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Wednesday, December 31, 2003


MY 20 FAVORITE ALBUMS OF 2003

New Pornographers - Electric Version

Their show was one of the best I saw all year (though admittedly I didn't get out to as many as I should've), and drummer Kurt Dahle is one of my new favorites, along with GBV's Kevin March and Spoon's Jim Eno. He's even able to break one of the cardinal rules of rock: "don't let the drummer sing." Of course, Neko Case rocked my world, also.

Junior Senior - D-D-Don't Stop The Beat

It took me six months to get ahold of this record after I first saw the squirrelly video for "Move Your Feet" last year, and I don't think I've ever been so totally won over by a dance-party record before. Go Junior! Go Senior!

Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway

Initial reviews made this sound like an unusual, orchestral departure for Mark Kozelek, but it sounds more like my favorite Red House Painters album, Songs for a Blue Guitar, than anything else Kozelek has done. In other words, I was bowled over by his ability to repeat something that, to me, was a huge success. I have a feeling this will be in my own heavy rotation for years to come.

Crooked Fingers - Red Devil Dawn

I saw Eric Bachmann's band twice this year, once at a rockin' 400 Bar show and again at a tepid, experimental Turf Club performance with Azure Ray. Every new Crooked Fingers release is only a slight variation on its predecessor, though Red Devil Dawn adds a sonic elegance lacking in the first two full-lengths. "You Can Never Leave" is probably my favorite song of the whole year. Heartbreaking.

The Clientele - The Violet Hour

The Clientele release their first real album (Suburban Light was a singles collection, y'know) and cement their ability to spin gorgeous music out of delicate wisps of smoke. Still waiting for a U.S. tour, guys...

Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power

Oooo...this is what I've been waiting for. Rings Around The World had some amazing moments on it, but as a whole failed to move me. Phantom Power inspires, frightens, rocks, cajoles, and mesmerizes, which is everything a good record should do. SFA are coming back to Minneapolis in February!

Bonnie Prince Billy - Master and Everyone

I almost missed this one, and it feels like a miracle that I didn't. Will Oldham succeeds where so many have failed, to make a contemporary folk record that doesn't suck. This is haunting, gentle music in the very best sense (back off, Zamfir). Roots music at its finest, and quietest.

The King of France - Salad Days

Really a collection of recordings post-Deformo, pre-King of France, Steve Salad has turned into a formidable songsmith. I can't wait for a real King of France release. Based on songs like "Beast," we've got a lot to look forward to from these guys.

The Hang Ups - s/t

The Hang Ups return! Yay! I was so happy last winter at the Hang Ups' Turf Club show, which saw a simultaneous evolution and return to form. Seeing Brian seated at a keyboard was a bit of a shock, but the new songs had that gorgeous, wintery-pop sound we've come to love from those guys, making up for the long absence following a period in which they confused themselves with a rock band. Hooray for the Hang Ups! And "boo!" to Liz Phair, whose own self-titled fourth album was a total car wreck. An often entertaining one, to be sure, but an accident nonetheless.

Guided By Voices - Earthquake Glue

2003 was a trying year for the GBV fanatic, seeing as it did the usual cartload of releases and a box set to top it all off. It's a tiresome cliche to accuse Robert Pollard of excess, but this year I almost started to believe it. His collaboration with Doug Gillard, Lifeguards, wasn't nearly as good as their amazing Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department from several years ago, and "Motel of Fools" was a bit of a letdown. I skipped the new Circus Devils release and haven't yet heard the Phantom Tollbooth project. Heck, not even Tobin Sprout's releases managed to crack my top 30 this year. But Earthquake Glue came out and slapped the spotty Universal Truths & Cycles in the face, announcing itself as the perfect blend of Bob's influences: psych, punk and prog. "Dirty Water" transforms The Who's "Join Together" into an abstract rumination on...alcoholism? Environmental ruin? The death of the American Dream? I don't even know what the song is about and it still kills me. That's good songwriting, and that's the genius of Robert Pollard.

The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow

The Shins return with Built To Spill producer Phil Ek lending a modern sheen to the retro sound they established on Oh, Inverted World. It seemed like an awkward fit, at first, but the sheer power of songs like "Kissing the Lipless" and "Turn a Square" completely overwhelm. Alice Cooper called this "hippy music" in Rolling Stone, but what the Hell does he know?

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever To Tell

People seem to think that Karen O is just ripping off Patti Smith, except I never liked Patti Smith, so clearly Karen is doing something right. Fever To Tell didn't win me over until I got to "Maps," "Y Control," and "Modern Romance" toward the end, where it's obvious that Karen can do more than just yip and curse, and I love the guitar sounds throughout. Surprisingly worthy of the hype (unlike, say, The White Stripes, who kick off Elephant with one awesome song and then rapidly deflate).

Le Mans - Catastrophe No. 17

This is just a collection of old singles from the now-defunct band, but it was such a warm, welcome sound that I had to include it here. Several of these songs have never seen the light of CD before. Long live Le Mans!

The Sea & Cake - One Bedroom

I don't usually enjoy musicians whose primary purpose is to (a) soothe or (b) inspire one to dance, but The Sea & Cake manage to do both at the same time and it actually works. Just a few years ago they seemed in danger of repeating themselves into irrelevant oblivion like their comrades in Stereolab and Tortoise, but One Bedroom sees a boost in the rhythm beds and a sense of fun previously lacking in their music. A huge improvement on a worn formula.

Calexico - Feast Of Wire
Califone - Quicksand/Cradlesnakes
The Hidden Cameras - The Smell Of Our Own

I like surprises, so I'm happy to announce some new bands to the Jonathan fold: Calexico, Califone, and The Hidden Cameras. I haven't listened to the radio since I got a new car last summer with a CD player, so I'm pretty much stuck with buying what I already know, but I was introduced to the Hidden Cameras at the Belle & Sebastian show and managed to catch the first two on Radio K early in the year. Calexico and Califone are earthy but adventurous enough to transport the listener. The Hidden Cameras, meanwhile, crafted one of the catchiest, unheard pop-folk-orchestra records of the year (helping to spawn a new mini-genre along with the Polyphonic Spree). Who knew Canadian sexual politics could be so fun?

Concerto Koln & Sarband - Dream of the Orient
Rachel's - Systems/Layers
Simon Jeffes - Piano Music

Simon Jeffes (of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra) may be dead, but neo-classical music lives on. Piano Music collects intimate recordings from 1974 to 1996, and tops it off with a previously unheard Jeffes composition ("Lullaby") recorded for the first time here by friends and PCO members. Rachel's returned with a sample-heavy travelogue, of sorts, and are beautiful as always, but perhaps the most important record of the year was released on the Deutsche Grammophon imprint Archiv Produktion. Dream of the Orient teams the energetic, historically-informed chamber orchestra Concerto Koln with a Turkish ensemble known as Sarband, performing Viennese exotica by Mozart, Gluck, Kraus, and others side-by-side with the real deal: traditional Turkish music. East meets West and they both learn from the experience. I can't imagine a more powerful musical statement for the year 2003.

Honorable Mentions
Portastatic -The Summer of the Shark
The Lilys - Precollection
Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun
Damien Jurado - Where Shall You Take Me
American Analog Set - Promise of Love
Beulah - Yoko
Lisa Germano - Lullaby for Liquid Pig
Fountains of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
Consonant - Love and Affliction
Sloan - Action Pact

Best Novelty Record of 2003
"Strong Bad Sings and Other Type Hits"

Biggest Disappointment of 2003
Lou Reed - The Raven

Second Biggest Disappointment of 2003
Chris Lee - Cool Rock

Best CD of 2002 I Didn't Get Until 2003
Iron & Wine - The Creek Drank The Cradle

Hit Singles on My Imaginary Radio Station
Lilys - "Will My Lord Be Gardening"
Jayhawks - "Save It For a Rainy Day"
The Polyphonic Spree - "Hanging Around the Day, Pt. 2"
Blur - "Crazy Beat"
Jin - "Learn Chinese"
The Electric Six - "Danger! High Voltage"
Michael Franti and Spearhead - "We Don't Stop"
The Hidden Cameras - "Ban Marriage"
The Postal Service - "Such Great Heights"
The Sea and Cake - "An Echo In"
Cat Power - "He War"
Sloan - "I Was Wrong"
Stereolab - "Mass Riff"
Robert Pollard - "Harrison Adams"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Maps"
Califone - "Vampiring Again"
Johnny Cash - "Hurt"

While there were a million wonderful CD reissues this year, special mention should go to the long-overdue Uncle Tupelo reissues. I listened to Still Feel Gone as much as many of my favorite new CDs listed above.

Also, the best show of the year by far was Junior Senior, who turned the Entry into a sweaty orgy of bouncy mania this fall.

As usual, I dug deep into the glorious mineshaft of '60s pop and came up with a few polished gems, especially "Rolled Gold" by The Action, "Tangerine Dream" by Kaleidoscope (the U.K. Kaleidoscope, not the American or Mexican Kaleidoscopes of the same era), and "Would You Believe" by Billy Nicholls, produced by Andrew Loog Oldham and featuring the Small Faces' Steve Marriott on guitar.

Here's to more glorious noise in 2004! Hear, hear! I'm already looking forward to the release of The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me on March 9.

Sunday, December 28, 2003


LISTEN, THE SNOW IS FALLING...



Tractor at Sunset


Blue Thunder - a real working Galaxie 500!
 

The Road Home

Friday, December 19, 2003


CHRISTMASTIME IS (ALMOST) HERE

Here's a holiday story to warm the cockles of your post-punk heart. Let's get those cockles cookin'!


UNSILENT NIGHT MEETS SANTACON

"Unsilent Night" is an ambient piece of music by the New York composer Phil Kline designed to be played at full volume on an infinite number of boomboxes.  He has done it since 1992, and this year I decided to join in.  He passed out cassette tapes of four separate movements which were all synched up at the count of three.  About 300 people showed up under the arch at Washington Square Park.  The entire crowd was to slowly move to Tompkins Square Park in the East Village.  The sound as you walk through the crowd is elegant and gorgeous.  Various bells and tones swell around you and ricochet off of the massive buildings.  It is a sound both communal and peaceful.

And then the Santas came.

SantaCon has also become an annual event in the city.  If you've got a Santa suit, you meet at Grand Central Station at 11 in the morning and from 11 to midnite, you begin to prowl.  It's like the Flash Mob trend but with Santas.. and lots and lots of drinking.

They joined our crowd of boom boxers and merriness, providing sort of a drunken escort through the Village.  At one point we passed a Crunch gym.  Through the window, three people were running on treadmills.  One Santa spotted them and began to mimic the running outside the window.  One of the gym runners cracked up, and soon there were roughly fifty Santas all jogging in time outside the window.  The site of it brought tears to my eyes.  It was eventually broken up by another Santa on a megaphone saying "DO NOT EXERCISE!  IT IS NOT THE SANTA WAY!"  And they came back into the crowd.

At St. Mark's Place the Santas bid their adieus and the rest of the crowd continued on our way.  The piece was timed so that when we eventually reached Tomplins Square Park all of the boomboxes played the same tone and eventually died out leaving an entire crowd standing in silence.  It was beautiful.

- David Willems

Thursday, December 18, 2003


THE LATEST DEVELOPMENT IN LIBRARY ENFORCEMENT

Check out "Overdue", a cute little "COPS" parody from the people who brought you "Dr. Katz" and "Home Movies."


I AM REBORN

Being the white, Northern boy that I am, soul food is a pretty foreign concept to me. Add to that the fact that I'm about to hit the decade-long mark in my life as a vegetarian (do I get a prize or something?) and I'm even further removed from the fold.  Last week, though, I heard there was a local soul food joint that includes a full vegetarian menu, and after checking it out I can say I am truly a changed man.  

Big E's on Nicollet is the proverbial "tiny slice of heaven."  They've only got five tables, but the food, service, and ambience are impeccable (I saw that word in a book once and thought I'd try using it here).  Take their online tour to get an idea of what I'm taking about.  Melanie Kell's black and white portraiture covers the walls, as do her far more impressive color works, including a sofa-sized recreation of Ernie Barnes' famous "The Sugar Shack."  They've got a small collection of horrific, old-tymey racist advertisements (to serve as a reminder of where we're all coming from), concert posters on the ceiling, and signed photos by black celebrities, including Danny Glover and B.B. King.  The jukebox plays blues, reggae, funk, and some occasionally questionable R&B selections along the lines of Bell Biv DeVoe.  They were actually playing Gil Scott-Heron when we walked in the door, which was pretty cool.

Melanie met us at the counter and offered to let us order in advance so our food would come quickly once we managed to wrangle a table.  After perusing the menu for awhile, I ended up skipping over the vegetarian options (including one vegan dish) and chose the crab cakes.  The wait was really long, so you might want to consider carry-out.  They also don't serve liquor, which might be a factor in favor of bringing the food home.  I was glad we stayed, though, as presentation seemed important to chef Eric Austin (he's the Big E).  

The water came in tin cups, military style, and my crab cakes were sitting on a pile of roasted corn succotash, with jalapeno tartar sauce and a mysterious black ooze drizzled over the lot.  They were incredibly good.  Even the succotash, which looked like nothing more than a dull mass of veggies, was a crunchy, flavorful joy.  My pals John and Benda shared some corn bread, a hush puppy, and mashed sweet potatoes with me.  Mmm mmm!  John's buttermilk biscuit looked so good I ordered one for myself, and it came with some fine, fine honey-butter.  We ended up sharing a mini sweet potato pie with homemade butter-pecan ice cream, ice cream so good I hope they start packing it in quarts for people to take home.  

Eric Austin is my new spiritual advisor; I can't remember the last time a meal (in a restaurant) made me feel so good.  Even as good as the Sea Thai Bistro was, much of that had to do with the context, the person I was with, and the effort it took to get there.  Big E's was just pure pleasure.  He's done time at the Loring Cafe, the Minneapolis Cafe, and Cafe Un Deux Trois, among other local restaurants, and he's clearly a man in command, yet friendly enough to walk through the room and see how everyone is doing.  I don't think I was nearly effusive enough, but maybe I can make it up to him on a return visit.

In summary: Big E's = soooooooooooooooooooo good!

Sunday, December 14, 2003


ULTRA SUB-CATEGORIZING (TO GET YOUR JUICES FLOWING)

indiepop
You're an Indie Pop Kid. You like songs about
relationships and the prettiness of nature.
You're sentimental, but not certainly not emo.
Oh, and if you aren't an English Major, you
should be.


You Know Yer Indie. Let's Sub-Categorize.
brought to you by Quizilla


Just as I've been ignoring my own blog, I haven't been reading anyone else's blogs for a few weeks, but I peeked at a few today and spotted this quiz on Carlos' blog. Entertaining enough to merit inclusion. Also, tonight a ten year old boy argued with me about what time the library closes. Never you mind that we've had the same Sunday closing hours for at least five years and I'm a library employee, he was quite convinced of my error. Gimme a break, kid.


HOLIDAY IS THE ICE CREAM DAY

I'm back from a nice long break. Spent four nights in New York City, bookended by extended loll-abouts, researching cutlery sets, home theater speakers, and tea kettles online. The plane ride to New York was fairly mellow, save for an old woman grabbing Kelly's book out of her hands ("The Hobbit? Did you like it? So you must believe in magic, then."). We took a cab from LaGuardia to Inwood, where K's friends John and Darren were putting us up. They had a fairly huge apartment by New York standards, only $900/month, in a pretty good, diverse (though predominantly Dominican) neighborhood. They live across the street from a hilly, wooded park, conveniently near the A train and a veggie-friendly diner.

After hanging out with the boys for a bit, the four of us went downtown to Gobo, a posh vegan restaurant, or, about as posh as vegans can get, anyway. The staff were terribly disorganized, but apparently I caught them on a bad day. We shared a variety of dishes, and I enjoyed a "Ms. Daisy" smoothie with strawberry, pineapple, and blackberries. The smoked Beijing-style seitan with Chinese broccoli was especially good. One of the many things I love about New York is the plentiful, well-prepared seitan. I don't know why it's so absent from Minnesota restaurants.

I also love the historic jazz scene in NYC, so after dinner Kelly and I split from the party and hit the Village Vanguard for an intimate evening with soul-jazz/bop legend Lou Donaldson. Sporting a Duke-style moustache and a classy brown suit, Lou Donaldson led his quartet through a set of standards ("Autumn in New York"), bop classics ("Blue Monk"), and his trademark '60s soul-jazz grooves ("Alligator Boogaloo" and the like). Joining Mr. Donaldson were Dr. Lonnie Smith (in his trademark turban), Fukushi Tainaka on drums, and guitarist Randy Johnston. It was an impressive group, but Lonnie Smith stole the show with his caterwauling and his wild organ playing. It was hard to connect the man offstage (walking with a cane and a slight hunch, greeting me with a polite "how ya doin'?" as he passed by) with the madman onstage, keeping up the bassline with his feet, pounding out rhythm and solos with both hands and singing off-key all the while. Lou Donaldson, now in his seventy-seventh year, was still in strong form, leaning on a lot of slow to mid-tempo numbers but still able to let fly when the spirit took him. He cracked jokes between songs and even sang us a little blues, improvising on the spot. I was excited just to be in the same room where John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and others cut some legendary records, but we were treated to a fine show by an elder statesman on top of it all.

Wednesday we got lunch at the eastside Penang, which was a little less than thrilling. The clay pot dish was tasty as usual, but the appetizers were flavorless and it's time I find some new restuarants to try. From there we took in the Guggenheim, currently featuring the monstrous pop-art works of James Rosenquist and a nice (but small) collection of Klee and Kandinsky. Strangely, they also had sketches and caricatures by Federico Fellini on display, to accompany a film retrospective. My favorite pieces (good enough to make the trip worthwhile) were Picasso's bleak Woman Ironing and van Gogh's Roadway with Underpass, both fine examples of art transforming the mundane into the extraordinary. We browsed the gift shop(s) and grabbed a bus to take us downtown, eventually ending up at our old favorite, Vynl. I had a watermelon-spiked mojito (or two) and a rare tuna steak with smashed potatoes and spinach.

From dinner it was time to hit the lights on Broadway. We caught Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman at the Imperial Theater, starring in The Boy From Oz, a musical about Australian songwriter Peter Allen. The moment Mr. Jackman came onstage, singing, in a sparkly, purple shirt, I knew we'd made the right choice. The Boy From Oz tells the story of a born-entertainer: the flamboyant child wowing 'em in a local bar; the young man in a cheesy lounge-act who was discovered by Judy Garland in Hong Kong; married her daughter, Liza Minelli; wrote a string of pop hits (e.g. the Oscar-winning "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)"); won applause at Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall; lost his lover to AIDS, and then, sadly, died from complications due to AIDS himself. There was an awful lot of dark material to cover in a two hour long show, including the suicide of his alcoholic father, but the only big problem I had was the frequent number of songs given to dead characters. Judy Garland comes back from the dead to sing "Quiet Please, There's A Lady Onstage," Peter and his recently deceased lover Greg sing Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" to each other, and the whole dead cast returns for the final musical spectacle. The "I Honestly Love You" scene is simultaneously brilliant and frustrating, capturing as it does the media's hesitancy to portray gay male intimacy, while shedding new light on the treacly soft-rock single ("If we both were born in another place and time/This moment might be ending in a kiss/But there you are with yours, and here I am with mine/So I guess we'll just be leavin' it at this" takes on a whole new meaning when two men sing it to each other). Even the overwrought "Don't Cry Out Loud" was used to good effect, sung here to Peter by his mother. Finally, the show-stopping "I Go To Rio" was a Busby Berkeley-inspired wonder, with a giant, glowing, piano key staircase and Vegas-style showgirls in huge feathers, everyone glittering and glamorous.

But wait- there's more! After the last curtain call, we were informed that they were having a charity auction, the prize item being a black muscle-shirt Hugh Jackman wore at the beginning of act two, signed. When the bidding got up around $2,000, one of the serious contenders asked if they would pause while she called her mom. In Australia. From the stage, Hugh Jackman said "I'll call your mom," and after some fiddling about he continued the bidding, acting as go-between for the Australian woman, until they got above $2600 and the mom pleaded for everyone else to stop bidding. In the end, they let three people have a signed t-shirt (and photo with Hugh) for that price (I hope he wore the other t-shirts and hopped around for a bit so they were all equally "used" for the charitable winners). There was also an ongoing silent auction for a spot onstage (during the Hong Kong hotel bar scene) and the opporunity to hang out with the cast. That was already up to $20,000. Uncomfortable with the amounts of money being tossed about, Kelly and I went next door to one of the many hundreds of tourist gift shops in midtown and got some cheap junk for our friends and families.

The following 48 hours consisted mainly of eating, drinking, talking, and shopping. Kelly's fried Chad introduced me to the wonders of old Fisher stereo tube amplifiers and I ogled his Music Hall MMF-5 turntable. He had some awesome vinyl, including a Bo Diddley bootleg called "Give Me A Break" (on the Chess rip-off label "Check Mate") and "Problems" by the James Brown soundalike Lee Fields. He also had a rambunctious pit bull that could've used a hefty dose of sedatives.

Friday we took in the store window displays on 5th Avenue, peeked inside St. Patrick's Cathedral (and discovered a gift shop therein), visited the NBC store, Kinokuniya bookstore, Other Music, and more, and got thoroughly drenched in the process (stupid rain). Unfortunately we'd agreed to meet some friends in Williamsburg for dinner, so we rushed through the downpour to the train, got hoplessly entangled at the Delancey St. stop for our transfer, and took the train over the river into Brooklyn only to realize we were much farther south than we wanted to be. By now we're a good twenty minutes late and pretty frantic, managed to catch John on the phone only to have him tell us he and his friend were in the Village and had decided not to come because of the rain. Well, thanks a lot, Mister Poo-Poo Head! So we trudged through the storm for about fifteen blocks and arrived at the Sea Thai Bistro all bedraggled, our shopping bags in wet shreds. Fortunately, fate spared us and we had one of the best meals I've had in a long time.

We shared two appetizers, an entree, and desert, starting with salmon basil cakes in a spicy/sweet sauce and garnished with cucumber, very tasty. Next came the jade seafood dumplings, which turned my brain inside out and pulled me into a new dimension of vibrating color: crab and shrimp mushed into green dumplings, steamed, and wading in a coconut sauce we practically licked off the plate, it was so good. For the main course we enjoyed a whole red snapper that was marinated in lemongrass, cilantro, and garlic, wrapped in seaweed and roasted, with a citrus-chili sauce on the side. It was terribly bony but extraordinarily yummy; the marinade formed a thick paste over the fish, with a flavor-taste style that's out of this world! We also drank pomegranite mojitos ($11 each) followed by regular mojitos (which were still like $9). Most amazingly, the food was really cheap; over half of our bill was for the four cocktails. We topped it all off with a molten chocolate cake and pistachio ice cream, then steeled ourselves to go back out in the rain. Leaving the serene reflecting pool and calming lighting inside Sea was not easy. There's supposed to be a great view of Manahattan just down the street from the restaurant, but it looked like we were going to have to go out on a pier and the rain was beating down so hard out that we skipped it and scurried back to Inwood, also avoiding a tempting but potentially awful experimental music performance at Tonic featuring Jim O'Rourke.

So, there's my third and last New York adventure this year. Sorry for the long pause, I don't think I've been this quiet since I shut the site down back in August. Unfortunately, I'm prolly gonna stay quiet until the new year. Thanks to everyone who keeps checkin' in to see what nonsense I'm spewing, and here's to Coughin' It Up In '04!©



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