie (proposed photo caption: Ruffin' it with Mother Erda).  Production models and sketches from Pittsburgh can be seen here.    

Southern California Wagner purists will be pleased to learn that the mighty Kirov Opera of St. Petersburg will be presenting a one-time-only "real" Ring cycle (presumably in German) over four days for the opening of the major new concert hall in Costa Mesa in September of 2006.


Gratuitous Additional Wagner Link:  Thanks to a link in the middle of a post on George Hunka's Superfluities weblog back in April, I found the strange and elaborate site maintained by German film director Hans-Juergen Syberberg.  That site incorporates a number of downloadable excerpts from his films, including the entire eleven and a half minute prelude (with puppets acting out the back story) that opens Syberberg's strange and elaborate version of Wagner's Parsifal

Gratuitous Additional George Lucas Link:  Because you can find just about anything on the Net, there is no surprise in finding a lengthy analysis of the parallels between Star Wars and Wagner's Ring.  This excerpt is relevant to L.A. Opera's waylaid plans, mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post:

Both Wagner, as composer and producer of his own operas, and Lucas, as screenwriter, director and producer of his films, show a need for total control with the end product.

  • Lucas creates his own film studio, his own company for creation of new and revolutionary visual effects (Industrial Light & Magic, founded in 1975) and his own standards for sound and image (THX).
  • Wagner creates his own theatre (the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth) in order to realize his ideals concerning the visual and auditive effects.

Flying Off the Shelves

One of the pleasures of reading fiction that takes itself at all seriously is the way in which whatever you are reading now will go caroming off of what you were reading yesterday to collide with what you end up reading tomorrow, which you would not have known you were going to read tomorrow if it had not been for the chain of reactions, spins and reflections that were started by what you were reading two years ago, which -- well, you probably get the idea by now, don't you?  Sometimes, the connections that disclose themselves will lead to some flavor of Deeper Understanding.  On other occasions, the simple joy of unanticipated connections and propinquities is quite enough in itself.

Mark Helprin's new novel, Freddy and Fredericka is out at last, and the copy I pre-ordered arrived last week.  It has been sitting on the bedside table while I finished the first volume of the Library of America's three-deep collection of the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

In conjunction with the new novel, Harvard magazine published a long profile of Helprin, full of lovely details for those who enjoy his fiction.  He has never consumed a cup of coffee in his life, for instance, which perhaps explains why the mysterious protagonist in Memoir From Antproof Case wants to drive that beverage from the face of the earth.  His own favorite of his novels is A Soldier of the Great War, which would probably be my choice as well.  (Whatever came in second -- probably -- would be a very close second.)

In his youth, Helprin lived in Ossining, New York, where his ambulatory habits are rumored (by Helprin himself) to have influenced another respected writer:

Helprin does not like it smooth, and never has.  Ever since he was a small boy he has practiced what he calls 'straight-line walking,' i.e., walking from one point to another as the crow flies, heedless of whatever obstacles may intervene — 'through houses, ponds, and streams, trespassing, going through barns and places you shouldn’t be.  I’d crawl through brambles and over rocks, slog through muddy, disgusting marshes and reeds, over railroad tracks and dams,' he says.

'Mostly people adjust their course to take the easy way,' he explains.  'Something appealed to me to take the harder way.  The reward would be that you have tremendous friction and texture; if you have to encounter all these things, you get wet, cold, muddy, and scraped.  You learn, you feel, and you see —you do things you wouldn’t have done.'  He says this straight-line walking may have given John Cheever, a neighbor in Ossining, the idea for his short story 'The Swimmer,' in which a suburban husband returns to his house by swimming across the backyard pools of his neighbors.

Bang!  What choice did I have after reading that?  I simply had to pull down my collected Cheever to re-read "The Swimmer," which I last looked at nearly 20 years ago.  Some will claim it is Cheever's very best story.  I would need to work through them all again (as perhaps I will) to come to a conclusion on that, but wherever it ranks in the Cheevre ouevre, it is a very fine story.  Here is the first paragraph, planting us squarely in Cheever country:

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying 'I drank too much last night.'  You might have heard it whispered by parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.  'I drank too much,' said Donald Westerhazy.  'We all drank too much,' said Lucinda Merrill.  'It must have been the wine,' said Helen Westerhazy.  'I drank too much of that claret.'

Midway through the second paragraph, Cheever shifts to a voice resembling Fitzgerald's so that he can introduce Neddy Merrill lolling, like Gatsby, beside the pool:

Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.  He was a slender man -- he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth -- and while he was far from young he had slid down the banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the scent of coffee in his dining room.  He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket on a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather.  He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure.  It all seemed to flow into his chest. 

Whereupon, Neddy "realizes that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water."  He decides to cover the eight miles home by swimming all the pools in between, and the story veers by near-imperceptible degrees toward strangeness and sorrow.

When I was reading large quantities of the stories of Henry James a few years back, I discovered that you can never be certain that a James tale won't suddenly turn into a ghost story.  The ones that proclaim themselves to be ghost stories - "The Turn of the Screw" being the most prominent example - generally aren't.  "The Swimmer" is not a ghost story, exactly, but it certainly enters the realm of the uncanny before it is done, and leaves as many questions unanswered as not.  I had read Singer's story, "A Wedding in Brownsville," a few days before revisiting "The Swimmer." and was struck by similarities between the two.  Both stories start solidly in the observed and verifiable world, but end somewhere else altogether.  While it did not call attention to itself on the first reading, it is not difficult to go back in Singer's story and find the point where things skew off the realist track.  It is one of Cheever's accomplishments in "The Swimmer" that the seams are well nigh invisible and that a literal explanation of what just happened so believably is so hard to come by.

Now I really need to start on that new novel, eh?


For further reading:  Google discloses that way way back in September 1996, you could have navigated your steam-driven Turing machine to read an appreciation of "The Swimmer" by some fellow named Michael Chabon at a "Web site" called "Salon."  Wonder whatever happened to them.

"Do I Contradict Myself? Very Well . . ."

I have been reading through my new copy of Refusing Heaven, the most recent collection -- only his fourth in forty years -- from poet Jack Gilbert.  I will most likely post a more considered report in the near future (those who are interested are welcome to revisit my previous discussion of the poet), but for the moment I simply want to share two very short poems from the book. 

These are atypical examples of Gilbert poems, if only because they are so brief.  He rarely goes over a page in length, but also rarely goes below at least half a page.  In any case, these amused me in themselves and in the way in which the second appears to cast doubt on the first (which also casts doubt on itself).  They also provide an excuse to post a picture of a hedgehog.

Little_hedgehog_photo_by_tburgeyFirst, we have this:


The Greek fishermen do not
play on the beach and I don't
write funny poems.

With which we may contrast this:

For Isaiah Berlin

When the hedgehogs here at night
see a car and its fierce lights
coming at them, they do the one
big thing they know.


  Poor hedgehogs.  Such is the curse of specialization.

If you find either of these poems amusing, that is another way in which they are atypical of Gilbert: amusement is almost never one of his poetic objects.

(Hedgehog photo by Thomas Burgey, via stock.xchng.)

I'm N'Diggin' It

Earlier in the month, the Los Angeles Times ran a standard-issue article on digital music, etc., emphasizing what the headline writer referred to as major music labels' "digital trust issues."  A typical excerpt, focused on the infamously "unrestricted" MP3 format:

But MP3s offer the labels the least amount of control over how the songs are put on the market and what people do with them. They can only be sold, not rented, and they cannot be kept from a wide array of uses that the labels neither authorize nor profit from, including file sharing and podcasting, in which audio files are downloaded into portable devices.

'You've got a bunch of people who've set up businesses based on total control, and you've got a bunch of parts of the chain saying, "We're giving up revenue,"' McGuire said.  'They have to adjust to think about, "How do I monetize this world now beyond the initial transaction?"'

The article points at eMusic as the odd duck among the currently established online music download services, because it offers MP3s rather than using a proprietary format a la ITunes, the new Napster, et al.  As a result of that format choice, eMusic has attracted a goodly array of independent labels to offer their music, but has been unable to attract the majors, which "do not trust their online customers not to sabotage their business."

InfidelI have been using eMusic for the past month or so, and my only complaint is the same I would have with any other download service: even after burning tracks to CD, the resulting album simply isn't the same because it lacks whatever extra information -- such as the identity of the musicians on each track -- that the old fashioned, factory fresh CD purchased from a brick 'n' mortar establishment would offer.  This is particularly frustrating when a particular album is all about the musicians, as is the one that I want to bring to your attention: the ponderously titled Me'Shell N'Degeocelo Presents The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel.  (Here is a link to the Download version.)

I wrote about what I find compelling about Me'Shell and her music last year here.  The Spirit Music Jamia is her long-planned jazz project, involving a number of respected players -- Jack De Johnette, Wallace Roney, Oliver Lake, Don Byron, Cassandra Wilson, to name just a few -- and modeled on Miles Davis' ensembles of the late 1960's.  This is not "smooth jazz" or pseudo-jazz, but the real thing.

The influences of Miles Davis on the music are plain (when are they not?), but perhaps because Me'Shell's principal instrument is the bass, I hear echoes of Charles Mingus as well, particularly in the back and forth between the near-unison group passages and the soloists on "Luqman."  As a leader, she keeps a low profile: she does not sing and I don't think she takes any solos.  Instead, her fluid and urgent bass anchors the group and gives the other players plenty of space in which to work.  The three longest tracks clock in just shy of twelve minutes each, and do not become dull in that time.  Three selections involve vocals: Cassandra Wilson is a fine surrogate for the bandleader with the Old Testament sensuality of "The Chosen," while "Aquarium" features a vocal turn by Sabina Sciubba of New York's rising Brazilian Girls, hovering somewhere in the haze between Zero 7 and Bjork.  (The most immediately accessible track, a cover of "When Did You Leave Heaven" with Lalah Hathaway singing, is actually the least interesting thing on the album to this listener.)

More Me'Shelliana:

  • Leroy Downs, The Jazzcat, reports on the band's recent live appearance in Los Angeles, describing the bass as "like chocolate Nutella funk, rich and delicious!"

Les Femmes Savantes

I'm looking for a hard headed woman,
One who will make me do my best,
And if I find my hard headed woman
I know the rest of my life will be blessed -- yes, yes, yes.

-- Cat Stevens [Yusuf Islam]

Independent_cover_1 The DRUDGE REPORT linked a story this morning from The Independent, profiling one of the suspected London bombers -- that story is here for those who are interested -- and reproduced the paper's front page, shown at right. 

This weblog is likely not your primary source for news concerning the Global War on Terror -- if it is, you are setting yourself up for disappointment -- but it is a not-infrequent source of items concerning Camille Paglia.  (E.g., the concluding item here.)  And there she is, friends, high atop Page 1 of today's Independent, taking issue with BBC Radio 4's recent "Greatest Philosopher" poll -- in which Karl Marx tops such relative lightweights as Hume, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and some dusty Greeks of No Importance -- for producing an all-male outcome.  Professor Paglia is prepared to correct the Beeb's error with her own list of "Ten great female philosophers: The thinking woman's women". 

Being Professor Paglia, of course, she can't resist some overarching commentary on the state of the discipline:

It has become tiresome to constantly blame every blip in women's lives on sexism and discrimination by men.  Today's lack of major female philosophers is not due to lack of talent but to the collapse of philosophy.  Philosophy as traditionally practiced may be a dead genre.  This is the age of the internet in which we are constantly flooded by information in fragments.  Each person at the computer is embarked on a quest for and fabrication of his or her identity.  The web mimics human neurology, and it is fundamentally altering young people's brains.  The web, for good or ill, is instantaneous.  Philosophy belongs to a vanished age of much slower and rhetorically formal inquiry.

Today's philosophers are now antiquarians.