Miles Davis – Miles in the Sky Columbia CS 9628 (1968)
Miles in the Sky gives the impression that it is pandering to psychedelic pop/rock audiences, or that it is just a tentative and transitional effort nestled between more effective recordings of markedly different styles. But such appearances are deceiving. Miles Davis and his “second great quintet” were clearly expanding their horizons, and certainly were incorporating more elements of rock (and soul jazz). Yet the results, however mellow the mood tends to be, are effective. The album is often categorized as the worst of the Miles Davis Quintet’s late-1960s albums. And it probably is. But that says very little, because that band was releasing one classic after another. This is still a very fine album. And if nothing else, this might be drummer Tony Williams‘ best performance on record (perhaps rivaled only by his efforts on Sorcerer). The entire album is a showcase for his relentlessly creative drumming, which never seems to stagnate or rest on repetitive structures yet somehow always seems engaging and connected to the flow of each song. Keyboardist Herbie Hancock is clearly enthusiastic about the push toward rock music, though saxophonist Wayne Shorter, while his playing is good, seems the most hesitant about shifting away from the style he used in prior years.
Johnny Cash – Hello, I’m Johnny Cash Columbia KCS 9943 (1970)
As the 1960s drew to a close, so did Johnny Cash’s era of concept albums, for the most part. This was both a good and bad thing. His concept albums were very hit-or-miss, and even at their best tended to include at least a little overwrought material, and at their worst could be downright embarrassing. Cash could be faulted for trying too hard to force albums into a particular concept. In the next two decades, the faults of his albums were almost the opposite. It can feel like Cash gave up on putting effort into recording. While he focused on touring (and, briefly, his TV show), he ceded control of the sound of his albums to various producers, many of whom did Cash no favors. The problem was often one of declining sales and ill-advised schemes that grasped at gimmicks. At other times, the problem was one of self-indulgence with some really disturbingly bad gospel and religious efforts. Though not everything from the 1970s proved to be a waste. Highlights from that period tended to be where Cash was in a more basic setting, framed almost like a singer-songwriter, going back to the way he sounded in the early 1960s. To that was added a good amount of twang. Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is one of the man’s more listenable albums of the era, one that another reviewer described as setting the tone for Cash’s output the rest of the decade (in truth, this sound only carried Cash through the first half of the decade). Much of the material is good but not great, but there also is a noticeable lack of any major missteps. One clear highlight is a duet with June Carter Cash on Tim Hardin‘s “If I Were a Carpenter.” It’s a song that is perfectly suited to the singers and the one that really reflects the best of the simple but refined production style, with clear yet soft tones and varied yet unobtrusive accompaniment. This is an enjoyable one for the Cash fan.
Johnny Cash – A Thing Called Love Columbia KC 31332 (1972)
The best things on A Thing Called Love are “Kate” and “Mississippi Sand,” which isn’t saying a whole lot. Elvis did a superior recording of the title track. There is a general lack of really good material here. The album also never seems to come together. The approach to many of the songs is disjointed, with guitar parts draped with vocal choruses and strings that just don’t quite fit. Cash also struggles to find a good vocal cadence for many of the songs. Cash himself has claimed some of his work around this time was marginal because his focus was instead on his movie and album project The Gospel Road. In the end this one is not bad, and marginally more interesting than Any Old Wind That Blows, but otherwise it is one of Cash’s lesser albums of the early 1970s.
Johnny Cash – Any Old Wind That Blows Columbia KC-32091 (1973)
Weak songs, and very bland delivery. Producer Larry Bulter dresses much of this up with strings, and the hollow, slick sound just passes by without making an impression. The only surprise is the vague hippie-rock influence on “If I Had a Hammer.” A re-recording of “Country Trash” on American III: Solitary Man is much superior. Cash scored a few minor hits from the album, but in hindsight this is one of the least memorable of his early 1970s LPs.
A major contribution of (good) social science is to uncover and articulate implied meanings, as well as to refute false denials of meaning. This is to say that human beings are often disingenuous in their explicit statements. While that statement is hardly shocking (or original), it nonetheless stands in marked contrast to the work of a large swath of academic studies that rely on surveys and take all survey responses at face value, for instance. More useful is an analysis — often statistical — that largely disregards (or diminishes) stated intents and rationales and instead draws out hidden motivations and benefits. Take for instance accusations of discrimination, like racism. Many racists deny that they are in fact racist (often because they rationally understand that such admissions are treated with derision and, sometimes, are prosecuted/redressed), frequently relying instead on a professed mantra of individual choice (or “states rights”, etc.). These are often subtle attempts to re-frame the discussion away from the kinds of statistical analyses that would show how those purportedly benign personal choice in fact rely upon and support discriminatory “social constructs”. In a broader sense, this ties in to reliance on a very binary analytical system of individual subjectivity vs. scientific/observable fact that is overly simplistic. More pernicious are things like “implicit bias” theorizing, which is really a characteristically Liberal response to this issue, and which still accepts the basic individual choice framework (largely side-stepping analysis of “social constructs”) but admits to errors of isolated individuals in order to leave the pre-existing (and unexamined) “social constructs” in place. Well, and the outright hostility to the very idea of “social constructs,” to wit Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip, “There is no such thing as society.”
Selected illustrative links: See “A Southern City With Northern Problems” and “Marx’s ‘Capital’ at 150: History in Capital, Capital in History”
Jim Thorpe -All American (1951)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Main Cast: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe
On the one hand, this film admirably portrays the life of a native american. On the other hand, it is highly problematic. There are some decent acting performances, but the score is tedious Hollywood pap. The script is the biggest problem. First of all, it is not very historically accurate, sacrificing facts to develop melodramatic plot points. But the worst thing about it is that the story is designed to emphasize personal failings to diminish the nagging problem of racism. Now, the film does address racism. But it is brought up mainly as a “strawman” to be knocked down in favor of a formulaic personal struggle narrative arc. It presents Thorpe’s life as one of him being too emotionally weak to succeed (in the face of racism, personal tragedies). To draw an analogy, this is premised on the Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis, Jr. model — a great individual can overcome all institutional and social obstacles (racism) just by being personally talented enough in ways that are non-threatening to social power structures. This is essentially a parallel of the “Talented Tenth” theory of W.E.B. Du Bois (later disavowed) and the questionable advocacy of Booker T. Washington. In other words, without any irony, Thorpe is merely expected to have a superhuman willpower and resolve to overcome discrimination. The real-life Jim Thorpe was subject to a level of discrimination well beyond anything depicted in the film, and the film would have been much better if it addressed that (and had a better score). For that matter, one would hardly realize from the film that its timeline runs through the Great Depression. Anyway, fortunately in the coming years there were other, sounder ways of looking at these sorts of questions gaining traction (see Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, etc.).
Miles Davis – Nefertiti Columbia CS 9594 (1968)
The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet. With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns. Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential. Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes. Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section. There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized. Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal — if still varied — role. It’s a magnificent recording. I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering. To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.