Friday, May 15, 2015

A Big Boy's Guide to an Unscheduled Staycation

It is a rarity that I have time off that is not scheduled down to the minute. We are either seeing family in other states or on some great adventure chasing a band that refused to come to St. Louis. But, since I am in the "use it or lose it" club with my vacation, when Death Cab for Cutie and the Damnwells decided to grace St. Louis with their presence (both concerts were amazing, by the way), I opted to use some time, as to not force this 40 year old body to greet the pillow at 1 am only to depart its comfort four hours later. So, I took Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday off. What to do...What. To. Do?

EAT! Of course.

This was not intended; it was unplanned, unscheduled, if you will, but I made a post on Wednesday that forced me into three mornings of diner deliciousness. I was just heading back from letting a friend borrow a guitar for a recording session, and I realized I'd be passing by Tiffany's Diner, which I had always wanted to check out. So, I did. 


I have had an obsession with diners as long as I can remember, particularly counter tops. As a listener, I love bellying up to a counter and just opening my ears. Inevitably the blue collar guy will bitch about the economy, as the older flirt will hit on the waitress, and the regulars will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about how much it sucks to get old. Each place that I went had similar characters, all were wonderful and crazy. They were human, and I loved them for it, but let's get to the food. 

Tiffay's is what I would call serviceable. There was nothing inspiring about the food, nothing that made me want to tell everyone to check it out, but that is not to say it was bad. It was what it was, diner food on the cheap. I ordered up a bacon omelette with some hash browns and a small order of biscuits and gravy. The biscuits emerged from a container with no treatment done before being sliced and covered in gravy. The gravy was decent, but my wife has spoiled me. Yes, my vegan wife makes the best damn biscuits and gravy. Sure they are vegan, but taste is taste, and they taste amazing, so I say thank you may I have another. The eggs at Tiffany's were good, thinly spread across the griddle, yet the cook managed to keep them somewhat loose, allowing the omelette to have moistness which my toast appreciated. The hash browns were tasty, nice texture with enough browning. Where they lost me was the American Cheese. I know there is probably some hipster nostalgia associated with American Cheese, but I hate that shit. I ate it A LOT as a kid, and if I never have to eat it again, I'll be okay with that. Unfortunately, everything just seemed to lack seasoning, but it was nothing that a good splash of hot sauce couldn't fix. 


Next up was Burkemper's Family Restaurant probably a mile from my house, yet I had never been there. I am an idiot. Without reservation, Burkemper's is the place I would recommend the most. Why? Seasoning. It all tasted SO GOOD. I could not put my fork down. I went with the Country Fried Steak, something I almost never order, but I heard they are known for their broasted chicken, so I thought some of that magic may spill over into the Country Fried Steak. I was correct. It was thin and beautifully seasoned. The bite was easy and the breading offered a nice crunch to it. The over hard eggs were fine. I wasn't a fan of using the ring mold to cook them. I prefer mine to be a bit thinner, so the edges crisp, but that could be a lingo thing. Maybe if I had ordered fried they would have come out that way. I can't think of anything that stood out about the hash browns, but I didn't have any complaints. While my wife's biscuits are still better (yes I said it, and I know where your mind went...those too), I did like theirs, and I LOVED their gravy. I believe they used sausage and bacon, and that made all the different. It was the perfect consistency and tasted like being spoon fed heaven from the angels. 


Friday's diner experience came at the recommendation of THE IronStef. She's doing a series called Overbites, all about the options in Overland, so she sent me to George's Diner, and I am glad I went. George's was all ambience, a weathered L shaped counter with a very sassy cook taking orders and slinging hash. White board walls with menu items written on them, and a sign instructing us to never trust a thin cook. I ordered up Sandy's Stack, a monstrosity of biscuits, hash browns, bacon, sausage, and eggs to order - mine were over medium. The bacon was perfectly cooked; the eggs were on the verge of over easy, but they were thick enough in parts to give me the bite I was looking for; biscuits were treated on the griddle before beginning the stack, which definitely improved the overall flavor of the dish; the sausage patties had good consistency, but weren't very flavorful - maybe I'm just used to vegan sausage now :-/; and the hash browns were my favorite of the three diners. They had a really unique texture. I think they may have been shorter shreds, so they were a bit softer which worked in the Stack. The gravy? Well, it was thick and was too starchy for me to love it. Not bad, but I left some on my plate. I damn near licked my plate at Burkermper's to make sure I got it all. Still, the combination was incredible, and I'll be back for sure. 


While I cannot recommend any of these locations as a daily eatery, for fear all of you will die of heart attacks. I will say, if you are looking for a counter to belly up to on that random day off, make it a point to visit a local mom-n-pop diner. I doubt you'll be disappointed with the experience or the food. 



Saturday, January 3, 2015

Top 10 CDs 2014




The miraculous happened in 2014. Not only did Spoon release a new CD, some four years after their last release, but I got to see them do it live, and not just a YouTube video or a rerun of their Austin City Limits performance, but I physically sat/stood in front of them at the Pageant as they tore through everything I have ever wanted to hear them do live. They were one of the bands still on the will-travel-for list because I had never seen them before. They did not disappoint. While this is a Top Ten CD list, those that have been reading my yearly list, know that a band’s ability to pull it off live factors into my rankings. This live performance probably pushed Spoon into the 10th spot. 2014 was ripe with great releases. There were so many albums that spent time on this list, but when I sat down to decide on the final 10, the infectious grooves of “Inside Out,” “Knock Knock Knock,” and “Outlier” paired with the haunting atmospherics hidden throughout They Want My Soul and the strength of their live show edged out the others.  




When I review past Top 10s and this one, I am a bit surprised by how many "big" bands made it on my 2014 list. Not that I shy away from loving popular music, but it doesn’t always appeal to me. Whatever it is that makes it palatable for the masses tends to turn me off, but Coldplay has managed to defy that. With the exception of X&Y and Viva La Vida, they have always hit me where it counts. I supposed that is the strength of sincere music. From the first notes of Ghost Stories I was smitten: nice down beats that keep the body as interested as the ears; a renewed exploration of synthesizers; and the same calming vocals that have had us swooning for years. Of the CDs on the list, Ghost Stories probably got played more than any other CD when the lights got turned off. It just provides the perfect tapestry from which to hang your dreams.   



This list was all but finalized when my world was rocked. Damien Rice was dropping new music. DAMIEN. RICE. Eight years after 9. Eight long, sad years. And there he was. As soon as I heard the news, I knew someone was getting bumped (apologies to Warpaint). I cannot help it. I love him. While I cling to my Italian heritage like a joey clings to his mother, there is a quadrant of Irish in me that comes out when I open my mouth to sing and draws me to the likes of Damien Rice and Glen Hansard. I feel the words they sing, and that means everything to me. My Favourite Faded Fantasy features everything we’ve come to love from Rice: explosive and unexpected instrumentation, powerful vocals, accessible lyrics, and an instant connection, like he is speaking to every listener, directly. Of the eight songs, only one is under 5 minutes; one is 9:33, one is 8:09, and two are over 6 minutes. As a singer/songwriter on the other side of incessant reviews complaining about the length of my songs, I fully respect that he stuck it out and snubbed radio. Yep, not going to get a lot of the airplay that is reserved for A.D.D. stories clocking in at 210 seconds, but he doesn’t give a shit, and neither do I. 



I am as surprised as anyone to see this on here. I mean this dude is UBER popular. He is probably responsible for every Prom mistake made in 2014 and will no doubt cause 67% of all virginities lost, but I cannot stop listening to his music. While juvenile on the surface with tales of drinking and smoking out, there is a soul there that is pure and wants to be protected…a soul that wants to fall in love. There are some throwaways on this disc, the bumpy dance numbers that reek of club perfume and spilt lemon drops, but there are also some gems: “One,” “I’m a Mess,” “Photograph,” “Tenerife Sea,” “Thinking Out Loud,” and “Even My Dad Does Sometimes” are worth the price of the full length. Of the CDs on the list, X got the most play in my car. It’s just a great feel-good disc, tons of grooves to jam out to and plenty of earnest lyrics to get your brain spinning and your heart hurting. 



There are a few things that come with being a singer/songwriter, particularly one that performs solo and acoustic: 1) If you are anywhere near a tenor, you will be compared to Tracy Chapman, and they don’t give a fuck that she is a girl. 2) People will tell you that you sound like James Taylor, even though your smoky howl sounds nothing like the pristine perfect pitch that James offers. 3) You will learn to love the Indigo Girls because they are the best at doing what it is that you want to do. Amy Ray, the husky-voiced half of the duo dropped the best damn country album that Nashville will never play because they have completely lost touch with what country really is, favoring rap with a pedal steel or some other bastardization of the genre. Goodnight Tender is good from start to finish. It has the best pedal steel phrases; features a host of guest musicians; offers fantastic harmonies; and is filled with great stories.  


                                                  

Probably the most underrated album on the list. It was released with minimal fanfare. If I wasn’t following the Counting Crows on social media, I may have never known it was released, but good God is it good. In my opinion, it is their best work since This Desert Life. The instrumentation highlights the strength of their ensemble. The guitar tones are some of the best I have heard recorded. David, David, and Dan are as legit as any guitarists out there, but they don’t look for the spotlight. They understand the power of the unit. They are a band, and while media will always point to Adam as the face, they should not be separated; Adam needs Charlie as much as Charlie needs Adam, etc. In addition to the music, Somewhere Under Waterland is strengthened by some of Adam’s best storytelling. He is turning great phrases and painting pictures for the world to see behind eyelid shutters. “Palisades Park,” the opening track, is my probably my favorite, but I don’t think there are any throwaways. Every track is solid.   



 When two powerhouses merge it’s either going to be a clusterfuck or its going to be amazing. You+Me falls on the amazing end of the spectrum. While I would have liked for the disc to be less rushed, for Alecia and Dallas to really flush out some of the lyrics, to expand on the sound, the atmosphere created underneath the words, and replace Alecia’s trills with something more thoughtful, the harmonies cannot be denied and make me forget my want list. Despite the kind of shallow appeal of a few of the tunes, there are some incredibly strong songs on Rose Ave. “You and Me” is a complete song, something that feels fully vetted, and I love that they carried the harmonies throughout the track. “Gently” also resonates with me, and “Break the Cycle” has the anthemic, self-help appeal to it. But the strongest track, “Open Door,” spent days on rotation in my bed room, in my car, and at my office. As someone that hasn’t lived near his parents for the majority of his life, it hit home.



We might as well forgo 2 and 3 and replace them with 2.5 and 2.5. I love both discs for the same reasons, and they feature my two favorite songs of the year. “Don’t Disconnect” is stark and haunting. Sarah creates this space that leaves you feeling alone, just as the lyrics cry out, “Do you still feel me.” When you journey through her catalog, you remember that this is a singer/songwriter, a girl and her guitar, but she has been pushing boundaries and redefining what it means to be a singer/songwriter in the electro-pop era. “Slow Pour” is another track that gets under your skin and forces your body to sway, as if you were holding an invisible lover. Don’t Disconnect provides a nice balance of up and down-tempo. It is thoughtful and explorative. 



Same tune different name. Much like Jaffe, Ahn is a girl and her guitar that has been pushing the boundaries of electro-pop with strong lyrical content and the musical sensibilities of a solo musician. She is able to feed the listener tiny bites of music filled with space and still leaves them feeling satiated, but on This is Where We Are she shows she can serve up a very detailed landscape of musical textures sending her listeners away feeling Thanksgiving-full. She embraces dynamics and not just volume swells; she understands how to build a composition. In contrast to the majority of This is Where We Are “Remember When I Broke Your Heart” is nothing but a droning guitar, piano, harmonies – luscious, luscious, harmonies – and the best lyrics of the year:


It was a gray sky on a Monday
There was nothing more I could say
So I called you from Ohio in a parking lot of a motel
I remember how you greeted me
Like you knew we were not meant to be
On this phone call after two years of the fighting of the mad tears

After all that we've been through all the damages I bestowed on you
All the jealousies you engraved in me
The end was near it had to be
So I called you from Ohio in a parking lot of a motel
To say nothing and yet everything I remember I was trembling

Now I'm drinking to forget you spend your money get a tattoo
Stayed a week end up in Oregon bought a plane ride to an island
But I stopped first in Toronto met a man who almost let me go
Four years later he married me I am happier than I dreamed I'd be
So you see I had to let you go in a phone call from Ohio
Filled with silence and apologies still I loved you as you loved me



Having the Water Liars at #1 was a pretty simple decision because this was the album that I would want to make. I love the three piece sensibility, allowing each instrument to breathe, to have a distinct voice, to not clutter the middle with fifteen different versions of the same line of music. Justin continues to drop golden lyrics that have me wishing I had written them, such as “on the dirty brown river of heroin shivers” from “Sawnnanoa” or "When I left her house, it was snowin’ out and her taste was in my mouth, but who cares” and his guitar tone is the stuff of my dreams. I wish every drummer would listen to the Water Liars, so they would understand how powerful minimalism can be. Andrew Bryant is the perfect drummer. While I am definitely a fan of their first two duo releases, I have to admit I like what GR Robinson adds to the recording. It’s nice to have that solid bass line to keep things tightly tied together.  I won’t give you a favorite track because they are all good.

The review is over; now, go buy some music and thank me later.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Top 10 CDs of 2013


Well, 2013 has come and gone, and I have one blog to show for it. This isn’t going to be some ramble through the changes I experienced in 2013, the job shifts, the waking up with a beautiful wife in my bead and then hearing one of my new step-kids yelling, “CAN I WAKE-UP NOW?!?” It’s not about any of that. It’s about the one thing that will make me take a step-way from my ever evolving life and reflect on the music that moved me in 2013, my Top Ten CD of 2013.


#10 – Paramore – Paramore:  No one is more surprised to see this album on my Top 10 than me. Not that I do not like Paramore or one of their previous albums didn’t make its way onto one of my lists, but their self-titled fourth album was not their best, and that is something that often affects my decision. Several albums found themselves in the teens and 20’s this year because they did not compare to their preceding efforts. I am not saying it is a bad album; it’s just not profound. Paramore moved in different directions, pushed themselves, and delivered a very likeable and spin-worthy disc. For that post rough-day-ride home, you can never go wrong with popping it in and letting that teenagey, band break-up, angst wash over you until you are smiling; doing a little seat-salsa; and have forgotten you are closer to 40 than 30; driving a mini-van; spend more time at work than you do anywhere near your house; and will probably never be what you dreamed of being…oh, wait…is that just me? Very well then, carry on.


#9 – Patty Griffin – American Kid: If you know me, there are going to be several albums on this list that you probably could have predicted, this being the first. Patty can do no wrong. Her voice is my favorite of all the voices that have ever whispered to me, screamed at me, or sang their heart’s song to my empathetic ears. American Kid is personal, yet accessible. The instrumentation is honest and perfectly pairs to the lyrics creating Americana tales that remind us we are a nation of amazing immigrants. As you would expect, Patty’s voice melts you with every emotionally charged phrase. For me the strength of the album lies in the middle: “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” “Faithful Son,” “Highway Song,” and “That Kind of Lonely” gives you everything you need to know you are listening to something special.
#8 – Samantha Crain – Kid Face: As a nod to my predictability, Samantha Crain has not put out an album that hasn’t ended up on my end of year list. She is brilliant, and I should stop there because that is all that really matters, isn’t it? Her voice is quite possibly the most distinct I have ever heard. There is just no mistaking it, and it shines on this CD. What excites me most about Kid Face is Samantha’s continued evolution. She pushes herself in new directions with some of the musical directions she chooses while not losing her sound. It’s not Samantha doing Paramore; it’s Samantha doing Samantha with a thump that you can feel in your chest as her voice haunts your head. Standout tracks for me: “For the Miner,” “Churchill,” and “Sand Paintings.”
#7 – Amos Lee – Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song: This is really the best version of Amos. Since 2005 Amos has been pushing out CDs, showing different sides of himself, but Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song strikes the perfect balance of all the things I love best about him. His voice is clear and passionate; his instrumentation merges country and soul; and his words are intelligent and inspired. He is telling us about his world without forcing us to search for the meaning or beating us over the head with it. It’s an album that you can think through while shaking your ass. “Stranger,” “Chill In the Air,” and “Scared Money (bonus track)” will be enough for you to understand why this album is on the list.
#6 – Water Liars – Wyoming: A late add, like super late, like someone bought me the CD from my Amazon List for Christmas, but from the first harmony, which happenes 25 seconds into the first song “Sucker,” I knew a CD was going to get booted. Of all the albums on this list, I would say the guitar tones captured on Wyoming are my favorite. That crunchy overdriven sound of cheap guitars (well, cheap when they were originally released as Sears and Roebuck specials somewhere around 1956) through old amps is like heaven to my ears, but it is the rawness of “Fake Heat” that stops my mind from wandering and makes me realize just how talented Justin Kinkel-Schuster and Andrew Bryant are. And that is just track number two. The CD never lets up, never offers a throw away, just great song after great song. 







#5 – Jay-Z – Magna Carta…Holy Grail: By no means am I a hip-hop aficionado. Until this year my hip-hop selection consisted of The Roots, Common, Kanye West, Eminem, and Nas, but I married someone who has Jay-Z on her Friends Top-5 List. So, when I saw that there was some pre-release hype for Magna Carta, I got on the bandwagon and pre-ordered it, so Amanda could have some bumps on my iPod.  There is a moment in “Holy Grail” when they shift meters. The first time I heard it I instinctively grabbed my crotch and let out an elongated daaaammnn, while making some exaggerated gesture over my face. It was at that moment when I knew I was going to love this disc. Jay-Z’s strength has always been his ability to turn slick phrases that are intelligent. He consistently spares his listeners from victim-of-rhyme raps. That remains true throughout Magna Carta…Holy Grail. But what I love about this album is it is texturally brilliant. If the rhythms on “Tom Ford” don't make you bob, you are dead, so stop reading. 




#4 – City and Colour – The Hurry and The Harm: Admit it. You knew this was coming. I mean I purchased the special soundcheck tickets and gushed like a teenage girl at an Elvis concert when I got to meet him. In fact, you are probably surprised to see it in the middle of the pack. There is nothing about The Hurry and The Harm that prevented it from being #1 like Little Hell was when it came out. I absolutely love this album; love the recording; the instruments used; the tones captured; Dallas’s flirtation with mortality; the contemplative nature of the lyrics; the way he reveals pieces of himself to us… “Two Coins” is, without a doubt, one of the best written songs of the year. There were just a few albums that moved me in such a way that I had to put them in the top three spots. 






#3 – Caroline Smith – Half About Being a Woman: When one of your favorite folksy female singer/songwriters drops an authentic neo-soul R&B album, you take notice. I am so completely enamored with Half About Being a Woman. It pays homage the foundations of Rhythm and Blues, takes you back to when R&B was pure…when soul was less about twerkin’ and more about interpreting the world through different lenses. Recorded in New York using some of the best session musicians, the album is empowering, filled with songs that not only make me want to love my lover, they make me want to show her the respect she deserves. The title track, complete with rim shots and a bass line that sits perfectly in pocket, will have you swaying with someone special in your arms. 







#2 – Patty Griffin – Silver Bell: Did you just do a double take? Yes, you saw that name earlier on this list. This has never happened before and may never happen again. It is extremely uncommon for an artist to record two albums in one year; in reality, Patty didn’t either. Silver Bell was recorded in 2000 but went unreleased by A&M, her label at the time. What they failed to recognize was the album was full of amazing songs that would have transcended any demographic data that they had pushing them to pass on the release. As it turns out, the Dixie Chicks released “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” which both became huge hits. And I legitimately thought “One More Girl” was the best song The Wreckers ever released. Little did I know it was actually Patty Griffin’s. Erected on the strength of those tunes, Silver Bell is filled with gems that are still relevant 13 years after they were recorded. Some of the tracks have a lingering grunge feel too them, ripe with distortion and atmospheric cacophony; they are not what you have grown to expect from Patty, but they make you respect her even more as an artist who is willing to stretch herself. 



#1 – Jason Isbell – Southeastern: Released on June 11, 2013; listened to on June 11, 2013, I knew immediately this was the best album of 2013. Nothing released before or after changed that opinion for me. Jason Isbell makes me realize just how much I have to learn about being a singer/songwriter. The best part of Drive By Truckers, Jason has been on his own since 2007. Every CD he has released has been filled with songs that make me want to be a better writer, but Southeastern is on a different level all together.  I could spend hours pulling quotes from the lyrics of this album, as genius is intricately woven throughout. In each song there is at least one line that makes me wish I had written it. In truth, if I was compiling my Top Ten of All Time, right now, this would be sitting at #1, just slightly edging out Tom Waits, Nighthawks at the Diner. And in the middle of it all, is the best song of 2013, Elephant. I remember the first time I saw someone cry at one of my shows, that feeling of connection and acceptance; knowing that they got it; that they really listened; being able to move them, was humbling and satisfying. Well, Jason, if you are reading this, know it happens nearly every time I listen to Elephant. The starkest portrayal of cancer I can imagine, yet he manages to present the tale in a way that offers a sense of strength and survival. Do yourself a favor; shut the door; turn the lights down; click the video below; and let it go. You will thank me.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

#MicroPoetry November - January (2013)

Let's just address that huge elephant in the room, sitting calmly in the corner noshing on nuts and sniffing the hair of pretty ladies that pass by, I am late, super late, a month late, but I just didn't feel like I had enough material from November and December to do a post. This doesn't mean I wasn't writing, just wasn't writing #MicroPoetry. 

In December my Friend Sarah Firebaugh and I embarked on a collaborative project called, If Photographs Could Talk. Almost all of my creative energy was devoted to that. I hope you will all forgive me and enjoy these musings.



#MicroPoetry: November - January (2013)

When world works at a low hum
Quiet moments
You
Tucked into my chest
Share secrets
Send me
To dream of days yet to come

I stood there
As I stood years before
Solemn
Calm
Proud
Thankful for my freedom
Reassured in my convictions

Woke up peaceful
My stereo mind
Taking long laps
Outstretched arms
Pulling through warm water
Fluttering legs propel forward
Body breaks towards light
Surface broken
Rhythmic water dances on air
Exposed mouth takes audible breath
Relieved muscles retract and compress
Filled lungs and sealed lips
Body returns to calm cocoon

Grey breath
Against black canvas
Silent shadows
Engulfed by darkness
Weepy eyed ragdolls
Buried in pillows
Wait for raspberry rays
Their first chance to see the sun

Connection
Pillowcase shimmer
Remnants
Of the last time
Her head
Laid next to his

Silver air
Fell gently
Swirled effortlessly
Blurred vision
Forced focus

Woke
With wounded words in my head
Words which once were power
Now nothing more than cracked porcelain

My head
On you scented pillow
Is restless
Deep in dreams of moments
When my head
Rested on my pillow
And you
Were pulled into me

The day
Motionless
Waits patiently
For new energy
For new direction
To stretch its arms
And breathe new wind

Sleepy streets
Populated with weary workers
Who daydream drive of warm beds
And lovers arms
Still tucked beneath winter sheets
Too deep in dreams
To appreciate gray morning calm
The stillness
The silence
The solitude
The emptiness
The existential vacuum
As those with wide eyes
Seek meaning from the materialist maze
The Great Green having usurped God’s grace




You
Puzzled into
Me
Creates perfect painting
Low-light sunrise
And love

Birds perch on icicles
High above ice skating rink roofs
While squirrels scamper for footing on slick streets

I watched it struggle through black night
White
Translucent
Flapping obscenities into January’s bitter breeze still sick with Winter’s chill
Desperately trying to release itself from the naked limbs that bound it
To fly effortlessly
To kiss silver clouds lining black sky
To be free
Having failed
It hangs
Limply
Like a defeated ghost