Algiers / Oppressors Beware

ALGIERS - Opressors Beware

ALGIERS – Opressors Beware

Precious little approaches the elation that you feel when you feel that you fit in – when you sense that you belong – because there is almost nothing so crushing as the opposite – that sense of not feeling a part of something. It is oppressing. You figure it out (or you don’t), as you get a little older – but Jesus, it is the worst when you’re a kid and you feel no sense of belonging or community.

That is one of the most important things that music can do – to make us feel either broadly connected, or to act as an agent of deep and private conspiratorial communication. When you’re a kid, and you are not relating with, say, the other girls on the gymnastics team, or you really have nothing in common with the guys in the church youth group, but you find a couple of kids that love Pink Floyd or Talking Heads – thank the gods – there’s elation. After all, the guys who ‘get’Psycho Killer will also probably ‘get’ you, and to throw off that leaden blanket of oppression, you need connections and community.

At any age there is still a tingle to be had from the connections made with music. There’s a special thrill of recognition you can get from hearing something that is new to you, but with which you identify.

Brand new to me, the band Algiers is thrilling; the sound is brash, daring, and full of ideas. From what I pick up in the three songs I have been able to hear, they create a carnival ride mixture of insistent industrial rock and stirring gospel. (I am grateful to have been exposed to Algiers by the NPR podcast All Songs Considered.)

The band is a trio that formed in Atlanta, Georgia, (the members now base in London and New York,) and they appear to be setting up a thematic community. Algiers is building a community rooted in investigating and rebelling against the intensely complicated issues of race in America’s Deep South, and then spreading out from there. (Issues that are now continuously playing out all over the world, and currently here in the United States, are especially resonant in Baltimore, Detroit, NYC, and St. Louis.)

They are an overtly political group and the issues explored extend well beyond their roots. They are interested in addressing oppression in pretty much all of its forms: colonial, cultural, racial, gender, and sexual oppression, etc. Visit their Web site, algierstheband, to scroll through a cornucopia of fabulous photographs, quotes, and links to essays and speeches that celebrate icons and iconoclasts. It is a treasure of subversion – a place where Sara Vaughan lives down the road from Genesis P-Orridge and Blixa Bargeld, and just around the way from Sun Ra, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X.

Extremely referential, the band shines a broad, bright light on diverse artists and filmmakers as different as Pier Paolo Pasolini and John Waters and places them in the similar context of community-building fighters of oppression. Jessie Owens, Jackie Robinson, and Cassius Clay are celebrated as revolutionaries alongside Coltrane, Baldwin, Hughes, and Camus.

How do they do it with their music? Algiers taps into the rebellion and protest that has been logged in the music of rap and soul, and of punk and post punk. These genres have created an incredibly rich historical inventory of abuses suffered and met. Unfortunately, there are a number of people who, for whatever reasons, simply won’t listen to rap, hip hop, or punk, but who would be fascinated by the political, social, and cultural issues that these art forms raise up and challenge.

It’s a lot to put on them, but maybe this is a band that can break through some of that prejudice. Though never stuffy, with Algiers, there is a gravity to the proceedings right up front, and a straightforward intellectual formality in the presentation. Maybe they will provide a more potent, effective, and toothsome way to engage people who would be interested in the meaningful social and cultural sides of rap, hip hop, or punk but refuse to cross the bridge to enjoy listening to them.

And please don’t let politics cause a sticking point for enjoying the music. The political lyrics create another dynamic layer, but there’s more than ample power in the tunes themselves to satisfy.

Link below to songs from Algiers. Their self-titled debut comes out on 2 June 2015 on Matador Records.



But She Was Not Flying

The guitar sounds like flames feel:


The electronic ambient stretch in this is wicked:

Black Eunuch

There are great examples of mixing other musical styles with industrial rock – here, it’s jazz and lounge.

Moss Side Story by Barry Adamson

Moss Side Story by Barry Adamson

The Man With the Golden Arm by Barry Adamson, from his brilliant concept album Moss Side Story (1989 Mute Records).

And then, there’s this guy.

C’est la Vie performed by Charles Boyer in the film Algiers (1938).

For more on the band, this is an enlightening Interview with Algiers in ‘The Quietus’.

27 april 2015

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Nice weather for ducks (and running)


Lincoln Nebraska, April 18, 2015

Today was a near perfect spring running day. Drizzly. Overcast. Thunder rumbling far away, as a storm moved out of town (6 or 7 Mississippis away, by my count). The air was damp and smelled a little musty from the morning rain. Wormy. I wish I could blog the smell of the lilacs I ran past in the first half mile. Their perfume goodness literally stopped me in my tracks. I breathed them in. Spring.

goldfinchAnd so went the morning’s run. I enjoyed the song of a tiny bubbling bit of rapids along the Rock Island trail. The camera-shy gold finches and noisy cardinals offered splashes of color against trees just beginning to leaf.rapids

Nebraska doesn’t have breathtaking vistas of oceans or mountains, but the ex-train tracks made into hiker-biker highways, offer these few humble pleasures.

On my return home, I noticed a lone duck swimming in the rain, seemingly enjoying the morning as much as me. Maybe more. We nodded to each other, “Nice day for it.”


Here’s a groovy song for any kind of weather – Lemon Jelly: Nice Weather for Ducks

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KOMOREBI - Neskowin, OR.

KOMOREBI – Neskowin, OR.

My friend Cathy taught me that the Japanese have a wonderfully descriptive word for the way that sunlight filters through the leaves of trees: komorebi. It is a phenomenon of nearly crippling beauty that I have been fortunate to experience on some of the most exquisite hikes the planet has to offer.

If you crave mind-bending walks in nature, it is difficult to imagine more satisfying hours than the ones you may spend on the densely forested Pacific capes of Oregon’s coast, including Capes Perpetua, Lookout, Kiwanda, and Meares.

VIEW FROM CAPE KIWANDA. Oregon, you genius.

VIEW FROM CAPE KIWANDA. Oregon, you genius.

In both their majesty and minutia, these places present a primeval aspect. One moment looking up you enjoy the spray of a towering waterfall while feeling the undeniably and essentially grave powers of earth. In the next moment looking down you may be forced to squint to see clearly a tiny, ornate pillow of moss that appears to be waiting for a baby bunny’s head to gently occupy it.

Regarding its provisions to protect land and to make it accessible, Oregon is a very enlightened state. As one example, Oregon’s beachfront property is safeguarded from private ownership, so it features remarkable open public access to all of its coastal land

Think that’s not a treat? Visit California. As a comparison, Oregon’s neighbor to the south made big headlines recently when seven and a half miles of beachfront were protected from private development – (and bravo for California – that’s great – some of that land will even be made accessible to the public.)

Perhaps the best hike to enjoy the unrestricted luxury of zero development is on Bayocean Spit, where you can walk for flat miles along Tillamook Bay. The bay offers tree-lined, lake-like calm where one can explore mudflats, coves, and swamps. The loop takes hikers through scattered driftwood and sandy shrub- and scrubland dunes to reach the ocean side. And there it is – the glorious ocean – where, while the tide is out, you can walk and walk and walk.

CAPE MEARES - Just you, the Pacific, and whatever you decide to bring along.

CAPE MEARES – Just you, the Pacific, and whatever you decide to bring along.

When I am visiting I often think to myself, “Oregon, you genius.” You can dial it back there. It is an inspirational place.

Oregon inspired many of the songs on the brilliant new record by Sufjan Stevens, titled Carrie & Lowell. He has proven himself a masterful chronicler of places, (states in particular, with Michigan in 2003, and Illinois in 2005,) and the way that places, people, and memories can comingle to transport us in time. I think it’s safe to guess that this record was never going to be called Oregon, though. He is up to something a bit different here. The record is named for his mother and stepfather, and on it, Sufjan Stevens takes the modern musical folk/pop art form beyond the confessional and into the sublime.

When he was a baby, his mom felt that she was unable to care for Sufjan and his family. She split and was not much around through his childhood and entire life. She reappeared in his world when she remarried, and Sufjan spent the summers in Oregon with Carrie and her new husband, Lowell, from ages five through eight. Stevens told Pitchfork, “…she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. She had bipolar disorder and she was an alcoholic. She did drugs, had substance abuse problems. She really suffered, for whatever reason.” His mother’s absence, her presence, and her suffering, all work together to inform the songs on Carrie and Lowell, and sometimes painfully reveal the way they have influenced Stevens’ relationships, decisions, and life.

Carrie died in 2012, and Stevens’ music here is a reminder that much of art is really an attempt to make connections; to communicate to others through art that: This means something to me, something deeply important – maybe it is important to you, too.



What is important on the songs that make up Carrie & Lowell is catharsis and reconciliation. Reflecting on his mother, her life, death, and its effects on him, here is a remarkable quote of summary forgiveness, (again, from Pitchfork): “I went through all the stages of bereavement. But I say make amends while you can: Take every opportunity to reconcile with those you love or those who’ve hurt you. It was in our best interest for our mother to abandon us. God bless her for doing that and knowing what she wasn’t capable of.”

There is a touch of musical komorebi in these songs – sometimes brightly flashing, sometimes hazily muted – their thoughts and sounds reach us like sunlight playing through the leaves of trees. There is something universal here, too. We are given the observations and events of another’s life that cast shine and shadow on our own.

Links to Sufjan Stevens incredible folk and ambient songs from Carrie & Lowell (2015 Asthmatic Kitty):



Confusion, fear, and forgiveness in the opener.

Death With Dignity

“The landscape changed my point of view …”

All of Me Wants All of You

“Everything I see returns to you somehow…”

The Only Thing

Poetic folk fading into ambience on the closer.

Blue Bucket of Gold

16 april 2015

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The Worship of Cat Music



My buddy Ross sent me a fascinating National Geographic article on cat music. It is no surprise that most animals don’t hear or experience music the same way that people do, but research is demonstrating that cats respond positively to very specific and carefully tailored music – “… songs [that] are meant for felines, whose vocalizations have more sliding qualities and pitch changes than do human speech or music. The tempos for their meow mix includes purring and the sucking sound of kittens nursing…” (Embedded SoundCloud links that allow you to listen to short samples of cat music can be found in the National Geographic article linked above.)

I am no scientist, but I conducted an unfussy version of research in the old home laboratory. I enlisted our whiskery geniuses and played some cat music for Otto and Daisy – a pair of super-spoiled, fifteen year old, overgrown barn kittens. My study was revealing. Daisy seemed to find the cat music very pleasant – she reacted like she was being petted – her little ears did a dance on her head. Otto was less demonstrative, mostly vacant of affect. Both cats sniffed at the speaker and worked their cheeks and mouths similarly. Both cats’ eyes seemed to flutter in a dreamy sort of way that made me think that something primal was being evoked.

Couple of geniuses - DAISY ...

Couple of geniuses – DAISY …

and OTTO

…. and OTTO

I love these furry little clowns, and because music means so much to me, I get a kick out of the idea that my cats can find pleasure and meaning in music, too. Of course, some music and some performers mean

more to me than others, and I guess that is why I would say that I have my own versions of cat music. Much of it was produced and distributed on the 4AD record label in the 1980s and 90s. Most especially evocative is the primal cat music of Cocteau Twins. Their sounds often make my eyes flutter dreamily, they almost always have me purring, and they consistently transport me in time. The band’s music is great for nearly any occasion, but it’s a particular treat when you can listen reflectively, as you can on a cool and rainy Nebraska day like this one.

Incidentally, friend Ross, the cat music article-sender, also happens to be a Cocteau Twins enthusiast. He recently laid down the gauntlet in this note:

“i don’t think anyone could win, but i think a case would have to be made that this is not the greatest song of all time. i dont believe in a top five but i do believe in a number one, and this is it.”

The Spangle Maker from The Spangle Maker EP (1984 4AD).

Such is the swagger and ferocity the band inspires in its true fans. We are worshipful.

Here are my top five. Or seven. OK, nine.

They were pretty muscular in the early recordings – propulsive and insistent:

Dear Heart from Garlands (1982 4AD).

Sugar Hiccup from Sunburst and Snowblind EP (1983 4AD).



Their third album is masterpiece and warrants two songs:

Aloysius and Otterley from Treasure (1984 4AD).

Queen Elizabeth - she'll get you purring.

Queen Elizabeth – she’ll get you purring.


She Will Destroy You from The Moon and the Melodies (1986 4AD).

Lazy Calm from Victorialand (1986 4AD).

Carolyn’s Fingers from Blue Bell Knoll (1988 4AD).

Road, River and Rail from Heaven or Las Vegas (1990 4AD).

Essence from Four Calendar Café (1993 Capitol).

24 march 2015

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Beyond Belief

Elvis Costello Solo – Rococo Theatre – Lincoln, Nebraska – 3 March 2015

Innovative, bold, massive talent – a skillful and charming performer – a maestro of relevancy. Classic.



And now a few words about myself.

General condition: anxious. Neck rigid, and shoulders up around the ears. If you took a quarter and lobbed it at me it would bounce off. You could smash a wooden chair by swinging it into my body. Perhaps someone should.

It has been this way for years. I will not relax. Tense practically all the time. For ages I thought it was behavior – I thought that relaxed was essentially a way to be or not to be. Something I could choose. Now I don’t think that. I think it is pathology. No more avoidable, nor shameful, nor blameworthy, than having, say, a serious genetic medical condition – hypertension, or elevated cholesterol. You don’t want it, necessarily, but there it is.

Though, unlike blood pressure issues, my pathological unrelaxedness bleeds over into personal relationships – a fair amount in some cases – and I am, very often, no goddamn picnic to be around.

Once in a while music can treat my condition. Like diet and exercise. Like taking a pill. Even live music can treat my condition. For example, a recital hall swirling with Ravel or Bach. Even as much as I may look forward to a rock and roll show, I don’t anticipate that it will relax me.

Scores of articles and over a dozen books have been written about Elvis Costello. That’s a lot of words devoted to a fellow who (famously) dislikes writing about music and music criticism. So this will be short.

Last night Elvis Costello shattered my expectations. I had seen him before and I am a pretty big fan, (yes, I have the middle-career and recent stuff, too,) so I knew I was going to enjoy the show. But guess what, I also relaxed. It was an inspirational and truly unforgettable evening. My highest praise: relaxing beyond belief. Thank you.


THIS IS A MUSIC STAR – ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES                                                                                            

He has so many great songs it is difficult to choose. Try these:

Beyond Belief from Imperial Bedroom (1982 Columbia).

Brilliant Mistake from King of America (1986 Columbia).

Come the Mean Times with The Roots from Wise Up Ghost (2013 Blue Note).

So Like Candy from Mighty Like a Rose (1991 Warner Brothers).

Not for the fainthearted:

I Want You from Blood and Chocolate (1986 Columbia).

String Quartet in F, 2nd Movement by Maurice Ravel and performed by Hagen Quartet.

(For an excellent overview of his career and a fascinating profile of Elvis Costello, I suggest thisNew Yorker article by Nick Paumgarten. It is really well done. However, consider skipping it unless you are prepared to learn about or revisit some of his early-career, wince-inducing, caddish, and idiotic episodes.)

4 March 2015

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