Friday, January 30, 2015

Three great Springsteen covers: "The Ghost of Tom Joad" by Rage Against the Machine, "Racing in the Street" by Patty Griffin, and "Mansion on the Hill" by The National

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(Ah, my on-and-off blogging hiatus continues. Not much new content here recently. But let's get back into it this evening with some music.)

I love Bruce Springsteen, and one of the things I'm doing right now is compiling the best covers of Springsteen songs. Needless to say, there are a lot of Springsteen covers, a lot that are good and a lot that are not good. Some are mediocre, some are just atrocious. Some are merely impersonations, with nothing new to add, some uncover something hidden in the song or otherwise focus on a certain part of it, a certain element, bringing a new twist to it, a new sound -- think,  for example, of Rage Against the Machine's take on "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (my favourite Springsteen song) emphasizing the angry, rebellious, aggressively political streak that didn't stand out in the original acoustic version, a new, much harder version that sounds unlike Springsteen altogether, but a version that obviously hit on one of the truths of that song, as the new, updated version of by Springsteen himself, first live and last year released on High Hopes, lies somewhere in between the original and the Rage version, with Rage guitarist Tom Morello, now a member of The E Street Band, singing it as a duet with Bruce and working his mind-boggling magic with his instrument.

Of course, taking a song in a completely new direction can be a good thing or a bad thing. Some of these covers make no sense and seem forced, but some show just how incredible a songwriter Bruce is, just how universal his songs are, how adaptable they are to alternate interpretations. This doesn't work with everyone. Some singers/bands just don't lend themselves to being covered. I would argue that Pink Floyd, my favourite band, is one of them. There have been efforts, including bluegrass and reggae efforts, but these are at best interesting and at worst insulting, and while there are certainly a few exceptions, Pink Floyd covers tend to be nothing more than pointless impersonations. Listen to anything by a Pink Floyd "tribute" band. The good ones are fine, I suppose, but there's nothing like Pink Floyd, and the tributes are bland, if sincere.

I could go on and on, but let's get back to the point here. Bruce Springsteen is immensely coverable, and of course he has a massive catalogue of songs from which to choose. Just check out the covers they play on Sirius's E Street Radio. For a fantastic full-album effort, check out Dead Man's Town, a "tribute," but so much more, to Born in the U.S.A. -- highlights include the title track, by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires; "I'm on Fire," by Low; "Glory Days," by Justin Townes Earle; and "Dancing in the Dark," by Nicole Atkins. Or check out lists like this one, and go track some down.

Speaking of "I'm on Fire," that's the widely-covered song that has inspired some of the best covers, including those by Catherine Feeny and Bat for Lashes (like many of Springsteen's songs, it lends itself well to being covered by women), and, yes, Low, and it's also been covered really well by the likes of Johnny Cash, Heather Nova, Mumford & Sons, Keith Urban, Whitehorse, and Passenger. Even the version by John Mayer is really good. Yes, it's just that kind of song.

But let's turn to a few others now, as examples of just how good Springsteen covers can be. Along with Rage's "Tom Joad," here are "Racing in the Street" by Patty Griffin (who also does a fantastic version of "Stolen Car" on her album 1000 Kisses -- her original stuff is awesome, but with that voice and guitar she's just made to do Springsteen covers) and "Mansion on the Hill" by The National (who also seem made to do Springsteen covers alongside their great original work).

I hope you enjoy them. But do go out and search out some others. If you love Bruce like I do, it's a great way to expand your appreciation of his brilliance. And to encounter some really great music in its own right, by some really great artists.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Whistle In The Wind

By Carl

Poor Jon Chait.

He had the audacity to question whether the right of free speech comes with a responsibility on the part of both the speaker and the listener, and got hammered for it. In other words, he took on "political correctness" and in what may be one of the grandest moments of self-reinforcing demonstration, got spanked by the very movement he sought to critique.

First, let me say this: the First Amendment is the one nearest and dearest to my heart, and in particular, the right to speak my mind freely. It's what allows me to maintain this blog, and allows you to read it. Voltaire was credited* with once saying, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is what the First Amendment should embody. 

Second, Chait's article, the examples he raises within it, and the backlash he's received from the posting have nothing to do with free speech as you and I understand it. Our right to free speech is a contract between ourselves and our government, as it should be. In exchange for freely allowing us to speak our minds, the government is asking us to frame that speech with moderation, respect and tolerance; in other words, to self-govern. Self-government goes directly to the heart of the nation. 

Even John Stuart Mill agreed that free will is fine, in moderation. He deplored the act of imposing your will on someone else. The famous example he raised was doing harm to yourself, which is fine, so long as you harm no one around you -- including harm by omission, such as the case of not saving a drowning child, or failing to pay your taxes. (This is why -- despite the fact that #JeSuisCharlie -- I have a problem with Charlie Hebdo, but I digress.) 

Mill even goes so far as to postulate that a nation of barbarians does not deserve freedom, that despotism may be the only legitimate form of governance for a people like that. 

In short, Mill argues that every freedom comes with a responsibility: the greater the freedom, the greater the responsibility. To speech in particular, Mill points out that it needs to be unfettered, because even in the most objectionable idea lies a kernel of truth. 

It may not be the kernel of truth that the speaker intends, to be sure, but there is a truth in every viewpoint. For instance, if I say "I hate Brussels sprouts," the truth may not be that Brussels sprouts are horrible disgusting vile things that make me retch, but that I've never had them properly prepared. You can extrapolate from there the kinds of free speech that can come up and what truths they may contain.

Note then that this comes under the banner of responsibility. The individual speaking his mind needs to keep in his thoughts that he is addressing people who may not agree with him, and so needs to exercise some self-governance. For instance, instead of saying "I hate Brussels sprouts," I could say, "I dislike..." or "They leave a bad taste in my mouth." The speaker, keeping in mind he may cause damage to someone, needs to be circumspect in his words.

Here's the tricky part: in a "polite society," there is also a responsibility on the part of the listener to something objectionable, and here's where Chait is onto something. 

Since every opinion contains a kernel of truth and therefore has equal right to be spoken, every opinion has to be weighed on its merits and sifted through for the truth it contains. This implies a duty on behalf of the listener to stop, breathe, and think. To ask questions. 

If, after that, there is still a vehement disagreement, then it's a difference of opinion. This doe snot mean that one opinion is better than the other, but that truths have been revealed and it's up to us to decide the truths on their merits. 

Let's beat the dead horse of Brussels sprouts: you make the case that they are nutritious, full of fibre and vitamins, and when properly prepared, can be quite tasty (not in my book, that;s for damned sure). I make the case that all that's fine, but if I can't eat them, how will I benefit?

We may not come to an agreement, but society as a while now has a body of evidence upon which to make judgements for the greater good. Perhaps the majority will influence eating habits by encouraging the sale of Brussels sprouts, thus showing me to be the loser in the argument.

It won't change my opinion. Take it one step further: suppose now society decides that anyone who doesn't like Brussels sprouts is to be made to conform? Or, they exercise what Mill called "the tyranny of the majority"? 

Here's where Mill raises an interesting point: it's one thing for a majority to socially suppress an unpopular opinion, but it becomes a real problem when that majority resorts to the laws and government as a strong-arm tactic to suppress an unpopular opinion. 

We're seeing this more and more in America and that scares me a little. How many states have passed laws banning abortion in the wake of Roe v. Wade? Or have tried to codify Creationism into the education curricula? 

It's one thing for university students to petition to ban Bill Maher or Ayaan Hirsi Ali from speaking on campus, it's quite another for a community to ban hoodies

Chait raises the spectre of this in his article, wight he example of Hannah Rosin:
Two and a half years ago, Hanna Rosin, a liberal journalist and longtime friend, wrote a book called The End of Men, which argued that a confluence of social and economic changes left women in a better position going forward than men, who were struggling to adapt to a new postindustrial order. Rosin, a self-identified feminist, has found herself unexpectedly assailed by feminist critics, who found her message of long-term female empowerment complacent and insufficiently concerned with the continuing reality of sexism. One Twitter hashtag, “#RIPpatriarchy,” became a label for critics to lampoon her thesis. Every new continuing demonstration of gender discrimination — a survey showing Americans still prefer male bosses; a person noticing a man on the subway occupying a seat and a half — would be tweeted out along with a mocking #RIPpatriarchy.
Her response since then has been to avoid committing a provocation, especially on Twitter. “If you tweet something straight­forwardly feminist, you immediately get a wave of love and favorites, but if you tweet something in a cranky feminist mode then the opposite happens,” she told me. “The price is too high; you feel like there might be banishment waiting for you.” Social media, where swarms of jeering critics can materialize in an instant, paradoxically creates this feeling of isolation. “You do immediately get the sense that it’s one against millions, even though it’s not.” Subjects of these massed attacks often describe an impulse to withdraw.
It is kind of brutal that a mass of dissenters descended on Rosin and effectively silenced her. Goodness knows, there have been plenty of times I've risked friendships for my feelings and opinions, no matter how carefully and sensitively I've phrased and expressed them, and I confess a certain clumsiness in both those arenas when faced with ignorance. 

And Amanda Marcotte's article (linked to above) points out that, indeed, there is a need on the left for a vigorous debate on unpopular opinions and not an immediate silencing and, more important, censoring of dissenters. 

It is easy to claim the mantle of victim when you read or hear something that offends you. I say I support Israel, but that Netanyahu is the wrong man for her leader, and suddenly I'm pro-Palestinian. Rather than judge the merits of that statement, people will read what they want to into it (that statement is an accurate reflection of my feelings, I should note), ignoring the fact that Netanyahu may have annoyed me for other reasons, like his attempt to grandstand in Congress this year or his signal disapproval of our President and his encouragement of conservatives' attempts to degrade and debase President Obama. 

All I'm saying is to keep a civil tongue and a civil ear. And to listen, really hard, for the whistle in the wind. 

* it was actually Evelyn Beatrice Hall, which is why you never see this rendered in French.

(crossposted to Simply Left Behind)

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