Tom Waits, “Bad as Me”

Tom Waits, "Bad as Me" (courtesy Paste)

Tom Waits, "Bad as Me" (courtesy Paste)

I’m hardly the unbiased party to review a new Tom Waits. I happen to love his gritty, carny, meandering, noisy, maudlin sound. And I know from personal experience (and many mix CDs) it’s a taste that people love or hate.

This is Waits’ 17th album, and I’d say it collects the highlights of the types of sounds he has been working with over the last few albums. “Talking at the Same Time” is a lonesome, almost Latino barroom tune sung in an impressive falsetto.  Even his tendencies for loud and brash noises seem restrained and even refined on the title track.

In the interview I heard with him (on Terry Gross, ahem) he spoke of his and wife/producer Kathleen Brennan’s desire to capture a vintage soundscape. And there’s a snap and crackle to the music like make it sound like timeless Tom Waits. And that’s just about perfect for me.

Want more?

Watch the video for “Satisfied” here (directed by Jesse Dylan… yep, one of those Dylans).

Rules of Civility

I frequently wonder about first-time novelists who had alternate careers. According to his bio, he studied English at Stanford, then went on to become a principle at an investment firm in New York.

This gives me a complex. How many other of my fellow commuters, 9-to-5ers, coworkers, have such a rich and varied novel brewing within them?

Forgive the digression. I just find it astounding that someone who was working somewhere else could have the time and energy to produce a first novel as polished as Rules of Civility.

It’s a New York story, through and through: girl grows up in Russian Brooklyn in the 1920s and 1930s, then moves to a Manhattan boardinghouse and begins to haunt various Village bars with her roommate, a vivacious, ambitious woman named Eve. On New Year’s Eve in 1937 they meet a monied, WASPy perfect gentleman who seemingly falls for both of them – until a tragic accident forces priorities to shift.

Wow, that made it seem like a soap opera. There is is much more character development, and meditations on class and personal drive and how we deceive ourselves in doing what we think is right.

This quote, for example:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. …[This] risk should not be treated lightly. One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements (128).

The title comes from a pamphlet written by George Washington – a collection of 110 rules by which to live simply and decently. The book manages to evoke a glamorous lifestyle of New York in the 1930s and 1940s but also how the choices one makes to get there ripple out.

Want more?

Rules of Civility on NPR.

Read Washington’s list here.

James Blake (9/21/11) & Bon Iver (9/22/11)


James Blake, Great American Music Hall (9/21/11)

I had some awesome back to back concert experiences recently: James Blake at the Fillmore (9/21/11) and Bon Iver at the Greek (9/22/11).

Both artists have similar artistic temperaments,  specializing in songs that tug on your heart’s memory, but with different musical styles: James Blake relies on computer-based sounds, while Bon Iver has a more organic, woodsy approach.

At the James Blake show, opener Teengirl Fantasy let me experience some true dubstep (which I totally had to look up, old person that I am – it’s basically electronic dance music from London). They made LOUD and POWERFUL sounds come from their computers and drum sets, and even if it was entirely my scene, it was a good preview for what came next.

Blake is a rather unassuming presence – his striped shirt and sideways (Bieber?) hair make him seem like a recovering art student. But his voice? Even as he proclaimed to be sick, it hit the highs and held the lightness of an Antony.

The highlights for me were “To Care (Like You)” and “Limit To Your Love,” during which Blake recorded live samples that he looped, including the whoops from the crowd. In between the intense light show and the wall of noise, it was a show that really swept me away.

Bon Iver at the Greek was a different story. We got there too late for the opener, and it was at the Greek, which is outdoors and huge (also, trivia: where I had my English graduation). It was hard to find a seat, as the picture below attests.

Justin Vernon, the man behind the band, came to (relative, indie music status) fame with 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Legend quickly established that he wrote it after a devastating heartbreak in a cabin in Wisconsin. Somehow the music-listening public erupted in sympathy and understanding.

With this year’s Bon Iver, Vernon’s sound became bigger, and this was evident by how big his touring band is. I love the epic, Peter-Gabriel-Genesis “Holocene” and “Flume.” Having the entire auditorium erupt in the encore “Skinny Love” was awesome, but I do feel sad that I missed the time when I would have seen this talented artist on a smaller stage.

Bon Iver @ Greek Theatre (9/22/11)

Want more?

Check out the collaboration between James Blake and Bon Iver, “Fall Creek Boys Choir”!

Pickathon (8/5/11-8/7/11)

I first heard of Pickathon from listening to the Roadhouse over on KEXP. It’s a festival concert in Happy Valley, Oregon, held in on Pendarvis Farm. The line-up is mostly Americana roots acts, some more on the indie-rock end and some on the authentic twang end.

Mad and KO and I road-tripped from our happy Bay Area home to Happy Valley (with some stops at the awe-some Oregon dunes and Portland). The concert is held actually right outside of Portland, on a huge private farm. Although we knew it was camping, none of us really realized how much HIKING we would have to do (would I have brought four pairs of shoes? Probably not). There was some huffing and puffing as we got all over our stuff to a campsite.

Once we did, we got to explore the very cool kite-like tents over the main stages (seriously, half of my photos are of the tents). There were two main stages, with other scattered in barns and in the forest. The Woods Stage, located deep in the woods, was the best venue. There’s nothing like hearing a band playing good music with sunshine creeping through the trees.

Another awesome thing about Pickathon? The concert is totally sustainable. You could either bring your own plates and cutlery, or you could rent some for $10 (and keep the set for $5). The food was really tasty – I had a biscuit that knocked my socks off. I would say that there’s really no need to bring any camping gear as the prices are all pretty low. And unlike some concerts, water is free and plentiful.

So what about the music? I came away with some new bands that I loved. The Fruit Bats totally nailed it with fun indie-folk at the Woods Stage. The Pine Leaf Boys were right after, and I discovered zydeco is really, really fun live. Pokey Lafarge is just the right mix of kitsch and homage to “riverboat soul music.” Alela Diane‘s voice with her band, The Wild Divine, was just as gorgeous as on her albums. I fell asleep during Bill Callahan’s set, but his epic voice reached all the way to our tent.

All in all, a super-fun experience, and a welcome, low-key alternative to the festival scene.

Want more? 

Check out the Pickathon website to see about 2012. And look at my photos below!

Pickathon, main stage

Pokey Lafarge (8/6/11)

Sonny and the Sunsets (8/6/11)

Woods stage (8/6/11)

Fruitbats (8/6/11)

The Pine Leaf Boys (8/6/11)

Alela Diane and the Wild Divine (8/7/11)

Wye Oak (8/7/11)

Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton, courtesy

Hype is huge in the food world. New restaurants will float or flounder based on diners’ need to try the Next Big Thing. What’s new and in is not always what is good (think of how much upscale comfort food you’ve eaten in the last few months) but somehow impossible to avoid.

So trying to get away from the hype – that’s my excuse for not reading Gabrielle Hamilton’s much-lauded, delicious, solidly satisfying book Blood, Bones & Butter (“Magnificent. Simply the best book by a chef ever. Ever.” – Anthony Bourdain).

But this book! I simply adored it. I ravished it. I consumed it. It will make you hungry for food and more good writing.

Hamilton begins her book with a description of a family dinner party. It’s the 1970s in rural Pennsylvania, and her set designer father and glamorous French mother host a lamb roast outside for dozens of friends. The descriptions – dinner slowly cooking outside, candles and a fire pit illuminating the darkness, the bohemian sensibility – are evocative reminders of how food works with memory to create something more far more rich and complicated than just what we consume to survive.

Shortly after the magic of the barbeques, Hamilton’s parents split up. Her brothers and sisters, all older, scatter. She writes about the period, later, reflecting with her sister:

We have had long incredulous conversations with each other about our often starkly different experiences of the very same family. … There are only five years between us, but five years is enough time for the geography and topography of a family to change dramatically, for ravines to form, trees to upend, streams to run dry (156).

She ended up working prep in a kitchen, then as a waitress and for a catering company. It’s through a combination of hard work and some luck that she ends up chef and owner of Prune in New York.

Hamilton’s work with food and appreciation of good, simple ingredients is evident, but we’re able to almost taste everything with her because she is such a strong writer. Take this description of visiting her husband’s family estate in Italy, where his mother cooks every meal:

Pine nuts in the shell that fall out of the tree in the courtyard of her youngest sons’s summer house–so piney they taste almost metholated; her own orages, their juice squeezed over ice crushed in a dish towel with a mallet for a midday snack fo the kids; figs that are juicy and cool when picked at ten a.m., warm and jammy at four p.m. Burratta and buffalo mozzarella and giuncata- the fresh cow’s milk cheese that sits in giuncata (rush) baskets that impart its flavor and its name-were brought to the hourse by the local man who makes them–still warm!–the first time I tried them (172).

Blood, Bones & Butter is nothing but satisfying, and inspires me not only to get in the kitchen, but to write as well. I’d say one of the best books I’ve read about food, and definitely one of the finest books of 2011.

Want more?

She has written a recipe series on the NYT, including day-old roast chicken and butter cake!

She cooks with Mark Bittman!

She gives her favorite places to eat in New York!

She’s interviewed at Epicurious!



Sherlock (via

Two questions may occur to you while surveying the new BBC production of Sherlock:

1. Did we really need another Sir A. C. Doyle supersleuth adaptation?

2. How does every BBC miniseries I see manage to be so bloody good?

The answer to #1  is quite dependent on #2. Because the 2010 series does manage to breathe fresh air into the cliche of the know-it-all-detective. First off, he is played by the divinely named Benedict Cumberbatch, who has the intense eyes and stare of a more twitchy Cillian Murphy.

Watson, as any purveyor of pop culture knows, has his bowler hat filled by Martin Freeman, the UK’s Office‘s Jim, only he was called Tim. Instead of smirking his way through scenes, Watson is introduced with a scowl and a limp, fresh of a tour in the Middle East as an army doctor. He meets Holmes through a mutual police friend, they become unlikely roommates at 221B Baker Street, and zaniness ensues (of a sort)!

There are only three episodes in the first season, so each are about movie-length. The thing about having a single mystery per episode is, as with Scooby-Doo, you know that the villain will be introduced at some point in the storyline. So some of the plot leaps get quite convoluted indeed.

But there’s so much to make up for it. Holmes and Watson have great chemistry, especially for, as far as I can tell, the producers are keeping us guessing as to Holmes’ sexuality. There’s none of the Tarantino-esque bromance found in the Robert Downey Jr.-Jude Law variety. This is a slick, modern incarnation, with sinister text messages and designer sneakers.  I’d say he makes a far better Holmes than Hugh Laurie as House (what, you didn’t realize that was a Holmes, too?) – we Americans give Laurie an award every year because we are so surprised he’s actually British. Sherlock is a bit more fun, too, with Cumberbatch is as slippery as an eel as he whips around London in his topcoat, with Freeman trailing behind. The second season is filming now, and should be available in Britain by the end of 2011.

Want more? 

The first season is on Watch Instantly over on Netflix.

Also, both actors will be featured in the Hobbit!




Labyrinth, courtesy Wikipedia

As if birthdays themselves don’t make you feel old, Labyrinth is 25 years old this week. I believe it has gone down in history for introducing young kids to David Bowie’s music (and his incredibly tight pants).

Labyrinth is one of those delightful mid-80s movies that combines live action actors with Muppets. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit: I love muppets. Not just of the Miss Piggy variety, but all flavors coming from Jim Henson’s creature factory. And boy, does the movie come through with the muppets.

Storywise, David Bowie plays the King of the Goblins, who captures Jennifer Connolly’s baby brother when she, a put-upon teenager, wishes him to be spirited away. She then must travel to Goblin land to rescue her brother, teaming with Muppets great, small, and gross, in the process learning some about friendship and growing up (aw!).

Watching it as an adult, you realize that Connolly, at sixteen, looks like a Renaissance beauty, and Bowie, in his natural predatory state, circles her like a hungry fox.  Is it slightly creepy? Yes. Can this be overlooked? Oddly, also yes.

Also as an adult you wonder: why did David Bowie decide to dress up like an elf attending a disco in a kids’ movie? Where was his career? Did he consider this an extension of Ziggy? These are not important questions; what is important is that it happened. And it may be his finest role on film.

Because what really blows the movie out of the water is the music, composed and performed by DB of course. I would be eternally pleased if every jukebox had a copy of “Magic Dance.” The rest of the songs aren’t too shabby either.

It’s one of those childhood movies that sticks with you. And yet it’s probably best not to watch it again until you’re showing another youngster, so as not to burst that happy bubble. Happy 25, Labyrinth!

Want more?
You MUST watch “Magic Dance:”

And the Flight of the Conchords’ take on Labyrinth-era Bowie is pretty hilarious:

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Annoying water hyacinth

You could hardly call me a horticulturalist. Certainly I enjoy nature, but I have killed more basil plants than should be legal.

But this doesn’t stop me from being an enthusiastic, if ignorant, fan. After 8 years in the Bay, I finally made it to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (it’s the ornate white building that looks like a cross between a mosque and a meringue).

I went to check out  a specific exhibit: Wicked Plants: Botanical Rogues and Assassins, based on the book of the same name by Amy Stewart.

The conservatory was quite small, and the exhibit was even smaller. Yet each plant had a detailed description, plucked from the book. You’ll find out fascinating facts like:

[The water hyacinth] is so horrible it has earned its own Guinness World Record as the world’s worst aquatic weed.

Reading the book was more on the facts-side than I would have wished, but I still learned fascinating tidbits like:

Quinine is the medication that saved the world from malaria, and its addition to tonic water gave rise ot that class summer drink, the gin and tonic. (This proved to be an easy way for British colonists in India to take a mild does of their medicine).

The whole feel of the show was like your creepy aunt’s Victorian garden: Gothic, romantic, and might just kill you.

Want more?

The exhibit runs until October 30! Check out more pictures below.


Wicked Plants, but oh-so-lovely


Nasty buggers

Peace lilies

Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan

Continuing with celebrity memoir week, I thought I’d share some impressions about Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Vol. 1, a book that I bought when it first came out, then proceeded to never read completely until a recent long plane ride. Chronicles Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan (courtesy Tower)

Throughout his career, Bob Dylan has proven himself extremely adept at refusing to take responsibility for his public image. He lies in interviews, purposefully misdirects, and generally has a palpable dislike for anyone, fan or journalist, who believes that he or she is “owed” a piece of him. In short, you must read Chronicles with a grain of salt the size of the Chrysler Building.

That being said, Dylan is a fine writer, at times both lyrical and direct. He divides the book into five parts: his early days as a folk singer in New York City, his attempt at family life in the late 1960s and early 1970s on a farm in Woodstock, and his later touring years in the 1980s.

Young Dylan was famously inspired by the folk singer Woody Guthrie. He tracked the dying artist down to a hospital in New Jersey, where he would visit him in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Reflecting on his younger self, Dylan recognizes the desire to do something different musically, to move beyond the tame folk resurgence to a movement with more teeth. He describes the musical, literary, and social influences that inspired his art, but:

The whole city was dangling in front of my nose. I had a vivid idea of where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about. It was awfully close.

Frustratingly, the book skips straight over his most interesting recordings, including Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. The next section picks up with an unhappy Dylan in the late 1960s, holed up in a farm in Woodstock. He’s trying to escape the responsibilities lingering from his early roots as a protest singer, actively recoiling from being any voice of a generation. The emotion behind this section rings true and even current.

The third and fourth sections might be the most tantalizing, as you glimpse his mid-career struggles. Dylan writes of his (relatively) recent past recording the album Oh Mercy (1989). He describes his frustrations with touring and a hand injury:

The previous ten years had left me whitewashed and wasted out professionally. Many times I’d come near the stage before a show and would catch myself thinking that I wasn’t keeping my word with myself. What that word was, I couldn’t exactly remember, but I knew it was back there somewhere.

How much is true? Does it matter? You’re a fan before you pick up Chronicles, not after. And if you are, it may make you appreciate the man even more.

Want more?
I created a Youtube playlist of songs Dylan spoke highly of in Chronicle: Volume 1. Listen and enjoy!

The Tiger’s Wife

The Tiger's Wife

There is much quiet beauty as well as power in Téa Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife. It’s a novel that creeps up on you and make you believe in the mythology it has created.

The story follows a young doctor in an unnamed, war-ravaged Eastern European country. She must pick up her dead grandfather’s belongings in a remote town. At the same time, we learn of the time a tiger came to her grandfather’s town when he was a young boy, and the kindred affiliation that grew between the tiger and a young mute woman in the village.

By not specifying the country, Obreht frees the events of her book to represent any area’s wreckage from years of conflict. The names of her characters and places are like words on the tip of your tongue: yes, you can picture them, but where would they be from again? Yet she manages to invoke very specific details: isolated patio chairs, abandoned zoos, lean cats roaming the streets.

I think it’s the use of these details that makes The Tiger’s Wife‘s magic realism a far more lucid affair than, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These are real people, butchers and doctors, who come across lonely tigers and deathless men – all of which make just as much sense as the random acts of violence around them.

Much has been made of Obreht’s age. I recommended the book to a coworker, adding, “And she’s my age! Makes me wonder what I’ve been doing with my life.” My coworker wisely responded, “But she grew up in Yugoslavia. I’d say she’s lived several lives already.” And it’s true  that her storytelling is so confident, so poised that I keep wanting to use book jacket words like “luminous” and “candescent.” Really a remarkable book for anyone’s career. Highly recommended.

Want more?

Obreht was the youngest on the New Yorker’s 20 Under Forty. Here’s a PBS interview with her.