Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Rugby World Cup is Underway

I've written a somewhat lengthy post over at the Foreign Policy Association Blogs about the early days of the IRB Rugby World Cup which is underway in New Zealand. In keeping with my work at the FPA, the focus of my piece is predominantly on the two African teams, Namibia and South Africa, with particular focus on the latter. And in keeping with the history and politics of sport and especially rugby in that country, I talk a bit about the issue of race and transformation and how that issue will linger for some time even if right now the focus should be on the Springboks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Ten Years On

I was sleeping in my apartment in Falls Church, Virginia when I was awoken by a phone call. It was my ex-girlfriend who had moved out recently enough that the scars were still fresh. A phone call like that is rarely a good sign.

Had I been looking out the window just minutes earlier I might have been able to see the plane heading on its death trajectory toward the Pentagon. I spent the day out at the ex girlfriend's apartment further out on I-66 from my relatively inner suburb. The highway was quiet though there was a lot of talk about whether or not more attacks were to come, talk that would continue for days and weeks and months and years.

It is too easy to say that 9/11 changed everything but it surely changed a lot. And I avoided most of the televised commemorations during the football games today because it seems that in too many quarters bombast has become confused with remembrance and people too often try to play a game of more-maudlin-than-thou, a form of showy commemoration theater that is really about the person doing the showing.

I think about 9/11 sometimes when I hear the Sarah Palins dividing the country along the lines of real Americans and whoever their implied opposite is. New York City, and greater Washington, DC were the targets on 9/11. The east coast. More than 2900 Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom lived their lives in the America that Sarah Palin scorns for ratings, perished on that horrible Tuesday morning. It's useful to say that we were all victims on that day but of course some paid a far greater price than others.

9/11 became politicized as so much has in the past decade or so. I suppose I'm doing so now. President Bush handled those first few days when we were scared and angry and confused as well as anyone could have and there seemed to be a time when a terrible event might have united us as a country for the long run. Politics could have gone on but without quite the edge and without the implication that the person who thinks differently from you is somehow an enemy. That new era of consensus politics never came to pass and if anything things got more poisonous as 9/11 receded into the stuff of commemoration.

We all hope that we never experience an event of that magnitude again. But even as people blurt out or remind us on bumper stickers never to forget we seem to have forgotten much of the essence of what it is that we are not to forget. No one who lived through it will ever forget 9/11 and those who have tried to claim that day for their own agenda tend to be the most convinced that they need to remind us. I just wish we could do a better job of remembering exactly what we are not supposed to forget.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

In Rotation

Thoughts about music I've been listening to of late.

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi Present Rome Starring Jack White and Norah Jones: One of my favorite albums of all time is A Fistful Of Film Music: The Ennio Morricone Anthology (which warrants a slam dunk A+). Morricone is best known for scoring Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, most notably Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" series. That album also has the benefit of receiving the Mrs. Dcat seal of approval for what she calls "sleepytime music," which is to say music we can listen to at night while we sleep, and so we listen to it all the time. This collaboration between the producer Danger Mouse, who is fast achieving the status as a modern legend, and Italian composer, film soundtrack producer, and musician Daniele Luppi intentionally evokes Morricone's body of work with a contemporary spin. Adding Jack White and Norah Jones to the mix is just the cherry on the gelato. Grade: A-

Death Cab For Cutie -- Something About Airplanes and Codes and Keys: DCfC just rereleased Something About Airplanes, their first album, because, well, any band of note re-releases their albums these days, usually with just enough added material to make the upgrade worth making, at least for fetishists of completism like myself. And the re-release is worth it for me if only because it includes an extra batch of live songs from one of their earliest shows -- on at least two occasions they pimp that they are selling a cassette at the show for $3 (which I assume was You Can Play These Songs With Chords, their first ep, later issued on cd). The most amazing element of both the first album and the live show that preceded it is the fact that the essential elements of the Death Cab for Cutie sound are already established. A slight quiver in Ben Gibbard's tenor vocals, shimmery, jangly guitars, rich production that manages nonetheless to reveal a fondness for lo-fi, smart and visually-oriented lyrics that create an atmosphere. Earlier this year, meanwhile, Gibbard and company released Codes and Keys, their latest album. It is excellent, because just about everything Death Cab for Cutie does is excellent. The band is now on Atlantic (they spent the first half of their career on the indie label Barsuk) and have weathered the storm to a major label with no apparent issues. Somewhat quietly Death Cab has entered that realm of great bands that pretty much places them above their label as they clearly bring more to Atlantic than Atlantic offers them. An added biographical element: I have twice been to Bellingham, Washington, Death Cab for Cutie's home base (they came together at Western Washington University and especially in their early albums there is a lot of Bellingham-centric biography in the songs). The first time was for a conference at WWU in, I believe, 1998. The other was on my honeymoon with Mrs. Dcat in 2007. We flew to Seattle, rented a car, and spent three weeks cruising the Pacific Northwest with the vast majority of the time in the vast expanses of British Columbia. We stopped for a seafood lunch in Bellingham on the drive between Seattle and Vancouver. Something About Airplanes (Limited Edition Re-release) A- Codes and Keys A

Deerhunter -- Halcyon Days: Doesn't the name "Deerhunter" make you think that these guys are going to be some sort of country-metal hybrid, maybe Molly Hatchet moved inland a couple hundred miles? Yeah, well, this ain't that band. This is lo-fi indie sludge for the bed and breakfast set more likely to appeal to wannabe writers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn than wannabe big-game hunters in Williamsburg, Georgia (Yeah, I did the Google legwork just to create a syllogism that works. That's value added!) And Deerhunter is, in fact, from Atlanta (Circle: squared!) even if they sound like they could be from Britain. B+

Roky Erickson With Okkervil River -- True Love Cast Out All Evil:
Roky Erickson's autobiography is in many ways a classic tragedy. He was a pioneer of psychadelic rock as a co-founder of the 13th Floor Elevators in the 1960s. But he suffered from mental illness, was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was arrested in his home state of Texas for possession of a single joint and because the politics of Texas sucked even worse then than they do now, he was subject to a decade in prison. Instead he was placed in mental hospitals where he was subjected to various forms of electroshock and drug therapy, including a forced regimen of Thorazine. This album, with Austin's outstanding Okkervil River serving as his backup band, represents Erickson's first new recorded music in nearly a decade-and-a-half. Far from his psychadelic roots, Erickson explores various versions of country and western, gospel, and other roots music. Don't buy the album because of the biography. Buy the album because of the way the biography informs the music. B+

Fleet Foxes -- Helplessness Blues: This is the second album by beard-rock revivalists Fleet Foxes, a (rightfully) critically lauded band from Seattle whose sound somehow reminds us that people in the northern US have always worn flannel as a practical matter and that it wasn't just a grunge fashion statement (which was not, until the zeitgeist got hold of it, a fashion statement at all -- for once in my life some of the most worn shirts in my closet were cool without effort or expense. But I digress.) It's lush and beautiful and shows that these guys were not just one-album wonders. This is the perfect music for a giant party in the woods and in the listening you would not be at all surprised if wood nymphs and sprites came out of the darkness for a pull at the keg or at something a little more herbal. A-