Saturday, February 08, 2014

Blackfield: "Pain" and "Jupiter"

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Blackfield, which last year released its fourth album, Blackfield IV, is a collaboration between Steven Wilson and Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen.

Actually, it's now pretty much just Geffen. Wilson was heavily involved with the first two albums, Blackfield (2004) and Blackfield II (2007) as songwriter, singer, and guitarist, but with the third, Welcome to My DNA (2011) Geffen took over, as Wilson focused on his solo work, and the fourth is basically a Geffen solo album featuring Wilson and others as guests. Blackfield, including Wilson, is currently on a short tour in Europe this month, but Wilson announced that these would be his last shows as a member of the band.

Blackfield will go on, and I'm eager to see where Geffen takes it, but it's disappointing, if certainly understandable, that Wilson won't be part of it anymore. While there's a lot to like on the second two albums, the Geffen albums, the first two, to me, are much better, and it's the combination of Wilson and Geffen that made them so great. (For just how great, check out not just the studio albums but also Live in New York City (2007).)

Also, for a huge Wilson fan like me, it was great for him to be part of a project that allowed him to express his pop sensibilities, a songwriting side that he doesn't express through his solo work or through his most famous project, Porcupine Tree. In both of those cases, he goes mostly for longer, complex, hugely challenging compositions that fuse diverse musical elements into post-prog mastery. But he's always had other outlets as well for his other interests, like the ambient electronica of Bass Communion or the folky psychedelia of Storm Corrosion. Blackfield was one of those outlets, featuring accessible but still intelligent and provocative pop rock. Maybe he's just putting everything into his solo work now, with hopefully a return of Porcupine Tree soon, but one wonders where that pure pop impulse will go next. (Although, that second Blackfield album is from seven years ago, and some of his pop sounds has gone into his solo work, like the song "Drive Home" on his last album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), from last year.)

In any event, it's been a wonderful four-album run with Wilson, and hopefully it will continue with much more from the very talented Geffen.

Here are the videos for "Pain" (from Blackfield) and "Jupiter" (from Blackfield IV, featuring Wilson), with some incredible sand art by Ilana Yahav in the latter. Enjoy!

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Friday, February 07, 2014

God is an Astronaut: "Reverse World" and "Spiral Code"

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I've loved Irish post-rock band God is an Astronaut ever since I first heard their incredible 2005 album, their second, All is Violent, All is Bright. I continue to think it's their best, but there's a great deal to like on the other six as well, including their latest, last year's Origins, which I think was one of the very best of 2013.

As this review notes, Origins marks, in a way, a return to the band's origins, to its early inspirations. It also marks subtle but perceptible shift away from the sound and texture of the previous six albums. It's still very much GIAA, but it features generally shorter and more conventional compositions, and so in some way more accessible tunes. The emphasis remains on instrumentalism, but there's actually some voice in here as well, along with some bass lines, keyboards, and electronica elements that just haven't been here, at least not nearly as prominently, in the past. No doubt much of this has to do with the fact that the band grew from three to five members and so incorporated new talent as well as new instruments into its sound.

Don't get me wrong. There's still the same GIAA I love on the album. It's just that Origins presents in some ways a more varied sound than previous efforts. It's a blend of the old and the new into a solid, cohesive whole, reflecting what the band is in the present moment. My favorite songs represent these two poles: the hard, intense "Red Moon Lagoon" and "Calistoga," which sound like they could have come from AIVAIB, and the more electronic "Transmissions" and "Light Years from Home," which see the band moving off into new sonic directions without losing what made them distinctive in the first place.

Here are the videos for two other songs from the album, "Reverse World" and "Spiral Code." Enjoy!


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A.M. Headlines

(New York Times): "Behind retreat on immigration, a complicated political interplay"

(Daily News): "House Speaker John Boehner casts doubt on getting immigration reform done in 2014"

(Real Clear Politics): "Jobless benefits extension fails in Senate"

(CNN): "Poll: Is Bush still to blame for the economy"

(Los Angeles Times): "For media in Sochi, it's more Potemkin village than Olympic village"


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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Just how badly do we need Obama to step up on this?

By Carl

Now our national power grid has become a matter of national security:
A top former energy official claims that an attack on an American power grid was terrorism.

One or more snipers opened fire in April, knocking out 17 transformers that send power to Silicon Valley, the Wall Street Journal initially reported.

Officials moved the flow of electricity to another site to stop a blackout.

But the man who chaired the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at the time, Jon Wellinghoff, tells CBS News it could be an omen for a future attack. "We have risks on physical security that were evidenced by this attack that have not been addressed that need to be addressed in my opinion, immediately," he said.

The FBI does not believe it was an act of terror.

No, it was probably just a disaffected gun nut, to be sure.

Read more »

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Progressive Music Classics: "Joe Hill" by Paul Robeson -- music for those who hate the Grammys

By Marc McDonald 

(Ed. note: Here's another installment of Marc's ongoing series. For the full series, check out his site. -- MJWS)

I didn't watch the Grammy Awards this year. In fact, I never watch the Grammys (which is nothing more than a wankfest of the corrupt U.S. corporate recording industry to celebrate another year of the utter mediocrity that clogs up today's pop charts). Anyone who thinks the Grammys celebrate the best of U.S. popular music probably also thinks the "Best Picture" Oscar actually has something to do with the best cinema of the year.

I suppose there might be some worthwhile music at the Grammys. But as the great Morrissey once sang, "It says nothing to me about my life."

Once upon a time, popular music actually had something to say. Listen to the best songs of the 1960s for example, and you can quickly get a sense of the issues of the day, from the Vietnam War to the youth rebellions that shook the Western world.

But these days, the songs are all about sex, bling-bling, and mindless consumption. And even the "best" music these days seems clinically crafted for one purpose: to shift as many units as possible.

It's all the more outrageous when you consider that one important function of the arts has been to hold a mirror up to society. Any outsider who listened to today's U.S. pop music would conclude that most Americans drive Bentleys, drink lots of Grey Goose, and spend their days having sex with supermodels.

If today's pop music really reflected U.S. society, it would reveal a broken, deteriorating nation that is facing a major crisis. Poverty is rising. The gap between rich and poor is at obscene levels. More and more kids are going hungry. The once Great American Middle Class is becoming extinct. And yet our corrupt government does nothing but act as a concierge service for the Rich & Powerful.

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On the Hustings

(Washington Post): "Obama not ‘offended’ if vulnerable Dems stay away"

(Real Clear Politics): "Obama, Senate Dems seek momentum in election year"

(The Denver Post): "Poll: Hickenlooper holds comfortable lead over GOP challengers in governor's race"

(Tampa Bay Times): "Crist up 47-40 over Scott in new UF poll"

(WMUR): "CNN exclusive: John Kerry a 'no' for 2016"


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British judge wants to know if Mormonism is a fraud

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The Telegraph reports:

A British magistrate has issued an extraordinary summons to the worldwide leader of the Mormon church alleging that its teachings about mankind amount to fraud.

Thomas S. Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been ordered to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in London next month to defend the church’s doctrines including beliefs about Adam and Eve and Native Americans.

A formal summons signed by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe warns Mr Monson, who is recognised by Mormons as God’s prophet on Earth, that a warrant for his arrest could be issued if he fails to make the journey from Salt Lake City, Utah, for a hearing on March 14. 

It's an odd request, "issued in response to a private prosecution attempt by Tom Phillips, a disaffected former Mormon who now runs MormonThink a website highly critical of the church," and of course Monson won't show.

But still, wouldn't it be great if organized religious institutions were required to explain themselves, to tell us why their shit doesn't stink?

It's easy to target Mormonism, just like it's easy to target, say, Scientology, but such ridiculousness is hardly limited to these newer religions/cults. Have you ever actually thought about, oh, to take just one prominent example, mainstream Christianity? It's utter nonsense. The whole lot of it. And the only reason we don't think about it the same way we think about, say, Scientology is that it's very old, as if being so old somehow shields it even from the glare of Enlightenment. So it's Monson for now, but...

Next up: Pope Francis!

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Coke gets America, conservatives don't

By Frank Moraes

I have a personal note about the Coke diversity commercial which is embedded below. I didn't watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, but it was on at the place I was staying, so I saw a bit of it. And part of that was the Coke commercial. It is extremely beautiful and the sound design was just perfect. But I only really got one thing out of it: the Muslim women buying Chinese food from a street vendor. That was totally brilliant!

It bothers me that others look at the ad and think that it divides us. Such people have an incredibly simplistic view of community. People don't have to share religion or language or anything specifically. What binds us together is not our particular totems. What binds us together is shown in that image of Americans from different places meeting to do business. That is America. And that is what conservatives always claim to be in favor of.

We can disagree about most things. The essence of what we are is commerce. In times long past we were bound together to hunt and gather and farm. Now we bind together because one of us makes delicious Chinese food and one of us wants to eat delicious Chinese food. What is more American than that?

All my life -- five decades! -- I have gone to Chinese restaurants. And then as now, they always had menus that looked like the image above. The fact that they had Chinese characters on them did not make the restaurants un-American. Nor did the fact that the waiter often spoke almost no English. That's why the menu items are numbered! So we can do that most American of things: buy stuff in the most convenient way possible.

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A.M. Headlines

(Jeffrey Toobin): "Bridgegate will be long road for Christie"

(Real Clear Politics): "House GOP lacks negotiating plan for debt ceiling"

(TPM): "Paul Ryan fact-checks Republicans on Obamacare job 'costs'"

(ABC News): "Olympic threat: US warns airlines about toothpaste tube bomb"

(Real Clear Politics): "CVS Caremark to stop tobacco sales"


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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Even Paul Ryan realizes the latest Republican line of attack on Obamacare is bullshit

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Well, maybe "even" isn't the right word. Paul Ryan is a fairly smart guy, whatever you think of his atrocious views, and so one should expect him to understand the difference between the truth and partisan spin -- and his own party's dishonesty. He's no Louie Gohmert, after all, to name but one of his embarrassing colleagues. In a caucus full of morons, that is to say, Ryan does stand out as a man with some capacity for independent thought. Which isn't saying much, but still.


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Welcome news

By Carl 

It's nice to see a CEO realize that a product is not in keeping with the mission statement of a corporation:

CVS Caremark, the largest provider of prescription drugs in the U.S., plans to stop selling cigarettes and tobacco-related products across the nation by Oct. 1 in an effort to support the health of its patients and customers.

CVS, operator of 7,600 pharmacy stores in the U.S., would be the first national pharmacy chain to take this step, the Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based company said in a statement today. The decision will cut annual revenue by about $2 billion, equating to 17 cents a share, CVS said.

The move comes as public health officials try to educate about 42 million U.S. adult smokers about the dangers of the habit. Last month, a report from the acting U.S. Surgeon General, Boris Lushniak, criticized the "fraudulent campaigns" by cigarette companies, weaknesses in regulation and a rebound in smoking depicted in Hollywood films. The study, which came half a century after smoking was first linked to lung cancer, cited new evidence that common ailments such diabetes, arthritis and impotence can be linked to tobacco use.

The CVS by me also sells beer, so I suspect that won't be long for the shelves either.

There is a deep background issue lurking that I suspect CVS may have thought about in coming to this decision: lawsuits. After all, tobacco products are a known carcinogen, and while smoking in general has decreased over the past decades, there has been a recent and alarming rise in teen smoking, as the snippet above suggests.

The tobacco manufacturers have been sued and settled, so it would be a long, hard fight to go back to them and say "Stop it, now!" but a potential avenue for fixing the problem would be to go after the retail and wholesale distributors of the product, whose law firms are, shall we say, less stellar? It's actually a clever way of enforcing the liability issue without seeming to go after the manufacturers and igniting... see what I did there?... a backlash from the right wing and morons who smoke and feel it's a god-given right.

One could make the case that the retailers are knowingly selling a dangerous product, despite the numerous warnings and measures taken by stores to enforce that only adults get the product. After all, they don't sell crack legally, and it would be a first step to having tobacco put on a controlled substances list.

(Cross-posted to Simply Left Behind.)

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Mitch McConnell, obstructionist extraordinaire, says no immigration reform in 2014

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The man running for re-election this year -- and that's important to keep in mind here (he's got a Tea Party to appease, after all) -- is once more playing the obstructionist card:

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The best of Philip Seymour Hoffman: Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

By Michael J.W. Stickings 

How can you possibly land on one movie, one scene, one role, one performance as the very best of PSH? He was so good in so many good movies, and he made so many movies so much better just by being in them.

But when I heard on Sunday that he had died, it was one movie and one role that came immediately to mind.


I love Almost Famous. I love especially the extended version (the untitled "bootleg cut") that captures director Cameron Crowe's vision, and I love watching it while listening to the commentary by Crowe and his mother. (I picked it as the best movie of the '00s.)

But it's a hard movie for me to watch. It means so much to me, is so powerful to me, makes me so emotional, that I often find it too much to take. Some great movies, some great movies to which one is intensely attached, are so meaningful that they require the right time and place to appreciate fully. I never want to watch Almost Famous as casual entertainment. To me, it's special. It's not the greatest movie ever made -- to me that's Seven Samurai -- but it's a truly remarkable achievement.

And while he's not in it much, and while his character is just a minor one in terms of screen time, Almost Famous just wouldn't be Almost Famous, at least not as I love it, without Philip Seymour Hoffman's incredible performance as Lester Bangs, the movie's soul.

There are many great scenes in the movie, and perhaps many more famous ones (like, say, the "Tiny Dancer" scene on the bus), but one of the scenes that stands out to those of us who love the movie is the one late in the movie when William and Lester speak on the phone. It's a beautiful, quiet scene, the "uncool" scene, with Lester speaking to what William has experienced, to the empty world he has witnessed while still just a teenager, providing comfort and wisdom at a difficult time, and it is their bonding, their connection as two similar souls as expressed in this one late-night conversation, that provides the movie its essential core.

Here's how Cameron Crowe described the scene, and PSH's performance generally, yesterday:

My original take on this scene was a loud, late night pronouncement from Lester Bangs. A call to arms. In Phil's hands it became something different. A scene about quiet truths shared between two guys, both at the crossroads, both hurting, and both up too late. It became the soul of the movie. In between takes, Hoffman spoke to no one. He listened only to his headset, only to the words of Lester himself. (His Walkman was filled with rare Lester interviews.) When the scene was over, I realized that Hoffman had pulled off a magic trick. He'd leapt over the words and the script, and gone hunting for the soul and compassion of the private Lester, the one only a few of us had ever met. Suddenly the portrait was complete. The crew and I will always be grateful for that front row seat to his genius.

PSH will be missed. But thankfully he left behind so much that was so beautiful. I think about other movies as well, other great performances in movies like Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Charlie Wilson's War, Synecdoche, New York, and Moneyball, but it is still Almost Famous, and Lester Bangs, that is front and center.

Let's all watch it again, this wonderful film, to celebrate the life and work of one of the very best at his craft.

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On the Hustings

(Tampa Bay Times): "Campaign site misleads man into donating money against Sink"

(CNN): "Poll: Christie's loss appears to be Clinton's gain"

(The Week): "Chris Christie's Bridgegate response has been a debacle"

(Rasmussen Reports): "Election 2014: Kentucky Senate: McConnell (R) 42%, Grimes (D) 42%"

(Real Clear Politics): "Obama, top Dems discuss midterm landscape"


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A.M. Headlines

(CNN): "Christie's office to try to keep focus on NYT, not him"

(The Record): "Feds seek files from Christie's office; ex-aide Kelly won't turn over documents in response to subpoena"

(Politico): "Big tech puts ‘down payment’ on connecting schools"

(The Hill): "Study: Abortion rate hits lowest point since Roe v. Wade decision"

(New York Times): "Hoffman’s heroin points to surge in grim trade"  


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Monday, February 03, 2014

On the Hustings

(Washington Post): "Republicans face 2016 turmoil"

(Real Clear Politics): "Amid woes, Christie finds sympathy on the right"

(The Hill)
: "GOP insiders back Rubio in 2016"

(Reuters): "Three Oklahoma Republicans join Senate race to replace Coburn"

(Washington Post): "Not waiting for Clinton, Md. Gov. O’Malley prepares for possible presidential bid"


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Let's talk about "lawless"

By Mustang Bobby

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) says that President Obama and his administration is “lawless.” 

“We have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress. Presidents don’t write laws, Congress does,” Ryan said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Ryan drew a distinction between typical use of executive action and the way he believes Obama is using his executive branch powers.

“It’s not the number of executive orders; it’s the scope of the executive orders. It’s the fact that he is actually contradicting law like in the health care case, or proposing new laws without going through Congress,” he said. “That’s the issue.”

Mr. Ryan’s problem isn’t the scope or the number. Presidents — every one of them — have bucked the will of Congress or refused to enforce the laws they pass to the full extent possible, especially when they are clearly — and so adjudged — to be unconstitutional, such as the odious Defense of Marriage Act. It’s that he just doesn’t like it when this president does it as opposed to the presidents he prefers.

What Barack Obama has done pales, so to speak, in comparison to his immediate predecessors. But when he does it, it’s an outrage to the otherwise complacent and approving Republicans who rolled over for their guy. That would explain why tweaking the healthcare law or raising the minimum wage of federal contract workers — both of which are in the enabling legislation of the laws — is different than ignoring the will of Congress with warrantless wiretapping, using torture on prisoners of war, and objecting to the audit of the books on the war in Iraq.

(Cross-posted at Bark Bark Woof Woof.)

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A.M. Headlines

(Politico): "Chris Christie attacks N.Y. Times, David Wildstein"

(ABC News): "Rep. Paul Ryan: Obama presidency ‘increasingly lawless’"

(New York Times): "Law doesn’t end revolving door on Capitol Hill"

(USA Today): "Pete Carroll, Seahawks win with style all their own"

(New York Times): "Philip Seymour Hoffman, actor of depth, dies at 46"


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Sunday, February 02, 2014

Amplifier: "Matmos" and "The Octopus"

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Last night I wrote about the British prog band Amplifier and their outstanding 2013 album, Echo Street.

Well, let's get right back to it. Here's the video for "Matmos," the opening track off Echo Street (and one of the album's best songs), and then a live version of the title track from their 2011 masterpiece, The Octopus.



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