Saturday, April 24, 2010

MEDIA: Bill Maher Embraces The Teabaggers

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government . . . In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes."
– President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Farewell Address to the nation, January 1961

Bill Maher, like Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, practices what the great satirists like Voltaire and Swift and Twain and Vonnegut all understood: make them laugh to make them think. Maher may at times push the limits of taste for some people, but his humor is usually pushing the audience to see the absurdities of our culture and government—local, national, and global. Some of the most effective satire is born of frustration or anger. Instead of shouting at or physically attacking the object of frustration, a satirist finds a way to poke fun at the situation and advance a more clear or sensible alternative. Maher is a master at this.

Case in point: at the end of every episode of his Friday HBO series "Real Time," Maher offers up a few "New Rules" for modern society. The rules target issues and people of the moment, and they allow Maher and his staff to craft the most literary satiric material for what is essentially an issues-based talk show. It's just Maher speaking directly to the camera. The April 23 "New Rule" directed at the Teabaggers/Tea Party was one of Maher's finest moments in years. He questions how serious these Teabaggers are about cutting the deficit and shrinking the national debt. No need to explain what he says—watch it for yourself:

Nice hat, huh?

The U.S. military Empire as a family's "big dumb boat" analogy is brilliant. It's an excess that our country can ill afford in economic times such as these. Yet we keep pouring trillions of tax payer dollars into this sinkhole for some inane notion of world dominance and to make us feel more patriotic and allegedly safer. As Maher suggests, let's cut our military spending in half and see who invades us. We sure could use the currently wasted cash to reduce our strangling debt from the past 9 years of elective wars, ill-advised tax cuts, and irresponsible non-regulation of our rigged financial system.

Like the great satirists, Maher's purpose in this "New Rule" is to ultimately display the folly of our country's behavior. We want the government to cut taxes but we still want the government to provide the key services we've come to depend on. Like children, Teabaggers—and many non-Teabagging Americans—don't seem to understand that there really is no free lunch. Everything costs money and someone has to pay for all of it. If we want granny to receive the health benefits of Medicare, we have to pay for it. If we want our parents to enjoy the benefits of Social Security they worked so many years for when they retire, we have to pay for it. If we want our roads maintained and our schools functioning and the water we drink to be clean and safe, we have to pay for it. It's that simple. And as Maher suggests, instead of funneling so much of our dear cash resources into military-industrial companies that primarily benefit the oligarchy of executives that run those companies and too much of our economy, maybe, just MAYBE, we should get serious about fiscal responsibility and slash our military budget by trillions. Maybe then the teabaggers and every stripe of American will benefit and quit complaining that we as a society are spending money on each other.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

MUSIC: Vampire Weekend's Contra

This review originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Illinois Entertainer.

(XL Recordings)

For those like myself who do give a fuck about an Oxford Comma—as I suspect Vampire Weekend does despite their apparent disdain—precision, clarity, and imagination are the core of invention. Nobody sounds like Vampire Weekend. They sound like bits and pieces of a lot of familiar musics, but since they appeared in 2008 with their eponymous debut, theirs has been a singular sound. Which presents a problem for album number two: is this unique musical amalgam a one-note, one-album sound, or can the band expand on its debut and make it worth a return trip?

The answer is mostly yes.

Contra is undoubtedly a VW album. It’s still essentially Western Afro-pop by way of smarty-pants Columbia grads, but this time around what sounded a little thin and reedy on Vampire Weekend is much fuller, more lush, and more rhythmically varied. Like earlier bands that built their foundations on rhythms foreign to most rock fans (Talking Heads, XTC, The Feelies), VW songs succeed or falter primarily on the strength of the rhythm beds. Despite the loose feel of these songs, drummer Chris Tomson and bassist Chris Baio play with remarkable precision, creating in-the-pocket grooves that are so inviting and playful that they’re hard to resist. The bottom end of “California English,” though alternately spare and spastic, provides the perfect rhythm bed for singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig and guitarist/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij’s flitting and astral melodies. The band pushes the debut sound here with (thankfully) brief flashes of Auto-Tune and a punctuating string section. The slow and gentle “Taxi Cab” pushes the sound even farther by subtraction: a thick, pulsing bass, some grand and harpsichord-y piano lines, hand claps, and Koenig’s surprisingly versatile and vulnerable voice create the soundtrack to this break-up tale of regret and the girl from the right side of the tracks (“You were standing on another track/Like a real aristocrat”). There are plenty of the jubilant, Loketo-style bubbling guitars that so clearly defined VW’s debut, but now the over-used Paul Simon’s Graceland reference/comparison indicates sheer critical laziness.

Lyrically, Vampire Weekend seems a J.D. Salinger band—or a Royal Tenenbaums band for those who don’t know any better. Their songs are peopled with yacht club kids (“Funny how the other private schools had no Hapa Club”), eggheady word play (“Contra Costa, Contra Mundum, contradict what I say”—a freakin’ papal reference!), and undergrads who traffic in white sailing pants, Steely Dan, and exceptional blow. No beef with that—they’re interesting people—and Koenig’s language play is really quite refreshing. In the propulsive “Cousins,” Koenig characterizes two cousins by family economic status: one “was born with ten fingers and you’re gonna use them all” and the other’s “birth right is interest, you could just accrue it all.” Vampire Weekend isn’t a blue-collar band, but there’s a bazillion of those out there, right?