Albums of the Month: November 2016


I started working on this post a few weeks ago, set it aside, and in the intervening time one of the artists review straight-up DIED.  I feel terrible guilt that I didn’t get my thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s now-final album up in a timely manner.  Before anything bad happens to any of the other artists, here are my thoughts on five recently released albums you should give a listen to.

Artist: Jenny Hval
Album: Blood Bitch
Release Date: September 30, 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Female Vampire” and “Secret Touch”
Thoughts: Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval presents this concept album on the theme of blood.  It’s sonicaly rich with complex lyrics about things ranging from vampirism to menstruation
Rating: ***


Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: You Want It Darker
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Lyrics of Note:

As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
– “Steer Your Way”

Favorite Tracks: “You Want It Darker,” “Treaty,” “Leaving the Table,” and “Steer Your Way”
Thoughts: A beautiful farewell from the singer/songwriter/poet Cohen (although he could have very well gone on to record another brilliant album had he survived).  It seems unprecedented that much of Cohen’s best work came at such an advanced age.  Even if his older songs are much-covered classics, the work on his final albums has some of the best instrumentation, production, and performing.
Rating: ****


Artist: Tanya Tagaq
AlbumRetribution
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Nacreous,” “Aorta,” “Centre,”
Thoughts: The Inuit throat singer’s newest album sees her crossing over into other musical styles, bringing in Tuvan throat singers, collaborating with rapper Shad, and covering Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”  But this isn’t a cozy Putamayo “world music” release from the 1990s, instead it is a vital statement of plight of indigenous peoples and global warming, and a call to political action.
Rating:


Artist: John K. Samson
Album: Winter Wheat
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Select All Delete,” “Oldest Oak at Brookside,” “Alpha Adept,” and “Virtute at Rest”
Thoughts: The lead vocalist of The Weakerthans newest solo project sounds a lot like a Weakerthans recording but stripped down to just the vocals and a few instruments.  The songs navigate technology and nature and addiction and recovery.  It’s a musically sad, but lyrically hopeful recording so worth a deep listen, even if you’re down in the dumps.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist: Agnes Obel
Album: Citzen of Glass
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Familiar,” “Trojan Horses,” and “Citizens of Glass,”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts: Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Agnes Obel’s music reminds me of a lot of things – Phillip Glass’ avant guarde keyboards, Clannad’s layering of vocals and instruments, Joanna Newsom’s vocal stylings, and Led Zeppelin in their most mystical folkiness.
Rating: ***

Turns out this was a very Northern review with three Canadian and two Scandinavian artists.  If there’s a new album you think I should hear and review in December, let me know in the comments.

 

Book Review: How Music Works by John Powell


Author: John Powell
TitleHow music works : the science and psychology of beautiful sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and beyond
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2010.
Summary/Review:

With a lot of humor and avoidance of technical detail, Powell breaks down everything about music including physics, acoustics, decibels, rhythm and melody, and musical scores. Despite the simplicity of the book, I still find myself challenged in remembering all that I learned, but I suspect that this is a good introduction to music for most readers.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***

The November 18th All-Stars


As a child growing up rooting for the Mets, I knew that Dwight Gooden (then Mets’ ace and arguably the 2nd-greatest Met of all time) celebrated his birthday on November 16 and the all-time greatest Met, The Franchise, Tom Seaver, celebrated his birthday on November 17.  With my birthday on November 18, I was a natural for future Met great.  There was one problem, I had no baseball talent.

I’m now 43, past retirement age for baseball, although as long as the ageless Bartolo Colon continues to pitch there will still be an active major leaguer older than me.   For fun, here is the all-time all-star roster for players born on November 18.

C – Deacon McGuire – known as a gentleman who played 26 seasons at the most demanding position
1B – Roy Sievers – hit nine career walkoff homeruns
2B – Gene Mauch – can also be the team’s manager
SS – Kermit Wahl – finding a shortstop for the team was tough,  could move over Sheffield and seek out another third baseman?
3B – Gary Sheffield – Doc Gooden’s nephew!  Wonder if they celebrated their birthdays together?
LF – Steve Henderson – his walkoff homerun at Shea Stadium in 1980 is one of the defining moments of my baseball fandom
CF – Les Mann – regular centerfielders were also hard to find, but Mann played a key role for the Miracle Braves of 1914
RF – Dante Bichette – I remember him being called “Bionic Fat” which was inspiring to us men of large girth
DH – David Ortiz – Big Papi is  without question the greatest November 18th baseball player of all time

SP – Jamie Moyer – pitched until he was 49!
SP – Jack Coombs – won 31 games for the Athletics in 1910
SP – Allen Watson – was born in Queens and was briefly a Met in 1999
SP – Jay Hook – pitcher of record for the Mets’ first ever franchise win in 1962
SP – Cal Koonce – a reliever for the 1969 Miracle Mets although he was a starter earlier in his career with the Cubs

CLOSER – Tom Gordon – the Red Sox star of the late 90s had a Stephen King book named after him
RP – C.J. Wilson – a 2011 All-Star
RP – Shawn Camp – was the 500th selection in the 1997 draft
RP – Mark Petkovsek – had his best season in 1996 working as starter and long reliever for the Cardinals
RP – Matt Wise – appeared in 8 games for the 2008 Mets

 

Happy birthday to all of the November 18th All-Stars!

Concert Review: Leonard Cohen


Learning of the passing of the great singer/songwriter/poet/humanitarian Leonard Cohen, who died on Monday, made me want to reshare this review of one of the most entertaining concerts I’ve ever attended. I recently wrote a review of his new album You Want It Darker, released in October, but didn’t get around to posting it. I was going to note my awe at how vital he remained at the age of 82 and that possibly there was more to come. Nevertheless, it was clear he was ready to go and left on his own terms.

Panorama of the Mountains

When I’m 74 years old, I hope I am as spry as Leonard Cohen.  Susan & I saw Cohen and his band perform at the Wang Theatre in Boston on May 30th.  He sang many songs while gracefully sinking to his knees and skipped off the stage at the end of the sets.  Oh, and he performed for over three hours.

There was no opening act but instead of a back-up band of no name musicians Cohen pulled together a diverse group of artists, many of whom would be worth going to see in concert on their own.  Despite their varied styles and talents, they came together as a tight band with an old-fashioned type of showmanship evident in coordinated dance moves by the back-up singers and stylish haberdashery worn by all.  Cohen frequently stood back to let his band members shine on their solos and a few of…

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Book Review: SPQR : A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard


AuthorMary Beard
TitleSPQR : a history of ancient Rome
Publication Info: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Beard attempts the very difficult, a single volume history of Ancient Rome, and succeeds. There’s the evolution from Republic to Empire (which is not the clean split it often appears in retrospect) and there is the succession of warriors and philosophers and all those emperors, which is covered gamely. But Beard covers deeper questions such as the idea of citizenship, which Rome uniquely expanded beyond the boundaries of the city, thus cementing the empire. And Beard gives glimpses of everyday life for the ordinary Roman citizens. It’s a great introduction to Roman history and scholarship. 
Favorite Passages:

It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.

Roman expansion. There was one obligation that the Romans imposed on all those who came under their control: namely, to provide troops for the Roman armies. In fact, for most of those who were defeated by Rome and forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’, the only long-term obligation seems to have been the provision and upkeep of soldiers. These peoples were not taken over by Rome in any other way; they had no Roman occupying forces or Roman-imposed government. Why this form of control was chosen is impossible to know. But it is unlikely that any particularly sophisticated, strategic calculation was involved. It was an imposition that conveniently demonstrated Roman dominance while requiring few Roman administrative structures or spare manpower to manage. The troops that the allies contributed were raised, equipped and in part commanded by the locals. Taxation in any other form would have been much more labour-intensive for the Romans; direct control of those they had defeated would have been even more so.

In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, they broke the link, which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city. In a systematic way that was then unparalleled, they made it possible not just to become Roman but also to be a citizen of two places at once: one’s home town and Rome. And in creating new Latin colonies all over Italy, they redefined the word ‘Latin’ so that it was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography. This set the stage for a model of citizenship and ‘belonging’ that had enormous significance for Roman ideas of government, political rights, ethnicity and ‘nationhood’. This model was shortly extended overseas and eventually underpinned the Roman Empire.

So what kind of political system was this? The balance between the different interests was certainly not as equitable as Polybius makes it seem. The poor could never rise to the top of Roman politics; the common people could never seize the political initiative; and it was axiomatic that the richer an individual citizen was, the more political weight he should have. But this form of disequilibrium is familiar in many modern so-called democracies: at Rome too the wealthy and privileged competed for political office and political power that could only be granted by popular election and by the favour of ordinary people who would never have the financial means to stand themselves. As young Scipio Nasica found to his cost, the success of the rich was a gift bestowed by the poor. The rich had to learn the lesson that they depended on the people as a whole.

If the assassination of Julius Caesar became a model for the effective removal of a tyrant, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. Despite all the slogans, the bravado and the high principles, what the assassins actually brought about, and what the people got, was a long civil war and the permanent establishment of one-man rule.

ONE SIDE OF the history of Rome is a history of politics, of war, of victory and defeat, of citizenship and of everything that went on in public between prominent men. I have outlined one dramatic version of that history, as Rome transformed from a small, unimpressive town next to the Tiber into first a local and eventually an international power base. Almost every aspect of that transformation was contested and sometimes literally fought over: the rights of the people against the senate, the questions of what liberty meant and how it was to be guaranteed, the control that was, or was not, to be exercised over conquered territory, the impact of empire, for good or bad, on traditional Roman politics and values. In the process, a version of citizenship was somehow invented that was new in the classical world. Greeks had occasionally shared citizenship, on an ad hoc basis, between two cities. But the idea that it was the norm, as the Romans insisted, to be a citizen of two places – to count two places as home – was fundamental to Roman success on the battlefield and elsewhere, and it has proved influential right up into the twenty-first century. This was a Roman revolution, and we are its heirs.

The basic rule of Roman history is that those who were assassinated were, like Gaius, demonised. Those who died in their beds, succeeded by a son and heir, natural or adopted, were praised as generous and avuncular characters, devoted to the success of Rome, who did not take themselves too seriously.

And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic and mad as they are painted, it made little or no difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes.

Most evocative of all is the story of a man from Palmyra in Syria, Barates, who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE. It is not known what brought him the 4,000 miles across the world (probably the longest journey of anyone in this book); it may have been trade, or he may have had some connection with the army. But he settled in Britain long enough to marry Regina (‘Queenie’), a British woman and ex-slave. When she died at the age of thirty, Barates commemorated her with a tombstone, near the Roman fort of Arbeia, modern South Shields. This depicts Queenie – who, as the epitaph makes clear, was born and bred just north of London – as if she were a stately Palmyrene matron; and underneath the Latin text, Barates had her name inscribed in the Aramaic language of his homeland. It is a memorial which nicely sums up the movement of peoples and the cultural mix that defined the Roman Empire, and raises even more tantalising questions. Who did Queenie think she was? Would she have recognised herself as that Palmyrene lady? And what would this couple have thought about the ‘Rome’ in whose world they lived?

The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****