12/28/2007 9:56:57 AM
My, how time flies. It’s been 20 years since Dr. Dre first invited us to “witness the strength of street knowledge” on NWA’s seminal sophomore album Straight Outta Compton. The group’s raw appeal and trailblazing history has kept the album fresh, even two decades after it was first released. To honor the anniversary, and calling attention to the album’s recent re-release, Hannah Levin writes for Seattle Weekly about Dr. Dre, Eazy E, and Ice Cube’s wide-reaching impact. Levin waxes nostalgic about the first time she heard Straight Outta Compton on cassette tape, the group’s place in the musical canon, and what it says about American culture that an album about selling crack, abusing women, and dissing police still resonates so strongly today.
12/27/2007 4:13:22 PM
Gathered around a stage normally reserved for theater performances, teenie boppers mixed with 20-something hipsters and older music lovers as they all waited to see Andrew Bird play a sold-out show at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Bird, a classically trained violinist turned indie-rock artist, began the show nervously alone, illuminated by a lone spotlight and obscured by a cloud from a fog machine. In a Buddy Hollyesque stance behind the microphone, he wore an old-fashioned three-piece suit and tie, with a guitar strapped around his neck and his violin on the chair behind him. He placed a stuffed monkey on a speaker, kicked off his shoes to reveal multicolored striped socks, and began to play.
The whole show had an anachronistic feel to it. Oversized gramophone speakers were positioned behind the musicians, adding a vintage touch, and the concert had a variety show format, with multi-instrumentalist Martin Dosh, bassist Jeremy Ylvisaker, and singer Haley Bonar all playing their own music as well as backing up Bird. At one point, Bonar remarked, “This is some vaudeville shit.”
Bird’s eerie and haunting blend of musical styles is difficult to pin down. The violin features prominently in the act, but he also plays guitar and glockenspiel and is one of the most accomplished whistlers I’ve heard. His vocal and guitar style resembles Jeff Buckley in its mournful and haunting sound. He also mixes blues, jazz, and his classical violin into the music.
The eclectic demeanor relaxed what could have been a strangely uptight show. There were some strange moments—one fan got kicked out for taking photos, and another was hushed for trying to start a “slow clap”— but the intimate theater setting allowed Bird’s music to take center stage.
You can Bird’s newest music video below.
12/20/2007 4:25:45 PM
Anyone who attended Aimee Mann’s traveling Christmas show expecting the usual holiday fare—chestnuts roasting, sleigh bells ringing, that sort of thing—might have been taken aback by the first song, a tune of hers called “Jacob Marley’s Chain”: “I’d rather just go on to hell/Where there’s a snowball’s chance that the personnel/Might help to carry Jacob Marley’s chain,” Mann intoned, the minor key melody and existential weight of the song signaling that this was not going to be a holly-jolly affair.
Mann acknowledged the irony straight away when she spoke to the crowd at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “Usually, I’m a hater,” she said, wryly overstating her relentlessly melancholic nature. But then she confessed that Christmas was in fact her favorite holiday, and she went on to lead the audience through a variety-style show that celebrated the season in its own bittersweet way, including a reading of “The Christmas Song” complete with chestnuts. Mann, it turns out, mines the holiday for all its pathos, making her peace with it by exploring the other side of the glitter.
She turned “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” into a slow-smoking ballad, the languid pace giving her room to embellish the melody like a jazz singer. Of course, she played “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas” from The Forgotten Arm, its sad-junkie lyrics forever at odds with its incredibly catchy hook. And although she departed from the holiday theme to deliver several songs from her gem-packed Magnolia soundtrack, their wistful nature fit the night’s mood perfectly.
Mann performed a few songs at a time, and in between these mini-sets came the variety part of the show, a weird mix of film, comedy, and better-than-average talent show. New York smartypants songwriter Nellie McKay was a strange sprite in a pink, girly-girl dress and sparkling gold shoes who had crowd members exchanging is-she-serious glances, especially on her “Christmas Dirge,” which pleaded, “Please don’t chop down another Christmas tree,” and called such behavior a “fetish of the flesh” before turning into a lost-love lament. Take her seriously at your peril.
Singer-songwriter Adam Levy of the Minneapolis band the Honeydogs, whose music Mann has championed, contributed an inspired version of “Snow,” a Harry Nilsson song popularized by Randy Newman. Paul F. Tompkins of the Daily Show delivered just-funny-enough monologues and a Grinch cameo, and young comic Morgan Murphy took a hilarious turn as a beer-swilling “Hanukkah Fairy.” Finally, Mann showed clever film shorts in which she approached Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and other Hollywood friends about appearing in her show, only to be shot down repeatedly.
It was an unusual hodgepodge, to say the least, but that’s what a variety show is all about, and somehow it worked, the hostess holding it all together with her casual, lanky grace and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. She called it a “difficult Christmas experience,” but it wasn’t difficult at all. That part is yet to come.
12/19/2007 5:05:44 PM
When you hear yet another arrangement of “Deck the Halls” or “Santa Baby” in a store, do you merrily sing along? Or do you count the minutes till you can go home and enjoy your own record collection, with its true classics, its obscurities, and its limited-edition prestige?
If you were Sean Passmore, you wouldn’t have to choose. As Carsten Knox reports in The Coast, the Halifax record store employee is a Christmas music fanatic, with a personal collection of 2,000 Christmas albums. These include standards—Bing Crosby, Dolly Parton, Charlie Brown—along with less predictable fare: a bluegrass compilation from Sugar Hill Records, a collection of “song poems” with lyrics solicited via advertisement, a Mojo Nixon record called Horny Holidays.
After realizing that most of his friends owned no more than a couple of Christmas albums, Passmore started making personalized Christmas mix tapes for friends each fall—something he’s now been doing for more than 20 years. “People grow up with these albums—it’s the soundtrack to their childhood Christmas,” he explained to Knox. “People are always looking for them.”
12/19/2007 12:21:14 PM
Holiday music hounds us at this time of year, especially if we happen to be supermarket employees, whose days are overrun with the plinking and sighing of electronic, instrumental remixes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But it doesn’t stop there.
Writing on Mother Jones’ blog, The Riff, Gary Moskowitz brings our attention to other musical offenses of the holiday season, in particular the Monster Ballads Xmas CD. The record features stalwarts of the ’80s hair-metal scene, such as Cinderella and Dokken, performing classic holiday tunes. You can hear some of these delightful aural baubles on the album’s MySpace page.
If you’ve been drubbed into a stupor by “Comfort and Joy,” thereby nullifying the song’s upbeat message, you’re likely to feel only further drubbing at the hands of Monster Ballads Xmas. Nevertheless, the video for Dokken’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” also featured on the MySpace page, deserves a chuckle, as does Moskowitz’s important question: “When Tom Keifer of Cinderella sings ‘Blue Christmas,’ all I can think is, who the hell is Tom Keifer?” God bless, Gary, and amen. —Michael Rowe
12/19/2007 11:50:42 AM
What do Michelangelo’s David, a Tom Waits concert, and a dress that belonged to Princess Diana have in common? You aren’t allowed to photograph them.
A new website aims to be “a place for you to post interesting and original photographs of places where you are not really meant to take them.” Strictly No Photography is heavy on images from museums and live performances, but it also includes photos of government buildings, baggage screening equipment, and a West Bank checkpoint.
For photographers, the site offers a venue that acknowledges the effort and daring it sometimes requires to get interesting shots. For viewers, it offers a remarkable sense of excitement and forbidden fruit—though one that has very little to do with the content of the images themselves.
(Thanks, Mental Floss.) —Steve Thorngate
12/19/2007 11:11:43 AM
When it occurred, the toppling and decapitation of Saddam’s golden idol in Firdos Square seemed to many like a good omen, the symbol of an end to a reign of terror and a step toward freedom and safety for Iraqis. But as the war drags toward its fifth year, idyllic imagery escapes us and reality kicks in. There are no moral victories. Every step in the direction of Iraqi “freedom” has its price. The Defense Department calls this collateral damage, a blanket term that covers—and excuses—civilian casualties, destruction of homes, and the annihilation of Iraqi cultural artifacts. The idol was one of these: a very real, if unsavory, part of Iraq’s history that fell as part of an imaginary victory.
But the statue was the least of an innumerable collection of artifacts that have been destroyed or gone missing. The blame game has worn itself out, without anyone taking responsibility for failing to protect many national museums, and solutions for recovering the lost art have stalled. To put this in historical context, Poland and Germany are still bickering over pieces of art transferred between the two countries during the Nazi occupation 70 years ago. So a government-initiated plan of action may be long in coming. The burden of reclaiming Iraq’s history may well fall to private organizations and art historians.
One of these crusaders is Nada Shabout. The Iraqi-born art historian and professor at the University of North Texas talks about the importance of preserving Iraq’s culture in a Q & A with the Montreal Mirror. This preservation is especially important, it seems, in light of the ever-growing role played by the West in reshaping the country’s political identity. If what we do today can only be understood tomorrow, as the Bush administration claims, than it is a great blow to history that more care wasn’t taken in preserving Iraq’s art for future generations.
For more on the fate of art in Iraq, check out the documentary Erasing Memory: The Cultural Destruction of Iraq by Deep Dish TV. —Morgan Winters
12/19/2007 9:57:33 AM
Nothing brings to mind traditional American music as immediately as the sound of a banjo. Just ask any guitarist who’s “gone country” by picking up a banjo, tuning it like a guitar, and riding that Americana-tourism train.
But northern rockers in snapped-up plaid shirts were not the first to appropriate the banjo. The current issue of Mental Floss offers a brief, informative history of the instrument’s development in American music (article not available online). Interesting stuff—I’d never considered, for instance, that the banjo’s simultaneous rise in white culture and decline in black culture (in the late 19th century) might both have been due largely to its prominence in minstrel shows.
Also, the article’s worth checking out just for its doctored photo of the four Deliverance city slickers joined by the star of that other classic of ’70s banjo cinema, Kermit the Frog. —Steve Thorngate
12/10/2007 2:08:54 PM
Accompanied by only a computer-generated backing track run through a 12-track amplifier, Hosam Abu Abdu leads his band through its regular practice at a police station in Gaza City. Protectors of the Homeland, as they call themselves, aren’t the typical boy band. Abu Abdu is 40 years old, and his five bandmates don’t appear to be regular heartthrobs either. But Protectors of the Homeland do carry on the long tradition of singers providing inspiration in a time of need.
According to Britain’s Telegraph, the group pays homage to the party and its leaders with songs such as “Change” and “Reform”—and with lines like “By the shrouds of the dead we are inspired.” Abu Abdu and five others formed the group last summer as part of an arts initiative of Hamas’ domestic security service, the Executive Force. “It is our job to inspire the foot soldiers,” Abu Abdu told the Telegraph. “We want to urge the soldiers and officers to push on, to make the effort needed in the struggle to end the occupation.”
The group hopes to release an album, as well as build a theater and support public dancing. Successful or not, the band members said making music beats what they were doing in June: fighting rival faction Fatah in the streets.
Thanks, the Kicker! —Eric Kelsey
12/10/2007 1:23:54 PM
by Brendan Mackie
The Australian accent seems fit to drawl Throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate, but not to spit sharp rhymes over fat hip-hop beats. The iconic image of an Australian bushman braving dank swamps and the desolate outback just doesn’t jibe with our pop-culture vision of gold-chained rappers flanked by buxom babes. Australia is the other side of the world, as far as rap goes. And what would an Australian rap about anyway? Wrestling crocodiles? Boomerangs? Kangaroos?
“Yeah, we rap about kangaroos,” jokes Australian rapper Pegz.
Pegz’s easy manner belies his position as one of the most influential hip-hop artists in Australia. As CEO of Obese Records, a pioneering independent Aussie hip-hop label, Pegz has nurtured the genre from fringe curiosity to local chart-topping success. As a recording artist, Pegz consistently pushes the boundaries of insightful, lyrical hip-hop.
Australian rap is more than American rap with an Australian accent. While 50 Cent might wax glamorous about the hustler life, Australian rappers like Pegz are more likely to drop rhymes about quotidian matters like paying the rent or cooking pasta. “In general, Aussie rap is just an honest perspective on life,” Pegz explains. Sure, there are plenty of verses and rhymes pumped full of the standard rap tropes of bombastic self-promotion. But Pegz spends a lot more time crafting lines like “Gotta work hard and not break the hearts that love you/The rest is all show like the Ali Shuffle” than he does bragging that he’s the greatest rapper alive.
Australian rap can trace its distinctive character to its long period of domestic unpopularity. Before Pegz released his first album in 2003 (Capricorn Cat) and Obese Records began pushing its homebred hip-hop onto the center stage of Aussie culture, Australian rappers languished in obscurity. Nobody outside of a cadre of devoted fans cared about any of the native acts. For a time, Australian rappers were so uncomfortable with their legitimacy that they rapped with American accents.
This long incubation period didn’t morph Aussie hip-hop into a bitter lament on unappreciated talent. Instead, it gave the artists room to craft a unique voice, one that is at once humble and proud. Australian rappers could never imagine jetting off to New York, making a million dollars, or relishing the debauchery of gangsta life, so they wrote rhymes about dealing with the minutiae of daily activity.
“I’d say if major labels had nurtured the artists, right now we’d be rapping about V-8 cars and how many girls you get on the weekend. But that’s not acceptable for us as artists,” Pegz says. There are the usual rhymes about rap skill (a hip-hop staple), but the braggadocio has more to do with the ne’er-do-well tradition of Australian larrikinism than any sort of intimidating posturing.
Pegz’s finely honed lines are a great introduction to the genre. In Axis (2005) and Pegz’s latest release, Burn City (2007), he reveals an almost philosophic sensibility. He’ll often dream up idealistic visions of a world in which we all have easy jobs, great friends, and fat beats. But Pegz tempers these fantasies with an appreciation of the hard work that’s necessary to make the world closer to what we hope it could be.
That Pegz can rap so eloquently about subjects that often baffle, and can do so in the tightest of prose, is one of his greatest achievements. On some tracks he indulges in rhyming about hot women and getting high, but that seems like a conscious holiday from the real work at hand. After countless listens, I am still surprised to hear Pegz grumble in his deep Melbourne accent about interracial understanding, labor rights, and disadvantaged youth. “I don’t know why I come up with these things,” Pegz explains. “Sometimes I think to myself: Why can’t I write some songs where there’s no content, where it’s not topical, that’s not talking about something serious or introspective?”
Australian rap remains very Australian, and that local flavor might make it an acquired taste to American ears. Filled with strange accents, odd slang, and a pop culture and politics cryptic to many outsiders, the music can seem downright impenetrable. But for the same reason, Aussie rap can be like a mini-vacation from the monotony of America’s cookie-cutter hip-hop and self-consciously avant-garde indie croons. Take a listen for yourself by checking out the tracks below.
Pegz: I Don't Need Your Judgments from Burn City: Play in Popup
Pegz: The Fight from Burn City: Play in Popup
Pegz: Last Bushman from Axis: Play in Popup
Pegz: Cro Magnon from Axis: Play in Popup
12/7/2007 4:52:50 PM
Hours of child-like exploration await readers at Lookybook, a new collection of brightly illustrated children’s books online. The website features stories about whimsical charecters including monsters, cars, and penguins.
Here’s one of my favorites:
The stories are undeniably charming. They also made me wonder: Why do we let kids have all the fun? It seems that most mature, serious, un-illustrated literature focuses on people dolefully pondering their broken relationships. Who decided it’s inappropriate for 24-year-olds to giggle at talking sharks or romping polar bears? Not me. This Saturday night I’m not reading Dostoyevsky or Ian McEwan. I’m reading kids' books.
12/6/2007 6:02:49 PM
A weekly email newsletter called The First Weekenders Group is rallying “as many people as possible to buy tickets for the opening weekend of films by women directors,” according to an article in the Fall issue of Ms. Magazine (article not available online). Subscribers receive updates on upcoming films by women including where and when the films are released. The e-newsletter is published by MoviesByWomen.com, “an informal group” aimed at increasing the number of women working in film and other media by exposing their work to a wide audience.
Director Allison Anders writes on the site:
Box office is one of the strongest tools we have toward preserving our ability to make our movies. We really can make a difference by purchasing a ticket each opening weekend to a movie made by a woman, even if you don't like the movie or the filmmaker and even if you don't see the film. By doing this you increase the chances of greater diversity on the movie screens across the country which is good for all of us.
To subscribe to The First Weekenders Group newsletter click here.
12/4/2007 4:08:30 PM
In “Design Solutions” in the September-October issue of Good, Tucker Viemeister praises the progressive City and Country School of New York City for having a playground designed to hurt children.
Well, not quite, but the schoolyard, which features a railless jungle gym and slide among its playground equipment, is meant to teach kids that life is full of hard knocks, and if you’re not careful you’ll get a scraped knee. Viemeister writes, “To grow, we need to take chances. Progress is littered with mistakes and accidents.”
The school’s founder, Caroline Pratt, organized the school in 1914 under the belief that kids learn by engaging in open-ended problem-solving in which they have a real investment in the outcome. Now, me, I always thought it was the kiss that made the boo-boo worth it. —Jason Ericson
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