The battles we fought were long and hard: the best of the Mekons

Devotees of self-help tomes love listing weaknesses and strengths. The cannier ones realize they exist as a dialectic. Often a shambles, the Mekons also have pulled themselves together a few times over the years to cough out a few anthems that the faithful revere. I suppose they invented cow punk; certainly they invented the idea of covering Hank Williams with a shambles of a rhythm section and vocals drunk on fear and whiskey. Yet these anthems are loud and yearning anyway, their passion inspired by a gang of men and women who were outsiders during the Reagan-Bush I era and, embarrassingly, sidelined during the Clinton era too. I accept the conventional wisdom about their good albums, holding special affection for 1989’s Mekons Rock ‘n Roll and 2002’s rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light OOOH!, which boasts the shrewdest Emily Dickinson allusion in rock history. There are so many.

1. Hard to be Human Again
2. Only Darkness Has the Power
3. Hello Cruel World
4. Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet
5. Only You and Your Ghost Will Know
6. Memphis, Egypt
7. Garage d’Or
8. Chivalry
9. When Darkness Falls
10. Wild and Blue
11. Dancing in the Head
12. Millionaire
13. Country
14. The Curse
15. Authority
16. Oblivion
17. 100% Song
18. Lost Highway
19. Slightly South of the Border
20. Last Weeks of the War
21. Alone and Forsaken
22. Last Weeks of the War
23. Dark Dark Dark
24. The Prince of Darknes

The dogged consistency of Spoon

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Spoon – Hot Thoughts

Listeners who reject “Can I Sit Next to You” have no business listening to Spoon. Coy erotics, clipped “Down on the Corner” riff, handclaps, inapposite synth strings, Britt Daniel’s starchy howl from the depths of a torso imprisoned by a fitted shirt. Spoon could have recorded “Can I Sit Next to You” in 1999 or 2009. What they wouldn’t or couldn’t record in 1999 or 2009 is “”WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” a sequencer-anchored track that’s as close to the platonic ideal of a second track as a band can record.

But so what? To measure Hot Thoughts against They Want My Soul, Gimme Fiction, or Kill the Moonlight is to pretend that “progress” isn’t a quaint buzzword. Critics like progress; bands have a bunch of songs they record in a studio. Every three years Spoon fans frown like doctoral students squinting at microfiche as they study this lick and that drum fill in an attempt to convince themselves that the band has released A Different Album. Nonsense – Spoon doesn’t release different albums. Spoon releases Spoon albums. Play Spot-the-Influence all you want (“Hey, don’t the bass tunings in ‘Shotgun’ remind anyone of ‘At Home He Feels Like a Tourist’?”)

What I like best about Hot Thoughts is the return to the electric piano as an aural foundation. If like me you consider “Small Stakes” and “They Never Got You” essential, then “I Ain’t the One” should satisfy you: a spare variation on a familiar Britt Daniel trope: don’t touch me. The wounded curl of Daniel’s vowels and the use of a Linn drum suggest Daryl Hall’s early eighties salad period; like Hall, Daniel is a rich bitch girl with hot thoughts who not only recoils from foxier competition but wants sex on his terms or he’s outta there. He’s one to talk, though. About eight years ago I spotted Daniel at the Pitchfork Musical Festival and it was a shock: cargo shorts and high top Chuck Taylors; worse, he was in the Chipotle line.

I prefer Gimme Fiction over other Spoon albums because the spartan arrangements of the second half put Daniel’s yawp and ugly strummed noise through some jittery paces; I’d rather listen to Daniel get gnomic over Jim Eno’s skeletal grooves than Thom Yorke doing likewise over Radiohead’s expert reproductions of EKG beeps. That said, Hot Thoughts‘ last song, an instrumental called “Us,” doesn’t work: artists who time their dessicated horndoggedness to their musical minimalism should ignore saxophonists. But with “I Ain’t the One,” “”WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” and the title track leading the way Hot Thoughts is another Spoon album – another album.  Next.

Fate of health care bill: not cruel enough

Thanks in part to the investigations, charges, and countercharges, Donald Trump’s bargaining posture on the Hill has dwindled to nothing such that today’s vote on killing millions of Americans by depriving them of health care might be doomed.

Moderate Republicans huddled with Speaker Paul Ryan and House leaders for nearly two hours Wednesday night but emerged without consensus. Immediately after exiting the meeting, Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), leader of the House’s moderate Tuesday Group, panned the bill, known as the American Health Care Act.

“After careful deliberation, I cannot support the bill and will oppose it,” Dent said in a statement upon leaving the meeting. “I believe this bill, in its current form, will lead to the loss of coverage and make insurance unaffordable for too many Americans, particularly for low-to-moderate income and older individuals.”

The growing rebellion of moderate members comes as House leaders spent the day attempting to placate their hardline conservative Freedom Caucus, a group of three-dozen arch-conservatives that had been threatening to tank the bill. To bring them on board, House leaders — at the behest of the White House — offered to gut minimum health insurance requirements imposed by Obamacare.

I’m glad to my congressman Carlos Curbelo and former congressperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen opposed to the bill in any form. Ros-Lehtinen, who replaced the venerable Claude Pepper in 1989 and whose district encompasses some of the oldest constituents in the country, knows that support would be committing suicide.

But other legislators don’t have suicide in mind – it’s murder. Because the Freedom Caucus comprises men and women who should run charnel houses and mink processing plants instead of serving constituents, these people want a crueler bill:

After a day of ferrying between the Capitol and the White House, conservatives secured a commitment from House leaders to consider a proposal that would eliminate Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” — a set of regulations that requires insurers to cover a broad array of benefits. Conservatives have argued that these requirements drove up the cost of health insurance and restricted consumer choice.

Yet after House leaders signaled they were open to that measure, Freedom Caucus members pushed for even more: a repeal of all the Obamacare regulations, including protections for people with pre-existing conditions — a non-starter with most Republican lawmakers.

Keep up the pressure. Call your legislators.

Climate change: ‘We’re not spending money on that anymore’

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While Americans focus on the Gorsuch hearings and the possibility that the entire Trump palace guard was spooning caviar with Vladimir Putin last year, the minutiae that defines the administrative posture of every presidency begins to influence Cabinet departments and administrative agencies. By shredding eight years of environmental policy, we embarrass ourselves before the rest of the civilized world:

According to the draft, Mr. Trump is also expected to announce that he will lift a moratorium on new coal mining leases on public lands that had been announced last year by the Obama administration.

He is also expected to order White House economists to revisit an Obama-era budgeting metric known as the social cost of carbon. Economists and policy makers used the metric to place a dollar cost on the economic impact of planet-warming carbon dioxide pollution: about $36 per ton. That measure formed the Obama administration’s economic justification for issuing climate change regulations that would harm some industries, such as coal mining, noting that those costs would be outweighed by the economic benefits of preventing billions of tons of planet-warming pollution.

Eliminating or lowering the social cost of carbon could provide the Trump administration the economic justification for putting forth less-stringent regulations.

The draft order would also rescind an executive order by Mr. Obama that all federal agencies take climate change into account when considering any form of environmental permitting.

Buried in the story’s last third is a suggestion that some of these measures may take years to implement, if at all. But The Signal is Sent to the bureaucracies.

Best albums of Soto’s life, Pt. II

The second part of my life, interrupted by student conferences at work.

2000: Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele
2001: Bob Dylan – “Love and Theft”
2002: Kylie Minogue – Fever
2003: Dizzee Rascal – Boy in Da Corner
2004: Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse
2005: The Hold Steady – Separation Sunday
2006: Various Artists: Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story
2007: Robert Wyatt – Comicopera
2008: Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
2009: Maxwell – BLACKsummer’snight
2010: Taylor Swift – Speak Now
2011: Pistol Annies – Hell on Heels
2012: Miguel – Kaleidoscope Dream
2014: Miranda Lambert – Platinum
2015: Jazmine Sullivan – Reality Show
2016: KING – We are KING

Best albums of Soto’s life

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1974: Roxy Music – Country Life
1975: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Zuma
1976: Joni Mitchell – Hejira
1977: David Bowie – Low
1978: Blondie – Parallel Lines
1979: Fleetwood Mac – Tusk
1980: Pretenders – Pretenders
1981: The Human League – Dare
1982: ABC – The Lexicon of Love
1983: The Go-Betweens – Before Hollywood
1984: R.E.M. – Reckoning
1985: Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
1986: Peter Gabriel – So
1987: Prince – Sign ‘o’ the Times
1988: Pet Shop Boys – Introspective
1989: New Order – Technique
1990: Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet
1991: A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
1992: Sugar – Copper Blue and Madonna’s Erotica
1993: Terence Trent D’Arby – Symphony or Damn
1994: Hole – Live Through This
1995: Pavement – Wowee Zowee
1996: Pulp – Different Class
1997: Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out
1998: Garbage – Version 2.0
1999: Jay-Z – Vol 3…Life and Times of S. Carter

Reporting on today’s ‘galloping absurdity’

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In a recounting of today’s extraordinary events on the Hill, Charles Pierce, good writer, can teach me something about rhythm and momentum:

But this bit of galloping absurdity paled next to what Swalwell later would call the “smokebombs” with which the Republicans tried to obscure Comey’s appearance. As we noted, there was a lot of talk about leaks and the nefarious gnomes who traffick in them. (Chris Stewart of Utah told Comey that he hoped Comey had a chance to “give those guys a crack in the head.”) New York’s Elise Stefanik tried to establish that the Russians mucked with both campaigns. Comey agreed but then blew up the entire argument by pointing out that only the material hacked from the Democratic Party was released.

Nobody, however, looked as unsure of his footing as Chairman Devin Nunes, who, not very long ago, was feeling chuffed enough to snark at reporters about how silly this all is. Nunes started the hearing with a mushy appeal to bipartisanship. (Democratic ranking member Adam Schiff of California buried Nunes’ remarks by laying out a clear, concise timeline of what already is known about the Trump campaign and the Russians.) Nunes and Schiff got into a hopeless wrangle about the fairly well-known episode at the Republican National Convention when the Trump people forced a change in the platform regarding military aid to Ukraine for its fight against Russian aggression. Nunes denied it ever happened. “In fact,” he said, “that provision was made stronger.” This is, ahem, contrary to what most people at the convention saw happen before their eyes

I won’t settle for less: The best of Missy Elliott

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Clad in a T-shirt and basketball jersey, Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott looked like no other MTV fixture in the late Clinton era. Whether she’s gay is of no account: her clattering aluminum beats, declaration of appetites, camp ethos, and fascination with banality denotes a queer sensibility regardless. Every one of her albums released between 1997 and 2005 — an era that encompassed boom times and end times — is essential; This is Not a Test! has the most bangers and good album tracks, Da Real World still curiously forgotten, but Supa Dupa Fly still sounds like strange voices from another star, for which she deserves more credit than Timbaland. Souping up guys like won-ton, swaying on dosie-do like you loco, making you hot like Las Vegas weather, she reminded artists that before hip hop developed a social consciousness and was known as rap, it was an excuse to fling fly rhymes over dope beats. “‘Look, it’s very simple,'” John Lennon once said to David Bowie in a fictional conversation. “‘Say what you mean, make it rhyme, and put a backbeat to it.’” What else is there?

This list includes several of her most essential collaboratioins.

1. The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)
2. Beep Me 911
3. Work It
4. Izzy Izzy Ahh
5. Let Me Fix My Weave
6. Get Ur Freak On
7. Pass That Dutch
8. Best Friend
9. Hit Em wit da Hee
10. Hot Boyz (Remix) featuring Lil Mo, Nas, Eve and Q-Tip
11. Lick Shots
12. She’s a Bitch
13. Don’t Be Commin’ (In My Face)”
14. Nicole – Make It Hot
15. Tweet – Oops (Oh My)
16. Toyz
17. Wake Up
18. Ciara – 1, 2 Step
18. Lose Control Ft Ciara & Fatman Scoop
19. MC Lyte – Cold Rock a Party
20. Lil Kim – Not Tonight
21. Pussycat
22. Gossip Folks ft. Ludacris
23. I’m Really Hot
24. Dog in Heat featuring Method Man & Redman
25. On & On

‘Part of the reason I supported him was a way to be in the in-crowd for once’

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I’ll look like a sneering effete lib for posting the worst responses in Sam Altman’s excerpted conversations wit a hundred Donald Trump supporters because I am one. There is nothing to discuss with these voters, nobody to convince — a concatenation of resentment and envy led them to vote for the con man whose policies, should he get around to signing them into law, will result in the loss of what’s left of their livelihood. I don’t consider this betrayal. It’s a bit like a criminal leaving clues for police because he wants to be caught.

What do you like about Trump?

“It’s a lot like political discussion was in Soviet Union, actually. I think the inability to acknowledge obvious truths, and the ever-increasing scope of these restrictions, makes it particularly frustrating. And personally, for whatever reason, I find inability to have more subtle discussion very frustrating — things are not white or black, but you can’t talk about grays since the politically correct answer is white.”

“I am socially very liberal. I am fiscally very conservative. I don’t feel I have a party — never have. I grew up in a more socially conservative time and picked the “lesser of two evils” during elections. Now, the more socially liberal side supports bigger governments, more aid and support, and that money has to come from somewhere. I see what’s deducted from my check each week. I’m OK with never being rich, but I’d like more security, and that doesn’t come from more government spending.”

“I’m willing to postpone some further social justice progress, which doesn’t really result in loss of life, in favor of less foreign policy involvement, the opposite of which does.”

“Brown people are always the out-crowd. I think subconsciously, part of the reason I supported him was a way to be in the in-crowd for once.”

What do you think about the left’s response so far?

“Stop calling us racists. Stop calling us idiots. We aren’t. Listen to us when we try to tell you why we aren’t. Oh, and stop making fun of us.”

“I’d love to see one-tenth of the outrage about the state of our lives out here that you have for Muslims from another country. You have no idea what our lives are like.”

“I’m so tired of hearing about white privilege. I’m white but way less privileged than a black person from your world. I have no hope my life will ever get any better.”

“The amount of violent attacks and economic attacks perpetrated by the left are troublesome. My wife and I recently moved to the Bay Area. I was expecting a place which was a welcoming meritocracy of ideas. Instead, I found a place where everyone constantly watches everyone else for any thoughtcrime.”

What would convince you not to vote for him again?

“I don’t care if he’s corrupt. Y’all voted for Hillary, and she was the most corrupt candidate of all time.”

Am I supposed to change — The best of Aaliyah

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Age turned out to be a number for Aaliyah Dana Houghton, for her death in a plane accident a few months after her twenty-first birthday reminded listeners that her preternatural cool might have been a skin she was ready to shed but instead became a manner that froze in place for all time. Timbaland and Missy Elliott were made for Aaliyah like Arif Mardin for Dusty Springfield, and I understand why they regarded Ciara at the dawn of her own career as a successor.

For example, I can’t imagine another male or female performer in 2000 inhabiting the cliche of a hook in “Try Again.” Timbaland’s rustling moth-caught-in-a-screened-window of a backing track prods her but she doesn’t budge. When she asks “are you that somebody?” I get the sense she’s looking at her watch; when she says “we need a resolution” I suspect she wants the resolution before her brunch reservation. She might have spent the 2000s like Monica or the 2010s like Ciara, in search of a context that made full use of her unaffected stillness. One in a Million is unavailable for streaming in the United States. Petition your congressmen.

1. Rock the Boat
2. One in a Million
3. We Need a Resolution
4. Erika Kane
5. More than a Woman
6. Are You That Somebody
7. Hot Like Fire
8. Back and Forth
9. If Your Girl Only Knew
10. Up Jumps da Boogie
11. Try Again
10. 4 Page Letter
11. I Care For 4 U
12. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number
13. The One I Gave My Heart
14. Down with the Clique
15. Loose Rap

‘Get Out’ a shrewd probe of white liberal self-regard

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For most of its running time, Get Out is one of the slyest, most daring pictures about American race relations. In an excellent debut, writer-actor Jordan Peele shoves every liberal piety into its white audiences face; Get Out is the movie to show the relatives who insist they’re not racist because they voted for Barack Obama and have a black friend. It’s as much Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as it is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Stepfather, and John Carpenter’s They Live yet the synthesis — the tonalities — are Peele’s own. On a $4 million budget Get Out has grossed more than $120 million. I understand why.

An early hint that Peele’s script and direction won’t follow the usual grooves occurs early in the picture: watching boyfriend Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) pack for their weekend trip upstate to visit her parents, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) mentions that she hasn’t told them he’s black. Chris’ reaction — a weary I-should-have-guessed expression — is perfect. He’s all too familiar with this scenario yet willing to drop some of his wariness because Rose is so, well, liberal. So are Dean and Missy Rose. As played by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, they’re so rich that they can’t bother with the stereotypes that inhibit poorer people. “We’re huggers,” Dean says to Chris on meeting them. Giving them a tour of their remote palatial manor Dean offers Chris the surest sign of his racial solidarity: he would’ve voted for Obama “a third time if he could.” Younger brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) offers a suggestion of menace. A long-haired, freckled, bloated shoe-in for a young Steve Bannon, he gets surly when Chris won’t wrastle with him after dinner. Another is the chilling subservience of maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel, playing obsequiousness like a master) and belligerence of groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson).

Peele puts his film making to pragmatic ends, undercutting the usual developments. Instead of shooting the Armitage family’s greeting of Chris in medium shot, he isolates them in extreme long slot and pans back, back until we realize it’s a POV shot of Walter, glowering. At first we think Peele is stressing Walter’s isolation as the only black man within ten miles of the house; developments later in the film erode even the idea of Walter’s existence itself (no spoiler coming). Those who’ve seen the picture will get why I laughed in the theater when Peele frames Rose in the kind of fussy composition that Kubrick or Tarkovsky adored — until the audience realize she’s googling “NCAA players.” The piece de resistance is a garden party for Rose’s grandfather, populated by Caucasian horrors in tweeds, hats and sports jackets; it’s the kind of affair at which guests get their jollies with sparklers and Bingo. Chris keeps his cool while he’s felt up, sized up, and praised for his athleticism (he’s a black man, you see). The eeriest encounter is with a martini-swilling black guest accompanying an older woman, whom Chris approaches with too obvious relief. Instead, Logan King (LaKeith Stanfield) comports himself like a parody of a Sidney Poitier character — that is, until Chris takes a quick photo to send his TSA buddy Rod (Lil Rel Howery) dog sitting in the city.

Get Out‘s script depends on “untils.” What ensues is a grand joke on white moneyed isolation — a joke that sticks in the throat by the time the last fifteen minutes play. Peele aims Get Out at people too old for hip hop, who wince at black clothing, who are too damn uptight to admit what it’s in their hearts: they wish black people were more white. Hence why Catherine Keener’s Rose using hypnosis to, take an early benign example, kill Chris’ urge for nicotine is a delicious conceit: one morning Chris will wake up with no memory of being the person he once was (Keener uses her crinkled tones for wittily malicious effect). Kaluuya, whom I’ve never seen before, is a terrific hero; Chris’ can-you-believe-this-shit skepticism at the depths of white fatuity gets tested with each new horror. For a while I thought Howery was overacting the part of Rod, the audience surrogate putting together the pieces of mystery; then I realized I was responding like Dean and Missy might.

I suspect Get Out would have kept its resonance with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office, for her Chappaqua garden parties must be terrifying things too. In the Trump era, though, a body snatching tale in white suburbs sounds like an item I’d read in tomorrow’s Washington Post. For about an hour after I walked out of Get Out I thought the ending a disappointment. But Peele’s movie doesn’t forget how the sight of a blood-soaked black man standing over the corpse of a white woman can set every kind of historical alarm bell ringing. To watch a movie in 2017 made for less than Bradley Cooper’s asking price not just reject the self-regard of white neoliberals but affirm the righteousness of a government-run department, as Rod never stops doing, and to do it in so insistently vulgar an approach, is as impressive in its own way as the spontaneous rallies outside legislators’ offices. Flawed, deft, and very necessary, Get Out is the film I needed in March. I can’t wait for Peele’s next picture.

GRADE: B+