Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Koh Star

Kagan seems like the odds on favorite to replace Stevens on the Supreme Court, but if I were looking for a dark horse candidate, Harold Koh would be that guy. Here's the case:

1) the "ground breaker" narrative: first Asian-American (Korean) on the high court; this always sells with the media framing and would help with a minority demo (albeit small) that leans GOP. It could also make the GOP look petty and racist if they freak out or use an unprecedented filibuster, reinforcing their most damaging stereotype. They'll have to tread more carefully.

2) the "personal" narrative: great family story about parents fleeing dictatorship and persecution; helps with that Obama theme of knowing the difficulties of ordinary people, etc.

3) intellectual heavyweight: Harvard Law grad, Dean of Yale Law School, served under Dem and GOP admins, serious record of scholarship, and expertise on national security and human rights issues. He cannot be dismissed an "unqualified" and would rally liberals in the base looking for a potential rock star.

4) liberal with "bipartisanship" cred: he's clearly a man of the left, but he's won praise for his conservative outreach at Yale and relative moderation on key issues. He'd have at least some conservative cover from witnesses in the hearings, if not from the Senators themselves.

5) international law focus: he's been a pioneer on this topic and would (a) reach out to swing vote Kennedy, who has strong sympathies here, while (b) providing a strong answer to Scalia and Thomas's hatred of non-national sources of legal consultation. Flip side: this WILL be the main right wing freak out. Yet they're going to freak out anyway, and this may be a good thing to get them riled up over since it could provoke them to the extremism that might discredit them with the broad middle of the electorate. Obama usually wins when he looks calm and reasonable and they look like Palin-Beck ragers.

Obama's likely to play this safe and conserve capital. That said, if he decides he's going to get a fight no matter what, Koh would be a pretty good guy to rally behind. Lots of upside, and his fundamentals look sound. He'd be my pick. (Gut pick, that is--I vetted for a whole thirty seconds!)

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Good Ol' Boys Were Drinkin' Whiskey and Rye

It's been a rough couple of months for southern indie rock. Since Christmas, three of the south's quirkiest musical icons have gone to the great beyond. First, on Christmas eve, Vic Chesnutt committed suicide, apparently in despair over his inability to pay his bills for hospital care. A quadriplegic since 18, Chesnutt was a subtle songwriter with a voice both fragile and reassuring. Michael Stipe discovered him playing in Athens (his body only allowed him to play a few chords), and Chesnutt recorded numerous solo records, went on to play with Lambchop and Widespread Panic, and had a small part in Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade. His 1996 album About to Choke was the one I knew and loved. It was haunting, beautiful, and confounding. Yet the song I most get in my head now is 1993's "Gravity of the Situation," a title that felt earned long before it felt prophetic.

Then, last month, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse--who had collaborated with Chesnutt in the past (and Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey, Cracker, and others)--committed suicide in Knoxville. Sparklehorse, which started out in rural southwestern Virginia, is a hard band to describe. They sounded a bit like Faulkner meeting Sonic Youth: strangely affecting noise rock with a tender heart and a skewed mind. Their debut album, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot (1995) is one of my all-time favorite records, although it is not for everyone. Joyous rockers like "Rainmaker," and "Someday I Will Treat You Good," alternate with aching acoustic beauties like "Saturday," and "The Most Beautiful Widow in Town," only to lurch into sporadic bursts of dissonance or object trouvet sound effects. The later albums were generally darker and more intense (notably, It's a Wonderful Life), in a way that anticipated Arcade Fire, and I liked them a bit less. I don't know what Linkous had left in him, but he carved out a wondrous niche while he was here.

Finally, on March 17, Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in New Orleans at 59. Damn. I really can't beat the Rolling Stone tribute in describing his legacy, but it was frickin' huge. What can you say about a guy who was a primary inspiration for REM, Wilco, and the Replacements? If the name doesn't sound familiar, you'll remember his smash hit at age 16 with the Box Tops, "The Letter": "Give me a ticket for an aeroplane/ I ain't got time to take a fast train/ Lonely days are gone/I'm going home/ because my baby just wrote me a letter."

Far more important was his next group, Big Star. By now, he wasn't. Their first album was #1 Record (1972). It wasn't. What it was was one of the greatest albums of all time. And unlike Sparklehorse, it should have been for everyone. His voice was now unrecognizable from the Box Top days--the deep growl replaced by a perfect tenor, as if he had gotten younger and sweeter. Sometimes described as the Beatles from Memphis, they also sounded like the impossibly missing link between the Byrds and Kiss. (Make sense of that! No wonder no one bought it.) When I get some of those songs in my head--"Thirteen," "The Ballad of El Goodo" (?!?), "Watch the Sunrise," or "I'm In Love With a Girl" (from the equally amazing Radio City (1974))--they still break my heart. Don't get me wrong, they also rocked: "Feel," "O My Soul," "Mod Lang." "Down in the Street" was eventually covered by Cheap Trick as the theme for That 70s Show (which also often featured other tunes in the show itself). This was band that seemed like it could do almost anything.

Which explains their third and last album, Third/Sister Lovers (1975). Really, it was a drugged out mess. And brilliant. Where elegance meets entropy. No wonder the record company wouldn't release it for years. It felt like the universe was slowly drifting apart. After a rousing start with songs like "Kizza Me," and "Jesus Christ," it descends into the maddening gloom of "Holocaust" and "Kanga-Roo," only to reemerge with the lovely "Stroke It Noel." I have always thought that many of Wilco's best albums (Being There, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost is Born) were efforts to remake Third. Not my favorite Big Star record to listen to. The mood must strike. But there's never really been anything else quite like it. If you don't know them, you ought to give a listen.