Friday, December 17, 2010

The National - High Violet

Go to and read the reast of the top 20 list.

The National reportedly intended to make an optimistic, catchy record as their follow-up to Boxer. Instead, this year's High Violet was every bit as dark as its predecessor. It also ended up every bit as good; indeed, one is hard-pressed to identify the album's premier song because almost all of them are just that damn great. The record arrived with much anticipation and eventually garnered the type of mainstream attention that snags a couple of indie acts each year, yet somehow the band managed to exceed these lofty expectations. We might end up looking back at 2010 as the year we began to take it for granted that every new National album would be as remarkable as the one that came right before it.

Everything about High Violet - from Matt Berninger's suffering-voiced baritone to the band's carefully crafted arrangements - reveals a gravity and seriousness that would make lesser bands sound completely overblown. Moments of black humor notwithstanding, the album is exceptionally and plainly sad, whether it's in the distance felt in songs like "Sorrow" and "London," in images such as "Manhattan valleys of the dead" or in mysterious, ambiguous lyrics like "it takes an ocean not to break." There are few comforts throughout - maybe a little consolation can be found in the comforts of family and on the hints of devotion in closer "Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks" - but Berninger's lyrics mostly center around mental and personal issues exacerbated by lousy trips back home and a lack of drugs to "sort it out."

The album might not receive highest placement on many year-end best-of lists - that honor seems likely to go to a handful of righteously seething New Jersey rockers, a certain Canadian band with a knack for grandiose statements about The State of Man or an ego-centric rapper who lived up to his self-generated hype - but High Violet, like most of the National's output, might age better than any of them. It takes no small amount of guts and skill to make an album so disarmingly honest; the National have plenty of both, delivering yet another album whose timelessness already seems assured.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gonjasufi - "She Gone"

Go to NOW and read the Songs of the Year article.

Sometimes we just need a pissed off song madly conducted by a gruff, snarling voice to get the blood bubbling, and for 2010 we got Gonjasufi's "She Gone." Perhaps the standout track on A Sufi and a Killer, an album so jammed up with genre-busting ideas that it's likely to remain a dizzying mind fuck years from now, the song perfectly captures both the implied and overt violence of the album's most psychotic moments. The track starts off deceptively with a basic acoustic guitar and plainly sung lyrics, but soon degenerates into a whole other beast, with the sufi/killer spitting out lyrics of betrayal and occasionally growling out guttural screams against a demonic keyboard melody and a stabbing guitar that enhance the song's threatening tone.

The song's tale is a familiar one, though it comes with a twist. She's gone for sure, but we never find out to what extent. Is she simply a departed lover or has something far more sinister transpired? Given the lyrics - barked out lines like, "When you're driving down the street/ And acting like you do not know me/ Wondering why your life's incomplete/ And you feel so damn lowly" - it's likely the former, but the song sounds so homicidal that it's tempting to view it in far more macabre terms. Either way, "She Gone" is simply a perfect pseudo-rock song, an ugly mix of emotions building up and boiling over in less than three minutes. Unresolved anger and a score not yet quite settled rarely sounded so good. - Eric Dennis

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Various Artists: Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s

Various Artists
Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s
Rating: 4.6/5.0
Label: Dust-to-Digital

It's easy to see the earliest 20th century roots of that most popular of song topics - love - throughout Baby, How Can It Be? Songs of Love, Lust and Contempt from the 1920s and 1930s, though no deep knowledge of music history is needed to enjoy this archival concept album. Consisting of 66 tracks taken from the collection of musician/collector John Heneghan, this set should be immediately accessible for contemporary listeners, even for those who find songs this old exceedingly quaint. Think of it as a 69 Love Songs from another era; like Magnetic Fields' album, Baby explores love from nearly every conceivable angle and says more about the subject than most works of high culture ever have.

Baby appropriately opens with the Bo Carter song that gives this set its name, a wistful, head-in-the-clouds number with simple lines such as, "I'll never believe/ That you belong to me." It sets the template for most of the first disc; in this way, the disc has its fair share of female muses - there's Angeline, Lulu, Little Indian Napanee, Hapa Haole Hula Girl and the more nebulous sweetest girl in town - and even if these women occasionally struggle with fidelity and often bring nothing but misery and sometimes even death to their lovesick admirers or themselves, the first disc is generally the most carefree of the set. There are exceptions - "Dock" Walsh bemoans that he "never knew was misery was" until he met a woman - but mostly these are songs of new love before the bloom is off and domestic warfare begins. "I'm walking on air/ I've left all my blue days behind," Ted Lewis pseudo-sings on "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," a representative slice of the type of love-struck whimsy of this first disc.

The tone changes on the second and third discs, entitled "Lust" and "Contempt," respectively. "Lust" showcases the raunchier side of these old songs, especially in "Pussy" by Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys, perhaps still the standard bearer for double entendre with lines like, "There's one pet I like to pet/ And every evening we get set/ I stroke it every chance I get/ It's my girl's pussy." Elsewhere there are infidelities, sordid affairs, a drunken Irish threesome and generally every type of sexual debauchery one can think of. The final disc is heavy with the lovesick blues and various woeful laments; almost everything goes to shit and the titles say it all: "I'm Gonna Kill Myself," "Left All Alone Again Blues" and "Pretty Mama Blues." A mean streak runs through these songs; all varieties of barbed, if antiquated, insults and general meanness can be found. The object of derision in Bill Carlisle's "I'm Wearin' the Britches Now" is dismissed as a"lousy sow," Robert Hill mocks someone who's "gonna look like a monkey" in old age and Fiddlin' John Carson and His Virginia Reelers cloak a catchy singalong about daily boozing and gambling with some particularly distasteful marital advice: "It's a shame to whup your wife on Sunday/ When you've got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday...." Taken together, these two discs are remarkably cynical and darkly humorous and, maybe because of that, enjoyable as hell.

The scope of Baby ventures far beyond the typical old-timely folk usually favored by such compilations to also include early jazz, blues, bluegrass, brass bands, yodels, dignified urban tunes and ridiculously rural ones, as well as some truly unclassifiable stuff like "I Ain't a Bit Drunk." Much of it is pretty obscure - the Mississippi Sheiks' "The World Is Going Wrong" and Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Corinna Blues" are probably the most "obvious" inclusions - a trait that's sure to appeal to a certain segment of listeners. Its packaging plays up the comedic and caustic tones of these songs; the gatefold shows a happy couple "Before Marriage" sharing an umbrella, and an "After Marriage" photo of them back to back, under separate umbrellas, the man smoking a cigarette and the woman dejectedly staring downward. The lack of simple biographical details and recording information is perplexing, especially for a label that is typically is spot-on in this area. A minor complaint to be sure, and while there are literally thousands of great love songs from the 1920s and 1930s out there, Baby, How Can It Be? is an excellent overview and comes wholeheartedly recommended for both novices and experts alike.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Revisit: Rookie Cop: by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop
by Richard Rosenthal

Rookie Cop is Richard Rosenthal's account of his time spent as an undercover police officer embedded in the Jewish Defense League in the early 1970s. Published in 2000 and chronicling the events of the group's early history, the book still serves as an outstanding insider's view of one of this country's most controversial fringe organizations as well as a snapshot of New York's political, cultural and racial climate during the Cold War. The JDL Rosenthal depicts could be both remarkably incompetent and dangerously motivated, with its key figures defiant in their defense of Jewish interests and advocating the types of provocative actions - confrontational sloganeering and protests, bombings, one attempted hijacking - that would eventually land the JDL a spot on the FBI's register of right-wing terrorist sects.

Rosenthal's back story is the stuff of Hollywood; indeed, it's hard to understand how Rookie Cop hasn't yet been adapted to the silver screen. After a four-year stint in the Air Force where he worked as a Russian language specialist followed by an aborted attempt at college, Rosenthal was accepted into the NYPD but didn't receive a single day of training before being recruited for his undercover assignment. Over the ensuing months Rosenthal would essentially play the role of weapons expert, with direct access to the JDL's leader - the "strong willed, determined, and...forceful" Rabbi Meir Kahane - as well as gain and dutifully report to his law enforcement superiors intimate, first-hand knowledge of the JDL's attempts to acquire and, ultimately, utilize, firearms and bomb-making materials.

Through Rosenthal's book we see individuals driven by a narrowly-defined but broadly applied ideology and the steps they would go to defend that ideology. Though the group may have had its fair share of "a bunch of people who were some combination of fools and neurotics," Rosenthal never discounts the JDL's desire to combat its perceived enemies and their policies, particularly the Soviet Union's refusal to allow Jews to emigrate from the Communist nation. While there are actually some humorous moments in which Rosenthal recalls some of the members' almost caricature-like amateurishness - "inept bomb-making attempts, long hours spent with heavily armed paranoids who hadn't a clue how to handle their firearms" - the JDL undeniably meant business.

Backed by a charismatic, media-savvy leader who once famously preached a policy of "every Jew a .22" and a core following of disaffected, financially struggling men, the JDL made its aims violently clear, attempting to hijack an airline as retribution for an earlier Arab hijacking and later bombing the offices of Sol Hurok, an entertainment mogul who earned the JDL's scorn by arranging for Soviet artists to perform in the United States. The explosion would injure scores of people and leave one person dead: a young Jewish woman.

To Rosenthal's credit, he never sensationalizes his gig as a spy; unlike other true crime memoirs that seem designed to stroke the author's ego and portray said author as a super-badass James Bond hopped up on righteousness and 'roids, Rosenthal's text is understated, humble and meticulously detailed. He harbors no illusions about how laborious and monotonous his job often was, albeit with a degree of risk most of us will never encounter in the workplace. In this way Rosenthal is likeable as both a writer and cop, and though he occasionally weakens his narrative by tangentially offering his views on gun control, wiretapping and various other hot-button topics, for the most part he presents his story without prejudice or judgment. Rookie Cop is never sexy or stylized; it is simply a reliable, informative and responsibly written snapshot of the JDL in its earliest incarnation, as well as an important document in understanding the collective mindset of a collection of zealots.