2009 - %3, September

Saying Goodbye to Clove Cigarettes

| Tue Sep. 22, 2009 2:47 PM EDT

Walking home from high school one day during freshman year, I ran into my sometimes friend Michel Finzi with his sidekick, a smart-ass kid named George who played in the school band. Finzi, a good-looking French kid who was always regaling me with stories of the girls and surfing at Cape Cod, a world totally foreign to me, was smoking something enticingly pungent. "What's that?" I asked.

"A Krak," Finzi said. "Wanna try?" He handed over a burning Krakatoa brand clove cigarette.

I took a drag of the sweet, heavy smoke, and after about five seconds was floating pleasantly. "Cool," I said. So Finzi, who was headed the other way, generously gave me my own to smoke. By the time I got home, I'd finished about half of it and was feeling pretty damn sick. Had to lie down a while.

Thus began my occasional affair with clove cigarettes. But never again did I smoke one alone. A complex etiquette developed among my close friends. A clove had to be shared with others. Spoken of in codes. Symbols on the package took on special meanings. One could not smoke it past a certain point. One could never ask for a lit clove, reach out for it, or even eye it furtively in the hands of another. It could only be offered. But woe befall those who would Bogart it—hold it longer than the others deemed appropriate. For that sin, you risked ignominy.

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Music Monday: Sway Machinery's Rosh Hashanah Flop

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

Rosh Hashanah is The Big Show, one of two days a year when every Jew, no matter how lapsed, at least considers attending the service that has existed virtually unchanged since antiquity. And every year, brave cantors test a different rendition of a traditional prayer. Sometimes those new melodies strike a cord, but mostly people want their Pepsi to taste like Pepsi and their Rosh Hashanah to sound like Rosh Hashanah.

I wanted to love Saturday night's Hidden Melodies Revealed, the Sway Machinery's free Rosh Hashanah concert at San Francisco's major Reform temple. And so did the few hundred folks who turned out to see the combined forces of indie-darlings Arcade Fire, Balkan Beat Box, and others. When I arrived to find Emanu-El's Spanish courtyard thronged by hipster masses, I felt sure we were about to witness something transcendent, music that would touch the observant and the lapsed alike. After 14 non-stop hours of prayer and ritual, I was ready for something completely different. Some small part of me even hoped this could be what klezmer revival was a decade ago—a wedge into Jewish culture for the masses.

Alas, it wasn't.  

Instead, the concert was what my mother would call "a good idea, poorly executed." To put it another way, I was really glad I hadn't brought my mother. When the lights dimmed at 10 p.m., roughly two-thirds of the temple's massive sanctuary was full. By 10:03, pretty much everyone over 30 had cleared out. It all started innocuously enough, with a brass rendition of Judaism's central prayer. But the intricate and vaunted melodies of the High Holy Day liturgy just never quite matched up with the music. The product was discordant at best, and ear-splittingly loud. Within 15 minutes, a third of the audience was gone. Another third were pressed against the impromptu stage, while the final portion sat transfixed, unsure whether to rock out or melt into their seats.

There are ways to do religious music so that it's moving to the secular and the faithful alike. Matisyahu—who sings a version of the sacred Shema in his single "Got no Water"—has made a career out of it. Unfortunately, the Sway Machinery hasn't found that balance yet. I'll call it a failure in the tradition of ambitious Rosh Hashanah failures all over the world. Better luck next year, guys.

This Is Your Brain on Kafka

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 1:11 PM EDT

This story first appeared at Miller-McCune.

The befuddled tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot are a poetic personification of paralysis. But new research suggests the act of watching them actually does get us somewhere.

Absurdist literature, it appears, stimulates our brains.

That's the conclusion of a study recently published in the journal Psychological Science. Psychologists Travis Proulx of the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia report our ability to find patterns is stimulated when we are faced with the task of making sense of an absurd tale. What's more, this heightened capability carries over to unrelated tasks.

In the first of two experiments, 40 participants (all Canadian college undergraduates) read one of two versions of a Franz Kafka story, The Country Doctor. In the first version, which was only slightly modified from the original, "the narrative gradually breaks down and ends abruptly after a series of non sequiturs," the researchers write. "We also included a series of bizarre illustrations that were unrelated to the story."

Penthouse, iPhone, and Fishing Music

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 6:30 AM EDT

Ben Winship, David Thompson (and friends)
Fishing Music II

I haven't listened to Fishing Music I, so you won't find any comparisons here. But as a kid back in Wisconsin, I regularly scrutinized the Bass Pro Shops catalog and subscribed to a magazine called Fishing Facts. Back then at least, each issue kicked off with a Penthouse Forum-style letters section, except with fish. Typically, you'd get stuff like: "The sun had set and it was growing dark along the fringes of Lake Wingra. I was cold and discouraged; not a strike all day, and so I decided to call it quits. With one desperate last cast, I tossed my #2 Mepps minnow near the end of a submerged pine, and reeled it back, jigging slightly. When all of a sudden a tremendous yank on the line nearly pulled me out of my canoe. My Fenwick superlight nearly snapped in two as the 13-pound, 7-ounce lunker bass took off with my Mepps." (Cue heavy breathing.)

What were we talking about, again? Oh right, the fishing CD. We'll get to that. But let me tell you about the iPhone I bought my wife for her birthday. Or rather, I said, "I'm getting you an iPhone for your birthday, but you should set it up how you want it," so I only bought it for her in the abstract. The point is that she installed a little app called Flick Fishing—weird, since fishing isn't among her passions. But this thing is a patently addictive little timewaster. You choose a location, pick a lure or bait, make a casting motion with the phone, and when something strikes, you turn a reel on the screen to land it. Sometimes the line snaps or you get an old boot. More often you land a fine-looking specimen with goosed poundage. If you were impressed by that 13-pound, 7-ounce bass from above, a couple weeks back I landed a 19 pounder in the game. "This is so unrealistic!" I complained to Laura, momentarily forgetting my irony detector. "Nobody catches a 19-pound largemouth bass!" (Or maybe I was just using the wrong bait all those years.)

Indie Supergroup Sway Machinery Set to Rock Rosh Hashanah

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 7:30 AM EDT

Tonight, Jews around the world celebrate the dawn of year 5770. Tomorrow night, a lucky few will get to rock out to "Hidden Melodies Revealed," a free, live remix of traditional cantoral music by an indie-rock dream team. 

Jewish religious music, like the religion, is notoriously change-averse, and very few have successfully introduced new tunes to the litergy. The Sway Machinery—consisting of members of Arcade Fire, Balkan Beat Box, Antibalas, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—doesn't hope to do that, exactly, but the musicians are planning to introduce the crowd to a radical reimagining of High Holiday cantoral music. The supergroup chose Temple Emanu El in San Francisco, erstwhile home of famed singing rabbi Shlomo Carelbach, to reinvent the sacred music of the past, transforming a purely vocal tradition into a thumping, instrumental celebration of Judiasm's venerated back catalogue. Sway frontman Jeremiah Lockwood of Balkan Beat Box gave us the inside dirt. 

Mother Jones: Saturday is the second night of Rosh Hashanah. What's the significance of playing then?

Jeremiah Lockwood: It's the center of the spiritual cycle of the year. Rosh Hashanah is the big show for the cantor, the time they get to shine, and the whole community gets together. Growing up, my grandfather was a great cantor, and for the last 30 years of his career, he only sang for the High Holy Days. It always seemed to me to be the nexis of all the culture of cantoral music was going towards this one moment. Part of my musical concept for the band is that I was going to take this vocal music tradition and work with the melodies and create instrumental music and rhythmic accompaniment to it. 

How to Get Your Future Teenager Pregnant

| Thu Sep. 17, 2009 12:32 PM EDT

Look, I'm no prude, and my Spanish is lacking, but I do get what "Hay Trampa!" means, and let's just say these grown-ups—captured in this video posted on YouTube-like site LiveLeak.com—won't make my list of potential babysitters. I'm not even sure this takes place in America. But still. Where is it okay to teach kids this young to get busy? I think the moment that struck me most is when one of the adult women presents her rear for the little boy to hump. The posting title, referring to the dance music, dissapprovingly asked: Esto es reggaeton?

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

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Riding the 'Ladies Specials' Train

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 7:53 PM EDT

In India, women-only train cars have proved so popular that today eight more were added into service. Currently, there are female-only train cars in Chennai, Mumbai, Calcutta, and New Delhi in India, as well as in Cairo and at least a dozen other cities worldwide. In Japan, female-only cars have been running since 1912. Predictably, while women have had very positive reviews of the Ladies Special train cars, as they're known in India, some men are not happy. “Even on this train,” one female commuter told the New York Times, “men sometimes board and try to harass the women. Sometimes they openly say, Please close the Ladies Special."

While backlash is not surprising (especially considering the Ladies Specials are newer and cleaner and smell better than the other cars) it is problematic. The entire reason there are women-only cars are so that women can avoid being groped, propositioned, stared at, or sexually assaulted while in transit. The female-only trains do not educate potential gropers: it just separates them from a few of their potential victims, putting the responsibility on women not to get groped rather than on men not to do it in the first place. It reminds me of this excellent blog post on "Sexual Assault Prevention Tips Guaranteed to Work": namely, don't do it.

Music Monday: Reigning Sound Slows Down for Love and Curses

| Wed Sep. 16, 2009 7:20 PM EDT

Reigning Sound
Love and Curses
In the Red

After backing Shangri-Las singer Mary Weiss on her 2007 comeback album on Norton Records, Reigning Sound is back with a new album of its own. It's the band's fourth studio album since 2001, and the relaxed, Southernly pace of their output matches the overall air of Love and Curses.

Frontman Greg Cartwright cut his teeth in the stalwart Memphis garage band the Oblivians. Twenty years on, his approach to music has evolved from taking old country, blues, and R&B numbers, blowing them to bits, and burying them in distortion to loving, nurturing them, and letting them breath. This applies to the numerous obscure '60s and '70s covers in the Reigning Sound oeuvre, as well as their own sweet tea-and-slaw songs.

Google + News Industry = BFF

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 12:26 PM EDT

First, Google announced a plan to help newspapers microcharge for online content. Now, it's launching a news aggregator, Fast Flip, that will share ad revenue with participating news organizations.

This is a momentous olive branch on the part of Google, considering the flak it got for not sharing revenue from its flagship Google News. It will be especially beneficial if Fast Flip, an appealing interface that allows users to "flip" through tailored news content, takes off. Said a Google spokesperson to the Nieman Journalism Lab

Google’s interest here is in trying to be a good partner to the news industry and to quality providers of news and try to frankly find ways to help publishers get more out of the web.

Google and the news industry, BFF? Stay tuned.

 

Music Monday: T-Pain, Jay-Z, and Auto-Tune Death Prediction

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Jay-Z would like a moment of silence for Auto-Tune, the pitch-tweaking software that gave us basically every Billboard Hot 100 song since Summer 2007. On his latest album, The Blueprint III, the rapper heralds an end to the revamped vocoder and needles his contemporaries for "T-Paining too much." But is Auto-Tune really "D.O.A."? 

Hardly. In its most subtle form, Auto-Tune makes kinda okay singers sound like John Mayer; in its late-decade form, it makes everyone sound like T-Pain, a liability T-Pain himself has been quick to exploit. On Friday, he released "I Am T-Pain," an iPhone app that lets users Auto-Tune themselves in real time, on the go, for $2.99. It also conveniently bundles in several background tracks for karaoke emergencies. If you want proof that the "I am T-Pain" app is evil, look no further than this video review by CNet's Justin Yu: