Planet Solitaire
Redstone Records

The latest project from guitar wizard Walter Strauss is a six-track EP that mines global music for inspiration. Two tracks, “Djimbaseh” and “Djeli,” are Western African tunes. The first was penned by kora master Mamadou Diabate and Strauss does a fantastic job of rearranging it for guitar by using resonate bass notes as contrast to ringing harmonics and cascading sharp notes. The second tune is Guinean, but it has passages that sound Bahamian. In keeping with his penchant for mixing global cocktails Strauss wrote “Ishi,” to honor the last survivor of California’s Yahi tribe. The tune is a triple decker sandwich with African rhythms containing dreamy passages. An even more remarkable exploration is Strauss’s reworking of the George Harrison Anglo/Indian composition “Within You Without You.” Strauss doesn’t deconstruct the piece so much as smash it and reassemble selected slices of it. Strauss is also a competent singer, though neither of the songs—“Weather Rule” and “Blessed Sunday”—dazzle. There’s nothing wrong with either, but Strauss is as conservative vocally as he is bold instrumentally. His tendency to mirror guitar and vocal melodies note for note makes the songs seem plodding. Let me be the first to encourage him to stretch his vocal limits as well.



Hard Times

Tayberry Records 7001

The Celtic Tenors—Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson, and Daryl Simpson—label themselves “classical crossover artists.” Insofar as I can tell, most who use the term mean it as a vaguely insulting way, as if forays into pop and folk music are frothy breaks from more ‘serious’ music. That would explain why most of these projects, including this one, are horrifyingly awful. Let’s start with the musical and ethical inappropriateness of performing misery with upbeat polished harmonies and stage theatrics. Now ask what the hell songs such as Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” Dillon O’Brian’s “Fearless Love,” or Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” have to do with the hard times theme in the first place. The Celtic Tenors are the latest darlings of the PBS haute bourgeoisie crowd. I’m willing to cut a deal; if PBS stops presenting music it doesn’t understand, I won’t put on a Big Bird costume and film remakes of Sesame Street.


Wrasse Records 238

I don’t know much about Serbian music but if Goran Bregović is typical (and I suspect he’s not!), it’s mutt music extraordinaire. He calls his ensemble the Wedding and Funeral Band, but there’s not a note on this album that would give melancholic pause. The blaring brass and gritty vocals of the opening track, “Yeremia,” are a cross between a street parade and a drunken riot! And that is the point of the album. Bregović intends this music to be taken in two draughts; the first is a tribute to Sljivovica, fiery plum brandy that is Serbia’s national beverage. In that spirit the tunes get progressively wilder. By the time we get to “For Esma,” it’s a meandering mess, as if everyone in the band is three sheets to the wind. Overall this project is a ragout of many ingredients: pieces that sound like rembétika-meets-mariachi (“Paradehtika”), those featuring lusty Balkan choral singing (“Venzinatiko”), some rock riff seasoning (“On the Backseat of My Car”), a bit of flamenco influence (“Gas Gas Gas”), and camp worthy of The Village People (“Streets are Drunk”).
The second draught is supposed to be Champagne and though the band is tighter and the klezmer and gypsy jazz influences are clearer, these pieces are considerably rougher than one would associate with a glass of bubbly. Even a composition such as “Na’tan Ixara Oikopedo,” which opens with soulful sax, soon segues to bright tones and loud crescendos. Listening to this album is a bit like being intoxicated—you wouldn’t want to imbibe heavily on a daily basis, but every now and again it’s fun to get shit-faced and silly.--LV



Parsley--an easy plant to grow!

I sort of like John McCain, even though I’m not a fan of his politics. But Big Bad John did the country a huge disservice by plucking Sarah Palin from Alaskan obscurity and foisting her upon the nation at large. Her recent bizarre act—resigning her governorship just two and a half years into the only important elected office she’s ever held—once again raises the distressing possibility that one of the biggest nitwits of our time could actually become president of the United States.

Too many liberals have interpreted Palin’s resignation as political suicide and are smugly secure in the belief that she couldn’t possibly be taken seriously in the future after her bungling performance as McCain’s running mate, revelations over her dysfunctional family life, Tina Fey’s spot-on Palin lampoons, and walking away from the governor’s chair. I wish that was the case, but it isn’t. It’s true enough that Sarah Palin is a trailer-trash bimbo with less gravitas than any national politician since Dan Quayle, but let me remind everyone that the latter was, for four years, just a heartbeat away from the presidency. And let me also point out that one of the most mediocre minds in American political history, Ronald Reagan, served two terms and was a beloved figure for millions.

The sad fact of contemporary political life is that marketing and impression-management matter more than substance in our American Idol brain-addled nation. In real estate the term “parsley on the pig” refers to using strategic plantings to dress up a problematic property; in politics this is done all the time. Could Sarah Palin be covered in parsley in time for the 2012 election? You betcha. We’ve already the parameters of such a scheme: Palin the maverick, Palin the plainspoken, Palin the woman of faith, Palin the loyal wife, Palin the glamorous…. And let’s not discount Palin the white. She came out of nowhere in 2008 and not even the cleverest image-makers could hide the parsley in just eight weeks. Now they’ve got plenty of time.

The best hope for Sarah Palin’s political demise rests with her own party. Perhaps the Republican National Committee will pull the plug in favor of someone more politically skillful. Don’t bet the farm on that happening. The RNC has a track record of opting for opportunism over the national interest. How else are we to explain other names bandied about for 2012: the lightweight Bobby Jindal; the grossly ambitious Tim Pawlenty; and Mitt Romney, a man oilier than Jiffy Lube?

Palin’s resignation is nothing to celebrate. Be afraid; be very afraid.

Signs of the Times--Scottish Edition

One of the delights of traveling, for me, is noting the ways people in other cultures express themselves.

A simple street name may catch the eye

(in Stomness, Shetland Islands) note how someone has tried to erase the "i" to make it an even better name)

The local lingo makes a familiar sign new again

(Shetland Islands)

Sometimes a sign reveals a location's heritage

(Stromness, Shetland Islands)

Some are punny....

(Kirkwall, Orkney Islands)

But others--usually my favorites--have an inexplicable origin.

(liquor store window, Glasgow, Scotland)