Monday, August 31, 2015

Joey Kneiser and Kelly Smith -- Live From Standard Deluxe

I have conflicting advice to give you on this one. If you've never listened to a Glossary album before, I'm tempted to see you should drop everything you're doing and listen to Long Live All of Us. If anyone tries to tell you that alt-country is for sad-sack losers who don't have anything positive to offer, you can punch them in the gut and then give them that album. It's a beautiful meditation on life. Even if you've heard the album before, I'll understand if you want to take a break from reading this to enjoy Long Live All of Us all over again.

On the other hand, Live seems to offer an overview of the band's greatest hits. (I'm ashamed to admit I haven't gone further back than LLAU.) Joey and Kelly sing all of these songs like every note is an essence of their soul. It's hard to tell that this is a live album because you can't even hear a pin drop in the background: the effect is captivating even through my headphones.

This album was dropped as a surprise last week -- I wanted to spin it a little bit before sharing it with you. Definitely hie thee to the Bandcamp page to avail yourself of this remarkable performance that's been captured in amber for the rest of us.

If you like what you hear, This is American Music has plenty more where that came from. You can download a free sampler here.

Joey Kneiser -- Official, Bandcamp

Thursday, August 27, 2015

TICKET GIVEAWAY! -- The Cadillac 3, 2/3 Goat, The Grand Central, Lizzie and the Makers

If you made it all the way down here, then you're looking for tickets! The Shop Brooklyn is a new purveyor of fine barbecue and finger alt-country music. They're giving away tickets for this Saturday's show featuring the Cadillac 3 (for the record, they're the only "celebrity" cameo I've liked in all three seasons of Nashville), as well as hometown heroes 2/3 Goat, The Grand Central, and Lizzie and the Makers. You could shell out $20 here, or you can get two for free on us. Here's how:

  • Follow me and The Shop Brooklyn on Twitter 
  • Tweet at BOTH of us telling us you want tickets! Get creative!
  • If more than one of you mopes does this, we'll do a random drawing
  • We'll get in touch with you Friday evening via DirectMessage, then sort out the details
You have 24 hours...go!

Grace Petrie -- Whatever's Left

I wrote about Petrie's previous album a scant two months ago, but she went ahead and released her latest, Whatever's Left, the day before my review went up. (What a scamp.) So she made it back into the rotation.

Really the only thing that's changed since last time is my increased appreciation for Petrie's incisive lyrics and no-frills vocals. Although Whatever's Left comes in the wake of a crushing Tory victory (did I get that right?), the majority of the songs on this album feel more personal than last time around.

Though Petrie has a full band backing on her most of these songs, it's worth noting that the forcefulness of her personality -- though blunted by witty aside and smart musical reference -- shines through. As Petrie herself admits in "Revolutionary in the Wrong Time," maybe what she's saying isn't so original, but goddammit she's going to call at like she sees it. Petrie's plain, commonsense approach allows her political songs and love songs -- which are not necessarily separate ("The Last Love Song" is pretty great) -- fall with the same hammer-like impact. My favorite song, "Ivy," makes me tear up a little every time. If I understand it correctly, Petrie recounts abruptly leaving a folk festival in order to get home in time for the birth of a new relative (niece?) It has all of Petrie's trademark humor and warmth, and her sense of awe rockets from her mouth to your ears. Whether or not you're a British politics junkie, Whatever's Left is urgent, human, and necessary.

Grace Petrie -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Langhorne Slim -- The Spirit Moves AND Ticket Giveaway!

The first time I saw Langhorne Slim and the Law, it was their last show before getting on the plane to Nashville to record this album. I already loved The Way We Move, and I was blown away by the band's on-stage tour de force. To quote an old press clipping about Cowboy Mouth, on a bad night they'll tear the roof off -- on a good night, they'll save your soul. With that being said, The Spirit Moves is a complete misrepresentation of the band's love performance. It's also the most beautiful album you'll hear all year.

That's not a bad thing, depending on your philosophy. For some, an album is (to quote No Depression's Raina Rose) an expensive business card, something fans can use to memorize song lyrics to tide them over between the shows. For others, the album should capture exactly what the band is live. And for still more, the album should put the songs in a different light than can be achieved on stage. Thanks to the helmsmanship of Andrija Tokic, (who has given us the Alabama Shakes, Benjamin Booker, and Hurray for the Riff-Raff, amongst other favorites), Langhorne Slim and the Law are captured in a more intimate setting. The Spirit Moves is in many ways quieter than the raucous, joyful The Way We Move. Though I had been hoping for more of the same, I'm happy with what we've got.

It seems to me that sound mixing should be like makeup: you should never notice it if it's good, but you should notice if it' breathtaking. Whatever magic Tokic worked, it sounds as if Slim is crooning right into our ears even as Malachi DeLorenzo's exuberant drumming propels the songs forward. The songs, I feel, are a bit uneven. Slim cowrote most of the album with producer Kenny Siegal and, honestly, the songs he wrote himself are the strongest (on "Airplane" the pair rhyme the word "defenses" with "fences," which is pretty disappointing from the man who wrote the lush imagery in "The Way We Move".) While I can see Slim was going for an economy of words this time around, he unfortunately missed the mark a few times. However, Slim's delivery brings these sparse lyrics to life in a way nobody else can, thereby making these songs forever his. And they all fit right into his existing setlist.

Langhorne Slim -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Dualtone Records

If you made it all the way down here, then you're looking for tickets! The Shop Brooklyn is a new purveyor of fine barbecue and finger alt-country music. They're giving away tickets for this Saturday's show featuring the Cadillac 3 (for the record, they're the only "celebrity" cameo I've liked in all three seasons of Nashville), 2/3 Goat, The Grand Central, and Lizzie and the Makers. You could shell out $20 here, or you can get two for free on us. Here's how:

  • Follow me and The Shop Brooklyn on Twitter 
  • Tweet at BOTH of us telling us you want tickets! Get creative!
  • If more than one of you mopes does this, we'll do a random drawing
  • We'll get in touch with you Thursday evening via DirectMessage, then sort out the details
You have 24 hours...go!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Burnside & Hooker -- All the Way to the Devil

While many artists are still trying to figure out just what the hell to do with CDs in the streaming age (and in many cases abandoning albums altogether), Burnside & Hooker do not -- in most respects -- give a damn about what's trendy and popular. Their mammoth sophomore effort, All The Way to the Devil, is a raucous celebration of turn-of-the-century American music.

All The Way to the Devil  seems to gel best as a story. The gang vocals and stomps of the bluesy "All The Way to the Devil"/"The Graveyeard" set the stage: a wayward youth straining against her rural background leaves for the big city ("Someday (Gonna Leave This Town)"). As the album progresses and (in my mind) the narrator explores her new home, the songs transition from folk and blues to swing, jazz, and rock'n'roll. Rachel Bonacquisti, a vocal giant, hits her zenith at "Meridian Road" and "Red Betty," both red-hot rockabilly scorchers. But singers shouldn't get all the glory -- the rest of the band keeps up a furious pace, almost outshowing Bonacquisti with their acrobatics and intensity. As the character wishes us farewell in "Goodbye, Louisiana" (presumably she went to New Orleans), she reconciles with her mamma, and heads on back home.

I can imagine the band playing through the entire album as a set, though I wonder if there are enough Red Bulls in the world to make that proposition sustainable for both the musicians and the dancers. Another interesting point to All the Way to the Devil is the fact that it shows how interchangeable all of this  "Americana" stuff is. At the end of the day, all of these genres were meant to help (white) people get down on a Saturday night. The only thing that seems to separate early country and rock is geography. All the Way to the Devil doesn't just take us on a character's journey, it gives us a greater appreciation of this country's cultural contribution to the world.

Burnside & Hooker -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, August 24, 2015

Reina del Cid -- The Cooling

A few weeks ago, I observed what seems to be a cresting trend of (female) artists incorporating the melodic verve of '90s rock with twangy flavorings. Reina del Cid divebombs into that wave headfirst, and damn do they make it sound good.

del Cid's lyrics are cutting. Her songs are vividly imagined, but they're brutally sharp. All of her songs are ambivalent: in "Where the Sun Always Shines" her rather persuasive description of Heaven is tempered by the protagonist's suicide. The mischievous "This One's Gonna Hurt" sounds much less fun coming after the first track, "Sweet Annie," which begins as a creepily possessive but sweet love song that is followed to its logical (and tragic) truth. The title track, "The Cooling," confirms that there is no afterlife after all -- just the vague horror as you feel your lifeforce drain out of you. The band has their lyrics posted on their Bandcamp page, and it is absolutely worth a read. If you're looking for examples of great songwriting, look no further. (Also, if you feel these songs are a bit of a downer, I just listened to del Cid's "Nerd Rap" and feel way better about life.)

But the full weight of the album only catches up with you if you listen close. Toni Lindgren's remarkable guitar slinging keeps things light. Lindgren kills it on the rollicking not-so-populist anthem "Of Mice and Men"and the reggae-influenced "Xanadu." Christopher Wiberg's and Zach Schmidt know to step out of the way when necessary, but their subtle bass and drums (respectively) keep these songs fresh and propulsive.

If this is only Reina del Cid's sophomore album, then their future work will truly be something to behold.

Reina del Cid -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bandcamp, Purchase from Big Cartel

Friday, August 21, 2015

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages -- Under the Savage Sky AND A Purdie Good Life

This past week I went on a road trip with my dad and my sister up to a place we went as kids. The whole trip was basically a nostalgia tour. On the way up, we blasted the music we always listened to, the stuff that forms he basis of my musical taste: the Beatles, Carol King, Elvis. I suddenly realized where my inexplicable -- I'm a rich kid from Manhattan -- penchant for country music and roots rock came from. If it weren't for the harmonies, the driving basslines, and blues-inspired progressions, where would any of us be? But listening to it now emotionally drove home what we all have known for years: the reason these people got famous is because they could suggest black music were ultimately prim and a little...well, I mean this with love and in a comparative sense...boring.

Barrence Whitfield and the Savages have resurrected those deep cuts of the 50s and 60s -- the stuff that was really getting played in those basement bars, road houses, and honky-tonks -- the stuff the Beatles must have played back in Hamburg, before they were even the Beatles, and before they had to tone it down. Whitfield and his Savages remind us that the real early rock'n'roll was all about sweat and passion, not pissing your parents off.

Whitfield's manic preacher vocals are only matched by the Savages' punk rock intensity. The songs have a detached sense of humor if you can stop dancing long enough to listen. But you probably won't. Whitfield could save your soul or raise the dead, but instead he's going to make you shake your ass.

Barrence Whitfield -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, or purchase physical copies from Bloodshot Records

ALSO --since you're reading this you probably believe in giving great musicians their due. If you can, consider chipping in to this documentary about legendary drummer Bernard Purdie.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hawk and Steel -- Anywhere But Here

My therapist (and I guess other people in my life) often tells me I'm too hard on myself. That may be the case, but after listening to Hawk and Steel's Anywhere But Here, I wonder if that's maybe a trait that all country singers (and by extension, their listeners) share. These are songs of desperation, frustration, and -- most importantly -- ambition in rural Canada. For once, the album title captures the theme of the music: as the press materials point out, these are songs about people who know they could make it...anywhere but here.

Hawk and Steel prove their songwriting chops from the start with "David and Katie," luring us in with yet another tale of love gone wrong:

David grew up in a small town
Working night shifts at the liquor store
All he ever cared about was
Making sure him and Katie [got] much more

Oh how life can go upside down
so wrong with a single mistake
but now Katie's gone
David's dreaming about different days 

But, as it turns out, that single mistake is a bank robbery gone wrong. The band then careens through barroom country punk with a hate song to their hometown, "Victoria." Peter Gardener's vocals remind me of a more melodic Arliss Nancy. However, Hawk and Steel can pull your heartstrings in more traditional ways, as can be seen in the country ballads "Whatever Happened to Us?" and "Fire in the Wind," both of which will jerk a few tears if you're feeling sentimental. In other words, even if Victoria isn't that kind of town, Hawk and Steel are keeping the best of alt-country alive and well.

Hawk and Steel -- Official, Facebook, Name your price (but definitely contribute something!) at Bandcamp

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Leavelles -- Mostly True Stories

The Leavelles' Mostly True Stories is honest-to-goodness, back-to-basics country rock'n'roll. These guys are what speaks to me most in this corner of the music world: they sing humorous songs about serious subjects and don't take themselves too seriously. That doesn't mean they're slackers -- not by a long shot. Mostly True Stories kicks off with "Something New," a country song as tightly written as the best of them and played with that magic mix of confidence and looseness.

Based on their bio, the Leavelles have been around the block more than a few times. Mostly True Stories feels a little like a coming-out party (both in the demure debutante sense and in the "yaaaaaaaaaas gurl" gay bar sense) -- the band aces the alt-country humor and ennui and -- just because they can -- switch to early rock'n'roll on "Parish Hall" and "Fuzzy" before veering left towards gospel for "We All Come Broken," then landing back where we started at "One Foot In the Pulpit" which tells the tale of a singer torn between his rock'n'roll kicks and Sunday morning soulfulness. Also of note are the slower songs. "The Story of You" is an unironically sweet tale of new love that never veers into saccharine. The last song, "Pack Your Bags," is one of the best touring songs I've heard -- relaying the boredom and hopefulness of an indie band. At one point they sing, "Open your case/And group your guitar/We go on a little after eight/Let's do our best to sing these songs/I think that we just might have something great."

I think they're right.

The Leavelles -- Facebook, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sara Rachele -- Madison County EP

I have a rather contrary association with Sara Rachele's devastating ballad, "Rebecca." It was the last day of school and I literally had nothing else to do, so I sat at my desk and queued up the song for a second listen to get a better understanding of the lyrics. Suddenly one of my colleagues burst into the room and exclaimed, "Check your Twitter RIGHT NOW."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how this little lesbian learned she could get married in all fifty states.

Both tracks on Madison County were recorded in a field outside Athens, GA in one take. It is one helluva five minutes. The side A song, "Rebecca" is a beautiful and honest unburdening, the story of living -- and reconciling -- with the regret of abortion.

 I'm concerned that I don't have the words to discuss "Rebecca," which seems to be autobiographical, with the reverence and sensitivity it deserves. She lays it all on the table for us and more than any other song I've written about, this is one that has to speak for itself.

The EP concludes with "It Is Well (With My Soul)", a traditional song that cuts some of the pain of the previous song.

Rachele doesn't seem to have recorded a full album yet.*** Listening to some of her other singles, Madison County, is far from a fluke. Even though you can stream these two songs on Bandcamp indefinitely, I urge you to purchase the tracks so we can get the twelve-song treatment from this remarkable artist.

Sara Rachelle -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Bandcamp

***EDITS: I made a number of booboos on this one! I fixed Ms. Rachele's last name in the headline; I mis-typed "It is Well (With My Soul)"; and, it turns out, my research wasn't that extensive and Ms. Rachele does indeed have a full album, which we can all enjoy here and here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Juleah -- Melt Inside the Sun

Apparently the new cool kid thing is to "emulate" '90s alt-rock (as opposed to begging, borrowing, and stealing from the '70s and '80s.) If you've been reading this noble publication for a while, you know that that's the last musical trend I'll complain about it. It's one thing to cop a few chord progressions from Nirvana, though, and another to build upon something that's already good. Juleah, hailing from Austria, is cresting the wave with her newest release.

Melt Inside the Sun deftly combines the heavy bass and driving melodies of the '90s with free-flowing, psychedelic guitar riffs. Her voice will call to mind some of the great female-fronted acts of the day like Poe, Mazzy Star, and Garbage. But Juleah's instrumental tracks show off her and her band's skill: rooted in the melody, these songs never drift off into abstraction or musical masturbation. This is absolutely music for a dreamy summer afternoon, and it is Adobe & Teardrops approved.

Juleah -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

VIDEO: Honey and the 45s -- "Dark"

It's hot, but Honey and the 45s have enough cool emanating from them to ease your suffering. Or, in the case of this video, they might rev you up. Filmed in the swanky Powhatan Building in Chicago, the video's fascination with the 20s and lack of concern for strict period accuracy is a nice visual representation of Honey and the 45s' jazzy style: more in the Jazz Age than out, but with a sleek modern sensibility.

Honey and the 45s -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, August 10, 2015

C & C Surf Factory -- Garage City

Happy birthday to me! My present to you is this tasty surf-rock morsel from the hands of two of Canada's greatest alt-country guitarists: Colin Cripps (Kathleen Edwards, Blue Rodeo) and James Robertson (Lindi Ortega, New Country Rehab). The duo's desire to stretch into instrumental music and show off their chops lead to its natural conclusion: a half-hour long surf rock album.

Don't let that scare you. The band scours enough rock'n'roll territory to keep things fresh. "Dirty Skirty" and "P. Soup" will satisfy your surf rock sweet tooth, but "Cobra Basket" and the closer, "Phasors on Stun" will expand your expectations for what instrumental music can be. It goes without saying, of course, that the guitar work is impressive. These songs are fresh and spontaneous, no doubt because Cripps and Robertson enjoy cutting loose and stretching both their musical muscles and their phalanges. Their chemistry is noticeable: you don't get a sense that they're trying to one-up each other. The whole band is having a great time doing something new. That is, unfortunately, extremely rare in musical collaborations. Maybe this is a one-time deal, but it's worth checking out.

C & C Surf Factory -- Facebook, Purchase from Six Shooter Records

Friday, August 7, 2015

Th' Legendary Shack Shakers -- Cockadoodledon't (VINYL RE-ISSUE)

I am pretty sure I am the only person who has ever worked out to The Legendary Shackshakers. Certainly, I was the only one in the gym crushing it (I can benchpress 40 pounds, guys!) to rockabilly. Clocking in at just around 30 minutes, I present to you, in honor of Hound Gawd's vinyl reissue of Cockadoodledon't, the Adobe & Teardrops workout.

Warm-Up (6 min)

The Shack-Shakers cut to the chase with the furious "Pine Tree Boogie" and "CB Song." They don't need the warm-up, but you do.

Upper Body (6 min)

The metal-like intensity and delivery of "Shakerag Holler" will make you want to pump your fists furiously, so this would be a good time to do chest presses.

Legs (8 min)

The album still doesn't let up, but you might need a break. Might as well do some relaxing groin presses, hip adductions and abductions, and take a pause to listen to the majestically spooky "Blood on the Bluegrass."

Abs (6 min)

"Wild Wild Lover" and "Shake Your Hips" will make you want to fast-forward to the night's activities. Better tone your core to get ready for the event.

Cool-Down (3 min)

Even the final song, "Hoptown Jailbreak" is a mad dash to the finish. It'll be enough to pump you up for some concluding cardio exercise.

There you have it! If you don't find someone to make wild love to while listening to this album once you get your beach bod ready, you'll at least have dropped some money on a great album! Guaranteed!

NOTE: The vinyl re-issue is from Hound Gawd Records. This embedded player links you to Bloodshot Records' Bandcamp Page

I'm not enough of an audio nerd to have an opinion on vinyl vs. sound. I listened to the files Hound Gawd sent me on a 6-year-old mp3 player. That being said, I assume it was re-mastered and it sounded great on my headphones. If you have a sweet setup, it seems like it'd be worth springing for the vinyl.

The Legendary Shack Shakers -- Official, Facebook, Purchase vinyl from Hound Gawd Records

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Chris Darby -- Instructional Songs For Quality Living

Writing about country music as I do, when I saw the title for Chris Darby's new album, I assumed (and hoped) that the title would be ironic. What's a more apt title for an album of yet more songs about bad breakups, bad booze, and bad feelings? As it turns out, Instructional Songs for Quality Living is as earnest as they come. Country always seems to live at extremes: painfully raw and earnest, or sly irony as an attempt to (unsuccessfully) mask the true emotions. Darby is direct, but his music is gently insistent rather than a torrent of gut-spilling.

Darby's advice is pretty much the same as what every therapist, Buddhist, or self-help book would tell you: live in the moment and love yourself. Of course, if it was that easy we'd all do it. As a good little believer in differentiated instruction, perhaps music will be what unlocks the secret for you. It could also be Darby's common-sense approach to music and lyrics, or maybe his warm, fatherly voice will lead you to Enlightenment.

At the risk of offending, Mr. Darby, I think this collection of songs might actually work better on shuffle with the rest of your music. I'm a big believer in albums and I'm not sold on the idea of being able to buy a song from here or there like a buffet. That being said, listening to all 11 songs in a row is a bit of an intense experience. Since all of the songs are written as advice to the listener, the combined effect is somewhat didactic. Instead, I think the music would have Darby's intended effect interspersed with your sad-sack music about bad breakups, bad booze, and bad feelings. What better reminder is there that things aren't so bad, after all?

Chris Darby -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

PJ Bond -- Where Were You?

PJ Bond's music sounds like everyone you've heard before, but that's not a bad thing. As I listened to his latest release Where Were You?, I heard elements of many of my favorite artists: Frank Turner, Elway, Gaslight Anthem, Fountains of Wayne, Dylan. Coming from a punk background, Bond retains a unique voice among punk folk singers. While they maintain the energy and catchy, anthemic hooks of a pop punk song, Bond's delicate lyrics and gently disappointed voice give his songs a sense of delicacy that his peers don't necessarily achieve.

Bond is a careful storyteller, spinning familiar emotions from fresh imagery. My favorite example is "Seer," in which the narrator begs his lover to stay in spite of an unfavorable tarot card reading. On this album, Bond asked his brother's band, Communipaw, to back him up. I don't know much about Bond's back catalog, but it feels as if the band is stretching from its alt-country habit on songs like "From Lucknow to Birmingham" and the "'87 Broadcast." Where Were You? feels like Bond has solidified his craft and is preparing to explore further avenues. I enjoy it and I hope you will, too.

PJ Bond -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bandcamp, Purchase vinyl, Purchase back catalog here

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Problem We All Live With: How Education Reform Reinforces Racism

As much as I enjoy writing about music, my real passion is my day job: teaching. Though I'm not really an NPR person, a number of my friends and family urged me to listen to this week's episode, "The Problem We All Live With." The episode centers on the accidental desegregation of a school district just outside of St. Louis. If that sticks in your mind, this all occurred between the summer before Michael Brown's senior year and the summer he was shot. By a horrible (though likely) coincidence, the district in question was Brown's home district.

To summarize, though the Normandy school district had underperformed for decades (much like virtually every high-poverty and high-POC school district in the country), the state suddenly decided to strip the district of accreditation. Under Missouri state law, all parents in Normandy were given the option to transfer their students to other districts. Predictably, backlash ensued and the state pulled a maneuver worthy of Catch-22 to placate the white school district.

Before I go any further, this situation raises serious questions for me. Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), schools are required to report state test scores. All schools are expected to show a certain amount of growth (AYP) -- this was supposed to be a motivator to ensure that all schools are "proficient" (as defined by individual states) by 2012. Obviously, that ship has sailed. However, if a school fails to make AYP, families at that school are allowed to transfer their student to a district of their choosing. The first school I worked at, a middle school, consistently fails to achieve proficiency on every federal, state, and city standard. In the spring, the state sent home a letter notifying families that the school had failed to make AYP and that they could transfer their kids. Most parents were confused by the letter and thought it meant the school was closing down. It also wasn't clear how they could transfer their student.

Although nobody makes it easy to transfer your kid out of your zoned district, I have to assume that the parents in Normandy were informed of their rights before the district lost is accreditation. Unless, of course, the state of Missouri failed to perform its duties under federal law.

This piece raises so many points and nuances. I'm not really a thinkpiece person (though here I am writing one), but I look forward to reading what greater minds than I have to say about this story. My response to this piece is based purely on personal experience. If you'd like to read more about the subject in a more scholarly and evidence-based vein, take a gander at What's Race Got to Do With It?: How Current School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality edited by my friends and colleagues Bree Picower and Edwin Mayorga. I haven't read past the first chapter, so if what I say echoes anything from the book, it just shows how similar my experiences in the Bronx these past few years are to the teaching community at large. "The Problem We All Live With," at least, helped my thoughts about the issue coalesce into one realization: education policy in the United States as it currently exists does not work, cannot work, and will never work because it reinforces the racial hierarchies that create these inequalities in the first place.

It was interesting to hear my sister's reaction to the piece. She was upset to hear about the corruption and inefficacy of the school district. I shrugged. Isn't that what I've been saying for the past two years? The part that upset me on a visceral level was the town hall meeting in the white school district at minutes 24 to 28. The parents raised a number of concerns, including:

  • increased class size
  • changing instruction to integrate students who may be grade levels behind
  • lower test scores

And the most vitriolic and disturbing comment of all, which will merit its own response:
  • safety and security -- "In one month, I'm about to send my three small children to your school and I want to know...will there be metal detectors?...Will we have the same security that Normandy has when they walk through those doors?...Because I shopped for a school district!" (min 27)
Lest you think Ira Glass cherry-picked some truly awful cretins of humanity to quote, if you'll listen to the podcast you'll hear the roar of approval after every thinly veiled racist comment.

Listening to this hurts. The hatred and ignorance makes me sad on a deep level. But the truth is, if I were a teacher in the white district -- young and untenured -- I would be shitting bricks. Here's why:

At the beginning of this podcast, you'll hear the claim that integrating schools is the "only" reform that "works." Whatever that means. However, another crucial factor in student performance is class size. There's a moment in the story where you'll hear about a student whose teacher did not inform her parent about a sudden dip in grades because she had "too many students." The parent claims the teacher "didn't care." That's possible, but when teachers have a caseload of 100 students and 2 or 3 subjects to prepare, if they're going to call parents at 7 PM (because that's when the parents are home), it's going to be those 10 kids who were bouncing off the walls, not the usually star student who fucked up on a test. More importantly, there are only so many small humans one adult human can interact with in a 45-minute period. Fun fact: the maximum class size for middle and high school in New York City is 35 students. It's larger for elementary school. And that's not decreasing any time soon. Trust me -- the difference between a class with 20 students and 25 students is huge. The fact that this school had to suddenly absorb 1000 students was a reasonable cause for concern.
So the past 15 years' emphasis on data and accountability has made it less likely that a young, promising teacher will want to stay in a low-performing school district. There are so many examples of how the insidious influence of these numbers has effected me and my colleagues' work and has put a chokehold on the pleasure we take from teaching.

The achievement gap is very real. Now, I've spent the last two years working with students who completely fell through the cracks at their previous schools, so my perspective on how "bad" things are in the Bronx is skewed. That being said, I taught 21-year-olds who were writing at an 8th grade level at best. But these are 21-year-olds who had the tenacity to get their high school diploma. There are many more who either struggled through or stopped going to school altogether. I've often wondered "what the fuck were these teachers doing?" But I know what they were doing. I completely failed at teaching middle school for  year. Large class sizes, unsafe emotional environments, lack of support for new teachers, and the preponderance of inexperienced teachers in high-poverty school districts make for disaster.

Poor school performance is almost always blamed on teachers -- the reporter at the beginning of this podcast (who, by the way, helped implement NCLB) claims that high-poverty schools are plagued by low-quality teachers.With a sample size of two schools (as well as my friends' experiences), I beg to disagree. Like any work environment, there are people who are good at their jobs, people who want to be good at their jobs but aren't, and people who suck and don't care. I attended some of the poshest schools in New York City, and that was true of the teachers there (though there were many more brilliant teachers than incompetent ones.) Thanks to NCLB, schools are judged by metrics, which should give you a pretty good snapshot of what the teachers in these school are right, like? Not so. In New York and most states across the country (the federal government has limited power to enforce policies at the state level, but Obama granted minimal extra funding to states who implemented specific programs. This was called Race to the Top), teachers are given a score based on how their own students perform on standardized tests, how the school performed overall, how your boss rates you on a subjective rubric, and is weighted by a "value-added" formula, which is supposed to take into account class size, socio-economic factors, etc. It has been critiqued by real live actual statisticians. (Apparently the folks in charge of this stuff are neither experts in education nor math, which makes one wonder what actually qualifies them to tell me how to do my job?) This formula is kept secret and is tweaked every year. Case in point: last year was the first time New York State used this method to grade individual teachers. Based on the raw numbers, I had expected to maybe squeak by into "Developing," the second-lowest rating -- a guaranteed tenure-killer. However, the results were delivered two weeks late and while I was still rated Developing, I was just a few points shy of "Effective." Undoubtedly, the formula had to be tweaked to curve everyone upwards -- it wouldn't do to have an entire state full of failing teachers.

To return to the point (at last), whatever witchcraft the state did with the VAM formula, standardized test scores are still a huge part of that calculation. However, studies have shown time and time again that standardized tests only measure socio-economic status, not educational achievement. Now that teachers' careers rest on these test scores, we are further dis-incentivized to work in struggling schools and districts should we want tenure. So the policy that was supposed to ensure and increase quality in all schools -- misguided as it is -- ultimately ensures that the students who need quality teachers the most will never get them.
But if I could line these parents up and talk to them face-to-face, I'd like to talk to the woman who spoke about metal detectors. Kids from these communities are so fundamentally misunderstood. It's with bitter regret that I'm leaving the South Bronx this next school year. Although the school I'm moving to has a similar student population, when I tell people which neighborhood the school is in, their reaction is invariable "Niiiiice!" or some variation of "It's going to be a much better place to work!" When I used to tell people that I worked in the South Bronx, their reaction was almost always this:

But I'm so proud of everything my students have accomplished in the two years I've known them, and I know they're proud, too. They are the most resilient people I'll ever meet. That doesn't mean they're angels, or that they never came into school with shitty attitudes because of whatever traumatic thing that had happened to them over the weekend. It didn't mean they loved being in school or hung on every word of mine. If I asked any of them right now about the things they wrote about in their 7-page research theses, I guarantee they wouldn't remember any of it. But because of the emphasis we placed on how their hard work is worth it, how they're worth it, they rose to the occasion, often in spite of the many things in their lives that conspired to hold them down.

As I wrote about a year ago, kids will only rise to the expectations you have for them. There were three other transfer schools in the building my school was in. All of these kids came from similar neighborhoods, and often originally from the same schools that consistently failed to keep them engaged and safe. Anecdotally, the other three schools had more fights than last year -- including a floor-wide free-for-all that hospitalized a school safety agent. We had zero. I promise you that happened because of the way we treat our students with respect and independence. Incidentally, we had metal dictators installed last January. (I actually felt less safe with them there once students began to show me what they were able to sneak through.)

Kids from poor neighborhoods are not inherently violent and metal detectors won't keep you safe. But I guarantee if you treat people like they're future criminals, they will act like them. The numbers from these test scores only confirm, racist mothers of the world, your fears. Allowing these kids -- who were never given a fair shake in the first place -- into "your" schools are a threat to your kids based on the numbers. You're worried that diluting the pool will bring your kid down. Thanks to NCLB, your school getting shut down due to a decline in test scores is very real. But you didn't care when it wasn't your problem. And instead of trying to make it better, you'd rather vilify children you don't even know or care to.

Lastly, I'd like to respond to her comment about choosing to live in a specific district. I wish there was a way to decouple real estate values and school performance. Now that everything is tabulated, rated, and ranked, it is much easier to justify the sociological prejudices that keep our communities segregated through de facto means. I think this is the reason why gentrification is so jarring in urban areas (I write, sitting in an Upper Manhattan coffee shop.) These neighborhoods are more diverse cosmetically and economically, but we are as segregated as ever racially. Even though there are more white families in my neighborhood than there were, say, two years ago, they're not sending their kids to the local public school.

But bussing students isn't practical -- certainly not in suburban and rural areas where schools are spread out. There are also other issues to consider. New York City's high schools are officially de-zoned. That, and breaking so many schools into smaller, 200-400-student schools has affected our communities and ways I don't think we realize. In this secular age, community schools are the one institution that could bring the neighborhood together. But they don't -- at least not in high-poverty areas, where it's hard to get in touch with families for a variety of reasons. Given that the US spends more money per student than any other country in the world, I'm not even confident some kind of funding (re-)distribution would help, though I'm looking forward to working at a school that can afford to buy photocopy paper for an entire school year. Certainly, nothing will ever change as long as this issue as framed as "their schools" vs. "our schools."

Education reform will not be achieved through funding streams. It will not be achieved by changing the curriculum. It will not be achieved by ensuring teacher "quality", which is only defined by standardized test pass rates. It's about ensuring that all students have their educational needs met, which can only be achieved with increased investment (financial and emotional) in providing safe environments were no child is overlooked...or left behind. The only gains these policies have made are in disempowering teacher unions, de-professionalizing teachers, and dividing parents. Which, of course, was the plan all along.

The Rubs -- The Rubs Are Trash

The Rubs are perfect summer listening. In a blaze of distorted guitars and bouncing surf-rock basslines, Joey Rubbish leads the band in a high school varsity jacket and hardcore punk intensity. In short, this is the band we all should have had at prom.

Like prom, the album begins with innocent-seeming garage rock boppers like "I Don' Want To" and "Until He's Mine" but by the end, descends into raunchy (but tasteful) blues dirges like "Last Night." Overall, this is the kick in the pants you need to get you out of your summer doldrums, whether or not you're heading back to school in September.

The Rubs -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ana Egge AND DK and the Joy Machine

Do you live in New York and are you looking for something to do tomorrow night? Check out DK and the Joy Machine with a backing band at Arlene's Grocery! If queercore acoustic Appalachian punk is your thing (and it is because you're reading this blog) I promise you'll have a great time. Tickets are $8 and will get you a free CD/download card (if you haven't heard it yet) or a free t-shirt. You can RSVP here.

If the LES is too much of a pain, you can catch her in Morningside Heights on September 22nd at Silvana.

Speaking of Brooklyn folk artists, Ana Egge has released her eighth studio album, Bright Shadow. It teaches us that gentleness is not synonymous with weakness.

The opener, "Dreamer," is playfully seductive, which is counterbalanced by the meditative conclusion of "The Ballad of Jean Genet." I've been moving away from acoustic and folk lately, but there was something that kept my ear on Egge. As the album built to its emotional peak with "Rock Me (Divine Mother," I realized it's that you don't need to be loud, angry, or sad to make your personality felt (musically or in general). Since her last album, Egge has gotten married, mourned the loss of her mother, and celebrated the birth of her own daughter. These rites of passage seem to have informed the album as a whole: we see Egge as a secure, mellow person who has gained wisdom in the face of adversity. Bright Shadow is a sleeper (at least for me) but it's sure to leave its mark on you.


Ana Egge -- Official, Facebook, Purchase Bright Shadow from CD Baby, Buy Egge's back-catalog on Bandcamp