Too Absorbed for My Own Good

This morning Phoenix opened a magazine and there was an insert with a single sheet of a Viva paper towel. The accompanying advertisement promised that though Viva we would “Savor all that Life Has to Offer.” As you can imagine, we were excited beyond words. And that was the problem!

Phoenix carefully placed the genie-like scrap on the kitchen counter. Our minds began to race. What was it that we had not been experiencing in our lives that was within Viva’s power to grant? Sudden fame? Untold wealth? A self-cleaning house? Unspeakable sensual pleasure? The security of knowing that no tartar was building up on our cat’s teeth? I think I’m also speaking for Phoenix when I say that Viva’s promise was a special family moment for us. Just to think that all of human experience would suddenly be ours to savor….

Alas, the weight of unlimited bliss proved overwhelming. The toast popped up, I buttered it, and brought it to the counter. I grabbed the honey jar, which was sticky, and left a ring on the counter. Without a thought I grabbed the Viva talisman, wiped up the honey, and placed the sticky jar atop it. In a single thoughtless instant I broke the spell. When I lifted the jar, the Viva towel proved unable to grant a task as simple as telling me where I left my car keys—the path to savoring all of life was considerably beyond its means.

So now I sit at my computer and blog, my mind troubled by what I have lost. I could be lying on a Tahitian beach with naked and nubile women fanning me with palm fronds. Instead I’m in my study pondering deep questions such as “Who are the morons who write ad copy drivel?”--LV


Pale Imperfect Diamond

Cedar Hill Records

Every now and again something comes in the mail that absolutely astonishes. Put Past Imperfect Diamond in that category. To be frank, I originally slid this one to the bottom of the review pile when I noted it was a “bluegrass” release. Although I’m heartened by new bands such as Crooked Still, Railroad Earth, and Blue Moose, most bluegrass music is fairly predictable and the last great innovation in the genre—jazz fusion—was three decades ago.

Okay, I’m humbled! Make way for the next wave. This brilliant album is the brainchild of Jack Clift, who was inspired by listening to Uzbek music. He talked over the idea with John Carter Cash (son of Johnny and June) and they assembled Jadoo, an American-Uzbek bluegrass ensemble. No, that’s not a typo! They then enlisted some bluegrass heavyweights such as Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, John Cowan, Randy Scruggs, and the Peasall Sisters, got everyone together, and let the music happen. For those of you who don’t know Uzbek music—and that would just about everyone—it’s hard to describe: part Balkan, part Southern Asian, and part Central Asian. But it blends with American bluegrass in surprising ways.

“Whitehouse Blues,” an old-time reflection on the assassination of President McKinley, is shot through (sorry!) with wild cross rhythms and keening strings, and I doubt you’ll even recognize “Sailaway Ladies,” which is (sort of) what you’d get if you mixed the germ of a bluegrass tune with Tuvan-like throat singing. Check out “Keys to the Kingdom” with Ralph Stanley wrenching pathos from his dry-as-dust voice while kettle drums, drones, and a brass section lay down funereal tones. There are weird, wonderful departures throughout, like the radical remake instrumental part to “Wildwood Flower.” For sheer jarring departures there’s a version of “Oh, Bury Me Not” that’s what you’d get if you had the Beijing Opera lay down the soundtrack to a Bollywood film on the streets of San Antonio. Topping off the innovation are some fine new songs from Clift and Cash, including the title track. My only complaint about the project is the inclusion of The Peasall Sisters, but that’s a personal grudge—I simply don’t like their Alvin and the Chipmunks vocal style. This album’s namesake diamond may be imperfect, but it’s a valued gem nonetheless.

To hear Clift and Carter discuss this project, click here. Audio clips play in the background.



In 1906, satirist Ambrose Bierce defined a hypocrite as “One who, professing virtues that he does not respect, secures the advantage of seeming to be what he despises.” Amen, Brother Bierce. As a resident of Massachusetts I have a terse message to tax rebels, anti-government wing-nuts, and health reform opponents: “If you hate government programs so much, get rid of them because we in the Bay State are tired of supporting you freeloaders.”

The hue and cry about government programs is loudest and shrillest in those states that benefit the most from taxes. As a Massachusetts resident I get just 82 cents back in federal programs and benefits for every buck I pay. If I lived in Sarah Palin’s la-la land of Alaska I’d get $1.84. Enough with the sanctimonious put-downs of “tax-and-spend liberals;” if you want to see a real bunch of piggies eating at the public trough check out conservative states—the ones led by demagogues who say they don’t want federal bailout money or a national health care plan. When South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford isn’t too busy jetting off to be with his Argentine mistress he pockets surplus federal monies for his state by a ratio of $1.35 for each buck paid in. You’ll also be happy to know that Senator Jeff Sessions manages to take time out from his busy schedule of bashing Supreme Court nominees to rake in $1.65 for the profligate sons and daughters of Alabama.

If we divide the nation into receiver and giver states—depending upon whether they take in more than they pay out in per capita federal taxes—the hypocrisy of anti-government jeremiads becomes strikingly obvious. Of the twenty-two states that went for McCain/Palin, twenty-one of them are receiver states, including seven of the top ten. Only Texans (94¢) have any legitimate complaint about federal largess. In fact, just seventeen states support the wayward habits of the other thirty-three. New York (78¢) and Connecticut (69 cents) pick up a lot of the tab, and New Jersey has the distinction of getting the least bang for their tax buck (61¢).

The United States is a lot like professional sports in that the revenues of the rich—mostly liberal—states support the very people who complain the most about federal programs and taxes. The tax rebels that ought to make hypocrites quake are fed-up liberals. California (78¢) is mired in crisis and Michigan (92¢) is a basket case. What if those two states said they were through subsidizing Mississippi ($2.02) and Louisiana ($1.78)? Conservatives love to evoke Darwinian survival of the fittest (politely packaged as “self-reliance”) when it suits them, so maybe liberals ought to tell Oklahomans ($1.36), North Dakotans ($1.68), and Kentuckians ($1.51) to suck it up and take care of themselves. And can’t Wal-Mart underwrite Arkansas so that it doesn’t dun Massachusetts tax-payers for $1.41?

Sure, there are some “liberal” receiver states as well, but only New Mexico, Virginia, Hawaii, Maine, and Maryland are more than a dime over a 1:1 payout. I’m sure that each of those states would be happy to take bailout money left on the plate by Arizonans, Missourians, and West Virginians. So let’s do it. Let’s tell anti-government states we’re closing their military bases, transfering defense contracts, phasing out government jobs, pulling the plug on highway construction, and are done foisting uppn them welfare, Social Security, Medicare, FDIC, housing subsidies, and other “wasteful” programs they don't want. They can keep their tax money. The liberal states will absorb all of those unwanted federal job burdens, retain their tax-and-spend policies, and even implement federal health care if they want it.

Presumably everyone would be happy. Right? It's time to dump conservative hypocrites off the backs of Massachusetts tax payers.
Want to know your state’s tax benefits? Click here.



Mesdames et Messieurs!
Borealis 194

There are very few genres as infectiously joyous as Québeçois music. In fact, it’s so full of joie de vivre that studio recordings can make the tunes sound oddly antiseptic. So what better way to hear one of Québec’s finest, Le Vent du Nord, than live? Mesdames et Messieurs! is a baker’s dozen that’s mostly culled from previous releases, but even if you own the backlist you’ll probably prefer the concert spontaneity and energy to the polished studio work. It also incorporates guest musicians and former band members to make an already heady mix even richer. This 2008 performance was sponsored by Radio-Canada as a tribute to the late Denis Fréchette, one of the mainstays of La Bottine Souriante and an old friend of Le Vent du Nord. La Bottine changed the way the world thought of Québeçois music, mixing it with jazz, a brass rhythm section, and anything else that caught its fancy.

Le Vent du Nord doesn’t stretch boundaries the way Fréchette did, but this isn’t a band your Québeçois grand pére would recognize either. It’s often dance music, to be sure, but done with sophistication that’s miles beyond what is necessary merely to set feet in motion. “L’heure bleu” opens to Nicolas Boulerice’s tinkling piano that gives us a few contemplative minutes before Réjean Brunet’s accordion and Oliver Demers’s fiddle burst in, and everything gets jiggy. By the time the set finishes it has the clopping force of a dancing horse. It’s a technique they repeat on “Les amants du Saint-Laurent,” and one of several pieces whose mood shifts dramatically. Check out “La veillée chez Poirier,” which could be the soundtrack for a caper film if it weren’t for its sexy accordion bridge. Each member of the quartet—which also includes guitarist Simon Beaudry—is a fine singer in his own right, so when they harmonize, magic happens. “Cré mardi” is a tongue-twisting zipper song with a mummers’ feel to it; “Vive l’amour” is lusty and loud, full of yips, exhortations, and yelps; and “Le bon buveur” is a clinic on how to mesh voices. This CD will have you smiling from start to finish and if your foot stops tapping at any moment, reach for the defibrillator.--LV
Alas, most Le Vent du Nord YouTube offerings are terrible in quality. Here's a promo that's probably the best of the lot, though it's a studio recording of "Vive l'amour."