Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The old demon wormwood

The 2005 re-legalization of the purchase of absinthe in the US had been piquing my interest and I finally went out and grabbed a bottle to assuage my curiosity. When you have a roster of fans like Oscar Wilde, Hemingway, Baudelaire and Van Gogh endorsing it, I believe it is worth a try.

Note that my only other previous experience with what was alleged to be absinthe was during the mid 80s with some Czechoslovakian knock off that I am convinced was primarily composed of Soviet T-62 tank fuel, Czech hooker sweat and crushed up peppermint candy. I thought I was going to die. Note that I am a guy who has made many questionable booze selection decisions over the years (home made "schnapps" from a grocery store water jug at an SEC football tailgate, celebratory "rum" from a Prestone jug in the Caribbean) and that alleged absinthe is at or near the top of the list of bad ideas. Yeesh...

I brought this along to a friend's get together that was attended by a group of folks that know their booze and  I knew there would be a few hearty souls willing to dance with the Green Fairy.

After perusing a couple of quick youtube videos on how to properly serve absinthe (without the absinthe fountain mind you. Although my inner gadget nerd would certainly like one!) I was off to the races as were my fellow guests.

Before getting into the booze itself I'd like to briefly touch on absinthe's reputation. One guest at the event recoiled at the offer of absinthe as if I'd just pulled out a balloon full of black tar heroin. A vast overreaction, in my reasonably informed opinion. To summarize, in the late 19th century two groups usually at odds with each other, the American temperance movement and French wine producers, revved up their hyperbole machines and built an entirely unscientific case to ban absinthe which served their divergent aims. The temperance movement was out to ban any booze and the winemakers had seen a significant dent in their sales as absinthe became more and more the drink of choice in the salons and studios of Paris. All of this hysteria was built on agenda driven reporting of several murders that were blamed on absinthe, specifically the wormwood from which it is made. The chemical compound Thujone (a psychoactive drug) was portrayed as the driving force behind Absinthe turning us all into green eyed murder machines. While Thujone is present in many absinthes it is only in trace and entirely non effectual amounts. The bigger issues with the highly publicized murders was a much more common and deadly combination of domestic violence and raging alcoholism. The Lanfray murders in particular were committed by a father who did in fact consume absinthe before killing his entire family, right after a day long bender of cognac and wine. I suspect that the winemakers were in a big hurry to omit that last detail. The bottom line is that consuming too much absinthe will in fact turn you into a drunken knucklehead. I hold up my friend's negative reaction as a primary example of effective if less than truthful marketing. Therefore, drink up Shriners! Expand those horizons with confidence that after one sip of absinthe you will not be filled with a combination of career ending torpor and homicidal demon rage.

Now to the liquor itself. The bottle that I purchased is (pictured above) Absente brand absente.com/ absinthe. From what I've seen it is an excellent starter entry into the varied absinthes available. It is a traditional "verte" style absinthe which makes for the highly appealing look of the cocktail as a bit of water is poured over a sugar cube into the liquor. As the water and alcohol mingle the booze turns a beautiful, semi opaque jade that is visually captivating. Absinthe typically brings strong anise flavors and mint and this is no exception. As alluded to above, the tradition is to very slowly pour a bit of water over a sugar cube into the beverage through a slotted spoon. This gives a sweetness that compliments but doesn't overwhelm the drink and is very pleasant to imbibe. Note that this brings me to the only real danger of absinthe in that it is tremendously tasty but still packs a wallop as it comes in at a robust 110 proof. Tread lightly my Bohemian artistes!

Speaking of Hemingway, here is a cocktail recipe of his called Death In The Afternoon that looks quite tasty. For a further, better informed look at the topic I suggest The Real Absinthe Blog who blessed us with that recipe.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Prairie Organic Vodka


Prairie Organic Vodka, distilled in the wilds of Benson, Minnesota was brought to my attention via Wayne Klein, spirit guru extraordinaire. Wayne has always been a reliable guide on the way to the summit of Mt. Booze and this suggestion was no exception.

The production methods and organic bona fides are first rate. Prairie is a clean, opulent vodka with a downy, sublime hint of the corn from which it is produced. Right out of the freezer this is a brisk treat and over ice at room temperature assuredly allows the subtle flavors to shine. There is a hint of sweet melon to complement the virtue of the essential corn on the finish.

I have been experimenting with various vodka infusions but frankly, this beautiful work of distillery shouldn't be tinkered with. Save the flavored experiments for other, lesser vodkas. This treat should be shared as is.  


Grace Potter & The Nocturnals: The Lion The Beast The Beat

Grace Potter and The Nocturnals released their new album, The Lion The Beast The Beat in June of this year.

They are touring like crazy to support the latest record and they are putting their efforts into a worthy cause.

There has been a big question mark regarding just exactly what type of music GPN plays. They have clearly tinkered around in several different genres. When they first came out of their native Vermont there was a decided swamp rock/jam band sensibility to them. The record previous to this was their self titled breakthrough album that featured more of a commercial, country rock heart with a couple ballads and some Memphis blues numbers as well. Grace even stepped aside to do a duet with Kenny Chesney. Normally, I'd shy away from this combination but between Grace's commanding vocals as well as her wide range of instruments that she is adept with and a band that is an absolute ass stomping rock and roll powerhouse I was on board.

A week after GPN's headlining stint at Coachella they played the IMU at the University of Iowa where myself and a minivan full of the local Catholic school dads went to see them. I will say that this was one of the best shows I've seen in some time and was not disappointed in the least. They blew the proverbial roof off the mother.

Then there is this. 5 out of 5 dads in the coolest rock and roll minivan ever approved.
I wasted no time in grabbing the new record from GPN. I can appreciate artists that evolve, look for a fashion and genre fit or just flat out play what's in their wheelhouse at the moment and this record demonstrates that process quite successfully

The Lion... brings a mess of Ann and Nancy Wilson to this effort. At it's core, the record sweats the huge 70's guitar riffs that drove Heart during their finest years, straight.ahead.rock. Grace's voice is as big and reckless as the 70's chick rock icons ever were. Add in some Wilco-esque keyboards, a bit of druid/art rock and funk to leaven the mix and they seem to have hit the sweet spot here.

The opening, title track brings all of this to the table. It opens with a preamble that reminds me of Kate Bush and bleeds into pulsing kick drum and gut punching guitar number. Grace then lets her voice off the chain, leaving little doubt what this band is capable of.  

The song "Stars" is a moving, almost formulaic power ballad. The song is built for radio but damned if this band doesn't have the brilliant chops to make that irrelevant. Big guitar, bigger voice, love the song. I cry at movies all the time. Sue me for being a big old softy.

"Timekeeper" follows after "Stars" and is lyrically heartfelt as "Stars" feels constructed. There is a heavy dose of world weariness and an urge to hang onto times when they are good. I can make a flattering comparison to Neko Case here. The disenchanted inflection on the line "I am too young to be feeling this way" is a heart breaker.

When the band broke out "Turntable" during their show it was a remarkable moment in a great show. It is not the most lyrically nuanced song but it is a great archetype of what rock and roll should be. Pounding drums, guitar, guitar, guitar and a hot chick singing semi suggestive lyrics. I've been down with that since I was 14, why would I not be down for that now?

The production is smooth and glossy with just enough calculated grit to focus on the band's strengths. There is a decided guitar-centric lean toward commercial viability that is evident. On the other hand, Grace and the band have such an abundance of unabashed, innovative talent that any attempt to force them into a conventional structure is doomed to failure. This record might make the No Depression crowd a bit uneasy but I suspect that most of them are cranking this record and singing like hell when no one is around. I know I am.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tamarind Restaurant Review NYC


As my urban, unsupervised venture through NYC continued, my accommodating and debonair host/guide ushered me through the city and eventually led me to dinner at Tamarind on E. 22nd St. a damned fine Indian joint. As always, the man's breadth of experience and excellent taste work, once again, to my benefit.

We were greeted at the door with a gracious smile and a clean and comfortably lit interior. After being seated and being offered the always welcome hot towel (Oshibori in Japanese, no clue what the Indian version might be) treatment and a brief perusal of the menu we were approached by our waiter.

JR (my guide) ordered an appetizer, Dahi Aloo Poori. Very different and a happy broadening of my culinary horizons. It is a crunchy, semi sweet amalgam of wheat crisps, potato and chickpeas with a tamarind/yogurt sauce that was excellent.

Our waiter took our entree orders, Lamb Vindaloo and Murgh Kolhapuri with the intention of sharing it between the two of us. After the ritual that I've undergone at every Indian place I've ever eaten at regarding how hot I actually like my spice even though I say I like it quite spicy (wherein apparently we convinced our waiter that we both enjoy and can handle the 8-ish out of 10 range on whatever the spicy food scale is) we moved onto the wine selection. I am a recent, enthusiastic convert to the sweet wine with spicy food pairing. After a quizzical look from JR, I ordered the Gewurz from the wine list. It was a nice Alsatian Gewurztraminer but on the lower end, price wise, of the selections available. Our server immediately suggested a significantly dryer white, not coincidentally approximately triple the price of our original selection. His immediate dismissal of my selection did not exactly thrill me. Not due to the price difference (a fella's got to earn a living, especially in NYC) but the wine he opted to push was the complete opposite of what I wanted. I asked him a simple question regarding his suggestion and he was clearly stumped. I don't mind being upsold, I do mind when you are trying to upsell me and you have no clue about the wine other than it will significantly up your ticket average. Do a little homework, man. I should not have been surprised with the  imminent announcement that they were in fact out of the Gewurztraminer that I'd requested but they do have plenty of a dry Chard on hand, again significantly higher priced. Nope, still not interested in a dry wine. After trip #3 through the (expansive and excellent) wine list I opted for a 2009 Trimbach Riesling that was the closest to my original selection in both palate and price. That little sparring match was the closest thing to a disappointment that I suffered in the course of the meal and frankly, I enjoyed rubbing his nose in his lack of wine knowledge a little bit so we'll call that a draw.
Oenophile Victorious Bee-yotch. 
Our entrees arrived with a tandoori rice and Naan. The lamb had the usual vinegar, ginger and Indian spice which had my taste buds ready to go to work. I could sense that that this Vindaloo was going to bring the heat and flavor, just as I enjoy it. Now this Murgh Kolhapuri dish was entirely new to me but I'll be eternally grateful to JR for this selection. Murgh Kolhapuri consists of baked/roasted chicken, whole spice, peppercorn and more savory spicy goodness than I can begin to identify. Both entrees were prepared perfectly. The chefs did a masterful job of balancing the somewhat unique flavors of the cuisine while still bringing enough heat to cause just a bit of glistening on our foreheads and upper lips. I'd space a couple bites out between a nice swig of the Riesling and wow, the contrast between the sweet and spicy was amazing. The divergence between the two flavors only illustrated the best of both. I tend to be dismissive of sweet wines as being for amateur wine drinkers (see above wine snob photo) but I have a new appreciation of them now that they have a use in my culinary explorations. While quenching the more fiery reaches of the food, the wine brought out the individual flavors of the dishes. The food returned the favor by accentuating the cooler nature of the wine and by making the apple and citrus flavors of the wine leap out of the glass.

Overall, big props to the folks at Tamarind. Other than a slight ding on the server's wine knowledge and pushiness, it was a perfect meal. Exciting menu choices, expertly prepared in a beautiful setting.

An added bonus was the give and take at the table next to us was a wealthy, beefy Ukrainian man that was clearly interviewing a vacuous, duck faced, plastic surgery junkie for the position of his next (JR guessed she'd be #4) ex wife. She was resolutely reserved, disengaged and distant. He was so profoundly heavy handed with his discussion as to be humorous if it weren't so creepy. Her responses ranged from disinterested to heavily drugged. Interesting to watch as it unfolded.  



Requiem, maybe metastasis. Top 10 REM songs


You'd chuckle too, what with the pallets full of respect, artistic integrity and a giant pile of cash laying about. Also, Pete Buck is standing right behind him just, you know, gigging.

There are three bands that defined the cultural and musical panorama of the 1980s for me. The Clash, all castigation and righteous bluster, blew the decade open for me. I turned 15 years old in 1980 and while not entirely fed up with the .38 Specials and the Foreigners of the world I knew that there was much more out there than just holding on loosely. The Clash brought an energy, venom and honesty to their music that was unlike any other at the time. I was not aware of it at the time but I was a first hand witness to the messy death of The Clash as they walked off the stage at the US Festival in May of '83. U2 picked up from where The Clash left off with records like Boy and War. The world was a big place with big issues that we could all work on, together. The dirty guitar work of The Edge stood in contrast to much of the era's keyboard driven synthpop and illustrated the difference in their message. Then, the third integral element of the underground trinity was revealed to me, R.E.M. I'd read an article in the Rolling Stone about them and saw them steadily creeping up the old and long lamented college radio chart in the back of the magazine. I scraped up a portion of this then newly minted US Army private's earnings and hustled out to buy a copy of REM's first full lengther, Murmur. I have had a three decade love affair with that band ever since. 

The Clash, as mentioned, died in front of me. No band is going to carry that much ego, angst and energy for any length of time. U2 went from the aforementioned Boy and War, through The Unforgettable Fire and the epic Joshua Tree records into what has been a decade and a half long malaise. I can't fault them for their efforts and it has been some good, many say great, music but they have failed to resonate with me for a long, long time. Their transition into Rock Stars (note the capital R and capital S) removed them from anything that I could really identify with. The boys from Athens on the other hand have remained personable and likable from an image standpoint. Lead singer Michael Stipe has at times flirted with letting his political messaging overcloud the band's music but has always seemed to reel that in just before the wheels come off. They have grown in a way that I have always been able to understand if not identify with and have persevered through difficult times (most notably the health issues and subsequent retirement of drummer Bill Berry in 1997) with a grace, humor and charm that I admire. Their discography is fairly easily classified into 2 eras, the records made with Berry and and those that were made after Berry hung up the sticks.

The majority of this top 10 list is going to come from the time with Mr. Berry on drums. Bill was an immensely integral component of R.E.M. and it is quite simple to to hear just how important he was to the band. When asked about R.E.M. continuing after Berry's departure Mike Stipe famously answered "I guess a three legged dog is still a dog, it just has to learn to run differently". His departure marked a low point in the band's output which frankly was not amended until the release of Accelerate in 2008, more than a decade after his taking leave. They came roaring back indeed, just differently.

That being said, now that they have called it quits, here are my top 10 R.E.M. songs.

#10 7 Chinese Brothers- Great, simple percussion work, Mills just blowing the lid off what a bass can add to music, Pete Buck channeling David Crosby and thoroughly expanding anything done before with Stipe's half mumbled, vague lyrics that more than enough room for interpretation and imagination. Not the only song on this list that can be described thusly.

#9 Mine Smell Like Honey- MSLH may be the pinnacle of the post Berry era for the band. The driving guitar, still jangly as f&*^, soaring vocals, crunchy bass and Stipe's growly, aged-a-bit but still powerful vocals take some classically obscure yet whimsical R.E.M. lyrics to provide all of the ingredients that made this band great thirty years ago and make them great today. This song provides the exclamation point on their last studio effort which may have the alternate title "See? We Still Kick Ass".

#8 Living Well Is The Best Revenge- To my mind this opening track to the Accelerate LP was like a bomb announcing the opening of hostilities against the idea that R.E.M. had "lost it". Kick ass, old school rock and roll, faster than most found on any previous work. Hell yes, this "three legged dog" had indeed found it's stride.

#7 Losing My Religion- Perhaps this is a bit of low hanging fruit but failing to recognize the greatness of this song would seem simply disingenuous. To begin with, having the sheer balls to bust out a mandolin driven tune as the lead single of a new record is epic in itself. This is well before there was any whisper of the resurgence of alternative country/Americana taking hold. Weirdly enough, it is a great pop song, mandolin and all. It is danceable and carries a lyrical message that is both accessible while still open to interpretation. Special mention to the video for Religion, an innovative combination of Bollywood and Raphaelesque High Renaissance art brought to life.

#6 Driver 8- A classic Americana influenced R.E.M. song. This song brings a lyrically yearning, darker vibe that is a key tenet of the entire Fables record. There is a lot of angst on this record for the loss of the South that the guys grew up in and a prophetic change in the American landscape both literal and figurative.

#5 Cuyahoga- Another song that brings to mind visions of youth and the sometimes rural aspect of my growing up. The instrumentation takes a rare back seat to Michael Stipe's vocals in this song. It seems that the music is there only to set a mood for the lyrics. This is not a bad thing but stands out as being so unusual in contrast to the rest of R.E.M.'s work. The harmonies are once again, amazing.

#4 Fall On Me- This tune features lofty vocals to include some of the best of Mike Mills' harmonic counterpart to Stipe's voice.

#3 Monty Got A Raw Deal- A great tribute/abstraction/exploration of the actor Montgomery Clift, in my opinion one of the more interesting people in Hollywood history. Perhaps the most easily understood lyrics that the band ever penned. References to "From Here To Eternity", Clift's car accident and what I've always interpreted as Liz Taylor finding him on the scene. Clift's eventual estrangement, isolation and desperation can be perceived throughout.

#2 Nightswimming- Poetry, poetry, poetry. This is a tremendous example of music and lyrics coalescing to evoke both emotion and memory. Nightswimming is amongst the most powerfully expressive in the substantial R.E.M. catalog.

#1 Radio Free Europe- The song opens with a twangy, weird percussion that yields to Bill Berry's stomp, Mike Mill's almost "lead" bass and Pete Buck's brilliant, genre defining open chorded jangle. Frost this alt rock touchstone with Mr. Stipe's anguished yet hopeful mumblewail and you have the blueprint for several decades of "left of the dial" genius.
 



Alison Eighteen Chelsea, NYC Restaurant Review

Yep, pretty much what I looked like at the door of Alison Eighteen

We loaded up the family truckster and headed east to visit the lovely Mrs. BMLA's family in New York. The rest of the fam headed to the Poconos for a couple week stint at a summer camp leaving me to a bit of urban exploring pending the arrival of my friend whom I was to stay with.

I made a couple cocktail stops (including McSorley's Ale House which may merit it's own blog entry) and hoofed it toward my friend's place on W. 18th St and stumbled across Alison Eighteen  just a few blocks down the street from my destination. As I was both hungry and had time to kill, this seemed ideal.

I'd like to start with the fact that I rolled up on this place and frankly, I looked like hell. Shorts, backpack, Grace Potter t shirt and I'd been both soaked and dried a couple times throughout the afternoon by sporadic city rain squalls. I timidly approached the hostess and mentioned that I was as hungry for an excellent meal as I was dishevelled. They graciously offered to seat me in the a very nicely designed dining room but I opted for the bar lest my appearance ruin the dinners of the more appropriately dressed patrons. I would not recommend coming here like this but them allowing me in, let alone offering me a spot in the dining room is a testament to their kindness.

The bartender was a young man from Virginia, Brian. He was very nice and asked me if I'd like a drink. At this point, the air conditioned comfort of the place was giving me quite the chill as my status could best be described as soggy. A 375 ml, half bottle of a locally distilled bourbon caught my eye and I assumed that would be a fine way to fight off said chill. The whiskey was a Hudson Baby Bourbon and is the first bourbon whiskey distilled in the Hudson Valley since Prohibition. Being a sucker for anything both local and small batch I had to give it a go. I was not disappointed. I drank this neat and it served as both an appertif and digestif as I nursed it through both ends of the meal. Brian's conversation, food and booze knowledge and enthusiasm for "artisanal" cocktails made for an enjoyable couple hours of conversation.

After a quick perusal of the menu I ordered the evening's special which was a Cuban pork wrapped skate with a fume and fish stock sauce. I'm frequently pulled toward the daily specials where ever I go as I prefer to see what the chef's creativity has brought to the table each evening. I was not disappointed. The pork was crispy, yet flavorful and provided a spectacular textural counterpoint to the supple and buttery character of the fish. The subtlety of the sauce and the balance of the entree with a couple glasses of Silverado Carneros Chardonnay were truly dazzling. After dinner I opted to drain the last of the ample pour of the truly noble whiskey and continued, sporadic conversations with Brian as well as much of the staff as they'd come to the service bar.

Many kudos the entire operation at Allison Eighteen. It is a rare treat to find such an epic combination of first rate food, great booze and tremendous hospitality. I'm definitely coming back and heartily recommend this spot to anyone in or near Chelsea.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead


                                 

Ah yes, the dreaded "indie folk band". Brace yourself for pretense, skinny jeans and striving facial hair. Named after an 1825 imperial Russian revolt and hailing from the rock epicenter that is Portland, one would easily expect this to be a record piled high with all manner of obscuria, whistling and trust fund nihilists parading their gaudy Woody Guthrie merit badges for all to see.

To quote the great philosopher/sports broadcasting buffoon, Lee Corso: "Not so fast my friend!"

While this album makes a keystone of their folkie bona fides, they build an exuberant rock record around a strong Americana meets Athens vibe.

The Americana aspect of the record is a determined effort to depart from the British folk revival of their previous three records. No better way to define a musical genre than to showcase an icon of said genre. GIllian Welch whose work with David Rawlings has them at or near the top of the heap of current Appalachian/Bluegrass artists. This record is simply drenched in Ms. Welch's beautiful harmonies, timbre and vocals.

The Athens perspective is a reflection of the band's admiration for the 80's janglepopicons R.E.M. Colin Meloy has stated in several interviews that they may have gone a bit over the top with the R.E.M. love on this record but that is a minor, forgivable sin. Especially when you've got Pete Buck flaying on his gut fiddle for that authentic R.E.M. flavor on several tracks.

Hopefully the band takes the success of this record and runs with it rather than retreating to English folk revival obscurity. Am I asking them to "sell out" on their early fans? Well, yes. If it leads to more fantastic music as is found throughout The King Is Dead, absolutely.