Music Monday: “The Whole Love” (Review)

Ed. Note: This is the only post I’m putting up this week; I’m taking the rest of the week off due to the five-day weekend Hunter’s giving us for Rosh Hashanah (Happy New Year 5772, everybody!). The blog will return in its usual format next week, with another edition of the Thursday Trivia Podcast on Defunct Airlines. (Here’s the last podcast if you missed it.)

To be honest, I think Wilco (The Album) is vastly underrated. Sure, it’s not their best work – asking even a high-caliber band to produce something even on par with 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is asking far too much – but it was another “beautiful mess” type of amalgam of genres and styles, not unlike 2004’s Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born, that showed where the band was and where they are now; a State of the Band, if you will. It produced some great tunes in “Bull Black Nova,” “One Wing,” and “Everlasting Everything,” just to name a few, and ultimately proved as at least a partial rebound from the mostly same-y sounding Sky Blue Sky.

And yet it’s been trashed as one of the worst albums in Wilco’s oeuvre by fans and critics alike. The Whole Love represents a chance to right that ship – and mostly, it’s succeeded. The album begins with “Art of Almost,” a track that sounds, to my ears, like nothing else Wilco’s ever recorded:

Starting on that good note, the album continues with their rollicking second track (and first single off the album), “I Might.” Those two tracks serve as a good point and counterpoint as the album itself teeters between much-deserved happiness and classic Wilco-esque angst. The thing is, though, that some of the angsty tracks – “Sunloathe” and “Rising Red Lung,” particularly – aren’t particularly memorable (the same can and has been said for most of Sky Blue Sky). Luckily, this represents the minority.

There are some truly great songs on the album – “Born Alone” and “Standing O” have already seemed to find their niche in the Wilco catalogue, and the title track will invariably become fodder for encores for multitudes of concerts to come – but the two real masterpieces serve as bookends to the album, the aforementioned “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning,” a soft-spoken twelve-minute ballad that really reconfirms in my mind that Wilco is very good at final tracks on their albums.

In any case, The Whole Love is not and probably will never be their greatest work. Does it really have to be, though? It’s certainly their best album since A Ghost Is Born, and more importantly, it’s something different – a lot of different things in itself, really – that, like the much-maligned Wilco (The Album) is a sign of where they are and where they’ve been – and maybe a peek at where Wilco is about to go.

The Whole Love will be released tomorrow, but you can listen to it in its entirety on NPR Music.

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Required Listening: “Transfiguration of Vincent”

Transfiguration of Vincent

(Image via Wikipedia.)

Over the past four months, since he started showing up with frequency on my Wilco station on Pandora (probably the second-most guest appearances of any artist on that station to Ryan Adams, an excellent musician in his own right), I’ve been falling absolutely in love with the music of M. Ward, listening to first his most recent solo work, 2009’s Hold Time, and then his 2006 work Post-War (with a rollicking set at the 9:30 Club in Washington somewhere in between). (For the record, I find it unfortunate and a waste of his time for him to be recording a Christmas album with Zooey Deschanel as part of the vanilla, largely boring She & Him outfit instead of a new solo album or a new work as part of the supergroup Monsters of Folk.)

I had listened to some of Transfiguration of Vincent – notably “Vincent O’Brien” (named for the friend of Matt Ward’s he, in effect, eulogizes with this album) and “Helicopter,” along with Ward’s brilliant cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” – but hadn’t heard it in full when I saw it not three weeks ago at the Borders on Columbus Circle with best friend/Guest Week writer Kelly Cordray; I ended up getting it along with Andrew Bird’s Useless Creatures, his instrumental companion to 2009’s Noble Beast, and the soundtrack to The Book of Mormon, both of which I had heard before (the former on Spotify, the latter on NPR Music).

The album begins with the first of three instrumentals, “Transfiguration #1,” which I can imagine someone playing on a porch at night this time of year; the sounds of crickets abound alongside Ward’s guitar. Then comes “Vincent O’Brien,” which lyrically is an apt description of my life – Vincent sings, and dreams, and laughs when he’s sad, but he’s sad all the time, so he sings and dreams and laughs the whole night through (and in the daytime, too) – much like me, fighting oft loneliness with song, laughter, and general activity to at least salvage contentment. “Sad, Sad Song” is a musically spooky, lyrically morose Dr. Seuss-esque tale, with a man consulting a doctor, a Whip-poor-will, a killer whale, and finally his own mother, to answer the question, “What do you do when your true love leaves?” The entire first movement, if you will, of the album is relatively morose, but keeps some semblance – however false – of joy.

“Duet for Guitars #3,” the second instrumental track, represents the start of the second movement, a much happier time (but still with darkness), with “Outta My Head” combining a dreamlike state with beheadings (for the record, the opening riff sounds a bit like Wilco’s “Pot Kettle Black), and “Helicopter” being, melodically, the most upbeat track on the record. “Poor Boy, Minor Key” kind of reminds me of an old speakeasy, and “Fool Says” and “Get to the Table on Time” round out this movement.

The final movement of the album, in my view, begins with “A Voice at the End of the Line,” beginning a final, plaintive, mournful stretch of songs. “Dead Man” asks the one who is dying – possibly O’Brien – to not be mournful, an unfortunate twist on things, and then comes Ward’s deconstruction of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”; its change in tempo really notes the mortality present in the lyrics of the song (what with the dancing “for fear tonight is all”), but even then there’s still that shred of wistfulness, that what happened before could still persist.

Any shred of wistfulness is taken away, though, with the haunting final track, “Transfiguration #2,” repeating piano chords that is more or less the gut punch to what at least had been a journey of contentment, even when surrounded by sadness. It truly crystallizes what Ward wrote in the liner notes, a letter to his friend “d.j.”: “THIS RECORD WAS DESIGNED TO KEEP THE LOSS ALIVE AND BEHIND ME.” We all share that loss – not of O’Brien, at least not outside of some vestige by listening to this record, but of friends, of family, of neighbors, not just through death but in migration or simply an emotional falling-out – and, in my case, anyway, I can project it upon this album, to keep that sense of loss, and the realization of what I’ll invariably lose in the future, both in my mind and not. In that way, Ward performs not only a personal service for the loss of his friend, but a treatise on mortality – and a 45-minute walk-through of the memories that come along the way.

Review: Beirut’s “The Rip Tide”

To be honest, I’ve only been a fan of Zach Condon and Beirut for maybe a little over a month (though my friend, worldly do-gooder/absolutely gorgeous female Barbara Cvenič mentioned Beirut during my discussion with her about my Songs With Banjos playlist (though, for the record, I’ve never heard a banjo in a Beirut song)). Since listening to both 2006’s Gulag Orkestar and 2009’s double EP, March of the Zapotec: Music from the State of Oaxaca and Holland (the latter released under Condon’s pre-Beirut moniker, Realpeople), though, I’ve become a supporter of the band, and awaited their third full album, The Rip Tide, which was released earlier this week on Pompeii Records (a release moved up from August 30th after an Internet leak of the album).

As with Beirut’s other releases, The Rip Tide is about a half-hour of Balkan folk-infused indie rock. But this new album seems to be the continuation of an expansion of Condon’s repertoire as hinted at in Zapotec/Holland; rather than interpreting music of a certain land, like Eastern Europe on Gulag Orkestar or France on 2007’s The Flying Club Cup, or immersing himself in a land’s music and expanding upon it like with Zapotec/Holland (the first half of which notably and prominently included a Mexican funerary brass band, while the second half utilizes similar melodies in electronic rather than acoustic form), Condon synthesizes his years of musical experience and turns it into something all his own on The Rip Tide. The album begins with what seems to be an amalgam of his previous styles with Beirut and the electronica of the Holland disc, such as the opening tracks, “A Candle’s Fire” and “Santa Fe,” and the title track (the latter being, while pleasing, the track that sort of sticks out like a sore thumb, a bit like “Scenic World” on Gulag Orkestar). Songs like “Payne’s Bay” and “The Peacock” will find welcome ears from old fans of the band, as they have a much brassier (and for the latter track, ukelele-filled) sound similar to the band’s last few albums. The rest represent a totally new chapter in Beirut’s style – largely poppish piano driven ballads, with “East Harlem” and its B-side “Goshen” forming the heart of the album, with “Vagabond” and “Port of Call” at the bottom of the order.

In any case, The Rip Tide will be enjoyed by old and new fans alike and mark a milestone for Beirut’s progress as a band, reaffirming their status as one of the more inovative indie bands currently making music today. It’s an album worth multiple listens to truly enjoy the lyricism and songwriting (the latter having truly remarkable breadth) and genius musicianship of Condon and his band.

Free-Food-A-Palooza: Mexicue

You may remember back that at the Vendy Awards I sampled some of the food from Mexicue (along with basically everywhere else). It was a brisket slider with avocado, but since I was absolutely stuffed, I wasn’t really able to enjoy it, only finished half of it, and wasn’t really impressed.

Recently, though, Mexicue’s been in mind, as every time I leave Penn Station going down 7th Avenue I see a sign for a Mexicue brick-and-mortar location coming soon. That store’s finally opening this weekend (making it another food truck to open their own fixed location, joining the ranks of Calexico, Schnitzel & Things, and Souvlaki GR, which beat out Mexicue for Rookie of the Year at the Vendys last year) , but they had a special “friends and family” pre-opening today, and I was lucky enough to have a look inside the new space and sample some more free grub.

I got the Alabama BBQ Chicken taco (with romaine lettuce, roasted poblano chilis, and cotija cheese) and the Burnt Ends Chili slider (with pickled jalapenos and a cilantro lime sauce), and boy, did my opinion of Mexicue do a 180 after today. The chicken was a bit dry (the fact that they use two corn tortillas instead of one to wrap it didn’t help as it made the taco even thicker), but the taste was certainly there, with the delayed kick from the poblanos really sealing the deal. Instead of just pouring on the heat, this taco had a subtle spiciness – first I was hit with the taste of the chicken sprinkled with the cotija, and then the poblanos came in – which was its saving grace.

The slider, on the other hand, may be a case of love at first bite. The creamy cilantro lime sauce and the chili (made of brisket and ground beef – mmmmm) meshed absolutely perfectly. I didn’t especially realize that the pickled jalapenos were jalapenos (I just thought they were pickled cucumbers) until I re-read the menu – I thought that the kick was coming from the sauce – but that is a nice touch.

The meal probably would’ve totaled around $9, but I have a feeling I’ll be back for more of Mexicue, especially their sliders.

Mexicue’s restaurant is located at 270 7th Avenue, between 29th and 30th Streets, with apparently a second location on the way at 106 Forsyth Street in Chinatown; the truck roves about regularly, and you can track them on Twitter here.

Also, while more and more food trucks have found their footing in the form of physical restaurants, trucks are being pushed out of Midtown. Show your support for food trucks by going here and signing this petition.

I Eat a Sandwich: Melt Shop

(Ed. Note: This post has ended up kind of a companion piece to this week’s installment of Ted Berg’s Sandwich of the Week posts, which along with Wait Wait‘s Sandwich Monday are really the two sandwich features you absolutely need to read. I hope I live up to their standard.)

So on Friday, with nothing much to eat for lunch aside from some leftover broccoli, I decided to hit the brand-new Midtown East sandwichery, the Melt Shop. Located literally in a hole in the wall in the plaza of the Citicorp Center on Lexington and 53rd, the Melt Shop specializes in grilled cheese, and since I hadn’t had a grilled cheese sandwich in a while, I ate there.

What I Ate: Three Cheese Melt: Gruyere, Fontina, and goat cheese with roasted tomatoes on sourdough bread, at the Melt Shop (601 Lexington Avenue).

(By the way, it seems I accomplished what Ted couldn’t this week – provide a vegetarian sandwich to review. To which I say, MUAHAHAHAHA.)

What It Looked Like:

The Story Behind the Sandwich:

The line at the Melt Shop is incredibly, possibly excessively long. I cite two reasons for this: first, it’s new and people are wondering what the hype’s all about; second, the folks in that building have been so terribly served by corporate salad bars and Dunkin’ Donuts (no offense to Dunkin’, but having lunch there is still just plain silly) that when an affordable gourmet establishment comes around they flock to it like bees to nectar. In any case, I ended up waiting about 25 minutes just to order the sandwich – not a terrible thing considering unlike basically everyone on that line, I am a college student and have for all intents and purposes a three hour, twenty minute lunch break between my two Friday classes – and another 5 minutes or so after ordering to pick it up. While on the line the staff handed out ice cream sandwiches, which was a nice touch – not to mention pretty damn good ice cream sandwiches. But I wasn’t here for sandwiches of the dessert variety, I was there for sandwiches of the lunch variety.

(Related – does the Melt Shop really need to put everybody’s sandwich box in a huge bag with like three thousand napkins? That just seems wasteful. I kept the bag and the napkins (the latter of which coming in handy for my late dinner with Danielle and Kelly before the midnight showing of The Room to which we went), but I doubt others do the same.)

What It Tastes Like: It has a ridiculously strong cheesy flavor, without being too salty. (It was so strong a flavor that for about two hours afterwards, everything around me smelled like cheese – I seriously had to wash my hands and have a snack when I got back to Hunter to get the smell of cheese off my hands and mouth – the latter a sort of futile effort ’cause the Sun Chips I had had cheddar cheese powder in them.) The sourdough provides the perfect bread here – toasted very well, very crunchy. I’m not the biggest fan of putting tomatoes in grilled cheese – I’m more of a purist – but the folks at Melt Shop did so and did so with aplomb, mixing well with the cheese and oddly tasting almost bacon-ey (though that might have been just my imagination/paranoia of not keeping at least relatively Kosher).

Is It Worth It?: I paid about $10 for this sandwich and an Arnold Palmer (not counting the free chunk of ice cream sandwich). But it’s a damn good sandwich, and I say it’s worth that price. I don’t think it’s worth spending that much time on the line though – luckily, they’ll be opening up on weekends in the next week or so, so try to make a trip then. I’m rating this one 83/100 and a spot in my sandwich rotation with Subway sandwiches and the chicken schnitzel sandwich from Schnitzel and Things.

Free-Food-A-Palooza: 16 Handles

The area around St. Marks Place between 3rd and 4th Avenues is kind of a hotbed of frozen yogurt (pun most definitely intended). And while I’m more partial to Yogurt Station (39 cents an ounce for self-serve fro-yo!), I couldn’t pass up a Tenka deal for 16 Handles (a deal that originally sold out in one day before they added more redemptionsto be fair, though, it was a hot day) for a free small frozen yogurt.

What I Got: Half chocolate, half banana, with kiwi, M&M’s, and rainbow sprinkles.

What It Looks Like:

How It Tastes: For the chocolate, it’s pretty damn great – sugary but not too much, enough chocolatey flavor, obviously complemented well with the M&M’s and sprinkles. The kiwis are nice and tart and they clash well with the chocolate (I get the kiwis ’cause I don’t usually eat kiwis and ’cause I’m weird). The banana fro-yo, on the other hand, tasted kinda artificial – it didn’t really feel like there was even any sort of essence of banana in there. If I come back (and, due to the aforementioned allegiances, I probably won’t), I’ll stay away from the banana and get the chocolate along with something else.

Technology Doodad: Favorite iOS Apps

Since I got my iPod touch sometime in February, I’ve really been using it quite a bit. It’s great for listening to music and podcasts (which I can also download on the fly), for checking e-mail, for reading news, and for updating the social networks I’m a part of (including this here blog thanks to the WordPress app). While I use quite a few, here are my favorite apps, the ones I use most often (for the record, this will all be free apps):

Productivity Apps

Dropbox: For a while I wondered what the big deal was about Dropbox – it’s constantly lauded over on Lifehacker (which has a great new video podcast, in case you didn’t know), but it’s smaller in space compared to my original cloud storage service of choice, Windows Live SkyDrive.The big things about Dropbox, though, are twofold: first, you’re able to sync files between computers (which is great for when I have to print things on my netbookmy MacBook lacks the drivers for my printer, for whatever reason), and second, this app, which is absolutely fantastic for viewing files (including offline by placing them in favorites), and to a lesser degree works well for music streaming (I have Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in my Dropbox folder, largely so I can listen to it on my netbook).

Plaintext: For a while I wondered what the big deal was about Evernote – it’s constantly lauded over on Lifehacker, but I didn’t understand the appeal. And frankly, after using Plaintext, I still don’t. It’s a very simple text app – great for typing out notes like shopping lists or little ideas – but where it shines is in its syncing to Dropbox. Not only does this allow me to access what I type in this app on my computer, but it allows me to write .txt files and place them in the PlainText folder in Dropbox so it will appear on my iPod. Continue reading

Review: Peter Pan Bakery

So, on Saturday, Danielle and I went to Brooklyn for a chamber music concert on a barge (which was great, for the record). And then we went to Peter Pan Bakery for doughnuts. I had heard about the donuts on multiple occasions on “America’s Best Donuts” slide-shows, and from Tina Fey.

And boy, are they awesome. Tina Fey was right. The red velvet donut I ate was flavorful, the chocolate donut was fluffy but not too light, and they were all large and cakey (I’m stealing Danielle’s word here). So, they’re good for three reasons: they’re big; they’re tasty; and they’re cheap.

Review: “Kiner’s Korner Revisited”

Ralph Kiner

Ralph in his younger Pirates Days. Image via Wikipedia.

Ralph Kiner is one of the preeminent figures of the game of baseball as we know it today. He’s an absolute ambassador for the game. A great player (who hit over 350 home runs in his career on his way to making the Hall of Fame in 1974), a lovable broadcaster alongside Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson for many years for the Mets (and still calls some games with Gary, Keith and Ron on SNY and PIX11 from time to time, and those times are just treats), and just an awesome storyteller, Ralph has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball.

And now this encyclopedic knowledge and stories are being put to use on a new SNY.tv miniseries, Kiner’s Korner Revisited. Taken from old clips from the original Kiner’s Korner postgame show (in which Kiner would  interview a member of one of the two teams at Shea), Kiner – along with writer for TedQuarters and occasional Random Musings reader Ted Berg – tells stories regarding these wonderful classic clips (of which very, very few remain).

And I must say, after seeing the first episode from Tuesday, man is it great. Ted’s a pretty good interviewer to begin with, but he’s even better when he’s just stepping aside for a master storyteller like Kiner to do the work. As a Mets fan, I’m so glad to see the team looking back on its history – with both this and Mets Yearbooks, which I wrote about before and is also pretty freakin’ sick.

Watch the first episode – featuring a clip of an interview from Pete Rose and stories about player-managers and Shoeless Joe Jackson – here.

Review: Shake Shack vs. 500 Degrees

New Yorkers are pretty blessed with a freakin’ amazing upscale burger joint in the Shake Shack. Spread across 4 locations in Manhattan (the original at Madison Square Park, my favorite location on the Upper West Side at 77th Street, and two new locations in the Theatre District at 44th Street and – finally! – on the Upper East Side at 86th Street), the Citi Field kiosk in Queens, and stores in Miami and Saratoga Racetrack, Shake Shack provides yummy, top-notch burgers, fries, and shakes at an affordable price. It’s a great way to sample some of the best of New York’s eats.

Philadelphia, I found out, had a similar place in their Rittenhouse Square section. Philadelphians were forced to settle for the Washington, DC transplant, Five Guys (which since has come to New York, and while I haven’t had a Five Guys burger yet, I hear it’s pretty good) until the debut of the burger at Rittenhouse Square restaurant Rouge. With onions, Gruyere cheese, and pommes frites on the side, it became a Philly hit, earning the title of Best Burger in Philadelphia Magazine’s Best of Philly awards.

It led to Rouge owner Matthew Levin, sensing the upscale burger joint rising in popularity, to spin off the burger into a new store, 500° (pronounced “five hundred degrees”, I assume for how much the burger is heated when well done). Having loved my experiences with Shake Shack (five so far), I decided to make the ten-or-so-block trek from the Rosenbach Library and Museum (which is another post) to 500° to compare. Continue reading