Deconstructing Reconstruction

Nicholas Lemann: "Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War" (257 pp., 2006)

I only read Nicholas Lemann’s 2006 Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War after I was asked to review his new Transaction Man, and thus I caught up just in time. That’s because, as Louisiana-born New Yorker stalwart Lemann may have feared or even foreseen all those years ago, it could have been designed to address the frightening historical juncture that is 2019. Centered on Reconstruction-era Mississippi governor Adelbert Ames, a young Union general whose father-in-law was Radical Republican kingmaker Benjamin Butler, its deepest purpose is to document the racist violence that demolished Reconstruction in Mississippi and Louisiana in the early 1870s. In a sickening succession of riots, murders, and massacres, Confederate veterans demolish black freedmen’s voting rights and uppity educational pretensions in unrelenting acts of armed terrorism, some of which leave trails of dead while others simply send ex-slaves fleeing or convince them to settle for a penury not much better than bondage. The crucial actor here isn’t Ames, however admirable his physical courage and fruitless efforts to convince Washington pols to back up their supposed principles with troops. It’s all the lying, arrogant, brutal white supremacists who succeed in proving Reconstruction an unworkable fantasy.

An auxiliary satisfaction of Redemption is a reminder of the epistolatory eloquence to which so many educated 19th-century Americans aspired, the many long quotes from the correspondence and journals of Adelbert and his gifted wife Blanche, who in 1870 wrote: “What is there that human mind is not capable of fashioning? Ere long the Heavens may be used as the common highway and Jove’s own thunderbolts—no longer simply for destruction—may be utilized for benefit of mankind, in the form of light and heat.” But even more impressive is the less elegant but deeper prose of the freedom-fighting black resistance. Soon-deposed black sheriff John Milton Brown: “On the way, they met up with a preacher, an old colored man named Nelson Bright, and they shot him. He was hunting his mules and had no gun with him at the time. They went farther and killed another colored man, as I understand.” A hurried missive to President Grant from the valiant E.C. Walker: “Pres. I have write the Hon. Governor Two (2) Letters and Pres. I know you Have it in your Powder To Stop White People from Killing Black People . . . now Pres. I will ask your Hon. Doant the 13 & 14 & 15 Demendments Gives the (Col'd) Peopels the Same Rights and the voice to the Balord Box as it Do the Whites.”

Practically speaking, the answer was of course no, which as today’s voter suppressors dig in for the long haul it often still is. Glumly, Redemption draws to a close by recalling Columbia University’s John W. Burgess, “arguably the founder of the discipline of political science in the United States,” whose 1902 Reconstruction and the Constitution established as a truism that Reconstruction’s program of Negro enfranchisement failed to recognize the “vast differences in political capacity between the races.” Lemann follows this calumny to Woodrow Wilson’s five-volume History of the American People, which ended with an even more racist account of Reconstruction, and while such arrant prejudice did gradually fade into the background of Reconstruction’s historical profile, I can attest that the inevitability of its failure was still taken for granted when I attended high school in the mid-’50s. Lemann ends Redemption by noting that this truism was built into John F. Kennedy’s 1955 Profiles in Courage, which disparages Adelbert Ames and lionizes Mississippi senator Lucius Lamar, a key dismantler of the Reconstuction JFK called “a black nightmare the South could never forget.” Kennedy’s racial politics evolved before he died—unlike Grant, he sent federal troops to the South to enforce African-Americans’ civil rights. But despite repeated protests by Ames’s heirs, the text of Profiles in Courage remains untouched.

There's Always Music in This Joint

“It’s always Christmas in this bar/And it’s always Saint Pat’s and also Halloween,” begins the slam-bang opener of NowThen, singing neonatologist Rich Krueger’s second 2018 album and also second album. When Krueger visits Manhattan Monday night for a 7. p.m. show I’ve long awaited, I don’t predict quite that pitch of revelry at the Bitter End, a literal NYC landmark that’s been presenting music at 161 Bleecker Street since 1961 (I caught the 21-year-old Stevie Wonder there in 1972 for my debut column at Newsday). But if Krueger opens with that song he’s got a shot. I hope he also performs “O What a Beautiful Beautiful Beautiful Day,” this M.D.’s only song about his professional specialty, which is difficult births. Equally rousing but much bloodier, it also take place on Christmas and has a slam-bang happy ending, which in neonatology is never guaranteed: “Kid's poked in the arm then gooped in the eyes/As Dad’s wheeled down to ER./It's a special Christmas for the whole family/Just as overpriced ‘cept Junior ain’t Christ.”

Once again: Rich Krueger, 7 p.m. Monday September 23, Bitter End, 161 Bleecker Street, Manhattan.

Consumer Guide: September, 2019

A compilation that treats mellow and humorous as a righteous path, plus songs from Texas, China, Brooklyn, Belgium, and a rock critic who earns her living as a literacy consultant

Charlotte Adigéry: Zandozi (Deewee) Playful turns concept on Belgium-based, English-language, French-Caribbean electrodancepop EP, so airy and beaty as it darts back and forth across the permeable borders of use value (“High Lights,” “Paténipat”) ***

Hayes Carll: What It Is (Dualtone) Three years past the hooklessly downhearted Lovers and Leavers, the 43-year-old Texan songslinger grows up just like he hoped he would. “Beautiful Thing,” “I Will Stay,” and “None'ya" meld rapture, perseverance, and a sense of humor into a credible semblance of connubial progress, “Times Like These” and “Wild Pointy Finger” address the bifurcated politics any conscious Texan had better set his or her mind to, and “Fragile Men” mocks sexism with the casual authority of a rip-roaring Texan male who respects “Jesus and Elvis” whether he believes in them or not. Carll’s music per se still doesn't rise above solid as often as it might. Soulwise, however, he’s higher than he’s ever been. B PLUS

The Daisy Age (Ace) A gimme waiting to happen, which with Spotify-etc. playlists having killed the commercial compilation wasn't a gimme at all, this Bob Stanley-compiled romp is irresistible from its De La Soul Is Dead opener to the three nonhits that bring it to a soft landing. The only Native Tongues also-rans missing from the CD are Fu-Schnickens, whose “What’s Up Doc” does show up on the vinyl version and whose “Sum Dum Munkey” might easily have grabbed the baton from “Mistadobalina” and “Doowutchyalike” on its way to a world speed record—only to land in the pillow of giggles that floats KMD’s “Peachfuzz.” If you’re old enough, recall the naive early-'90s moment when young rappers from Nassau County and so forth were so brave they considered mellow and humorous a righteous path as well as a commercial ploy. If you're still dreading 30, listen and marvel that times were ever so good. A PLUS

Lana Del Rey: Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Interscope) American studies paper on the late ‘60s fused with soft-core porn whose erotic charge is the deeper part of the synthesis (“Hope is a dangerous thing to for a woman like me to have—but I have it,” “Love Song”) ***

Lost in China (Riverboat) I always resist “world music”’s exotica tendency, but on this unannotated compilation of folk revivalists from a nation of 1.4 billion, which I’ve seldom regretted playing some dozen times as I tried to figure out exactly how good it is, I’m happy enough to be in it for the sound effects as I compute that it’s somewhere between pretty good and pretty darn good. My favorite track by far is South City Second Brother’s comic “Good Girl,” but don’t expect more of the same—heartfelt midtempo chants and laments predominate. And beguilingly exotic they are. B PLUS

Madonna: Madame X (Interscope) However much reviewers-come-lately mock the ones about forswearing dope and feeling the oppressed, these are well-intended ideas executed with the appropriate brio and calm, respectively. The nadirs are a “far left”/“far right” hedge and an over-cautious bid for divine mercy, both sequestered off on the “deluxe” version as a boon to the dollarwise consumer. Depending on your age, she’s either your colorful Aunt Madge or a long-lost pal you ran into at a screening of Little Woods. For all of this century she's been a pro too old to conjure up the kind of sure shots that made The Immaculate Collection so no-fail yet too proud to sign off on two-tier albums like, for instance, 1986’s True Blue, which begins with two songs far sharper than anything here but is back-ended by three out of five duller than any of the 13 brand-new non-deluxes. If you think Aunt Madge has become a bore, that’s your petty right. If you remain fond of her, pour yourself a nice glass of chablis and listen. A MINUS

The National: I Am Easy to Find (4AD) I was pleased and surprised to enjoy the 23-minute YouTube-available Mike Mills film of the same name, a kind, imagistic birth-to-death biography of a white middle-class working mother that’s intertwined somehow with the making of the band’s eighth album. But the film has only one explicit connection to the album that occasionally pokes through its surface: it’s about a woman. Hence women often make themselves heard, and their voices transform how the music sounds, feels, and signifies. Matt Berninger’s love/relationship songs have often had some tenderness to them, and he’s gotten more relaxed about it over the years. But here almost every track is open to substantive female input on a musical whole that feels consistently interactive and empathetic and also not so glum—even when you can’t pin down exact meanings, it makes love sound possible. Inconveniently, the almost entirely female “So Far So Fast” is the one track that goes nowhere, and for 6:37 at that. Then again, “Not in Kansas,” the 6:45 autobiography-with-(female)-Greek chorus just before it, evokes the bicoastal diaspora with a regret so sharp and indelible it feels tragic—and is. A MINUS

The Paranoid Style: A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life (Bar/None) Elizabeth Nelson is a fine rock critic (Lawyers, Guns and Money, Oxford American, terse jabs and judgments on Twitter) leading an able rock group, and fuck me if these aren’t both side jobs insofar as they pay anything at all—she makes her living as a literacy consultant for an educational nonprofit. So as a bandleader she's earned . . . not royalties, get real, but the right to write one that adds a parenthetical “(Economy)” to the dreamy Neil Young title “Expecting to Fly.” Beyond “Turpitude,” as the opener is called, every unmistakably enunciated word here is known to most Americans, which doesn’t mean many of them will get the jokes—my favorite: “I learned to smoke from the Contract With America/I learned to smoke from Pulp Fiction/I learned to smoke from Mojo Nixon.” Squeezing 11 songs into half an hour, her voice relaxes enough to make them a pleasure. I don't get all the jokes either—as a dual citizen, Nelson understands more about Irish history and politics than I ever will. But I do know a lot about Alan Greenspan and They Might Be Giants, whose songs establish that Nelson knows more. Every catchy number is marked by linguistic specifics, and the title tune is a rock-biz masterpiece. Subject: 11 dead at a Who concert in Cincinnati, 1979. A

Pink: Hurts 2B Human (RCA) At 39, she’s evolved into a fully  accredited second-tier pop diva whose overstated travails and occasional joys connect to more ordinary women's more ordinary lives (“My Attic,” “Happy”) **

75 Dollar Bill: I Was Real (Glitterbeat/Tak:til) On 2016, 2017, and 2018 sessions in three studios in Brooklyn and one in Knoxville, guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown’s avant-rock duo-plus improve on 2016’s fine little Wood / Metal / Plastic / Pattern. The handsome CD packaging establishes that digital whiz Brown's main ax remains “plywood crate,” that “quarter-tone guitar” is the most prominent of Chen’s seven instruments, and that no one else appears on even half the nine tracks, though electric bassist Sue Garner and contrabassist Andrew Lafkas come close. Vocals: zero, not a wheeze or a grunt. Tunes: compelling because they're so strange and microtonal. Mood: meditative and excitable in tandem and sometimes simultaneously, immersive when loud yet never fully trancelike. It’s been said by me and others that there’s a lot of northwest Africa in this music even though Chen’s schooling there was brief, so I’ll point out that three titles reference a Mauritanian wedding-dance genre. The liveliest is the four-minute “WZN4.” If you’re curious you might start there. A MINUS

Bruce Springsteen: Western Stars (Columbia) “America used to be better” is a political message of some potential use, but how many of his faithful will blame it on the rich and how many on the young? (“Tucson Train,” “Moonlight Motel”) *

Taylor Swift: Lover (Republic) It’s not just that Swift knows even more about having lovers, the concept here, than she does about being a star, the concept of Reputation. It’s that for female pop fans with their own lives, not just unfortunates ensnared by the vicarious vagaries of celebrity culture, lover is a more relatable concept than star. A romantic history as footloose as Swift’s comes easier to a gal with unlimited access to desirable men. But even so there are millions of women who manage serial relationships, and this one’s for them. Swift has earned the right to assemble “a love letter to love itself” more ways than anyone can count, including a romance with a British actor I wouldn’t know from Joe Jonas that is now well into its record-breaking third year. I wish the tunecraft here retained the lightness of the mean yet hopeful “I Forgot That You Existed,” an opener that seems to promise a keyb-based pure pop of Motownish allure that does not in fact ensue. I also wish I hadn't learned that the romantic pied-a-terre of “Cornelia Street” is actually a mansion with a pool. But Swift’s formidable skill set has seldom served more likable or admirable ends. A MINUS

Information Is Your Friend

Since July I've known where I was going to be at 4 p.m. Saturday, September 14, which for those not keeping score is today: a mile south of my Manhattan apartment at Rockwood Music Hall at 196 Allen Street. Only then my dear friends Perry and Jill suddenly decided to “do the paperwork” and celebrate the legal marriage that ensued at precisely the same time and 100 miles to the east. No way would I miss this happy event. But I invite and indeed urge any New Yorker reading this to take my place and go hear San Francisco’s Dawn Oberg.

Since Oberg’s format is lounge piano, it may surprise you that the “Fans Also Like” list alongside her pitiful Spotify stats comprises Wussy, the Paranoid Style, Angaleena Presley, and Carsie Blanton. Or maybe it shouldn’t, know what I mean? Oberg tells me her setlist will begin with “Old Hussies Never Die” and end with “Nothing Rhymes With Orange,” the most scabrous anti-Trump song on record not just because musicians are chickenshit but because Oberg is madder than Tim Heidecker. It will also include a bunch of as yet unrecordeds, including one called “Mitch McConnell.” So please—go request an “Information Is Your Friend” encore for me.

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