Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pearl Gem

This week, I'm listening to the new album by Muse and also a review copy of the excellent Massive Attack EP, released digitally next week. But one album I'm really digging, which I wouldn't have expected, is the new Pearl Jam album, "Backspacer." As it turns out, the band have utilized the record for a brilliant Trojan Horse strategy (more on that in a second).

The evolution of the band is a fascinating one. The band's out-of-the-gate success on a big record label irked many music cognoscenti. Then Kurt Cobain, the messiah of Grunge himself, accused Pearl Jam of a corporate entity trying to cash-in on the alternative scene. And, whereas other grunge acts openly professed their love of punk while quietly hiding their love of 1970s bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam's two guitarists -- Stone Gossard and Mike McCready -- were clearly in thrall to classic rock just as much as The Ramones.

Personally, I liked the band's debut, "Ten." It wasn't a full-on love affair, though, and within a year or two of its release and traded the CD in for something else. That was the last Pearl Jam album I bought for a very long time. It seemed like the band was doing everything it could to distance itself from memorable melodies, perhaps in a bid to rough off that early production sheen and the big rousing anthems. And the one time they did come up with a golden tune, "Given to Fly," it was a rip-off of "Going to California."

But my interest in Pearl Jam was mildly roused by the band's previous self-titled album (its cover image of an open avocado is as beautiful as it is perplexing). I had to review "Pearl Jam" and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Not a perfect record by any means, but it included enough killer cuts (among them, "Unemployable" and "Gone" and "Army Reserve") that it hasn't left my iPod since its release.

The just-released "Backspacer," though not flawless, is even better and could just be the band's best record. It has so many thrilling tunes on it -- I get a visceral rush just listening to "Amongst the Waves" and "Unthought Known." Both are great anthems without being at all bombastic or overwrought. "Johnny Guitar," perhaps a song about bluesman Johnny "Guitar" Watson and his many girlfriends showcases a playful streak at odds with the band's frowny persona. And "The Fixer," is a ripping single (Be sure to check out the video, directed by Cameron Crowe, above.)

I bought the album at Target for $11 and the big-box retailer's version comes with free downloads of 2 full Pearl Jam concerts. You plug your disc into your computer and it takes you to a site where you have the option of choosing two from 8 concerts, recorded between 2006 and 2008. (It tells you what the setlists are and includes sound clips.) A brilliant idea, frankly, since it not only maximizes the value of my $11 purchase but it's also a great advertisement for the band's tour and also their official bootlegs. More bands oughta do this.

Friday, September 25, 2009

America's Best Idea: Privatize National Parks

Is Ken Burns, the brilliant documentary maker, a secret propagandist for socialism? In a piece titled "Socialized Nature," TIME magazine writer James Poniewozick claims that Burns' new PBS series, The National Parks: America's Best Idea, "makes a simple case for an idea that is wildly controversial in the year of the tea party: That we need government to do things the private sector can't or won't."

Warming to his theme, Mr. Poniewozick continues:

The national parks — and 'The National Parks' — are based on ideas that are classically, if not radically, communitarian: That the free market doesn't always act in the public interest. That it's good that every American shares ownership of and responsibility for the most exclusive properties in the country. And that it is right for people — through government — to protect them from business interests and even from the people themselves (like the early visitors who shot game and scratched their names on ancient rocks). A series on a public-TV network that calls a government program America's best idea? Has no one alerted Rush Limbaugh?

Indeed, Poniewozick is entirely correct in noting that few people oppose the idea of government-run national parks.

Well, I do. And I reject Poniewozick's premise entirely. Ah, I shoulda mentioned earlier that this is going to be a fairly controversial post.

National Parks are certainly a great idea. But I'd rather they were privatized (gasp!) and put into the hands of The Nature Conservancy or Audubon Society. Or a for-profit corporation.

Unfortunately, America's national parks are poorly managed -- the inevitable result of central planning.

A few damning examples:

* National Parks have a poor track record of preserving their ecosystems:
In Yellowstone, a decision to cull the wolf population in the park has triggered an ecosystem chain reaction that has decimated Apsen trees. (Read about it here.)

* The government officials in charge of the parks are prone to decision-making by lobby groups:
Earlier this summer, a page one story in The Los Angeles Times explained how the US government tried to kill off the gray wolf in SouthWest America at the behest of wildstock interests. Moreover, when the government attempted to reintroduce the gray wolf, now an endangered species, into the Gila National Forest, it botched the effort.

* Smokey Bear's worst enemy: The Forest Service:
Remember the catastrophic fire at Los Alamos in 2000 that burned 80 square miles of New Mexico including over 400 homes? Started by an arsonist? Nope. It was deliberately set by the Forest Service. In fact, they've started a good number of wildfires that quickly got out of control and wrecked havoc. It's all part of a policy called, ironically, "controlled burn."

As environmental economist Terry L. Anderson and Reed Watson opined in Forbes: "Decades of fire suppression by the Forest Service have disrupted natural fire cycles and turned many western forests into tinderboxes waiting to burn. Dense stands of spindly deadfall and underbrush now occupy land once characterized by open savannahs and large, widely spaced trees. One result is larger, more intense fires that burn the publicly owned forests to the ground. Indeed, by the Forest Service's own estimates, 90 to 200 million acres of federal forests are at high risk of burning in catastrophic fire events."

* National Parks are overrun by tourists:
Every year, there are more than 280 million visitors to America's national parks. Why? It's cheap. Just $25 for a car to enter Yellowstone, for example. Sure, you already pay for the national parks with your tax dollars and so, understandably, you may not like the idea of paying more. But the fact is that there's an overwhelming demand due to the low cost of entry.

As Manuel Lora points out in an essay titled, "If You Love Nature, Desocialize It," the great economist Ludwig von Mises showed economic calculation is impossible under socialism. Lora writes, "How much should people be charged to enter the park? Should they be charged at all? How many families or cars should be allowed per season? Or should they be allowed at all? These are all critical questions that end up being answered politically."

By contrast, entrepreneurs, using prices, can determine the balance of supply and demand. A private park owner would want to protect his resources and would better determine the balance between trampling tourists and park preservation.

* The parks are poorly maintained -- despite a staggering budget:
In their Forbes op-ed, Anderson and Watson point out: "Every year, U.S. taxpayers spend billions of dollars on public land management, but the way in which these funds are allocated--through the congressional budgeting process--ensures the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service respond to the will of politicians.

The result is what has been called "park barrel politics," which persists while the National Park Service maintains an estimated $9 billion backlog of construction and maintenance projects. Lest you think financial mismanagement is confined to the Park Service, consider that between 2006 and 2008 the Forest Service lost on average $3.58 billion each year. Similarly, the Government Accountability Office testified in Congress that in 2004 the BLM earned approximately $12 million in grazing revenues but spent $58 million implementing its grazing program."

The real reason why Teddy Roosevelt created the national forests was that he thought America would one day run out of timber. As Reason magazine points out, "To Roosevelt and his circle of progressive central planners, the solution to the impending national timber famine was a government program-national forests managed by a new federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service." Read the rest of the piece to learn how Federal timber sales turned out. Another reason of why these resources are best taken out of public hands.

National Parks are the ultimate example of "the tragedy of the commons." These parks are supposedly owned by each and everyone of us. But, as Fred L. Smith of The Competitive Enterprise Institute pointed out in an article I wrote on this very topic, "When everybody owns something, then nobody feels particularly responsible for it. Each of us hopes that others will take care of our common responsibilities."

Putting America's parks in the hands of private owners may just be the best idea of all.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jane Campion's 'Bright' future

For a while, it seemed that Jane Campion's career was destined to sink without a trace, much like the piano turfed into the ocean at the end of her best-known film. The New Zealand director's last movie was 2003's "In the Cut," an erotic thriller that was neither erotic nor thrilling. Even Paul Verhoeven must have snickered at its art-house veneer. Result: Meg Ryan's then-teetering career tipped over the A-list precipice and it has been in free fall ever since. The star's nudity and a scene of seemingly unsimulated sex by an extra became the stuff of punchlines in "Family Guy" and "Knocked Up." For Campion, it was time for a rethink.

Her comeback, "Bright Star," is a triumph on every level. It should, by rights, be a hit with the teens obsessed with "Twilight." After all, "Bright Star" is also about young love and its unconsummated romance is heightened by the thrumming tension of longing. But the notion of a movie about John Keats may be a tough sell for teen viewers. Let's face it, high-school readings of "Ode to a Grecian Urn" don't exactly bolster the poet's sex appeal.

But Campion's movie manages to bring his poems to life. It helps that Campion herself always found poetry to be a "members only" domain, a haughty form that only learned academics could truly claim to understand. Campion might not exactly have described it like I just have but, before Friday's screening, Campion explained that she'd never really understood poetry. So she started reading several biographies, including one about Keats. That, in turn, inspired her story about the Romantic poet's love affair with his next door neighbor, and later fiancé, Fanny Brawne. The film is told from her perspective and so the film isn't truly a biopic as such.

Fanny is played by Australian actress Abbie Cornish ("Somersault," "Candy") and it's one of those star-making roles where you wonder where this girl has been all this time. She's certainly getting an Oscar nomination for her deeply marinated performance, which is radiant with a star quality befitting the movie's title. Coquettish at first, and fiercely independent despite her callow youth, Fanny's flighty emotions deepen with intensity during the course of the story. In the role of Keats, Ben Whishaw imbues his performance with stillness, the yin to her yang.

What Campion achieves so wonderfully here is a period film that feels contemporary by eschewing the conventions and cliches of costume genre. Even the costumes look different (the designer is almost certainly going to win an Oscar next year). The cinematography is ravishing and yet its poetic images are so much of a piece with the story that the painterly scenes don't self consciously call attention to themselves.

For now, the film is in release in New York and Los Angeles (just 5 screens here on the West Coast). I hope this film doesn't sink without trace. Hopefully word of mouth should buoy this film during Oscar season.

Porcupine Tree deepens it roots

If you've never heard of the band Porcupine Tree, don't worry. Neither has The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, or The Boston Globe. The British group, who are a progressive rock outfit in the truest sense of the term, have been thoroughly ignored by all those newspapers even though the band has sold out 2,500 seaters in each of those cities on its current tour. The band's brand 10th studio album, "The Incident," has also just entered the Billboard album charts at #25, with similar success in the UK. (For a crash course on the band, read my recent interview with its frontman, Steven Wilson, over at Pop Matters.)

The band amassed its sizable fanbase the old-fashioned way: relentless touring and word of mouth. (Not to mention consistently great albums.) They also relied on canny marketing, as this recent Billboard magazine article notes.

Porcupine Tree arrived in Los Angeles a couple of days ago to play its new album in its entirety to a sold-out Nokia Theater. "The Incident" is my favorite album of the year so far (I gave it a rave review in the current issue of FILTER magazine), which isn't surprising given that Porcupine Tree is one of my very favorite groups of all time. So much of "The Incident," is even better live, especially tracks like "Octane Twisted" and "Hearse." The highlight was "Time Flies," which you can watch in the music video above (this is a radio edit of an 11-minute epic).

After playing the entire first disc of the album and breaking for a 10 minute intermission, they returned for a dynamic second set of older selections. (I won't review the show here as I'm writing a piece on it for Carbon Nation, a fanzine for the band.) One of the very best shows I've seen by the band.

Of note: Rush's Neil Peart, who has touted the band in his books and praised PT drummer Gavin Harrison in interviews, was at the show and also present at the after party, albeit ensconsed behind a curtained cabanna.


First set: The Incident in its entirety

10 Minute intermission:

Second set: "Start of Something Beautiful," "Buying New Soul," "Sound of Muzak" "Anesthetize," "Lazarus," "Strip the Soul/.3," "Bonnie the Cat," "Way Out of Here" and "Trains."

Rolling Stone's David Fricke, a supporter of the band in recent years, just reviewed "The Incident" for Rolling Stone. Read his effusive take on the album here.