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by Lara Killian

18 Mar 2009

Over the weekend I finished Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and an honorable mention in several other major North American book awards in 2002, Farmer crafts a stunning tale of a future dystopia. If you’re interested in alternate history, general science fiction, or simply enjoy a great story, this is a fascinating book.

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Matteo Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, drug magnate in a small country called Opium, sandwiched between the southern border of the United States and Aztlán, the land that we call Mexico today. This story takes place at some point in the future when hovercrafts are a normal mode of transportation, and cloning and brain implantations are commonplace. Opium, however, is frozen in time for the most part, with few modern amenities, as El Patrón prefers being reminded of the simple life of his childhood in Aztlán. In the book he reaches his 148th birthday. Such extended old age is only possible through morally dubious surgeries and organ transplants. Matt is El Patrón’s ninth clone.

El Patrón has allowed Matt to become educated and musically skilled only to keep him content and docile until his body parts are needed. El Patrón doesn’t count on Matt’s allies, however: Celia the cook, who raised Matt as a little boy, and Tam Lin, the bodyguard who loathes El Patrón’s way of life and gives Matt the clues and tools he needs to escape to Aztlán and avoid certain death. Until his escape, Matt is treated by most people as worse than livestock; they don’t believe that clones are human or have souls.

Even once Matt reaches Aztlán, his troubles are far from over. He finds that hypocrisy and unfair treatment are not human behaviors confined to El Patrón’s domain, but uses his instinct for survival to keep moving. Matt is drawn into a plan by certain government powers of both Aztlán and the US to bring down Opium and shut down El Patrón’s empire. Matt is only too happy to help free the enslaved farm workers and end the unequal treatment he sees in Opium; through his own suffering he has developed a deep sense of empathy for those considered to be undeserving of happiness.

The supporting characters are detailed and very consistent. Each has their own back-story, and Farmer does a wonderful job of weaving these finer points in with Matt’s own story. It is chilling to read about Matt’s treatment at the hands of people who see clones as less than human. It is equally satisfying to read about Matt growing up to become self-reliant, recognizing the dignity with which all people should be treated, and finally finding friendship with his peers. Highly recommended.

by Christian John Wikane

18 Mar 2009

In the annals of popular music, the legacy of Barry White is secure. His blend of pop, soul, and disco was a style unto itself. His distinct voice purred low and seductively underneath his Love Unlimited Orchestra. There is no doubting his influence on the two generations of crooners who followed, though no one has quite captured the sophistication of his seminal work from the 1970s. However, there is one individual who is often overlooked in White’s oeuvre. Her name is Gloria Scott.

Right about the time Barry White had begun his ascent on the pop and R&B charts, an album entitled What Am I Gonna Do (1974) hit record store shelves. It was slated to launch the solo career of the Bay Area-based Scott, following her work with the likes of Sly Stone, Johnny Otis, and Ike & Tina Turner. Scott was signed to White’s Soul Unlimited production company whereupon White produced all eight tracks on What Am I Gonna Do.  Back to front, it was a first-class production on par with anything White released at the time or would later record. It also marked the second release for Neil Bogart’s newly launched label, Casablanca Records.

However, a combination of factors, including the growing pains of a new record company and White’s focus on his own burgeoning career, ultimately limited the reach of What Am I Gonna Do. Though a follow-up single, “Just As Long as We’re Together”, hit the R&B Top 20 and held the top spot on the Disco Singles chart in early-1975, the second album she recorded with arranger H.B. Barnum was not released. For all his solo success, Barry White was not delivering on his contract with Gloria Scott. He became one of the most seminal figures of the 1970s while Scott faded into obscurity.

Until recently. Soul music enthusiasts have long revered What Am I Gonna Do and kept Gloria Scott’s name alive more thirty years after her debut, which is her only full-length album released to date. Since 1974, it’s had a few resurrections around the world, including a 1996 CD issue in Japan and a European release in 2003. The album is currently being prepared for a June 2009 reissue by Reel Music. More than 26,000 hits of uploaded streams from What Am I Gonna Do and the “Just As Long as We’re Together” single on YouTube have raised Scott’s profile higher now than 35 years ago.

Gloria Scott also remains active onstage. She regularly performs in Germany, where her devoted fans clutch original copies of her album. Scott even rerecorded “Help Me Get Off This Merry-Go-Round”, one of the many highlights on What Am I Gonna Do, with the Baltic Soul Orchestra in 2008. The time is ripe for the reemergence of Gloria Scott and, on a recent winter evening, she expressed her appreciation for the legion of listeners who have supported her up-close and from a distance over the years. In the coming months, she might just be appearing on a stage near you! (Note: look for a special tribute to What Am I Gonna Do in PopMatters’ forthcoming retrospective celebrating the 35th anniversary of Casablanca Records.)

I understand that Sly Stone was the first person to take you into the studio. Not many people can say that!

When I first saw him, we had just moved out here from Texas. My aunt was singing in a gospel group. I was in her living room when they got ready to have rehearsal and in walks Sly Stone, his sister Rose, and his cousin LaTanya. With my aunt, they all had a singing group. I had no idea who Sly was but I thought they had a very good group. I was 14 then. When I was 17, I was at a high school dance and there he was again. I don’t know if I remember if it was him that particular moment, but my girlfriend said (to him), “Oh she can sing”, so he said, “Well come up here and sing!” I went up there and sang – I’ll never forget – it was “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas. From then on, he took me all around the Bay Area to different dances, along with Bobby Freeman. He just kind of took me under his wing. I sang at the Cow Palace. Sly and his sister and his cousin LaTanya backed me up and they were called the Tonettes: Gloria Scott and the Tonettes.

What happened after that? Did you want to continue working with him?
I did but then he was in the process of putting together Sly and the Family Stone. I wanted to be in that group but he was hiring people who played instruments, not just singers. Then he didn’t do anything with me after that. In between I was singing at clubs in the Bay Area. I met a guy named Charles Sullivan and he had a couple of clubs. He even owned the Booker T. Washington Hotel and the Fillmore Auditorium (later Fillmore West). He said he’d introduce me to some people. One night he called me and I went down to the Fillmore Auditorium and I auditioned for Ike and Tina Turner. I became an Ikette after that. I was with them for about nine months.

Was this around the time of “River Deep-Mountain High”?
Way before. The original Ikettes were still with them. I was 19 when I got with them.  I was with a Dick Clark tour. There was a different set of Ikettes on each Dick Clark tour that went out and we were making more money than the original Ikettes! That’s one of the reasons why they quit. They didn’t think it was fair, so that’s how I got to be in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. I didn’t stay with them very long but it was very good training for me. That was the best training I could have ever had.

Once you left them, how did you go about launching a solo career?
I started writing with a friend of mine, Sunny Chaney. He’s passed away now. We were writing songs and I was doing some different things, going on the road and backing up people, and singing solo, too. He told me when I got back home that he wanted to introduce me to someone. When I got back to LA, we went over to Barry White’s office. I was showing some of the songs Sunny and I had written together and Barry said that he wanted to sign me up as an artist.

What did that entail exactly? Did he encourage you to write or just sing?
He just wanted me to sing his music. My music got set on the shelf. I helped write one of the songs on that album but I don’t even think he listened to my music. He just wanted me to interpret his music. All the songs were written by other writers in the Soul Unlimited Company. They were good songs. He produced a very good album. I think it was doing more than I knew but it just didn’t get the attention that it needed to get in order to be recognized like it should have been. I think it was because he was such an artist himself. I think that’s why I sat around for six years with that company. Six years…nothing. It was horrible and very frustrating.

Your contract was for six years, then?
Seven years, but I asked for a release before it was over. It was supposed to be two albums a year and we did record another album that wasn’t released. He did not live up to the contract.

Unfortunately that’s a situation that wasn’t all too uncommon.
In the first place, my contract was very unfair. I didn’t really know about the business and it did not serve me well. It was not a good thing. I should have just gotten somebody who could handle my situation but I did not. I got kind of angry. I got bitter but it didn’t do any good.

So, just to clarify, were you signed directly to Casablanca?
No. I think what happened was that Barry cut a deal with them.

Did you meet Neil Bogart?
I think I met him once but it was very casual. I think it was at the record release party but it was very brief. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a relationship with those people because it was Barry’s thing. He was in charge of that. Barry was so big. I probably would have done the same thing in his position but I still feel sad about it. What can you do?

What was it like working with Barry in the studio?
Actually, I think he left a lot of the arranging to Gene Page. He was really the man with the sound. I think Gene Page really had the sound and Barry got a lot of recognition from that. They worked together. When they were doing the recording for the music, Barry was there a lot but when I did my vocals, he was not there. I think he was there for the first draft but for the second draft when I went in to clean up the sound, he wasn’t there.

When you hear those songs now, what do you feel?
I think it’s beautiful music. It was a long time ago but the music still sounds good today. Everybody I play the music for goes, “Wow, that was really good!” They say, “Why don’t you just put it out again?”

Do you work with a band?
My music is not really as popular over here as it is in Germany. I’ve been over there twice. Each time I’ve gone, they’re holding up my album. Over there, the album’s worth $300. Whenever I do a gig, I sell my CDs. People love it. The musicians I work with, they do cover songs. I try to get them to do my music and they’re like, “Well, I don’t know…” A couple of times I’ve done gigs where I would just use my CDs to perform instead of using a band because I want to do some of my music. Once I did “Just as Long as We’re Together” and one of the guys in the band said, “Oh wow. That song still sounds good, Gloria!” I said, “Yeah that’s the one I was trying to get us to do”. He said, “You’re right”. I said, “Well thanks for admitting it!”

Why do you think the music is appreciated more in Europe than over here?
Well mainly because they’re hearing it. I saw a couple of shots on the Internet where people were making comments about the music and they were saying it was good. I think that was here in the U.S. I have another friend who works with computers and he set up a website. He said, “Gloria you’d be surprised how many people are interested in your music. 200 people a day listening to your songs”. When the CD is (re)released, I’m going to take it around to some of these radio stations and see if I can get anybody to play it.

When I was in Germany this last time, they took me in the studio because they wanted to do a live version of the album. It was beautiful. I did one of the songs that I wrote because I had done a demo on it. One of the engineers had tears in his eyes and said, “Gloria, I love your album but I like this song best of all”, and it was the song that I wrote. I have an orchestra there. It’s only 13 pieces but when I go back in April it’s going to be 18. This time I’ll have five strings. I think people will be glad to hear new music from Gloria Scott!

I’m optimistic. I think there’s a lot of good yet to come in terms of people appreciating your music.
I wish they’d hurry! (laughs) I’m 63-years old. I remember the last time I heard Ella Fitzgerald, she was in a wheelchair and she sounded better than ever. That was just before she passed. I feel that my voice has changed and it’s very natural for it to change. I don’t sound like I did in my twenties. I was told that my voice sounds more mature now and rich.

It’s beautiful music and it’s withstood the test of time.
I’m so glad people are interested. It makes me feel like it wasn’t a complete waste. What I’ve noticed about a lot of music is if it’s good, it will last. I’ve been over to Germany two times and each time I’ve gone, there were people that knew my music. They’re young people. I was really surprised. I had no idea. I figured nothing was happening but when all these people tell me way over in Europe that they’re still playing my music, it’s amazing. It’s too bad that I can’t get a lawyer to dig up some of my cash. I could use it right now.

Even though I didn’t get a hit off that album, I’m glad that I had the experience of recording it because it still gives me great joy just knowing that I recorded something so great and that people are still interested. I’m happy about that. Whatever happens to the music, it’s all good. It’s something that was meant to be. I’m still here! I’m still singing! I think it’s a great opportunity to go to Germany and sing these songs after almost 40 years. It’s a miracle and I’m glad to be a part of it. The people that listen to this music have high regard for what I did but my biggest dream is to record a new album

If you could have complete direction over any new recording project, what kind of album would you want to make?
I would like to do inspirational music. I would like to do some gospel as well as the blues. I would love to do the songs that I’ve written, that were written way back in the day when Barry first got interested in me. Those songs have yet to receive that special touch that Barry gave. I want that kind of attention on my songs.

For more information about Gloria Scott, visit www.gloriascottmusic.com.

by Andrew Martin

18 Mar 2009

It’s not everyday you get a free “album” of sorts from some of underground hip-hop’s best. Anticon.‘s Themselves recorded theFREEhoudini with the likes of Slug, Aesop Rock, and Yoni Wolf. And now, it’s up for free download for 90 days only on the Anticon. website. The like to enjoy the insanity is below.

Themselves
theFREEhoudini [MP3s]

TOUR DATES
03/25/2009 Firebird - St. Louis, MO
03/26/2009 Empty Bottle - Chicago, IL
03/27/2009 The Pike Room at Crofoot Ballroom - Pontiac, MI
03/28/2009 Sneaky Dee’s - Toronto, ON
03/29/2009 Club Lambi - Montreal, QC
04/01/2009 Great Scott - Allston, MA
04/02/2009 Terrace F. Club at Princeton University - Princeton, NJ
04/03/2009 Union Pool - Brooklyn, NY
04/04/2009 The Studio at Webster Hall - New York, NY
04/06/2009 The Barbary - Philadelphia, PA w/ Pattern Is Movement
04/07/2009 DC9 - Washington D.C.
04/08/2009 The Lantern - Blacksburg, VA
04/09/2009 529 - Atlanta, GA
04/10/2009 Bottletree Cafe - Birmingham, AL
04/11/2009 Spanish Moon - Baton Rouge, LA
04/13/2009 Hailey’s - Denton, TX
04/14/2009 Mohawk - Austin, TX
04/16/2009 Rhythm Room - Phoenix, AZ
04/19/2009 Coachella - Indio, CA
05/05/2009 Ancienne Belgique - Brussels, Belgium

by Bill Gibron

17 Mar 2009

We all know what the media thinks of women. Let’s just say that you can’t be too skinny, too slutty, or too bitchy in this post-millennial melee. And we all know what the various artistic outlets think of men. They’re pigs, prone to hygiene issues, and when they aren’t packing major toolboy muscle power, they’re dorking up the place with their testosterone and testes guided nerd noggins. Toss in the generic overview on children (cutesy, cloying, and precocious), minorities (straight out of a ‘30s Hollywood script), and any other recognizable type (brainiac scientist, hand-sign throwing skate rat) and it’s a specious look locked into a lowest common denominator decision.

So it’s no surprise then that the powers that be, desperate to connect with a web wired world, has decided that stuffy film critics with a wealth of history and a decent amount of artform perspective should be replaced by you - or at the very least, a dithering, dunderheaded close facsimile thereof. Like the glut of gamer experts who wear their oh-so idiosyncratic interests on their highly irreverent t-shirts, movie reviewing is being purposefully dumbed down to match your own inherent belief in your unsophisticated, knee-jerk reaction - sorry, opinion. Like the old saying about a-holes, it’s apparently true that everyone has a viewpoint on entertainment, and as with most mentions of the anus, they almost always stink.

But the media has taken this concept a nauseating step further, granting the YouTube/Twitter-atti a big, fat booth in the marketplace of ideas. Not only that, they’ve marginalized the original group that made film criticism a heralded concept to the point where their boring old fartdom overwhelms any positive benefit they can have on the discourse. No, it’s kooky carnival barker time with horrendous examples like Movie Mob (Reelz Channel’s vomit-inducing vox populi clip show) arguing for a more hands-on approach to the notion of analysis. Now, there is nothing technically wrong with giving the consumer their say. Hollywood has long capitalized on such a feigned, focus group interest. But with print dying on a daily basis, and other outlets sharing their limited supply of content, the media is turning to you to give them a marketing-friendly edge. 

Recently, Rotten Tomotoes premiered its own version of a movie show on the ‘Net friendly network Current TV. It consists of the typical G4 presenter dynamic. Host Brett Erlich (a staff writer for the Al Gore created channel) is all shrugged shoulders and face stubble, his demeanor a combination of post-millennial irony and stand-up comic cluelessness. For her part, real comedian Ellen Fox does her best “obtainable hot girl” routine while also adding a healthy dose of ‘aren’t we clever’ camaraderie. Together, they dissect what’s new at the theaters, what’s hot on DVD, and what archival titles you need to check out immediately. In between all the review haiku, three word excuses for scrutiny, and standard nu-chat show smarm, video takes from the members of RT are added in to give the real man/woman a sensible say.

As with Movie Mob, this is the show’s biggest misstep. Sure, it’s cool to see yourself - in this case, reflected in the face of a basement dwelling dweeb who runs a snarky site dedicated to Teen Wolf 2 - on TV, but is that really film criticism? A while back, we discussed the difference between being a reporter and being a reviewer. In essence, when Siskel and Ebert gave their trademarked thumbs up/down on a film, all analysis ended. Realize, there is a difference. Giving a movie a “brutally honest” appraisal is one thing. To do so without a single bit of backing is a lot like claiming an assertion as the truth. In a recent interview, Erlich and Fox both name checked Ghostbusters as their first movie memory. They went on to riff on several other offerings, all dated between 1980 and 2009. Only Singing in the Rain and The Thin Man were referenced as “classic” Hollywood.

Of course, the notion of breaking down the barrier between critic and audience is what something like The Rotten Tomatoes Show is all about. It’s the same with Movie Mob But just like American Idol, or similarly styled reality TV attempts, this is the world as filtered through the mindset of some executive type with too much time on their hands. Are you and your friends accurately reflected in the people presented on these shows? Do they say things that you truly believe? Would you be proud to point to them and say “see, that’s real film talk for ya!”? Or could it be that, like any explosion in communication, these initial attempts are the Poochie of programming misinterpretation.

Now, no one is suggesting that the old school journalist with an inherent hatred of horror and a dismissal for anything new and novel should remain the banner waver for an entire artform. Progress should mandate progression. But should someone who learned all they know about film from a VCR and a steady diet of HBO really take their place? How far outside the normative mainstream box are these nu-media darlings really thinking? Are they exploring the universe outside the American shores? Are they tuned into the true independent film? As shills for commercial conglomerates (Rotten Tomatoes is owned by IGN, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), isn’t there some innate “spin” to what they do? Isn’t some YouTube yutz with his own weekly review show more “real” than a couple of auditioned tentpole talents?

Remember, the whole point of these nu-critics is to pander directly to you, to indirectly provide you with an outlet for your inferred opinion. Going back to the gamer paradigm for a moment, I remember when G4 first hit the air. It was all fake anime girls with F-you eyes and deep plunging necklines. The review shows tended toward the blatantly obvious and what passed for news would make the cast of Entertainment Tonight collectively look like Edward R. Murrow. Over the years, the blather has subsided, replaced by some mannered yet meaningful dialogue. Sure, Attack of the Show is still slacker-vision, but X-Play typically digs deep to understand the business of games, and why certain titles continue to please while others fail miserably. Gone are the days of group ra-ra cheerleading. In their place is an almost perfect balance of publicity and purpose.

If they are to succeed, shows like Movie Mob (or Reelz’s entire raison d’etra, for that matter) and Rotten Tomatoes need to move away from the gimmicks and get back to the basics. Instead of making the crowing collective a popularity contest, they need to find a way to fuse meaning back into the material. Growing pains are just that - hurtful and harmful. Instead of helping the perception of online as the new consensus, these shows are sullying the attempt before it even gets a footing. MTV recently entered the fray with a show entitled Spoilers. But thanks to a perception over being “too traditional”, rumor has it being taken off the air for a company mandated revamp. If you think the two Bens - Lyons and Mankiewicz - are bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. If the past is any indication about where the nu-critic is going, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better - if at all.

by L.B. Jeffries

17 Mar 2009

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting by Tim Kretschmer in Germany, politicians in both America and Germany are rallying behind the event to once again call for tighter restrictions on video games. Germany already has the strongest censorship laws in the EU, which short of outright banning all or most video games means there is not much left to lock down. Here in America, games are already actively not sold to minors and the video game industry has the highest success rate of any media for keeping mature rated content out of the hands of minors.

Particularly troubling is the continuing coverage of the incident which insists on the connection between playing games and violence. Politicians and ignorant parents are one thing, journalists should be held to a higher standard. The Times’ connection of the incident to Far Cry 2 (their description of the game is factually inaccurate) barely qualifies as tenuous. Kretschmer played Far Cry 2 the night before the event along with several other FPS titles. The expert consulted in the article to establish the link is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, the man who coined the term “murder simulator” for games, and he bases his accusations on a connection between training tactics used by the military and video games. Specifically, the need to simulate the effects of shooting a person more accurately on targeting ranges (such as having targets that go limp or flail) is echoed in games. A game controller is otherwise considered the equivalent of holding a gun and firing it. The article balances out the coverage by consulting other experts on the topic who rely on psychological studies and a growing majority that have found that there is no link between video games and violence. Elements such as the father owning numerous guns, teaching Kretschmer to use guns at a young age, and a troubled childhood are all referenced as contributing factors to the crime.

Both the Telegraph and Escapist have taken the time to report on the event and also question the connection to games.

Mark David Chapman obsessively read Catcher in the Rye before shooting John Lennon. Does reading Salinger make people want to kill celebrities? Timothy McVeigh’s favorite flavor of ice cream was Ben & Jerry’s Mint Chocolate Chip. Does eating it make people want to blow up Federal buildings? Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite horror film is Hellraiser III. Does watching it make people want to murder and eat one another? Ted Kaczynski was obsessed with Joseph Conrad and the novel, The Secret Agent, in which a professor abandons his job, lives in seclusion, and decides to bomb a scientific lab. Are other people who read the story going to act it out?

As the growing problem of youth violence and school shooting continues, perhaps the press will eventually want to stop and ask why there are so many people who play these games that don’t exhibit similar behavior.

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