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A Divided South

[ 60 ] April 19, 2016 |


Knoxville’s Henley Street Bridge lit in rainbow colors on the night the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality.

Interesting piece on the changing dynamics of the South, with urban centers becoming unabashedly liberal havens. Of course, this can be vastly overrated, especially in terms of voting power. We know that southern states are going whole hog into creating Confederate heritage months, making harder for black people to vote, and repressing GLBT people. And of course if the urban centers are becoming liberal, the suburbs, which in southern urban centers are a lot of people, are very much not liberal. Nonetheless, there is potential for long-term change here.


Tiger Protection

[ 4 ] April 19, 2016 |


I guess I will try to be positive here and note that the 13 Asian nations with tigers have publicly committed to preserving tiger habitat. The less positive part of me thinks it will probably end up like most of these agreements and not actually do anything. And then there’s the issue of poaching for the newly wealthy Asian markets.

Many of the countries have growing human populations and fast-developing economies. By 2022, they want to double the world’s wild tiger population from the all-time low of 3,200 hit in 2010.

On Monday, conservation groups announced that the world’s tiger count had gone up to 3,890, according to 2014-15 survey data. That marked the first increase in the wild population census in more than a century. But that did not necessarily mean there were more tigers in the wild. The higher number may just mean scientists are getting better at counting them, with more sophisticated survey methods including camera traps and DNA analysis of scat.

An actual increase in wild tiger populations would also be hard to reconcile with the fact that their habitat is shrinking so fast. In just the last five years, tigers lost a full 40 percent of their remaining natural habitat, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“The tiger is still teetering on the brink of extinction, and a too-hasty celebration of an increase in tiger numbers will only disservice efforts for the species’ conservation,” said John Goodrich, tiger program director at the New York-based big cat conservation group Panthera.

He and other tiger biologists said it was unrealistic to think the world could double its wild tiger population by 2022, unless tiger landscapes were vastly increased. Today, tigers roam across just 7 percent of their historical range.

Still, sometimes you have to hold on to whatever positive news you can find.

Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation

[ 36 ] April 18, 2016 |


So you might be asking yourself, “As a lazy professor who never writes anything, Loomis has tons of free time. What does he do with it?” Well, one thing I’ve been doing this year is organizing a conference on the problems of corporate funded climate change denialism with the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and a committee of my fellow professors through our AAUP union. For those of you who live in southern New England, this would be a great event for you to attend on Earth Day. It’s on Friday at the University of Rhode Island. Titled “Climate Change Science in an Age of Misinformation,” the keynote is from Senator Whitehouse. The morning roundtable includes Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmel, New York Times science writer Cornelia Dean, Boston University philosopher and ethicist on climate issues Lee McIntyre, and sociologist Timmons Roberts. There is a video introduction by Bill McKibben (turns out if you e-mail McKibben with something important, he just e-mails you back in 5 minutes. Or at least he did that with me). And then there are afternoon breakout sessions on coastline issues, communicating climate change, and environmental justice and activism. I am participating in the latter.

Anyway, here’s the flyer and here’s the agenda. If you are in southern New England, I hope to see you all on Friday. Shoot me a line if you have any questions.

What’s Going on in Brazil?

[ 26 ] April 18, 2016 |


Our good friend Colin Snider has an excellent primer on the craziness going on in Brazil, with President Dilma Rousseff impeached yesterday. This is well worth your time.

The voting took nearly six hours, and was quite the spectacle. Each deputy was given the chance to briefly state why they were voting, and the responses were….various. The causes cited for voting to impeach Dilma included, but were not limited to: for their wives; for their mothers; for other family members (including grandchildren whose birthday it was yesterday); God; because they didn’t want (and I’m quoting here) his “kids to learn about sex in school;” for “peace in Jerusalem” (no, really); and against “children changing their sexes in school” (no – really). The racist, misogynistic, and homophobic dictatorship apologist Jair Bolsonaro went so far as to dedicate his vote in favor of impeachment to the late Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the military regime’s worst torturers who from late 1970 to 1974 oversaw the very center where Dilma, and hundreds of other Brazilians, were tortured.

Suffice to say, none of these issues actually addressed the actual issue at hand in impeachment – the pedaladas fiscais, or “fiscal maneuvers” in describing the federal government’s financial situation in 2014. Of course, as I discussed here, this was not an impeachable offense – it was not made illegal until last year, and both the center-right PSDB’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) and PT’s Luis Inácio Lula da Silva had used the practice, as had well over a dozen sitting governors in 2014. Some deputies voted in favor of impeachment “against corruption,” but even that was not the issue at play here. Yes, there are numerous corruption scandals involving Petrobras, the Lava Jato investigation, and kickbacks, but the pedaladas fiscais are not a part of the actual corruption scandals. Dilma herself has not been tied to any of the corruption scandals; indeed while her name is absent from both the Lava Jato investigation and, more recently, the Panama Papers, the opposition is rife with politicians directly tied to both, including Eduardo Cunha, President of the Chamber of Deputies who led the impeachment campaign. That’s not to say there may not be something uncovered later, but impeachment is a reactive, not proactive, political action. Ultimately, fewer than 10 deputies actually addressed the issue at hand – the pedaladas fiscais. Perhaps Dilma’s use of them was unconstitutional (though given the historical precedent, that seems unlikely), but nobody bothered to really make that case.

More systematically, the hypocrisy was on display over the issue of corruption itself. Corruption is a real issue in Brazil, as evident yesterday – not in the actual impeachment vote of Dilma itself, but in the fact that around 300 of the people voting yesterday are directly tied to corruption, criminal activity, fraud, money laundering, etc., but remain in office either due to parliamentary immunity or to a more general climate of impunity in which investigations into and punishment of very serious cases of electoral fraud and corruption move at a snail’s pace and rarely lead to any real punishment. The fact that the sitting president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros (also of the PMDB) has been tied to multiple corruption scandals and even briefly resigned (only to be re-elected), and that Cunha was discovered to have millions of dollars in a secret Swiss bank account (something he vehemently denied until the evidence was incontrovertible) is evidence of that fact. As for the unequal move toward justice, Cunha oversaw yesterday’s impeachment of Dilma while he himself is a defendant in the Supreme Court over that very corruption scandal and his ties to Lava Jato. As one deputy put it, “I have never seen so much hypocrisy per square meter,” and she wasn’t really being unfair.

Chait and Socialism

[ 148 ] April 18, 2016 |


Above: Why Jonathan Chait Can’t Sleep at Night

Jonathan Chait can sometimes provide good political analysis and he’s certainly right about Delaware. But his primary take on the 2016 Democratic primary is that Marxism is back and it threatens it all. So it’s been embarrassing column after embarrassing column about this “issue.”

Chait for instance thinks that we are now debating whether Marxism works, a system he can only identify with Stalin. Uh, OK. I guess I wasn’t aware that was what the Sanders campaign is really about, but whatever. And he’s VERY CONCERNED that people read Jacobin and so has to remind us that liberalism is awesome and socialism is the BIG EVIL. I mean, in the New Gilded Age, how could one think liberalism isn’t working anymore?!? Now, I’m not really saying that, but the idea that liberalism has been this great movement over the last 50 years is pretty ridiculous given its often feeble response to the economic, social, and racial problems of our time, especially compared to an increasingly aggressive and voracious conservatism that has pulled the nation far to the right. Of course, this all gets to Chait’s real issue–which is that some lefties were mean to him when he was in college and he can’t get over it.

Last night, Chait took the crazy to 11:

Obviously, some people will always be inclined to use threats to their right to speak as an excuse to advocate outrageous views. But other people like the idea of rebelliousness and standing up against censorship, and the more convincingly any movement can depict itself as the victim of censorship, the more successfully it will recruit those attracted to this form of rebellion. In the 1950s, McCarthyist repression lent American communists the allure of the forbidden. Rather than being seen as pawns of a murderous dictatorship, communist sympathizers acquired the glamour of rebellious independent thought, and pride of place on the front lines of a cultural struggle on behalf of Americans aghast at McCarthy.

Um….. What?

Does Chait know anything about the history of communism? The 1950s? The 1950s were a hellish time to be a communist. Does Chait know nothing about the blacklist? About homosexuals being driven out of government for supposedly being susceptible to communism? About people losing their jobs and their livelihoods? About Ethel and Julius Rosenberg being executed?

And when since has being a communist been glamorous? Not even in the 1960s, when actual CP membership was still looked down upon by the new left. Vague support for Ho Chi Minh or Che Guevara was real enough, but usually reflected dissatisfaction with current U.S. policies than a desire to bring state-sponsored socialism into the United States. There were exceptions and, yes, the 35 people who made up the Weather Underground were real people who wanted to violently overthrow the U.S. government, but that’s no glamorous communist life, nor were they seen so at the time.

Chait’s fundamental problem here is that he defines himself as the holding the farthest left acceptable positions. Anything to the left of him is not a position, it’s a crisis. It’s a threat to liberal democracy. Not only is this completely ridiculous, it’s myopic. For someone paid to write about politics, it would be nice if Jonathan Chait actually knew something about the role protest plays in politics. You need a far left critique to provide a push and pull to the rightist forces constantly seeking to destroy the social safety net, bomb brown people, bolster racism, and hand over riches to the wealthy. But Chait worries far more about scary socialism than conservatives, even though the latter are a real threat and the former a figment of his imagination.

What’s worse is how Chait is seeing the Bernie movement as the revival of Stalin and Mao. This is just patently absurd. We are in a moment where “socialism” is a fuzzy, happy-go-lucky social movement that will make things better for us all through the state fighting inequality. Granting free college tuition is not in the same universe as show trials. Yet for Chait, this is what he sees. And that’s just pathetic and sad.

The World’s Smallest Violin

[ 136 ] April 18, 2016 |


Call the waaaaaaaaaaaabulance! Bernie makes Wall Street executives feel so oppressed!

Timothy Collins, 49, hears the lamentations about Sanders at the high-priced steakhouse he manages near the stock exchange.

“You couldn’t conjure someone that would scare them more,” said Collins, who wore a gray suit with a pink tie and matching pocket square. “If he’s elected, he’s going to come at them. His supporters are the ones with the proverbial pitchforks.”

The feeling runs to the top of the industry food chain. On CNBC in February, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein said the Sanders candidacy has “the potential to be a dangerous moment” by demonizing the financial sector.

And those giant bonuses of course must be defended at all costs!

Still, the financial sector is the source of many jobs, not only for stock traders but also security guards and administrative assistants. Even big bonuses, the source of much consternation about the outsized incomes of Wall Street executives, can help support the economy, said Stu Loeser, who handled communications for Michael Bloomberg when he was mayor.

“People take their bonuses and spend them, on watches, on cars, on home renovations, on lots of things,” he said.

For New Yorkers, Loeser said, banks are less the evil corporations of the popular imagination than the source of paychecks for family and friends.

“You don’t have to like the banks to like your brother-in-law, who works for a bank, having a job,” he said. “Those are the people who can get hurt when you start breaking up banks.”

Sanders not only wants to break up some of the banks, but also reinstate financial regulations known as the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era law that kept commercial and investment banking as separate businesses. Its repeal, signed into law by Clinton’s husband in 1999, was seen by some as helping pave the way for the economic reckoning to come less than a decade later.

Who could imagine such a horror as reinstating Glass-Stegall! I mean, you might as well just throw them all into the gulag and toss away the key!

Now, it is true enough that there are lots of people in the financial sector who aren’t making huge money and who do need to live a decent life too. No one is questioning that. Even the point about the bonuses is not completely without merit–for those at the mid-level and lower status within Wall Street, those bonuses actually make a huge difference in quality of life. But there are still tons of problems here. First, it’s the only industry that actually gets paid like this and those bonuses could be reworked into salary to be less egregious and contingent, doing more to protect the lower end people in the financial sector. Second, those bonuses, and the outrage about them, are because the wealthy executives, which is what basically the entirety of the criticism of Wall Street is about, are already grotesquely wealthy and reveling in the New Gilded Age. That’s the target. Third, I love the toss-off quote about how for New Yorkers, Wall Street is your family. Well, I guess that depends on who counts as a New Yorker. Do the people moving out of the Bronx because of gentrification count? The Ecuadoran immigrants in Queens? I mean, some of those people might be cleaning the buildings, but we won’t even bother pretending they count on Wall Street. And on the state level, do the people in Buffalo and Schenectady and Binghamton and Amsterdam and all the other Rust Belt cities count? Ha ha, of course not. This is the kind of myopic view of who counts and who doesn’t count that is at the core of the problem with Wall Street.

This all reminds me of the apocalyptic outrage shown by millionaires in the first Gilded Age over their workers only having to work 12 hours a day instead of 14.

Why Do Women Get Paid Less Than Men?

[ 154 ] April 18, 2016 |


Because we are a deeply sexist society that has that sexism baked into the nation’s core values. Women don’t get paid less because they choose to, unlike what Carly Fiorina claims. They get paid less because, as Amanda Marcotte states:

That said, the notion that women are making “personal choices” to make less money and therefore it can’t be sexism is pure poppycock. Women’s choices aren’t made in a vacuum, but informed by societal and familial expectations and attitudes that steer women away from being full competitors in the workplace and towards prioritizing domestic duties so that men don’t have to deal with them.

If you’re told from the cradle that girls aren’t as smart or good at math as boys and your efforts to join math and science programs result in a wall of sexual harassment, giving up and deciding to pursue a career, like teaching, that is less threatening to the sexist order is going to feel like a more attractive option. It’s particularly silly to deny that it’s sexism at play when women but not men scale back their ambitions in order to have children. The notion that it’s women’s job but not men’s to do the nitty-gritty daily work of raising children is the definition of sexism.

What’s interesting to me as a historian of the United States is the trajectory of different forms of discrimination. Racism remains as strong as ever, and in some ways stronger, but on the other hand, we have an African-American president of the United States who openly addresses racial questions. At the very least, racism is at the center of the national conversation, including by those defending it. Homophobia is declining at a rate unprecedented in the history of American bigotry. But sexism is just sort of stagnant. We don’t talk about it that much as a nation. It’s not a big part of the political conversation this year. Yes, Hillary Clinton is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but it’s not like that has led to larger national conversations about sexism. Sexism in pay rates remains basically the same. And while the historical movement for the Equal Rights Amendment always had its problems (primarily around ignoring the material concerns of women in favor of an esoteric and very middle-class goal), there’s no good reason the Democratic Party should not make the ERA a central plank of its platform. At the very least, there is a good moral argument to be made here that would be a concrete way to fight against sexism. But it’s just nowhere.

Why We Need to Work Toward Comprehensive Corporate Codes Enforceable Anywhere

[ 13 ] April 18, 2016 |


Canadian natural resource companies are among the world’s least socially responsible. Whether in mining, timber, or oil, they ravage the environment and intimidate or even kill local people standing in their way. A lot of their operations are in Latin America, where they work with “subsidiaries” to take care of the dirty work, shielding them from responsibility while eliminating problems. Up to now, the Canadian companies have not been held legally responsible for these actions. But a group of Guatemalan indigenous people are suing a company and there is hope that some sort of accountability may result.

Mrs. Caal has taken her case to the courts, but not in Guatemala, where Mayan villagers like her, illiterate and living in isolated areas, have had little legal success. She has filed in Canada, where her negligence suit, Caal v. Hudbay Mineral Inc., has sent shivers through the vast Canadian mining, oil and gas industry. More than 50 percent of the world’s publicly listed exploration and mining companies had headquarters in Canada in 2013, according to government statistics. Those 1,500 companies had an interest in some 8,000 properties in more than 100 countries around the world.

For decades, overseas subsidiaries have acted as a shield for extractive companies even while human rights advocates say they have chronicled a long history of misbehavior, including environmental damage, the violent submission of protesters and the forced evictions of indigenous people.

But Mrs. Caal’s negligence claim and those of 10 other women from this village who say they were gang-raped that day in 2007, as well as two other negligence claims against Hudbay, have already passed several significant legal hurdles — suggesting that companies based in Canada could face new scrutiny about their overseas operations in the future. In June, a ruling ordered Hudbay to turn over what Mrs. Caal’s lawyers expect will be thousands of pages of internal documents. Hudbay, which was not the owner of the mine at the time of the evictions, denies any wrongdoing.

Canadian law does not provide for huge American-style payoffs, even if the court rules in the plaintiff’s favor. But the Hudbay case is being watched carefully because it appears to offer a new legal pathway for those who say they have suffered at the hands of Canadian subsidiaries. A ruling in this case, experts say, could also help establish powerful guidelines for what constitutes acceptable corporate behavior.

“Up until now, we just have not had judicial decisions that help us consider these sorts of relationships,” said Sara Seck, an expert on corporate social responsibility at the Faculty of Law, Western University, in London, Ontario. “For once, the court is going to look at what really happened here, and that is important.”

The companies have fought off accountability legislation for years, seeking to continue their ability to do whatever they want to local people in order to get out the metal. They know what these subsidiaries do and they like it. The lawsuit is important and hopefully the new Canadian government can pass some legislation to create greater accountability. But it’s worth placing this in a broader context of the larger problems with globalization and with corporate accountability. First, this use of subsidiaries is part of the broader passion by corporations to shield themselves from responsibility while not giving up power or control. In this way, it’s just another, and dirtier, form of outsourcing, subcontracting, franchising, temp work, and other innovative ways corporations have figured out how to maximize profit while minimizing legal responsibility. By claiming they didn’t control the subsidiary, they can sow doubt about whether they should be held responsible. But of course that subsidiary didn’t act on its own. The Canadian mining companies know how Guatemalan paramilitary gangs, which is basically what this subsidiary is, have operated in indigenous villages for decades. That’s just common knowledge for anyone who knows the first thing about Central America.

Second, this case shows why we need to create more robust international law that holds corporations accountable for what happens with their operations no matter where they go and no matter how they set up their business. If a paramilitary operation is working for a Canadian mining company, the company and its executives need to be held legally accountable for everything that subsidiary does. If Walmart is contracting out with an apparel operator in Bangladesh, then Walmart must be legally accountable for all violations that take place in that sweatshop. If Hershey is contracting for chocolate from west Africa, then Hershey executives have to held legally accountable for any cacao they get that was picked by child labor. This sort of legal regime is the only way we can stop this global exploitation of the world’s poor by wealthy world corporations. Nations enact all sorts of legal regimes for labor law, environmental law, and import law. We already make all sorts of decisions about conditions to allow imports into the nation and how our companies may operate abroad. The U.S. for instance recently revised the Smoot-Hawley Tariff that closed the loophole allowing for prison-made products if there was no alternative to acquire that product, which had been blown open by companies operating in China and other nations. We used to allow American companies to harvest elephants for ivory and make all sorts of products with that. Now we don’t. These are choices we can make. The Canadians need to seriously crack down on its mining companies raping Guatemalans to move them off of land. Americans have just as much work to do. Articulating how we can stop these problems and tame corporations is the first part of the solution.

On-Call Shifts

[ 49 ] April 17, 2016 |


New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman looks to be leading a charge against retailers using on-call shifts to control their workers, a completely unacceptable practice that significantly reduces the quality of life for workers who can’t make plans because they don’t know if they will have to work.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, along with officials from attorneys general offices from seven other states and the District of Columbia, recently sent letters to a number of large retail companies regarding their use of “on-call” shifts.

Schneiderman said employees assigned to such shifts must call their employer — typically an hour or two before a scheduled shift — to find out if they will be assigned to work that day. The letter seeks information and documents related to the companies’ use of on-call shifts, Schneiderman said on April 13.

Schneiderman said on-call shifts are unfair to workers who must keep the day free, arrange for child care, and give up the chance to get another job or attend a class — often all for nothing.

“On-call shifts are not a business necessity, as we see from the many retailers that no longer use this unjust method of scheduling work hours,” he said.

Schneiderman’s office sent letters to American Eagle, Aeropostale, Payless, Disney, Coach, PacSun, Forever 21, Vans, Justice Just for Girls, BCBG Maxazria, Tilly’s, Inc., David’s Tea, Zumiez, Uniqlo, and Carter’s.

The letter states, “Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on employees. Without the security of a definite work schedule, workers who must be ‘on call’ have difficulty making reliable childcare and elder-care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing an education, and in general experience higher incidences of adverse health effects, overall stress, and strain on family life than workers who enjoy the stability of knowing their schedules reasonably in advance.”

You can read the whole letter here. Let’s hope this is the start of the government seeking to make these practices illegal.

Who Republicans Target in Their War on Science

[ 147 ] April 17, 2016 |


Who do Republican legislators target in their war on science, claiming that all this research is wasteful? Well, it turns out they target people doing some really important research. It also turns out they don’t have their basic facts straight when attacking these people. Shocking, I know.

In a booth across the aisle was Megan Tracy, an assistant professor of anthropology at James Madison University. During a stint with the Peace Corps, she became fascinated by the way the Chinese government regulated its food industries. The National Science Foundation gave her $150,000 to investigate the impact of a poorly regulated milk market in that country, which, sure enough, had congressional critics wondering what good it did the American taxpayers to help China with its dairy. What they overlooked, Tracy noted, is that the United States imported more than $28 billion worth of food from China in 2013.

During a House Science Committee hearing in 2013, Smith called five projects, including Tracy’s, essentially indefensible. He then sent a letter to the NSF demanding that it justify the research. It was a shock to science-research advocates who have long argued that peer review, not politics, should determine what research merits grant money.

“It made us a little tentative for a while,” Tracy recalled. “Our concern was that there would be ramifications.”

David A. Scholnick, an associate professor of biology at Pacific University, stood nearby. His was the experiment in which shrimp took to a treadmill — perhaps the most widely mocked undertaking of government-funded scientific research in recent memory (Stephen Colbert even got in on the act). What Scholnick has been uncovering, though, is a potentially monumental problem. Warming oceans are causing a growth in certain bacteria in the gills of shrimp, and the damage of that buildup is far greater than previously known.

Considering that Americans eat more than 5 billion pounds of shrimp every year, Scholnick concluded that his work could have a major influence on everything from production to food safety.

Critics accused him of wasting $3 million — a number he scoffs at. He built the treadmill himself for $47. “I would love to have a grant for $3 million,” Scholnick said.

In conclusion, many Republican legislators are very stupid and petty people.

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 27

[ 44 ] April 17, 2016 |

This is the grave of Eliot Ness. index

Ness of course is famous for his role with the U.S. Treasury Department during Prohibition. He joined the department in 1927, rising rapidly. In 1929, Herbert Hoover declared jailing Al Capone a top priority of his administration. Ness headed the team designed to do this, busting his distilleries and publicizing his successes, making himself a nationally famous individual. This infuriated Capone, who attempted to have Ness assassinated several times. This all eventually led to Capone getting busted for tax evasion and imprisoned. After the end of Prohibition, he was hired as Safety Director for Cleveland, where he targeted the mob. However, his (somewhat ironic) heavy drinking and failed marriage undermined his effectiveness. He remarried and worked for the government during World War II attacking prostitution near military bases.

Eliot Ness is buried in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio.

Music Notes

[ 92 ] April 16, 2016 |


Here’s an excerpt from a new book on the history of the banjo:

West African kings understood that music is power. They made sure their official audiences were accompanied by song. They traveled with music, too: when the king of Mali returned from a journey, wrote the fourteenth-century scholar Al-’Umari, “a parasol and a standard are held over his head as he rides,” while ahead of him came musicians playing “drums, guitars, and trumpets, which are made out of the horns of the country with a consummate art.” The legendary chronicler Ibn Battuta described similarly how when the king of Mali arrived for an audience, “the singers come out in front of him with gold and silver stringed instruments in their hands and behind them about 300 armed slaves.” A 1655 account of the court of Askia Mohammed-Gâo, the seat of the Songhay empire, described him surrounded by “instrumentalists who played the guitar” along with other instruments, sitting “under the pasha’s tent, behind the dais.”

These writers used various Arabic terms to describe the instruments: Al-Umari used tanbūr or tunbūr, a Persian term for a long-necked instrument, while Ibn Battuta used a term rendered as kanābir in the 1922 French edition, quinburī in the more recent English one. And the “Kano Chronicle,” first published in 1804 on the basis of earlier materials, mentions a stringed instrument called the “Algaita” that was requested by a Kano ruler for his court in 1703. But these writers were using the terms for their own familiar stringed instruments, so we can’t assume that this was the name used by the musicians themselves or draw conclusions about the construction of the instruments beyond a general analogy.

There is a fascinating glimpse in a series of metal plaques from the thirteenth-century Kingdom of Benin. These renderings, the earliest visual depictions of West African instruments, include only one figure holding a stringed instrument: a small harp. A gold sculpture from the Akan people of Ghana, however—dated sometime between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries—shows a musician playing a stringed instrument with a curved neck and a rounded resonator that looks as if made from a calabash.

Miles Davis, beyond Kind of Blue. Is it OK for me to say that I don’t even really love Kind of Blue all that much? I mean, I recognize its greatness, but I don’t actually like listening to it more than once or twice a year. I’d say it’s maybe my 7th or 8th favorite Miles album. Basically, I need more than an album of ballads. This is also why I don’t much listen to Bill Evans or Dave Brubeck in any regular rotation. Call me a Neanderthal, it’s OK.

I was lucky enough to see Wussy play in Boston a few weeks ago. It was typically outstanding. That band also excels at superior between song banter. A portion of the band was on KEXP last month. Check it out.

Some album reviews:

Cracker, Berkeley to Bakersfield
I’ve always mostly enjoyed Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker albums because I do like David Lowery. Of course, one of his strengths has also always been one of his weaknesses, which is that his songs are so ironic and cynical. So you listened to the albums, even if there were too many instrumental numbers, and you enjoyed them, but you could never take the songs all the seriously. But Berkeley to Bakersfield is a pretty-much irony free set of songs that make up what really are two entirely distinct albums. The first is a bunch of leftist political songs that revolve around Berkeley with a rock sound. The second is Lowrey’s ode to the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. So it’s a hard country album with the lovelorn and nostalgic lyrics typical of country albums, this time with a particular focus on working-class California. And both work really well. I thoroughly enjoyed both discs. This is a sure buy.


Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963
Somehow I had never heard this before. And while it might be kind of pointless to review classic albums, why not. It’s fascinating that RCA kept his under wraps for 20 years because it was too raw. It is a little raw and that’s a good thing for me. Sometimes I have found Cooke too smooth and I don’t listen to him a whole lot, but this was a real revelation to me. In the realm of live recordings by R&B artists of the period, I wouldn’t say this is as good as James Brown’s Live at the Apollo or Ray Charles at Newport. But those are true all-time greats. On the other hand, I like it better than Otis Redding’s Live in Europe, which I think really suffers from too much crowd noise. There’s plenty of crowd noise here too, maybe a little more than I like.


Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird is Home
Another lovely collection of songs for Kristian Matsson, the Swedish singer who performs as The Tallest Man on Earth. And while with his voice he sometimes gets called another Dylan imitator, I find it highly expressive. It’s really a very powerful voice, one of the most expressive in recent times. The lyrics are best not followed too closely; these aren’t story songs. There is also a bit more going on here musically than normal, with most of the instruments played by Matsson and he does well enough with them. I don’t know that I like this as much as I loved the brilliant The Wild Hunt, but this is a very solid collection of songs.


Los Hijos de la Montaña, Los Hijos de la Montaña

This is a pretty interesting collaboration between the unrelated Luz Elena Mendoza and Sergio Mendoza. The former is a singer in the Northwest, the latter in a band that is inspired by the mambo music of Mexico in the 50s and 60s. Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin got them together to combine her rich voice with his big sound. It mostly works as an interesting experiment in modern Mexican-American music. I think I would like his band better. The voice is big and rich and loaded but is a bit pastoral and folkie for me. The music is good but sounds like it’s straining to be louder than it is allowed to be in this setting. Certainly a worthy project, maybe not my very favorite thing. At the very least though, I think it is well worth a listen.


Finally, I was recently tagged in one of those Facebook memes that was “12 albums that stuck with you.” I assumed the definition of that was at least 5 years old. I chose the following:

1) Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
2) Willie Nelson, Phases and Stages
3) Waylon Jennings, Dreamin’ My Dreams
4) Wussy, Strawberry
5) Palace, Viva Last Blues
6) Old 97s, Fight Songs
7) Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages
8) Miles Davis, In a Silent Way
9) Bob Wills, Tiffany Transcriptions, Volume 4
9) Neil Young, Tonight’s The Night
10) Millie Jackson, Caught Up
11) Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
12) Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out

If I went to 24, I guess it might look something like this:

13) Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
14) The Band, The Band
15) John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
16) Gram Parsons, Return of the Grievous Angel
17) Bill Frisell, This Land
18) Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders, More a Legend Than a Band
19) Ray Charles, At Newport
20) Terry Allen, Lubbock (On Everything)
21) The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
22) The Who, Who’s Next
23) Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights
24) Velvet Underground, White Light, White Heat

Open thread for all musical thoughts and notes.

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