Thursday, October 18, 2007

Last Day Of Class

My first German class has come to an end. By the last day we were already down, if memory serves, five students. Those of us who remained in town celebrated the end with a brunch, each of us bringing a food popular in our hometown. Yeah, the Americans kinda get the short end of the stick on the international food show-and-tell, but I think I repped for Seattle admirably by whipping up a mean tofu scramble.
Since we're still little more than tourists here in Germany, we all had cameras, and took lots of pictures. So you'll hafta suffer through a few more.
Here's the brunch spread. You can more or less see, from left to right, Roman, Hugo, Bruno, Max, Julian, LaTanya, and Juan. Hugo thought we were having another staring contest. We weren't, but he lost anyway.
Me and Ula. Dig the red-eye I've got goin' there. I told you, you just can't suppress my evil. Ula, however, carefully veils her diabolical tendencies. When there are no cameras around, she pulls on kittens' tails.
Hugo, Myself, Machiko, and Bruno (clockwise from left). All four of us were wearing Fortuna Düsseldorf logos on our t-shirts, but I Photoshop'd them out.
Me with Herr Kunert (our teacher) and Miteong. Miteong had just arrived, and is noticing (on my plate) that someone brought kimchee. Kelly snapped this rare photo on the sly, Miteong normally hiding from cameras.
Julian and LaTanya discussing the ingredients of his Brazillian specialty, the name of which I can't recall. The secret ingredient of all international food: pork.

The second course in the series starts up after a one-week break. Many of us (including myself) will return for that. Herr Kunert will teach this one also. But not all of us could stay in Köln, money and visas not growing on trees here. Rached and Lamine won't be in the next course, but will still be in town. Almost two weeks ago, liebe Claudia returned to Venezuela. And I've since had to say goodbye to Roman, Max, and Machiko too. :(

The Beardage Is Over


Really weird. I woke up one morning and it was gone. Before:
Ladies, don't fret. I can always grow another...

Recently Played: Cat Power, Hank Williams, George Jackson

Dude, I'm old. I've developed a dull indifference to new indie rock. Reading Pitchfork these days, I sometimes feel like I'm watching the WB. To paraphrase the wise Chinese monk, like a man with no arms, I can't hang. Band of Horses? Meh. Animal Collective? Sloppy music for an audience that couldn't make it through a Charalambides album. Jens Lekman? Frankly, I've never even heard the guy. Beirut? I'm dubious. But another covers album from Cat Power? I'm all up on the internets scouring for leaked tracks. I guess when it comes to new verse-chorus-verse guitar music, I'm not all that far from the Starbucks demographic. (Though not, I protest, so close as my brother Aaron is.)

Yes, January promises a new Cat Power LP, and I'm excited for it. Feels like college all over again. The new album will feature Chan Marshall (she whose work is sold under the “Cat Power” moniker) almost exclusively performing other people's music. The last time she did this, on The Covers Record, she made what I tend to think is her best work to date. That one was a very stark affair, but on the new one Chan Marshall will be backed by a rather meaty band. I do warn that the proposed art for this new album is thoroughly odious. Rest assured that I'll be plugging something more like the above pic into my iTunes cover art field.

Ah, but what songs will she be performing on the album? Well, the album title is Jukebox, and indeed, the tracklist reads like $3 worth of jukebox plays from a dive tavern of our collective American imagination or, when we're especially lucky, an uneventful Thursday night.

01) Theme From 'New York, New York' (popularized by Frank Sinatra/Liza Minnelli)
02) Metal Heart (Cat Power, a highlight of her 1998 Moon Pix album)
03) Ramblin' (Wo)man (Hank Williams)
04) Song To Bobby (a new Cat Power original)
05) Aretha, Sing One For Me (originally sung by George Jackson)
06) Lost Someone (the best James Brown song of all time)
07) I Believe In You (Bob Dylan)
08) Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
09) Silver Stallion (Lee Clayton)
10) Dark End of the Street (originally sung by James Carr)
11) Don't Explain (Billie Holiday)
12) Woman Left Lonely (popularized by Janis Joplin)

In spite of the smell of $4 pitchers of Coors it may evoke, it's a mouth-watering set. Although one can't help but note the absence of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.”

I envision a mournful, weary take on the indignant and entitled “Fortunate Son,” and I'm betting it'll be a show-stopper. But man, what is her “Lost Someone” gonna sound like? Now, one of these tracks I've already heard Chan tackle. For an early glimpse at how the new album might come off, compare Chan Marshall's solo version of “Ramblin' Man," performed on-air for KCRW last year, with Hank Williams' original.

Cat Power – Ramblin' Woman (KCRW Session, 2006)
Hank Williams – Ramblin' Man (1953)

You can get more of that radio session at eMusic and, if for no other reason than her gorgeous Otis Redding cover, I recommend you do.

Doubtless, a quick Google search would show this to be only the 125th blog posting those two mp3s. Ah, well. Such is life in Cent. 21. Probably you'll be able to find this song without much trouble too.

George Jackson – Aretha, Sing One For Me (1972)

Written by J. Harris and Eugene William and recorded for Hi Records, this song is new to me, and it's wonderful. (Already I'm enjoying the dividends of the new Cat Power record!) I feel I've said this before, but fans of the Wu-Tang will recognize it immediately. This time, the song figures heavily in Ghostface Killah's “Child's Play.” I'd post his song here, but it'd scandalize even our most liberal readers. So you'll just have to take me at my word when I tell you it's a five-star classic that draws exclusively from familiar hip-hop tropes, but seemed at the time, and in fact still seems, like an exciting, unexplored direction for rap music. Anyway, back to George Jackson.... Gorgeous keyboards, some weird strings that appear in the kind of super-clipped snatches that we'd later find peppered over so much 90s hip-hop. The title's “Aretha” refers of course to Aretha Franklin, whose music our post-breakup protagonist hopes will change his love's mind, “Make her sorry/ We are apart.” Not satisfied with mere name-checking, Jackson hazards blatant citation – again, the kind of thing hip-hop would later rely on – breaking at one point into a little sample of her knee-weakening “I Can't See Myself Leaving You” (about which, as chance would have it, I've already blogged). This is one of my favorite new finds.

Friday, October 12, 2007

documenta XII: Lu Hao

I really hate it when I can't read up on cool things I run into. Essentially this is because I'm never totally comfortable forming opinions until I've digested a few expert critiques first. It's something I'm working on. Lu Hao's drawings for documenta XII are a perfect example. I totally love these. But I dunno that I feel all that comfortable going out on a limb talking about what's so great about them. I guess I just immediately took a shine to them. Full disclosure: I'm a pushover for unpeopled urban landscape. Shoot a roll of film in an empty hallway, and I'll love you forever. Draw a comic book about sleepy brick buildings and I'll go weak in the knees. So, yeah, these were right up my alley. And not for nothing either, I mean, these ink drawings are straight-up gorgeous, no? Architectural and detailed, they remind me of commercial “urban concept” drawings - the kind of thing reprinted in newspapers with proposals for new baseball stadiums, shopping malls or, well, 9/11 memorials.

Without deviating from this, there are also prominent touches of antiquity – like these stylized trees that, even while they fit the commercial-use slickness, recall something like Utagawa Hiroshige's prints (yes, I do know that Hiroshige was Japanese, not Chinese).

I also totally love that these are presented on a set of ten long silk scrolls - another antique affectation, and kind of a gimmicky one. But well-executed gimmicks are what good conceptual art is all about, if you ask me, and Lu Hao's gimmick is very well-executed indeed. The scroll format is a perfect fit for capturing complete blocks of Beijing. Doing it one better, Lu Hao arranged the scrolls in pairs, with walkways running between, so that the viewer can “stroll down the block,” looking to the right and left to see Hao's artist renderings of Chang'an Street.

These scenes were all captured in 2005 and 2006, documenting a moment in Beijing's ramp-up to hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, a huge overhaul of urban landscape and even local customs in an effort to put the city's best foot forward in a globally televised mega-spectacle. These pictures catch the city's transition in process. Some buildings are shown under construction. Others have probably since been demolished. In a few cases, the stark difference of adjacent structures is quite striking.

Lu Hao's a new name to me, but it seems that a good deal of his past work has involved Chinese monuments. Well, the streets of China are more or less going to serve as tributes to both Chinese tradition and Chinese modernization next year, so really this documenta piece is also about monuments.

Because the scrolls were preserved behind shiny glass, I couldn't get any decent photos. Thankfully, more skillful photographers than I have posted all the above shots on Flickr.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Recently Played: Betty Harris – Nearer To You (Plus Two Essential Additions To Your Wucography)

When I left Seattle, I vowed to dial back my ravenous music consumption. Not that I was listening to too much bad music (zip it, Aaron!), just that there's only so much time in a day, and I was spreading my iPod a little too thin to properly appreciate a great record when I found one. So now here I am in Köln, and still I'm taking in music faster than the Titanic took on water. Mind you, I'm not buying CDs, but I am making very good use of my eMusic subscription, and buying more than the occasional song from iTunes, Beatport, etc. Anyway, before I get too far off-topic,what I'm getting at is that, in the hunt for new music, I find it all too easy to overlook gems already in my collection.

A recent, very long-winded example: Well more than a year ago I fell hard for Betty Harris's rendition of Solomon Burke's “Cry To Me,” which I'm not ashamed to say I discovered on a Time-Life CD. That song I hope to discuss more in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that it compelled me to track down a compilation of her finer 1960s recordings. Though the sound quality left plenty to be desired, Lost Soul Queen had plenty of very good songs. But, tut mir leid, nothing that compared to “Cry To Me.”

So anyway, I'm listening to Christina Aguilera's last album and there's this track “Understand” that opens with a gloriously disarming soul sample, with the kind of dusty, melancholy hook you'd expect to hear backing the Wu-Tang Clan. Immediately, I must have the song from which this plodding but emphatic “I... May do things... You don't understand” plaint is drawn. It's a couple days before I get the chance to connect to the internet and Google up the song title and performer. But I guess I've already kind of undermined the suspense, haven't I? The song is “Nearer To You,” by none other than Betty Harris. It's the fourth track on the collection I already had. (It's also on the Soul Perfection Plus set, which I'm inclined to think is the better disc, though perhaps a little tougher to find.)

Betty Harris – Nearer To You (1967)

Produced and written by New Orleans' Allen Toussaint for Sansu Records, it's no wonder I'm head-over-heels. Toussaint's the dude who helmed some of the best songs Irma Thomas ever sung. His piano playing from this period is nice and bluesy, but perfectly understated. And of course, Harris' voice is just plain raw and, much like ODB, that tends to be how I like it. No mystery how Aguilera's producer settled on the song's sweet spot - it practically grabs you by the collar and shakes you.

According to my iTunes stats, I'd already listened to the song a number of times, but somehow it failed to make a lasting impression on me. Strange now that I can't stop wanting to hear it. Do I have Xtina to thank? Or do I just need to slow down and more carefully listen to the music I already have?

And hey, since I mentioned the Wu, here are a couple of terrific Stax Records cuts that should ring some serious bells for any fan of Enter the 36 Chambers.

Wendy Rene – After the Laughter (Comes Tears) (1964)
The Charmels – As Long As I've Got You (1967)

If these three songs don't keep you warm on a lonely autumn night, I worry nothing ever will.

More Information on Betty Harris

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


I'm in the southwest of Germany at Oberwolfach, what one might call a "math resort." It is in the middle of the Black Forest, and is a conference center for mathematics. It has an extensive library, lecture rooms, lodging, dining hall, etc. I'm here with a group of about 50 mathematicians all interested in Komplexe Algebraische Geometrie (complex algebraic geometry, if that English translation makes any more sense) - the title of this conference. There have been many talks, but also lots of time to talk to others. Most of the participants are from Germany, or other European countries. Aren't we a dashing group?
Today we had the afternoon free, so we had the traditional hike. I opted for the longer (5 hour) hike, but wasn't quite sure that was the best idea, since I had been on a very hilly run that morning with two guys also at the conference (lets just say I would have never done that run if I wasn't trying to keep up with them). The view at the top was great, and like any good German park, there was a cafe with cake and beverages at the top. I brought my camera, but failed to bring the device to upload the photos, so other pictures may just have to wait.