Bolides Over Basra

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The Middle East has been lodged in the American vocabulary of tropes for too long, contributing shorthand for everything in the range between intractability and fanaticism.

Men's Recovery Project

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Monday, April 24 2000, 11:56 AM


The Middle East has been lodged in the American vocabulary of tropes for too long, contributing shorthand for everything in the range between intractability and fanaticism. If the nineteenth century provided Orientalism as sensual exoticism, the twentieth century gave us Orientalism as cruelty and conspiracy. The region serves as a displacement zone for export of Euro-American social problems and problem people, or as a zone of dangerous imagination.

That such purposes have little or nothing to do with ordinary daily life from Casablanca to Basra should be obvious, although it is not. Whether it is tough-guy Humphrey Bogart fighting across North Africa in Sahara, or the Midwestern innocence of Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day caught up in the undecipherable mysteries of colonial Morocco in The Man Who Knew Too Much, US culture has thrived on propagating violence and intrigue as the leading facts of life in the region. The landscape and its names become no more than a scene for the re-enactment of civilizational clashes. In these examples and most others, the real discussion topic lies in the violence generated by Euro-American powers.

Although the tiresomeness of such formulae should be plain, nonetheless it remains surprising to encounter. I don't know why this nonsense does surprise me; perhaps I am mistaking unending wonderment for real surprise. Out of some muddled sense of creativity, the Men's Recovery Project decided to assemble a complete album dedicated to their vision of the Middle East. They would have been far better off staying at home with a sheshbesh set and café turkit, pretending they were on an exotic Arabian vacation. It would have been less embarrassing, too.

Bolides Over Basra begins with a number entitled "Working for the Mossad", which pictures a deadly agent as "a cipher on the border with a pistol in the fez." The old pistol-in-the-fez trick, hah! Didn't think anyone remembered that one, especially as public fez-wearing in the street pretty much disappeared with the end of the Ottoman Empire. A fez is a rare sight, except among the Cairo Sheraton waiters. For fairness, another ballad, "Egyptian Assassin", tells of the lonely, depressed lives of Cairene hitmen. Pseudo-mystery comes in all forms, as with the song "Sephardic Secrets". Its lyrics summarize Oriental intrigue into a four-line kabbalistic koan: "The Rabbi arrives / His face is grim / The time has come / To leave with him." No doubt off to his regular evening pulsa da nur ceremony. And we also visit Khartoum in another song which begins "After he disappeared..." and continues with the story of a lover gone absent. The song might as well be set in Paris; the locale is unimportant, just as the Magreheb was unimportant to top sarge Bogey fighting his way across North Africa in Sahara. The place name of Khartoum is the briefest of signifiers, which also explains why no one should look for significance in the album name's reference to Basra.

A pity, all of this. Stripped of their lyrics, the musical ideas of Bolides Over Basra are not unappealing. Often they rock just fine. Band instrumentalists Neil Burke, J. Ryan and Sam Bland do the vocals; none are in danger of schlock lyricism at, say, the Paul Carrack level. Yet in their delivery, they try to convey a completely unpersuasive attempt at mystery. There is no mystery here, just some Americans with a bad theme album idea.

Bolides Over Basra is a Load Records release 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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