Estranged Stranger

Hello, Stranger
Compass 7-4517-2

Catie Curtis is one of those performers we want to adore. She’s effervescent, personable, and talented. On stage she exudes energy and charm, and few walk away unfulfilled. Alas, a reviewer’s job is to call it like it is, not how we’d like it to be; Hello, Stranger is a sub par effort. There are too many musical genres into which merely Curtis dips her toes rather than immersing herself—more of a producer’s album than one that flatters her.

Curtis has been making records in Nashville for a few years now. There is certainly no faulting the production values of her new album, not when talent such as Alison Brown, Darrell Scott, Kenny Malone, and Mary Gauthier come along for the ride. Problems occur, however, as Curtis drifts further from her folk roots. The title track is an A. P. Carter song and much of the record has a country bluegrass tinge. We are asked to believe that Curtis is a country gal, not a Boston-based artist who cut her teeth on urban folk.alt music. And we’re also supposed to accept the premise that all covers are appropriate and cool. But Curtis simply doesn’t have to chops or the ‘tude to cover an angst-laden Richard Thompson song like “Walking on a Wire.” And, if you’re going to dust off something as familiar as “Passing Through” you need to be robust about it, not merely competent.

The tepidness of Curtis’s bluegrass/country/rock personae become glaringly obvious when contrasted to her own compositions. Instead of the quavering tones that we hear on covers, she is smooth, confident, and emotive. And, yes, she skirts the borders of sentimentality on songs such as “Dad’s Yard,” her homage to her father’s Yankee parsimony and warm heart. But that’s the point. Her best repertoire is a mix of the sweet and slightly bitter, not those that are shopworn or bitter. Curtis is at her best as a folk and folk rock artist, not as an Appalachian avatar. I never thought I’d write these lines about Catie Curtis, but the new album feels contrived.--LV



The new crimson Scottish flag commemorating shamelessness.

Other than the national tourist board, there’s no bigger booster of Scotland on the planet than yours truly, but let’s call it like it is: the decision to release Lockerbie mastermind Abdel Basset Al-Megrahi is a crime against humanity. Scottish first minister Alex Salmond called Al-Megrahi’s release a humanitarian gesture, given that the convict has terminal prostate cancer and less than three months to live. So where’s the humanitarian gesture for the families of the 270 people who died when Al-Megrahi and his gang of terrorists brought down Pan Am flight 103 in 1988? Are we to cry crocodile tears over Al-Megrahi’s impending death? Not me; the planet is better off without him (and every single one of the Libyans who cheered him).

Al-Megrahi served twenty-one year for mass murder. Let’s contrast his treatment with that of Hitler aid Rudolf Hess. Hess—who thought the war against Britain was a mistake—landed in Scotland in 1941, where he hoped to negotiate a peace settlement between Britain and Germany. Instead, Scots handed him over to British government authorities, and he was imprisoned in Wales for the war’s duration. In the post-World War II Nuremberg trials Hess was given a life sentence for “crimes against peace” and “conspiracy” for helping to develop Germany’s war machine. He died in Spandau Prison in 1987 at the age of 93, and was the only inmate at the time of his demise.

Is a former Nazi’s fate analogous to that of Al-Megrahi? Not really; Al-Megrahi is a convicted mass murder and Hess was not! In fact, Hess was found innocent of crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was also repudiated by the Nazis and was stripped of all ranks and honors for his very attempt to end the conflict with Britain. Hess was in many ways a monster, but he was a humanitarian compared to Al-Megrahi. The full futility and stupidity of Scotland’s decision was revealed when Al-Megrahi received a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. It was an appalling display and ought to give pause to any Western nation considering rapprochement with Libya.

Humanitarian gesture? How about this one? Put Al-Megrahi on an unmanned drone, set off a bomb at 30,000 feet, and give him the same chance for compassion as he gave Pan Am 103 passengers. And make sure that Alex Salmond is on the ground when the pieces begin to fall, holding aloft Scotland’s redesign of the St. Andrew’s Cross flag—its blue background replaced by a field of crimson. For shame, Scotland.--LV


Bigfoot. There's more evidence for him than for a bipartisan.
Democrat: n. a spineless mammal that grovels on its stomach and subsists on hope and crumbs distributed by liberals.

Bipartisan: n. a mythical two-faced beast said to face backward and forward simultaneously. In folklore it is depicted as rational and gentle, but scientists have found no evidence that such a species ever existed.

Liberal: n. a harmless mammal known for its ferocious growl, rhetorical flourishes, and bombast. Although its bellow can be fearsome, the liberal poses no threat as it is toothless.

At the time of Barack Obama’s election, optimistic comparisons were made to Abraham Lincoln. Alas, the politician that’s emerging is the next coming of Jimmy Carter. President Obama seems affable enough but, like Carter, he’s too interested in pleasing others and too prone to compromising principles in pursuit of a bipartisanship that only he believes in. Akin also to Carter, Obama shows distressing signs of being a man out of his depth. In fact, he’s acting more like a freshman senator than a president.

Let’s look at the recent record. Facing a hailstorm of criticism from the GOP Right (but I repeat myself), President Obama has retained the seal on interrogation records of terrorist suspects, has backpedaled on gay rights, has compromised on health care reform, and has signaled he may be willing to drop a government option on the latter. Last I looked we were still in Iraq and there are few signs of disengagement, even though the Iraqi government has requested it. There has been no progress on enacting needed business regulation and the bailout plan enriched some of the worst pirates in the financial sector. Unemployment remains high and very little federal money has gone to job creation. Aside from personal style—and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court-- there has been little to distinguish Obama’s presidency from that of his predecessor. Just this week Obama threw his support behind education legislation that emphasizes standardized testing and other aspects of Bush’s deplorable No Child Left Behind bill.

Like Carter (and Bill Clinton), Obama is steadily drifting to the right. (Lest we forget, it was Jimmy Carter who paved the way for Reagan by boosting defense spending, ratcheting Cold War tensions, and taking a moralist stance on social issues.) And, like Carter, Obama’s getting a free ride from liberals. The latter are “upset” with the president, but they bellow from the sidelines in the foolish belief that Obama is their only hope. What they don’t do is mobilize and hold his feet to the flames. The specter of raving loonies such as Sarah Palin has liberals so scared that they’d rather wring their hands in despair and blame Republicans for failures that ought to be laid at Obama’s door.

Nonsense! The Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority in both houses and the power to enact whatever legislation they wish. The Democrats are not leading, they are merely using the GOP as a bogeyman the way Republicans used to speak of communists during the Cold War. But they’ve little incentive to ruffle feathers that might cost a few of them their comfy seats as long as liberals are quiescent.

Two things need to happen. First, liberals need to get boisterous and disrespectful. They are the last political animals in the country who still think that reason and goodwill can prevail. They can’t worry about whether opposing a black president is racist. (It’s the ultimate paternalism to support someone merely because he is black!) If Obama and other Democrats can’t get with the program, throw their sorry keisters out of office. Form progressive coalitions and run to their left, like the good folks of Burlington, Vermont do. Stop writing checks to the party and start logging complaints on Congressional and White House Websites. Above all, stop being paralyzed by false fear. If it all comes out the same in the wash, does it really matter if a blue-dog Democrat loses to a Republican? Let a few poseurs fall; it might leave the party in the hands of real Democrats.

As for the latter, we’ve not had a real Democrat in the White House since Lyndon Johnson. President Obama should use the real LBJ as his role model rather than chasing bipartisan myths. Don’t tell me we can’t pass health care reform; LBJ faced the much tougher task of getting the Civil Rights Act passed. How’d he do it? He refused to play nice. He cajoled, threatened, and wielded presidential power like a club. LBJ told Congress he’d sign no bills until he had a civil rights bill to sign. He told them he’d cancel the summer recess, that he would use discretionary spending to punish recalcitrant Congressmen, and that the White House would withhold support for Democrats who defied the president. He even let it be known that he couldn’t “guarantee” that a few skeletons wouldn’t slip out of the Congressional closet.

Like the Right, liberals and the president need to get nasty. Like LBJ, they need to kick ass instead of kissing it. Only then will they find themselves with strong teeth and a spine.


Secrets of the New Explorers

Umami Music

If you only know Glen Phillips from his days with Toad the Wet Sprocket, you’ve missed some big changes. Secrets of the New Explorers has been called a “folk-pop meets psychedelia” release, but comparisons to electronica and a rave dance hall would be more in order. The music reminded me of Snow Patrol in that the melodies don’t jump at you so much as they ooze out of an aural soup. The cover art evokes 1950s outer space film posters, but the music—though ethereal—is more post-NASA than the age of Sputnik. “Solar Flare” is catchy, yet dreamy—as if was recorded in a zero-gravity chamber. It’s also the perfect arrangement for its subject matter: an intergalactic explorer adrift in the unknown. On “The Spirit of Shackleton” Phillips compares space voyage to Antarctic exploration. In a clever bit of arranging he intertwines electronic blips and beeps with drum loops and beats evocative of earth-bound discos. The CD is just six tracks, but it’s enough to carry its beyond-the-atmosphere musical and lyrical themes.

Warning: If you buy this online get it from the artist Website . There are online pirates trying to pass this off as a rare release. It ought to cost you around eight bucks, not thirty-five or more!