Saturday, November 28, 2009

Music to be Remembered from 2009

Now that it's holiday season, if you're anything like me (and a lot of people in my family), you start thinking about what music you'd like to share with family and friends. We tend to play more music in our house. The requests started early with the new Bob Dylan Christmas album. Yes, it is out and is not half-bad to listen to. We are truly an interfaith family -- more about that in postings to come -- and "Christmas from the Heart" is very nice to have on in the background. This is "raspy Bob Dylan" rather than "bardic Bob Dylan" so he tends to do better with the folksier songs than the more spiritual ones. (On the latter, the effect is kind of like that old Saturday Night Live sketch with Frankenstein, Tonto, and Tarzan singing carols.)

One thing that's worth noting is the place that iTunes is starting to occupy in terms of how we share music. This blog is not a shill for Apple by any means, but I think they've been able to do what Napster couldn't -- to really change the way that people buy new music, and share what they already have. It's a great resource for trying out new bands -- witness what their partnershp with Starbucks has done for showcasing new artists -- but we also use it to create mixes to share with people at holidays, birthdays and special occasitions. So thank you, Steve Jobs.

And with that in mind, here are five songs that I heard in 2009 that deeply affected me. I think it says a lot for how, even in a challenging economy, artits have been able to find inspiration in old and new musical traditions, and to create songs that are just wonderful. In no particular order, they are:

U2, "Breathe," from No Line on the Horizon: U2 are my favorite band and I suspect I'll be buying their albums until it's time for them to go into the nursing home. But nearly thirty years after their first record, their 2009 effort is still fresh, literate and passionate. I like this track because the first line alludes to Bloomsday, so what's not to like?

Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone," from Middle Cyclone: I've always had a thing for women who can sing and write, and was knocked off my feet by this Neko Case song which I heard for the first time on a free Starbucks download. The entire album is outstanding, but in this song, about preparing oneself to love someone, Neko is simultaneously keening, mournful, and beautiful.

Two songs from Sound Kapital, a book of photos and an accompanying CD about the Chinese punk rock underground (see my earlier posting about the show by the photographer, Matthew Niederhauser) that I cannot stop listening to. If you pay attention to international economics and finance like I do, you know about how China and the US have a symbiotic relationship -- they purchase our debt, we purchase their goods. Economic development has created a burgeoning consumer class and has arguably raised the standard of living, but not without raising questions, among the young, about the effect of consumerism on society as a whole. That's what drives a lot of these bands. Two of the most affecting songs on the album are:

E-White, "Spring House": I have never heard anything like this before. No lyrics, but a wall of sound that begins with traditional Chinese strings, layering drums, woodwinds, and finally the most ethereal voice.

Ourself Beside Me, "Sunday Girl" Yes, Chinese bands can do incredible alternative-pop music. This is an all-girl band that blends Eastern and Western, America, Carnaby Street London and a bicycle bell. Oh. My. God. I've played it four times in a row in my car. It doesn't hurt that it shares a title with a Blondie song either.

Duffy, "Mercy," from Rockferry: Duffy is a Welsh singer who was inspired to sing by watching Whoopi Goldberg in "Sister Act." I first heard "Mercy in February and was blown away. Retro, without being tinny or sappy. Wow, wow, wow.

So, there are five great songs worth downloading and sharing -- courtesy of acts from Ireland, the US, China and the UK -- a blending of east and west. Enjoy!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Obligatory "Things I'm Thankful For" Post

With the turn of the leaves, the finishing of the turkey dinner and the digestion of receipts from Black Friday, one's thoughts turn (if they haven't already) to thoughts of why we actually celebrate this holiday: to express thanks to whatever Creator or other animating force in which we believe for the blessings we have in our lives.

This has not been the easiest year. I think it's safe to say that everyone in our country, no matter how poor or wealthy, has had to deal with the effects of the Great Recession. Some have lost jobs, some have had difficulty finding one. Many have had to rethink plans for their family's education, or buying a house. Some have had to make sacrificies in the running of their business. Some have had to re-adjust their expectations drastically.

But as I've thought many times as I've looked at my professional or my personal life over the last year, times like this help you realize what you are truly capable of. And I'm grateful for having had that experience. Because as hard as the last year has been, I've developed skills I didn't have before, made amazing new acquaintances and friends, and deepened friendships with those with whom I was already close. As I told a friend yesterday, "here's to a year well lived." So here, in no particular order, are the things I'm thankful for this year:
  • Beautiful children that giggle and tickle.
  • A wife and a marriage that never are fickle.
  • Work that absorbs me and isn't a bore.
  • Family and friendships that I just adore.
And yes, the resemblance of the rhyme scheme to "My Favorite Things" is deliberate.

It's been a very good year. I feel blessed to have a wonderful wife and family, dear friends, and work that keeps me engaged and interested. And one last thing--this was the year that I got into social media, on Facebook, Twitter and this blog. And I'm grateful that in this age, as we've lost our connections to each other as a society in so many ways, that we are finding new tools to help us relate to each other better.

So, good night, and here's to many blessings coming our way between now and next Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Translates Well into Russian and French

I'll likely have a few other thoughts on Thanksgivging over the coming weekend. But it's starting to feel a lot like the holiday already. About two-thirds of the people in my office will be gone tomorrow, people are not returning phone calls for the rest of the week, and one's thoughts are turning to copious amounts of food, football, friends, and family. (How's that for allitereration?)

Two things come to mind. First of all, the Russian translation of Thanksgiving is den' blagodarenie, which does lend some cross-cultural relevance to the fourth Thursday in November. Hence the photo of me in the Soviet officer's cap which I smuggled out of the not-quite independent Russian Federation in 1992. (That, and per the request by a bitchin' expatriate fellow blogger in the UK.)

Secondly, the French translation of Thanksgiving is "le jour de merci donnant," or at least it is according to the late, great columnmist Art Buchwald. He had an uproariously funny Thanksgiving column that ran in the Washington Post for many, many years until recently. In my family we made it a tradition to read it every Thanksgiving morning. Here is the link for you to read avant manger votre dinde.

I'll share what I'm thankful for after the tryptophan kicks in. Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 20, 2009

I Go Roguish

It was only a matter of time before I would write something about Going Rogue, I suppose. Something about wanting to give equal attention to an interesting (if not compelling) figure on the right to complement Dreams from my Father, which I read just after the inauguration. (And which I thought was one of the most compelling books I've ever read--the only one that made me cry.)

So I ordered Sarah Palin's book not because I wanted or expected deep insight into her political philosophy--or because I cared to read her articulate her political philosophy--but because I wanted some knowledge of her character. (Also because I needed to spend four more dollars to get free shipping from Amazon.)

She seems to get more mileage out of being "cute" than most people above the age of five. (The Anamaniacs are insightful on the perils of this type of appeal.) She has a personality as big as the state she calls home -- which may be an enviable quality in a talk-show host or a blogger but isn't necessarily what one looks for in the Leader of the Free World. And she's a distance runner.

I won't be convinced that she's presidential material. But I do have one question that I hope would be answered by this book: Why? What would make a bubbly, athletic woman helping her husband with their business (with three kids) embark all of a sudden on the political journey of Sarah Palin? She presents it as something that unfolded for her, with somewhat divine inspiration, but I don't get the sense of her motivation. Or of her fears. Or her goals. Honestly, I think she's cut from a cloth we've seen before. "Someone we'd like to have a drink with, or to date." But someone who is incapable of the least bit of introspection. Why did she run for governor? And why did she quit with eighteen months left in her term?

There are pictures of her family--mostly of her sons and her younger daughters, and very few of her daughter Bristol who gave her her grandson. It makes one wonder what kind of emotional baggage she's carrying from being on a presidential ticket while her family was challenged in the way it was. And there are moose. And lots of beautiful Alaska scenery.

Much has been made of the factual innacuracies in the book, particularly about her role in the McCain campaign (the clothes, her appearance on Saturday Night Live, etc). Other writers at the Huffington Post and elsewhere have addressed it much better than I can. But from what I've read in Going Rogue, I'm left feeling... not much of anything. I don't disagree with her any less than I did before. I find her strikingly intolerant and inflexible, with a bit of a persecution complex and a fundamental lack of understanding about any worldview except hers. I'm surprised that the first vignette she includes in the book, of her at the Alaska State Fair with her daughter Piper, focuses on the pro-life ad that featured her daughter Piper. So many is painted in political tones. She does see the world in reds and blues--not colors.

So, in the end, I'm left feeling kind of numb. I don't know anything about her that I didn't before.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pictures at an Exhibition of a Headbanger's Ball--in Beijing

One of the things that I love the most about my job is that it lets me indulge my first love, international affairs. I cut my professional and academic teeth studying reforms in post-Soviet Russia. While my musical tastes in college weren't quite the same as they are now, somewhere I still have a tape of late '80s-early '90s pop in Russia and songs by Boris Grebenshikov and Akvarium, two bands that were pretty good for their time but sounded like excellent garage bands. When I was in Moscow in 1992, all the hip guys in the clubs we were in wanted to be MC Hammer, but the closest they could come was Vanilla Ice. (The best memory I have of that time is a line of wannabes striking poses to "Ice Ice Baby.")

So I was excited last night to see "Sound Kapital," a photography show at Govinda Gallery in Washington, DC's Georgetown. Govinda has been around for years--they feature photography documenting rock and roll, and over the years have had exhibits of John Lennon's drawings and amazing photos of Jimi Hendrix and other greats. The photographer is Matthew Niederhauser, a Columbia University graduate who has spent the last two years documenting the alternative/punk music scene in China, especially Beijing.

I love his photos because they remind me a bit of David Bailey's pictures of the '60s, which transport you to a very specific time and place in culture--which in this case is right now, in a country of over a billion people. Niederhauser basically became the house photographer at D-22, one of the major places to hear music in Beijing, in return for free drinks and access to the shows. He posed all the bands in front of a bright red wall in a back room of the club, so all the acts are framed by the same wooden floor, and worn background. But it's a heap of fun to see how diverse they are -- from traditional groups who look like they stepped out of a yurt, to long-legged women in blue jeans that seem to be channeling Debbie Harry, to four guys with mohawks jumping around like fleas. Or like Flea. It's not fair to place them all under the rubric of "punk" -- these are bands with all kinds of different sounds. But they are all underground -- no huge media machine behind them, and taking care not to alienate the government or the companies that press their records, who also don't want to alienate the government.

The companion book to the "Sound Kapital" show includes a CD of 17 of the bands that Niederhauser photographed -- and the music is amazing. The music has rich orchestrations and melodies, thumping drums -- lush vocals (in Chinese and in English). As I listened to it on the way home last night I was reminded at times of Patti Smith, of David Bowie, Blondie, the Clash, Rancid -- pretty much the whole history of what we now call "modern rock," and the sounds of pretty much my entire adult life. But these bands are developing in the crucible of the world's most populous country, lurching headlong into economic development, consumerism and othe elements of our 21st century. Niederhauser says that these kids are going to be all right -- which I agree with. They're funny and passionate, with a true sense of who they are -- and damn good.

iederhauser said last night that a lot of bands don't see music as American, or Chinese, or Brazilian or Russian--but that it's all music. Which is pretty cool when you think about it. These bands have grown up being able to hear music online so their influences are based on something much broader than a mix tape, handed down through multiple generations of fans. It was awfully cool to see a fellow Columbia grad who has truly done good. I hope he keeps up his work -- he's documenting other elements of how China is developing--but I hope he keeps up with the music pictures because they're capturing a rare moment in rock & roll -- when it returns to first principles, and reminds us how raw and passionate (and beautiful) it can be.

"Sound Kapital" is running as part of DC Foto Week -- so definitely try to check it out. On November 14th, Xiao He, one of the artists in the book, will be giving a free show at Govinda. And two of the bands are playing at the Velvet Lounge on Friday night. So if you go to check out either of those, please comment on the blog and let me know how fabulous they are!

Saturday, November 7, 2009


I've been thinking over the last few days of what has happened in the world over the last twenty years and how it's dovetailed with my own life.

November 9, 1989 was a tremendous day--the day the Berlin Wall came down. It was a few weeks before Thanksgiving in my senior year of high school, and we were talking about it nonstop in my European history class with Mrs. Parker. (She liked to say that she had much in common with Queen Elizabeth 1, being a strong woman with red hair.) For me, it was an amazing but not totally unexpected moment. I had spent the previous year in Model UN representing the USSR and Hungary, so I had been following the progress of history in Eastern Europe. I was just a kid, had never been overseas, but the thrill of reading about momentous events in world history as they happened was one that I will never forget. It was a feeling that lasted though the late 90s, when I wrote a thesis on Russian foreign relations and worked on technical assistance programs in the former USSR. (Foreign Policy magazine has a gallery of photos from the year.)

It's hard to believe that it was twenty years ago. There was so much optimism about the future of humanity. Francis Fukuyama wrote about "the end of history." The only sour taste for me was hearing about how Ronald Reagan won the Cold War. He and Margaret Thatcher were did very important things, no doubt--in particular, recognizing Gorbachev as an agent of change and giving him credibility. But I've got to think that Gorbachev and his allies had a lot more to lose if things had happened differently. Gorby, we easily forget, was temporarily toppled by a coup two years later. He's still reviled in his own country for giving away the Soviet empire.

And ten years ago, I had just moved back from New York. The Yankees had just won a world championship under Joe Torre in the old ballyard. I was back in Washington working after finished graduate school, interned for AIG, and interviewed for a job in the World Trade Center. I think often about how, for very different reasons, neither of those edifices exist any more. I'm grateful for those experiences, but have come out of the last decade with a great sense of faith in how things have worked out, and how they will hopefully continue to do so.

I didn't have a cell phone, didn't use e-mail that much--how different things were then. Which is why it's so interesting to me that the Yankees have just won the World Series for the first time in nine years. I will confess that I'm a long-time Yankee fan. My primary allegiance is to the Nationals--I waited 33 years for a hometown team--but have rooted for the Yanks since I was a kid. So it made me very happy to see Derek Jeter and the lot win for the first time in a long time.

So, I think this is one long meditation on "plus qu'il change, plus que c'est le meme chose." I'm continually tickled by the order of things, and count my blessings. I'll hopefully be doing the same thing twenty years from now.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Up a Creigh Without a Paddle

Here in Ole Virginny, our governors cannot succeed themselves. As a result, we (or more like a third of "we," since turnout in these things is so low) will be choosing a new Governor tomorrow. The winner inherits a weak economy but a legacy of eight years of very sound management. (This is where I get a little partisan, but don't worry, I'll skewer both.) So, the Republican, Bob McDonnell, looks like the likely winner. He'll have four years to do for the Commonwealth what his fellow Republicans did for (or "to") the country.

Sadly, the Democratic candidate, Creigh Deeds, has run a disastrous campaign. Whatever best practices were developed by the Obama campaign last year, he didn't learn. (At least he hired Obama's graphic designer to make the T-shirts and signs.) He came through a tough primary where he fought off a challenge from much better-funded candidates, so you would hope he would understand things like messaging. But he tended to focus more on the fact that McDonnell wrote a thesis in which he said that women don't belong in the workplace (which is disturbing indeed)--and didn't do anything to show that he himself was a progressive candidate.

The kicker is that after the 2008 campaigns, when we learned how important it is to use a huge group of supporters to carry a message and a program through every facet of media (print, TV, and all the forms of social media) -- the Deeds campaign hasn't done any of that. In fact, I called the campaign to volunteer, to which they responded with total tone deafness. It took two weeks to get a call back from them, upon which I said that I didn't have time to canvass or work the polls, but could make calls from home. They never got back to me about that, but did invite me to work the polls.

And then there's Deed's Twitter feed. The only content he's provided has detailed what is on his playlist. Now, I'm delighted that I share his taste in music, but I'd much rather that he use his limited time and money to send substantive information through his social media work. Like what policies he would implement, how to volunteer, how to register to vote, and so on. Like his opponent.

And to top it off, when I mentioned this to the campaign worker who called me about volunteering (which I said I wasn't able to do), she said she didn't know much about Twitter or Facebook. And she was younger than I was.

Tomorrow is going to be a disaster for the Democrats, but the Republicans learned very well from last year. It's enough to make me start referring to the Democratic party without the "ic."

So, we'll have divided government again in Virginia. Jody Wagner looks like she's in a good spot, we have two Democratic senators, and the balance doesn't look to change significantly in the legislature in Richmond. But it's a shame, if you're a Democrat.

Anyway, it's time for me to go get the evening underway, and to watch the Yankees try to claim their 27th world championship. (I used to hang out around here, years ago.)