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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When U Can’t

June 22nd, 2017

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FRESH AIR: Several years ago, when Garrett Graff was working at Washingtonian magazine, a coworker brought him a lost ID badge that he’d found on the floor of a parking garage. “It was a government ID for someone from the intelligence community, and he gave it to me since I write about that subject, and he’s like, “I figure you can get this back to this guy,’ ” Graff recalls. There were driving directions on the back of the ID, so Graff looked it up on Google Maps, and it led him to West Virginia.

“The road dead ends into the side of a mountain,” he says, “And you can see very clearly these big concrete bunker doors — this little guard shack, chain-link fence, and then this set of concrete bunker doors beyond.” Graff had stumbled onto one of the government bunkers designed to protect U.S. leaders in the event of a nuclear, chemical or biological weapon attack — most of which were built at the outset of the atomic age and throughout the Cold War. “It was a facility that I had never heard of, that wasn’t on any map …” Graff says. “It just made me so curious to go back and understand what the history of these plans were, and what they are in modern times as well.”

The result of that curiosity is Graff’s new book Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself – While the Rest of Us Die. Based in part on recently declassified documents, it describes the bunkers designed to protect government leaders, lines of succession to replace officials who are killed, and the roles for various agencies in the event of catastrophe. “Part of what makes these plans so interesting is thinking through … this idea of what you’re going to save for America,” Graff explains. “If you’re trying to preserve and restart the government after an attack, [it] becomes this very existential question about what is America? Are you trying to preserve the presidency? Are you preserving the three branches of government? Or are you preserving even the historical totems that have bound us together across generations as Americans?” MORE

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THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS: Stoplight Kisses

June 22nd, 2017

Yes, that was them at the end of episode three of Twin Peaks 2.0. They play Johnny Brendas on July 13th.

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ALBUM REVIEW: Sufjan Stevens’ Planetarium

June 20th, 2017

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In 2005, when I was all of 15 years old, Sufjan Stevens’ angelic voice drew me into Illinoise’s whispery bedroom ballads about serial killers and cancer-claimed lovers and its swelling orchestral epics about Chicago and UFO sightings. The otherworldly sonics and emotional depths of the music on Illinoise! were matched by the lyrics, which I scribbled all over the covers of my high school notebooks and white canvas Chuck Taylors. When my obsession with Illinoise waned, I moved onto his earlier albums, namely Michigan. Friends told me that he was set on the endearing, but ludicrously ambitious goal of writing an album for all 50 states. Listening to his music while walking around the tired landscapes of home, through the cookie-cutter housing developments bifurcating endless cornfields, my imagination surged with the myriad possible narratives Sufjan might find in the rest of the union.

I waited five years for the next state, hearing whispers that he’d run into the New Jersey Devil on a visit when he was writing a song about the Pine Barrens. The rumors never materialized into the next state album. Instead, he released an album of prismatic electronica called The Age of Adz and took it on the road, dancing like a robot amidst a shower of strobe lights, wearing a flat rim hat, angel wings, tinseled pom poms, and a tank top. His face, though, retained its characteristic placid calm. With his next release, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens shed The Age Of Adz’s densely layered arrangements and obtuse lyrical abstraction for an acoustic folk album likened to Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, in which he shared stories of growing up with a mother with schizophrenia and substance abuse issues.

In another about face, Sufjan’s new release Planetarium synthesizes his predilection for classical and electronic music, while also satisfying his penchant for concept albums. It is the product of a collaboration with heavy hitters from the classical music community, namely Bryce Dessner of The National and Nico Muhly, who’s worked with Bjork, Philip Glass, and Grizzly Bear, to name a few. Sufjan’s longtime drummer, James McAlister was also credited in the collaboration. Initially, the group came together to write a song cycle commissioned by a Dutch concert hall. In a feverish period of creation, Sufjan took the role of captain in crafting the expansive soundscapes into songs, glued together by McAlister’s percussion and sequencing. Following a unique timeline, the songs on Planetarium were written for a series of commissioned live performances before ever being recorded in a studio. The songs took on new forms and arrangements when converting from live versions to recorded versions. Years after the tracks were recorded, Sufjan and the guys figured, okay, “Let’s open Pandora’s box.”

Inside said box is an expansive, electronic concept album in which Sufjan’s voice traverses the spectrum from angelic purity to auto-tuned robot data over textured, atmospheric synthesizers, a string quartet, and a troop of trombones. The results are invariably hypnotic. The album is paced with the mastery of trained classical musicians who understand the value of silence as an instrument. Dessner and Muhly’s experience as movie score composers is apparent in the cinematic apogees of the album’s most cathartic moments. Planetarium feels like a Sufjan album that had the freedom to follow bold whims anchored by the validation of expert classical musicians, giving Sufjan a chance to explore the expanses of the universe from the comfort and convenience of his friendly, neighborhood planetarium. – DILLON ALEXANDER

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BEING THERE: U2 @ The Linc

June 19th, 2017

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Photo by DAN LONG

First, a word to the haters – you know who you are – and then we’ll be done with them: F*ck y’all. Keep movin’, nothin’ to see here. Now, about that U2 concert last night. Full disclosure: I have seen every Philly U2 concert since The Unforgettable Fire, with the exception of the Pop Mart tour, which I am fine with, and no, I wasn’t cool enough (or old enough) to see them at the Bijou in 1980 when they were just four no-name dorks from Dublin. U2 remains a sorry/not sorry guilty pleasure. I am a sucker for the hallelujah choruses and Velvets-y chug of their Capraesque, proto-emo anthems. I am a sucker for Bono’s bleeding heart blarney, his constant appeal to our better angels. As such, I have left every U2 concert feeling like some measure of my humanity had been restored after being worn down by the blistering winds of the daily shit storm we call living. Last night was no exception.

The current tour celebrates the 30 anniversary The Joshua Tree, their admittedly overrated mega-selling 1986 breakout album, which they perform start to finish. (Everybody knows 1990’s Achtung, Baby is the band’s true masterpiece.) The 41 years that have passed since the band’s inception have not diminished the capacity of their music to enchant, elevate and enlarge the perspective of its global audience. Bono’s voice is no longer the earnest blare of yore, but it’s become a much more nuanced and convincing instrument in the fullness of time. A loveable fireplug of a man, Bono has aged into his drunk-uncle-at-the-wake phase, with his round-eyed spectacles and thick brushed-back pompadour, he looks, from a distance, like an elder Guy Ritchie gangster or Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight. Edge’s guitar playing is still a six-string clarion call of incandescent chime and spiraling jangle. And he can still rock a wool knit ski cap in subtropical heat without breaking a sweat. Adam Clayton remains the rock of the band’s Gibraltar. To hear the whirling thrum of his bass on “New Year’s Day” last night was to know why Adam Clayton is the bass player of U2. Larry Mullen Jr. remains an impeccable, precision beatmaker, and still movie star handsome after all these years. Together, they still rattle and hum with grace and power, they remain a perfect engine of late 20th Century post-punk rock n’ roll.

Yes, they preach, but they preach common decency. Humbly. No shame in that. “We see the same scourges here that we saw in Dublin in the 80s: heroin, stupidity, stupors, nationalism, whatever the analgesics that keep us from ourselves we will let go tonight in Philadelphia,” said Bono, before they launched into the ephemeral whoop and sigh of “Bad.” But it’s anyone’s guess how connected U2’s audience is to the band’s politics these days. U2 has always preached the liberation theology of three chords and the truth and Bono is still invoking the poetry of the streets, but at these prices — a single ticket to see them at FedExField on Tuesday tops out at an astonishing $2,697.48! — their audience isn’t from the streets, they are the bourgeoisie from the suburbs.

All that jazz about the nobility of native Americans and desperate migrants and tragic refugees from the mad slaughter of war running into the arms of America and the quality of mercy being strained by the theater of cruelty that is America in the age of Trump? I wonder how that plays these days. U2 are Christians, after all. SJWs and proud. And righteous. And sure most of the their stateside audience identifies as Christian, just, you know, not that Christian. Not any more. Maybe they never were. But when you strip away all the pomp and circumstance, the kingdom and the glory, you will find that unconditional love is the immaculate heart of their music. Maybe you’re too cool or red-pilled for that, but I’m not. It’s what brings me back year after year. It is a sad and beautiful world, to ignore that incontrovertible fact is folly. As a wise man once said: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.” – JONATHAN VALANIA

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GRENFELL TOWER: The Faces Of The Dead

June 19th, 2017

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METRO: The missing list includes 57 individuals reported as missing according to multiple reports from friends, family and witnesses on the scene.The Metropolitan Police said the first victim to be formally identified was 23-year-old Syrian refugee Mohammad Alhajali, and is among the 58 thought to have died as flames tore through the 24-storey building. Children as young as six months old and entire families across three generations are among dozens people reported missing or dead in the Grenfell Tower Fire. MORE

WIKIPEDIA: The Grenfell Tower Fire

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BEING THERE: Sigur Ros @ The Mann

June 17th, 2017

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Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER

Thunderstorms were forecast for Friday night, but mother nature stepped aside, allowing Icelandic dream merchants Sigur Ros to roll into the Mann Center and electrify the audience with a distorted, bowed electric guitar, thunderous malleted drumming, ponderous piano, and ascending falsetto singing in Hopelandic — a hodgepodge of Icelandic, English and emoted syllables. Earlier in the day, I daydreamed about the sound of rain falling on the cavernous wooden covering overhead, the electricity from thunderbolts commingling with the electricity from the amplifiers and speakers on stage. After the show, though, it was clear that a thunderstorm would have been redundant.

Though recent tours have included a full orchestra, Sigur Rós is currently touring with just the three core members of the band, but if you’d closed your eyes during the set, the wall of sound that confronted you was so immense that you may have been easily convinced that it was created by an ensemble five times the size. Overlapping in sonic pools of reverb, the sounds that Sigur Rós generates from just three instruments fill the air with overtones that sink into your skin and massage your spine. Jónsi’s guitar hangs low on his body, and he wields it as if he’s holding the weight of the world, sending out undulating, explosive sound waves every time he runs the bow across the six humming strings. Hailing from a country full of geothermal vents, volcanoes, and raw natural beauty, it’s as if Jónsi produces art on behalf of the Earth. Sigur Rós, more than any group artists or musicians I’ve seen so far, presents as though they are antennae, receiving transmissions of energy from the celestial bodies that our universe is comprised of, but are exceedingly easy to ignore.

The visual components of the staging took the show to another level, adding to the cosmic feel of the set. There were several screens on the stage, on which a nebulous story was told through lights and images. Variations of black and red masses reminiscent of lava flowed into black billowing smoke cloud, suggesting eruption. The first song back from an intermission, the band stood in the center of the stage, behind the screen. The drummer played a drum pad, and when he hit the accented beat, a bright, white light shot out from behind the band and streamed through lines that ran outward to the wings of the stage. And never before had I seen strobe lights utilized in such an effective manner, adding to the intensity of crescendos without feeling didactic or cheap.

During a brief period of quiet between songs, someone yelled out in a classic, hoagie-mouth South Philly accent, “I love you Jonesy!” hammering a hard ‘j.’ While everyone in the know wanted to correct him, we let his exuberance go, unchecked. Because even though his pronunciation was off — the Sigur Ros’ frontman’s name is pronounced YON-see — his sentiment wasn’t. And the crowd who showed up didn’t consist of people who would want to bring down someone like this fan, who was clearly having a good time. Few times in my life have I felt so comfortable around a large crowd, which I attribute to Sigur Rós appealing to people who are kind and thoughtful, connected to themselves and the world around them. – DILLON ALEXANDER

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CINEMA: Beggars Banquet

June 16th, 2017

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017, directed by Miguel Arteta, 83 minutes, U.S.)

Buskirk AvatarBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It’s a truly classic premise at the heart of the new film from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, the pair who previously worked together on indie dark comedies Chuck And Buck (in which White co-starred as “Buck”) and the under-appreciated Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Good Girl. Their latest, Beatriz At Dinner, centers around a wealthy dinner party that takes on an unexpected interloper, the working class mystic/masseuse, Beatriz (played by the always-intelligent beauty Salma Hayek, suitably dressed-down here.) You can see where this is headed, the feathers of class will be ruffled, dinner will be ruined and someone is going to learn a lesson. Beatriz at Dinner hits all those beats but at least we can rest assured that White’s script is going to do it with some wit and the razor-sharp cast gets the most out of this little social gathering/class war.

With such an age-old set up, the intrigue is in the details. We first meet Beatriz as she’s leaving her rustic, humble L.A. home, pulling away in a sputtering VW and heading to the plush estate of her client Cathy (whose casual privilege is captured completely Connie Britton). Beatriz delivers not just massage but full holistic alternative medicine treatments, and the fact that she helped Cathy’s daughter through cancer years before has given her a certain respected status in the household. So when Beatriz’s car refuses to start it seems only natural she’ll be invited to dinner, despite the fact that Connie’s husband Grant (played with a nice undercurrent of anger by David Warshofsky) is hosting a special guest, celebrity real estate tycoon Doug Strutt (John Lithgow).

Another young business couple arrive (indie faves Jay Duplass and Chloe Sevigny) but we can see that the philosophical duel is going to be between Beatriz the Healer and Doug, whose fortune partially comes from destroying the communities in which he builds. The wine pours and as the evening goes on Beatriz’s conversation with Doug becomes ever more weighted while the hosts are busy backpedaling, trying to smooth over all the difficult points Beatriz raises.

Obviously the filmmaker’s sympathies lie with the saintly title character but Arteta and White haven’t worked in Hollywood for a couple decades by hating in the rich, so they supply the gluttonous Doug with a certain bemused charm, despite his open prejudice and callous attempts at sympathy. The banter between Beatrix and Doug, with the tiny Hayek seemingly dwarfed by the big-boned Lithgow, gets more and more confrontational as the evening wears on, building suspense on how the film is going to bring any resolution to this battle across America’s historically-wide distance between the rich and poor.

Maybe there is no resolution to this story while we’re in Trump’s America (ads are touting the film as “The First Great Film of the Trump Era”). The film throws out a lot of provocative thoughts but when it comes time to choose an ending the film waffles terribly, giving us a multi-pronged climax that offers violence, fantasy or tragedy as possible outcomes. This ends the film with a bit of a shrug, but at least Beatriz At Dinner leaves the lingering small pleasure in watching a voracious capitalist squirm uncomfortably for a few minutes. In the Trump era, one has to grab their pleasures wherever they can.

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WORTH REPEATING: From Russia With Blood

June 16th, 2017

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BUZZFEED: The story of this ring of death illuminates one of the most disturbing geopolitical trends of our time – the use of assassinations by Russia’s secret services and powerful mafia groups to wipe out opponents around the globe – and the failure of British authorities to confront it. The intelligence pointing to a campaign of targeted killings in Britain comes amid mounting international concern that the Kremlin is brazenly interfering in the West, and as the investigation into Russian ties to President Donald Trump’s advisers gathers pace.

The Russian government passed new laws giving its agents a licence to kill enemies of the state abroad in 2006, the same year two assassins from the FSB, Russia’s spy agency, flew to London to poison the defector and one-time KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium. Last year, a British public inquiry found that Vladimir Putin had likely approved that assassination in an act of nuclear terrorism in the British capital that was impossible for the government to ignore. But high-ranking intelligence sources said other less glaringly obvious assassinations have gone unpunished.

Russian assassins have been able to kill in Britain with impunity over the past decade, 17 current and former British and American intelligence officials told BuzzFeed News. The reasons for Britain’s reticence, they said, include fear of retaliation, police incompetence, and a desire to preserve the billions of pounds of Russian money that pour into British banks and properties each year. As a result, Russia is making what one source called increasingly “bold moves” in the UK without fear of reprisals.

Prime minister Theresa May is facing growing calls to respond to claims that her government has concealed evidence relating to Russian assassinations in Britain. In her six years as home secretary, she spearheaded the British government’s response to national security threats and presided over cuts of £2.3 billion from the national law enforcement budget that several senior officers have blamed for a drastic reduction in police capabilities. May personally intervened to delay the public inquiry into Litvinenko’s death, citing the need to protect “international relations” with Russia. And in the Perepilichnyy case, her government has withheld sensitive evidence from the inquest on “national security” grounds. Downing Street, the Home Office and Scotland Yard did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The core reason British authorities have turned a blind eye, a current senior national security adviser to the British government told BuzzFeed News, is fear. Ministers, he said, were not prepared to take the “political risk of dealing firmly and effectively in whatever way with the activities of the Russian state and Russian-organised crime in the UK” because the Kremlin could inflict massive harm on Britain by unleashing cyberattacks, destabilising the economy, or mobilising elements of Britain’s large Russian population to “cause disruption”. Deep law enforcement funding cuts mean “our capabilities are very weak”, he said. It was also impossible to rule out the risk of “general war with Russia” in the current climate, he said, and “if it were to happen it would happen very, very rapidly, and we would be entirely unprepared”. As a result, he concluded, ministers “desperately don’t want to antagonise the Russians” and senior figures in government had told him bluntly that there was “no political appetite to deal with the Russian Federation”. MORE

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FROM THE VAULTS: No Sleep ‘Til Reykjavik

June 14th, 2017

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In advance of Sigur Ros’ show at the Mann Center on Friday, we present this encore edition of my 2012 MAGNET cover story.

mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Iceland isn’t the end of the world but you can see it from here. This is both a blessing and to a lesser degree a curse. Much less. It is the land that time forgot, and as such a place of uncommon purity. Primeval is the word that comes to mind: smoldering volcanoes, black sand beaches, towering geysers, geothermal hot springs, epic waterfalls, vast lava fields that recede infinitely out to the horizon, bumping up against glaciers thousands of years old. Elves. Not for nothing did Ridley Scott select the hinterlands of Iceland to film the stunning, panoramic ‘beginning of time’ segments in Prometheus, his recently-released sorta-prequel to Alien. The Viking ‘sagas’, the epic poems situated in pre-historic Iceland, are said to have been a primary inspiration of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

The occasion of my visit to this magical Nordic isle is the release of Valtari, the first proper studio Sigur-Ros-Magnet-Coveralbum by Sigur Ros since since 2008’s nudist-friendly Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, which marks the cessation of a so-called ‘indefinite hiatus’ that many feared signaled the end of the band after seven albums in 18 years. Sigur Ros, which in English means ‘victory rose,’ first showed up on most people’s radar a dozen years ago with the release of Ágætis byrjun, a grand bargain of ethereal post-rock, minimalist psychedelia, and sweeping orchestral maneuvers, guided, like a beacon in the fog, by the mesmerizing otherworldly voicings of their singer, Jón Þór Birgisson, aka Jonsi.  It sounded like somebody snuck a tape recorder into heaven. Like cherubim swinging the hammer of the gods.  It was said the singer was in fact singing in a newly invented language of his own device. The name of this language in Icelandic was Volenska. In English it was called Hopelandic.

But as of late there were signs trouble in paradise. Allegedly insider reports surfaced intermittently on the Internet indicating that the new album had been made and scrapped at least three times. Then, shortly after Valtari was released in May, word came from the Sigur Ros camp that Kjartan Sveinsson, the band’s multi-instrumentalist (piano, keyboards, organ, flute, tin whistle, oboe, banjo, guitar) — the one member of the band who can read music, the member of the band who wrote the signature string and horn parts — would not be joining the band on the planned year long tour in support of Valtari. His reason for not touring —  that it would “not necessarily the most productive” use of his time — struck many as a curious thing for a man who makes his living as a musician. Could it be that hope no longer springs eternal in Hopelandia?

Magnet sent me to Iceland to find out. I was doing what I usually do between cover stories — lying around in a Saigon hotel room smoking and listening to The Doors in my underwear — when the order came down from on high. My instructions were cryptic: get on a plane from Philadelphia at the crack of dawn. Fly to Minneapolis and wait there for eight hours, then board a plane shortly before midnight and fly through the night, arriving on the shores of Iceland with the rising sun. There I was to be picked up by a very nice man with an unpronounceable name who would chauffeur me into the heart of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, and await further instructions. As the plane approaches, dropping out of the Western sky at sunrise, looking out the window you would be forgiven for thinking you were landing on the moon.  As far as the eye can see is the vast lunar wastes of blackened lava fields that recede into the horizon. The landscape is dotted with smoking holes in the ground. Nearly 99% of Iceland’s energy needs are provided by geothermal and hydro power. Keflavik International Airport is actually part of a de-commissioned NATO base that has since been converted into a university and a hospital.

My hotel is situated by the harbor, and there is a massive whaling ship dry-docked in front. I check in and crash. Hard. I am awakened at two in the afternoon by the urgent ringing of one John Best, Sigur Ros’ manager. Best is a tweedy Londoner with bushy mustache and eyeglasses left over from the Ford Administration. Even after spending a solid 48 hours with the man, I still can’t tell if his look is ironic Sigur-Ros-Magnet-Coveror hip beyond my comprehension. A gifted raconteur with an ear for what comes next, Best is a veteran of London’s Brit-Pop era, working as a publicist for Elastica and then managing The Verve, all the while dating the lead singer of Lush. He started working with Sigur Ros as their publicist but soon transitioned into manager, a position he has held since the release of Aegtis Byjrnum.

He fetches me at my hotel and we walk the streets of Reykjavik in search of Vegamont, the sidewalk cafe where I will meet the first of my interview subjects, Sigur Ros’ bassist Georg Holm, aka Goggy. It is an incurably sunny day in the low 70s, all blue skies and zero humidity. On a clear day in Iceland you can see forever. Literally. Out my hotel window I can see the snow-capped Snæfellsjökull volcano some 120 miles away as the crow flies.

Reyjavik is a charming, hilly spread of low-rise two-story chalk white buildings and narrow cobblestone streets where nearly a third of Iceland’s mere 319,000 citizens reside. By American standards, Reykjavik feels more like a historic village than a nation’s capital. In the wake of Bjork’s international stardom, Reykjavik has attracted the attention of bohemian jet-setters like Blur’s Damon Albarn who — Best points out as we pass it — owns a minority interest in one of the city’s hippest bars. Everything is immaculately clean. Everyone is blond and tan and stylish and seemingly 25. Nobody seems to have a job. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and the sidewalk cafes are filled to capacity with Icelanders hoisting frosty mugs of beer. And yet there are no discernible signs of poverty anywhere.
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BEING THERE: Nevertheless She Persisted

June 13th, 2017

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Photo by GEORGIY MARKOV

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IN MEMORIAM: Letters To Batman

June 13th, 2017

BIGGLEE: Talk about oddball Bat-items! Here is the cover and some interior samples from a 1966 tome called FUNNIEST FAN LETTERS TO BATMAN! Created at the height of the ’66 BATMAN TV-show craze, this book collects the zaniest letters written to Batman, Robin, or the comics and TV crews that whip up his wild adventures! The best letters are from kids, of course, asking ol’ Batman for money, a weekend visit, advice, or even the use of the Batmobile! Several similar-themed books were done at the time, including KID’S LETERS TO PRESIDENT KENNEDY, KID’S LETTERS TO THE FBI, and LOVE LETTERS TO THE MONKEES, but this was the only edition devoted to the Caped Crusader! MORE

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Q&A w/ Nick Lowe, Elder Statesman Of Pure Pop

June 12th, 2017

Photo by Dan Burn-Forti

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published on April 28th, 2012.

BY ED KING ROCK EXPERT Nick Lowe’s nearly-half-century-long career as a singer-songwriter, record producer, and all-around musical instigator is a one-man Village Green Preservation Society, to quote the Kinks’ 1968 mission statement. After brief spell in a Cream-influenced psychedelic rock band, Kippington Lodge, Lowe and his fellow UK mates, including future standouts in the late-’70s new wave scene, got an early start on “preserving the old ways” in the Americana roots-rock band, Brinsley Schwarz. A big push to launch the band in the States flamed spectacularly, and in the US their records would be left for music nerds to dig out of the far reaches of used record bins for the next decade.

In 1976, following the demise of the Brinsleys, he hooked up with veteran Welsh musician and producer Dave Edmunds and carved out a role for himself “protecting the new ways,” as house producer for fledgling punk/new wave label Stiff Records. His “So It Goes” b/w “Heart of the City” was the first single on Stiff, and it heralded the artist’s devil-may-care approach to writing subversive takes on AM Top 40 hits of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. His solo output at this time peaked with his second album, Labour of Lust, on which he was backed by Edmunds and fellow members of Rockpile. The single from that album, “Cruel to Be Kind,” with the shaggy video including scenes from his wedding to Carlene Carter, is the most vibrant expression of the new wave era’s cheerful sense of fatalism. He must have been a good fit for the June Carter-Johnny Cash clan.

As a producer, Lowe made his mark helping Elvis Costello & The Attractions craft a diverse, high-octane run of five straight albums in five years, including their unexpectedly sincere take on one of Lowe’s Brinsley Schwarz-era hippie goofs, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Known as “The Basher,” for his no-nonsense approach to both work and play, Lowe wasn’t messing around, although frequently it just seemed that way. By the mid-’80s, despite a few minor hits and continued successful production work, Lowe was losing his way. His records lost their snap. The jokes were growing stale. The snappiest of that run, 1990’s aptly named Party Of One, was nevertheless the end of the line for Nick the Knife.
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STILL THE MAN: A Q&A With Joe Jackson

June 9th, 2017

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Photos by JACOB BLICKENSTEIN

BY KAY NOTHSTEIN After a nearly 40 year career, Joe Jackson — the witty, often wry and insightful Brit singer-songwriter of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” fame — is still going strong. Who knew? Probably his dedicated fanbase who consistently fill his shows. But not me. I left Joe Jackson in the late ‘80s somewhere between Big World and Blaze of Glory for no particular reason other than I was probably just listening to other things. In the course of nearly four decades, Jackson’s put out 20 studio albums, composed a symphony, won a Grammy, wrote a book, reinterpreted the work of Duke Ellington (with Iggy Pop and the late Sharon Jones as guest vocalists) and for the past three years has been writing a monthly blog featuring music essays on his website. That’s a lot to miss out on. But in the past few months I’ve been catching up with the prolific and ever-evolving Mr. Jackson.

It all started a few years ago, picking up a copy of I’m the Man in a second-hand store and realizing on first listen how great the album is, especially “It’s Different for Girls.” I listened to that song over and over again for the next several weeks and fairly regularly ever since. Then at the beginning of this year I was trading “Songs of the Day” with a friend. I’d text him something I was listening to and he’d send me his pick, continuing back and forth for a couple weeks until one day I thought of Joe Jackson. But instead of the usual one-off I sent three, all from the early albums that I knew, and all being a bit of a personal message to this former partner/current friend. I sent “It’s Different For Girls,” “Breaking Us in Two,” and “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want).” Kinda summed up my feelings on the phases of the relationship and got me wondering what Joe Jackson had been up to since I saw him play the Spectrum Showcase sometime around 1988. So I texted a friend who I went with to that show and asked him what he knew. He said he’s been seeing him on every tour since (there’s been other tours?) and that Joe Jackson also had a website and a well-written blog that I might enjoy (he writes more than lyrics?).
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