2012 - %3, July

Folk Singer Chris Smither's "Basic Simplicity"

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Chris Smither performs at New York's Highline Ballroom on Thursday, July 12.

Inside New York City's Highline Ballroom, a gaggle of musicians and techies throng around a folding table stacked with cold beer and sandwiches. Most wear loose-fitting traveling clothes; they've just gotten off the road from home base in Boston, finishing the first leg of a tour that will stretch well into next year. A tall figure in black pushes back his mane of hair, more grey than the room's average, and cuts a path through the crowd to a side room. 

"Usually I play solo, so I'm not used to taking care of everybody," he says, closing the door behind us.

Chris Smither has been in and out of rooms like this for nearly half a century, but he's still getting used to bringing a band this size along with him. A singer-songwriter who points to the stripped-down styles of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt as major influences, Smither says it's taken until recently to feel comfortable touring with a full backing band like the one on his twelfth studio album, last month's Hundred Dollar Valentine.

Smither, now 68, rose to prominence in the early '70s as a solo artist with an ear for a unique interweaving of Cambridge folk sensibilities with Delta blues technique, thumping bass lines on the low strings while plucking melodies on the high strings, tapping time with his foot, and singing in a voice with a low end that cuts like the edge of a broken whiskey bottle. He was never one to shun a little good sonic company, forging lifelong partnerships with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Dr. John, but the arrangements on Hundred Dollar Valentine are thicker than usual, with a full complement of electric guitar, backing vocals, harmonica, bass, and drums on nearly every tune.

"I've found sympathetic ears" in this band, he says. "People who like my music for the right reasons, by which I mean my reasons." He laughs, as he does between nearly every sentence, and the creases in his face seem to make his eyes sink even farther back in his head. He's relaxed and comfortable, and still is an hour later in the spotlight. On stage he seems hardly to notice the musicians behind him. There's no conducting; they can keep up with the train or fall off. Smither's foot will still be tapping either way.

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The Thrilling Musical Machine of Micachu and the Shapes

| Mon Jul. 30, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

The album Never begins with a clamor. Discordant, metallic beats clang on a loop before Mica Levi’s ghoulish vocals sweep in. "Just leave the rest for me/Just leave the rest for me," she pleads. A wind-down, and then a bluesy refrain: "I’m easy to please/I’m easy to plea…" But before I can anticipate a proper verse-chorus, someone’s flipped the switch. Bashing ensues, as does synthetic screeching. White noise streams on high while something rolls, crunching over broken glass. There’s the suck of a vacuum cleaner, a manic crescendo, a halt.

In 1913, 27-year-old Italian futurist Luigi Russolo expressed his boredom with the state of music.* In a world made newly complex by industry and the roar of machines, accepted "musical sound," Russolo wrote in a letter to his friend Francesco Balillo Pratella, "has become to our ears what a too familiar face is to our eyes."

"Noise, on the other hand," he argued, "comes to us confused and irregular as life itself."

British trio Micachu and the Shapes' second album, Never, fully embraces noise for all of its shock and harshness. Much of it has to do with frontwoman Mica Levi's affinity for vacuum cleaners and homemade instruments, like her chu (a guitar she adapted to be hit with a stick), or the xylophone she constructed out of lightbulbs. A classically trained musician (as well as the youngest person to become an artist-in-residence at London’s prestigious Southbank Centre), Levi spent her early years making grimy beats and mixtapes with local London rappers, another influence that’s clearly stamped itself on the latest Shapes release. While the group's first album, Jewellery, also toyed with abrasiveness, Never breaks away from the cuteness and quirk of those songs. "What matters is whether you're genuinely excited by it," Levi told the Guardian about the Shapes' use of unconventional sound earlier this month. "The braver you are, the more careless you are with it, the better it is."

"Step Up Revolution": Batman Turned Upside Down

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 1:27 PM PDT

Step Up Revolution
Lionsgate
100 minutes

For an hour and forty minutes, this movie wages a jihad on the human capacity for patience. It's the aggravating cinematic equivalent of playing Dance Dance Revolution with far too many middle-schoolers, all of whom are tripping balls on Gorilla Glue. It's a paper-thin, stodgily choreographed, criminally acted exercise in how many people from season six of So You Think You Can Dance you can legally fit into one movie.

It's also a sap-sodden love letter to the working class (in 3D): Coursing through the veins of Step Up's cookie-cutter plot is the moral message of impoverished masses rescuing society from excesses of the mega-wealthy. Politically, it is the exact inverse of The Dark Knight Rises. [Mild spoilers to follow.]

Your Weekend Longreads List on the Genetics of Life

| Fri Jul. 27, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Photo by djem/ShuttPhoto by djem/Shutt

longreads

Can your genes be "owned" by someone else? Well, over a quarter of them already are, but the debate rages on about whether or not this is kosher. Last Friday, the the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit began hearing a Supreme Court-mandated case over whether isolated human genes can be patented in the first place. The defendants, Myriad Genetics, hold patents for two genes hugely implicated in breast cancer—and by extension control the means to test the genes for potentially dangerous mutations.

It's unclear whether this case will settle the two-year tug-of-war over whether our naturally-occurring genes can qualify as patentable human inventions. But in the meantime, here are some weekend #longreads that weave together stories about families, politics, and self-identity—all through the lens of our basic genetic building blocks. For more long stories from the pages of Mother Jones, check out our longreads archive. And, of course, if you're not following @longreads and @motherjones on Twitter yet, get on that. Have a great weekend, readers!



"Facing Life With a Fatal Gene"
| Amy Harmon | The New York Times | March 2007

When a daughter tests positive for carrying the lethal Huntington's gene, it means her mother must be a carrier as well. Amy Harmon's moving account tells the story of a girl determined to face her inevitable disease head-on, and a mother who insists on denying it—while already beginning her downward spiral into brain disease.

In the tumultuous months that followed, Ms. Moser often found herself unable to remember what normal had once been. She forced herself to renounce the crush she had long nursed on a certain firefighter, sure that marriage was no longer an option for her. She threw herself into fund-raising in the hopes that someone would find a cure. Sometimes, she raged...She never, she said, regretted being tested. But at night, crying herself to sleep in the dark of her lavender bedroom, she would go over and over it. She was the same, but she was also different. And there was nothing she could do.
 

"Defining Jews, Defining a Nation: Can Genetics Save Israel?" | Jeff Wheelwright | The Atlantic | March 2012

A conference of Israeli and American geneticists studying Jewish DNA devolves into the question: What does it mean to be a Jew?

Is a person Jewish because of blood or because of culture? Must Jewish identity follow the biological pathway of descent, like those tongue-twisting names in the Hebrew Bible connected by begat, or can Jewishness be acquired merely by espousing the faith?…The implications of the debate matter for more than just Jewish Israelis. Allowing for biological yardsticks of Jewish ancestry begs a question about the blood origins of the Palestinians in their midst. On the family tree of humanity the two peoples are surprisingly close, or so says science.
 

"An Error in the Code" | Richard Preston | The New Yorker | August 2007

An extremely rare genetic mutation discovered in 1964 causes boys to have strikingly devastating self-mutilating behaviors. This is the story of two men living with the disease, and what they can tell us about the genetic roots of human behavior.

I went back several times to visit James Elrod and Jim Murphy, and began helping their staff with daily tasks. Elrod spat in my face a few times, and gave me a left jab to the jaw. Once, his Kevlar-covered fingers closed on my skin like pliers; he apologized while we both worked to get them loose. Murphy, at his thirty-third birthday party, planted his face in his cake, and then punched me. Nevertheless, I came to like them a lot.
 

"My Genome, My Self" | Steven Pinker | New York Times Magazine | January 2009

Experimental psychologist and popular science writer Steven Pinker takes us on a unique quest of self-discovery: having his genome sequenced and posting it online for geneticists to analyze. This is the story of what he learns along the way.

People have long been familiar with tests for heritable diseases, and the use of genetics to trace ancestry—the new “Roots”—is becoming familiar as well. But we are only beginning to recognize that our genome also contains information about our temperaments and abilities. Affordable genotyping may offer new kinds of answers to the question “Who am I?”—to ruminations about our ancestry, our vulnerabilities, our character and our choices in life.
 

"Who Owns My Disease?" | Arthur Allen | Mother Jones | Nov/Dec 2001

The Human Genome Project was just drawing to a close, and one family dealing with a rare genetic disease decided to take the issue of gene patenting into their own hands.

After overcoming their initial awe at scientists and their jargon, they came to a disheartening conclusion. "We realized nobody knows what's happening with this disease," Sharon recalled…With the help of friends, neighbors, fellow patient advocates, and the Internet, the Terrys embarked on an unprecedented project: They sought out people with PXE and their family members, and asked them to provide blood and tissue samples. "We realized that if we got enough people's DNA, we could find the gene," Sharon Terry explains. "So we decided to make a central repository. And we decided to keep the key to the repository ourselves."

Short Takes: "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"

| Wed Jul. 25, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

SUNDANCE SELECTS

91 minutes

Knowing what fate has in store for the Chinese dissident artist gives Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry a foreboding air. At the outset, we see Ai, revered for his work at the Beijing Olympics, fearlessly tallying kids killed in the Sichuan earthquake thanks to shoddily built schools. He sues a cop who hits him on the head, documenting each bureaucratic step with cameras and tweets. And when the authorities demolish his studio, he holds a public "celebration." With each act, you wonder if this will be the one that lands him in solitary, where he will spend 81 days for "tax evasion." Lockup costs Ai some of his swagger, but the deluge of donations to pay his fine speaks to his inspirational clout and social-media mojo.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

LCD Soundsystem's "Best Funeral Ever"

| Mon Jul. 23, 2012 3:06 AM PDT

LCD Soundsystem
Shut Up and Play the Hits
Oscilloscope Laboratories

A little over a year ago, James Murphy announced that his band, the indie dance-punk group LCD Soundsystem, would play its final show at Madison Square Garden in April. For many, the announcement came out of the blue—the band had released three critically-adored, fan-beloved records, and seemed to be at the top of its game. But that was the idea: "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever," reads the title card that opens Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary about that final show and the forty-eight hours before and after. It's a glorified concert film, but one that aims to be something more, to varying effect. 

For those of us who, say, watched the final performance alone in the wee hours of the morning on a patchy livestream thousands of miles away, and for whom never seeing the band live is a great life regret, Shut Up and Play the Hits is about as close as we're likely to get. The film capturing this last hurrah screened in a small number of theaters around the US on July 18, in an attempt at recreating the concert vibe. As Murphy explained, "it seemed like it would be better to see this in a theater that was pretty full, and pretty full of other people who actually wanted to be there," and while people weren't exactly getting up and dancing in their seats, there was a lot of vigorous head-nodding. The live show emphasizes the punk aspects of the band's sound without losing any of the dance, and footage of ecstatic concertgoers letting loose is a highlight. Getting people moving is the LCD Soundsystem ethos: Murphy says the band grew out of wanting "to play for people who were having fun."

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Between Burma and a Hard Place

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

(Nowhere People, 2012)(Nowhere People, 2012)Though ostensibly a photo book, Exiled to Nowhere serves as a vivid collection of reportage that few magazines could (or, these days, would) deliver. Photojournalist Greg Constantine takes us to the Burma-Bangladesh border, where tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees live in crowded, dirty camps. A minority long prosecuted by the Burmese government, the Rohingya live in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty. Their pervasive sense of living essentially "nowhere" is what Constantine successfully captures in his latest book.

Whereas Saiful Huq Omi's powerful photographic work for the Magnum Foundation traces the wider diaspora of the Rohingya living in England, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, Constantine's book focuses primarily on the tense border region inhabited by tens of thousands of Rohingya.

Shot in stark black and white, Constantine's photos subvert any romantic notions of what it's like to be a working documentary photographer, instead evoking the patience and commitment required. Constantine shot the series over the course of eight different trips, between 2006 and 2012.

Detained RohingyaA group of Rohingya men are detained at a highway checkpoint in southern Bangladesh.
The 92 photos in the book detail life in various refugee camps, showing the monotony and struggles of daily life. They give a sense of who these people are: In the different camps, among the different families, a repetition of a muddy, difficult, yet somehow self-sure existence emerges.

Kutupalong Makeshift Camp Greg ConstantineOver the last 20 years, legions of Rohingya have fled their homeland and now live as unrecognized refugees in neighboring Bangladesh. Some 20,000 live in the squalid environs known as Kutupalong Makeshift camp.
The book's accompanying interviews and text provide important context: Reading about how Thai authorities pushed boats full of Bangladeshi and Rohingya refugees out to sea—many of them to their deaths—or about how others were threatened and viciously beaten in Burma, adds that much more impact to the photos.

Tal Makeshift Camp A woman and her grandchild sit on the side of the road at the Tal Makeshift Camp near the town of Teknaf. Most Rohingya in southern Bangladesh are not recognized as refugees and receive little or no humanitarian assistance.
The bar is high when it comes to grabbing the attention of readers (and photo editors) with projects focused on human rights in desolate places. It's refreshing to get yanked out of that jaded place by a successful project like Constantine's.
 

A group of Rohingya men push their fishing boat back onto shore. Most Rohingya men in the Shamlapur area of Bangladesh work as bonded laborers and are trapped into debt to local Bangladeshi boat owners.A group of Rohingya men push their fishing boat back onto shore. Most Rohingya men in the Shamlapur region of Bangladesh work as bonded laborers and are trapped in debt to local Bangladeshi boat owners.
Exiled to Nowhere
is the second book in a longer term project called Nowhere People, a documentation of stateless people around the world in places including Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Ukraine, and Bangladesh. (Constantine's first book, Kenya's Nubians: Then & Now, was published in November 2011.) It's an ambitious undertaking, and perhaps one that only a thoroughly committed photographer like Constantine could pull off.

The Happiest Day of Joanna Newsom's Mom's Life

| Mon Jul. 16, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

Joanna Newsom and Philip Glass? Sounds like a match made in heaven—or in San Francisco, where the two recently joined forces for a concert to benefit the Henry Miller Library, the small bookstore and community arts center tucked away in the redwoods overlooking the cliffs of Big Sur that's become an icon of the California coast and its culture.

Neither artist is a stranger to high-powered collaborations: Glass has worked with everyone from Woody Allen to Brian Eno, while Newsom's worked with the likes of Vashti Bunyan and The Roots. This particular combination, though, is particularly exciting: both Glass and Newsom utilize a rigorous classical training in service of creating new, occasionally bizarre, forms that've provided new points of entry to quasi-classical music for millions of fans while befuddling or outright alienating plenty of others.

Glass became famous for his minimalist, repetitive compositions and has written pioneering works for opera, film, and theater, while Newsom made a name for herself with her harp, inimitably high-pitched voice, and intricate, baroque, art-pop songs. Both are iconoclastic performers and polarizing figures, inspiring intense devotion or immense distaste. Tim Fain, the violinist who joined the two for the concert, is less well-known—though likely not for long, given his virtuosic talent and the company he keeps. 

Vive la France! A Belated Bastille Day Playlist

| Mon Jul. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Heads will roll...to the beat of these awesome tunes!

In the summer of 1789, France was embroiled in political and social bedlam. Decades of built-up bitterness and desperation roused by meager harvests, soaring bread prices, oppressive taxes, and a government that had frittered away its royal coffers erupted on July 14: A mob stormed and captured the Bastille garrison in Paris, igniting a decade of revolutionary discord. Blood spilled by the buckets. Heads were piked like saucy meatballs on a platter. An absolute monarch was exchanged for an emperor. Marie Antoinette didn't say anything about cake.

Sacré bleu!

"Political Animals" = A Fictional Hillary Clinton Tale, Without Wit or Intrigue

| Fri Jul. 13, 2012 10:39 AM PDT

Today, I declare the era of collectively hating on The Newsroom officially over.

Why, you might ask? Well, after watching the mind-blowingly clumsy miniseries Political Animals, Aaron Sorkin's mercilessly maligned HBO show suddenly feels like a bastion of realism and soul-stirring TV drama. (This is not unlike sticking your face in a bonfire, and then immediately sticking your face into something boiling hot that is not a bonfire—the relief is undeniably sweet.)

Political Animals (premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on USA Network) follows the family drama surrounding Elaine Barrish (played by Sigourney Weaver), a fictional former First Lady of the United States. After losing the Democratic primary to the young hope-and-change candidate Paul Garcetti, she takes accepts the job of Secretary of State in her former opponent's administration. (Her defeat is attributed largely to her cold demeanor, accusations of being a "closet conservative," and unlikability.) Her ex-husband is former POTUS Donald "Bud" Hammond (Ciarán Hinds), an adulterous, womanzing, yet popular Democrat with bona fide Southern roots. Two years into her gig at State, Elaine enjoys a 180-degree image makeover and a serious spike in popularity, renewing chatter of another White House run.

The inaugural two episodes of Political Animals takes place against a backdrop of a tanking American economy, a do-nothing Congress, public disillusionment, and a standoff with the Iranian government.

So... yeah.