Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Brutal" by The Mekons

The lyrics to one of my favorite songs by The Mekons, from the band's 1991 album The Curse of the Mekons. It is maybe a blueprint for good political songwriting. If only you could hear Sally Timm's celestial deadpan wrapping itself around this song's gorgeous and spooky melody:

The Mekons

Here comes McDrug

The english love for China tea
Brought deficit to the economy
What could we sell back?
Send in the army to deal some smack

Drugs and guns and slavery
Live together in perfect harmony
Where the poppy grew
The soil is dead

The East India Company scum
Flooding China with opium
The soil all washed away
Flooding Bangladesh today

Here comes McDrug

Drugs have long been the currency
Of the Central Intelligence Agency
U.S.A. and E.E.C.
A long dull story of corruption

Now a clown steps over the Berlin Wall
With a burning cross and pills to go
His Perestroika dependency will
Sit in your gut like a golf ball

Noiseless rocks as clear as ice
Nursed at home with loving pride
Crystal goblets of sherbet
Heaped up, flaked up, rosewater snow

Needles washed up from the sea
On a beach in Californ-i-ay
Help me get me through the day
Here comes McDrug

Needle searches for a new enemy
Locks onto targets in the big city
That was built on the profits
From the opium trade

Here comes McDrug

The duffer rests in a Fenland graveyard
On his way to Alderman Roberts
He's got the tinctures in his bag
To take away our daily hurts

Monday, February 4, 2008

Why progressives should vote for Obama

In an article that appears in the current issue of The Nation, Christopher Hayes does a pretty good job of describing why I think it should be fairly obvious to anyone who is progressive (or lefter) that Barack Obama is a candidate worth supporting. Hayes's analysis, which I'll get to in a moment, endorses implicitly what I believe to be the best response to question:

But why should I support Barack when his platform is indistinguishable from Hilary's? Just because of his rhetoric?

My answer is: yes--with one caveat--because of his rhetoric! All of the most important things that presidents do have to do with rhetoric: how to set the terms of a discussion, how to be convincing, how to establish and maintain moral authority, how to say things that people don't want to hear, how to speak to lots of different kinds of people without condescending to some and sucking up to others. And thus my caveat: the idea that the political platforms of Obama and Clinton are 'indistinguishable' carries weight only insofar as we ignore the embeddedness of rhetoric in all aspects of presidential leadership. Of course rhetoric is too small a word to encompass the qualities enacted through Obama's gifts as a communicator, through his very persona, through the fact that historical circumstances combine with very existence a moment of profound possibility.

And I must insist that descriptions of Obama as "charismatic"--as it's used in reactionary rags like The New York Times--is pretty much a term of diminution. Such a term serves to deemphasize Obama's brilliance, savvy and astonishing fitness to rise to the challenge of our troubled political moment and focus attention instead upon his mere appeal. More specifically, upon the novelty of this appeal--folded into which is the unprecedented alignment of people/interests to whom he appeals--particularly as perceived by the James Carvilles of the world. Career technicians or "experts" who have build their "expertise," relevance and livelihoods upon rhetorics, logics and configurations of voters that are now disintigrating before our eyes. In fact, it's this very disintegration that is so vexing and even scary to these professionals.

A better description of Obama would take stock of the political, moral and rhetorical realignment that constitutes this moment--a moment that I think we should all admit is Obama's moment--and that points to the ways in which he and he alone is positioned to take the reigns. "Charismatic?" That description hardly captures it. Obama is a brilliant and empathic communicator. And it helps that Obama is a brilliant and empathic communicator while also being a brilliant and empathic person.

Anyway, this paragraph from Hayes's article does a pretty good of showing how Obama's skills as a communicator apply to the context of foreign policy, and differentiate him from Hilary in all of the ways that matter most (italics mine):

[F]oreign policy is where the President's agenda is implemented more or less unfettered. It's here where distinctions in worldview matter most--and where Obama compares most favorably to Clinton. The war is the most obvious and powerful distinction between the two: Hillary Clinton voted for and supported the most disastrous American foreign policy decision since Vietnam, and Barack Obama (at a time when it was deeply courageous to do so) spoke out against it. In this campaign, their proposals are relatively similar, but in rhetoric and posture Clinton has played hawk to Obama's dove, attacking from the right on everything from the use of first-strike nuclear weapons to negotiating with Iran's president.

Continuing on the topic of foreign policy, the rhetorical differences between the two candidates aligns with and bespeaks another important distinction between the candidacies of Obama and Clinton: namely the kinds of people each will be likely to appoint to advisory and Cabinet positions during his or her presidency (an aspect of a candidacy of which the example of George W. Bush's administration should make us all the warier):

Her hawkishness relative to Obama's is mirrored in her circle of advisers. As my colleague Ari Berman has reported in these pages, it's a circle dominated by people who believed and believe that waging pre-emptive war on Iraq was the right thing to do. Obama's circle is made up overwhelmingly of people who thought the Iraq War was a mistake.

As Hayes points out: Hilary's got the ideological militarism thing going on among her likely appointees/brain trust.

The single most important reason to get off your ass and vote for Obama, one that has to do both with his skills as a communicator and his stance on Iraq is that he's the only candidate by a mile whom we can trust to restore and preserve the rule of law:

"We need to bring to a close this sad chapter in American history, and begin a chapter that passes the might of our military to the freedom of our diplomacy and the power of our alliances. And while we are at it, we can close down Guantanamo and we can restore habeas corpus and we can lead with our ideas and our values."

- Barack Obama, Richmond, Virginia, May 8

God DAMN. That's the voice of someone who's got a chance of becoming president. Let's do this, people! No excuses. Now is not the time for the lethargy that tempts you to demur; now is not the time for the masochism that compels you--like high fiber cereal--toward Clinton. The Clintons' time is done. Bill was the candidate for a certain moment. But, Barack Obama is the candidate for this moment. Fuck the assholes, and give this man your vote!!!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Flavorpill Chicago on Smallwire

In early February 2008, the Web site Flavorpill Chicago published the following piece recommending a performance by the Chicago band Smallwire:

With all the sharp-eyed journos covering Chicago's variegated music scene, it's astonishing that local indie-pop purveyors Smallwire have yet to garner the fawning blog posts and laudatory column inches they so richly deserve. In many ways, though, the outfit's unsung bedroom pop — teeming with delicate keyboard tinkles, pitch-perfect harmonies, and shimmering guitar hooks — is even sweeter to hear when you know no one else is listening. Tonight, the lithe and lovely five-piece (with additional friends on viola and cello) sets up shop at the MCA's Magical Musical Showcase to perform songs off its full-length debut, the swoon-worthy Songs for Sleeping In.

- Suzanne Niemoth

Friday, February 1, 2008

Smallwire in The Chicago Sun-Times

The February 1, 2008 edition of The Chicago Sun-Times contained the following article on the Chicago band Smallwire:

Smallwire steps into MCA music spotlight
February 1, 2008
Seeing a band play an art museum might not be your first plan on a Tuesday night. But the Museum of Contemporary Art, local music venue Schubas and Chicago band Smallwire are hoping they can convince you otherwise.

The first Tuesday of every month, the MCA hosts the "Magical Musical Showcase," a performance series highlighting local bands. A nice twist on the series is that the MCA asks Chicago venues to choose which bands will play, leaving the decisions to people who know the music well.

The Feb. 5 choice fell to the popular North Side club Schubas, which is known for putting eclectic bands on-stage, so it's no surprise it would promote a band like Smallwire.

Smallwire formed in 2005, but their first CD, "Songs for Sleeping In," will be released this April on the Japanese label Moorworks. It makes sense that it would take time for the band to craft an album. Smallwire's sound draws from art-pop sensibilities, is intricate, often delicate, layered and constantly moving in different musical directions. The songs require a few listens to dig through everything going on.

"The band is more an ensemble than the traditional singer with backup and a rhythm section," said bassist/vocalist Tom Schreiner. "We think of all of the instruments and voices as pretty much equally important, write parts that interact in ways that seem to us to be both interesting and cohesive, and try to keep the sound balanced."

To complement the ensemble, Smallwire's performance will feature additional musicians on viola and cello. The band has been working on new music for the event.
"The MCA series provides us with an environment in which to work with different textures and harmonies," Schreiner said.

So with support from a known venue like Schubas and a performance stage in a place dedicated to art, Smallwire gets a chance to appeal to an audience that differs from the traditional club crowd but may be no less involved or listening. It's an intriguing combination of concepts.

Allison Augustyn is a local free-lance writer.