Saturday, October 30, 2010

Talkin' bodega drink bottled water Middle East blues

When I walked into the bodega a few Wednesdays ago for a flavored water drink, I looked for a moment at the assortment of bottles in the cooler. Earlier in the day, I had been reading an article by Jeffrey Greenberg in The Week (the article had originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly) about a series of conversations and hang-outs the writer enjoyed with Fidel Castro earlier in the year. It was a beautiful article, especially when Castro took Greenberg to an aquarium in Havana to see the dolphins. “‘Do you like dolphins?’” the Cuban leader asked the writer. “‘I do,’” Greenberg replied. Castro claimed that they were watching the world’s only underwater dolphin show, and picturing the dictator and the journalist in front of a large, blue-tinged glass window in Cuba was marvelous.

Before describing this episode, Greenberg writes about Castro’s complex, reasonable thinking about Israel. Castro believes that Israel has an unqualified right to exist, despite calling the nation the “gendarme” of the United States in the Middle East. He thinks that Israel needs to relinquish its nuclear weapons for regional peace to occur, and calls for every nuclear-armed nation on earth to do the same. Castro also chastises illegitimate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for calling for the destruction of Israel, and even says that Ahmadinejad should “recognize the special character of anti-Semitism” (Greenberg’s words). For me, Castro’s remarks reflect an unusual level of sensitivity, education, and candor. I wish more people were as thoughtful as he is, at least in regard to these subjects.

Probably because I had read the piece, Israel was somewhere in my mind when I walked into the bodega to buy the drink. When I saw the rows of brightly lit bottles in the cooler, including various flavors of Vitamin Water, Honest Ade, and some new aloe vera drink, it occurred to me that some criticism of Israel is kind of like criticism of bottled water. Here’s the parallel: While some writers and activists focus attention on Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians—of which there is plenty to pay attention to—there seems to be far less discussion of the harmful acts and/or cold shoulders of neighboring countries such as Syria, whose leaders may prefer that the democratically inclined Palestinians remain stateless and oppressed. Similarly, while everyone seems to discuss the environmental cost of bottled water, I’ve never heard anyone question the cost of the myriad other drinks that are also bottled in plastic. But it may be that sourcing the various ingredients in these drinks and manufacturing them is more harmful to the environment than tapping a spring.

Focusing on the beverage side of the analogy, the obvious response is that cold water flows freely from home taps, so it’s inexcusable to purchase water in plastic containers that require shipping to get to market—we should purchase metal thermoses instead. It’s a great point, even though tap water in some places (I love you, but hello, Greenpoint) tastes much worse and probably contains more harmful chemicals than spring water. For substandard water, there are Pür filters, there are Britas, and there is our planet to think about. With all of these available resources and ameliorants, it’s an affront to our environmental health to purchase bottled water.

But not everyone has access to tapwater. In most cases, a prerequisite for tapwater is a sophisticated, functioning state. During the European Holocaust of 1939—1945, most of the Jews of Europe were dispossessed of their states. After the war, many remained dispossessed, and were also traumatized. Literally and metaphorically, they didn’t have dependable access to tapwater. Neither, I would guess, do many of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank today, along with numerous other staples that middle class people in even moderately prosperous countries enjoy. We know that Israel sets the policies that forbid delivery of certain staples into Palestine, and we also know that some policy makers claim that it is the violent attacks of a minority of Palestinians that make these policies necessary. I’m not equipped to comment on the specifics of these policies or make an informed evaluation of their justness, but I do think that the larger point is that both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, need tapwater. And it also might be fair to draw a particular, limited comparison, with regard to the issue of statelessness and statelessness only, between the Palestinians of today and the Jews of Europe during and after World War Two.

Returning again to the physical bottle of water, the counterpoint to the environmental criticism of bottled water is that not everyone has enough access to tapwater to survive. If we affirm the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s principle that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, then we should all advocate for people who do not have tapwater, or, by extension, a functioning state that provides them with it. Clearly, the conditions in Gaza and the West Bank must concern all the peoples of the world, as should the suffering of anyone.

But I guess seeing the many-colored drinks in the bodega made me think that the problem in the Middle East is not a problem between Israel and Palestine alone, or even the surrounding countries in the region—it involves all of us, and the decisions that we make every day. Why should buying a bottle of Vitamin Water be any different from buying a bottle of Poland Spring? Both bottles may end up in landfills, and we can certainly make fruit juice at home. Perhaps the point is to keep the manufacture and purchase of all drinks that come in plastic bottles to a minimum, just as the point is to keep injustice to a minimum, everywhere and at all times.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

(Put a) Coin Under (your) Tongue (and see)

Coin Under Tongue: What an astringent jolt of a band name! Check this here review of their latest joint (rolled with metal shavings and warehouse dust):

“I came out of my shell - Into a cutesy neon hell,” sings Joe Kelly near the beginning of Coin Under Tongue’s new album, Reception, and during seven of the record’s nine songs, he does some serious screaming about it. As Kelly depicts his urban experience with a profusion of lyrics and a searing mixture of refined and unrefined post-punk guitar, bassist George Wilson and a trio of drummers (including regular band member Greg Wilson) help kick up a slamdance with metal polyrhythms that ground the noise.

Album opener “Beyond Yes,” which includes Kelly’s nifty description of the Bedford scene, invades the ears with twisted, trebly guitar cuttings and a vocal as deliciously distorted as Kurt Cobain’s on parts of Nevermind. “Dogma Sheen” clears the air with a volley of clean, Cure-like chords before the assault begins anew, and Kelly’s playing incorporates hints of Wire and P.I.L. during a luminous solo in “Junksmith.” After a mid-album respite comprised of a folk protest and a noir narrative, the volume rises again with the title track, a song that begins as a doom-metal dirge and quickly goes hardcore. With vivid, economic images that would make a writing teacher proud, Kelly screams about a wedding party that seems perfectly enjoyable, but instead features “a couple frozen in its prime.” It’s not the best song on the album, but the contrast between the singer’s perspective and the scene he describes is disturbing and rare.

In fact, it’s during the closing “Strong Things,” a mixed acoustic and electric song, when you start to realize that Kelly is a pretty good lyricist, something which can get lost underneath the sheer quantity of the words. “I know your schedule’s pretty packed / Mine’s just started unraveling,” he sings, over a strand of winsome, acoustic guitar, about an ex-lover from home who’s started to make it in New York. “It’s hard to hold onto strong things,” he later drones, applying a dab of lustrous black to the neon he sees around him. Kelly swipes a Stephen Malkmus chord progression to make the point, but the instrumental squall that follows is all Coin Under Tongue.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Gimme some A-D-P

Hey folks,

I met this squinting gentleman at Death by Audio this summer, and wrote a 'lil review of the collection of songs he gave to me. C'est ici:

Some albums take a long time to like, and others enter your ears like a guest you never knew you were waiting to receive. Stick to the Shadows, the forthcoming disc of sun-kissed Americana that songwriter Andy Dale Petty gave me at Death by Audio this past summer, is one of the latter. After pressing play, an electric guitar breaks like dawn over grassy hills, and then an acoustic complement picks a careful path across the landscape. You might not forget where you are when you hear it first.

After the opener, which sounds like a hushed counterpoint to Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline Rag,” a harmonica and a dancing mandolin inject a sense of regret into the picture. “I’ll tell myself that you’re movin’ this way,” Petty sings in the elementally titled “making a point with light,” but he might just be hoping—as the possibility of loss hovers above the notes, the line “Life is the morning, and long is the day,” carries a sweet ambiguity. A hint of R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” tinges the opening of “lost caves,” a narrative of solitude after a failed connection, and Petty’s guitar continues to build a wheelwork of country licks and textures. During a second instrumental, an acoustic melody grows out of a bog of bass notes like a green shoot. It’s a mess of riches.

The album continues with the rollicking “stick to the shadows,” in which Petty uses a ratchet to lend a festive, corny air to a friend’s promised return: “I’m coming home, and you will see, that I’m so young and I’m so free, and there’s nobody fooling me,” he sings, triumphantly. After an interlude composed of bits of spoken word and high-pitched violin, a bright-toned solo highlights “death wail,” the record’s one conventional pop number, and in “coming home,” a banjo traverses the same hills that the guitar maps in the album’s opener, with a flute rising above a faint analog synth before the fade. “Through deserts and woods, there is much that is good, but the world is hard to please,” Petty later sings, sparely evoking the emotional ruts in his travels. His voice has an amber tone and an occasional nasal edge, and it shares equal space with the other instruments in the mix.

If the album ended here, Petty’s work would still be outstanding. But distinctive songs keep emerging near the end of the record. “falling to earth” features a lyric that wrestles with mortality by modifying the meaning of the idiom “no matter,” and it also contains a hopeful chorus melody that stuns like a second dawn. In “for their blood,” lush pedal steel quivers like the moon in a country pond, expressing mysterious longing for journeys not yet taken, and a measure of weariness from ones already made. The album ends with “psychic surgery,” a tune with a ruddy, rested delivery that shines like a candle in a dark clearing. Based in Huntsville, Alabama, Petty hopes to release the record this winter, and he also wants to stop in New York during a fall tour. Until then, pay him a visit on his MySpace page.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Notes on Pavement in Central Park

I saw Pavement earlier tonight! Swear to God, it's true! My friend Ben had an extra ticket and I couldn't say no, so I went and heard a great band in great form. Songs included Summer Babe (rainstorm version), Cut Your Hair, Stereo, Shady Lane, Major Leagues, Gold Soundz 'n' Range Life (I once had to choose between buying one of those two seven-inches, and I think I was paralyzed for a good two minutes), and a whole lot of others. An epiphany came when Stephen Malkmus sang what I now think is one of the most prescient lyrics of the nineties: the transition from "A career" to "Korea" in Cut Your Hair. I've decided that it's just perfect, on so many levels. And here they are:

1. It clearly (Korealy?) expresses an inability to embrace the idea of building a traditional career.

2. Turning the sound of "career" into the sound of "Korea" is musically creative and semantically meaningful. It's like leaving business school for art school, or rejecting narrow-mindedness in favor of exploration.

3. How many English majors who couldn't choose a career have taught English in Korea?

4. Whether teaching English or just visiting, Korea may be an escape, for some people, from the pressure to build a career.

5. According to a Chinese woman I know from Singapore, I should "watch out for those Korean girls. They're crazy." According to my all my life experiences, they're crazy in a good way.

6. "It's all Korean to me": building a career, that is. (See No. 1)

I just think it's the most brilliant lyric. How many of us have thrown up our hands sometime in our twenties or thirties, and surrendered to Korea, instead of career? How many of us are still working on doing that? It's like James Murphy sang, about sixteen years after Cut Your Hair: "You spend five years trying to get on track, and the next five years trying to find your friends again." I wouldn't know, but Pavement seemed to have skipped the first part, and maybe that's why they got so good, so fast.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A tale of three quarterbacks, part one

Something I've been wanting to say for a while concerns Peyton Manning, the lanky, hunky quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Manning is probably the most prominent, or recognizable NFL QB; Tom Brady, just as famous and even more accomplished, dwells in a kind of stone tower, good-natured but inaccessible, like a European nobleman. In Stupid White Men, or the book he wrote before that, Michael Moore, writing a little outside his purview (snark watch on the rapport!) but well nonetheless, likens men's bodies to Chevys: we're built for speed and horsepower in the short run, but then we break down in middle age, laying on the junkyard of our couches. I think that the reason Peyton Manning is so easy for American men to identify with is that he embodies Moore's idea of the American car: he's got all the touchdowns, long passes, and regular season victories that we like to watch, but then he often breaks down, and kind of spectacularly, in the playoffs. Manning has won a Super Bowl, but it was against a Bears team led by Rex Grossman, the equivalent of a Yugo to his 'vette.

The most recent Super Bowl, won by the Saints over the Colts, seemed to feature a classic Manning performance: hot out of the gate, playing like he's all world, and then, sometime in the 4th quarter, you could see the breakdown begin when he was almost picked off by a Saints defender. The gears were starting to get stuck, parts were beginning to come loose. After that, it wasn't much of a surprise when Manning did throw an interception (which was returned for a touchdown), basically sealing the game for the Saints. By throwing it, he was able to have a mostly brilliant game, and also fall apart at the end. Exciting and vulnerable to collapse, he's All-American, that Peyton Manning, and that's why he fits so well into NFL telecasts and commercials alike.