Rounder Records 45th Anniversary Free Download

45TH Anniversary Edition
Rounder Records
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Call Rounder Records "the little label that could and did." To celebrate its 45th year in business, Rounder is offering a free 14-track download. Call it a mere sampling of its back catalog. Begun by Ken Irwin, Bill Nowlin, and Marian Leighton-Levy in 1970 when all three were still in college, Rounder grew from its modest Cambridge, MA roots to a company with more than 3,000 releases that span genres from blues and bluegrass to Celtic, rock, and zydeco.

While some of us still harbor a grudge over its move from Cambridge to Nashville, there's no getting around the quality of the music it continues to crank out. Rounder's first breakthrough came with a release from George Thorogood and the Destroyers, and the anniversary collection offers the legendary rocker's hard-driving electric blues "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer." The label's biggest coup, though, was signing Alison Kraus when she was an unknown. Ms. Kraus has been fiercely loyal ever since. She's the only artist with two tracks on the anthology: "Paper Airplane," which is as fragile as its namesake; and "Rich Woman," a muscular collaboration with Led Zep's Robert Plant that is like Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra on steroids (and a lot more talent).

If you like music on the soft side, in addition to Kraus there is "Once in a Very Blue Moon," a very sweet love song from the exceedingly sweet and lovely Nanci Griffith. Also surprisingly light is the smooth New Orleans soul of Buckwheat Zydeco on "Ya Ya." If you want something chewier, try "Frosty" by Clarence Gatemouth Brown with its blaring horns, funky bass, rolling organ, and crystalline guitar licks.  Or maybe some 21st century rock with a 1970s feel from Blackberry Smoke ("Old Time Rock and Roll"), a skiffle-like offering from J D McPherson ("North Side Gal"), or some small-combo-throwback music from Pokey LaFarge ("Something in the Water").

To the degree that Rounder has ever 'specialized,' it's been a launching pad for innovative bluegrass. You'll hear classic tracks from Earls of Leicester, J D Crowe, Norman Blake, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. Rounder continues to reseed bluegrass, as you will hear on "Radio," a no-twang, fiddle-driven song from Steep Canyon Rangers. Its tight harmonies, complex melding of instruments, and edge is bluegrass for people who hate formula. Also check out "Love Has Come for You." The banjo player is Steve Martin and you've not gotten the word, funny man Steve is dead serious about the banjo. The only thing better than his crisp licks are the vocals of Edie Brickell, who possesses a voice for the ages.

Happy birthday, Rounder. You can come home any time!

Rob Weir


Lake Wobegone at a Stadium Near You

It’s official: mediocrity rules. It’s been creeping up on us for quite some time. First it was the movies. The simple thumbs up/thumbs down of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave way to a movie report card in flash trash publications like USA Today and Entertainment Weekly (which, by the way, fired serious reviewers to make way for “hipper” ones—read, those who are studio PR flaks). You all know what it means when a film gets a B-. It means the script was written by a chimpanzee.

Then it came to public schools. Competency testing means teaching to a specific test—no thinking required. Not that any of that matters to helicopter parents who know that Little Susie is a genius—even if they have to take her to a psychologist to discover a hitherto unknown learning disability to explain why she only got a C in math or why she had to drop Spanish. The same parents love their local schools, though they also believe American education is in crisis and that other schools are horrendous. Memo: Even the parents of kids in terrible schools rate their schools highly. They would have graded their school within an A instead of a B, were it not for the 11 assaults and 9 drug busts last semester. 

Now Magical Thinking has come to colleges. Profs are often blamed for “grade inflation,” but I accuse Garrison Keillor and football. Recall Keillor’s ending tag line about his fictional town of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota: “where all the children are above average.” That’s a problem. Somehow or other we’ve come to think that average is the same as failure. But Groucho Marx might be a better guide to what’s happening in colleges these days. 

In the 1932 film Horse Feathers Groucho is Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who has just become the president of Huxley College. He tells his stunned faculty, “Huxley doesn’t have enough money for both a college and football, so tomorrow we start tearing down the college and building a stadium.” When asked where the students will sleep he quips, “In the classrooms, where they always sleep.” Funny stuff, but also painfully prescient. In 40 of our 50 states, the highest paid public employee is either a football or basketball coach. That’s not quite true here in Massachusetts, but almost. The UMass basketball coach makes nearly a million and the football coach nearly half a million, the latter despite the fact that more students will come out for a Fruit Loops giveaway than would ever attend a football game.

College football sets society’s bar for successful mediocrity. Check out this year’s bowl game lineups. Silly me—I thought going to a bowl was a reward for a great season, but I was wrong. Bet you can’t wait for this year’s Independence Bowl, which pits  Virginia Tech against Tulsa. Both were 6-6 this year. My calculator tells me that 6-6 is 50%, which is an F. In all, eight of the teams competing in this year’s bowl games won just half of their games. Here’s your Hall of Shame list: VA Tech, Tulsa, Connecticut, Indiana, Auburn, Kansas State, Washington, and West Virginia.  Even if they win, 7-6 is 54%, which is still an F.  This brings me to the eight teams going to bowl games with 7-5 records (Duke, Central Michigan, California, Colorado State, Texas Tech, Louisville, Penn State). That’s 58%, which is also an F, though if they win they’ll edge up to 62%, a gentleman’s D.  It gets worse. Nebraska and Minnesota are bowl-bound despite 5-7 records. That gets rounded up to 42% and I can assure you that no student of mine gets a pass with a 42! 

Even the 8-4 teams are D+/C- territory. Sure, I know that the NCAA and helmet-headed fans will tell me that a .670 winning percentage has to measured against “strength of schedule.” That’s how they justify Minnesota and Nebraska going to bowls and it’s certainly the rationale behind 8-4 teams. Poppycock, I say. It’s Lake Woebegone logic. What? We give out bowl bids to teams that tried really hard? Should we give them gold stars and lollipops while we’re at it?

Shouldn’t you have to have at least a B to go to a bowl game? That means 10-2 as a minimum. If that means we’re denied watching Central Michigan (7-5) take on Minnesota (5-7) in Detroit’s Quick Loan Bowl (or is it the Quick Lame Bowl?), so be it. In my youth, the Liberty Bowl was a sop given to two really good teams that weren’t quite up to a Cotton, Rose, Sugar, or Rose Bowl bid. This year’s Liberty Bowl pits Kansas State (6-6) versus Arkansas (7-5). Whoopie! Any readers contemplating a trip to Yankee Stadium the day after Christmas to see mighty Indiana (6-6) take on Duke (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl?

When your kid comes home from college with a 2.0 GPA just remember, 50% is the new C. Blame football.


End ot the Tour: The Genius as Tortured Artist

Directed by James Ponsoldt
A24 Films, 106 minutes, R (for language)
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What do we do about Kurt Cobain Disease—that dreaded malady that rears its head when society anoints a new celebrity who’d rather be dead than accept such an accolade? The End of the Tour probes turns its gaze to writer David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 novel Infinite Jest made him into the literary equivalent of a rock star. Wallace was declared a “genius” and a flesh-and-blood avatar of the postmodern novel. Was he? Confession time: I never made it through Infinite Jest, a 1,079-page dystopian tome (with footnotes) that’s (sort of) about a tennis academy, depression, obsession, substance abuse, and mass culture without really being about any of those things per se. Wallace resisted the genius label, but does it really matter what any one of us thinks? I recall Paul Simon’s line in “The Boy in the Bubble”: It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts/Medicine is magical and magical is art.”

The End of the Tour follows Wallace (Jason Segel) from his home in Bloomington, Indiana—he was an English/writing professor at the University of Indiana—to Minneapolis/St. Paul, the last stops on the Infinite Jest promo trail. His companion was New York-based Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), an erstwhile fiction scribbler in his own right, who wheedled permission to shadow Wallace on the tour. Lipsky, whose memoir is the basis for the script, approaches Wallace through a combination of New York arrogance and envy. He can’t imagine that such a genius can be holed up in a backwater like Bloomington (apparently unaware that the university has over 40,000 students). In his heart of hearts, though, he’d like to be Wallace. Or at least the Wallace he imagines before he arrives in the frozen winter prairie and encounters a person who confounds his expectations.

Wallace, as it turns out, is much better at relating to his dogs than other human beings. He can converse on everything, but takes nothing all that seriously—least of all himself. He is amazingly lucid and profound one moment, distracted and disinterested the next. As Lipsky tries to pry open Wallace’s soul, he keeps running into walls. It’s not that Wallace is secretive—more that he finds himself a dull subject, and absolutely nothing bores him more than the legends gathering around himself. His past mirrors the randomness of his present: a nondescript ranch house haphazardly furnished/maintained and odorized by dog pee, a stubbly face and long hair framed by an ever-present bandanna, and a Zen-like explanation that all of it simply is and has no deeper significance. In psychological terms, Wallace occupies the recluse end of the sociopath scale. This  makes him a hard read for Lipsky, who is a piece of work in his own right—obsessed, envious, ambitious, vain, and trending toward amorality.

At its best moments, The End of the Tour is a pas de deux between two individuals whose natural proclivities would hurl them in different directions. Jason Segel is very good as Wallace, and there are nice cameo roles for (the always delightful) Joan Cusak and Mamie Gummer. Eisenberg plays Lipsky in a manner that makes him very hard to like. I suppose we can see him as a dogged reporter, but he comes off more as a stalker/creep.

So be it. It’s much harder, though, to overlook some of the film’s sugarcoating. Its most honest moments come when Wallace grows annoyed with attempts to put any reading on his flaws other than the fact that he has struggled through periods of deep depression. It stretches the record, though, when the script has him admit to no addiction other than to television. There is also an overall patina of Wallace as Misunderstood Genius, the likes of which he himself rejected. He wasn’t just misunderstood; the man was damaged goods. We’re talking substance addiction, electro shock therapy, sleep-with-your-students, stalk women, impulsive violence, hang-yourself-at-age-46 damaged. Was he also a genius? Perhaps. That is an externally conferred status, something whose workings both Wallace and Cobain tragically misunderstood.

Rob Weir