Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus

Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft JesusRobert McElvaine is one pissed-off individual. It’s hard to escape the conclusion, all the way from the cover to the very last page of his Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. On the other hand, all the old saws about not judging a book by its cover aside, once you get to the contents, it’s easy to see why he might be–ahem–slightly perturbed.

The author’s interest is in those who’ve read the New Testament so closely that they can’t see the forest–in this case, Jesus’ teachings and central message–for the trees (i.e. the individual, highly legalized, very specific and often very specious focus on certain bits that make the more difficult bits of Jesus go down easy). To say that he’s disturbed by the shape of the religious landscape in this country would be putting it mildly. Writing of those he calls “Lite Christians,” he says:

They’re all about having fun, spending money, and seeking pleasure, but when it comes to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, they take a pass. Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!

And, as it turns out, McElvaine’s in a target-rich environment. Continue reading “Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus”

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue“The ideal antidote to Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Okay, we’ve gotten that part out of the way. Now, on to the book. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is like manna from heaven for people who get all weak-kneed over discussions of grammar, linguistics, and how, exactly, the English language took the shape that it has today. Like other books on the subject written for the mass market–Richard Lederer’s or David Crystal’s works come to mind–it’s engaging and informative; unlike much of the rest of the (admittedly not very crowded) field, it’s also funny; McWhorter’s enthusiasm for his subject, and his tongue-in-cheek delivery, are contagious.

The best place to begin is at the ending, where the author sums up much of the 190-odd pages that went before:

The History of English we are usually given is rather static. Some marauders brought Old English to Britain. The Celts scampered away. Pretty soon the Brits went cosmopolitan and started gathering baskets of words from assorted folks, such that we now have a bigger vocabulary than before. The only thing that happened to English grammar during all this time, other than minutiae only a linguist could love, is that it lost a lot of endings, and this made word order less flexible.

That does a decent job of summing up the popular conception of how we arrived at the modern English language; it’s what we’re told in grammar school, alongside penmanship, diagramming sentences, not splitting infinitives, and never writing sentences with prepositions at the end. Only that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. Continue reading “John McWhorter: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

O Rappa: 7 Vezes

O Rappa: 7 VezesYears back, I remember reading an article in Musician magazine where they asked a couple dozen musicians what they hoped the music of the ’90’s would sound like (this would’ve been in late ’89 or early ’90). I don’t remember most of the responses, save for one: Vernon Reid said something to the effect that he’d love to see something that’d be a fusion of rap, metal, and world music; I read that, and thought to myself, “Okay, interesting, but what would it sound like?

It’d take almost ten years, but I’d eventually find out, almost purely by accident. I was working in a chain record store, and one morning before opening had slipped the then-new compilation Red Hot + Rio into the player, proceeding then to go absentmindedly about my morning, half-working, half-listening. At least until “Maracatu Atomico” came thudding through the speakers and stopped me dead in my tracks. For the next fifteen or so minutes, through repeated plays, I couldn’t pay attention to anything else. All of a sudden, what Vernon Reid had said made perfect, crystalline sense. This–in the form of a performance by Chico Science and Nação Zumbi–was it.

So what’s that got to do with O Rappa? Hold on, I’m getting there. Science’s death in 1997 spelled the end of CSNZ, and left me wondering where I might find something with that same spark and originality. A chance conversation with a customer in the aforementioned record shop clued me in to O Rappa. While the sound isn’t apples-to-apples alike (which is a good thing; if they’d been too close, I’d have been more disappointed than thrilled), I think the spirit in which O Rappa operates would’ve done Chico Science proud. That said, now let’s get down to their latest offering, Sete Vezes. Continue reading “O Rappa: 7 Vezes”

Lenine: Labiata

Lenine: LabiataYou could call Lenine a late bloomer; although his first album (with Lula Queiroga) dropped in 1983, when he was 24, there was a break of nearly ten years before his collaboration with Marcos Suzano, Olho de Peixe, would appear; another five before his first proper “solo” album, O Dia em que Faremos Contato. At 38, in other words, he finally hit his stride. And now, some years on–he’s celebrating his fiftieth birthday somewhere as I write this–he shows no signs of slowing down.

Lenine’s sound is instantaneously identifiable. There’s the comfortably worn voice, a guitar style that sounds like Michael Hedges channelling João Gilberto, and a sense of rhythm and texture that’s as forward-looking as anything Chico Science managed. On one hand, the sound is so identifiable that even someone covering Lenine ends up sounding more than a bit like him (like Daude’s take on “Hoje Eu Quiero Sair So,” from her debut album); but then, even songs he’s written for other artists–try just a chorus from Fernanda Abreu’s “Urbano Canibal”–bear his stamp. As if that weren’t enough, even his takes on others’ music end up sounding as though he wrote them, as was the case with the excellent “O Atirador,” from his 2005 acoustic release. On his latest disc, Labiata, he sounds like none other. Continue reading “Lenine: Labiata”

Sugar-Free Jazz: The Jazz Ear, by Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff: The Jazz EarIf trying to define jazz is difficult, trying to get a jazz musician to talk about his or her approach to the craft seems harder still. As Ben Ratliff notes in the introduction to his latest book, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, these interviews often as not take place as part of promotion of whatever the artist happens to have most recently released; much less often do they take place for no other reason than the conversation, with their subjects’ guard down.

Ratliff’s approach–to have his subjects use someone else’s music as a conversation-starter–yields some great results. As it turns out, musicians, like the rest of us, tend to tell the most when they’re talking about something other than themselves or their own output. The interviews contained here capture both their subjects–the musicians being interviewed, and the music to which interviewer and interviewee are listening–in miniature, revealing insights into their own personalities, listening habits, and their  approaches to composition and playing. Continue reading “Sugar-Free Jazz: The Jazz Ear, by Ben Ratliff”