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benshlomo "benshlomo" (Los Angeles, CA USA)

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5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Stupid Pop Songs, Oct. 26 2003
This review is from: Green (Audio CD)
I read somewhere that Michael Stipe at one time refused to use personal pronouns in his lyrics; no "I" or "me," no "you," none of that. Well, he damn sure changed his mind, especially on this release. In so doing, he taught us all a lesson about powerful songwriting, but he didn't necessarily do himself any favors.
See, there are two kinds of songs on "Green," straight ahead pop songs and more artsy sorts of offerings. The boundaries between the two get real slim (this being R.E.M.), but they're there. And it's on the "stupid pop tunes," as the band members called them (Pop Song 89, Get Up, Stand) that those personal pronouns work. The songs have definite beats and drum lines, short phrases and simple lyrics. They say things like "I think I can remember your name," "Your head is there to move you around," "I believe in what you do," lyrics that carry an interesting load of meaning but don't give the musicians too much time to indulge themselves. Rock music is, after all, at its best when it's got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Other songs drift. You can't just count "1-2-3-4" and end up on the same beat you started with. Cuts like "The Wrong Child" and "Hairshirt" require several listenings before you can really get what these guys are up to.
Which wouldn't be so bad - in fact, some of these tunes are among the most beautiful R.E.M. ever laid down - except that on many of these cuts, Michael Stipe turns completely inward and sings exclusively about himself, like the State of Michael Stipe was of overwhelming interest to you and me. "I've a rich understanding of my finest defenses," "I'll try to sing a happy song," "I am not the type of dog that could keep you waiting for no good reason"; notice how long those lines are? There's no rhythm to them, and not much rhythm to the songs they come from, either.
My point is that, if a band is going to play that kind of music, it turns out to be a bad idea to give it self-involved lyrics. Apparently, we need something more interesting than one man's mental state to hold onto if we are not to have rhythm, structure, and melody. Stipe is one of the most interesting stars that rock music has ever produced, but even he can't sustain that kind of self-indulgence for this long.
So, you may ask, why the heck am I giving this record five stars? Let me put it this way; a few years after this, R.E.M. released some soundcheck video that showed Michael Stipe watching the other three play a few tunes to set volume levels. When it was done, he got on the microphone and said "You guys are great; if I was a fan I'd really like what I was hearing." Then he chuckled a little and said "I might have a little trouble with me, but I'd really like you three." As that comment suggests, this record works because Michael Stipe is cautious about his artiest tendencies; he instinctively knows when to shut up, even if he doesn't always do so.
And, even when he climbs too far up his own rear, he's got the other three to yank him out. He's got Peter Buck with his usual mastery of everything from grunge to fingerpicking, plus some mandolin experiments this time. He's got Mike Mills leading everyone with his bass lines and filling in the holes with some really interesting keyboards. He has Bill Berry providing exactly the right drum part for each moment through some combination of experience and inspiration. He's got Mills and Berry inventing backing vocals that he has to work to keep up with. Yeah, Michael Stipe's got all the support he could ever need, and several times it laps him.
That's why the five stars; not just for the great music, but for what it means. And what it meant. "Green" came out just at the start of George Bush Senior's administration and tackled themes like the need for peace, courage, love of nature, generosity. None of these were easy to come by at the start of yet another right-wing presidency, especially for young leftists like these guys. And on top of that, "Green" was R.E.M.'s first major label release, doubling the pressure. So Michael Stipe got a lot of press attention for his various antics on and offstage. Lesser men might have jumped right off the ego mountain at a time like this and taken their whole band down with them. Not this bunch.
Benshlomo says, For God's sake get some partners; you're not as independent as you think.

Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right
by Al Franken
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars The Left Shoots Back, Oct. 12 2003
Let's get this out of the way first; Al Franken has been accused in a certain now-withdrawn lawsuit of not being a satirist. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a satire is a "literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn". Of course, you may not believe that Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney participate in human vices and follies, but leaving that aside, Al Franken is a satirist. Now we can all relax.
Anyone can write a piece full of scorn and ridicule, needless to say. To be worthwhile, though, it has to include other things. Like, for instance, relevant facts, accurate analysis, a coherent point of view, even wit. Let's not get into who's got the monopoly on those elements in the current firefight between the left and right; Franken's got them all to at least some degree, which should be enough for anyone willing to plonk down twenty-five bucks (or fourteen and change on Amazon). What, though, if anything, makes this a genuinely good book?
The answer to that, unsurprisingly, has a lot to do with Al Franken himself. On the evidence of "Lies", he's very smart, very angry, and very good at his job, but he's not so arrogant that he thinks he can face down the right on his own. So, before writing this book, he went and got himself a group of graduate students to do research for him. His first clever move was naming this bunch "Team Franken", like it was a professional staff at some cable network with too much money in its digital effects budget. His second clever move was pointing out that all Team Franken had to do to disprove many right-wing claims was run a few Google searches.
With that kind of start, I was all set for Lies to turn into the story of Al and Team Franken running around looking for some challenge, some really subtle and dangerous right-wing lie that would require all of their might to debunk, and not finding it because all the right-wing claims are so blatantly false. That would have been a terrific book. This, however, is not that book, and again the reason for it has to do with Franken himself. Very smart, very angry, very good at his job, he attacks everything about the right that he can't stand, applying dozens of styles and strategies, and winds up with a good collection of essays instead of a great cohesive work.
In "Lies", Al Franken has two main targets ´¿ the right-wing "news" of Matt Drudge, Fox News and others, and the George W. Bush administration ´¿ and that right there divides his book in a way he can't quite spackle over. Then too, he has enough ability to pull him in several directions, such as straight reportage, prose satire, legitimate and political theater, and even comics, which further blurs his focus. The individual chapters of "Lies" entertain and instruct quite well, sometimes brilliantly, but the whole thing never gels into anything more than the sum of its considerable parts.
This is a pity, because Franken actually has an important point to make. He's savvy enough to spell it out: "Part of [the right-wing media's] entertainment value comes from their willingness to lie and distort´¿Our added entertainment value will have to come from being funny and attractive. And passionate. And idealistic. But also smart." That, it seems clear, is the central thrust of his whole effort. Unfortunately, the statement is on page 353, after a tasty but amorphous goulash of ideas about everything from Bill O'Reilly's emotional fragility to Sean Hannity's statistical fudging to Ann Coulter's rhetorical tricks. And then to the story of what might have happened if the right-wing hawks Bush, Cheney, Thomas, Limbaugh, Will and others had served in Vietnam, and then something called Supply Side Jesus, who wears a gold-trimmed robe and a pedicure´¿
There's certainly nothing wrong with a good collection of satirical political essays, but "Lies" could have been a great deal more than that. Based on that statement about entertainment value, I suspect Franken intended his book to be the opening shot in a left-wing counterattack against the right's demonizations over the past few years. In fact, it almost is that shot. He may very well get it just right next time, especially with all the free publicity he's been receiving lately.
I note, by the way, that Fox News has recently announced that its withdrawal of the copyright-infringement lawsuit against Franken will allow him to sink back into the obscurity from whence he came. Now, let's see; Fox News brought suit against Al Franken because he wasn't supposed to use the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of this book, they splashed it all over every newspaper, political website and blog in the country, they got slapped down hard, and now they're talking like the whole thing was a publicity coup by Al Franken. He should have a field day with that one.
Benshlomo says, Laugh at your enemies; it will drive them crazy.

The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again
The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again
by Michael Barone
Edition: Hardcover
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2.0 out of 5 stars This Is Not 1925, July 28 2003
The idea behind this book is an interesting one. Mr. Barone suggests that, although some fear the recent influx of immigrants to the United States, there's really nothing to worry about if we learn the lessons of history. Three of the largest immigrant populations from the early part of the 20th century, he points out, have "woven themselves" into mainstream American life with great success. Now, three large "new" populations can do the same, based on their similarities to those who came before. The black population ("immigrant" in the sense that it moved from the rural South, practically a foreign country, to the industrial North) can weave itself into mainstream American life as the Irish did, the Latino population as the Italians did, and the Asian population as the Jews did. Sounds pretty good, and Barone has plenty of statistical and historical evidence to support himself. Then he goes and ruins it with a political bias he claims he doesn't have.
I can easily believe that the groups he mentions have as much in common as he says. Long before he wrote this book, we Jews knew perfectly well that the Asians were very much like us, and I'm told the Asians knew it too, so the notion that the blacks and Irish, or the Latinos and Italians, share the same parallels seems quite natural. Mr. Barone makes good use of statistics to point up these parallels, showing that intermarriage rates climb over the generations, school dropout rates tend to fall, and a number of other factors similarly indicate that immigrant groups gradually join the American melting pot. On the other hand, he points up the vast contributions that immigrants make to American culture and progress, even when they are subject to bigotry and inconvenience; I was not aware, for instance, that a lot of what we now consider to be old-style American ways are actually Irish.
The point of all this, according to Mr. Barone, is that American policy of the early 1900's gave immigrant groups the incentive and means to work their way up the social ladder by teaching English to those who did not know it, forcing immigrant groups to follow the law when their native folkways did not require it, and things of that nature. If we believe that assertion, it follows (says Mr. Barone) that the current emphasis on respect for native culture only keeps immigrant groups separate. So away with bilingual education and affirmative action, and the sooner the better.
Sounds familiar, this argument. It's classic Republican conservative doctrine. Which doesn't mean it's wrong, of course. In a book like this, though, I'd prefer an author who didn't simply assume it was right.
That is, "The New Americans" begins with the assumption that bilingual education, affirmative action, and overcautiousness regarding racism are ineffective, without bothering to provide any evidence that that assumption is true. The book also begins with the assumption that what worked in the 1920's will automatically work in this decade, similarly without providing any evidence. We've come a long way in that 80 years, conquering a good portion of the racism that plagued this country and realizing that our government doesn't always know what's best, but Mr. Barone seems to want to import the old doctrine of "Americanization" without any further inquiry. A little naive, if nothing else.
What's more, Mr. Barone has an unpleasant habit of attributing the worst of motives to those he disagrees with. In his discussion of the Latino immigration numbers, for instance, he notes the huge upsurge in Latino citizenship in about 1995 due to President Clinton's amnesty for illegal aliens, and dutifully reports that Clinton implemented the amnesty so that all those new Latino citizens could vote for him in the next election. It doesn't seem to occur to him that Clinton might have been motivated by an impulse to do the right thing, or even by a combination of motives.
Most annoying to me personally, I might as well admit, is his explanation of Jewish voting habits. Jews are frequently business owners and professionals, and if they voted strictly according to their own self-interest might be expected to support tax cuts and libertarian policies. Why do they remain overwhelmingly liberal? Not because their consciences call them to do so, says Mr. Barone. It's because they remember down the generations the injustices of Imperial Russia, whence many of their ancestors came, and vote Democratic because they are "still voting against the Tsar." See the implication? No one in his right mind would be a liberal; those Jews retain "dysfunctional habits of mind" or they'd go Republican. Bunch of neurotics.
And this is not Mr. Barone's attitude just toward the Jews. Everyone comes in for that sort of analysis. He uses his own political opinions as a sort of litmus test, and demonizes those who fail. Conservatives have pure motives, liberals impure, and never the twain shall meet. At least not if Michael Barone has anything to say about it.
Finally, for all his declarations of historical perspective, Mr. Barone doesn't bother to make any suggestions as to exactly how the black, Latino and Asian populations might be mainstreamed, based on the lessons learned from history or on anything else. His introduction seems to promise some fresh, or at any rate good, ideas about immigrant policy, but when it's all said and done he's content to grind up his anecdotes and statistics into conservative hamburger and let it go at that. He pretends to provide a work of popular political advocacy that turns out to be nothing more than a Republican political pamphlet. He even starts off his discussion with a jab at Al Gore. And if you think that's a coincidence, you haven't been reading the news from Washington lately.
"The New Americans" is an interesting read with a number of intriguing notions about culture and politics. In its certainty that America can absorb and provide for everyone who makes a home here, it's reassuring, even heartwarming. Maybe someday some political leader will take these ideas and design a new "Americanization" program that works in a just and fair manner for all. On the evidence of this book, that leader will not be Michael Barone.
Benshlomo says, The really dangerous propagandists are the reasonable ones.

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4.0 out of 5 stars Soundtrack to a Transition Time, June 27 2003
This review is from: Document (Audio CD)
Considering that this was R.E.M.'s strongest collection of songs since their debut, there's a strange sense of uncertainty about the whole project.
You listen to the first four cuts and think "Aha, another political statement from the band that brought you Lifes Rich Pageant the previous year." Taken together, "Finest Worksong," "Welcome to the Occupation," "Exhuming McCarthy" and "Disturbance at the Heron House" sound very much like a sort of State of the Union address. In each cut you get a different take on America - the dignity of its workers, the evils of its interference overseas, its historical insistence on conformity and its domestic paranoia. "McCarthy" has a few awkward moments, but overall the music displays this band's usual mastery of style and technique; these songs move. Then there's a cover version of Pylon's "Strange" and the whole thing breaks apart.
I can't help thinking that the interruption is deliberate. R.E.M. had played plenty of covers before, and even recorded a few, but this was almost the first time they put one on a regular album release, and it's about as close to punk as they had come. (There was "Superman" the previous year, but that one came at the end of the collection rather than the middle, and it was an obvious throwaway.) "Strange" is like a signal to the listener, saying "Whatever you think you've been hearing, that's not it." Then the band proceeds to prove it - the rest of "Document" has nothing to do with political commentary.
"The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" both scored big on the singles charts, and I can't imagine why, since they're both among the slipperiest hits ever recorded. They're both terrific, mind - "One I Love" introduces a classic R.E.M. riff and a devastating lyric, and "End of the World" is both nice poetry and enormous fun. But the first of these songs doesn't mean what you think it does, and the second doesn't really seem to mean anything at all. Why in the world did the audience take to them so strongly? (I know, I know, they have good beats and you can dance to them, but still...)
The next two numbers are more R.E.M. American grotesquerie a la "Fables of the Reconstruction" - "Fireplace" is a pounding rock waltz about preparations for a hoedown that turn destructive and "Lightnin' Hopkins" is a vicious bluesy stomp that has about as much to do with the old bluesman of the title as the Ramones do (which may be more than I think, actually). And then "Document" closes out with a couple of straight-ahead surrealist nightmares, "King of Birds" and "Odd Fellows Local 151," with music straight out of a Ken Kesey Acid Test and lyrics by Salvador Dali or something. They wouldn't have been out of place on R.E.M.'s dada debut, "Murmur" - the music is folksy but driven, the lyrics are confusing but significant, the vocal and playing style shouldn't work but they do. It feels like you should be able to dismiss this stuff as self-indulgent, but you can't. It means something, dammit.
Taken all together, "Document" is about as disorienting as a game of blind man's bluff. It lurches from simple tunesmithing to scorching rock to something unidentifiable that drifts right through your head and back out into the sky. And here's a thought - in 1987, R.E.M. faced a number of important decisions, like what record company to sign with and whether to tour Europe. In short, they were getting famous, and I wonder if "Document" is the sound of a band trying to figure out whether to give its fans some good old-fashioned pop or stick with its twisted art-house roots.
Now, that's the kind of struggle can result in great music, when it doesn't produce a nervous breakdown instead. Fortunately, by the time R.E.M. had to face this pressure, they had been playing together for going on ten years and evidently trusted each other. So they could look outward and inward both at once, knowing that they had each other's backs. Every time Peter Buck bangs out a chord, or Bill Berry and Mike Mills trade backing vocal lines, or Michael Stipe hollers "Listen to me!", you can hear the band's defiance and excitement in the face of the world's demands.
"Document" is a summing up of R.E.M.'s career to that point, an important step to take before any giant leap. They may have felt fragmented, pulled in different directions, like that glass sculptor on the cover whose body is shattered in a million pieces by his materials, but there's no doubt that they were still in control of each piece. The following year they signed with Warner Brothers and handed in a collection of, as they said, "stupid pop songs." They'd earned the right.
Benshlomo says, The past is a springboard from which to jump, eyes shut, into the future.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Book 5)
by J. K. Rowling
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars If This Is Fantasy, We're All Living in a Dreamworld, June 23 2003
I understand that this book has sold more copies more quickly than any book in history, and that Amazon took pre-orders for around $3 million for it. Impressive. The story itself is not quite that awe-inspiring, but that's good news; if Harry's latest adventure were that brilliant, I can practically guarantee that people wouldn't love it as much as they do.
We begin where Harry's adventures always begin; he's safe and miserable at the home of his disgusting relations, longing for the Hogwarts School and anxious for news from his friends. Well, he eventually gets both - no prizes for guessing that bit. This time, significantly, getting back to school and to his friends provides no relief, for several reasons. First, much of the wizarding world thinks he's either crazy or lying about his previous experiences. Second, his adult allies give him little or no information about how much danger he is in, from where, or what they are doing about it. And third, although it is not spelled out, he gets no relief because he's turning into a teenager.
(He's been a technical teenager for a couple of years now, of course, but now he really starts to act like one. Never mind bloodthirsty enemies, horrible relatives and a cowardly Ministry of Magic - becoming a teenager is serious.)
You've heard all the rumors about what happens next, of course. Suffice to say that Harry and his growing corps of buddies spend the next several hundred pages fighting the evil wizard Voldemort, the reactionary elements in the Ministry of Magic, the snobs and thugs in Slytherin House at school, and the usual gang of idiots. Nothing new there. So do you really need to worry that someone will tell you how it all turns out? No, you don't - you already know how it all turns out, that's why you're reading the book in the first place.
Well, that and a few other things, but let's be honest; anyone who reads any popular fantasy series, including Harry Potter, and expects daringly original plotting is a fool. Ms. Rowling is neither a brilliant prose stylist nor a devastatingly original thinker. What she is, more so with each volume in her series, is a teller of rattling good yarns that carry a deep but deftly handled understanding of a young person's psychology.
Why, for instance, is "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" so dark in tone? Because the life of a fifteen-year-old, wizard or not, can be a dark place at times. Let me ask you this: If you, like Harry, were a teenage boy forced to spend weeks and weeks with people you loathed, after suffering dreadful losses at the hand of someone who hated your every cell and was still out and about, and after you had unequivocally shown several times how brave and skillful you were - how would you react if every adult in your life said "Just sit tight, dear, you wouldn't understand anyway, you let us handle it"? You'd be an angel of light, would you?
I don't think so, buddy. On the other hand, if you, like Harry, have a normal level of decency, you would not throw temper tantrums every five minutes, either. You would behave as Harry does here - you would struggle against bitterness and frustration, you would try to be kind to your friends, and once in a while you would lose it and nail everyone in sight right between the eyes.
All of this is right on target, as anyone knows who has raised an adolescent boy, had dealings with an adolescent boy, or been an adolescent boy. What's more, Harry in this book must contend not only with a highly pressurized attempt to grow up, but also with the true unpolished memory of his father, the mysterious minds of girls, and his role as a leader - to say nothing of the ongoing threats to his life and sanity. All of those, except the last (I wish), fall to the lot of every maturing teen. People wonder why Ms. Rowling's books get thicker with every passing Hogwarts year? Well, so does the life of an adolescent.
I cannot agree with those who gasp with delight at every Harry Potter development or trumpet the series as the best of all time, hence I must give "Order of the Phoenix" four stars rather than five. (I should add that, although I actually consider "Goblet of Fire" the best Potter story to date, it outdoes "Order of the Phoenix" by only a hair's breadth.) On the other hand, I re-read the first volume not long ago, and as good a read as it was, it was pretty formulaic as compared with "Phoenix". Like I said, Ms. Rowling improves fast, and her series has indeed developed into something that approaches the unique. As a teacher, I would stop worrying about any young person who loves Harry Potter - such a youngster has a brain and a heart, very good news considering how popular these books have become. And who knows - if I were 15 years old and reading this story for the first time, from the pen of a writer who really seemed to understand what I was going through, maybe I really would say it's the best series of all time.
Benshlomo says, Fantasy - it isn't just for babies anymore.

Life's Rich Pageant
Life's Rich Pageant
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4.0 out of 5 stars Hope Despite the Times, Nov. 2 2002
This review is from: Life's Rich Pageant (Audio CD)
If memory serves, a number of critics referred to this record when it came out as R.E.M.'s heavy metal album, probably because the producer had done work for the Heavy Metal Kids and people like that and because Peter Buck experimented around with a little power chording on "Begin the Begin" and "These Days". Now, come on, folks - we all know what heavy metal sounds like, and Judas Priest would eat R.E.M. for a between-meal snack. This is not metal, it's something much more useful.
More useful for R.E.M. itself, certainly. On "Lifes Rich Pageant", they finally found a way to talk to their audience instead of just to themselves, and what they had to say had something to do with the shape of the nation in 1986. A lot of these lyrics call upon the listener to do something, in words like "Let's begin again" and "I wish to meet each one of you" and "Let's put our heads together and start a new country up". Which probably goes a long way to explaining why the band played and recorded so loud - they had to wake us up, after all.
Well, they got our attention, all right - this album sold better than anything they had issued up to that time. And once they got our attention, what would they have us do? Now that's a question without an answer. This is R.E.M. we're talking about, remember, and they weren't about to give up their mysterious aura so quickly. That's what makes "Lifes Rich Pageant", and most of R.E.M.'s work for that matter, useful to the audience. It makes you think.
So here's what I think, for whatever it's worth. R.E.M. was interested in American history, but not as a set of names and dates. They were interested in the secrets that the landscape promised, in the amount of space given on this continent to people to invent lives, to come up with odd bits of folklore, to make mistakes. They didn't like the mistakes much, but in 1986 they still believed that the mistakes could be corrected if we worked at it.
You can hear the space in the echo all over this record and in that pump organ underlying just about every backing track. You can hear the eccentricities in the way Michael Stipe grunts about bleeding into the river from a skinned knee, about shouting praise of youth and hope so loudly his hat falls off. You can hear the folkloric borrowings in the tigers turning to butter, the animals threatening villages, the starving Confederate soldiers selling toothpicks to their officers while they stare hypnotized at mysterious birds. You can hear the mistakes in the complaints about turning Indian culture into souvenirs and Latin American nations into opium fields.
As for the sounds of inexplicable secrets, you can hear that in just about every note - R.E.M. was always one of the deepest-sounding bands on record, and for all the pop-metal veneer "Lifes Rich Pageant" was no exception. Each track stirs about three or four Peter Buck guitar lines into the mix, and the result can echo for hours. Mike Mills' bass was always the band's most powerful instrument, but here his background vocals took on as much power as his instrument ever did. And, last but not least, Bill Berry finally got a chance to show what a threat he was to his drum skins, especially with all that echo added.
Even the musical jokes add something to the sense of American weirdness. "Underneath the Bunker" and "Superman" are both brilliant little throwaways, and no description of America would be complete without including its genius for sugary snacks. And in case we missed the point, they threw jokes into the most serious-minded professions of faith - "I believe in coyotes and time as an abstract...I believe my throat hurts." Take that, Jerry Falwell.
That's what I think, but as I said, R.E.M. left plenty of space for you to disagree, and that's what makes "Lifes Rich Pageant" an important piece of work. The band had finally found a reason for its aura of mystery - it was very useful for showing how mysterious America itself was. At this moment in history, when the government makes believe that we're all alike (or should be), the awareness of America's mystery is even more important than it ever was.
I don't mean to sound too messianic or worldy-wise about this stuff - even Michael Stipe takes the time to moan "I'm so goddamn young!" Then again, it's not often that music invites us to think about what made us great while we dance to it.
Benshlomo says, The American melting pot is alive and well, and as bizarre as ever.

Fables of the Reconstruction
Fables of the Reconstruction
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3.0 out of 5 stars When Life Give You Lemons..., Sept. 24 2002
Even if one didn't know much about R.E.M.'s history, "Fables of the Reconstruction" would still sound like the work of some very homesick men.
It's hardly traditional folk music or anything like that. The band was too individualistic to produce such sounds. On the other hand, there's a dark cloud of loneliness and despair hanging over this music, even the softer songs. It's as though the guys produced "Fables of the Reconstruction" in a land where it rained every day and nothing was familiar - which happens to be the case.
Lyrically, the songs are even more desperate. "Fables of the Reconstruction" starts off with the destruction of the world, kicked off by the most threatening guitar riff Peter Buck ever tore into, and spends the next 35 minutes trying to put things back together, mostly by inventing stories about the landscape and people of the American South. The results are mixed.
Then again, when an album begins with Michael Stipe groaning "Oceans fall, mountains drift" over the closest thing to heavy metal that R.E.M. can produce, there's really nowhere to go but back in time. Sometimes the band tries to find its way back by main force, as on "Maps and Legends" and "Auctioneer (Another Engine)". Sometimes they try pastoral reflection, as on "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Good Advices". Regardless of the musical style, these songs feel like a group of successful dead ends - they function adequately, but leave nothing to build on. It's not an accident that the single off this album was called "Can't Get There From Here" - the band apparently realized that they could not, in fact, and called off the historical mining right away.
That leaves us with R.E.M.'s least consistent album, at least until their drummer retired. "Fables of the Reconstruction" has some of their best material, and some of their worst. When this stuff works, it's exciting and propulsive - there are a lot of interesting additions to their basic musical structure, like the nightmare strings on "Feeling Gravitys Pull" and the discordant harmonica on "Driver 8". On the best songs, too, the band's well-known mysterious aura is very much intact - the maxims on "Good Advices" ("When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes"?) make sense only as dreams do, and the grotesques described in "Old Man Kensey" and "Wendell Gee" remain as curious at song's end as at the beginning. On the other hand, when this stuff doesn't work, the results are musically boring and lyrically confusing. I'd say the ratio of good songs to poor ones is about 7.5 to 3.5, with "Can't Get There from Here" falling somewhere in the middle. This would be a very good score for any average band, but in 1985 I had come to expect better from R.E.M.
Which brings us to the circumstances surrounding this album's recording. I said it sounds like the work of homesick people, watching the world around them wash away in the rain and dreaming of the people and landscapes they had known. That seems to be exactly what these guys were going through. Looking for a fresh sound, they moved to London for "Fables of the Reconstruction" and hired Joe Boyd, a well-known folk producer who has turned out masterpieces for people like Steeleye Span and the Incredible String Band. This band, however, couldn't seem to get along with him. It was cold and rainy the whole time they were there, they had nowhere to go and nothing to do after work each day, and the results of the sessions displeased them so much that all these songs disappeared from their concert list as soon as possible.
I remember reading about this in 1985. I decided that although this album wasn't up to my favorite band's usual standard, I was willing to give it a pass and wait to see if the guys got their act together the next year. After all, who could expect top quality music in working conditions like that?
These days, at a time when so many top acts produce the same damn thing whether they're in London or Laos or the bottom of the sea, I'm grateful for any music - or any art, for that matter - that has any awareness of its surroundings. That doesn't make me like the filler on "Fables of the Reconstruction" any better, but it makes me feel a little more generous toward the men who recorded it. After all, if these songs are successful dead ends as I said before, at least these guys let themselves see the dead ends for what they were. The next year they turned around and tried something entirely new, and a couple of years later they were one of the world's top concert draws. If the American Idols had the sense to attend to that, they'd get down on their knees and ask for the strength that allowed R.E.M. to confront the ruin they saw in London.
Benshlomo says, You can learn from whatever upheaval life throws at you if you pay attention.

Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon
Price: CDN$ 12.98
38 used & new from CDN$ 8.74

4.0 out of 5 stars The Excitable Boy Comes Out Swinging, Sept. 20 2002
This review is from: Warren Zevon (Audio CD)
I just got the bad news - Warren Zevon has inoperable lung cancer.
This seems like a good time to reconsider his output over the years, particularly this opening shot. He had recorded before, but in later years mentioned that earliest effort as having been withdrawn at his request because of "a sudden attack of taste". Let us therefore, as per the man's request, begin here.
Just what was the Excitable Boy up to in 1976? For openers, of course, he wasn't the Excitable Boy yet - that came with his next album, which exploded onto the radio with "Werewolves of London" and made him a star. In 1976 he was, to all appearances, just another singer-songwriter discovered by Jackson Browne and contracted to Asylum Records. Dig a little deeper, though, and you learn he really wasn't anything of the sort.
He was into imagery from film noir and old westerns. He liked black humor and firearms. He wrote songs that could just as easily have been novels or movies, given a few more details, and they were a lot tougher-minded than anything the rest of the Asylum roster came up with. He had a stoner's long hair, but he dressed in suits and ties onstage, and although we didn't learn about it until later his drug of choice was alcohol. He had played piano for the latter-day Everly Brothers, and he blended his rock with country and classical themes.
On his first Asylum album he combined all those elements into eleven songs from all over the map, and then he ordered them in such a way that they told a story. That's what makes the title of this album so intriguing - there's nothing new about a musician naming his first album after himself, but in this case the songs follow the life of a young man from a rootless background, presumably named "Warren Zevon" (not the real Warren Zevon, of course), as he tries to find a home.
This fictional "Warren Zevon" has a mother from the South, probably Missouri ("Frank and Jesse James"). She marries a traveling gambler against her parents' advice ("Mama Couldn't Be Persuaded") and eventually settles with her young son in California. The boy, having grown up on the road, seeks security in his first serious relationship ("Backs Turned Looking Down the Path"), but learns to his dismay that he has chosen a girl who refuses to be tied down ("Hasten Down the Wind"). He throws himself into a series of casual affairs, but finds them painful and demeaning. Although he tries to laugh off his dismay ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me"), he comes to realize that he's only making himself feel worse ("The French Inhaler"). He moves to a smaller town, apparently on one side or the other of the Mexican border, hoping to find sense of belonging. Unfortunately, the local poverty and oppression make any sort of friendship impossible there except through the distant sounds of music ("Mohammed's Radio"). Disillusioned, he falls back into his old hell-raising habits ("I'll Sleep When I'm Dead") and gets hooked on heroin. He moves back to Los Angeles with a new girlfriend ("Carmelita"), but the drug becomes more important to him than she ("Join Me in L.A."). When she leaves him, he finally finds the strength to kick, but this leaves him alone in a cheap motel, staring at the sea and wondering what sort of future he can possibly build ("Desperados Under the Eaves").
I have no idea whether or not the real Warren Zevon intended this as a concept album (probably not) but it works that way, particularly because of his unmistakable voice - that deep, powerful but strangely insecure instrument that wept through his ballads and clowned through his jokes until he learned about head tones a few years after this. In addition to his singing, of course, is his undeniable talent for songwriting and for the piano. Hints of mariachi, heavy metal, pre-Civil War pop and baroque instrumentals float all over this disc, culminating in, of all things, a sea chantey in the final fadeout.
Zevon's talent is so widespread, in fact, that it occasionally runs away with him here. A few of these songs drift a little, with no clear structure - for pop tunes, they are impossible to hum. This is a minor quibble, though, especially considering what happened to Zevon after "Werewolves of London" hit and he had to fight the tendency to give us a whole series of novelty tunes. Remarkably, he resisted the urge - he dried out, concentrated on his serious work, and even (most miraculously) kept his sense of humor. That's what makes this news of his illness so sad - it's just not fair that a man who's conquered so much of himself should now have to fight his own body.
On the evidence of his first mature record, though, he'll be okay. Win or lose, "Warren Zevon" is the work of a man who likes a good fight. I wish him luck, and if he should God forbid lose this battle, St. Peter had better put on the gloves and raise his guard.
Benshlomo says, The real fighters are never defeated.

Dr. Bloodmoney
Dr. Bloodmoney
by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
7 used & new from CDN$ 16.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Prejudice, Paranoia, and the Bomb, Sept. 17 2002
This review is from: Dr. Bloodmoney (Paperback)
The first image in this novel is that of a black man named Stuart McConchie sweeping the sidewalk in front of a Berkeley TV shop, eyeing the pretty girls on their way to work and indulging in some contempt for the approaching patients of the psychiatrist across the street. In any ordinary novel, that image would tell you that the book is going to be about that black man and those patients. In PKD, the image tells you that the book will be about prejudice.
The average author, to tackle that theme, would provide us with a group of unprejudiced characters battling a group of prejudiced ones and make it very clear which are the good guys and which the bad guys. PKD was always a little too smart for that. Just about every character in "Dr. Bloodmoney" is suspicious of pretty nearly every other character he or she meets at one time or another. That includes several characters who have good reason to be suspicious - Bruno Bluthgeld, for instance, the Dr. Bloodmoney of the title, who believes himself personally responsible for the nuclear exchange that brings the world to its knees. Hoppy Harrington, too, has good reason for his suspicions - he's a telekinetic biological sport with no arms or legs at a time when atomic radiation has produced talking dogs and musical rats, so everyone's been looking at him funny his whole life; he's not just imagining things.
However, the culture of suspicion even affects little Edie Keller and the undeveloped but quite powerful twin brother in her body. The culture of suspicion gets to Edie's father, George, who thinks his wife is cheating on him (he's right). It affects everyone, even the best of men and women. About the only character with no prejudice to speak of in "Dr. Bloodmoney" is Walt Dangerfield, left stranded in an orbiting satellite by the outbreak of war, and his lack of suspicion eventually leaves him the most vulnerable of all.
The good guys, in other words, are highly intolerant of anyone or anything new. PKD makes good use of the irony that this xenophobia blinds the people of West Marin County to the dangers that Bruno Bluthgeld and Hoppy Harrington pose to them directly, simply because both men have been around them for awhile. There are plenty of mainstream novels which deal with that very subject - you could name ten or more in less than five minutes - without the necessity of dragging in nuclear war and mutant mental powers.
In short, this is maybe the least SF that an SF novel could possibly be. This is not necessarily a criticism, of course - in fact, it would make "Dr. Bloodmoney" an excellent entry point into the works of PKD except for one thing. The story doesn't really get moving until about a third of the way in.
The novel is one of PKD's longest, and he spends a good bit of time on the events of the day the bombs come down. The story proper, however, begins seven years later, when a worldwide culture of semi-rural enclaves has settled into its routine, loosely knit together by communications from the man in the satellite. The opening events have little or no connection to the main plot, although there's a nice description of World War III as seen through the eyes of a man who just knows it's all a figment of his imagination. Nevertheless, as nicely written as those passages are, I found myself thinking that "Dr. Bloodmoney" could have used a little tightening up. Take the passage where a mushroom hunter watches Hoppy Harrington nearly get run down by a wood-burning truck. Now there's a good opening scene, I thought - why not start here and add in all that backstory during the main plot instead of making me wait all this time?
So, one star off for some loose-jointed plotting. Why not two stars off? Because those first pages, although they dangle from the book like a participle, do not strike me as unnecessary. Far from it - those pages contain some critical information, so critical that by the time the story proper kicked in I was thoroughly hooked. They just needed to be woven in more tightly, that's all. And PKD was notorious for writing fast and furiously - he needed the money. One more crime to chalk up to the American publishing industry, I suppose. Then again, they did publish "Dr. Bloodmoney", warts and all - let's be thankful for what we've got.
And, to return to the point we started with, let's hope that "Dr. Bloodmoney" teaches us what life can be like when, like most of these characters, we lay aside our prejudices and work together to build something good.
Benshlomo says, Some good art, like some good life, is messy.

Love & Theft
Love & Theft
Offered by MusicShoppingParty
Price: CDN$ 9.99
38 used & new from CDN$ 1.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Just a song and dance man, y'know..., Aug. 29 2002
This review is from: Love & Theft (Audio CD)
Somewhere along the line I bought that old saw about Dylan as deep and meaningful, the voice of his generation, the most important American musician of the past 50 years and all that. Whether these images are true or not, they imply that the man has no sense of humor. This is a crock. In truth, he's been cracking jokes for years - he's one of the funniest men on record (sorry) - and few people noticed because they thought he was speaking from the right hand of God or something. Well, if this CD doesn't correct that impression I don't know what will - it's even got a knock-knock joke on it, for crying out loud. Above all, this music is fun.
Not that it isn't serious, too - the Rolling Stones haven't sounded this good in years, and as for the cartoon stuff you hear on the radio these days, it isn't even within spitting distance of Dylan here. The lyrics, too, have weight - when not spewing atrocious puns, the words call up deep values and deep pain on cuts like "Sugar Baby" and "High Water". Even on such otherwise hysterical tunes as "Too Much to Ask" and "Summer Days," the old wisdom and lost love flash out from between the jokes.
No, when I say "Love and Theft" is fun above all else, I'm talking about Dylan's attitude. It's himself he doesn't take seriously - he sings in every cheesy American style there is, from Tin Pan Alley to honky-tonk to minstrel show, in a truly astonishing busted-muffler croak. He's America's court jester, the national con man, charming and roguish and totally unreliable, an impression that his Rhett Butler moustache does nothing to offset. He looks like a river boat gambler getting ready to relieve you of your wallet and then have you tossed overboard, and he sounds like your crazy old uncle who can tell lies all night as long as you keep his glass filled.
Let's face it, Bob Dylan could never sing, even in his prime. This, however, is just plain ridiculous. And the most surprising part is that, even with the voice of a vaguely untrustworthy bullfrog with heartburn, he still makes incredible music.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that Dylan has evidently reached the point where he knows he can do whatever he likes, and he doesn't seem to care much whether people listen or not. He's always disavowed the notion that his music could provide a basis for one's life purpose, but despite the disavowal he often seemed very conscious of his role as a generational spokesman. On this album he's finally let that responsibility drop and started to have fun consistently, meaning be damned. Like he says here, "The future for me is already a thing of the past."
My only complaint about Love and Theft is my complaint about most of Dylan's work, even his best. There's always the temptation to quote his best lines, and there are plenty of them here. Doing so fails to address the one frustrating thing about Dylan; too often, his lyrics sound like collections of maxims instead of cohesive stories or ideas. Once in awhile you listen to a Dylan song and say to yourself "That's profound - what the heck does it mean?"
Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. In his early career, Dylan's tendency toward that kind of fracturing in songs like "Desolation Row" worked partly because he functioned at a historical moment when the whole country seemed to be breaking apart and forming new shapes, so that fractured lyrics reflected what was going on at the time. He had great bands then, as well. Both of those forces are at work on "Love and Theft"; again we live in a fractured age, and again Dylan has a great band to play with. After all, these guys have been with him for months on the so-called Never-ending Tour and they respond to each other almost before anyone does anything, they're so in synch (pun intended). So, although it can be hard to follow the man's thoughts, the songs function very well indeed. Besides, Dylan sounds as relaxed as he would if he and the band were kicking back on the porch, and who expects cohesion at a time like that?
Over the course of a long career, Dylan has proved that truly great art comes from practicing hard and then taking it easy. It's a hard lesson to learn and a harder truth to believe, but actually Dylan knew it all along. Back in the 60's some interviewer asked Dylan if he considered himself more of a rock singer or a folk singer, and he said "Oh, I consider myself more of a song and dance man, y'know." Pressed for an explanation, he said "Oh, I don't think we have time to go into that right now." Obviously not; it's taken him about 35 years to go into it, and "Love and Theft" is the result.
Benshlomo says, The truly great ones make it look like fun.

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