Thursday, 27 March 2008

CD Review - Michelle Shocked

Mighty Sound

By M.D. Spenser

Whoda thunk we’d ever read about punk folkster Michelle Shocked in a blues review? But she makes a deserved appearance here with this excellent gospel album.

This set was recorded live at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2003. From its song selection, to its musicianship, to Shocked’s vibrato-soaked singing, almost everything about this album makes it worthwhile.

It opens, fittingly, with “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” a song that cracked the Billboard Top 10 in the U.S. for Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1944. It was Tharpe, with her mix of churchifying and bar singing, who brought gospel into the mainstream.

The choice tells us much about the contradictions within Michelle Shocked. Her parents, understandably divorced, could hardly have been more different. Her father introduced her to dirty blues. Her mother was a Mormon fundamentalist who committed her to a psychiatric hospital.

Shocked has somehow allowed her father’s blues and her mother’s religiosity to coexist inside her.

Other cuts are equally strong: a moving rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”; The Band’s “The Weight”, with delightful pedal steel; a bitter original, “Quality of Mercy,” attacking a president who claims to value life while having, as Texas governor, presided over numerous executions.

The album has one false note – and a clunker it is: a three-minute spoken paean to mixing religion and politics. Shocked’s politics come from the left, but this will still grate on some ears, as it should.

One other oddity: Shocked is just missing from one track, presumably having wandered off to take a break or maybe a pee.

The album ends with a reggae song called “Can’t Take My Joy.” This album offers a lot of joy. No telling why it took four years to make it from stage to CD. If you have any gospel feelings, don’t wait that long to buy it.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

CD Review - Lizz Wright

The Orchard
Verve Forecast

By M.D. Spenser

This beautiful album transcends genre. It has elements of blues, gospel, R&B, jazz and folk; but more than these, it has a gentle honesty that's deeply moving.

It’s tempting to talk about the musicians (wonderful) or Craig Street’s production (flawless) and especially
Wright’s voice, a rich and vibrant instrument.

But what makes this an album for all time are the songs and Wright’s interpretation of them.

The album begins with ‘Coming Home,' a song that refers to the orchard of the album title -- a place of truth remembered from Wright’s small-town Georgia childhood. The other songs detail the nuance and subtlety of love.

The emotional peaks are ‘I Idolize You’, a scorching Ike Turner blues about infatuation, and ‘Leave Me Standing Alone’, a sizzling, gospel-inflected original in which the lover is sent packing -- the two opposite poles of love. From these twin peaks, like the towers of a suspension bridge, the other songs curve in a graceful arc.

The record describes the changing colours of a relationship with sweetness and sadness but almost no anger.

One gorgeous song follows another. We meet the girl who loses the battle to protect her heart and is “quite well pleased.” We see love’s risk: “And what if the water's cold when I fall?”

We watch someone heal the pain of lost love in the waves of the ocean and all things eternal. We understand when the lover leaves but the love remains.

Whether with originals or covers, Wright is brave enough to open her heart with an honesty both bittersweet and true.

Treasure this album for life.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Big Brother Runs Amok in the U.K.

By M.D. Spenser

The British government, believe it or not, wants to examine every single purchase I made in the course of a year. And I have no choice but to let them.

It is yet more evidence that George Orwell, when he imagined the future in his novel “1984”, did not go far enough. Big Brother is watching us – and entering much of what he sees in computer databases.

The immediate cause of my dismay is that my tax return is being audited, having apparently been randomly selected for the privilege.

In my grumpier moments, I might suppose this is being done just to keep some bureaucrat busy. But I oppose tax fraud. I recognize the government has a right to do this.

I am by no means an anti-big-government fanatic. I believe government has a strong role to play in fighting poverty and preserving the environment, in building schools and protecting the rights of individuals.

I grew up in the United States, where a strong central government told state officials that, like it or not, they had to allow black people to vote. I have in the past benefited personally from government raising the minimum wage – something conservatives often portray as interference in a private agreement between employee and employer.

Process on its head

But information is power. And too much information in the hands of government is a bad thing.

Take my taxes. Of course, I must supply Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with records showing how much I earned. But beyond that, the process is turned on its head.

I have done nothing wrong. And I was brought up to believe it was the government’s job to prove a person was guilty of wrongdoing, rather than the person’s job to prove his innocence.

Not anymore, apparently.

During the year in question, I was living in the U.K. whilst employed by an American company. U.K. tax officials have demanded that I give them monthly statements for all British bank accounts I had, whether personal or related to business expenses.

And they want monthly statements for all American bank accounts I had, whether related to the U.K. or not.

In addition, they’ve said I have to give them statements for every credit card I used on either side of the Atlantic.

Need to prove innocence

In this day of debit cards, that means that some bureaucrat now feels entitled to pore over every single purchase I made during the course of an entire year, with the possible exception of an ice cream cone or two.

To have government bureaucrats looking at whether I bought lingerie (I didn’t) or gambled on the internet (didn’t do that either) is unjustified and ultimately dangerous to individual liberty.

What is the difference between this and police searching my house, with no warrant and no suspicion, just randomly looking for stolen goods?

"If you’ve done nothing wrong, Mr Spenser, surely you won’t mind us rummaging through your underwear drawer . . . "

This not the worst of it. Little by little, we have got used to government recording our private activities. But it is so pervasive that Orwell would have considered it unrealistic even for a novel.

Constant observation

For example, we know that someone who works in London appears on camera several hundred times per day.

If he lives outside the city, he may be observed by speed cameras whilst driving to the train station. His pacing on the platform will be recorded by two dozen cameras or more. There will almost certainly be a CCTV camera in his train carriage, recording every time he picks his nose.

If he arrives at Waterloo, a couple of hundred CCTV cameras will greet him. And he will pass still more of them between Waterloo and the office – on the underground, in car parks, on storefronts and elsewhere.

And that’s not all. Oyster cards allow authorities to know what bus or underground trips a person makes during the course of a day, and when.

Authorities can determine what Web sites we visit, at what time of day, and for how long.

Biometric passports will mean that government officials will be able to determine, with the click of a mouse, whether a person is in or out of the country and how many times he or she has travelled over what period of time.

Mobile phone records, which governments are forcing companies to retain for longer and longer periods, pinpoint our location at all times.

And a frightening proposal by the British government to tax drivers according to what roads they drive at what hours would involve, presumably, satellite tracking of all vehicles in the U.K. 24 hours a day – and storing that information in computers so the proper bills could be sent out.

Is surveillance beneficial?

Two arguments are commonly used to convince people not to worry – or even that all this surveillance is actually a good thing.

The first is that on occasion it helps solve crimes. This is undeniably true. CCTV footage helped identify the failed bombers of the London underground. Mobile phone records helped track one of them to Italy.

But that argument is not good enough. It has been reported that robberies, murders, and other violent crimes were far less common in the Soviet Union than in the United States. But that does not make one long for dictatorship. Crime prevention does not justify repression.

The other argument, often made by implication, is that this government is benign, so all this information-gathering is OK. People often say, “I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t mind.” They leave unsaid the rest of the sentence, which is, “. . . because this government won't hurt me.”

That argument is not good enough, either. What business is it of government if a married woman has a boyfriend on the side or a salesman goes to a pub when he tells his boss he’s working?

To have that kind of information is to hold power over the person involved.

We have been inattentive as the surveillance society crept up on us. Who’s to say we won’t be equally inattentive in monitoring our politics?

What if the next government is slightly less benign than this one, and the one after that is less benign still? We could slide toward a government whose intent is not good at all – and that government could find itself in possession of a wealth of blackmail-style information with which it could cow citizens and discourage dissent.

We need to wake up and curtail government intrusiveness. We need to put an end to the surveillance society.

Government has a strong role to play in regulating society. But information is power – and freedom, by definition, requires that government’s power be limited.

Monday, 10 March 2008

CD Review -- Black River Bluesman & The Croaking Lizard

Rat Bone

By M.D. Spenser

This CD attempts to sound raw and unpolished but winds up sounding dreary and uninteresting.

It’s a slow-motion distortion-drenched collection of bass-heavy songs so similar you wonder why the band bothered to stop playing in between.

The Black River Bluesman himself, Jukka Juhola, wrote all of them. They have names like the title cut, ‘Rat Bone’, and lyrics like, “Rat bone, rat bone, rat bone, rat bone”.

Juhola has apparently been playing since the 1970s without making much of an impression, though the band’s web site does feature a rapturous article from the Himalayan Times.

Juhola is assisted by three fellow Finns; he plays guitar and sings, while the other band members add drums, harmonica and baritone guitar.

The band says it was influenced by rough, raw Mississippi hill country bluesmen, along with Jim Morrison and Black Sabbath.

The songs are noisy and droning, with lots of growling for vocals. But instead of achieving the honest, hypnotic sound to which the band aspires, the songs are loud yet slow-paced and plodding, and they have so much distortion as to make them at times nearly atonal.

There is some relief: In ‘You Can’t Sit Here’, the tempo moves more briskly, bringing the listener briefly back to life.

Maybe it’s the influence of the long, dark Finnish winters, but by and large this album is so dismal it makes you want to jump out a window.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Sleep Eaters, Unite!

By M.D. Spenser

Sleep eaters of the world, unite.

Together we can share information on what works in fighting this disorder. And together we can show the scientific community that there are far more of us than is commonly known, giving greater impetus to research for a cure.

Those who suffer from this problem need no description. For those who have never heard of it, it involves compulsive eating while one is fully or partially asleep. The episodes, as in my case, can take place almost every night. Recollection of them can be fragmentary; sometimes there is no recollection at all, only empty food wrappers and a distended belly as evidence.

In television documentaries on sleep disorders, insomnia and night terrors are treated as serious problems. Sleep eating is used as comic relief.

But there’s nothing funny about it. Not when you are afraid to sleep at a friend’s house for fear you’ll empty the refrigerator or take a bite out of tomorrow’s wedding cake. Not when it affects your weight and therefore your health. Not when you have to start each day of your life poorly rested and bloated.

Nightly episodes

I am 54 years old, and I’ve had sleep eating since I was about 20. I eat in my sleep every night, and have for decades. A night with one episode is a good night. Nights with four or five are bad.

I have a successful career. I’ve even managed often to keep my weight down through vigorous gym work and lots of running. But an injury guarantees significant weight gain. And it is hard to charge out of the house full of ambition when you wake up sick from overeating.

Having sleep eating is not the end of the world. But it is a handicap.

If you don’t believe this is a real disorder, Google it. Try NSRED, for nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder. You’ll find that it was first officially described in 1991 (after I’d already had it for 18 years); that it is now being researched at a few institutions around the world; that statistics show that sleep eaters often also have restless legs syndrome; and that sleep eating rarely if ever responds to psychotherapy.

Researchers suspect neurological or chemical problems may cause the syndrome. Some people have had success with some drugs. Sometimes the syndrome subsides on its own. But the cause is not known and no cure has been found.

A common disorder

Estimates are that as much as 3 percent of the population suffers from sleep eating. But many sufferers assume they are the only person afflicted. Shame prevents them from telling their doctors. Because of that, some experts believe the estimates are too low.

Even assuming the number is 3 percent, that’s a lot of people – far more than many non-sufferers would suspect. The tendency is to think this syndrome is something unheard of, or at least very rare indeed.

But we know now that this is not so. Godalming, the town in southern England in which I live, has a population of 21,000. If the number really is 3 percent, that means that there are about 630 fellow sleep eaters living near me – most of them, presumably, suffering alone in embarrassed silence.

In Greater London, where I work, 225,000 people can be presumed to have the disorder. That’s a lot.

Uninformed experts

Those who find the gumption to tell their doctors are usually in for a frustrating experience. I have been to sleep disorder centres on both sides of the Atlantic only to realize quickly that these so-called experts had never heard of my disorder.

In Atlanta, the sleep expert began by prescribing me clon-azepam, an anti-convulsant some-times used to treat epilepsy. In the mornings, I felt as groggy as if I’d been hit on the head with a hammer.

When I told the doctor that drugs with a sedative effect make the problem worse – something anyone who’s dealt with this disorder can tell you – he prescribed Ritalin before bed. Taking a stimulant just as I hit the sack solved the problem after a fashion – because I didn’t sleep at all. No sleep means no sleep eating.

But that solution was obviously not sustainable in the long term. In frustration, the sleep expert dismissed me.

“You quit smoking,” he said. “And when you’re ready, you’ll quit this, too.”

It was an offensive remark, and an ignorant one.

In the U.K., it also became clear that the sleep disorder expert I saw in Oxford was unfamiliar with sleep eating. But that didn’t stop her from offering her opinion as to the cause. She was positive the problem arose because my childhood had been less than perfect.

I have no objection to psychological counseling. I’ve benefited from it. But there were two problems with this expert’s proposed solution.

The first is that various studies, while failing so far to identify a cure, agree that counseling has no effect on sleep eating.

The second was that the sleep expert proposed to cure my deep-seated psychological problem by talking with me for 20 minutes once every three months. That’s stupid.

Different cures tried

Usually, I try not to focus on my sleep eating, preferring not to waste time on a problem that cannot be solved. It’s not the worst affliction in the world; I could be paralyzed or even deaf – which would be a big problem for a music critic. Better to concentrate on what is good in my life and push sleep eating into the background than to have my hopes dashed time and again.

Still, if there were a way to cure the disorder, it would noticeably improve my quality of life (and that of the other 1.8 million residents of the U.K. who presumably have it, as well, not to mention 9 million sufferers in the United States).

So occasionally I troll the Web, seeing if researchers have come up with anything yet. And I have found a doctor forthright enough to acknowledge he knows nothing about the disorder – and willing, when I present credible research, to allow me to try drugs normally prescribed for other things.

I read on the Web that some sleep eaters had responded to SSRIs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – a family of antidepressants that includes Prozac.

It was nearly a miracle. About a week after I started on Prozac, the sleep eating stopped, as if someone had turned off a switch. It was incredible. I went to sleep in the evening and I woke up in the morning, refreshed and hungry.

About three weeks later, however, the sleep eating returned. Nothing I could do – not switching to a different SSRI, not increasing the dose – would bring effect back again.

It was a cruel blow. It was almost better never to have experienced normal sleeping and eating patterns than to have elation turn to dismay.

Topiramate ineffective

Next up was topiramate, another anti-epilepsy drug. Dr. John W. Winkelman – an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and medical director of the Sleep Health Center of Brigham and Women's Hospital – claims to have had encouraging results with it.

Topiramate is a very powerful drug. Patients have to start with small amounts – which nevertheless addle the brain – and work their way up to massive doses. The drug often scrambles the vocabulary.

I tried to tell someone once about an article I had written, but I said instead that I had written a song. The wrong word would pop out of nowhere; sometimes no words would come to mind at all.

That is not good for a writer. But, desperate for a cure, I persisted. If the results were as good as Winkelman reported, maybe the side effects would become manageable.

But my sleep eating did not abate. Finally, I got so tired of feeling stupid and inarticulate that I had to quit.

Most recently, I have tried bupropion, an antidepressant of a different class than Prozac. It is marketed in the United States as Wellbutrin, and prescribed in the U.K., under the name Zyban, to help people quit smoking.

Bupropion is a dopamine reuptake inhibitor. According to an article by Scott Eveloff, assistant medical director at something called SomniTech Inc, in Kansas, sleep eating and restless legs may both be rooted in dopamine deficiency.

The relationship between the two disorders, which so commonly coexist, needs to be explored. If Eveloff had identified the connection, that was good news. So I was particularly enthusiastic about trying buproprion.

Alas, no result. The drug had no bothersome side effects for me. On the contrary, it seemed to have a slight stimulant effect that was mildly pleasant. But there was no reason to keep taking a drug that wasn’t curing what ailed me, so I stopped.

Pooling our resources

Sooner or later, a cure for this disorder will be found. I think there are two ways we can hasten this discovery.

One is to come out of the closet. If someone mentions that I’ve gained weight since I hurt my knee and stopped running, I’ll have no hesitation in saying, matter-of-factly, “I have an eating disorder.”

This is not a failure of will, not a character flaw. There is no shame in this whatsoever. And by coming out of the closet, by telling our friends and our doctors, we can make the world aware of how many of us there are.

Researchers and drug companies should realize that there is big money to be made in finding a cure.

Secondly, we can share information. If anyone has found something that works, please leave a comment. Others of us can try the same thing.

Together, we can make sure that, one day, sleep eating is a thing of the past. For all of us.