Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Maxwell's Suite

For the record, the best $3.13 I've ever spent was for a copy of Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite in May 1996 dug out of a remainder bin in a dusty record store (now defunct) in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. I remember very clearly looking at the cover and deciding to buy the record on the sole basis of the title, thinking to myself: this is surely some soul music. I was 9 months into my first job and this was the first bit of whimsy I had indulged in all that time, the first thing I had bought for myself beyond bare necessities in all those months. For some silly reason I had worked myself into a state of thrift, subsisting at times on those "bags of burgers" that were the rage at McDonalds - 10 cheeseburgers for something like $4. Well I digress, we'll tackle that toli later... I remember also the look of interest as the guy at the counter rang up my purchase: "Looks like some soul, let me know what you think of it".

When I got to my room, I found the turntable, played the record and discovered that I was in possession of some exceptional soul music, a suite, a trip. This was a new voice that demanded attention, someone I would be proselytizing for even if he wouldn't need it. Looking at the credits I read names that gave me further comfort: Stuart Matthewman of Sade looked to be a key collaborator. Amp Fiddler and Wah Wah Watson were among the musical cast. I dug the voice, I dug the production values, I dug the sound, I dug the message, I dug the execution.

A mood lifted by the time I wore out the needle on the turntable that day. My immediate favourites were Til The Cops Come Knockin' and Lonely's The Only Company; I could identify with the vague longing and perhaps sense of obsession — young adults. Lots of things were resolved to the sounds of the album in the next few months. For one I decided to buy a cd player, that I deserved to have more than that gray room, that — well, lots of things you know.

maxwell urban hang suite

I returned to the store a few days later to buy a cd copy and gave my report to the guy. We listened and talked our way through the album, talked music like those who share our affliction do - for example comparing Maxwell to that other guy, D'Angelo, who seemed hungrier. If they would be MJ and Prince in coming years, we wondered who would be their Madonna. The guy was an R&B traditionalist and kept trying to get me to buy that Brian McKnight album - I kept demurring, that thrift thing. Then he played New Moon Daughter for me and I kicked myself for having been so out of touch that I'd missed out on the release of a new Cassandra Wilson album. I decided to try to do a guest show at WHRB, to get back into things.


There I was about to simply review the concert I attended last night and all of these things came out.

Music is like that. It's a social thing, conveying a sense of time, of place and of comfort. It triggers memories. It's that thing we call soul. I could go on about the vicissitudes of that year, about Boston, about friends and family, about jobs, the travails of finding an apartment and more. All those things came flashing back. I won't though. I'll simply note an album that was part of that year's soundtrack, a mood marker. And I'll hold on to that detail: the album cost $3.13 after tax.


So yes, The Cousin and I were warmed by Maxwell and his 10 piece band last night at the Paramount in Oakland. Escapism from the work week for 3,000 or so souls. It was well worth it. It was, to recycle that phrase I've become fond of, a comfort suite.

I'll leave the detailed reviews to others. It was great show like all others in this tour. The horn section gave an organic feel, the guitars and bass were just right, the percussion was on point, the background vocalist gave nice accents. Briefly stated, the band is tight. When you think about Maxwell, don't just think of the man, the band is as important as the front man. All of them are enjoying the comeback and the overwhelming love from the audiences.

maxwell showman

They played most of the favourites from his songbook and previewed a few new songs. His falsetto is still as pure as ever, he can do the Sam Cooke thing when he wants, or the Prince thing, or the Al Green thing, or the Marvin Gaye circa 1974 thing. There's the dancing and showmanship ala James Brown, he's no longer as skinny obviously, but he still gets down. If he was Mr Mellow Smooth in the past, there's now an additional edge to the performance and to the sound. There's now some experiential blues in his brand of soul. He still thinks in terms of suites, of capturing a mood, and will run with that feeling through its course.

Most of all there's the warm feeling in the music - it's like that groundswell that builds when Maze featuring Frankie Beverly come onstage in D.C.. It's in the crowd too - everyone knows the lyrics and wants to be seduced anew. By the time he got to covering Al Green's Simply Beautiful, he was simply making his intentions explicit. Call it melodious melodies or sensual soul - to pick titles of mix tapes I've made featuring Maxwell.


The ladies in the audience were all captivated. The panties were thrown on stage. The atmosphere was headier than a Robin Thicke concert. As expected, The Cousin paid me no mind throughout the concert, absorbed as she was in the aura like many others in the audience. I laughed at some of the scandalous things that those two women in front were screaming. It wasn't just nostalgia however, the music was truly that good. This Woman's Work made me tear up, Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder) hit the soul spot. Sumthin' Sumthin' got us dancing. Lifetime made us sigh. What more could you want on a Tuesday night?

Seven years is a long time out of the limelight but brother man delivered the goods. He's back. The demons are conquered. It was worth it. There'll be more suites in the near future and everyone is on notice that he'll be setting the bar high for all to follow. I'm expecting the same elation when that other guy finally resurfaces but for now, pound for pound, Maxwell's a heavyweight soul champion.

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Monday, October 27, 2008

Mindless Speculation

I. Geopolitics

The fellow with the fufu usually moves over to the man with the soup, never the other way around.

Elechi Amadi, The Great Ponds
This delightful Nigerian saying distills a lot of economic insight - and it translates quite well even if you've never had the pleasure of eating fufu and light soup. It's a folk lesson that is learned very early in human life and certainly ingrained by the time you master the hard knocks of school playgrounds - or streets as the case may be. Gil Scot-Heron once phrased the sentiment as "all consumers know that when the producer names the tune the consumer has got to dance".

In times of crisis, economists talk about the "flight to quality" or deleveraging; political scientists, in turn, form models about the calculus of power relations. It's not quite a matter of rats and sinking ships but it surely comes down to the perception that the pepper soup would greatly enhance a depleted stock of pounded yams, cassava or plantain fufu.

Anecdotally, we then start reading articles about Americans (belatedly) trying to find jobs in the Middle East
Europeans in investment banking and other financial fields already have been flocking to the oil-flush Persian Gulf for months, propelled by the hope that emerging economies of the East will ride out any global recession better than New York or London. In a phrase often cited by British brokers and bankers, "it's Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai, or goodbye."
This is at the level of the individual response but presumably this phenomenon extends to the societal scale. Tribes, companies, and countries the world over are now searching for soup.

These days, the men with the soup - or capital, or cash, or credit, or liquidity, or savings, or solvency if you prefer, ostensibly live in places where phrases like "sovereign wealth", "nation of savers", "oligarchy" or "oil producers" are bandied around. If they are called to finance bailouts, they might well extract their pounds of flesh - to continue on the metaphorical route. And yet that is the crux of the matter: who is going to finance bailouts and on what terms?

Warren Buffet is a happy shopper and is very exacting with the terms he demands before deploying his checkbook. Japan's Mitsubishi banking group almost caused Henry Paulson to go into cardiac arrest when it started renegotiating the terms of its proposed bailout of Morgan Stanley. Iceland, to take the other obvious example, was even negotiating with Russia for its bailout before others finally stepped in - the price of Russian army bases on the soil of a NATO member is too high apparently.

Negotiations are always tricky things of course, but when you have the soup you have the benefit of knowing that others will come to you. In this respect the most poignant geopolitical maneuvering has been pointed out by Bernhard of Moon of Alabama and it concerns China and Taiwan.

Item: Selling Out Taiwan To Finance The Bailout
"The Chinese president also praised the good momentum of the development of the Sino-U.S. ties in recent years in various areas.

He said China is ready to work with the U.S. side to intensify dialogue, exchanges and cooperation, and properly handle issues concerning mutual interests and of major concern, particularly the Taiwan question, in a bid to push forward the sustained and steady development of the Sino-U.S. constructive and cooperative ties."

Translated from diplo-speech: "Give us Taiwan and you'll get the loan."
Dig: the reaction was swift
Regulators in Taiwan ordered insurers to limit their holdings of Freddie, Fannie, and Ginnie Mae paper...
The Taiwanese also have some soup they can withhold it appears. These are fascinating times for geopolitics, everything is being laid bare.


When confronted with empty bowls and covered pots, you really start to wonder if indeed there is any soup available. More to the point: who's got the soup?

II. Estate Planning

Apropos the notion of death and taxes I was thinking recently about the sad and tragic death of Kenneth Lay, former CEO and erstwhile looter of Enron. I was reminded of the mindless speculation about its timing, for indeed, from some points of view, it was a very convenient death for his estate, coming as it did after his fraud conviction but, and this is crucial, before his sentencing, which meant that said conviction was abated - and the prospect of punitive damages and restitution to those who suffered at his hands disappeared in a coronary heartbeat - or lack thereof. Of course one shouldn't begrudge his family in their time of loss for the consequent beneficial preservation of capital. Still it would have been good to be able to hear his expert opinion on the current "global financial crisis" (as the BBC have branded the current mood - sidenote: the Motley Fool term it Panic 2008) and speculate as to its causes...

The mind is a funny thing and I then remembered the part of The Godfather II where Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen pays a visit to Michael Gazzo's weary Frank Pentangel on a military base and reminisces about the old school Roman solution for unsuccessful conspirators. The good soldier subsequently took those musings to heart. That scenario is the kind of thing that only happens in fictional movies - even if these days people worryingly encourage it in their anger. Moving right along...

Along the same lines, the always astute Floyd Norris was indulging in some mindless speculation himself recently
If Congress takes no action in 2009, the estate tax will fall to zero in 2010, and then bounce back to 2001 levels in 2011. That would create what the Tax Policy Center report, written by Leonard E. Burman, Katherine Lim and Jeffrey Rohaly, delicately calls "grotesque tax planning initiatives." What they mean is that there would be a great temptation to do in dear old (very rich) dad before midnight on Dec. 31, 2010.
There hasn't been much remorse among those who have made out like bandits in the bubble years, it seems however that the gig is up - or at least, pace the observation about who now has the soup, that the shell game will have different winners in the near term.

One starts to wonder what will get in the head of the dissolute offspring of modern day aristocrats when they contemplate the prospect of ill-gotten gains disappearing by fiat as the mandated clawback (albeit a quite lenient clawback) begins. It is quite fitting that those who thrived on moral hazard might find themselves targets of the ineluctable financial logic of perverse incentives. Time will tell, I suppose, if this idle speculation has any grounding.

the rhinoceros

On a slightly related note I was reminded of the following poem

Lord Finchley

Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric light
It struck him dead: and serve him
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.

Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses
Periodically the social compact that Belloc identified a century ago is forgotten - that is the realm of trickle down economics. When The Masters receive their comeuppance, the reaction is not necessarily one of class warfare - everybody knows their place in society, but rather it is a distinct lack of sympathy for those who fall from grace. A debacle prompted by overblown real estate leads, as it were, to some furious estate planning.

III. A Pepper Soup Soundtrack

A fufu and soup playlist

  • DJ Palm Butta - Fufu N Soup
    The message delivered in this cheeky Liberian hiplife reworking of the Chicken Noodle Soup fad is clear: "with some okro on the side... that fufu and soup is sweet". True enough, we live in an era of microwave fufu, but even with such modern conveniences, we also need some soup. It goes without saying that Palm Butta also has the follow up track Cook My Pepper Soup which dives into the heart of the matter.
  • Eastern Ministers Guitar Band - Uwa Tuto Uwa Fufu
    As discussed at the indispensible Likembe, the literal translation of the title is "The World is Sweet and Painful", the fufu of the title is perhaps the pain, the soup is the sweet.
  • Digable Planets - The Art of Easing
    You had to be there perhaps, but if you flowed with the vibe that was the Blowout Comb album, you'd know all about the art of easing, of laying back in the cut.
  • James Brown - Escape-ism
    Some hot sauce to go with some hot pants, JB delivered wisdom in spades
    You know when you forget that grits is... when you forget that grits is groceries and that eggs is poultry, you lose your thing. Now, you can lose your thing out there wandering around.
    Fred Wesley's horns and the various incarnations of the JBs band were the soup to James Brown's fufu.
  • Donald Byrd - Fufu
    Donald Byrd's 1973 album Kofi is one of my favourite in the jazz funk canon. Perhaps the excursions trips to Elmina and the consequent African-inflected rhythms place this music on the funky jazz side of the spectrum. Whether it is the driving soul jazz of The Loud Minority or the intricate interplay of title track or the blowing session that is Fufu, this is simply inspired.

    I could listen to this for hours on end and indeed, to harken to another song on the album, I do have Perpetual Love for Byrd's music.
The received wisdom is that it was mindless speculation that got much of the world into our present belt-tightening. As things take on serious notes, one hopes that we can at least comfort ourselves with some mindless speculation. I've made my opening contribution, I await yours.

Let's place this note as part of an occasional series, observers are worried.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Mood Markers

These three songs and a stanza captured much of my mood over the past week. I wonder, what was your soul therapy?

  • Winter in America by Gil Scot-Heron and Brian Jackson
    The full lyrics paint a picture of decline and fall. A harsh season has arrived early and, from all appearances, doesn't want to leave anytime soon.

    People know there's something wrong
    Feels just like winter
    It's winter in America
    Truth is there ain't nobody fighting
    Cause nobody knows what to save
    I used to mishear that last line as "cause nobody knows what to say" and was glad for the ambiguity: say versus save. Are these pieces of the same thing? Which is preferable: being tongue-tied or overwhelmed? Is it the sound of sirens or the sound of silence that is more disquieting in these time?
  • Anger in the Nation by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth
    Well the title says it all doesn't it? I'm not normally a believer in ritual humiliation nor indeed the incantation of politics as theater, but I did find solace watching a few investment bank executives squirm under the questionning of US congressmen (notwithstanding the fact that said congressmen have been poor regulators). Thinking about the collateral damage that friends and family have already experienced made me appreciate the spectacle of these small discomforts and the promise of more to come. Of these small things are made comfort suites.
  • All Your Goodies Are Gone by Parliament
    The languid rhythm of the track belies the message namely "Let hurt put you in the loser's seat". A essential soundtrack for anyone who deals with the stock market in the year 2008.
  • Ezra Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly is often cited as the great anti-war lament, I rather harken to his characterization of moneyed charlatans and the damage they do
    walked eye-deep in hell
    believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
    came home, home to a lie,
    home to many deceits,
    home to old lies and new infamy;

    usury age-old and age-thick
    and liars in public places
    Perhaps the silver lining of the current moment will be some good art. I certainly look forward to it.

Mood Markers, a playlist

City (Accra) by Hilton Korley Boye

Next: Heart of Darkness, a playlist

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