Wednesday, May 31, 2006

CD: Hidden City of Taurmond by Wizardzz

Wizardzz: Hidden City of Taurmond
Load Records
Mastered by Jeff Lipton

The cover art gives it all away: a city of cones and spires, drawn as in a child’s hand, in blacks, grays and purples that lend, perhaps unintentionally, a dystopian air to the childlike whimsy. It’s like the setting of a Russian fairy tale filtered through Lawrence Paull’s production design for Blade Runner. From incongruities like these, Hidden City of Taurmond weaves its spell, integrating whimsy, majesty, fascistic precision and a free-flow of happy accident.

Wizardzz is a two piece ensemble from Rhode Island featuring Brian Gibson on drums and Rich Porter on keyboards. Taking inspiration from ‘60s krautrock, ‘70s prog-rock, free jazz and post-rock’s headiest provocateurs, these boys whip up a maelstrom that would be the ideal soundtrack for a film too delirious, too dense, too violent, heady and transcendent to have yet been made. Rich Porter has clearly heard some Vangelis in his day, and some press has Porter citing John Carpenter’s score for Escape from New York as an influence. I’d also suggest the keyboard intro to The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” and the theme to Disney’s Parade of Lights as useful touchstones for the uninitiated. But as much as the music possesses the deliciously cheesy grandeur of such “epic” influences, it is also, thanks to Gibson’s fervent syncopations and propulsive urgency, as nimble as a mountain goat: Gibson’s percussion reels and hops about, dancing on the peaks and towers laid out in Porter’s soundscapes.

In recent years, post-rock acts like Tortoise, Mogwai, and Turing Machine have been toying with a new template for the evolution of rock as an instrumental form, finding ways for its typical lineups, stripped to bare minimum or enhanced with unexpected instruments, to carry “compositions” pithier than those of their classical and jazz forbears, but more complex than mere “songs”. Where Wizardzz departs from such brethren is in their triumphalism: taking cues from heavy metal acts like Isis, Sunn O))) and Pelican (no pop form has ever so thoroughly explored the pleasures of triumphalism as has metal), Gibson and Porter balance whimsy, aggression and sheer brawn with athleticism and aplomb.

Where tracks like “jelliper-lilly field” and “diamond mirror” recall what the poppies scene in The Wizard of Oz might have sounded like had the film been made in the ‘70s, tracks like “whispers from wallface” and “sea battle at orkusk” match such sonic musings to epileptic fits of percussive clatter. Paranoia and apprehension creep through such post-industrial-by-way-of-proto-industrial outbursts like “chasing our shadows” and “ladydragons” (the latter of which erupts from this apprehension to effectively simulate the terror of attack). We’re left with a long, live track called “mimi vivian sunrise”, which calls to mind Ministry-covering-Yes-covering-Neu, which reduces all elements to unadulterated propulsion. Still, the album is ultimately a good trip, one where the good guys win, where dragons can be vanquished or harnessed, and where the wizards—or Wizardzz—are on your side.

thelyamhound – 499 words


BOOK: Foul Ball by Jim Bouton

Foul Ball, my life and hard times trying to save an old ballpark
by Jim Bouton
Bulldog Publishing, Massachusettes, 2003

Recently I was having dinner with my neighbors from down the hall. Gradually, the conversation swung over to my obsession to visiting ballparks. I talked of how I would slide into whatever town just in time to catch the game, survey the bars and restaurants around the facility, party and talk with the locals, enjoy the experience of their stadium, wait until the parking lot cleared, and then leave. A "gonzo" surgical strike, if you will.

They asked if I would write of the history of these stadiums. "God, no!" I scoffed. "Most of these new cathedrals were built with taxpayer money and usually against the people's will. It's the big money that's usually behind the call for new stadiums. It's really quite ugly when you think about it. I love the ambiance and the people, but if you think how this neo shrine came about, it makes you sick." One of the neighbors sighed with whimsy, "I voted no for Safeco Field and the no's won. They still built it." Another chimed in, "With our money."

I thought about that brief interlude while I was reading Jim Bouton's Foul Ball, my life and hard times trying to save an old ballpark. Bouton is of course the former major league pitcher who wrote the famous (or infamous) book, Ball Four, his diary of the 1969 baseball season which took readers into the unexposed (until then) side of baseball.

In Foul Ball, Bouton and two other investors want to preserve an aging ballpark in Pittsfield, Massachusettes and bring an independent minor league team to the field for 2002. Bouton writes in diary form as the year 2001 unwinds. The ballpark in question, Wahconah Park, is labeled as dicrepit and falling apart. There is a team playing in the park for the 2001 season but they are moving to a new stadium in Troy, New York. The local newspaper in Pittsfield is calling for a new stadium to be built so they can keep up with the changing times (yes, even in the minor leagues). The city's main businesses, Berkshire Bank and General Electric, are strongly on the new stadium bandwagon. But Bouton sees history and charm in old Wahconah and goes about being the alternative if the new stadium doesn't pass with voters.

What ensues is an all out war between city government, big business, the media, grassroots organizations, and guys just trying to run a baseball team. Bouton is very honest and straightforward about all the quirks, hypocrisies, testiness, and controversies that occur (including his own). Information, disinformation, who has money, who doesn't have money, editorials and letters to the editor, and dirty little secrets involving GE and the local river all come up. The levels to which people in power would go is the one prevalent theme throughout the book. It is a fun, fast, and disturbing read. All of this for a minor league field!

by Paul Shipp - 488 words


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

CD: Hot Women, compiled by R. Crumb

Hot Women - Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World
CD Compilation By R. Crumb, Remastered by Tony Baldwin

There’s a delicious futility in attempting to describe the pleasures of Hot Women: Women Singers from the Torrid Regions of the World. Aside from the skewed, surreal nature of the music and its abstract pleasures, there’s the risk of sending a potential listener into the fray with any preconceptions. The treasures of this CD are to be perused, not pursued. Seek, and ye shall most certainly not find.

Hot Women is a collection of 24 tracks taken from old 78 rpm recordings. They were gathered by none other than underground cartoonist/cultural icon R. Crumb, who also annotates the liner notes with what biographical information his friends could find on the web (Crumb himself knows not how to use the internet); we’re even treated to illustrations based on whatever photographs he could find of these women. The earliest of the songs, like “Lu Fistinu Di Palermo” (Rosina Trubia Gioiosa of Sicily), comes to us from 1927; the latest, “Ballali Madja” (Hamsa Khalafe & Ali Atia, Africa), is dated around 1950. Most tracks come to us from the ‘30s, and possess both the eerie warmth and alien disembodiment that informs such cinematic tributes to the ‘30s as Triplets of Belleville and Pennies from Heaven, only more so: more so because while some of these “torrid regions” may be familiar to us (Lousiana, Cuba), others are decidedly less so (Tunisia, Middle Congo). I never imagined that Vietnam or Burma had viable pop recording industries 70 years ago.

Tony Baldwin handled remastering duties on Hot Women, and while I have no idea what the original recordings sound like, the effect is mesmerizing. The sound is still separated from reality, yet saturated with the physical effects of its context. “El Tambor De La Alegria”, a Cuban number from 1928, arrives as in a cloud of dust from the street, as though it exploded into being without the benefit of a producer. The mesmerizing “Chant D’Invitation A La Dance”, from the Middle Congo, built entirely on voice and finger piano, seems suffused with the miasma of an unfamiliar terrain and a stubborn refusal to be “properly” colonized.

If Crumb’s notes show an admiration for these women, his illustrations and the songs themselves seem to reflect the persistence of “exotic” cultures despite the oppressive gaze of the occidental eye. If Crumb’s cartoons turn misogyny on its head by deconstructing the misogynist impulse, his sharing of this music seems to critique colonialism by spreading its accidental treasures, the voices of the oppressed turning the entertainment of their oppressors into an expression of their own tenacity. This collection is grotesque, sexy, dissonant, desperate, and comical, both of this world and defiantly outside of it. These may not be the first hot women to haunt my daydreams, but they’re among the few I’ve ever felt so desperate to share.

--thelyamhound—489 words


Monday, May 22, 2006

FILM: The Power of Nightmares, Dir: Adam Curtis

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear
A BBC Documentary Written/Directed by Adam Curtis
180 Minutes, in 3 episodes
Making the Film Festival Circuit; available, for free, at the Internet Archive.

What the US mainstream press pundits willfully ignore about Stephen Colbert’s recent display of supreme satire at the White House Press Corps Dinner is that, while lacerating the current administration, Colbert’s speech also doubled as a damning indictment of the press itself, print and broadcast mediums alike, and their uncomfortable inability to discuss it as such is pretty telling.

One wonders how much, if any, opprobrium is felt by the news teams at ABC, CBS, (MS)NBC, and CNN when viewing the product coming out of their British cousin BBC News (FOX News, residing at the Weekly World News end of the spectrum, probably doesn’t give a whit). Particularly if they ever decide to take a look at The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis’ exploration of the similarities between Fundamentalist Islam, and the Neo-Conservative movement.

Insightful, in-depth, and eye opening (Islamic fundamentalism was birthed in Greeley, Colorado?), Curtis excels in documenting the facts in such a cold and logical manner, it makes the fumbling, sensationalistic nature of anything coming out of the likes of Dateline or 20/20 seem amateurish by comparison. It puts the impassioned, if well-intentioned, Michael Moore into the ham-fisted category.

Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a bias in the film, there is; however, its arguments are nearly irrefutable, simply because it doesn’t go that step too far. The movie gives you the facts and allows you to jump to your own conclusions, even though there’s really not that far to jump.

For example, there is a segment dedicated to the NeoCon’s first foray into power at the White House, where many of the familiar faces of this movement were starting to develop the practices we are now inured to. Specifically, it’s the “just because there’s no discernible evidence [that the enemy doesn’t have x weapon], doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent” ruse. In the case of the 70s, the deadly weapon is a sub-sonic submarine the Soviets are purported to have, and how it is supposed to be impossible to trace by any known methods.

Most would be content to take that bit of non-logic and leave it to the viewer to plumb its maddening nature. Instead, Curtis wisely finds the people who were in the intelligence field at the time (some of them who went on to hold powerful offices in the FBI), and has them, in no uncertain terms, refute the possibility, and, in turn, the logic, outright.

It is fascinating to watch Curtis, using this scalpel-like precision, essentially marry the NeoCon movement with that of Fundamentalist Islam. The similarities may have been noted before, but Curtis makes those connections concrete, once and for all. Just as fascinating is watching the forward progress made by these movements repeatedly fall apart for, essentially, the same reason:

Humanity’s hunger for dominance and power is only outmatched by its desire to live in peace.

Meanwhile, tonight on Dateline: Is Your Neighbor Releasing Rats Into Your Basement? An In Depth Investigation.

Reviewed by Jose’ Amador, 489 words.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

BOOK: Firmin by Sam Savage

Firmin – Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife
by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Were I to be doing the marketing for this book, I’d be tempted to throw down a phrase like “for anyone who believes in the power of literature.” I’d be lying (of course, I’d be marketing). This is not for anyone, this is not blushing book-love, but rather desperate and clinging. Firmin is a story not of literature’s power to exult, but to barely sustain in the face of inevitable decay. And, it recognizes that the power will always come up short.

Make no mistake, Firmin, our titular hero, is a book-lover. He is also a rat, the thirteenth child of a drunken twelve-nippled mother, born in the basement of a bookstore. It begins with chewing pages to supplement the few drops of wine-addled milk he is able to wrestle away from bullying siblings when he recognizes that he can understand the words. Firmin becomes the introverted reader who believes himself more rich than the world will ever be able to understand, who lives with the pain of recognizing he is, in their eyes, just a rat.

The strength of Firmin’s voice is the driving force of this book. Negotiating emotional honesty with self-deception, he calls himself a pervert and a cynic and is half right. His only moment of normal sexuality is arousal by his sister’s swaying haunches; later the same night he discovers what will become a lifelong obsession with his Lovelies, the women of the porn movies the local theater reverts to at midnight. So, pervert, maybe, but Firmin is no cycnic. He is the committed romantic that tries to adopt cynicism after each disappointment, yet will still and always imagine those he loves to be more than the wrecks we can clearly see them to be. It is his last defense of hope, and as a doomed strategy is most poignant late in the book, when he says of his only friend, “it occurred to me that if you didn’t know better, you could mistake Jerry for just another hooch hound on the long slide to nowhere.”

Firmin’s hope, dim and compromised as it is, grants him a very human voice. The mind that is convinced, when Firmin cites as his favorite opening line Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” that life always ends badly, is overthrown by the heart of a small frustrated writer that finds, in the moments of his life, beautiful and meaningful titles for the life story he knows he will never write.

The impact of the singularity of Firmin’s life extends to the writer, an indulgence I’m rarely willing to make. I would never consider including a book jacket bio in a review, were it not accompanying a photo of an old man and were it not this:

Sam Savage received his bachelor and doctoral degrees in Philosophy from Yale University where he taught briefly. He has also worked as a bicycle mechanic, carpenter, commercial fisherman, and letterpress printer. This is his first novel.


Reviewed by Jim Jewell, 498 words


Friday, May 19, 2006

BOOK: Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic

Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic, translated by Alice Copple-Tosic
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, Eastern European Literature Series

The unnamed narrator of Zoran Zivkovic’s Hidden Camera, an aging undertaker, arrives home from work to find a blank envelope stuck in the jamb of his door. After much speculation, he opens the envelope to find a ticket to a movie house for a performance that begins within the half-hour. When his attempt to ignore the mysterious invitation fails, he grabs his coat and bolts out the door.

At the theater, an usher seats him directly next to the theater’s only other occupant, a beautiful woman, and the film begins: a short scene of the narrator himself, a few months earlier, sitting and reading on the park bench he visits daily, oblivious to the woman who shares his bench, the same woman who sits next to him in the theater. When the lights rise, the woman is gone, replaced by another mysterious envelope. The narrator, convinced he is the subject of a hidden camera show, plunges back into the night, following the trail of envelopes through fantastic situations and mounting paranoia.

Zivkovic’s writing is somehow spare and incredibly rich in imagery at the same time, as though adjectives would only sully the crisp fancies of his imagination. As the narrator moves from one orchestrated scene to the next, running themes quickly emerge. Purple flowers and childbirth and fish return to announce their intentionality. Zivkovic begins bending reality around the edges, allowing the absurd to seep in with a Calvino deadpan. Whether stunned or seduced, neither the narrator nor the reader cares, as long as the weird and wonderful visions continue.

But, at some point, it is exactly the weird and wonderful that breaks its own spell as the reader struggles to discern which details hold significance. Because this novel is from a cultural tradition not widely published in the US (Zivkovic is Serbian), there is an inevitable question: which of the seeming inconsistencies are narrative and which cross-cultural? Should we read each scene as weird, or just, you know, European?

The question of just what this novel is hangs unsatisfyingly unanswered in the end. The first chapter breaks from the narrator’s colorless description of his colorless existence into decisive and frantic action like a release of potential energy, but just as quickly thwarts this kinetic promise with meandering internal exposition worthy Nicholson Baker. The unreliable narrator at times creates too much distance, as he languishes under misconceptions of which the reader has been long since disabused or wallows in a paranoia that seems insufficient for the situation. And, the slide from absurd to fantastic imparts more significance to the narrative threads than is ever delivered. The ride is so beautiful, the destination almost doesn’t matter, but ultimately the whole amounts to less than the sum of its parts, an exotic confection that could have been much more.

Reviewed by Jim Jewell - 467 words