Friday, July 31, 2009

Pao! (The Follow-Up)

Back in May, I wrote about wanting to try the new Mumbai snack food restaurant Aamchi Pao on Bleecker St. It wasn't open yet at the time, but I've been twice since and it's excellent. All the slider-sized pao I've tried have been good, and I also enjoyed the variants on bhel puri they served as "chaat of the day".

I always like to try "exotic" sodas, so when I noticed Thums Up [sic] in the refrigerator case last time I was there, I had to give it a try. It's not all that different from Coke (and actually owned by Coca-Cola), but the name and graphics won me over. Also gotta love a non-alcoholic drink whose slogan is "Taste the Thunder!"

As much as I like Aamchi Pao, my real reason for writing about it again was to mention that a prediction I made in my earlier post has now come to pass. Here's what I wrote in May:

"Shopsin's has been adding some Indian items to their menu lately. I can imagine a deliciously Shopsin-ized version of pao bhaji showing up one of these days."

Well, today I looked at the latest version of Shopsin's ever-evolving menu (a fun thing to do any time, but an especially good idea when you're planning to eat there soon) and noticed that pav bhaji (apparently "pao" and "pav" are alternate spellings of the same thing) has indeed been added to the menu. If Shopsin's is open long enough, it's possible that some version of every dish in all the cuisines of the world will eventually appear on the menu.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the Week - "The Uterus of My Mind"

This Slate review of the unauthorized Catcher in the Rye "sequel" (blocked from publication by court order in the U.S. but available in Europe) makes it sound hilariously inept. If a worse, more unintentionally funny line than this one has been published this year, please tell me about it:

"Every day since I created him, every day since I pushed him through the uterus of my mind, I have thought of him."

(The line is supposed to be Salinger talking about Holden Caulfield)

Q. What Kind Of Town Am I Living In?

A. The kind where a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes w/ gravy, and collard greens, served at a bowling alley, will set you back $16.50.

(Actually, the menu looks kind of good.)

A Double Bill - Of Time And The City / My Winnipeg

I'm sure someone has written a dual review of these two movies before now. They're such a natural pair. Both are highly personal, idiosyncratic, childhood-haunted odes to the director's city of birth. Both could've been conceived and made by no one else. Both are self-portraits as well as portraits of a city.

I saw Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg in the theater several months ago, but only got around to seeing Of Time And The City recently on DVD. Terence Davies' film about Liverpool is mostly made up of archival footage, brilliantly edited and matched to music, with Davies' narration moving freely between his own comments and reminiscences and quotes from Shelly ("Ozymandias"), Eliot (Four Quartets) and others. There is also some new footage of Liverpool, focusing on impressive older buildings that have survived the cycles of decline and redevelopment depicted in the film and newer buildings suggestive of Liverpool's resurgence.

While Davies' narration gets close to the edge of pretension at certain points, always a danger when mixing poetic content with a dramatic style of delivery, there are moments when the pairing of text and image is quite powerful. Davies also displays a sense of humor throughout his narration, with the monarchy and the Catholic church of his childhood on the receiving end of some of his sharper barbs. It is a bitter, hurt kind of humor, especially when directed at city and country's failure to give its citizens a decent living environment (his comment that instead of Utopia the citizens of Liverpool got "anus mundi" is particularly harsh, given that that term has previously been associated with Auschwitz).

Better than the narration, though, is Davies' use of music. He makes some bold, surprising choices that, when they really work with the images, are powerfully effective. In a DVD extra interview, Davies says that the first sequence he imagined for the film was footage of Liverpool's post-war modernist housing blocks set to Peggy Lee singing the Kern/Hammerstein standard "The Folks Who Live On The Hill". The song, about aging gracefully in a hilltop cottage, becomes nearly heartbreaking when paired with the images of elderly Liverpudlians shuffling into or peering out of cold, concrete high-rises, looking isolated, alienated, and out-of-place-and-time. It's hard to imagine a simpler or more effective illustration of the essentially inhumane quality of the "machines for living" solution to housing satirized by Ray Davies in "Muswell Hillbilly" ("they're putting us in identical little boxes/no character, just uniformity") and shown at it's inevitable end point in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe demolition footage.


In writing about My Winnipeg, I'd probably benefit from rewatching it on DVD as it's been a while since I saw it in the theater. As so many themes (hockey, hairdressing, strange sexuality, the harsh Canadian winter) recur in Guy Maddin's films, they can start to blend together in the memory. My Winnipeg is distinguished from earlier Maddin films more by its concept (a quasi-documentary about the city of Winnipeg) than by its content. All his films are "personal" films, as they trade heavily in his obsessions and childhood memories, but My Winnipeg is more up front about its autobiographical nature, anchored as it is by Maddin's own narration (another commonality with Davies' film) and prominently featuring the character of the filmmaker's mother (played by an actress, though I don't remember if that's ever made clear in the film).

As with Of Time and the City, the narration is often very funny, though Maddin's dry, bizarre, very Canadian sense of humor could hardly be more different from Davies' bitterly acerbic wit. I heard more out-loud laughter in the mostly empty theater where I saw My Winnipeg than I have in packed houses for full-on comedies. A few of my fellow moviegoers seemed to be very attuned to Maddin's peculiar comedic sensibility (or they might've just been high).

Maddin's method here is to present true incidents from Winnipeg's and his own history side by side with fabulous inventions, giving them equal weight and allowing the audience to guess which is which. As always with Maddin, there are strikingly surreal images - horses frozen up to their necks in a river, a buffalo-robed ice princess partaking in a secret civic ritual. His extremely lo-fi, early silent era approach makes anything he shoots look distinctive, but it's his imaginative eye for sets, costumes, and staging that really creates the alternate Maddin universe.

The section of the film dealing with the demolition of the old Winnipeg ice arena is perhaps where Maddin comes closest in theme, tone, and feeling to Davies. There is a very real sense that this building, the memories tied up in it, and the Winnipeg it represented were deeply meaningful to the filmmaker, and its loss truly hurt and angered him.

There is love and civic pride mixed with disappointment and hope for a better future in both of these films, but the directors' own histories with their cities of birth may account for some of the difference in tone. Maddin is the native son who stayed behind, finding a way to make his films and have the career he wanted in his home town. Davies escaped to the big city, London, and only returned reluctantly to make his film about Liverpool. Maddin will surely continue to mine his Winnipeg for material, but it remains to be seen whether Davies has said all he has to say about Liverpool.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Everything Merge(s) at the Music Hall

After last night, I've now seen The Clientele five times in as many venues. This time, they were at the Music Hall of Williamsburg as part of a two-show US trip (can't call two shows a tour), the other being Merge's 20th anniversary festival in North Carolina. The Music Hall bill was an all-Merge affair with Richard Buckner and Clientele-buddies the Ladybug Transistor opening. And I'm pretty sure I spotted Merge artists Britt Daniel and Jon Wurster in the hall.

Before the show, there was a quickly abandoned attempt to check out a bit of the Dirty Projectors free show on the Williamsburg waterfront. One or two security people doing bag checks at a single, narrow entrance caused a several block long line down Kent Avenue (shoulda showed up earlier I guess). With the Music Hall show starting only a half hour after the Dirty Projectors were slated to finish, it wasn't surprising that the crowd was very sparse for the Ladybug Transistor's set (by the end of the night the room was full, but not packed). They managed some nice pop textures with the combination of Strat, trumpet, and the indie-ubiquitous Nord synth in B3 mode.

I like Gary Olson's voice and the melodies are strong, but I kept wondering what some of them would sound like pitched just a step or two higher. I don't know the extent of Olson's vocal range, but I can imagine that if he pushed the upper limits of it in a few places some of the songs would really soar. Elvis Costello said somewhere that one of the important things he learned early in his career was that by writing melodies and choosing keys to push the top of his range, he could better cut through the sound of a loud rock band and bring his vocals (and, critically for him, lyrics) to the fore. After 14 years, though, I'm sure the LT can carry on quite well without my suggestions.

In the middle slot was Richard Buckner, an artist I may have seen as many times as The Clientele, though spread out over more years and mostly as an opener. Playing solo with an old hollowbody electric and making extensive use of Ebow and loops, Buckner ran one song into the next, never acknowledged the crowd, and closed with a funny and entirely characteristic piece of anti-showmanship. Leaving the towering sequence of loops he'd built running, he stood up, unplugged his guitar, crossed the stage, and zipped it up in his gig bag before returning to stop the music. In a matter of seconds, he grabbed the rest of his gear and was gone, lumbering off the stage with what appeared to be a serious limp.

I found Buckner's typically dark and intensely focused set compelling, but apparently much of the rest of the room didn't, to judge from the level of chatter. The chatterers should be glad that Buckner chose not to engage them. Many years ago in a small club setting, I saw Buckner stop in the middle of one of his songs to quiet a loud drunk who was singing along (to a completely different song). He turned slightly to face the man and sang Merle Haggard's "I Can't Hold Myself in Line", staring directly at him the entire time. If it sounds funny in the retelling, I can only say that standing in that dead quiet crowd, it was more than a little frightening.

An impeccable studio band, The Clientele can suffer from a bit of sloppiness live, mostly on the part of lead singer/guitarist Alasdair MacLean (there were multiple references to backstage gin drinking throughout the night). I'm willing to forgive him a lot, though, because while the rhythm section of James Hornsey and Mark Keen is superbly tight and beautifully understated, and Mel Draisey adds some welcome ornamentation on keys (sometimes a little too loud in the mix, especially as she's no Ian McLagan) and violin (her strength), the uniqueness of The Clientele's sound is mostly down to Alasdair's voice, guitar style, and songwriting. When it all comes together, no one else can make the sound they make. And though it seems strongly redolent of the '60s, no one else ever really made that sound.

Alasdair made some jokes about the segment of their fans who prefer the early singles collection Suburban Light to any of their subsequent releases, but, in fact, a strong case could be made that each of their albums has both moved on from and improved upon the last. Though I'm not really convinced that their most recent, God Save The Clientele, was superior to its predecessor Strange Geometry, it was a strong record and continued the evolution of the group's studio sound. And on a less objective, more gut level, I still feel a strong connection to the first Clientele album I bought, The Violet Hour.

The chatter that plagued Buckner's set was still going strong for The Clientele. Apparently even the headliners didn't merit enough respect for people to postpone their urgent conversations, or least carry them on at less than full volume. Polite suggestion to concertgoers: when a drummer switches to brushes, it's time to PIPE THE F*** DOWN. I saw Alasdair call out a Chicago crowd on this, but last night's show and another I saw at the Knitting Factory were actually worse from where I was standing, and there was no comment from the stage. He did say that it's been New York audiences that have kept the band going over the years, so maybe the accumulated goodwill outweighs any annoyance.

The new songs (from the upcoming Bonfires on the Heath, due in October) sound like potential keepers, though the live renditions will surely benefit from a bit more touring. Of the old songs, the early "Saturday" hit me the hardest. With all the great songs they've released since, it still might be the quintessential Clientele song. Opening with Big Star's "Nighttime" was a nice surprise and an in-retrospect obvious and perfect choice for a Clientele cover. It also afforded Alasdair the opportunity for a very funny rock nerd joke - "We're going to start with a Big Star song...[crowd cheers]...from Big Star In Space". The by-now standard Television Personalities cover, "A Picture of Dorian Gray", appeared in the encores, sounding great despite a brief lyrical memory lapse.

The all-Merge bill proved to be filler-free, and interesting in that there were two very compatible bands separated by a solo artist who seems to have nothing other than a record label in common with them. I tend to prefer diversity on a bill, though, as long as the individual acts are strong, as these were. I've seen too many shows where the openers seem to have been chosen more for their superficial similarity to the headliner than for their own musical merit. Along with the Mercury Lounge, the Music Hall continues to be one of the best rock venues in town. If only there was a way to get the loud talkers to take advantage of the (quite roomy and comfortable) bar and lounge facilities away from the stage area.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

List Making #3 - NYC Donuts

With all the hoo-ha this week about the appearance of Tim Horton's on the NYC donutscape and the impending Dunkin' vs. Tim's donut war (just try Googling "horton's dunkin"), I thought I should get in on the action. And since there's also been a flurry of food lists published lately (Robert Sietsema's at the Voice have been my favorites so far), I figured a top donuts list was in order.

Unfortunately, I've only had enough good donuts in NYC to wholeheartedly recommend a top three, but I stand 100% behind each of them. I haven't had Tim Horton's yet (or if I have - maybe years ago in Northern Michigan? - it wasn't a memorable experience), but I would be profoundly shocked if it was good enough to crack this list.

1. Peter Pan
See my previous donut-related post. Or Google it, Bing it, or Wiki it to find lots of words and photos devoted to this Greenpoint, Brooklyn institution/legend/landmark/temple of donut craftsmanship.

2. Doughnut Plant
To hell with simplified spelling, says the Doughnut Plant! Ironically for a place that clings to the old-school spelling, Doughnut Plant is the foremost purveyor of new-school donut flavors, the perfect yin to Peter Pan's traditionalist yang. The space is beyond minimal, but the flavors are anything but. Dean & DeLuca sells them, but you have to go down to the Lower East Side and try to get one still warm. Thinking about a warm Tres Leches donut from here almost makes me reconsidering making it #2.

3. Glaser's Bake Shop
Known more for their black-and-white cookies than for their donuts, Glaser's on the Upper East Side is the sleeper on this list. After many visits, I developed a favorite breakfast order: a prune danish and a sugar donut. I originally ordered the prune danish thinking it was something else and became an immediate convert. The sugar donut is nothing more than a simple fried ring dusted with sugar crystals, but it's perfectly executed and great for dunking in coffee. Glaser's also makes colorfully decorated donuts in honor of certain holidays like Valentine's Day, but note that they're currently closed for their annual summer vacation, reopening August 18th.

Honorable Mentions

Trois Pommes Patisserie
They only do donuts on the weekends and there's only two choices - jelly and mini-size jelly - but they do it well enough to easily earn an honorable mention. I saw someone mention the beignet-like quality of these donuts, and that sounds about right, especially in the case of the minis.

Donut Pub

A recent return visit to this place (on 14th St in Manhattan) reinforced what I had written previously - the Pub is pretty good but it's no Peter Pan. There's a good, wide selection of classic donut styles, but they're not quite executed to perfection. Still, there's a wide gulf between these donuts and Dunkin' or street cart fare.

Various Polish bakeries along Manhattan Ave. in Greenpoint
Though none can touch Peter Pan, there are some other good spots to get donuts (primarily jelly donuts) in Greenpoint. Try any of the small Polish stores or bakeries (even The Garden market) and you're likely to find a good donut.

Pies & Thighs
This restaurant, located in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge (on the Brooklyn side), no longer exists and the one time I ate there I didn't have a donut. It's on this list because I saw the donuts, and I'm pretty sure they would have been excellent. I assumed that I'd try them next time, but the place closed before there could be a next time.

Street Cart Crueller Roulette
Every once in a while, I'll come across an iced crueller (though I've even had one or two good un-iced versions) from a coffee-and-donut cart that is actually pretty satisfying. Dense, sweet, and coffee-friendly, the crueller is IMO the safest choice if you're hard up for a donut and nowhere near any of the places mentioned above.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dream Journal #2 - (Old &) New Dream(s)

I listened to two albums on my brand name portable digital music delivery device yesterday, both featuring Charlie Haden on bass. Unfortunately, the combination of street and subway noise and my not-quite-enough-noise-cancelling, less-than-audiophile quality earbuds meant that Haden was all but inaudible. Perhaps trying to compensate for his absence in my headphones, Haden showed up last night in a dream.

In the dream, I was supposed to be playing guitar with him and Paul Bley. Haden had the tunes picked out and showed me the charts he had put together. They were very basic outlines, some I understood and some I didn't. I think one was just a list of 6 or 7 chords. Strangest of all, some of the tunes seemed to be inspired by Dr. Seuss.

We never actually got around to playing. Charlie was ready to go, but Bley was taking a long time doing some kind of meticulous preparation, and I was having a hard time hooking up a ridiculously long chain of effects pedals. I realized I was way out of my league and was afraid that they thought I was some kind of Bill Frisell-level player. I was hoping I could fake my way through it, but the dream ended before I got the chance.

After having that dream, I probably should go see this. I'll be sure to leave the guitar at home.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underrated, Underappreciated (#3 in a Series) - Neil Young's Hawks & Doves

Hawks & Doves is an album that seems to mostly inspire indifference, annoyance, or tepid admiration (in numerical terms: a 3.5 star average on Amazon, a 5.7 from Pitchfork). In this way, it's similar to the album that followed it, Re-ac-tor. Neither album has the high profile of Rust Never Sleeps, which preceded Hawks & Doves and is almost universally regarded as one of Neil Young's best, or Trans, which followed Re-ac-tor and competes with Everybody's Rockin' as Young's most mocked and derided album, a rock geek punchline and the symbol of Young's supposed '80s creative nadir. Hawks & Doves also lacks the "lost classic" mystique of fellow late reissue On The Beach or the still unreissued Time Fades Away. I won't attempt to argue that H&D is better than either of those, but I do think it's a very good album and, at the very least, one of Neil Young's most interesting albums.

The points most commonly made about H&D are that it's a lightweight/half-hearted/throwaway effort, not even reaching the 30-minute mark, and that's it's Neil's "conservative" album, from the period when he'd briefly fallen under the spell of Reagan. The validity of the first point really depends on the strength of the songs rather than the length of the album, as a listing of classic sub-or-barely-30-minute albums could easily demonstrate (from the Ramones debut to A Hard Day's Night), and on this ground I believe H&D deserves to be defended.

"Little Wing" is Neil at his whispery acoustic best, a song so quiet, especially as an album opener, that it's beauty can almost pass by unnoticed. "Stayin' Power" is a modest but effectively straightforward love song about long-term commitment with a sort of country-meets-classic r&b feeling, appropriate enough as good songs about mature, enduring relationships are rarely found outside those two genres. With different instrumentation, "Stayin' Power" could've fit in and been a clear highlight on 2002's almost instantly forgotten Are You Passionate? (if AIP? is remembered at all, it's for the sub-anthemic 9/11 anthem "Let's Roll", shoehorned incongruously into the middle).

"The Old Homestead" is one of NY's rambling, "shaggy dog" stories, a cousin of "Last Trip to Tulsa" and "Ambulance Blues" with a guest appearance by Levon Helm on drums. "Lost in Space" is one of the most wonderfully weird entries in the Neil Young catalog, which is really saying something. It has a beautiful melody that veers into singsong as the lyric veers into stream-of-consciousness nursery rhymes. A lovely line about buildings on the ocean floor leads into a Lollipop Guild-influenced section with pitch-shifted backing vocals credited to the "Marine Munchkin". NY seems to be giving free play to his imagination in this song, letting one line suggest the next with very little editing. I have a real soft spot for this song - it's surprising and surprisingly good.

The political content of the album is for me one of its most interesting aspects. Despite its reputation, the politics of H&D-era Neil Young can't be reduced to a simple label or even easily summarized. The closing, title track may seem at first listen like a patriotic, borderline jingoistic anthem (perhaps directed at the Iranian hostage takers or the Soviets?), but is in fact deeply ambiguous, reflecting the songwriter's position as a by-then wealthy Canadian living (and, as he reminds us in the chorus, paying taxes) in the US. Young's take on America has always blended the romantic view of the admiring outsider with the sharp, skeptical edge of a longtime resident who loves his adopted country too much to see it take the wrong road without speaking up.

"Hawks & Doves" is all about mixed feelings, contradictions. The "U.S.A., U.S.A." backing vocals are a Rorschach, both a joke and not a joke, but the last lines of the last verse are where Neil really takes his stand - "Got rock'n'roll/got country music playin'/if you hate us/you just don't know what you're sayin'". Over the years, he's certainly been willing to point out America's shortcomings, but in the end he's going to stand with the nation that gave birth to his musical heroes, the simultaneously real and mythical land of Elvis and Hank.

The political ambiguity of Hawks & Doves is also well illustrated by "Union Man". The chorus begins with the line "I'm proud to be a union man" only to immediate undercut that sentiment with the sarcastically delivered "I make those meetings when I can...yeah". The ridiculous "union meeting" that ensues in the studio (including the famous-among-NY-fans request for "Live Music Are Better" bumper stickers to be issued) further undermines the surface sentiment, as does the couplet "I pay my dues right on time/when the benefits come I'm last in line". The question remains, though, was the song meant to parody merely the musician's union or was it a larger comment on the way workers are treated by the unions that are supposed to protect their interests?

Such concerns and contradictions would recur in Neil Young's music, but they appear with a particularly sharp edge here. The commentary embedded in the music avoids the traps that so much "political music", even some of Young's own, falls into. The listener isn't bashed over the head with any simplistic messages, and there's no choir being preached to.

Neil has something to say here, but instead of strident slogans or pat prescriptions, he gives us his uncertainty, worry, and anger as a mirror to our own. It may have had something to do with the times - America at the end of the Carter years was a country looking for a direction, for answers, or, if nothing else, someone or something to blame for it's problems. "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" is a portrait of that America - "oh this country sure looks good to me/but these fences are comin' apart/at every nail".

To my mind, The Bottle Rockets (from St. Louis) are the torch carriers for the kind of songwriting represented by the best tracks on H&D. One significant difference that may not be immediately obvious is that The Bottle Rockets tend to tell stories from eye level, focusing on small, telling details, while songs like "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" seem to be surveying a larger scene from an elevated perspective. Both are valid approaches (I'm not saying that Neil's perched up on Rockstar Mountain looking down on all the little people), but the Bottle Rockets have the rare quality of being able to make a song about the working man seem as if it's also by the working man.

Of course, they're heavily and admittedly influenced by Neil Young, but whereas many Neil-loving bands emulate only his sonics - the vocals, the distortion, the loping Crazy Horse rhythms - The Bottle Rockets are more serious students, picking up as much of the wild, humorous, contradictory spirit as the sound. You could safely place The Bottle Rockets' entire career under the heading of "Underrated, Underappreciated".

[Update 7/27/09: Just saw an interview quote from the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman that's relevant to what I wrote above. This is Henneman talking about the sound of their upcoming album, Lean Forward -

The one, single thing we deliberately did different this time was avoid the Neil Young. We obviously love Neil Young, but that was the one deliberate angle we tried to avoid this time around: no Neil Young.

It's a pretty clear measure of how big an influence is when you can change your sound by deliberately avoiding it. I'm guessing this is an attempt to mix things up from their previous album, Zoysia, on which they took the opposite approach, fully embracing the Neil to good effect.]

Bonus Links

I intentionally avoided reading Robert Christgau's piece on Hawks & Doves until writing my own, so as not to be unduly influenced. Reading it now, though, it's interesting to see that while we hit some of the same points he seems to see less ambiguity in the political lyrics than I do. Am I giving Neil too much credit, or did Christgau give him too little?

Two versions of "Lost in Space" - Neil Young's first ever live performance of it (from earlier this year!) and another that I won't attempt to describe

Monday, July 6, 2009

Quote of the Day - "an encyclopedia, just from one tune"

I hadn't read this wonderful multi-part interview and listening session with drummer Paul Motian when I wrote a post about his trio with Jason Moran and Chris Potter, or I would've linked to it at the time. Motian comes across as open, honest, funny, and full of some pretty profound insights. I think I understand some things about music, and especially about Motian's approach to music, that I didn't before I read this interview.

This is just one of many highlights, but one that really grabbed me:

"If you had to sit down, you'd probably have to be a computer if you tried to put down on paper or in words what is actually going on during a piece of music. You'd probably fill twenty f***in' volumes, it'd be an encyclopedia, just from one tune, if you start actually putting down exactly what thoughts are happening… you know what I mean? It's not so simple. Sometimes the simpler it sounds the more complicated the sh*t is."

Paul Kotheimer's Familiar EP (Post #4)

Track 3 - Everypopsong

"Everypopsong" features an extremely familiar-sounding soft rock keyboard part - is it Billy Joel? Wings circa "Silly Love Songs"? Paul Simon at his '70s smoothest? - in a see-saw battle with a distorted guitar for control of the song's mood. The shifts are surprising, but seamless, with a strong musical logic to the transitions and the overall structure indicating a songwriter very much in command of his craft.

The whole composition is a great example of music reinforcing lyric - the desire to surrender to (and create) a great pop song fighting against a detached, intellectual recognition of pop's essential emptiness and falseness. Tension and release, suspension and resolution. An argument is being illustrated: that knowing how a magic trick is done doesn't have to ruin the enjoyment, the sense of wonder when the trick is well executed. Paul is both magician and audience in this song. The song is the trick, and Paul's trick bag is deep. May he keep dipping into it for a long time to come.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Wilco (The Rant About The Village Voice Review)

I enjoy reading criticism. When an author, a musician, or a letter to the editor writer lashes out at a critic, I tend to side with the critic. Not this time. The Village Voice has just published a review of the new Wilco album (which, I should say up front, I haven't heard yet) by Mike Powell that has stirred up all sorts of negative feelings in me. I'm not sure if I've fully grasped what it is that bothers me so much about this review, but I've got some ideas.

Wilco doesn't live up to Powell's idea of what rock'n'roll should be - they're too tasteful, they lack edge. His real problem, though, seems to be with the hype machine that's elevated Wilco, unjustly in his opinion, to the status of Major American Band. OK, fair enough, but it's not as if Wilco has ever declared an ambition, Stones- or U2-style, to be the "World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band".

The strange thing is that the parts of the review dealing with the new album are not all that negative. There's a strange passive-aggressive quality to the whole thing. When Powell throws some mild compliments the band's way, it rings false after the nasty and callous references to Tweedy's prescription drug problem and the recent death of former Wilco member Jay Bennett. I guess when it comes down to it, my problem is with the tone of the piece. The nastiness just seems way out of proportion to the aesthetic crimes Wilco is accused of.

Well, you might say, if he provoked that strong of a reaction, then Powell must be doing his job as a critic. At least it wasn't boring, right? Well, several Oscar Wilde aphorisms to the contrary, there are worse things than being boring (Powell's major problem with Wilco). The picture of Mike Powell that this piece paints is that of the worst stereotype of a critic - bitter, unpleasant, in love with the sound of his own critical voice, the kind of person Neil Young had in mind in "Ambulance Blues" when he sang "all you critics sit alone".

Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe the use of "Midwesterner" as some kind of slur has got my back up. Read the piece and see what you think.


I just read the comments section below the online version of the review (I initially read it in print). Powell attempts to come to his own defense, stressing that it was supposed to be a positive review and that he really likes and recommends the album. He also makes this statement: "Wilco's general lukewarm-ness is what makes them really, really unique". OK. I guess now I just think that this is a weird, muddled, and ultimately unsuccessful piece of music writing.

I've been reading Stanley Crouch's most recent collection of criticism, and in it he says that "illumination is the true art of criticism". Crouch can be as confrontational and personal in his attacks as any living critic, but he knows what his point of view is about a subject and forcefully defends it with deep knowledge and formidable prose. Even if you think he's totally off base or out of line, you usually end up learning something about some aspect of the subject being discussed.

In his Wilco piece, Powell paints himself into a corner - his half-hearted attempts to peddle blandness as some kind of admirable virtue are D.O.A. after all the gleeful zingers he gets off at the band's (and especially Tweedy's) expense. Powell takes a couple steps toward staking out an intriguing position, but doesn't come close to adequately defending it or even convincing the reader that he's serious. There's no illumination to be found here.

Bonus Links

Powell's former blog at Stylus Magazine (not updated since '07). Maybe he has a current one, but I couldn't find it.

Another, harsher and more entertaining take on Powell's review.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Few Notes on Barbeque Sauce

Had some takeout from Chelsea's R.U.B. (stands for Righteous Urban Barbeque) last night. The meats were fair-to-good, but the sauce was excellent, maybe one of the best in NYC. A little bit sweet, a little bit molasses-y, a little bit tomato-y, a lot bit peppery, with a thick consistency. The "market-style" places like Hill Country and Fette Sau have deemphasized sauce (without dispensing with it entirely as many actual Texas Hill Country barbeque joints do), but I do appreciate it as an option, at least, and when it's done well, complimenting rather than dominating the meat, a good sauce can put a barbeque meal over the top.

Barbeque is a famously variable art, with regional differences being held sacred by traveling afficionados and local partisans alike, and there's almost as much variability in sauce's role as there is in sauce styles. Hill Country purists, as mentioned above, eliminate it entirely (although one of the best sauces I've ever had was at The Salt Lick on the edge of the Hill Country near Austin - a thin, oily, mustard-vinegar-black pepper concoction like no other, I mail ordered it from them for years afterward). At the other end of the spectrum, St. Louis' traditional style involves "finishing" the meat in a pan of sauce before serving it, though I'm not sure how many places in STL still practice this. This sauce-drenched style works really well with rib tips.

Another sauce-heavy style is found in the mustard sauce region of South Carolina. Barbeque here is often pulled pork, and often found on a buffet. The sauce tends to be thick and sweet (usually a bit too thick and sweet for my tastes), and is thoroughly incorporated with the meat before serving. If you like a side of white supremacist propoganda with your barbeque, try Maurice's in Columbia (or don't, actually). I felt pretty conflicted about eating at this Confederate flag wavin', "what was so bad about slavery?" pamphlet displayin' place, but I was very happy to be able to report, in all honesty, that the barbeque sucked. In fact, the poor quality of the food, along with the lack of cleanliness and general laurel-resting vibe of the place, echoed Frederick Law Olmsted's observations about the antebellum South in his book A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, where he found that the institution of slavery had created in Southern white society a culture of "indolence, carelessness, indifference to the results of skill, heedlessness, inconstancy of purpose...", etc, etc. He must've had some pretty half-assed barbeque.

Returning briefly to R.U.B., I found to my surprise that their pastrami (barbeque pastrami seems to have become a "thing" lately in NYC), which had seemed a bit tough and not all that flavorful, actually improved quite a bit overnight.