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FRIDAY AUGUST 30
TALKING TOUGH, LOOKING DUMB
Ive been hearing for a while about major labels releasing CDs that cant be played on computers. My advance copy of the forthcoming Phil Collins album, Testify, is the first time Ive been aware of receiving one. The following note came attached to the sleeve and the CD itself
Please note: This CD has been individually watermarked with a unique identification number embedded in the music. This number is traceable directly to the authorized recipient, which allows us to identify the source of any unauthorized copies or other reproductions of the music contained on this CD. The watermark is not changed or destroyed by extracting clips of the music, or by using any compression technology such as MP3. The sound quality of the audio playback is not affected. This CD is intended to be listened to solely by the authorized recipient and no portion of its contents may be copied or reproduced in any manner, nor made available in any manner to any third party (whether by means of streaming, so-called peer-to-peer networks or otherwise). This CD should not be played in a computer. Thank you in advance for your understanding
In fairness, and before I go off on the subject, several aspects of this warning are intended purely for reviewers like myself who are meant to consider ourselves blessed for receiving such a long-awaited album up front, but are not supposed to let others hear the music until its officially released. Ive always tried to play fair by that concept and would not, for my own part, put someones advance release up on the web, so I dont desperately mind that the label is denying me the chance as a fail-safe.
However, there are bigger issues at play here. The whole concept of personally watermarked CDs that can be traced back to their individual recipients smacks of an Orwellian big brother, while the sale of CDs that wont even play in computers suggests some kind of trade restriction that would surely not survive a challenge in court (which I hope arrives soon). Major labels are entitled to enforce their copyright but surely once someone buys a CD they should be able to play it on any home system capable of doing so? I frequently play CDs on the computer; I know people for whom it is their primary stereo system. For the major labels to limit what home systems people can play their CDs on seems rather like my insisting which room of your house you can read my books in (and as Ive also stated many times before, I have no control over people sharing my book, or borrowing it from the library; I consider it an honor in both cases). Im tired of repeating the same opinions Ive been stating since I started this site, but lets face facts: The genie is out of the bottle, and for major labels to treat consumers and reviewers as potential criminals hardly endears any of us to their cause. (Or does anything to put the genie back in.)
While on the subject of ageing rockers taking themselves way too seriously, Ive been struggling for the last week to make sense of this quote by Roger Daltrey, defending The Whos decision to keep touring without John Entwistle. David Barton, who I believe reported it as an onstage comment, originally quoted him in the Sacramento Bee, and I read it last week in the Asbury Park Press. The comment is as follows: If these firemen in New York City had given up, New York would still be a mess. Can he seriously be comparing himself and Pete Townshend, two millionaire musicians who have not made a new record in twenty years, to the firemen who risked and gave their lives on September 11? Can he seriously be suggesting that its as important for him and Pete not to give up as for the firemen, and presumably other citizens and officials of New York, similarly not to give up. Listen, The Who gave one of the performances of their lives at the Concert for New York City in the wake of September 11, and the groups love for the people here has been well documented, by me among others, but please tell me this isnt one of the dumbest and crassest comments Ive heard in years. Please please please.
Staying with the older generation, but on a warmer note, my Jeff Beck interview, archived from the Keith Moon book, received a huge number of hits this past week. Turns out that although Ive had it posted here for a long time now, it was only just linked from this Jeff Beck appreciation site. Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read it, and I hope you found other writings here of interest. I certainly hope so: I respect Jeff Beck enormously, not just for that revealing interview, but for continuing to push his personal envelope at an age when most artists have stopped taking critical and commercial risks - but continue to take themselves too seriously.
Tomorrow's Musings will be about far younger artists - I can guarantee that!
THURSDAY AUGUST 29
BACK ON THE MAP
Just returned from a few days R&R with family. Listened to lots of music, some of it thoroughly disappointing (may start a shitlist to accompany the monthly Hitlist); had some meals out, including one absolute disaster (that I'll come back to tell you about purely for the humor of it); read some magazines, newspapers and even part of a small book (lots of observations on their way); generally avoided world news for a few days (turning on the TV Monday night and hearing war-on-Iraq talk across three separate channels made me grateful for my brief igorance); and stole one perfect summer's day on the beach though then spent half of today driving in treacherous and torrential rain. It's been feast or famine this New York summer as far as the weather goes; my mother, visiting for the week, can't understand how anyone would ever complain about too many hot sunny days. But then, she's from the UK.
Glad to see the site in the same condition I left it - and with readers offering their own views over on the Forum as always. Got a ton of e-mail to read, a fair amount of snail mail bearing musical gifts to open, and a hectic few days ahead in terms of concerts, personal and family events. But check back imminently: I'm buzzing with things I want to say.
In the meantime, ever wanted to know how much bands get for playing the college circuit? Then follow this link to Clear Channel's College Entertainment listings. Thanks for providing the link to David Menconi, who wrote the excellent rock'n'roll novel Off The Record, and had the guts to publish it himself when he couldn't get a deal.
SATURDAY AUGUST 24
It was an opportunity I never anticipated when I moved to Park Slope six years ago: walking up the block to see one of the best bands in America. But last night, the recently-opened Slope venue Southpaw played host to local legends Luna (who, as part of a pleasant little back-to-Brooklyn clubs doubled-header, are playing Williamsburg's North Six tonight) and there was no way in the world I was going to miss such a treat on my very doorstep.
Luna has been with us a decade now, through six studio albums, and several record labels, and while the Dean Wareham-fronted quartet has never encountered mass popularity, neither has it languished in obscurity. Luna has a healthy cult popularity and an enviable international influence, both of which hopefully compensate for lack of six-figure royalty checks. This year's Romantica album on Jetset is undoubtedly one of their best (though damn those slip sleeve advance copies, I can't find it right now!), and the group seem to recognise that they're on a new-found roll: a mini-album Close Cover Before Striking will be out in October.
Credit some of the group's rude health with the arrival of bassist Britta Phillips, charged with the difficult task of replacing the highly respected New Zealander (and ex-Chills) Justin Harwood, and coping admirably: despite her occasional look of consternation, she has a distinctly funky and melodic way of playing that would make her an asset in any band. Rumor that she and Dean Wareham are now dating may be just that - they don't intimate intimacy on stage - but there's always love in the air when Luna perform. Several months ago, we literally stumbled across the group playing the theater at the Brooklyn Museum of Art one Saturday, where, from the comfort of our plush seats and with the benefit of superb acoustics, I 'rediscovered' the band. If you ever have the chance to hear their intensely restrained and reflective music in a theater, jump at it - or rather, sit down and enjoy.
Luna at Southpaw: Britta Phillips, Lee Wall, Dean Wareham, Sean Egan.
Southpaw, meanwhile, has been with us but for a few months, and the Luna gig was what I believe to be its first sold-out show. It's interesting to see how a venue's environment dictates audience response. The last time I was at Southpaw, for John Wesley Harding, the venue had filled the raised lounge area with sofas, the dance floor with bar tables and stools, and placed lighted candles all over the venue; no doubt influenced by these intimate surroundings, the audience was overly reverential, barely whispering between songs as if to do so would be to insult the performer. Last night, the lounge area was mostly cleared of lounging opportunities, the bar stools were absent, and the candles remained unlit; the crowd took this as an invitation to drink excessively and talk loudly - even through Luna's quietest songs. I don't understand why people would pay $15 to see one of America's most respected bands and then abuse the opportunity to actually hear them unless, as my wife Posie suggested, they just figured it was the place to be and couldn't help their Friday night mentality. Matters were not helped by the failure of the stage sound to reach back across the small club; having experienced the clarity of their performance at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I'm less inclined to blame Luna's sound man than the club itself, which is yet to live up to audience potential.
The only way to rectify these complaints was to politely push my way into the thick of the crowd up front, at which the night gained several degrees of intimacy. I would love to offer detailed track listing, but given that I've only recently come back to Luna after a lengthy absence, that they've made so much music in that similarly three-chord Velvet Underground intertwining guitar mode, that I can't find my copy of Romantica, from which I know that they played a fair handful, and that Dean Wareham is entirely inaudible in between songs (not that he ever announces them anyway), I can only state with some certainty that the 80-minute set included 'California' from 1994's Bewitched, and both 'Sideshow by The Seashore' and 'Moon Palace' from the following year's superb Penthouse.
|Are they, aren't they? Phillips and Wareham are said to be a couple, but they keep a professional distance onstage.
Most of the talking comes from second guitarist Sean Eden, who has a sardonic nature but no more inclination to enunciate; it's clearly too late in the game for Luna to change this distanced manner though I really wish they would. And yet the music has an intimacy few bands can match: the guitar interplay between Wareham and Egan remains one of the great pleasures in what was once called 'alternative rock' (especially when they strap on identical Gibson les Pauls). Lee Wall's drumming was as solid as Phillips' bass, and the addition tonight of a keyboard player helped flesh out the sound. I stopped making notes after a while and concentrated on enjoying the music and taking pictures. At the end of a truly wonderful night of music I stepped into the welcomingly cool night air, and rubbed my eyes in disbelief that I only had a couple of hundred yards to stroll home.
This is the last posting for a few days. Being that it's the end of summer and I've got family visiting, we're off out of town until middle of next week. Keep posting on The Forum; I'll be checking in by e-mail. Enjoy the holiday weekend in the UK. And thanks for stopping by.
FRIDAY AUGUST 23
Suffered a serious e-mail crash today. If you wrote me during the last two months and I haven't responded, I may never do so - you'd better write again. Jonathan Scott, the Process and Mr Kendall come straight to mind; please get back to me so I can respond.
On a brighter note, me mum's in for the last two weeks of summer, laden with British newspapers and magazines. I should have ample opportunity to comment on some of what I read about - once I return from a brief family sojourn later next week. In the meantime, my pal Geoffrey Armes (who helped interview David Sylvian for this site) sent me a link to this unpleasant story about continued racist attacks in south London. No point hiding from it or denying it.
Finally got an August hitlist up - just before September hits! I've catalogued another 30 albums I'm currently enjoying (that's one different album a day!) but done without songs, books or movies. Expect those in a September list shortly after what we officially call 'Labor Day' in the States but is better referred to as Lazy Day.
THURSDAY AUGUST 22
THE AMERICAN INVASION, CONTINUED
Seems like half my friends in New York are off to British festivals over the next couple of weekends. I'd like to be joining them - if only to remember what the real thing is like as opposed to an American imitation - though it seems pointless traveling all the way to Reading to see so many New York bands. Who would have imagined, only a year ago, that the most enduring of British rock weekend festivals would be hosting the Strokes (as headliners!), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture, the Moldy Peaches and Princess Superstar all on the bill?
My two personally tipped New York acts both continue to head onwards and upwards at a healthy pace. Radio 4 have toured America consistently the last few months on the back of the excellent album Gotham - with sales tipping a highly respectable 10,000 already - and now have their sights set on the UK, where City Slang is releasing the album and has financed a video for 'Dance to The Underground.' Over in London next month for gigs, singer, bassist and Somethin' Else store owner Anthony Roman is apparently going to be Djing at Death Disco; my simple advice (given that he doesn't normally DJ) is to bring lots of punk rock, and to play it loud. Worked for me.
||Stellastarr* are several steps behind the above bands, being that they've yet to release as much as a 7". But they're attracting interest at a frightening pace. Tuesday night, they played Luna Lounge, to a crowd in which industry insiders outnumbered their fan base. (And it's not like they're short of fans.) Of itself, this makes me happy, as I hate seeing talented young bands go unnoticed. But it makes me nervous too, as Stellastarr* are still young, still developing their songs, still perfecting their chops and still figuring out their friends in a city and industry where friendship often comes at a price. Hopefully, their quiet confidence - which falls, thankfully, way short of arrogance - should hold them in good stead.
Shawn Christensen (at left, with bassist Amanda Tannen) continues to impress as a front man, and he's also making waves as a painter; his impressionistic and irreverent 'rock star' portraits happen to be on display this month - also at Luna. Last time I saw Stellasarr* at this pioneering Ludlow Street venue, the Strokes were lined en masse at the bar having come to check out the band; this time they were absent in person but immortalized on the wall opposite as Christensen-depicted individual Pez dispensers. I just hope the band of the moment appreciate this comment on their disposablity (assuming that's what it is) and don't renege on their offer to have Stellastarr* open for them some time soon.
Last time I was in at Something' Else, catching up with Roman on all the latest, he touted Kentucky's VHS or Beta, with whom Radio 4 had recently toured, as "the best band in the country right now." He then put on a CD that sounded very much like instrumental French house music, except for the fact it was all being played on old-Fashioned analogue instruments, I.e. guitars, bass, drums, keyboards. And rather than the jam-band noodling of a Disco Biscuits or New Deal, what I could hear sounded like a surprisingly accurate approximation of the real thing: proper concise digital dance. I should have bought the album (entitled Le Funk, no doubt part of the reason for attracting all those Daft Punk comparisons) there and then and written about it immediately. Now I have to point you to this feature on VHS or Beta in the Village Voice as proof that I don't always make sufficient effort to be first on the block.
Radio 4, VHS or Beta and Stellastarr* are all enjoying some deserved attention, but presumably they make music for a far more intrinsic and instinctive reason that media attention or public glory. And they need to, because this might be as far as it goes for any of them. Tuesday night, heading next door from Luna to the Ludlow Street Bar, I got in what started as an argument with the doorman over my lack of I.D. but which ended with bear hugs once we recognised each other; said doorman turned out Lion-el Bernard, singer with ska band the Toasters when I was first in New York all those years ago, and beneficiary of a major label deal with his former co- front man Sean 'Cavo' Dinsmore as The Unity 2 in the early nineties. The Unity 2 had a lot less than fifteen minutes' fame, and it's unlikely that either Bernard or Dinsmore will get another chance with a major label this many years further on. But it hasn't stopped either of them making music for the joy and necessity of it, and I didn't get to leave the bar without a CD of Bernard's new project, Vódû 155. The argument could be made that there's a time to give it up, but equally - and especially with so much music-making and disc-burning equipment available at a low budget - the point exists that those who live to make music should continue to do so for as long as they get satisfaction from it. Lionel clearly seemed to be doing so. More power to him.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 21:
UNBEARABLE WAYS TO DIE
No sooner do I write about our environmentally-conscious experience in the Catskills, where absolutely no food, toiletries or even bottled water could be left unattended (even in a zippered tent) for fear of attracting bears, than a five-month old baby is lifted out of its stroller and mauled to death in that very region by a 150 lb black bear - drawn out of the hills by the drought, likely attracted by the lingering food smells around a small child, and, having already feasted on all sorts of human garbage (as an autopsy unearthed tin foil, price stickers and sandwich bags in its stomach), unafraid of humans. This last aspect is the most worrying: traditionally, the 4-6,000 black bears that populate the upstate forests are as wary of people as mankind is of them, and this is the first time any one can recall such a horrific incident in the entire Tristate region. But bear sighting are evidently on the increase, especially this year, in which the hot weather has dried up the animals' usual food supply of fruit and berries. At the Kenneth Wilson Public Campground (near the aptly named Bearsville) two weeks ago, bear sighting were up to the rate of two a day, and we were firmly warned on registering that failure to follow the rules regarding food and toiletries WOULD result in our eviction. Now we understand their concerns and need for precautions. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to see a bear emerge from nowhere and snatch away your own child.
But (and it's no consolation to the Brooklyn family who lost their child), at least in this horrific bear-eats-Baby incident the Darwinian food chain is at work. The evil instincts that inspired the killers of the two ten-year old girls in Soham, England, are removed from any basic laws of nature or humanity. In fact, the abduction of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, as they walked through their Cambridgeshire country town in their Manchester United shirts, followed by a lengthy and fruitless man hunt until, 13 days later, a 28-year old school caretaker and his teacher's assistant 25-year girlfriend were arrested for the crimes - at almost the same time as the girls' bodies were found in nearby woods - appears to have gripped my native country as not just a senseless and horrific crime, reminiscent of the Moors Murderers ("Manchester, so much to answer for,") but as something indicative of a larger concern. Which is: if the people employed to look after our children in small towns (caretakers and teachers) turn out to their killers, then literally, who can be trusted? The fall-out from this one will prove painfully protracted in a country that is better at hand-wringing than it is on supplying solutions. I hope there's some positive lesson can be learned from this tragedy, but I'm at a loss as to what it may be.
TUESDAY AUGUST 20:
It's been a little quiet on the iJamming! front the last few days: I've been getting to grips with a long-overdue new computer and its various attendant issues I've never had to deal with in the past, like networking, file sharing and trying to sync up the colours on two different monitors so that I better know what I'm actually putting out on the web for you. (And if you're on Internet Explorer 4.x, UPGRADE or you'll never be able to decipher this type.) I also found myself writing a brief recount of our trip Upstate, on a 'why not' and 'maybe you'll enjoy it' basis. It follows. Feel free to skip it and check back later on if you're not that interested in my personal life. (And I don't blame you, but hey, it is my personal life style site.
Life moves in cycles, and in time we all become our parents - and at no point are these two cliches better proven than when we look forward to going camping for our summer 'holidays' with the same eager anticipation as our offspring, in whom we see our own childhood reflected more acutely than ever.
So it was two weeks ago, when the family Fletcher packed its overtly sensible Saturn station wagon to the brim with bedding, bikes, bottles and books and headed upstate for a week at two different State Forest Preserves. Our conversion to camping has been simplistic and gradual: with so many of our friends, parents and kids alike, recommending it, Campbell and myself tried it out for a night in a one-man tent last year and enjoyed it; we decided to do it properly this year.
And to a great extent it worked out. At one point, sat over the (site-provided) picnic table, with an evening camp fire warming us on one side, and our brand new tent beckoning us to bed on the other, Campbell exclaimed "This is the best vacation ever!" And from his point of view, why wouldn't it be? Other holidays for him have included cruelty-to-children jetlag (Australia for the Millennium) and too many hours packed tightly in the car as mum and dad drive through foreign countries visiting their own friends (France in '99). Trips to 'Granny's house in London have always been fun, and with perfectly childish naivete, Campbell has often asked why we can't just board a plane and cross the Atlantic for the weekend. (The fact that, ever since he turned two, he's been costing us close to full air fare has a lot to do with the answer!) But up in the Catskills, he was allowed to make his own discoveries, which included miniature golf and, reluctantly for us, Bionicles, and also to create his own adventures, revealing a copious energy he keeps hidden from us in the city. He ultimately led us on no less than three major hikes, the biggest being a five-mile round trip involving a 1250 ft steep incline up Overlook Mountain (outside Woodstock) in seriously stressful mid-summer mid-day heat - great going for a six-year old.
It was, in fact, one of the most active trips I've ever taken. I kept at the running, despite aching legs from that half-marathon the day before we left; Campbell kept us hiking. We rode bikes around the Forest Preserves, and we swam and paddled boats in the lakes. We also visited (for the fourth time in a year) the wonderful Zoom Flume, a water park that costs a fraction that of Six Flags, has free parking, allows you to bring in your own food and drink, and is sensibly staffed by cute teenage girls working their summer vacations. (Take my use of the word 'sensible' as you will.) Zoom Flume is so far off the beaten track that when we last visited, our car was almost run down by a stray bull, but despite the general dilapidation of this corner of the Catskills, Zoom Flume is doing well enough that it added a new ride this year: The Black Vortex, in which we twisted and turned on a three-person tube though a pitch black tunnel before being dumped in the water at the bottom. I think Campbell would go there every day if he could - and I'd like to be there with him if he did.
|Summer Breeze: North-South lake, the view, more or less, from the actual camp ground.
||Summer Madness: The new Black Vortex at Zoom Flume, the best kept secret in the Catskills
Our only regret was leaving New York City on the very day that a cold front swept through after ten solid days of 90-degree plus temperatures. Our first night at North South Lake, a few miles from Hunter Mountain, was therefore spent shivering in the open air over dinner, then lying awake in our brand new tent listening to the wind whistle through the trees and wondering why we hadn't packed any long-sleeved clothes. (Or brought a second sleeping bag, something we corrected the next morning.) Our City Slicker mentality was further distinguished by our pathetic attempts to use our concrete campfire encasement as a barbecue grill: when the flames from a few lumps of charcoal wouldn't warm the vegetables sitting two feet higher up, we got a smaller grill and rested it on a couple pieces of wood either side of the charcoal flames. When the wood then caught fire, so did our food! It took four nights of watching other campers eat well and stay warm at the same time for us to grasp that the concrete encasement was designed purely for campfires - hence all the firewood being sold in the vicinity - and that stand-up barbecue grills for cooking dinner over coals were spread all over the neighboring picnic areas. That or you bring your own.
But it's live and learn for issues like that, and the brief cold and cooking disasters were easily compensated for by lack of rain and a general feeling of well-being from the simple pleasures of life - whether cooking up vegetables bought the same afternoon from a road-side farm, or lying on my back in the camp site playing field with Campbell by my side, trying to count the stars on a crystal clear night.
It's not often that you associate Federal or State bureaucracies with environmentalism, but the Forest Preserves demand a healthy respect for mother nature and fellow campers. A noise curfew between 10 pm and 7 am is willingly observed by everyone (but not their dogs); speed limits of 15 mph are strictly enforced (as I discovered to my cost); and there's no trash cans (rubbish bins) anywhere on site, not with the number of hungry bears in the forest. The result of these rules is just what you would hope for: exceptionally clean grounds, a sense of true safety, generally restful nights' sleep, and a pervasive and genuine politeness among campers. It's interesting to see how basic American manners (saying good morning, please and thank you, and generally extolling each other to have a pleasant day with feeling) become infectious: I was impressed in turn by how many of the international visitors stopped to smile and say hello, clearly understanding it to be the custom. (Except for the Germans, of course. And I'm not joking!)
|Our champion hiker: on the aptly-named Sunset Rock at North-South Lake
||The Fire Tower atop Overlook Mountain. From there, believe me, you can see for ever:
||Woodstock decorates the town with giant guitars and amps. I had a Vox once! (Still have the Rickenbacker.)
Ambitious as always, I took half a dozen books with me. And when the reality check got cashed, I came home with all but one of them un-opened. The exception was Arthur Nersesian's The Fuck-Up, a first-person novel told by a hapless young narrator set in early eighties New York City that became something of a cult hit once MTV Books picked it up from Akoshic several years ago. I read a solid 100 pages of it on the one morning I was left alone by the lakeside beach, and almost had it finished before we returned to NYC itself. (Interesting how when I leave New York for a few days I still decide to read a novel set in the city.) It's a deftly entertaining read full of classic downtown New York detail from a period just before I moved here; too often, sudden events dictate abrupt plot shifts, but never so much that you don't want to keep reading - or stop laughing. I'm looking forward to finishing it - hopefully before Labor Day weekend passes through.
While there was little time to read books, there was plenty opportunity to listen to music. Then again, much of what I brought with me simply didn't make sense in the woods. The full-on club vibe of the 2 Many Djs mix, for example, was quickly removed from a late-night camp-fire session; and while my newly-acquired post-punk compilation In The Beginning There Was Rhythm has several songs of humanistic idealism, hearing the Gang Of Four shout out 'To Hell With Poverty' over feedback-ridden guitars didn't carry the same harmonious resonance with nature as did other campers' blasting Bob Marley's 'One Love.' (Maybe it's an Upstate thing, but Man, do you hear a lot of reggae in the Catskills.)
The album I played most, over breakfast, in the car, on headphones on the beach, and before bed too, was Bruce Springsteen's superb new The Rising. I've been a Boss fan since I bought Born To Run as a kid; I've missed out on several phases of his career in the interim, but like old friends - and I consider him one, though I've never met him - our paths cross every few years, at which point it feels like we've never been apart. Bob Dylan may be America's poet laureate, but Bruce is one better: he's its Everyman. And yet despite his humble roots and apparent lack of genetic manipulation, he was clearly cut from a different cloth than the rest of us. Added to his many phenomenal previous achievements, he's now become the first American songwriter to construct - successfully at that - a whole album around last year's traumatic events. And yet for all that new Bruce songs like 'Into The Fire,' 'You're Missing' and 'Empty Sky' clearly concern the losses of September 11, they wisely eschew specific detail, ensuring that in years to come, people will be listening to them and applying their own personal contexts. (Something that can't be said for Neil Young's 'Let's Roll' or 'Ohio,' much though I admire those songs.)
The new Boss album, then, is about loss, but it's also about hope and faith, and I got an enormous uplift from the positive sentiments at heart in songs like 'Countin' On A Miracle', 'The Rising' and even his closing ode to Asbury Park, 'My City Of Ruins'. Similarly, the appearance of Asif Ali Khan and band on 'Worlds Apart' requests respect for Eastern/Islamic culture from an audience that can at times represent the most prejudiced attitudes of Americans. (And Bruce continues to perform an admirable and unenviable job of emoting our pain while refuting blind patriotism; his public calls for the defense of civil liberties are just as important a mark of his character as his composition about Amadou Diallo, 'American Skin,' though that song is notably if understandably absent from The Rising.)
What consistently amazes about Bruce and the E Street Band - in concert as well as on record - is their affinity with simplicity. As any smart producer will tell you, it's what you leave out that counts as much as what you put in, and the manner in which such skilled musicians as these can hold back and let the gaps in between notes and riffs do the talking for them is both fascinating and inspiring. The Rising sounds so sparse that you would think it was written and recorded off the cuff; but you know it's taken serious hard work to make it sound that easy. I don't know if, song for song, it's as consistent as his two other epics with the E Street Band (Born To Run and Born In The USA), and for that you can blame the 80-minute capacity CD that sees fifteen songs included where a dozen would have sufficed (and of course, those albums were far more anthemic, the product of a younger rocker). But I can't help but believe that when the year is done, The Rising will be seen as the most important American album of the year.
Perhaps the greatest joy of being on a simple holiday like this was the ability to have a drink too many at night and be able to shrug off the after-effects effortlessly the following morning thanks to the fresh air, a general feeling of happiness and a lack of work pressure. As such, the pair of us adults got get through more good wine than in a month of city-based sipping, and with nary a single dud in the pack (and the unlikelihood that I'll ever post full reviews of them all), I feel duty-bound to offer 'capsule' postings. (Skip 'em if you don't like wine.)
The Snoqualmie Chenin Blanc is that Washington State winery's white value-for-money equivalent to its previously-noted Syrah, a food-friendly refresher full of apples and citrus and soft texture. (We had the 2000 vintage, which cost about $8.) The 1999 Argiolas 'Costera' Isola dei Nuraghi is made entirely from the Cannonau grape, the Italian name for grenache. It didn't have the sweetness in the mouth of a southern French grenache, but it had plenty of the familiar aromas or kirsch and cassis. It was big, fat, ripe and strong, with tough old tannins that suggested I buy another bottle and store it for a few years. And it went great with veggies off the grill.
|The 2000 Chenin Blanc from Washington's value-conscious Snoqualmie Vineyards.
||The 2000 Moscato d'Asti from Italy's Marchesi Fioravanti: low alcohol, slightly fermented after-dinner sweetness
||The Zinfandel Carigane Sangiovese Ameri-French-Italian blend from California's Santa Barbara Winery
The Tortoise Creek Les Amoureaux Chardonnay (70%)-Viognier (30)%, is produced in the Languedoc but clearly made-to-order by its American importers (hideous pictures of kissing tortoises on the label). I had picked it up in Manhattan at the famously bargain-priced Best Cellars, which called it their greatest white wine value in the store - and at six or seven dollars, I wasn't complaining about value for money. Of course, the blend is true to neither varietal, and given the choice, I'd go back for the McRea La Mer Chardonnay-Viognier I bought in Seattle - but then again, that wine is twice the price and almost impossible to find.
Talking of blends that obscure each contributing varietals' true essence but create something novel in the process, the ZCS from Santa Barbara Winery in California stands for Zinfandel (America's indigenous grape, 59%), Carignane (the workhorse of southern France, 29%) and Sangiovese (the grape of Italy's Chianti wines, 12%). Such zinfandel dominated blends are becoming increasingly popular among west coast producers, for several good reasons. (E.g., the overpoweringly alcoholic and spicy zinfandel can benefit being softened by a supporting cast; grapes like carignane and petite syrah are obscure enough to be a hard sell on their own; Sangiovese has been something of a failure in California, but works well as a blending wine. And so on.)
The ZCS was simply not in the same class as the revelatory zinfandel-primativo-sangiovese 1997 Saint Vincent I tasted last year from Château Montelana. But to be fair, neither is it in the same price range. I enjoyed the ZCS as a fun, barbecue friendly, grill side wine, but ultimately felt like I was being cheated out of a full zinfandel, without getting too much else in the bargain. I was relieved then to have brought with me the 1999 Seghesio Zinfandel from Sonoma Valley, which as I've written about before, year in year out strikes me as the most reliable zinfandel in its price range. ($17.) But clearly the ZCS has its audience, as my other half, Posie, preferred it to the full-throttle Seghesio; I may yet get another bottle for another day.
We had another fascinating Californian blend of more obvious quality when we went out to dinner at the Bear Cafe in Bearsville, for what was a profoundly perfect dining experience. (From requested stream-side table to easy-going child-friendly waitstaff, imaginative healthy food and a fairly-priced wine list I read scrupulously from between courses even though we only drank by the glass.) I've heard good things about Joseph Phelps' Le Mistral (named for the Provencal wind that toughens the vines there), but I have a general aversion to Californian imitations of Côte du Rhônes that cost twice as much - and are often only half as good - as the real thing. Still, as a featured wine-by-the-glass at the Bear, I chose Le Mistral to accompany my tofu-ginger-shitake concoction of a main cause, and fell head over heels for it. The wine is predominantly a classic Rhône blend: 34% Grenache Rosé, 34% Syrah, 13% Mourvèdre. But there's also 11% Alicante Bouschet - an obscure grenache hybrid - with a small dose of Petite Sirah, and Carignane (4% each). The overall blend was warm, leathery, spicy, with lively acidity, layered textures, and soft, sweet tannins. While certainly reminiscent of a Rhône wine, it had its own character, rendering it a pleasantly unique experience. At $25 a bottle, Le Mistral is up towards Châteauneuf du Pape price category, but this one is worth it, and it joins the better-priced Quivira Dry Creek Cuvee as one of my favorite Californian Rhône Ranger blends.
Earlier on at the Bear Cafe, we conducted a New World vs. Old World taste test on that perfect aperitif and ideal food wine, sauvignon blanc. The New World version hailed from the Marlborough Valley in New Zealand, (a 2001 Brancott), the Old World from the lesser-known (than Sancerre or Pouilly Fume) Loire appellation Quincy (a 2001 Domaine Tremblay). Both wines exhibited the classic sauvignon blanc trademarks - refreshing acidity, copious citrus flavors - and were then each equally true to their opposite originations. The Brancott was a more vibrant colour, and contained all sorts of tropical fruit flavors you simply don't find in the Loire. It was, as usual for a New Zealand wine, noticeably tangy, though it fell short of the 'fizziness' I've found overpowering in some Marlborough wines. By comparison, the Quincy was distinctly paler, and notably more subtle on the palate, with a greater abundance of grapefruit and gooseberry, and some of the flintiness that comes from the Loire terroir - and we preferred it. There are very few white wines you can recommend with a salad of baked asparagus, grapefruit and goat cheese - but if ever a course was designed with a Loire sauvignon blanc in mind, this was it.
The only local wine we tried all week was also at the Bear, by the glass: a Millbrook Chardonnay, which exuded tell-tale butter, oak and vanilla, and not much else. Could have come from almost anywhere in America. (Millbrook does better with its Pinot Noir.) We rounded off that night back at the camp site with a sweet, genuinely fizzy Moscato d'Asti 2000 from Marchesi Fioravanti (from Italy, of course). The muscat is one of the most distinct grapes in the world, and I really noted the similarity in grape flavor between this and my beloved Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. But at a mere 5% alcohol, and with its delightful slight fermentation, the Moscati was a far less damaging way to end a perfect evening. It may be no coincidence that the next morning I was able to run for an hour and still climb that mountain!
For our last night, we canceled a second intended meal out given the appeal of the picnic table, the return of warm weather, and the abundance of left over food. That gave us opportunity for two final wines, both bought at the Woodstock wine store. A 1999 Marsanne from Beckman Vineyards' Purisima Mountain in California's Santa Ynez Valley appealed to my Rhône ranging; with a couple of years' age on it, it had lost some of its primary fruit but was well-balanced and full of marzipan-like flavors, promising excellent things for the producers. But at twice the price of the Mas Carlot Marsanne from the grape's spiritual home in France, was it really twice as good? No. Indeed, it cost more than the 2000 vintage of the Château Mont-Redon, itself one of the pricier (and best) red Côtes du Rhônes. I opened one of my '98s a few weeks back and it was drinking superbly; the 2000 vintage is being rated almost as highly in the southern Rhône, and judging by the quality of this tasting, I can understand why. Everything you want from a Côtes du Rhône: Provencal aromas, warmth, spice, texture, full body, tannins to last the distance but not to disrupt short term pleasure and a lengthy finish. The Mont Redon is sourced from grapes grown but the width of a dividing road outside the domaine's Châteauneuf du Pape vineyards. As such, its twelve dollar price tag makes it a bargain.
Our last day was spent in around the 'Pond' at the Kenneth Wilson campground, a picture-postcard idyllic setting exceedingly poplar with the locals, who don't have an official swimming pool in their vicinity. We prolonged the day as much as we could, to the point of driving north for half an hour to entertain Campbell with another round of miniature golf surrounded by mountains. Arrived back in the city at sunset feeling fully refreshed and reinvigorated. Unfortunately I then played indoor football last Monday night and got kicked around the court for my troubles, and I've felt the need to go back on holiday ever since. If I get the chance, I'd do this trip all over again. And so, I know, would the little one.
SATURDAY AUGUST 17: LOST IN MUSIC (ONCE AGAIN)
The Mix CD may be the compilation of contemporary choice, but nothing for me will ever beat the home-made cassette. I have boxes and boxes full, some of them dating back to childhood, and for all the supposed problems with deterioration of magnetic tape, those that were recorded on metal or chrome cassettes to begin with (most of them, I'm pleased to say) have held up superbly. This morning, I had to push myself to do a 10-mile run (marathon training blah, blah, blah); given the outdoor heat, I chose to do it on the gym treadmill, and then calculated comfortable 9-minute miles would make a solid 90 minute run - i.e., the exact length of a perfect old mix tape. I dragged a cassette out of a recently unearthed suitcase full - this one recorded back in '87 I would guess - and was thrilled at how good (almost) everything still sounded.
I don't know that giving you the whole track listing will do anything but take up space here, but I want to mention some choice highlights that helped get me through an otherwise boring and tiring work-out in the hope that it may inspire some of you to dig back into your own record/CD/tape collections and hear a few of these songs again for yourself. . . 'Not What I Heard' by 3 Colors, 'Rip Her To Shreds' by Blondie, 'Trampolene' by Julian Cope', 'Don't Worry About The Government' by Talking Heads, 'Who Do You Want For Your Love?' by Icicle Works, 'Curtain Call' by Surreal Estate, 'Just Can't Get Enough' by Depeche Mode, 'Nobody's Diary' by Yazoo, 'Let My People Go-Go' by The Rainmakers, 'You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby' by The Smiths, 'Ceremony' by New Order (superb stereo separation - I WISH I had made the time to play this at the 24-Hr Party People party), 'Teenage Kicks' by The Undertones, 'Join Together' by The Who (back in those pre-CD reissue days, it took me over a decade to find this most beloved non-album Who song on vinyl), 'And In Every Home' by Elvis Costello, 'Best Friend' by The Beat (at one time my favorite song in the world), 'A Change Is Gonna Come' by Sam Cooke (token non-white track, though you should see how many pure soul cassettes I put together over the years in contrast), 'Atmosphere' by Joy Division, 'Radio Free Europe' by R.E.M., and to see me through the home stretch, 'Born To Run,' which is a superb song by anybody's standards, including Bruce Springsteen's, but continues to sound so incredibly powerful largely because it's one of rock music's greatest ever productions, utilising every emotional trick in the book to devastating effect. As that final verse kicked in on the headphones with Bruce's distanced shout '1-2-3-4', it caused my endorphins to kick in a level higher in appreciation, and I experienced some incredible wave of emotion rise up from deep inside and out through my sweaty pores, pausing just long enough on the skin to leave some moisture on the eyes. I love that music can still do that for me. Here's hoping you're having a similarly magestic time of it this weekend, whatever you're listening to.
PS: My Beck concert review is up on the Newsday web site.
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