2012 - %3, February

Half of MoJo's Bylines Are Women's

| Wed Feb. 29, 2012 9:19 PM EST

Kevin Drum summed up the state of gender equality in media well when he said that "the news remains pretty bleak."

When VIDA recently compared the number of articles written by men to those written by women at 14 thought-leading publications in 2011, including The New Yorker, Harper's, The New Republic, and The Atlantic, only one publication, Granta, emerged with a roughly equal gender division—30 male and 34 female bylines. (Granta is somewhat of an outlier, though, given that it only publishes four times per year and one of its 2011 issues was dedicated to feminism.) Adding to the good list, GOOD magazine's executive editor (and MoJo alum) Ann Friedman notes that their past three issues have seen a 50-50 split between male and female bylines.

So how did Mother Jones measure up? We crunched the numbers for all of our 2011 print magazine articles, and Mother Jones broke exactly even across those six issues: 41 bylines went to men, 41 bylines went to women. And not that I need to mention it, but we're one of the few "thought-leader" magazines in the country headed by women.

It's 2012, but gender inequality is still a reality in just about every sphere of public and private life. If our update about women in media hasn't convinced you, just consider the renewed war on contraception, the almost 5 to 1 male-female ratio in Congress, and the disparity between men and women's wages. But as Mother Jones proves, it's not all bad news.

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Real Time With Built to Spill's Doug Martsch

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EST
Martsch is the one with the hat.

Doug Martsch doesn’t like to make much of his band, a "little-known" outfit called Built to Spill that since the early 1990s has spawned an entire subgenre of idyllic-yet-grungy indie rock (think no-longer-just-a-college-band bigwigs Modest Mouse). Since 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love (ranked #24 on Pitchfork's "Top 100 Albums of the 1990s") the band's unique mix of intricate guitar solos, stringy vocals, and starkly simple but hard-hitting lyrics have earned them a devoted, though never very huge, following. This week, they are headed down the Pacific coast from Boise for a small tour before getting started on recording a new album, the band's first since 2009's There is No Enemy. Last week, Martsch, Built to Spill's famously reticent front man, regaled me with his thoughts on festival crowds, interview hazards, and the unexpected rewards of judging a record by its cover. (For the initiated, I tossed in clips of a few BTS favorites.)

Mother Jones: Any idea what the new album is going to sound like?

Doug MartschNah, not really. Whenever we start a record it's pretty much just a batch of things we've stumbled across from jamming or playing guitar. It's pretty much just a hodgepodge right now.

Review: Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Leaving Eden"

| Mon Feb. 27, 2012 6:00 AM EST
From left: Matta, Flemons, Giddens, Jenkins

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Leaving Eden
Nonesuch

The Carolina Chocolate Drops third album, Leaving Eden, begins with a bang, a rousing fiddle tune ("Riro's House") whose driving beat promptly had me bobbing my head and squinching up my face and generally looking rather stupid. But I didn't care. After a brief instrumental chillout—a sparse minor traditional called "Kerr's Negro Jig"—it regains momentum with a percussive rendition of an old Cousin Emmy tune, "Ruby, Are You Mad At Your Man," a fine platform for the soulful, classically trained Rhiannon Giddens to let loose a bit with her powerful pipes.

In case you're not yet familiar with the Chocolate Drops, much of their repertoire harks back to a time early in the last century when there were quite a number of uncelebrated black string bands—including their namesake, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops—playing and composing this type of music. When I checked in with her a while back, Giddens talked a bit about being inspired by the TCD's leading man, Howard Armstrong. Fiddler Joe Thompson, who died on February 20, at age 93, was a personal mentor for the band, according to the Drop' official bio

Film Review: If A Tree Falls

| Sat Feb. 25, 2012 6:01 AM EST

If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Oscilloscope
85 minutes

One day in December 2005, documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry's wife came home with some surprising news: Four federal agents had arrived at the domestic violence organization where she worked in Brooklyn and arrested her coworker, Daniel McGowan, on charges of eco-terrorism. McGowan, a sweet, quiet guy who'd majored in business in college and was working towards a master's in acupuncture, seemed an unlikely terrorist, and Curry—whose first documentary, Street Fight, about Cory Booker's first mayoral campaign, was nominated for an Oscar in 2005—was intrigued. He and co-director Sam Cullman set out to figure out how McGowan had ended up in handcuffs, and discovered a fascinating, sobering tale of a sensitive idealist's gradual radicalization in the face of an unresponsive political system. Curry and Cullman's thoughtful film—currently in the running for an Oscar in the category of best documentary—couldn't be more timely amidst the debate over activist tactics that's been renewed since the Occupy Wall Street protests emerged last fall.

Book Review: "Half Blood Blues"

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 6:08 AM EST

Esi EdugyanEsi EdugyanIn 2011 Esi Edugyan’s bestelling novel Half Blood Blues snagged Canada’s highest literary honor, was a finalist for Britain’s Man Booker Prize, and was translated into nine languages. A Canadian with roots in Ghana, 34-year-old Edugyan’s novel explores the overlooked histories of Africans and mixed-race foreigners through the travails of a popular jazz band trapped in Nazi-era Europe. With a light touch and a deft hand, she provides original insight on the black American experience. So it’s a shame the novel is only now being released in the US, by Picador on February 28th. 

The story opens as the Hot-Time Swingers, whose members include African-Americans, a Jew and a German with African ancestry, cut a record in occupied Paris. Their sound will become legend, but in Nazi Europe jazz is the degenerate music of half-breeds, or mischlings. When the band’s frontman, the young trumpeter Hieronymus Falk, nicknamed Hiero, rashly decides to venture outside for a glass of milk, he is arrested.

A shy 19-year-old, Hiero is the locus of his band’s hopes and an undisputed genius. In one scene Louis Armstrong gifts the boy with his trumpet. But as one of Germany’s ‘Rhineland Bastards,’ (the offspring of German women and French-Senegalese colonial soldiers posted in the Rhineland following WWI), Hiero is a mischling of the first order and a refugee of sorts: considered stateless in Germany and a despised German in Paris, he’s a young man in limbo, an easy target. When Hiero is banished to a concentration camp and presumed dead, what remains of the band disintegrates.

The virtuosity of Edugyan’s writing is noticeable in how Hiero, who serves as a projection screen for the motivations of others, is himself barely sketched. The narrator is Sid Griffiths, a jealous bassist whose talents at rendering the sounds of jazz into words, in a brassy, thumping patois, overshadows his musical abilities.

Fifty years later, Sid is a retired medical transcriber in Baltimore with a secret: he committed a betrayal that sent Hiero to the camps. When his old bandmate Chip turns up, he informs Sid that Hiero is alive. As they set out to find him, the story moves between the dawn of a reunified Europe and Sid’s flashbacks from the early days of the war. The old man’s shame is slowly exhumed—along with the complex implications of the band members’ skin colors, nationalities and ethnicities in hostile territory.

And yet Edugyan avoids the familiar tropes of Nazi thuggery. Rather than dwelling on their well-documented rape and mayhem proclivities, she reveals how the Red-Hot Swingers transform the Nazi Party anthem into protest music.

The novel's surprising end, and Edugyan herself, are proof that the mischling experience beautifies art in all of its forms.

 

Book Review: "The United States of Fear"

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 6:58 PM EST

Tom Engelhardt, who founded and runs the popular website TomDispatch, is a politician's worst nightmare. In his new book, The United States of Fear, Engelhardt criticizes the right and the left in equal measure, challenging both former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama for the wars they have engaged in and the costs associated with those wars. Engelhardt's popular columns are republished on websites like ours, and his own site was borne out of the post-9/11 haze. That's according to Engelhardt himself, who told fellow TomDispatch writer Nick Turse in 2006: "It was more an endless moment—those couple of months after 9/11 when, for a guy who was supposedly politically sophisticated, my reactions were naive as hell. I had this feeling that the horror of the event might somehow open us up to the world. It was dismaying to discover that, with the Bush administration's help, we shut the world out instead."

Engelhardt takes a hard look at what he calls the decline of the "American empire." He draws a comparison between the path that the United States has taken over the past two decades and that which led the former Soviet Union to destruction: "In a far wealthier country, another set of leaders, having watched the Soviet Union implode, decisively embarked on the Soviet path to disaster." He describes how the United States of today and the former Soviet Union share one key characteristic: an unreasonably massive military budget. Engelhardt traces the US path from the '90s, when he says the United States turned into a "self-intoxicated" country, intent on solving the world's problems even if bleeding itself in the process.

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Review: "The Good Life (Is Wasted)," by Lambchop

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EST

TRACK 8

"The Good Life (Is Wasted)"

From Lambchop's Mr. M

Liner notes: Crooning with a woozy flair that suggests he just awoke from a long nap, basso front man Kurt Wagner could be a down-home Lou Reed on this sardonic toe-tapper, wherein he confesses that "the good life is wasted on me."

Behind the music: Lambchop, originally known as Posterchild, began a quarter century ago and has been billed as "Nashville's most fucked-up country band," thanks to its signature blend of dark sentiments and smooth sounds. Among its provocative works, the 2000 album Nixon comes with a reading list of books about our 37th president.

Check it out if you like: Leonard Cohen, Glen Campbell's work with Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman"), and the late outsider folkie and Lambchop collaborator Vic Chesnutt, to whom Mr. M is dedicated.

Book Review: Zona

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EST

Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

By Geoff Dyer

PANTHEON BOOKS

Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 sci-fi film, Stalker, left such an impression on Geoff Dyer that he felt obliged to pay it homage decades later. The film—not a prerequisite for the book—follows three men through a postindustrial paradise toward a room where one's ultimate wish is granted. Even if Stalker bored many observers ("Tarkovsky is the cinema's great poet of stillness"), Dyer's musings on everything from on-set disasters to his desire to join a threesome make for a rich and wacky sojourn. At its heart, Zona is about how art changes perceptions: "If I had not seen Stalker in my early twenties, my responsiveness to the world would have been radically diminished."

Review: "Know Me," by Frankie Rose

| Mon Feb. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EST

TRACK 2

"Know Me"

From Frankie Rose's Interstellar

Liner notes: The girl group template gets a zero gravity makeover on this vertigo-inducing song suitable for planetariums or cathedrals.

Behind the music: Brooklyn's Frankie Rose played drums with the noise bands Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls (as well as Crystal Stilts) before striking out on her own. She softens her harder edges on this sophomore outing, increasing accessibility without dumbing down.

Check it out if you like: New Order, later Beach Boys, and ABBA's stranger recordings.

"This Means War": A Lazy, (Vaguely) Pro-Patriot Act Bore

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 6:00 AM EST

A delectable post-chase sequence Reese-Witherspoon-sandwich in "This Means War" (2012).: Photo courtesy of 20th Century FoxA delectable post-gunfight Witherspoon-sandwich in This Means War (2012).

Photo courtesy of 20th Century FoxThis Means War
20th Century Fox
98 minutes

After sitting through This Means War, you will probably feel like someone hit you with a large truck, and then forced you to eat the truck: mentally reeling, bilious, and more than a little mad at the world.

This latest romantic comedy with guns works off a popcorn plot cobbled together from the scraps of other big-budget fluff: A pair of young and debonair CIA operatives are at the top of their globetrotting, terrorist-neutralizing game. There's FDR (played by Chris Pine), the kind of 21st-century spook who spends almost as much time clubbing as he does womanizing. And then there's Tuck (Tom Hardy), his British-American partner who serves as the emotionally mature foil. On top of that, the two are best friends—you might even say that they're bromantically inseparable.

And, sometime between all the overseas terrorist-killing and looking enviably chiseled, the two agents start falling for the same woman: a consumer-products tester and Georgia native named Lauren Scott (a vivacious Reese Witherspoon). FYI, she doesn't know that her suitors are secret agents, or that they're best buds. So begins the personal "war" between two spies, replete with elaborate pranks and borderline-psychotic acts of sabotage.