|NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL|
In an Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
Fate also has a way of leading you out of jams -- even philosophic ones. Case in point: The morning after my "existential rock crisis," the new LP from Neutral Milk Hotel was waiting at my office. Chances are you've never heard this band, but you should. They prove, to me at least, that while MTV may go on sucking well into the 21st century, and that most rock music is a banal waste of electricity, and that, sure, the music industry is a glorified World Wrestling Federation with marginally more believable story lines, there still can be at least a small sliver of hope for rock music as real entertainment.
On In an Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge) their second LP, Louisiana's Neutral Milk Hotel needs only a few seconds to convince you that their cryptic, street-wandering pop is brilliantly mad, buoyant and uncorrupted by rock music as we know it. Their sound is bursting to the point of explosion with over-burdened guitars, circus-trapeze melodies and idiot savant vocals. And just to make sure this wonderfully jury-rigged contraption gets off the ground and actually flies, they throw in everything from singing saws to bagpipes to homemade organs to flugelhorns.
What finally shakes out of this perfectly shambolic mess are songs that seem intent on crumbling for the sheer curiosity of the act, the absolute joy of the spectacle, the documentation of the odd and fascinating sounds that may result. That's not to say that this band throws everything into the juicer and hopes for a smoothie. Far from it. Lead Milker Jeff Mangum's guitar strums are deceptively simple, while his lyrics seem to have fallen out of a black and white daydream. Musically, Neutral Milk Hotel may give the impression that they simply found these songs by some strange twist of fate, but careful listening suggests that this music -- with all its rough edges, scraps of noise and unpolished reflection -- is as carefully constructed as rock music gets.
Suddenly, a small squiggle of horn will grow majestic-like into a bursting green rock opus. A snow squall of white noise will fall away like the tide to reveal a delicate guitar strum. A lyric will round the bend and end up in another time zone.
Simply put, In an Aeroplane Over the Sea is a stunning, smart LP (fans of Syd Barrett, the Beatles, Nick Drake, Built to Spill and Robyn Hitchcock take note) and one of the reasons why there may, just may, be have a little hope left for rock music.
As for that bottle of Lindemans 1994 Limestone Ridge Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet, allow me to gush: This mix of 55 percent shiraz and 45 percent cabernet sauvignon is all about the exploration of bigness as a winemaking concept. Light does not penetrate this wine, so I honestly can't use a phrase like "ozone purple" or "bruised midnight" to describe its color. Instead, this stuff sucks in light like a black hole. On the tongue, however, it's got the usual suspects firmly in custody. The raspberry, cassias, tobacco and oak march out in lock step, gloriously exposed, easy to identify. In the mouth, these rascals remain in check. The tannins don't blow your lips off, which actually allows you to enjoy this wine without some ripped and nearly raw meat dish accompaniment. Think of it, a big red you can actually drink "on its own." Hope abounds!
TNT (Thrill Jockey)
As a band, Tortoise has pretty much left most thoughts of rock behind. That may help to explain the fact that many critics have labeled them as one of the world's finest examples of "post-rock." Yes, this does begin to sound a bit too much like an undergrad term paper, but then again, it's not hard to get the sense that Tortoise is something of an ongoing intellectual pursuit. The Chicago band's last LP, Millions Now Living Will Never Die pitted low-key guitar doodles and sketchy rhythmic accompaniment against a next-wave sense avant electronics, jazz and dub. Their new LP, TNT (Thrill Jockey) adds to that heady brew by tossing in snips of jungle breakbeats and an even more subtle taste for acid jazz flows and oh-so-subtle electronic highlights.
Tortoise is deliciously low key, though they skitter across genres at a sometimes dizzying rate, slipping a dub groove into a jazz passage then sliding it all into a warm ambient tub employing absolutely liquid transitions. While Tortoise can often seem ponderous, as their name implies, they unfailingly push their music into fields of anti-gravity. Before a song has finished, Tortoise has taken quantum leaps in both space and time with out so much as a bump or rumble of turbulence. We're lucky enough to be along for the ride.
You'd think the journey to New Zealand was like a commuter flight the way the wine cows have been mooing about that place of late. Sorry, I haven't been able to lay hands around a bottle of Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc either, so they'll be none of that look-what-I-got smugness here. Instead, we're forced to look for an alternative. Stoneleigh -- available in most wine shops for a mere $12 -- seems the perfect candidate to bridge the gap between unattainable, exclusive wine snobbery and street smart, what-a-find wine hipsterism. A bright, lively glass of green grape and snappy lemongrass, this fully serviceable white has the brains to stand up to Tortoise and the brawn to match that great grilled swordfish you had at that new place downtown.
On a different note, the Dry Creek 1996 Sauvignon Blanc would seem to be a solid choice from a solid producer. A right and ready bottle of flinty grass and springy lemon zest. Think again. This is a round, very fruity, sweet glass that seems more than happy to cast a few smoky, sidelong glances in the general direction of folks who'd call themselves chard drinkers. Investigate.
Ocean Songs (Touch and Go)
If Tortoise can be tagged "post rock," Dirty Three must certainly be "pre-rock." This soulful and gusty Aussie trio of violin, drums and guitar weaves songs that seem born long ago and far away. On Ocean Songs (Touch and Go), guitarist Mick Turner strums in grand and mournful sweeps, while violinist Warren Ellis draws rough, heart-pulling melodies from deep within his fiddle. On top, David Grubbs bumps lonely on his bass drum while keeping time with scratchy snare whispers and flickering tips and taps on the cymbals. It's a gorgeous blend that's fully informed by folk forms yet still manages to seem sharp and fully aware. But while Dirty Three may seem like some mutant folk trio from the old country, underneath there is a rock band -- a dangerous fire-breathing bunch with lust in their hearts and murder in their eyes. It's these rough edges that make Dirty Three seem so passionate, so real, so epic. Their songs speak directly to that boozy, well-worn place where sadness and beauty duke it out.
If you're talking Dirty Three, please do so over a glass of single malt scotch. And make it a glass of bone-shaking peat, smoke, malt and sea-salt air. Make it a glass with a nose like the ocean wind and the depth of the sea. Make it a glass that howls. Make it Laphroaig's 10 year old. The 'Froaig is an Islay malt, named after the island of its birth. It also goes along in describing its taste. Islay malts -- also look for Lagavulin's 16 year old -- are known for being full-bodied, strong (some say medicinal) sips straight out of history. To be honest, I drink most of my Laphroaig outdoors, around campfires right before a long night in a cold sleeping bag. I'll switch to a lighter-bodied single malt like the wonderful, nutty and complex [Oban], when I move inside. It's as if the Islay's are too big, too powerful to be held by four walls. A Laphroaig or Lagavulan needs to be experienced in the wide open, in the big spaces. Try it, it works.
DIMITRI FROM PARIS
Sacre Bleu (Atlantic)
If you've got a major French thing going on in your wine cellar, allow me to introduce Dimitri from Paris -- not to be confused with Dimitri from Amsterdam or Dimitri from Dee-Lite. Sacre Bleu (Atlantic) is the first LP to hit American shores from this Dimitri, a Parisian DJ and scenester previously known for composing the thumpa-thumpa behind the runway shows for Chanel, Lagerfeld, Fendi, Hermes, Gaultier and other French fashion houses. Dimitri's work here, however, is much less flashy and bombastic than you might think. Instead, Sacre Bleu is a rather low-key samba through the mod fifties space age of Martin Denny, the cool sixties Brazil of Gilberto Gil and the seventies schmaltz of Burt Bacharach all whipped into a froth by the Japanese techno pop of bands like Pizzicato 5. Can't you just taste that terroir?
Dimitri certainly comes on suave and debonair. The beats that update this slick retro ride are smooth and streamlined. His mixes are uncluttered and lead directly to a case of "les joyeaux pieds" (English translation: the happy feet). Combine that with a cheeky sense of humor and an aren't-we-clever wink at his goofball pop references, and Dimitri starts to look more and more like a keeper.
I generally think of port -- a rich, swirling glass of caramel and chocolate and cherry -- as sort of a keeper wine, since you can open a bottle and keep it around for a while. Taylor Fladgate's First Reserve Porto won't break the bank, and it's good enough that it won't loll about on your counter for more than a week or so. Perfect keeper material.
This is a glass that radiates an amber-sweet vibe. There are strong pulses of caramel, cherry and pipe tobacco that linger and tease the way only port (and single malt scotch) can. You're not gonna want to bust moves all over the house while sipping a glass of port, but there's no denying that there is some kinda definite funk going on.