The Riff - September 2007

The Politics of Pistolera

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 8:46 PM EDT
pistolera.gif

The band Pistolera proves that the accordion can be as mighty as the bullhorn. With its squeeze box, guitar, bass, drums, and vocals, the NYC-based quartet mixes traditional Mexican music with rock and political commentary to create a sound that's like an outdoor Folklorico festival happening smack dab in the middle of an immigration rally.

In the song "Cazador (Hunter)," the band plays festive Mexican folk music while guitarist/vocalist Sandra Lilia Velasquez sings about Minutemen that patrol the border: "…You with the binoculars, who comes to patrol; GO HOME! Hunter, you have no place here...They say they are protecting the country from illegals, but how, if this land was stolen from the Mexicans?"

Pistolera plays a mixture of norteño (polka beat with accordion), ranchera (waltz or polka feel, similar to mariachi music), and cumbia (a mixture of Latin rhythms similar to salsa and merengue). And their unique sound hasn't gone unnoticed; their album Siempre Hay Salida peaked at #1 on the CMJ (College Music Journal) Ñ Alternative Select Albums chart earlier this year.

It's not the kind of music I seek out on a regular basis, but the ideology of the band makes the seemingly harmless music kick a little ass. In a recent Rolling Stone Mexico interview, Velasquez said, "In Mexico, people are not attracted to rancheras, they are interested in anglo indie rock. For me the real alternative in music is to explore one's roots. People think that if you are born in the United States you should play rock and if you are born in Mexico you should play banda. I was born on the border. I play both."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Nike Goes Native

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 8:30 PM EDT

I waited a couple of days to blog about Nike's new shoe for Native Americans, thinking some sort of backlash would reveal itself in the form of a few web posts, but alas I've seen no scathing critiques. What gives?

Nike this week unveiled what it said is the first shoe designed specifically for American Indians, hoping to promote physical fitness in a population with allegedly high obesity rates. The shoe, the the Air Native N7, is designed with a larger fit (a "taller shoe") for what Nike says is a distinct foot shape of American Indians, and has a "culturally specific look" to it (They look like shoe designs from the 70s to me). Tribal wellness programs and tribal schools nationwide can purchase the shoe at wholesale price ($42.80) and then pass it along to individuals, often at no cost.

All of the articles I found today (USA Today, Fox News, MSNBC, Boston Globe) were reprints of the original AP story, which essentially reads like a press release promoting the socially-conscious folks at Nike. I did track down some good fodder in the blogosphere. On the Huffington Post, Milwaukee Dan wrote: "Wow, how nice. After stealing their land, destroying their culture and shoving them on to "reservations," Nike is going to give them a shoe made by slave labor in China. That's so American."

Raising awareness about the issue of high obesity levels of folks living on tribal lands sounds like a great idea to me, but I'm not exactly jumping up and down just because Nike came up with an affordable shoe with added toe room. Hopefully by Monday some real dialog will surface.

Friday? Don't Cry For Me Music News Day

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 3:00 PM EDT

Beyonce

  • Beyonce's November 1 concert in Kuala Lumpur has been cancelled after the singer refused to conform to the country's dress code for performers. Muslim groups had protested the concert, which would have been Beyonce's first Malaysian show. The nation's Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage instituted performance rules in 2005 including the dress code, which mandates that female performers show no skin between the tops of their chests and their knees. Insert "Bootylicious" joke here.
  • Radiohead have announced that a website containing a cryptic countdown and purporting to be related to the band is a hoax. Radiohead's actual site features coded messages that many have interpreted to be announcements about the band's upcoming album, including a message that it could be released in March, 2008. Why make us work so hard, Radiohead?!
  • The latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees include Madonna, Beastie Boys, John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, Donna Summer, Chic, Afrika Bambaataa, The Dave Clark Five, and The Ventures. Five acts will receive the honor. What's the point of this again?
  • The "Who Killed Biggie Smalls" mystery gets more mysterious: an inmate who had previously implicated the LAPD in the crime has now renounced his testimony, saying it was a "scam" to get money from the city. Waymond Anderson, serving time for murder, says he "did what he had to to survive," and that a lawyer for Biggie's family was in on the scheme. Confused? Me too.
  • Party Ben Tries Out the New Amazon.com MP3 Store

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 9:10 PM EDT

    Amazon.com MP3s
    In our next story, "Monkey learns to type!" But seriously folks, Amazon.com launched its highly-anticipated MP3 store on Tuesday, the first serious competitor with Apple's dominant iTunes service, and I'm interested in checking it out. I'm a pretty big fan of the whole iTunes experience (although a bit annoyed with the protected files and stuff), and I'm somebody who happily grabs free mp3s, or buys mp3s, and then buys CDs, so I consider myself a skeptical yet open-minded consumer. I began my self-administered experiment this afternoon.

    New Music: Baby Elephant - Turn My Teeth Up!

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 4:30 PM EDT

    Baby ElephantIn light of the recent kerfuffle between myself and other Mother Jones staffers on whether offensive hip-hop can be good hip-hop, I thought I'd extend an olive branch with some progressive, jazzy grooves from Baby Elephant. Made up of De La Soul producer Prince Paul, vocalist Don Newkirk, and Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, their new album is understandably more in tune with classic funk than the current styles causing government entities (and supposedly liberal bloggers) to have fits. Lead single "Plainfield" features Digital Underground vocalist Shock G, but its mellow organ solo separates it from "Humpty Dance" by about a light year; track 6, "If You Don't Wanna Dance," with its wandering bass line and insistent chorus, could be straight out of the '70s.

    Anybody who remembers (or, say, still gets out and dances around the room to) De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising will remember the goofy skits between the songs; Prince Paul kind of invented this concept, we get even more elaborate mini-sketches here. What's fun is that since iTunes gives you 30 second previews of songs, any track shorter than 30 seconds is, well, free; that means you can listen to most of the skits in their entirety without paying a dime, ladies and gentlemen! Check out how the "Funk Master," on track 5, mistakes our heroes for cable repairmen!

    The trio team up with David Byrne for "How Does My Brain Wave," which sounds, understandably, like P-Funk meets Talking Heads, in the best possible sense. The album occasionally sinks into silliness: "Cool Runnins," a kind of jokey reggae number, sounds a little like something from a Disney movie; and ballad "Crack Addicts in Love" is funny, but not really worth multiple listens. But the updated psychedelia of "Skippin Stonze," with its filtered vocals and loping beat, has more in common with J Dilla than a comedy routine.

    Grab an mp3 of "How Does the Brain Wave" at Spin.com or listen at their MySpace; Turn My Teeth Up! is out now on Godforsaken Music. Why didn't I think of that name for a label?

    Rappers Find Common Ground With Lawmakers: Exploiting Homophobia is Fun!

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 3:13 PM EDT

    David Banner in Congress

    While the hip-hop community is understandably perturbed about the recent Congressional hearings on offensive lyrics, a few rappers are desperately trying to point the finger at an even greater moral outrage: the gays. Idolator points out that it's not only the admittedly loopy Ja Rule who's making these comments; mega-star Chamillionaire gave a rambling statement to BET's blog in which he compares bad words in hip-hop to, um, other "messed up" things:

     

    The B word, the N word, the F word, it's all a moral thing inside of each person. If you look at TV, everything is messed up about TV. Gay people kissing each other on shows. The us is in general. Movies, they'll have guns everywhere, nobody pays attention to that.

     

    Wait, gays kiss each other on shows? I thought there wasn't enough gay people on shows to even do that any more? Or maybe he means Broadway shows.

    Ja Rule just gave an interview to Spinner where he tried to step back from his comments a little bit, but thankfully just today David Banner (above left) has taken the homophobia (and sexism) baton and run with it in an interview with Billboard:

     

    Banner has butted heads with those trying to ban words like "bitch" and "hoe" from rap lyrics, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Master P. "Aren't there bitches out there?," he says. "Don't they exist? Those types of women exist, and if they didn't it'd be different. When someone yells in a room full of women the word 'dyke,' my mother isn't insulted because she isn't one." ... "Rap is an art, and I can say whatever the hell I want to," he continues.

     

    Well, true, and I guess, true, but that also apparently doesn't prevent you from making a complete ass out of yourself. Anyway, it's nice to see society's pecking order reinforce itself: white government dudes pick on black rapper dudes pick on queer dudes. But wait, if us queers are upset, who do we get to pick on? The Irish? Okay... Damn you, uh, Bono! I'm sick of you kissing people on shows!

     

    Advertise on MotherJones.com

    Gangster Rap, Going the Way of All Gangsters?

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 2:13 PM EDT

    50 Cent, or whatever his street value is now, may want to start counting his pennies.

    According to Courtland Milloy and a University of Chicago study, rap's decline continues. Post-Imus, its sales are still dropping and, even though young people of color still listen to it regularly, they simultaneously feel it's over-sexed and demeans both black men and black women. Ray-Ray 'nem want to keep listening to rap. But now that the shock value's worn off, they just want the quality improved; soon, we'll find out which gangster rappers are actual artists and which the posing, community-despoiling carpetbaggers who've ruined it for everyone.

    Milloy veers slightly off track, though, when he frowns on the "Taliban-ing" of rap's critics: protests, boycott calls, picketing and this week's Congressional hearings. I'm fond of the First Amendment, but I think rap's opponents are exercising exactly that (though picketing someone's home does go too far) in forcing the rap community to respond to its critiques. If rappers get to say objectionable things, very loudly and designed for maximum outrage, why not Rev. Calvin Butts or C. Delores Tucker (very early leaders of the fight against rap's excesses). I choose to believe that all our "shame on you's" have something to do with what I choose to see as rap's audience having had its consciousness raised by all our sermons.

    Somthing else Milloy didn't get around to is noting that, while nihilistic rap may be snuffing itself out, conscious rap may be on the resurgence. Others have noticed though, and cite the phenom known as Barack Obama for helping blacks with mixing tables and a yearning for attention notice something other than the butt sashaying past them at the bus stop. It seems that:

    "Many of today's more socially conscious rappers are putting the spotlight back on political issues and candidates – and their go-to guy has become Democratic contender Barack Obama, or "B-Rock" as he was recently dubbed by Vibe magazine. Rap artist Common, whose latest CD debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts earlier this month, brags that he'll "ignite the people like Obama." Talib Kweli echoes that on his latest release when he says, "speak to the people like Barack Obama." Is there nothing the junior Senator from Illinois can't do?

    Soon, I'll get to meet my new MoJo colleague and we can thrash out our differences over rap, but til then, I'll bet that we can at least agree that talented rapping about black empowerment is a good thing.


    Go Home Productions: Everything Must Go!

    | Wed Sep. 26, 2007 7:45 PM EDT

    Gone Home Productions
    The Metallica of bootleggers, otherwise known as Mark Vidler, has posted basically every single thing he's ever made in a series of grouped "online compilations," over at his website. This is the guy who made the legendary Blondie-meets-The Doors combo "Rapture Riders," as well as like 90% of the top 100 best mashups ever made. Full disclosure: I'm a bit player in the, er, "mashup scene," or whatever, and we've had Mr. Productions over to DJ at our mashup club and stuff, but I promise my adoration is by no means logrolling—his astounding work stands on its own.

    When you head over to his website, there's a couple options: first up, for those unfamiliar with Go Home, there's a link to grab a compilation he's calling This Was Pop (2002-2007), featuring 20 of his most appreciated and influential tracks. "Girl Wants (To Say Goodbye To) Rock & Roll," marrying Christina Aguilera to Velvet Underground, is a highlight: Vidler's work always makes the originals sound tangential, like the new mix is how the music was always supposed to be.

    For completists, grab one or more of twelve (!) grouped collections of his work, featuring, in total, hundreds of bootlegs, remixes, and random tracks. It's all free, but the links are all to file-sharing sites like RapidShare, and demand is high; you might have to keep trying, but I assure you it's worth it.

    Vidler is one of the few mashup artists to score legitimate, artist-approved releases, putting out the album Mashed this year, which featured both his and other producers' work. But as he seemed to acknowledge in an e-mail message to fans, the time it took for the album to wind its way through the approval process seemed to take its toll, and its release was greeted with little fanfare. The lack of appreciation (or financial reward) for even the brightest mashup artists seems to be taking its toll as well, as many (including Vidler) are making announcements of "leaving the scene;" French superstar DJ Zebra (again, full disclosure: I'm DJing some dates with him in France later this year) is moving on, and Australian Team9 (my partner in Dean Gray) has also made noises about "retiring" from bootlegs in 2008. What's up, mashups? It's easy to call the phenomenon "dead," but then I hear something new from some random guy in Stockholm and I think, "there's life left in this musical phenomenon yet." What do you think, oh Riffers: have reports of mashuppery's demise been greatly exaggerated, or should we go back to enjoying one song at a time like respectable music fans?

    Neato Viddys on the Intertubes: Music/Movie Mashups

    | Wed Sep. 26, 2007 4:36 PM EDT

    So yes, mashups can be many things: two or more songs put together, and then you can make a video to accompany that; or they can be like a Google map with something else laid on top of it, or who knows what. Here we mean "a song set to the wrong (yet somehow so right) video, in this instance scenes from movies." We can get to the other mashup concepts later.

    Soulya Boy - "Crank Dat" vs. Bambi
    In which the steel drum-featuring megasmash is set to classic Disney animation, and the New York Times pays attention

    Depeche Mode - "Suffer Well" vs. Tron
    In which the melancholy UK synth-poppers provide an appropriate soundtrack to the 1982 film that I totally have to rent and watch again like right now.

    Junior Boys - "In the Morning" vs. Bande a part
    In which the melancholy US synth-poppers seem to inspire some coordinated dance steps in the classic Jean-Luc Godard film

    New Music: Jose Gonzalez - In Our Nature / Iron and Wine - The Shepherd's Dog

    | Wed Sep. 26, 2007 3:46 PM EDT

    No phrase can make the heart sink quite like "singer-songwriter." Patchouli seems to waft out from between the words along with all the most hippie-tastic implications of "folk music," and a cue to set your self-indulgence force fields on maximum. While both Iron and Wine (aka Florida-based Sam Beam) and Argentinian-Swedish José González are beardy guys with guitars, they've transcended the stereotypes in very different ways: the former bringing in his buddies and aiming for an aural maximalism, the latter isolated in a kind of monkish self-denial. But both have made spectacular albums.

    Iron and WineThe Shepherd's Dog, Iron and Wine's third album, will immediately surprise anyone familiar only with Beam's whispery cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights;" the first track, "Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car," with its jaunty beat and multi-part harmony, is already more New Pornographers than Nick Drake, although, like Drake, Beam's delicate voice softens these songs, even when there's a lot going on. It doesn't take long for more musical influences to pop up: "Wolves" has a roots reggae feel that's just this side of jam-band, again held in check by Beam's soft-as-silk vocals.

    mojo-photo-josegonzalezlg.jpgCritics talk about the Argentinian influence in Swedish-born José González' work, but I'm not sure: his precise, almost repetitive guitar work and James Taylor- reminiscent voice express such a bleak world-view, it seems unfair to foist that on a whole country. In Our Nature, expressly concerned with, well, man's inhumanity to man, doesn't always avoid the pratfalls of political folk music: "How Low"'s line, "invasion after invasion," makes you cringe a little with its awkwardness. But at other times, the restrictive palette, enhanced by a stomp on the down-beat or a bongo slap, seems to explode into a thundering storm of emotion, made all the more powerful by its humble origins.

    Both Iron & Wine and González owe debts to Nick Drake, who despite the lovely 2000 Volkswagen ad featuring "Pink Moon" remains criminally below the radar. While González aims towards a melancholy, electronica-covering update of Drake's folky style, his barely-30-minute-long album seems more a collection of songs; Iron and Wine's album (over 50% longer!) succeeds as such partially because of its surprising stylistic turns. In any event, after listening to both, I'm getting out Drake's Bryter Layter for afternoon happy time coffee break listening. After all this tear-jerky music, somebody might want to just check on me later.

    Stream all of Jose Gonzalez' In Our Nature at his MySpace, ditto Iron and Wine's The Shepherd's Dog at his MySpace.