Monday, March 31, 2008

Kathleen and the Anti-Mapplethorpe

Until The Swans' Burning World came out in 1989, I only associated Robert Mapplethorpe with gay and sadomasochistic imagery, not with the astonishing floral still-life portraits featuring orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers. When Kathleen Edwards' Asking for Flowers was released a few weeks ago, I discovered the dying-flower Flora series of Angelina McCormick, several examples of which graced the liner notes. Learning more about McCormick, I became fixated on the idea she was the anti-Mapplethorpe. Her work also fit Kathleen's third album perfectly.

Kathleen Edwards often gets lumped in with her Canadian singer-songwriter cohort Sarah Harmer, due to a similarity of styles - but Sarah is more like the maritime provinces, while Kathleen seems more at home in an Alberta-Saskatchewan frame of mind, even if she is an easterner. The dead flowers capture the mood of the album perfectly - Kathleen adopts a near-Victorian pose in the pictures, but songs like "Sure as Shit" and "I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory," delivered with a touch of Neil Young/Crazy Horse electric style, seem as bitter a depiction of Victorian sensibility as Leonard Cohen's "Queen Victoria" - hence the dead flowers.
McCormick may not be my absolute favorite photographer, and Edwards may not have produced the best album of 2008 so far, but the mood of bitter dying beauty fits the year perfectly.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Denver, Democrats Unite to Insure Convention Ugliness

The Democratic Convention in Denver this summer already was shaping up to be an ugly affair, what with the DNC canceling the hotel reservations of Michigan and Florida delegates as a means of "punishment."

Now, the city of Denver is working overtime with Democrats to deny a protest group, Recreate '68, any rights. A lottery for the use of parks, held on March 18, was so rigged it had to be stopped. And on March 20, the city "awarded" the Democrats the use of Civic Center Park over several civil groups. Organizers of Recreate '68 said they will protest at the convention site even if police confrontation is guaranteed. Even though Mayor Hickenlooper said he is liberal, he's beginning to look more like Richard Daley Sr. every day. And even though I'll probably vote for the Democratic candidate that wins, the party convention is shaping up to be a shameful affair.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Record Labels: Shut Up. You Are Passive Distributors.

Lou Reed was belaboring the obvious in his South by Southwest keynote speech, when he told the audience that there was no reason for any budding musician to sign with a major label. Not only does Internet distribution cancel any good purpose labels might serve, Reed said, but they often stand in the way of effective marketing or visibility.

Case in point, Nashville teen-punk band Be Your Own Pet. The band lamented that Universal forced them to take three songs off the just-released second album, Get Awkward. So big deal, they'll release the songs as an EP. Universal execs whined that they were violent or uncomfortable, and chances are I might not have liked them, but that's for the listener to decide, right?

One of the reasons labels join the despicable RIAA is that they're uncomfortable with the notion of being passive distributors of an artist's work, with no say-so in shaping the artist's direction -- or serving as censor, for that matter. But a terminal patient does not get to choose mode of survival. When broadband communications debuted a few years ago, large telephone and cable companies said they didn't like the notion of serving as commodity bit-pumps. Analysts told them they'd better be quick in moving to value-added services. Censorship or control over the bit-pipe was not an option, as Congress told Comcast recently. Content shapers like music labels and film/video production companies are in the same boat. They will end up being commodity distributors unless they figure out useful ways to help artists and consumers alike. Maybe Be Your Own Pet was naive and dumb to let Universal determine content, but Universal was about two decades too late in even attempting such a thing. As Lou Reed said, it would be better for everyone if music labels simply died. In the meantime, they'd better just shut up and get out of the way, and realize they have little practical function in life except aiding distribution of content.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Craig Tappan, 1957-2008

The image of course, is not Craig but Sean Penn - it always seemed as though Craig Tappan bore a resemblance to Sean Penn playing Andrew Daulton Lee in The Falcon and the Snowman, or maybe to Lee himself. But Craig never stole satellite secrets or made movies or did anything stellar besides race motorcycles and enjoy getting high.

Craig was one of a cloister of friends who graduated high school in 1975 and met bizarre ends - such as being blown to bits by the Taliban, being murdered with scissors while in a wheelchair, committing suicide in an ex's driveway. In Craig's case, he was carrying a motorcycle loose in the back of a van, returning to Indiana after a race in Florida. He missed a stop at an intersection, ran into a sign, and the motorcycle flew into the driver's cab, killing him instantly. These days, even a cinema-style death doesn't get you much recognition. But it gets you a space in an old friend's blog, who realizes he misses the goofy Mr. T. saying "Wirbel Pa-Chirbel!" in exasperated fashion.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bulletin's Slow Decline

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has been a sane voice for nuclear disarmament, rational national-security policy, and multilateral security missions for more than 60 years. It's the home of the famous "Doomsday Clock," indicating the number of minutes the human race has until the dreaded midnight.

Unfortunately, public-policy publications face the same kind of problem as the daily press and the business media - no advertising, declining print readership, and a difficult transition from print to web. Through most of this decade, The Bulletin did a good job of balancing web and print, providing useful content geared to both environments.

The magazine's print edition took an unannounced hiatus in Jan/Feb of 2008, and when it came back, the redesigned print edition was, to put it bluntly, overpriced and tedious. It looks as though the editorial board decided to put all good content and interesting graphics online, while preserving an archived bimonthly print edition for dumping gray-space essays with few pictures and lots of turgid prose. This might be the way a lot of publishing companies get rid of printed editions - not with a bang, but with a whimper, making the remaining archived print editions a dumping ground for items not wanted online. Maybe it's a necessary step in the demise of print, and will lead to a future that is safer for trees. But it's sad to see a great public resource like the Bulletin be squeezed out of relevance by the pressures of financial underwriting of print, and the ubiquitous march of all useful content to the web.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Good Money After Bad

Ben Bernanke seemed to violate the first rule of bad-example debtors when the Federal Reserve announced March 11 it would create a $200 billion fund for the banks and securities institutions who found themselves in liquidity crises for doing very stupid things with other people's money. But before I worked up my sense of moral outrage, I wondered if maybe there were bad credit-card purchases for which I could seek forgiveness by taking out a small loan from the Fed. Oh sure, dumb music and over-hyped vacations, but nothing compared to a Countrywide Financial Corp. ski trip to Colorado.

But wait a minute, there are certainly formerly squeaky-clean state governors who could use some help! And Eliot Spitzer already has a working relationship with Bernanke for all the corporate crime he's fought! C'mon, Ben, don't trips to the Emperor's Club deserve some liquidity forgiveness? Eliot sure looks like he could use a break.