Favorite Tunes of 2016

I know this is a bit late, since most “best of” lists tend to come out well before the year is out, but it kind of fits. I’d meant to write more about music this year, since it was a pretty good year, aside from the seemingly endless kill off of big time musical names (to cite just a few). But I didn’t, so here’s a quick amends.

A note about what this isn’t – it’s not a list of the “best” albums of 2016. For one thing, music is all subjective so talking about “best” is kind of pointless. For another, I couldn’t hope to listen to even a fraction of all the music that came out in 2016, so my choices are drawn from a small sample.

No, these are just eight albums that I thought were really good, that connected with me in  some way. They’re organized alphabetically, of course. No winners here.

Bent KneeSay So
My breakout band for the year. A collection of young kids (I can say that now – I’m old) from Boston who meld the furiosity and energy of prog metal or punk with delicate, almost ambient passages, all tied together with great vocals. They played both ROSFest – generally regarded as a more “safe” prog festival – and ProgDay – where anything does – this year and blew the roofs off the joint both times (metaphorically at ProgDay, since it’s outside). Say So doesn’t quite capture the power of their live show, but it comes awfully close.

Eveline’s GhostThe Painkeeper
Just prior to ROSFest, Greg Walker sent out one of his periodic Emails with new releases. Most of them have YouTube or Bandcamp links these days, so I spent some time clicking through. Once I heard the first few seconds of this Italian band, I knew I wanted to hear more. I didn’t realize (until I’d picked it up from Greg at ROSFest) just how good this album was. It takes the more complex/busy side of prog (think early echolyn), but never takes it too far. The songs are melodic and engaging, with some nice jazzy touches here and there.

Mike KeneallyScambot 2
Mike Keneally really contains multitudes – crafter of catchy hooks, exquisite guitar player, conjurer of bafflingly complex arrangements – but he rarely lets them all fly together at once like he has on the Scambot albums. This, the second in a planned trilogy about the titular “composer with no finished compositions” and “grump”, cracks right out of the gate and never lets up. It’s less aggressively weird than the first volume, but just as knotty, clever, and intense. As usual, Keneally pulls it off with the assistance of talent collaborators like Bryan Beller, Marco Minnemann, and Kris Myers (of Umphrey’s McGee fame). My only complaint is that the last track, “Proceed”, sounds like it has a lengthy ride out guitar solo in it that he didn’t decide to let out!

KnifeworldBottled Out of Eden
Although they sound nothing alike, Knifeworld reminds me a bit of Keneally, because main man Kavus Torabi (also of Gong and Guapo) manages to build musical confections that are, at once, complex, deep, and layered but also hooky and compelling. This album has a lighter vibe than the last one, but the tunes are just as sharp and interesting.

MarillionFuck Everyone And Run
Marillion’s not exactly ever been an “up with people” kind of group (there’s a joke that they specialize in “songs about water and death”), but FEAR is more pessimistic than usual. Lyrically, it’s largely bound up in the mess in which the world currently finds itself. The epics “El Dorado” and “The New Kings” both alternate between anger and disillusionment, while the kind of title track, “Living in FEAR,” provides some naive hope that maybe we easily panicked humans might not have to live that way (as I said, it’s a naive hope). Stuck in the middle is another epic, “The Leavers,” which, amazingly, has nothing to do with Brexit and is actually about life on the road. The epics all hang together really well (better than “Gaza” and “Montreal” from the last album) and there are plenty of patented Marillion moments sprinkled throughout. Is it, as advertised, their best since Marbles? Absolutely, even if it doesn’t live up to that milestone.

No More PainThe Spader EP
In the modern digital world the line between LPs and EPs is finer than ever (one of the AV Club’s best albums of the year was a “long player” that runs 21 minutes), but this 5-part epic is as long as many classic LPs of yore, so I think it stands on its own. No More Pain is another discovery of the year (thanks to ROSFest), a prog metal band from New Jersey that manages to be heavy and rocking without getting all “metally” in the way many bands do. Of course there are chops a plenty, but there’s also a sense of humor, which you’d have to have to produce an EP about and dedicated to an early supporter of the band (from the liner notes: “We are in independent group and stealing our music will make us very sad and we will cry little bitch tears as we text each other crying-face emojis”).

The Rube Goldberg MachineFragile Times
This is a quiet (the first track is called “Background Noise,” after all), small album (it’s not much longer than The Spader EP), but it’s full of nice moments. The band has a kind of post-rock sound, but shot through with more of a melodic sensibility. To borrow an observation from my brother (who said it about Marillion), there’s just enough proggy stuff going on to keep things interesting, but it doesn’t overwhelm the songs. Some really nice, melodic fretless bass work, too.

Thank You ScientistStranger Heads Prevail
Another entry from New Jersey (must be something proggy in the water), this band managed to avoid any drop off from their first album, Maps of Non-Existent Places. There’s a heaviness and lots of riffs that sound like they could come from a standard prog metal band, but the compositions are more interesting, not to mention the arrangements. Horns and violin are constants, with some tuned percussion popping up every now and then. Plus, they rock out at a solar powered milk farm. How can you not love that?

Like I said, not a bad year at all.

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Weekly Read: Dreamland and Chasing the Scream

I read these two books back to back because they seemed to go together. One is a sober telling of how an epidemic swept the nation, landing right in my back yard (the book itself swept through my office earlier this year). The other is a passionate call to arms about the War on (Other Peoples’) Drugs. Both are essential reading.

The Dreamland in Dreamland, by former crime reporter Sam Quinones, is a public pool in Portsmouth, Ohio. For decades it was a hub of life in the town, ever expanding. It’s decline was tied to the region’s decline as a manufacturing hub. As jobs went away and poverty grew, addiction to powerful new opioid painkillers, and then heroin, ravaged the region. Dreamland was the perfect metaphor, withering away to merely a memory.

In Dreamland the book, Quinones lays out the perfect storm of factors that led to the opioid epidemic, which continues to claim lives all over the industrial Midwest and Appalachia. It’s made of three strands. The first is a revolution in the medical conception of pain, especially long term, chronic pain, and that it could and should be treated with powerful drugs. The second is the search for a safe drug to meet that need, which eventually led to Oxycontin. The third is slow expansion of a particular kind of heroin distribution operation from a particular small town in Mexico, Xalisco. As the “Xalisco Boys” operation spread into regions not generally thought of as “heroin country” (like West Virginia), they found a fertile ground of addicts already hooked on Oxycontin and looking for a cheaper, better fix.

Each strand has some particularly interesting stories to tell, although they’re not all of equal interest. The retail heroin distribution of the Xalisco Boys is, in fact, quite interesting – unlike the violent drug gangs who sell stepped-on product as a means to enhance the bottom line, the Xalisco Boys competed simply by selling a better product for less money. No violence and a focus on customer service. It makes getting heroin like ordering a pizza – an analogy to which Quinones returns over and over again. That’s the book’s main failing – it treads over the same ground repeatedly, particularly when it comes to the Xalisco Boys.

The other two strands weave together more effortlessly, particularly since they share a common root. In the 1980s a doctor published a “report” – really just a one-paragraph letter to the editor of a medical journal – that his practice hadn’t shown that patient who received powerful pain killers became addicted to them. This became the basis for Oxycontin advertising that opioid medications weren’t addictive, which recent history has shown to be completely false. In the post-truth era of President Trump and “fake news,” it says something that the basis for Oxycontin’s development and sales was so poorly vetted because there was no profit to be gained in confirming it (because there never was in debunking it).

That’s one interesting linkage between the sellers of Oxycontin and the Xalisco Boys that Quinones hints at, but doesn’t quite make. Both are driven in what they do by the most basic of motives in a capitalist society – not just to make a profit, but to make as much of it as possible. That’s what drove the Xalisco Boys to look for untapped heroin markets. That’s what drove the Oxycontin peddlers to skip past the possibility of addiction and push doctors to prescribe the pills for damned near everything. The bottom line can be damned scary thing.

Dreamland is far from perfect. As stated above, it’s redundant, even beyond the stories of the Xalisco Boys. It’s also pretty dry writing, although it gets the point across. More important, Quinones gives short shrift to the fact that Oxycontin and other powerful pain killers are, for some patients, their only means of dealing with their pain. It also falls into a familiar pattern – of drug dealing bad guys (of various kinds) and good guy cops fighting to stop them – without providing any insight as to whether that’s a battle worth fighting.

Where Dreamland is a sober telling of an important modern story, Chasing the Scream is a polemic, a call to wake up to the failure of the War on (Some Peoples’) Drugs after more than a century. Dreamland should depress you – Chasing the Scream should piss you off.

Chasing the Scream is journalist Johann Hari’s chronicle of his attempt to figure out how the drug war began and where it’s headed. He travels the world, from his native UK to North America and elsewhere seeking answers about policy, addiction, and alternatives to prohibition. If in the end he doesn’t come up with a singular policy proposal to end the drug war, Hari at least convinces that it’s a war that needs to end (full disclosure – 15+ years of criminal defense practice convinced me of this long ago).

One thing he collects along the way are a cast of rich, memorable characters, from the transgendered former dealer in New York City and the former addict who transformed a particularly seedy portion of Vancouver to an addict who died in prison, cooked alive in the Arizona sun, and a mother whose pursuit of justice for her daughter in Mexico just produced further violence. Most key to the Hari’s book, however, is Harry Anslinger.

Anslinger was the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the spiritual predecessor to the modern Drug Enforcement Agency) for more than three decades and was, to Hari’s telling, the paradigmatic drug prohibition enforcer. He saw addicts as less than human, used racial and ethnic hatred to stir up panics to grow the power of his office, and was an overall asshole (the “scream” of the title refers to a trauma of Anslinger’s early childhood). Along with jazz great Billie Holiday (one of Anslinger’s high profile targets) and gangster Arnold Rothstein (the prototypical violent drug lord), Anslinger’s ghost hovers over the entire book as the project he started, the War on (Other Peoples’) Drugs expands and is entrenched.

Anslinger is Hari’s antagonist and he spends most of the book looking at the impact of his drug war on those caught up in it and challenging the assumptions underlying it. Of particular importance, he emphasizes the psychological model of addiction over the pharmaceutical model, presenting evidence that most drug users consume their product of choice without much problem, like most people drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics. Along the way he suggests that the scientific literature is clear about the limited addictive power of opioid pain killers, for instance, a claim that Quinones severely undermines.

Compelling as the stories of those caught up in the drug war are, the more interesting bits of Hari’s book are his examination of questions of drug use more generally, and addiction in particular, that shows the entire is more nuanced that Anslinger-style prohibitionists allow. For example, he discusses studies of drug use by non-humans, which is apparently fairly common. Elephants in Vietnam, for instance, generally steered clear of poppy fields until the United States bombing campaign drove them to seek escape from their terror.

It also allows Hari to get into various experiments with alternatives to strict drug prohibition. That includes programs in the UK and elsewhere that allowed addicts to get drugs legally, via prescriptions doled out by a state monopoly. Far from turning into drug fueled free for alls, this allowed addicts to function in everyday society and didn’t lead to more drug use. It also cut off a powerful marketing tool for drug dealers, as the addicts are their best customers. It’s no coincidence that part of the Xalisco Boys scheme that Quinones documents is how they used addicts in a new market to help them advertise and otherwise find customers.

Hari also explores broader legalization and decriminalization programs, such as those in Uruguay and Portugal. Though showing their success, Hari doesn’t dive deeply enough into the Portugal experiment, in particular, for it’s unclear how the law squares legal use and possession of drugs with criminal distribution – the drugs being used have to come from somewhere, after all. More interesting is his examination of the different arguments used by the people backing marijuana legalization in Washington and Colorado in the past few years. The disconnect (WA – drug prohibition is worse that pot being legal, even if it’s bad; CO – pot isn’t bad at all, being less harmful than alcohol) shows that even folks who see the end of the drug war in sight don’t necessarily agree on how to get to that point.

In the end, Hari doubles back to Anslinger for a stinger that brings the rot at the core of the drug war home. The stinger is – Anslinger himself was a drug dealer. He provided for a sitting United State Representative who was an addict to get a safe supply of heroin at a pharmacy (paid for by Anslinger’s agency, no less). The final irony? It was Joseph McCarthy, infamous red scare scam artist. It’s the ultimate example of the hypocrisy that leads me to call the drug war the “War on (Other Peoples’) Drugs,” because it’s rarely about the powerful and connected that are targeted, but the outcast and the hopeless. The war on drugs, ultimately, is a war on them.

Chasing the Scream, as I said, is a call to arms. Unfortunately, Hari may not be the best person to lead the charge, given his prior history with plagiarism and Wikipedia sock puppet scandals. It gives people an instant reason to disagree with anything he says, from snarky internet commenters to book critics (but see, as we lawyers say).

Dreamland is a flawed book, but essential to understanding one of modern American’s great tragedies. Chasing the Scream is the polemic of a flawed messenger about one of mankind’s great modern mistakes. Both are necessary and highly recommended.

dreamland

drugs0118

A Modest Proposal – Play to Win

December marks an end to the American soccer season – Major League Soccer wraps up with the MLS Cup Final and college soccer does the same with the College Cup. It wasn’t all that pretty this year, as Mike Woitalla notes:

What a weekend for American soccer! The Seattle Sounders won MLS Cup without a shot on goal. Stanford prevailed in the college final four without scoring a goal.

If you watched both MLS Cup on Saturday and the NCAA College Cup on Sunday, you sat through nearly four hours of scoreless soccer. (Before defeating Wake Forest with a penalty-kick tiebreaker, Stanford beat North Carolina on Friday in the same manner after 110 minutes of scoreless play.)

As Woitalla points out, this is not just a case of American exceptionalism. Last summer’s Copa America Centenario final didn’t produce a goal in 120 minutes and the 2016 European Championship final produced just one in the same amount of time. Low scoring in finals is, sadly, a fairly common occurrence.* The question is why?

For Woitalla the culprit is poor officiating. Specifically, the referee is so scared of being blamed for deciding the game because of a big call that he refrains from making lots of calls that should actually be made. As a result, defenders are free to foul attacking players with impunity, effectively strangling goal scoring chances in their crib.

Woitalla isn’t alone in his assessment and he’s not wrong. I’ve never understood the objection to a ref making a big call and “deciding” the game. After all, failing to make the call in the name of “letting the players play” helps decide the game, too. More consistent officiating would certainly be a good thing.

But I think the problem goes deeper than that, to something that is unique to soccer. It is alone among stick-and-ball sports in not forcing its championship contestants to fight until somebody actually wins. Baseball has extra innings; football, basketball, and hockey all have overtime periods of various kinds; even golf goes to extra holes (sometimes even an entire extra round!) to resolve ties. Why should soccer, alone, thrown up its hands after 120 minutes and say, “well, that was pointless, let’s try PKs!”

I can already hear an objection – that soccer is different because of its limited substitution rules and the fact that players cover an massive amount of ground in 90 minutes, much less 120. Going on and on with tired players just makes things worse. As evidence, the objector might point to the extra time of just about any game that gets that far.

True as that is, I think it puts the cart before the horse. There comes a point in these finals where one team, if not both, simply decide the best strategy is to take no chances, avoid the risk of losing, and play for penalties. There is, after all, a light at the end of the 120-minute tunnel. But what if there wasn’t? What if players and coaches knew from the get go that they’d play until somebody actually won the game. Might they not actually try harder to do that? That’s my theory, anyway – take away the certainty of a tie breaking and games would open up as both teams would need to try and actually win the damned thing!

Ties are an inherent part of the game of soccer. There’s nothing wrong with that. Goals being a precious commodity makes the scoring (and preventing) of them all the more special. It’s fine, during a long league season, to walk away after 90 minutes and split the points. And there are such things as exciting 0-0 draws, where both teams really go for it. But too many teams, when it comes to a final, play not to lose, to preserve their chance of prevailing in a shootout. Take that chance away and goals will have to come, regardless of how long it takes.

This isn’t a viable solution for prior tournament games that require a winner. It would destroy a team’s fitness for the next match. But for a final, where there is no next match, what have we got to lose? Only the pain of suffering through another two hours of scoreless soccer and a champion decided in the crapshoot of penalty kicks. It’s time to try something – anything – different.

nogoals

* Props where it’s due – the exception to this pattern was the final of the Women’s College Cup, in which my WVU Mountaineers fell to USC 3-1. At least it was a fair beating.

Weekly Read: Angel Catbird (Volume 1)

Not long ago, when reviewing Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, I wrote:

all that makes The Heart Goes Last frustrating and I certainly wouldn’t suggest it as a starting point for someone who’s never read Atwood before. But she’s too talented a writer to not score some points along the way, so I’d definitely say it’s worth it (it’s pretty brief, all things considered). Nobody succeeds every time, but few of us are lucky enough to stumble as interestingly as Atwood.

I’ve now been proven wrong. Angel Catbird, Atwood’s attempt at a graphic novel/comic book, isn’t an interesting stumble. It’s an ill-conceived mess.

In a lengthy introduction, Atwood addresses the question that must have come to most minds when this project was announced – why was a serious novelist (or a “nice literary old lady who should be resting on her laurels in her rocking chair, being dignified and iconic,” as she slyly describes herself) writing a comic book? There’s a pretty good reason, as it turns out. Atwood grew up reading comics and loved them. She even wrote a few in college. If becoming one of the most celebrated writers in the world doesn’t give you the freedom to indulge in a project just because, then what’s the point?

Unfortunately, that introduction (which also includes how Atwood found her collaborators and how they worked on the project) is by far the most interesting part of the book.

The story is pure comic book pulp, but done without any verve or irony. It tells how Strig Feleedus becomes, via a freak scientific accident that doesn’t make any sense (par for the course for superheroes, I guess), the titular hero, a man capable of transforming into a half cat half bird being. He learns the world is actually full of “half-animals,” men and women who can shift into cats, rats, or any number of other critters. There’s a straight from central casting villain, a love interest, and an internal conflict for our hero (his cat part wants to eat birds, his bird part doesn’t).

The attempts to mine this for humor only work a couple of times and the whole thing is too damned silly to take seriously. The pacing is so rushed (the actual comic only takes up not much more than half of this volume) that everything is just surface, with no hint of anything interesting lurking under the surface. Compounding the simplicity are the infographics that pop up on the bottom of every few pages providing interesting facts about feline well being. Working them into the story itself would have been fine (some are kind of relevant), but as is they stick out like a sore, lecturing thumb. On top of all that, the artwork, while fine, doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself. Saga this ain’t.

In the end, the reason for Angel Catbird’s failure is right there in that introduction. Comics and graphic novels have come a long way since Atwood’s youth, but Angel Catbird seems like a throwback to simpler times and simpler stories. It just can’t live up to the modern genre it wants to be a part of.

angelcatbird

Music – Even Bad Music – Isn’t A Crime

People can get passionate about music. I understand – I certainly fall into that bunch. When emotions flare people might even talk about music being so bad it’s criminal. But it’s good to know that such thoughts are limited to the realm of friendly hyperbole, at least in the First Circuit.

Musical taste should have been the least of Neftali Alvarez-Nunez’s problems. Alvarez-Nunez was a habitual user of marijuana and addicted to Percocet, which meant it was illegal to possess a firearm. But the firearm he possessed was actually an unregistered machine gun, so he got charged with two federal firearm offenses. He pleaded guilty and faced a maximum recommended sentence of 30 months, according to the United States Sentencing Guidelines.

However, in the report that included those calculations, the probation officer also included “a surfeit of information about the defendant’s musical pursuits.” These included being a member of Pacho y Cirilio, a somewhat popular group in Alvarez-Nunez’s housing project in Puerto Rico. The groups songs tended to (in the probation officer’s words): “promote violence, drugs and the use of weapons and violence.” That was particularly important because the housing project was “known to be associated with murders, drug sales and smuggling and weapons trafficking” (the First Circuit later would refer to it as a “no-man’s land”).

The probation officer, and later the Government at sentencing, suggested that this was a basis for imposing a sentence above that 30-month threshold. The Government introduced one of the group’s videos which, the court concluded, “included rifles and grenade launchers, along with children.” After rejecting Alvarez-Nunez’s argument that considering his music violated the First Amendment, the court imposed a sentence of 96 months – more than three times what the Guidelines recommended.

Thankfully, the First Circuit vacated that sentence (it called the sentencing court’s rational “implausible”), although the line between acceptable use of a defendant’s artistic expression and First Amendment infringement is a little finer than it perhaps should be. The court notes that there is no per se rule against considering “one’s beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment.” A defendant’s writings or recordings could be relevant to the stated purposes of sentencing, but there wasn’t any showing of such relevance in this case. The fact that some of Pacho y Cirilio’s songs involve unsavory or illegal conduct isn’t enough.

In reaching that conclusion, the court noted an obvious, but apparently overlooked, truth:

Implicit in this rationale is the assumption that the lyrics and music videos accurately reflect the defendant’s motive, state of mind, personal characteristics, and the like. But this assumption ignores the fact that much artistic expression, by its very nature, has an ambiguous relationship to the performer’s personal views.

In other words, Johnny Cash did not really shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die, Steve Hogarth was not an abused girl found catatonic on the Severn Bridge, and Roger Waters did not really construct an emotional wall around himself to cut himself off from the pain of real world. All right, so that last one actually happened, but you get my point. Need I say that I did not bash in the skull of my mentor and lead a rebellion? I’m not even blue, to tell the truth.

There are lots of things that are relevant to figuring out the right sentence for any particular person. The music they make, or listen to, really shouldn’t be one of them.

What I’ve Been Up To

Hey folks. It’s been quiet ‘round these parts the past few weeks, but I assure you I am being a productive creative person! Guess it’s time for an update on what I’ve been up to:

  • As I said a couple of weeks back, editing continues on The Bay of Sins, though at a slower pace than I had initially hoped. No worries – release in early 2017 is for certain and that will bring The Water Road trilogy to a close.
  • Apex Magazine has resuscitated their flash fiction competition. It’s tied to a particular holiday, this one being Valentine’s Day and all that entails. Since people were allowed to submit up to three (250-word) stories, I came up with a kind of matched set of fantasy stories that hit the beginning, middle, and end of relationships. If none of them wind up appearing in Apex, I’ll post them here on Valentine’s Day for your reading pleasure. Apex, by the way, is a really cool magazine and could use your readership and support. Go check them out.
  • Earlier this month I had a chance to sit down with author Eliot Parker on his local TV show Chapters to talk about writing and such. Look for it now on Armstrong Cable if you’re in the Huntington area. I’ll pass along a YouTube link when it shows up there.
  • Next Saturday (December 10), I’ll be at Empire Books & News in Huntington for their big Holiday Open House and Author Showcase. It runs from 1-4, so stop by and get some great books by great local authors – including yours truly!

empire-promo

  • I have a short story about halfway finished, called “To the Sound of Birds.” It’s a good example of the answer to the “where do your ideas come from” question, as it sprang from noise I heard between runs at an autocross. Everything else is pure fiction (of course). Hope to have it done by the end of the year.
  • Beyond all that, with the end of the The Water Road on the horizon, I’ve started to turn my attention to figuring out what my next big project is going to be. Honestly – I haven’t a clue. I’ve got several ideas floating around, some for standalone books and others for potential series, but nothing’s reached out and commanded me to write it yet. Hopefully by the new year something wriggles to the top of the pile.

See? I’m keeping myself busy!

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