Ingrid Michaelson
Everybody

Much of chanteuse Ingrid Michaelson’s charm lies in her unpretentious approach: Her sparse use of ukulele, piano, and guitar. Her warm voice. Her clean, catchy melodies.

On Everybody, which quickly soared to No. 1 on the iTunes charts, Michaelson evokes this simple style to mostly good effect. Part of the credit goes to the producers (of which she is one), who understand when to punctuate the minimalism with flourish. "The Chain," for instance, is elevated by a vocal round at the climax, while "Man of Snow" benefits from an ethereal string section in the chorus.

Yet at times it is Michaelson's austerity that snags her. This is most apparent in the lyrics, which can tread the line between earnest and treacly. I gotta see if I'm filled up when it's only me/It's not your fault but you just can't be here she croons in "Once Was Love." In "Locked Up," she asks Have I taken a wrong turn? When will I learn? Great lyrics manage to be both personal and profound, and Michaelson seems to struggle sometimes.

The Conde Nast Conspiracy

Last week, a shocking GQ investigative report, "None Dare Call it Conspiracy," hit the newsstands. Not that most people would know about it. Oddly, the magazine's parent company, Conde Nast, seems bent on squelching the explosive article.

The report links Russia's intelligence service to a series of bombings in 1999—blamed on Chechen terrorists—that killed over 300 Russian citizens, led to the Second Chechen War, and propelled Vladimir Putin to the presidency. At the center of the story is a Mikhail Trepashkin, a former KGB-turned-FSB agent, whose detailed allegations draw into question Putin's role in the bombings. Similar inquiries have led to the mysterious deaths of both journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Trepashkin's former colleague Alexander Litvinenko.

Perhaps fearing that the story would impact the advertising revenues of the four titles Conde Nast publishes in the Russian market, the media company has attempted to bury the piece. In an internal email on July 23, obtained by NPR's David Folkenflik, one of the media company's top lawyers informed GQ editors that "Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of US GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson's article...should not be distributed in Russia." The report was not teased on the magazine's cover and, as of now, is not available on the magazine's website. Gawker has attempted to rectify the situation by posting a scanned copy of the article on its website and asking readers to help them translate the article into Russian.

While Conde Nast has thus far been silent on the NPR report (they did not respond to my request for comment), this appears to be a clear-cut case of commercial interests trumping journalistic integrity. As Scott Anderson, the author of the piece said to Folkenflik

I think it's really kind of sad. Here now is finally an outlet for this story to be told, and you do everything possible to throw a tarp over it.

By attempting to stifle the report, Conde Nast may end up succeeding in bringing more attention to the piece. That, and inadvertently making one of the strongest arguments yet for supporting independent nonprofit media like NPR (and Mother Jones).

Filmmaker, Photojournalist Killed in El Salvador

Christian Poveda, a prominent French filmmaker and photojournalist who spent years chronicling the lives of El Salvadorian gang members, has been found dead—possibly the victim of his subjects.

Poveda first came to El Salvador in the 1980's, to photograph the country's civil war for Time. He returned in the 1990's to document its gritty gang life, and in 2008 produced the acclaimed documentary La Vida Loca (Crazy Life).

To see Poveda's haunting portraits of El Salvadorian gang members, whom he called "victims of society," click here. For more of his work, click here.

Washingon Monthly's College Guide

Ask not what your college does for you, but what your college does for the country. That's the creed of the Washington Monthly's annual college guide, released this week. This is the newest in a string of college rankings, ranging from the elite US News & World Report to the hilarious GQ, which ranked the country's 25 Douchiest Colleges. But the Washington Monthly's guide stands apart. It explains:

Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? Every year we lavish billions of tax dollars and other public benefits on institutions of higher learning. This guide asks: Are we getting the most for our money?

Of all of the college rankings I've seen, this most closely matches the ethos behind the 2009 "MoJo Mini College Guide," because both place smart, fearless education and public service above endowment size and reputation. US News, for example, describes Kentucky's Berea College, one of the ten schools on MoJo's guide, simply as a "Tier 3" school. But Washington Monthly placed it at #12 on it's list of top liberal arts colleges, perhaps because it offers all students free tuition for four years. For more examples like Berea, check out the the MoJo Mini College Guide, which includes some of the best schools you've never heard of that won't destroy your wallet, the best jobs that don't require a college degree, and some of the more... uh... creative funding options out there.

Low Res: Designing Veterans Mental Health

The 2010 United States defense budget is officially $533.7 billion, but it's been estimated that it's closer to $780 billion. The Department of Veterans Affairs budget is about $56 billion. That means that we spend 10 times as much to fight wars as we do to take care of the people who fought them.

Granted, weaponry is pretty damn expensive. So is getting soldiers to the two fronts we are currently fighting on (and the many other places where we are present) and making sure that all 1.5 million active duty personnel and over 800,000 reservists have the resources they need—though the extent to which we do that appropriately is questionable. But, according to the VA we also have 25 million living veterans, and a full 1/4 of the US population is eligible for benefits.

As they say, money talks, and sometimes it speaks directly to you through advertising. Recently, San Francisco Bay Area public transit has been besieged by ads for a mental health hot line for veterans. While this type of outreach is long overdue, the effort being undertaken to address veterans' mental health is overshadowed by the campaign's awful design.

If you look closely at the ad above that appeared in BART trains, you'll notice that the proud American flag in the background looks like it was pasted from the Internet and then blown up, the outline of the soldier has some serious anatomical problems, and the god-awful yellow text is incredibly hard to read.

As it turns out, that grainy flag isn't just a dpi problem. The VA must have thought the grainy Stars and Stripes was "arty," because the graininess is the same on this much larger ad that appeared on AC Transit buses:

But, does design really matter? Yes, it does. While it is great that a concerted effort is being made to address the needs of veterans' mental health, these slipshod ads are nothing compared to recruiting ads.

The active military has moved past the print campaigns of yore into snazzy television commercials (now with a softer, kinder feel), video games, mall-based "experience centers," flash-laden websites and of course going directly to the source in our nation's classrooms.

Every branch of the military has a separate recruiting website. The VA, however, only has one. It would be a fine website, if it were say, 1999. But, compare it to the Army one, where you can watch videos, play games, and even have a virtual sergeant show you around, and you begin to see where our priorities lie.

Thankfully, the Veterans Administration is not alone. It seems that both the VA and the Department of Defense have realized that they cannot meet the needs of this growing group. There are many private citizens working with government agencies in an attempt to fill the gap and address veterans', and active duty soldiers', needs. If you, or anyone you know, needs support, visit The National Resource Directory's (better designed) site for a list of the organizations that are there to help.

Full Disclosure: I love M.I.A. I have loved M.I.A. since "Sun Showers" was a single, and I will keep loving her long after anyone else does. Even so, I tried not to get my hopes up for her Sunday show at Outside Lands. The complex rythms, beats, and remixes on Kala can't be reproduced on stage. That leaves just Maya Arulpragasm, which is fine for a club or the back of a record store, but not well suited to a stadium. After a lackluster Coachella performance this spring and that just-plain-weird Grammy appearance, there wasn't much to expect.

Fortunately, her hour-long set took me completely by surprise. The rapper has amped up her stage show, with a troupe of back-up dancers (including two almost identical looking redheads in Michael Jackson t-shirts and women gyrating in neon zebra-print leggings), an IMAX worthy video screen replaying a colorized version of the performance in near-real time, and a wardrobe straight out of a 1980s preschool nightmare. Before launching into the single "Boyz", M.I.A. and her back-up militia dumped hundreds of neon plastic horns into the crowd.

  (Translation: "A lot has changed since I last came here. I got engaged here. And then I got pregnant here. And now I'm really, really scared of this fucking town!")

In short, after several near-misses at big shows in the past, Arulpragasm finally seems ready for her close-up. Which is good, since, although Tenacious D technically performed later (filling in for the Beastie Boys), M.I.A. really had the last word on the main stage this past weekend.

 

Music Monday: 15 Minutes With Bat for Lashes

Natasha Khan might be a warrior on stage, but she didn't look much like her musical persona, Bat For Lashes, when we met her on a dusty access road backstage at Outside Lands. Absent were the circles of glittery eye-shadow, pastiche '80s outfits and feathered headdresses. Khan is known almost as much for her style as for the haunting lyrics and etheral voice that distinguish her sophomore album, Two Suns. Adorned in a simple red dress and brown moccasins with just a hint of blue and gold around her eyes, the singer/songwriter sipped tea and chatted about touring with Radiohead, building buzz in the States, and life after the Big Apple—not to mention magic carpets, emerald cities and the Freudian psychology of Steven Spielberg.

Mother Jones: Is this what you'll be wearing on stage?

Natasha Khan: No, but I want to be comfortable because with festivals it gets quite sunny. It's not so hot which is good. When we played Lollapalooza, it was like 96 degrees and I was wearing full, like, a sparkly leotard and it was a bit much. So I might wear something a bit more comfortable but I'm not sure yet.

MJ: You went from New York City to Joshua Tree National Park on this album. Why?

NK: I wanted to be somewhere that was just really the opposite of New York. [In Joshua Tree] I set about creating my mythology, I suppose. The duality of the landscapes definitely influenced different sounds in the music. It's almost different fairytales. It felt like the desert and the earth and the nature were connnected to the esoteric, spiritual aspects of the record and the more tribal sounds. New York was very much to do with escapism and, like, disillusionment—being subterranian and dark and the sparkely escapist sort of elements which are more to do with numbing yourself. I started to think of this fable: The album is kind of like I go across to New York, to this City made of glass and emeralds. It's me going through that journey.

The MoJo Back-to-School Playlist

In the interest of ending family iPod wars, we asked some of our staff breeders to kick down with songs, artists, and albums that they and their young kids both like. We encourage readers to chime in in the comments section with mini-reviews of your own kids' songs that grownups dig and gr'up songs that they enjoy.

Toy Dolls, "Nellie the Elephant"—In 1984, these rowdy Brit-punks re-popularized a ditty first recorded by child actress Mandy Miller in 1956 about a circus elephant that escapes back to the jungle. Huge buildup to a frenzied chorus that makes my 4- and 7-year-old dance like mad; their inevitable refrain: "AGAIN!" (Check out the video here.)
M.I.A., ArularMaya Arulpragasam's 2005 debut has its risqué bits, but they'll fly over the head of anyone under 10. My kids dig the Sri Lanka-born British popstar's vocal quirks and super-catchy, funky beats (even if I’d give Kala, her follow-up record, a C+). In addition to the obvious kid-magnet ("Banana Skit"), my 4-year-old Ruby requests "Pull Up the People" and what she calls the "Bucky" song ("Bucky Done Gun").
Dan Zanes—Suppose I have to acknowledge the guy who repopularized the kids-music-that-grownups-can-stand genre, even if I never want to listen to another Dan Zanes tune until I'm a granddad. A father himself—that’s how he got into this—Zanes mines traditional tunes from around the world for his family-friendly repertoire, bringing on guests like John Doe, Lou Reed, and Aimee Mann for cameos. Pretty cool. But it's also gotten to be quite the earnest empire, with eight albums, compilations and spinoffs, books, a DVD, t-shirts, onesies, stuffed animals, and tote bags. ('m holding out for the action figure.) In short, if you're anything like my family, you will inevitably reach a Dan Zanes burnout point. Say, by age 5. And yes, I am just jealous.
Pete Seeger, Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes (Little & Big)—The title says it. If you can stomach Seeger's earnestness, you won't go wrong with his epic collection of traditional American tunes about critters, first released back in 1955. A majority of these 28 tracks are more pleasurable than annoying, with the exception of the vastly overexposed ditties like "I Know an Old Lady" and "Teency Weency Spider." A little creative iTunes editing will do wonders for your sanity.
Mississippi John Hurt, 1928 Sessions—My first baby adored this, it's quiet enough to put kids to bed by, and it's just a damn fine listen, evocative of simpler times. Although from ages three to five I had to skip over a few tunes due to occasionally violent imagery, as in "Ain't No Tellin'" (Don't you let my good girl catch you here/ She might shoot you, may cut and starve you too/Ain't no tellin' what she might do.) But now that Nikko is 7 and enjoys cutting off my metaphorical limbs with metaphorical swords, he can once again enjoy Hurt's sublimely soulful, scratchy, old-time-blues fingerpicking. Besides, it's only a matter of time before he discovers my Straight Outta Compton LP. —Michael Mechanic, senior editor

S.E. Rogie, Dead Men Don't Smoke Marijuana—Once you get past the album title, this is a bunch of mellow, lovable tunes that allude to nothing more nefarious than romance and maybe a drink or two. Sung in English and pidgin by a master of Sierra Leonean "palm wine" music, who sadly died a couple of years ago.

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, spanning Friday through Sunday here in idyllic Golden Gate Park, had something of a split personality disorder. The festival’s two main stages, as this map shows, occupy opposite ends of the festival’s vigilantly guarded fenced-off area—and as far as Friday and Saturday’s shows went, the contrast in each stage’s fare couldn’t be more stark.

On Friday, rockers of various stripes held court at the main stage at the Polo Field, from Built to Spill and Silversun Pickups to Incubus and headliners Pearl Jam. Several singers at the main stage, however, were snake-bit that first day, it seemed—both Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sounded hoarse, and both limped through their sets and called on the crowd for help more times than I could count. But while Incubus was hardly spectacular (like their more recent albums), Pearl Jam tore through hit after hit, especially in the set’s second half, when Vedder seemed to loosen up a bit and the crowd chimed in plenty.

The girl nervously watched as the tattoo formed on her hand, a small, colorful flower in the fleshy crook between her thumb and forefinger. Up close, though, the flower’s shape came into focus: It was actually a stem and bulb formed by the silhouettes of tiny cars. Mid-size sedans, actually. That’s because this particular tent, peddling not just tattoos but bandanas and gift bags, was Toyota's “Prius Spot” tent, one of several scattered around this past weekend's Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. A tricked-out version of the popular hybrid sat parked inside.

I asked the flower girl’s boyfriend why anyone would want a flower made of sedans or an automaker's name inked on their hand. He shrugged. "It’s only temporary, right?"

Others stepped up for tattoos of their own, choosing between the Camry-inspired flower or a tangle of barbs encircling Toyota’s logo with the name “TOYOTA” emblazoned underneath. Indeed, a winged skull with the Toyota logo was among the most popular tattoos of the day, one of the inkers told me.

Needless to say, the ploy took branding to a whole new level.

Like that girl’s hand, just about every other inch of this weekend’s Outside Lands festival was “Presented by” or “Courtesy of” or sponsored in some capacity by a corporation or company. It was brand overload all weekend (at least for me), the staggering number of companies' names plastered throughout the festival's grounds staggering.