Mixed Media

RIP Joan Rivers

| Thu Sep. 4, 2014 3:32 PM EDT
A photo of Joan Rivers in 1967. Wikimedia Commons

Joan Rivers has died at 81.

This video of her performance on the The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 is one of our favorites.

RIP.

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Gemma Ray's Latest Is Fresh and Unsettling

| Mon Sep. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Gemma Ray
Milk for Your Motors
Bronze Rat

A perfect master of noir pop, British-born Gemma Ray turns a familiar recipe—twangy guitars, dreamy melodies, hazy rhythms and wistful voices—into something fresh and more than a little unsettling. Milk for Your Motors transcends artful background music because her songs are smart and unpredictable, encompassing the nostalgic desire of "When I Kissed You" ("I want to remember how I kissed you / ’round the back of the air-raid shelter") and the gruesome dark comedy of "Waving at Mirrors" ("It was all a terrible mess / Which came from nothing less / Than a moment carelessly spent applying make up instead of driving") Aching and wry at once, Ray is a mesmerizing presence, mixing brainy cool and genuine passion with precise skill. For added hipster cred, note cameos by Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and Alan Vega (Suicide), who references his own classic "Dream Baby Dream" on the spooky "Out in the Rain."

5 Dazzling Female Singers on the Rise

| Mon Sep. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Frazey Ford, Diana Gameros, FKA Twigs, Sevyn Streeter, and Irene Diaz

Summer's pulling to a close, but perk up. Here are videos of five refreshing female vocalists whose smart and uncompromising performances have dazzled me recently:

1. Frazey Ford

Fans of the quirky alt-folk band the Be Good Tanyas—of which Frazey Ford is a founding member—won't be disappointed with this sneak-peek single off Ford's upcoming solo album, Indian Ocean, out in mid-October. With subtle vibrato and pulsing emotion, Ford's velvety vocals take center stage in "September Fields." While Ford's a country-folk singer at heart, the electric organ in the track transforms her normally aching lullaby into something funkier and full of sunshine. As I listened, I kept picturing late summer drives through peaceful farm towns, passing barns with their paint peeling, peach stands framed by dry corn stalks, little girls in their Sunday best giggling on the steps of a small church. "Are you holding, holding on so tight?" Ford croons. Yes—to the edge of my seat in anticipation for her album to land.

2. Diana Gameros

One evening in July, Mexican singer Diana Gameros boarded the historic Balclutha, a tall ship parked in the San Francisco Bay. Under violet lights in the main cabin, alongside a handful of other masterful Latin American musicians, she delivered "Canciones Del Mar (Songs of the Sea)." The group performed ocean homages plucked from all over the continent, from fishing ditties to a silly tune about an octopus to a tribute to the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, who is said to have ended her own life by wading into the sea.

Gameros also performed her original, "Soy Tu Mar," and released this humble video a month later. The waves washing through the ballad offer the singer an ethereal alternative rhythm, and pair well with her bright nylon-stringed Takamine guitar with a sound reminiscent of a mariachi. Gameros grew up bouncing between her hometown of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and Holland, Michigan, where she learned English and studied music. She now resides in the Bay Area and plays regularly at a tamale parlor in San Francisco's Mission District. Her delicate first album, Eterno Retorno, showcases Gameros' bilingual songwriting and jazzy voice. Like "Soy Tu Mar," it's at once full of yearning and serenity. Don't miss the improvised bonus song in the tunnel at the end of the video.

3. Sevyn Streeter

Ignore the nails and revel in this diva's silky and powerful voice. It baffles me that the guys lifting weights in the righthand corner of this scren were able to hold it together while Streeter just kills it.

With roots in church gospel music, Streeter started winning talent competitions at a young age, but her cousin had to convince her to upload her music to MySpace. It soon caught the eye of Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez's producer Rich Harrison, who asked Streeter to join RichGirl, a new pop group he was forming. The band never really took off, but Streeter continued to write songs, and six of the tracks she helped pen made it onto Chris Brown's Grammy-winning album F.A.M.E.

Now, with an EP to her name, Streeter is working on a debut album. The singles out so far are gussied up with plenty of electronic beats and echo-y harmonies. But after seeing this video, I hope she releases more stripped-down acoustic tracks that allow her pure voice full reign.

4. FKA Twigs

Move over Gaga: FKA Twigs has arrived. This satisfyingly weird artist struts her sultry vocals and mesmerizing poise in the video version of "Two Weeks." This year saw the London-based Twigs, a former backup dancer, move into the spotlight with her album LP1. Hipster music blog Pitchfork raves about its "eerie, post-humanist, Uncanny Valley-girl aesthetic." Indeed, Twigs plays a doll in many of the surreal videos off this album—in "Water Me," her head bobs from side to side and her eyes are unnaturally large.

In the video above, she's an unapproachable empress. But amid all this cold posturing, her voice is piercingly intimate. And her command of her space and skilled restraint suggest that this 26-year-old half-Jamaican artist is only getting started.

5. Irene Diaz

Okay, this video's not brand new. But Irene Diaz is probably new to most of you. I just stumbled on her recently (h/t NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts), and I'm hooked on this playful song with its driving piano and flirtatious glances.

Based in Los Angeles, the soulful Diaz is just breaking into the national scene, playing at 2014's SXSW and opening for Lila Downs' on her current tour. Diaz seems like she'd be a ton of fun live—but here's hoping she pauses from touring long enough to complete her first full-length album soon. As one blogger pointed out, Diaz sounds a bit like Fiona Apple, but her songs aren't quite so morose. They're muscular and catchy, with a hint of vintage spunk.

The NFL Finally Fixed Its Weak Domestic-Violence Penalties

| Fri Aug. 29, 2014 11:12 AM EDT
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League has drastically toughened its punishments for domestic violence after weeks of uproar over its weak response to the case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. Rice received a two-game suspension after allegedly assaulting his fiancée, while players who tested positive for marijuana—some in states where weed is legal—were handed four-game and even season-long suspensions.

In a letter to NFL owners Thursday, commissioner Robert Goodell wrote that the league had fallen short in "a recent incident of domestic violence" and announced that a first-time domestic-violence offender would now receive a six-game suspension. Repeat offenders, he wrote, would face indefinite bans, with the possibility to apply for reinstatement after a year.

To be clear, there's no epidemic of domestic violence among NFL players; this graph from FiveThirtyEight shows that NFL players are generally less likely to be arrested than the rest of 25-to-29-year-old American men*:

 morris-datalab-nfl-vaw-1

Rather, this smells a lot like a PR-related move from the league, which has seen its reputation suffer in the wake of Rice's light penalty. After all, it's not like the NFL jumped to punish any of the following four players, all of whom were involved in domestic incidents during Goodell's tenure as commissioner:

  • AJ Jefferson: In February, Jefferson allegedly strangled his girlfriend and was arrested and charged with assault. The Minnesota Vikings released him hours later, but he was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks this spring.
  • Chad Johnson: In 2012, Johnson was arrested for head-butting his wife and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery. He pleaded no contest, was sentenced to probation and was cut by the Miami Dolphins.
  • Brandon Marshall: The Chicago Bears' star wide receiver has one of the lengthier rap sheets in the league. Since 2004, he has been arrested five times, twice on domestic-violence charges, and has been involved in 10 disputes—many involving violence against women—in which no charges were filed. Marshall was suspended one game in 2009 over charges he'd abused his girlfriend in 2008 (he was acquitted); in 2007, he was arrested after preventing his girlfriend's taxi from leaving his home, completed anger management, and did not receive punishment from the NFL.
  • Quinn Ojinnaka: The former Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman was suspended for one game in 2010 after a dispute in which he threw his wife down a flight of stairs and out of their home. (The dispute is said to have begun over Ojinnaka contacting a woman via Facebook.)

Ultimately, the NFL is deeply invested in maintaining a clean, family-friendly image, and Goodell is clearly responding to claims that the league takes smoking pot more seriously than it does violence against women. While it's good that future domestic-violence offenders will receive more appropriate punishment, the timing of his letter—just a day after a vocal outcry about Rice's punishment—makes it seem like the move of an embarrassed league looking to crack down on players who embarrass it.

Goodell is burnishing his reputation as an authoritarian who's concerned with appearances, rather than a commissioner who leverages the league's reach and resources to actually address issues like domestic violence.

*Note: As commenter Bumpasaurus pointed out, the data from the FiveThirtyEight chart is "adjusted for poverty status." NFL players are wealthy, and compared to other, wealthy individuals in the same age group, "the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary."

"The Troll Slayer": Don't Miss This Fascinating Profile of Mary Beard

| Wed Aug. 27, 2014 3:40 PM EDT
Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard

Here is a partial list of things for which the British historian Mary Beard has gained reverence and notoriety:

  • Positing that Pompeiians had bad breath, based on tartar levels on their fossilized teeth.
  • Theorizing that Romans didn't smile, since Latin lacks words for anything resembling one.
  • Being the world's foremost scholar on how Romans pooped.
  • Going on television without wearing makeup or dying her gray hair.
  • Retweeting a message she got from a 20-year-old calling her a "filthy old slut."
  • On 9/11: suggesting that on some level, the United States "had it coming."
  • Disclosing that she was raped when she was 20 in an essay on rape in ancient Rome.

You can read all about it in Rebecca Mead's excellent new New Yorker profile on the endlessly fascinating Cambridge don. It opens on a lecture that Beard gave earlier this year at the British Museum, titled "Oh Do Shut Up, Dear!," on the long literary history of men keeping women quiet, from the Odyssey's Penelope ordered upstairs to her weaving by her son—"Speech will be the business of men," he says—to the death threats, rape threats, and general nastiness that Beard and other outspoken women get online. ("I'm going to cut off your head and rape it," read one of her tweet mentions.) For her part, Beard does not subscribe to the "don't feed the trolls" school of thought when it comes to dealing with online assailants. She engages, both publicly and privately, often with surprising results:

She has discovered that, quite often, she receives not only an apology from them but also a poignant explanation…After a "Question Time" viewer wrote to her that she was "evil," further correspondence revealed that he was mostly upset because he wanted to move to Spain and didn't understand the bureaucracy. "It took two minutes on Google to discover the reciprocal health-care agreement, so I sent it to him," she says. "Now when I have a bit of Internet trouble, I get an e-mail from him saying, 'Mary, are you all right? I was worried about you.'"

Fun stuff. And when you're done with Mead's piece, check out Beard's latest book, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up.

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Music Review: "To Turn You On" by Robyn Hitchcock

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
robyn hitchcock

TRACK 3

"To Turn You On"

From Robyn Hitchcock's The Man Upstairs

YEP ROC

Liner notes: Hitchcock gives Bryan Ferry's morose love song a charming, irony-free makeover, setting his surprisingly tender vocal to a delicate chamber-folk arrangement.

Behind the music: The former Soft Boys leader teamed with producer Joe Boyd (Fairport Convention, Anna and Kate McGarrigle) for this vibrant mix of originals and covers (Doors, Psychedelic Furs).

Check it out if you like: Vital vets like Richard Thompson and Marshall Crenshaw.

This review originally appeared in our September/October issue of Mother Jones. 

Liam Bailey's "Definitely Now" is Sneakily Addictive

| Mon Aug. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Liam Bailey
Definitely NOW
Flying Buddha/Sony Music

Liam Bailey

Liam Bailey's smoky rasp of a voice would enhance any setting. On this sneakily addictive debut, the UK singer skillfully mixes slick modern pop, old-school soul, torch ballads, and a dash of reggae, creating a familiar yet fresh brew reminiscent of the great Amy Winehouse, an early champion of his. Where some young vocalists tend to emote excessively in an attempt to show off their skills, Bailey makes a virtue of understatement. He's thoroughly engaging on uptempo numbers like "Villain" and "Fool Boy," but especially effective on slower late-night tunes such as "Autumn Leaves" (not the pop standard) and "So, Down Cold." Make it mellow, Liam.

Also read: Bailey spoke to photographer Jacob Blickenstaff about making the album and his split with Jimi Hendrix's old label, Polydor.

Motown's First No. 1 Hit, "Please Mr. Postman," Released 53 Years Ago

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 6:01 AM EDT

The knockout girl group song "Please Mr. Postman," by the Marvelettes was released on August 21, 1961. Later in the year it went on to become the first Motown single to hit #1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.

 

Motown wouldn't hit the #1 position again until 1963, when Little Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips, Pt. 2" reached the top. From that point on, Motown was a non-stop hit machine with at least one #1 hit on the charts each year through 1974. 1970 proved to be Motown's best year–they dominated Billboard with seven top hits.

The Marvelettes followed "Please Mr. Postman" with "Twistin' Postman," in an effort to cash in on their own song and the popularity of "The Twist." That song hit #34 on the pop charts, and was followed by their bigger hits "Playboy" and the current oldies radio staple "Beechwood 4-5789." Like a lot of groups of the era, the Marvelettes had a hard time cracking the charts once the British Invasion hit States.

 

"I Pay Taxes out My Ass But They Still Harass Me": 11 Amazing Songs About Police Brutality

| Wed Aug. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Last Friday, just days after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, 29-year-old North Carolina rapper J. Cole uploaded the stirring tribute "Be Free" to his SoundCloud, dedicating it to "every young black man murdered in America." The song promptly went viral.

Protests against the shooting, and police brutality more broadly, already had been gaining steam as the police launched a highly militarized crackdown, and Cole's timely reaction—in visceral, heartfelt form—struck a chord among people who know what it's like to be profiled or harassed by law enforcement. As Cole writes in a blog post introducing the track, "That coulda been me, easily. That could have been my best friend."

Cole is hardly the only one speaking out: Artists as far and wide as Frank Ocean, Big Boi, Moby, John Legend, and Young Jeezy have taken to Twitter and the airwaves in recent days to express their dissent, and Cole is part of a long tradition of musicians who have done so in song. Here are eleven other amazing tracks on the topic of police brutality in America:

1. "Oxford Town," by Bob Dylan: Dylan wrote this tune in 1962 in response to a magazine solicitation for songs about the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, its first black student. Covered here by Richie Havens, it makes terse observations about a racist police force that don't seem too far off today: "Guns and clubs followed him down / All because his face was brown / Better get away from Oxford Town."


2. "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)," by The Rolling Stones: "You're a heartbreaker / With your .44," Mick Jagger sings of the New York police in this symphonic 1973 double-ballad from the album Goats Head Soup.


3. "Who Got the Camera?" by Ice Cube: Released on the heels of the Los Angeles riots provoked by the beating of Rodney King, Ice Cube narrates the experience of being a black motorist harassed by law enforcement. "Police gettin badder," he raps. But "if I had a camera, the shit wouldn't matter."


4. "Sound of Da Police," by KRS-ONE: "Whoop, whoop! That's the sound of the police!" goes the memorable hook off KRS-One's 1993 debut solo album, Return of the Boom Bap. "After 400 years, I've got no choices," he raps, noting the continuity between slavery and racist policing. "The overseer rode around the plantation," he raps, while "the officer is off patrolling all the nation."


5. "The Beast," by The Fugees: "Warn the town, the beast is loose," the Fugees sing over police sirens in this 1996 classic. Lauryn Hill, Pras Michel, and Wyclef Jean spit old-school rhymes from gritty "ghetto Gotham," where "I pay taxes out my ass but they still harass me."


6. "American Skin (41 Shots)," by Bruce Springsteen: "41 shots," goes the chorus to Springsteen's 2000 tribute to 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot at that many times by four NYPD officers who killed him outside his Bronx apartment in February 1999. "Well, is it a gun? Is it a knife? / Is it a wallet? This is your life," he sings, referencing the cops' purported rationale for the barrage, which began when Diallo reached for his wallet. Backed by the E Street Band, Springsteen mournfully reminds us that "You can get killed just for living in your American skin."


7. "Made You Die," by Dead Prez, Yasiin Bey, and mikeflo: Dead Prez's stic.man, consistently one of hip-hop's sharpest social commentators, opens this Trayvon Martin tribute with his characteristic community-mindedness: "Now let's put it all in perspective / Before the outrage burns out misdirected / What can we do so our community's protected?" The three other MCs join in to flow on what Bey calls a "young black world in a struggle for a survival."


8. "Don't Die," by Killer Mike: Killer Mike has long protested the corrosive effects of racist policing on black communities in his native Atlanta, where his own father was a cop. In this song off his 2012 release R.A.P. Music, Mike works through the nuances of that personal history, acknowledging that while police are often honest, working-class individuals, their institutional role can be insidious. "'Fuck tha police' is still all I gotta say," he concludes, paying homage to the NWA hit from the dawn of gangsta rap.


9. "Stand Your Ground," by Pharoahe Monch: Here Monch repurposes the name of the Florida law used to justify George Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin into a slogan for community organizers rallying in the killing's aftermath. "Get involved, get involved, get involved," the Queens rapper urges over roaring guitar riffs, soliciting support for the Martin family foundation in its effort to repeal the statutes.


10. "Amerika," by Lil Wayne: Lil Wayne is a rapper far better known for punch lines than political analysis, but he leaves the puns behind (mostly) in this somber single from last summer. In the video, riot police stand glaring in front of a flag whose stars "are never shining." Wayne's "Amerika" is a blighted landscape of foreclosed homes and teargas for which he modifies the patriotic anthem: "My country 'tis of thee / Sweet land of kill 'em all and let 'em die."


11. "Remove Ya," by Ratking: In this dance-y, grime-influenced track, the young rap experimentalists reflect on their daily experiences with cops in today's New York. The song is a upbeat call for community against adversity, featuring rapper Wiki playing off the well-circulated Nation recording of an NYPD officer's stopping and frisking a guy ("for being a fucking mutt"): "I'm a mutt, you a mutt, yeah, we some mutts." His companion Hak chimes in with memories of being arbitrarily stopped by an officer: "Hear the 'whoop whoop whoop whoop, stop don't move' / 'Hands on the hood, you gave me that look, wearing your hood.'"