Monday, May 24, 2010

Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification

Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification

by David Waldstreicher

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Publisher: Hill and Wang

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David Waldstreicher's Slavery's Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification is that rare history book that offers an entirely new perspective on an exhaustively-documented period of American history. Waldstreicher, a professor of history at Temple University, is a reliably consistent writer in a crowded field; his previous books Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution and In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776-1820 both offered fresh insights into the colonial and post-revolutionary periods. His latest effort trumps both of these and is perhaps his finest work to date: thoroughly researched and forcefully argued, it is likely to become one of the key texts in any discussion of slavery's role in the early republic.

Waldstreicher's primary assertion is a controversial one: namely, that the Constitution as ratified in 1788 was a pro-slavery document that, with the concessions and compromises its creators made to increase the document's chances of ratification by the state conventions, protected Southern slaveholding interests while also ensuring that slavery became irreversibly linked to the economic and political structure of the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. As uncomfortable as the book may make readers feel, Waldstreicher's argument is meticulously supported, as he offers ample evidence of how the slavery question was discussed, debated and, in some cases, avoided throughout the closed-door meetings that produced the Constitution in 1787.

He performs a delicate balancing act, acknowledging the difficulties the framers faced in drafting a document that could be palatable to North and South alike, but also showing how it enabled a powerful centralized government to embed slavery as part of a broader attempt to define the nature of sovereignty, property and political representation in the young country.

Waldstreicher also adeptly shows how slavery played a role in political discourse in the pre-revolution years as well as in the frequently contentious public debate that preceded ratification, offering an extensive overview of the cultural and political attitudes to slavery in the revolutionary period in a little over 150 pages. The book's final chapter is perhaps its best, as the author describes how objections over the Constitution fit within the broader tradition of political dissent in America. Though the framers eventually agreed to maintain a unified front in their support of the Constitution, especially as it was turned over to the states for ratification, Waldstreicher recounts how some leading politicians - some of whom can be seen as this country's earliest abolitionists - maintained significant reservations about how parts of the document contradicted the country's egalitarian ideals.

Slavery's Constitution isn't flawless, as it sometimes feels overly dense and at times excessively dry and professorial. Moreover, the author's final statement that "...slavery did not itself cause the Civil War. Slavery's Constitution did" is a loaded and overly-simplistic comment, with Waldstreicher ignoring later events that eventually led the country to war as well as reducing the complex question of the Civil War's inevitability to a statement seemingly designed to provoke readers. Still, in a deliberate, responsible manner, Waldstreicher demonstrates how slavery remained one of the primary obstacles for the framers and, ultimately, how their decision to couch the subject in evasive language ensured slavery's perpetuation.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wounded Lion: Wounded Lion

Wounded Lion
Wounded Lion
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: In the Red

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I'll say this much for Wounded Lion: a garage-pop band do could far worse on its debut album than what the California quintet manages here. And indeed countless groups have, following a very simple formula to create a cover-your-ears-awful first effort: mix the tortured, modern poetry-fed, Moz-cribbing musings of twentysomething males with a handful of untouchable iconic influences mimicked to the point of silver-tongued thievery, and - poof - a crappy album destined for the bargain bin is born. For the most part, Wounded Lion steers clear of these pitfalls on this self-titled release, 12 songs wrapped in 30 brisk minutes of uncluttered and gimmick-free rock. There is already a modest buzz around the band across the internet - primarily due to a few singles and a live show that some bloggers have described in Bangs-worthy, gushing terms - and this record should keep that momentum going, however slightly.

For better or worse, much of Wounded Lion lends itself to an intense game of Which Bands Do These Songs Remind You Of? The group claims the Cramps, the Monks, the Move and the Kinks as inspirations, while press material cites the Clean, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Velvet Underground - of course, as by now even granny's church choir would cop to lifting from that band - as influences. It's easy to see why: songs like "Hunan Province" and "Creatures in the Cave" do in fact unfold like a pretty clever hybrid of those bands' best moments. Other songs feel instantly familiar without feeling like derivative theft; maybe it's an enormous coincidence, but Wounded Lion appears to cozily stand on the shoulders of giants. Mostly it works though: the first few lines of "Carol Cloud" approximate Flip Your Wig/New Day Rising-era Hüsker Dü, the vocals on "Black Sox" - barked out mostly in French - sound a lot like Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas and opening track "Hungry?" features a pair of vocalists who combine Thomas' bellow with David Byrne's vocal twitches.

What saves these songs from becoming little more than a group of guys pissing on hallowed ground is how well they alternate between seriousness and silliness. There is a menacing vagueness to "Hungry?" - the line "I think it's hungry" is repeated but we never find out what "it" is - while the primitive stomp and distortion of "Creatures in the Cave" accentuate a great line like "I'm in the cave/ With broken dreams." But mostly Wounded Lion is a fun listen whose lightheartedness is obvious, whether it's in the exaggerated country parody of "Crünchy Stars," the insidiously catchy wordplay of "Belt of Orion," the Coors Light product placement of "Silver Bullet" or the Star Wars nerd-out of "Degobah System," which blends a melody as hummable as any pop tune with some practical world advice for travelers in a galaxy far, far away: "If you're going to the Degobah system/ Get ready for some wild shit."

This reliance on fairly-elementary comedy does sometimes make Wounded Lion's tracks feel like novelty songs, and with its short running time, there's very little room for such filler. Still, there's enough variety here to suggest the band knows the difference between homage and blatant imitation and, even better, how to (almost) strike the right balance between oblique lyricism and a sense of humor numerous indie bands would be well-served to emulate.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Incredible String Band: Reissues

Incredible String Band

Incredible String Band, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Wee Tam and the Big Huge

Rating: 3.0/5.0, 2.0/5.0, 4.5/5.0, 4.0/5.0

Label: Fledg'ling

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Over 40 years after its initial release, nothing else sounds quite like The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. The Incredible String Band's 1968 masterpiece is still easily one of the most inventive and downright bizarre records of that, or any, decade, and its influence can still be seen in both the best and worst that modern indie has to offer; I'll leave it to the reader to determine which artists fall into each category. Not surprisingly, it's the centerpiece of a reissue campaign that also includes the group's first two records as well as Hangman's marginally inferior successor, all of which cement the ISB's place as one of the 1960s most ambitious, and adventurous, groups.

These reissues confirm the obvious: Hangman's remains the band's defining, and least accessible, work. It's a dizzying, difficult, wild-as-hell record that's not for the faint of heart, and I suspect it only even starts to make sense to a chemically-altered mind. In songs that reference mythological Greek monsters, witch apparel and similar topics, the band mixes mandolin, guitar and harmonica with a ton of other instruments that most of us couldn't pick out of a police lineup: oud, water harp, gimbri, chahana, pan pipe, dulcimer and sitar. "A Very Cellular Song" is still the band's undisputed singular moment, though "Waltz of the New Moon," "Mercy I Cry City," "Water Song" and "There Is a Green Crown" don't lag too far behind. Hangman's requires a certain degree of patience from the listener - indeed, it's surprising the group managed to achieve the level of mainstream success it did, however briefly - but it's an album that is never predictable, no matter how well a listener knows its songs.

The band's less-celebrated albums have aged pretty well and contain plenty of gems, even if they never quite reach the heights of Hangman's. From the ISB's self-titled debut, "October Song," "Dandelion Blues" and "Can't Keep Me Here" are charming and quirky, though most of the album is painfully sincere, daintily delicate to a fault and in thrall to the 1960s folk craze. Time has been the hardest on the unfortunately-titled and ill-conceived sophomore album The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, as large chunks of it now sound hopelessly dated and slight, though "The Mad Hatter's Song" and a few others do hint at the supremely strange folk-psych hybrid the band would master on Hangman's. The band's range had exploded by the time the double-LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge was released; prone to occasional bouts of over-indulgence and out-of-control experimentalism, individual tracks like "Job's Tears," "You Get Brighter," "Air," "Maya" and "Cousin Caterpillar" rank among the band's best moments.

For anyone who hasn't heard The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, its reissue is another opportunity to experience it in all its weirdness and to then evaluate whether a deeper dive into the ISB's other albums is desired. While the overall package is somewhat disappointing - no extras of any kind are included - the sound is noticeably improved, nostalgia-heavy liner notes from Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, Joe Boyd and Clive Palmer give a sense of the band's history and the packaging is snazzy. But ultimately it's the music that matters, and in that respect there's very little to gripe about here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Wye Oak: My Neighbor/My Creator

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Wye Oak

My Neighbor/My Creator

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Label: Merge

My Neighbor/My Creator is a good example of why it's difficult to get overly fired up about many EPs; neither amazing nor abysmal, it's simply five decent songs long on execution and studio mastery, but short on innovation. Wye Oak's latest uncomfortably exists in some sort of bizarro middle ground for the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack; it's neither a major step back from 2007's If Children nor a tiny improvement over 2009's mostly bland The Knot. It's just there; unobtrusive but also unremarkable, it's hard to imagine anyone but the band's most loyal fans meeting this release with anything more than an indifferent shrug and a few impossible-to-conceal yawns.

Don't get me wrong- My Neighbor/My Creator is a pleasant listen and there are certainly worse ways listeners can spend their time (here's one). The band's indie-folk-rock-dream-synth-pop-Yo La Tengo hybrid is again on display, augmented with some sweet, sweet sax, Wasner's vocals - which can sound as brittle as old bones, supremely confident or implicitly threatening - various studio wizardry and layers of percussion. "My Neighbor" is a rollicking opener, offering up an ear worm-worthy arrangement and vocals reminiscent of Neko Case, while the dodgy opening of "Emmylou" is almost saved by a dandy little harmonica workout later in the song. "My Creator" and "I Hope You Die" mix the duo's balladeer sensibilities with an apparent desire to use every gadget and gizmo in the studio; at the very least producers Chris and Mickey Freeland made their mark on these two tracks. Solid songs one and all, without a doubt, but none are particularly exceptional and feel increasingly hollow with repeated listens; frankly I can't imagine myself ever wanting to hear an album's worth of this stuff.

The album closes with a remix of The Knot's "That I Do," complete with various blips, bleeps, sirens and other sounds worthy of Ross Geller at his mini-keyboard and a rap that's more awkward than a morning-after walk of shame. It's a curiosity piece for the band's fans - and completely underwhelming save for its novelty value. Props to the band for moving outside their comfort zone on this track, and on other parts of this EP. Still, likably mediocre songs only count for so much; the music's got to have some spark and some kick in it, both of which are in short supply throughout My Neighbor/My Creator.

The National: High Violet, spectrum culture, go now

The National

High Violet

Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: 4AD

Perhaps to no one's surprise, most of High Violet is exceedingly sad. It's there in Matt Berninger's worn-down-and-weary baritone and in the drums, strings, keyboards and horns that underscore these songs and it's as sure as hell in the singer's resigned and somber lyrics. High Violet arrives with great expectations and some mainstream media attention for the Brooklyn-based National, but if the group had any doubts about matching the quality of its previous release, Boxer, they needn't have worried; though the album is somewhat of a refinement of the National's style and not any kind of dramatic departure, it's still a remarkable record that confirms the group's place as one of indie's eminent bands.

In recent interviews, Berninger stated that the group intended to make a catchy, fun record. It didn't take. Instead, High Violet plays like a near-50-minute ode to overwhelming, crushing bleakness, with most tracks unraveling like someone teetering on the verge of a full-on mental collapse. It is an album of sustained tension, as many songs - "England," "Anyone's Ghost" and the rumbling opener "Terrible Love" - threaten to explode but uncomfortably recede instead. The album's instrumentals are more aggressive than those from Boxer, but the types of outbursts that made songs like "Abel," "Slipping Husband" and the snarling mean-streaked "Available" so explosively cathartic are largely more restrained here. There is a sense of distance and isolation to the record's most affecting songs; in "Little Faith," Berninger tells of someone who's "stuck in New York/ And the rain's coming down," while in "Terrible Love," he evasively declares that "it takes an ocean not to break." These sentiments likewise creep into "England," where the narrator finds himself in a Los Angeles cathedral, lamenting "you must be somewhere in London/ You must be loving your life in the rain," as well as in "Anyone's Ghost" and its setting of "Manhattan valleys of the dead." Elsewhere, "Sorrow," "Lemonworld," "Afraid of Everyone" and "Runaway" cross panic and nervousness with more phobias and anxieties than one person should have to endure.

Very little throughout the album suggests resolution: going home "to Ohio in a swarm of bees" doesn't help - hometowns forget their native sons - and chemicals or coastal jaunts don't calm the mind either. Although such preoccupations are nothing new for the National's lyricist and earlier songs like "Watching You Well," "Patterns of Fairytales," "Daughters of the Soho Riots" and "Slow Show" all hit on similar themes, the writing is strong enough for listeners to forgive any redundancy with these older songs. There are some traces of dark humor ("I'll have my head in the oven so you'll know where I'll be") as well as hints of contentment or, at least, acceptance - "It's all been forgiven," Berninger sings on album closer "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks -" but such statements feel fleeting at best and are dwarfed by the album's predominantly mournful tone.

While Boxer casts its shadow over several songs - "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Runaway" wouldn't sound out of place there - High Violet is not the work of a band stuck in place. It brings with it a level of seriousness, maturity and honesty sometimes lacking from other indie bands' efforts. It speaks to anonymous internal struggles in a massive, indifferent world and our own muted responses in the face of such adversity, and does this without resorting to melodrama or cheap, bombastic, big-riff resolutions. It's debatable as to whether High Violet represents the National's best work to date - such arguments are exhausting anyway - but there is unarguably a gravity to both Berninger's voice and the band's musical sensibilities that carry the album. It's this combination that makes these songs so visceral and emotionally impacting.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War, by David Williams

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One of the most enduring images of the Civil War is that of the unified South, a tight-knit collection of ideologically like-minded citizens bound by a common cause and united in their political, economic and social beliefs. The only problem with this down-home, corn-pone, Old Virginny nostalgia that still holds sway in America is that it's total bullshit, as historian David Williams argues in far more academic terms in Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War.

Exhaustively researched, expertly written and drawing conclusions that challenge many conventionally accepted "truths" about the nature of the wartime South, Williams convincingly shows how the Confederacy essentially fought what he refers to as a "two-front" war: one against the Union army and another one against internal Southern anti-war activism. Each chapter systematically discusses a different form of this dissension, including soldiers refusing to enlist, deserting the Confederate army and, in numbers estimated at 500,000, actually fighting on the Union side; food riots and looting sparked by wealthy planters refusing to grow staple crops while soldiers and civilians starved; and the role both slaves and poor non-slaveholding whites played in challenging the Confederacy's slave-based economy and war effort. Central to Williams' depiction of a fractured South is class conflict, which he views as one of the key drivers that sparked such resistance from these states' have-nots. The author notes that the Southern delegates who voted for secession over the objections of the Southern majority came from the wealthy landowning and slave-holding class, while soldiers' letters frequently were filled with disillusion as they described the conflict as a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight."

Williams avoids the type of Great Man history that has long plagued Civil War research. What emerges is a portrait of the South that is more complex than previous scholarly accounts and pop culture have allowed, with the author suggesting that such sources have contributed to an overly simplistic and largely inaccurate image of the South during these war years. With the stories of social consciousness and opposition to minority rule it recounts and the staggering number of primary sources it utilizes, Bitterly Divided can be read as a study of how - to borrow a term Williams uses throughout the book - "common folk" shaped both the course of their daily lives as well as the war. It is similar to the method Williams followed in previous books A People's History of the Civil War and Plain Folk in a Rich Man's War, but more consistently revelatory and easily accessible for a general audience.

Some readers will undoubtedly view Williams' book as an attack on the South. It's not. Certainly it is a critique of the Confederacy - and, more specifically, the wealthy politicians and upper class that marched the South towards secession, with disastrous results - as well as the economic and social divisions that defined the South during the war and several decades after. If anything, Bitterly Divided is a repudiation of the lost cause mythology that reduces Civil War-era Southerners to racist caricatures and ignores the overwhelming evidence that the war remained unpopular among most Southerners. Along with Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering, it is one of the few recent Civil War books that places the war in a new context, offering readers with a view of the South that should dispel any remaining notions of a Confederacy whose policies enjoyed broad public support throughout the South.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Harlan T. Bobo: Sucker

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So it is actually possible to create decent songs about domesticity. Countless artists have tried gamely and failed miserably, subjecting listeners to the type of god-awful, weepy soap opera schmaltz heard on easy listening FM radio stations. Leave it to a fairly obscure Memphis musician to - almost - get it right. On Sucker, Harlan T. Bobo's third album, the artist keeps on the sunny side, offering up songs "mostly written while courting an adventurous woman" that absolutely spill over with optimism and contentment. Though it's a light, breezy release whose sound isn't particularly earth-shattering and whose darker moments are muted, in many ways this only adds to its charm. Sucker is simply likable and listenable, a brisk foray into the kinds of sentiments that can leave listeners reaching for the Pepto.

If 2007's I'm Your Man found Bobo agitated and twitchy - restless, on edge and sporting the type of vocal spasms that suggested an unhealthy amount of bottled up dissatisfaction and nervous energy - Sucker is more sedate and controlled. Though none of the sounds here will blow anyone's mind and everything is played quite conventionally, Bobo can't be accused of standing in place, as these songs tromp through a lot of musical ground. There's string-driven pop (opener "Sweet Life"), a bouncy piano tune ("Perfect Day") and a loosey-goosey country number ("Crazy with Loneliness"), as well as ragged attempts at punk ("Bad Boyfriends" and the F-bomb-dropping "Energy") and several stripped-down, primarily acoustic songs ("Errand Girl," "Drank" and "Mlle. Chatte"). Bobo's weathered voice complements the arrangements nicely; free of studio embellishments and clearly audible, it gives the album an organic and grizzled quality. To the artist's credit, no two songs sound even remotely similar; coupled with its scant, less than 30 minute running time, Sucker can't be accused of being overindulgent.

The lyrics favor straightforwardness and simplicity over obliqueness, perhaps to a fault. This approach usually succeeds, as "Old Man," "Selfish Life," and the half-English/half-French "Mlle. Chatte" prove that sometimes there's no need to muddy the lyrical waters just to make them look deep, while pseudo sea-shanty "Drank" is another highlight, with Bobo effectively mixing nostalgia with humor. Still, the album's major flaws rest in those unfortunate moments when Bobo reels off banally humdrum ponderings that sound ripped from the back pages of a novice songwriter. The man's in love, sure, but lines like "It's such a perfect day/ I'm not ashamed to be satisfied/ ...It's so nice not to be alone" and "If I could be with you when you're down/ If I could be more to you than a clown" are true nausea-inducing groaners that are tough to look past.

The story behind Sucker has a happy ending: Bobo eventually married the adventurous woman, and certainly the album sounds like an ode to fidelity, commitment and the rest of that romantic stuff. It won't kick-start a musical revolution or propel the musician into the mainstream, but this was probably never Bobo's goal. Sucker is a pleasing and varied - if unremarkable and innocuous - release from one of indie's less heralded and more unique artists. Hell, at the least it's a better stab at expressing connubial bliss than many big-name artists have managed.