Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Random Blog of Sushi, Cabbage, Looking Awkward, NASCAR Stereotypes, and Things That Mildly Bother Me

I’m an adventurous food guy, and I will pretty much try anything once. This almost led to me vomiting on a table in South Korea once, but that’s an outlier. For almost any food that people love I can at least understand why they like it, even if I do not. I’d prefer a thick raw onion to stay off my burger, but I understand the flavor that an onion brings and can see why people like it. The reverse is also true. A lot of people hate garlic, while I could practically bite into a head. But garlic is strong and it lingers, so more power to you if you hate it. This brings me to the one food that I just do not understand: sushi. Now I have not tried all sushi, so maybe there is something I would like out there. I was talking to some friends the other day and said that the texture and flavor of uncooked seafood is the worst, and it seems to me that efforts to conceal the flavor by coating it in salty seaweed and dippy it in wasabi just go to show that we want to go to any lengths to not taste what we’re eating. And what do sushi people say? “Oh, just feel how it slides down your throat"!”. Really? Have we skipped chewing too? I don’t blame you, I’d want to get that thing away from my tongue as fast as possible myself.

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On the topic of food, I made my first attempt at coleslaw last night. It occurred to me that at age 25 I just cut and cored my first cabbage. Seems like that would have happened by now.

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Anyone remember my quest to make my lawn green when I first moved to Ohio? I did a whole blog on it. I want to take it ALL back. I now completely and fully understand why everyone’s lawns were dead. Ohio lawns are from the devil. The combination of torrential spring rain followed by pounding sunshine make my grass grow an inch a day. My lawn is too good. It’s green, it’s lush, it’s impossible to mow, and it’s driving me crazy. I want my lawn to die. I now see that a brown lawn is not a symbol of laziness, but it’s a celebration that weekend’s of toil and sunburn are now over.

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I’m now on page 22 of a report about an intersection near my hometown. When I’m done I will never want to drive through that intersection again. I’m surprised no one has called the cops on me as I’m now spent one hour standing there with a clipboard, 45 minutes standing there with a stopwatch, and 5 minutes running around taking pictures of it. I have received numerous weird looks and one flirtatious wave. (I think…don’t spoil it for me!!)

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As a matter of principal please do not be one of those people who chides other peoples’ hobbies by saying “how do you even find time for that?”. We all have 24 hours in a day and we all do things that are enjoyable to us sometimes. You just might consider your hobbies valuable and not others’. Implicit in a “how do you even find time that?” statement is that you believe you are far to busy doing massively meaningful and important things to engage in such trivial things.

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How does Papa Murphy’s stay in business? You take, you bake, and still tastes worse than a Red Baron. It looks like bloated bread and feels like a rock in you.

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In a month and a half I will be attending my first NASCAR race, and I’ll be doing it in Kentucky. This is a rite of passage. Should I wear a wifebeater, grow out my semi-stache, and drink five cheap beers? I’ll be more out of place than a conservative military guy at a hippie music festival. Wait…

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Does anyone else hate it when a song ends without the person saying the obvious word that they are supposed to finish a sentence with. It be like me saying that my favorite thing about a good BBQ is that I love hamburgers and hot…

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Song of the week comes from The Antlers.

Friday, May 20, 2011

New Music Review: William Fitzsimmons - “Gold in the Shadow”

(Nice beard, right?) I was slow in finding William Fitzsimmons’ outstanding 2009 album “The Sparrow and the Crow”, but I have not forgotten discovering it in a snowy lodge in McCall, Idaho last winter. iTunes says I’ve listened to “I Don’t Feel it Anymore” (a top 5 track of the year last year) no less than 50 times, and that’s not counting CDs and mixes. The album recounted Fitzsimmons dealings with divorce, whether it be his parents’ or his own. The slow folk and hushed vocals were reminiscent of Iron & Wine, and there was such an emotional sincerity that propelled this album to greatness even in its simplicity.

I suppose the advantage of being a year late getting to his last album was not having to wait all that long for his newest album, “Gold in the Shadow”. I also had high expectations, since listening to Fitzsimmons’ progression up to this album shows an artist who has continually gotten better and better at his craft. And while judging on overall qualities it pales in comparison to his last album, it would be difficult to label this a dud or a disappointment. In all it’s a mildly more interesting sonic achievement, but a significantly less interesting lyrical and emotional achievement. Let’s not blame William for not going through something emotionally difficult before every album.

The best of the bunch are all up front on an album that does fade into background music a little too often. But the soft piano that introduces the chorus on “Beautiful Girl” could fit into many a television show soundtrack, while “Tide Pulls from the Moon” plays with some new sounds. “Fade Then Return” also features a dabbling in electronic sounds that has not been present on the mostly acoustic folk records that Fitzsimmons has made in the past. Other standouts are the beautifully melodic and string-drenched “Bird of Winter Prey” and “Let You Break”, where Fitzsimmons gets an assist from Julia Stone of Angus & Julia Stone semi-fame.

Whereas “The Sparrow and the Crow” gets under your skin and sticks with you, “Gold in the Shadow” merely sticks at the pleasant-but-not-overwhelming level. It’s a worthy add-on for those who were already fans of his work, but a newbie should check out his previous album for most of his best work. Still, he’s a good master of moods and anyone looking for some calmer indie folk for a rainy day should get well acquainted with William Fitzsimmons.

Friday, May 13, 2011

New Music Review: Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

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“And now I am older, than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me?” muses Robin Pecknold on the opening track “Montezuma”. Fame and fortune have now descended onto the Seattle neo-folk heroes, but perhaps that is only leaving Pecknold to be more introspective. In perhaps his most moving line on a moving album, Pecknold wonders if upon his death bed he’ll see “any faces above me, or just cracks in the ceiling”.

Making a sophomore album must be a daunting task, particularly when your debut album is about as flawless as Fleet Foxes’ debut was, garnering just about as universal critical and public praise as anything I’ve ever seen. To this day I know of no one who has listened to the Fleet Foxes and not liked them. They are masters of harmony and masters of melody. They are lyrical and they are interesting. They are unique, but still accessible. And up until last week they had only one full length to their name. Was it just a flash in the pan? Making a sophomore album requires a band to make something new without abandoning too much of the old. So I am happy to report that this album is amazing. It’s a darker, more introspective Fleet Foxes, but it’s still Fleet Foxes. The album is a wonder.

Aforementioned “Montezuma” is a perfect album opener; a stripped down introduction that leads into the lusher tracks like “Sin Sala Bim”, a track packed with electronics, piano, and trademark harmonies. But it’s the hushed, wounded portion about 2 minutes in where Pecknold softly asks “Remember when you had me cut your hair? Call me Delilah then I wouldn’t care”, before the song bursts forth into energetic folk that really lets you know that this album is set to be special. The usual sunny nature of Fleet Foxes’ harmonies, displayed on “Battery Kinzie” turns slightly ominous, as the darker harmonies swarm over “Plains/Bitter Dancer”. All these tracks lead up to middle-of-the-album epic “Helplessness Blues”, a sure-fire winner of a track that is reminiscent of the very best call to arms tracks by The Arcade Fire. If Win Butler is the leader of the pack, then Pecknold is searching for his place in the revolution. “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique”, he sings, but “I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me”. But by the end of the song Pecknold has given up on revolution altogether, retreating to a simpler life on an orchard with a store. Descriptions don’t do it justice, try as I might.

After instrumental track “The Cascades” (how appropriate for a Northwest band”), the album second half begins, and we find that the best is yet to come. The album’s most vulnerable moment comes on “Lorelei”, a wound-exposing rush of regret. “So, guess I got old. I was like trash on the sidewalk,” Pecknold sings wistfully over no less than mandolin, flute, percussion, bass, and layered harmonies. It’s been in my head for 10 days.

Two softer tracks, “Someone You’d Admire” and “Blue Spotted Tail” lie strategically between the album’s two biggest tracks, the outstanding “The Shrine/An Argument” and album closer “Grown Ocean”. “The Shrine/An Argument” might be the hardest and harshest song in their repertoire, starting softly (“And I wondered what became of you”) before breaking forth into a an eight-minute saga of lost love. It is at once the heaviest, most experimental, and darkest track (“In the morning waking up to terrible sunlight/all the skin abuse the sun/when you talk you haunt me”), and it is nothing short of amazing.

With five four star songs (that’s a LOT for me…I’m very picky) already on the album, it’s hard to pick a favorite, and things can always change. But at the moment my pick would have to be the forward-moving “Grown Ocean”. Darkness does not become Fleet Foxes, although like all humans they must live their times of despair. “Grown Ocean” hints at hope in struggle: “In that dream I’m as old as the mountains…children grown on the edge of the ocean…in that dream I could hardly contain it, all my life I will wait to attain it.” It’s the perfect end to a perfect album, the best of 2011 to date.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

New Music Review – Augustana “Augustana”

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If a band is consistently inconsistent, are they at least consistent in some way? With its third album Augustana once again shows that they are capable of putting two to three well above average songs onto a pretty good album. Seems to me that if Augustana just waited 5 years between every album, they could release something special.

Back in 2005 Augustana released their full length debut “All the Stars and Boulevards”, a finicky album full of so-so tracks intermingled with total gems. “Boston” became a resonating hit, and deservedly so. Lost in the fame of “Boston” was that it might not have even been the best song on the album, with both “Sunday Best” and “Wasteland” stacking up favorably. In 2008 “Can’t Love, Can’t Hurt” hit the shelves, and the story remained the same. Forgettable tracks made up most the album, but “20 Years”, “Hey Now” and pseudo-hit “Sweet and Low” justified the purchase just by being so fantastically good in their own rights.

Their third release, the self-titled “Augustana” (I hate when bands do that on an album that’s not their first…), brings more of the same, for better and for worse. Are their plenty of forgettable tracks here? Yes, although I’ll admit the middle-of-the-road fodder might step it up just a slight notch. However, once again there are a couple true winners. “Just Stay Here Tonight” features one their most rousing choruses yet, while “Wrong Side of Love” seems to take a page from the likes of The Killers and Bruce Springsteen as they belt the energetic song. Right below these two standouts are the almost-great tracks “Steal Your Heart” and “Shot in the Dark”. The rest? A bit average, but that’s how these guys operate. Augustana always has enough good songs to justify the purchase, and should be a staple band for those of us who love bands like Jimmy Eat World on top of all the more indie-centric artists we listen to. Say what you want about the average tracks; Augustana is tracking for a heckuva best hits album by 2017.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Quick Hitter Music Reviews: Radio Dept., James Blake, The Decemberists, Other Lives, AND Frank Ocean.

Lots of ground to cover in this edition! But hey, five short snippets are probably more readable than one long drawn out review. And, while I’m at it, let me extend my thank you to those who like and read my extended reviews in all their intimate detail and glory. You are the coolest 23 people ever. On to the music!

Radio Dept – “Clinging to the Scheme” ★1/2

Wikipedia says that Radio Dept is a “dream pop band from Lund, Sweden”. Frankly, that sounds terrible, don’t you think? Well don’t judge an album by its Wikipedia introductory sentence. First off, I’d have gone with indie pop as a better description, though I imagine the word “dream” refers to the hazy atmospherics that the band uses on fantastic tracks like “David”. Elsewhere, album opener “Domestic Scene”’s soft guitar and hushed vocals will get under your skin and “Never Follow Suit” is catchy as all get out. The album is a little too inconsistent to move into special territory, but a good Radio Dept song ranks right up there with the best.

James Blake – “James Blake” 

I have a hard enough time understanding the appeal of dubstep to even try to understand the concept of “post-dubstep”, a genre apparently headlined by the talents of the young brit James Blake. Right now he has the #9 album in the UK and, once again according to Wikipedia, the #1 album in Belgium. Go figure. Consider this album more of a study in musical experimentation than something you’ll play regularly. Perhaps in the right mood…lazy rainy day, night drive, etc…the album would have appeal, but I caution recommending it to the listener at-large. However, Blake does have some musical chops, best on display in “Wilhelm Scream”, “I Never Learnt to Share”, and Feist cover “Limit to Your Love”.

The Decemberists – “The King is Dead” ★1/2

In my mind the first 25 minutes of The Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife” is indie gold, and The Decemberists have made their mark with wordsmith-y lyrics and concept albums. Unfortunately they miss the mark on “The King is Dead”, giving merely more than a few pretty good singles and a minimally cohesive album that barely warrants repeat listens. “Don’t Carry it All”, “June Hymn”, and “Rise to Me” may get some iPod shuffling play time, but the album as a whole has already taken a back seat in my collection.

Other Lives – “Other Lives” ★1/2

Learn from my mistakes. Just because one song tempts you with it’s soft piano, growing strings, and non-sensical yet highly singable lyrics (“turning black tables, and you’re turning black tables”), that doesn’t mean you should just go drop $7.99 on the album. “Black Tables” is worth the $1 investment, but beyond “E Minor” the album is a snoozefest of slow-to-mid tempo mediocreness. The band has some potential buried in there, but until they bust past the monotony I just can’t suggest it.

Frank Ocean – “nostalgia/ultra”

I won’t ever pass for a hip hop reviewer, but I know enough to know that Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), led by members with names like Earl Sweatshirt and Hodgy Beats, is not the music you want your mom to catch you listening to. So here’s the interesting part: within OFWGTKA you’ll find 23 year old Frank Ocean, an individual that has written for Justin Bieber and Beyonce, was arrested just three days ago, and had such a bad/nonexistent relationship with his record company that he simply gave away his record on his webpage. Oh, and one other thing: it’s really good. NPR writes that “the hype for Nostalgia, Ultra is well-deserved” and I won’t stand in their way, even if more than half the songs aren’t my cup of tea. But when he hits his stride he hits his stride, namely on “Songs for Women” and the absolutely mesmerizing reworking of Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing”, truly one of the best tracks of the year. The lyrics strike a chord in me, and probably will in anyone who has moved around and left the people and places they love:

“Say hello, then say goodbye, to the place you’ve loved/we are all mortals aren’t we? In a moment this could go. Cry cry cry, even though that won’t change a thing. But you should know, you should hear, that I’ve loved, I have loved the good times here. And I will miss the good times here.”