Derailers; Elliott Smith; Mary Lou Lord…
Not again with the wack theories. I know. Sorry. Bear with me.
This one's not very complex and it explains -- big-picture-wise -- a little more than you might think. Simply put, my theory of the month is this: Wine is now trendy; therefore we, the wine public, such as we are, demand more trends. Simple, yes?
You've undoubtedly perceived the results of wine's new trendiness; "hot" grapes; quirky, oh-so-interesting winemaking "personalities;" far-off regions ready to "explode" their fab, cheap wines onto the market. Suddenly it's a new fad every week. Serious wine drinkers develop a voracious appetite for more information, new products, something -- anything -- just a little different. With sophisticated marketing plans, savvy advertising campaigns and hip design ideas entering the American wine biz at a greater and greater rate, the whole scene begins to look like, gulp, the infamous pop music biz.
That may not be as terrifying as it sounds. True, we can blame the pop music biz for the Spice Girls, Hanson, et al. But that's only half the story. There are still great bands putting out great records regardless of trends. Bands true and hard working. Bands like Austin's Derailers.
On their new LP, Reverb Deluxe, the Derailers howl, yowl and sweat through an entire set of non-faked, roadhouse honky-tonk and head-soaking roots rock. Singing about lyin' lovers, pawn-shop wedding bands and other assorted tales of woe, heartbreak and whisky-lubed despair, the Derailers look to early sixties shitkickers, like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, for inspiration. Their guitars jump quick, a pedal steel adds that full-bodied whine, and the drums and bass skip alongside keeping the whole mess from gettin' too sloppy, too sad, too carried away. Sometimes the Derailers moan lonely waltzes like "I Don't Believe I'll Fall in Love Today." Sometimes they put the throttle to an early Beatles-tinged rave up like "California Angels" (bonus wine lyric: "The wine they make up north there/never make me feel this way/I only hope to hold you/in my arms again someday"). They even toss in flamenco-tinged weepy. No matter what they're doing, the Derailers are putting their big, bruised, greasy hearts into it. Besides a truck that kicks over on cold mornings, you can't ask for more than that.
Can't think of a more natural match for the Derailers than an honest, hard-working cab from some dusty old cow ranch. Don't let the fact that Los Vascos 1994 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is from one of wine's new, "hot" scenes deter you either. Though they squeeze up Los Vascos cab in Chili, the money behind the deal is from the coffers of French bigwigs Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). This ranch may be dusty, but there are probably few, if any, cows grazing. The Los Vascos is a big, fruity glass of dark purple that's remarkably well-balanced and easy drinking. There are big bucketfulls of ripe red- and blackberries swimming around with just enough tannin to keep the whole deal interesting. That this stuff can be had on sale for a ten spot ought to be enough to renew your confidence in that entire NAFTA deal. The Derailers -- their cover of "Raspberry Beret" notwithstanding -- will renew your confidence in both kinds of American music -- country and western.
Good Will Hunting
By now, everyone has consumed and mulled over the whys and wherefores of "Good Will Hunting," the recent Gus Van Sant film starring Matt Damon and Robin Williams. What slipped by with less notice, however, was the film's just-released soundtrack. Anchored by a stunning Al Green version of the Bee Gee's "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" the disc also includes nice tunes from Luscious Jackson and a soulful nugget from the Waterboys.
The majority -- seven songs -- of the disc is handed over to singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. Smith, already with three critically acclaimed solo LPs (Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or) to his credit, is a painfully hard-living punk rock survivor. (He formerly fronted the band Heatmiser.) Having traded his growling electric for a gently strummed acoustic leaned gingerly against a fragile- to- the- point- of- collapse whisper, Smith props gorgeous melodies and turns of phrase against a street-smart subject matter. The result? Strikingly simple songs that cut to the quick with undeniable, cinematic grit. Smith is at once the delicate song crafter picking out soft melodies and the seen-it-all street poet reporting from sad places.
Attempting to recapture the long-lost flag of folk rock is a rather difficult endeavor, but Smith's songs are more than up to the challenge. Folk isn't dead; it's just been resting, and Smith has issued a wake-up call.
Tough but pretty often means sexy. It's an apt, under-used description of Smith, and it also works for Cakebread Cellars 1996 Sauvignon Blanc. What's appealing about this wine is not so much what it reminds you of, but rather what it doesn't. Cakebread is absolutely singular. It's a wine that's confident, assured and altogether "there." If you think sav blancs can be too grassy, just try this, and find out what it's like to ponder the concept of "alternative" grassiness. After much meditation, I've figured it out: Lemongrass.
Cakebread is more than just one-dimensional, however. The glass is wrung dry with a twist of citrus (heavy on the lemon) and enough zing to cut through an over-eager Jamaican jerk shrimp. Aside from covering for kitchen indiscretions, Cakebread can stand on its own as a sipping and pondering wine. This is a tight, complex glass showing layers of sharp, interesting flavors that charge up and over as the wine opens. A terrific, engaging bottle.
The Rebel's Not In
The Halo Benders have never been accused of being trendy. They don't follow trends; they don't set trends. They just are . On their new LP, The Rebel's Not In, guitarist/vocalist Doug Martsch (Built to Spill) and vocalist Calvin Johnson (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, K Records), have created that rare band that sounds like no one and nothing else. Somewhere between the sweet nonsense of Johnson's basso profundo and Martsch's heart-twisting lullabies, the Halo Benders squeeze and stretch indie pop into shapes familiar and odd. Both Martsch and Johnson are peculiar, fascinating personalities as leaders of their own projects, and this, their third collaboration, is often as warm as it is offbeat. When Johnson and Martsch are in sync, there are few sounds in pop music as distinctive. They're sweet, touching and temperamental -- like some brilliant and silly morphing of the Beach Boys and Captain Beefheart. Even if the Halo Benders only function as the sketchbook for two unconventionally inventive songwriters, we should be thankful for the glimpse at their warped workings.
While the Halo Benders are just too idiosyncratic to be trendy, trendy may just be the perfect descriptor for the melon grape. That doesn't necessarily mean melon can't be distinctive, mind you. With its delicious green-apple and lemon flavors, J. Fritz 1995 Russian River Valley Melon is a built-to-gulp guzzler. But there's more to this wine than just cold, silky citrus. If you're a sav blanc fan, you'll generally notice less of the green, grassy flavors. Instead, Fritz shows springy tangerine and no BS zing. And while melon doesn't generally have the fat, buttery fruit of a chard, this bottle hints at a soft pear something and a few wafts of peach or vanilla deep in the mix.
MARY LOU LORD
Got No Shadow
Mary Lou Lord is showing an "emotive" something in her personality these days. That wasn't always the case. Early in her career, Ms. Lord was best known for getting in slap fights with Courtney Love. Things change.
While Love is only contractually obligated to rock music these days, Lord seems to be investing more and more of her soul into the muse. That's good news for fans who were so taken by the shot-and-a-beer folk of her first, self-titled LP. Lord's new effort, Got No Shadow, presents a more mature, balanced vision from the Boston-based songstress. These works, built around a mid-tempo acoustic and Lord's pretty-but-gritty voice, grow and take on a larger feel after repeated listenings. Lord has recruited a number of pals to help out on this record. Elliott Smith, Shawn Colvin (who sounds like Lord's older sister), Nels Cline (Geraldine Fibbers) and William Goldsmith (Foo Fighters) all add to the rounded, complete feel of this smooth and surprisingly mellow record. Lord has definitely grown up, and Got No Shadow -- a solid LP that stridently ignores trends -- is proof.
A recurring wine trend that should be waved away every time it stinks up the room is knee-jerk chardonnay bashing. Go ahead, flirt with melon or marsanne (and definitely begin a love affair with Cakebread's SB). But don't forsake ol' faithful -- a glass of golden, glowing USA-made chard.
This is a great time for chard. A golden era. A true and beautiful thing. With California kicking out monster bottles, and Oregon and Washington narrowing the gap, block-rocking chards can be had easy, for cheap. Take Chateau St. Jean 1996 Chardonnay Sonoma County, for instance. Here's a delicious bottle of lush, rich, buttery chard stuffed with fig, vanilla and pear flavors. Chateau St. Jean has produced more than 100,000 cases of this chard, which means it's everywhere -- cheap. Consider it a gift. You simply can't do better (unless you find the Los Vascos on sale).
With so much good American chard available, it's difficult to recommend just two. Buehler 1996 Sonoma Valley Chardonnay is a tight, flinty counterpoint to the soft and supple St. Jean. Buehler's chard, even though wrapped in a tidier package than the St. Jean, is not short on flavors. Loads of tropical fruit and pear, kept in check by a crisp citrus undertone, keep this bottle from becoming that "typically sloppy chard" that's become the tired "whine" of late.
Cellars work both ways. Good young bottles go in; great old bottles come out. My cellaring system isn't really a system at all. Usually I save up some dough, visit the winery, and spring for a few bottles. I get 'em home, I set 'em in conspicuous locations, admire the labels. After a few days, they're gone -- spirited away and sent to snooze behind a padlocked apartment storage space. Outta sight, they're outta mind, outta the twisted reach of the corkscrew. But here's the problem: the "cellar bottles" are just too good.
Wine cellars (mine included) tend of be a highbrow subdivision -- a gated community inhabited by county-clubbers, blue-haired matrons and stuffy old farts. Where's the fun in that? If a wine cellar is exclusively composed of no-brainer bottles of highly rated wine, that's fine. When the cork is popped five years hence, you'll no doubt realize the windfall of the investment. Let's call this the "conservative strategy."
There are some problems with this conservative strategy. Number one: it's too slow. Those good bottles are expensive, damn it. It's gonna take a looooong time to stock a cellar with $65 bottles. Number two: conservative investing is boring. If, directed by some wild hare, you socked away an entire case of a young, fighting cab in Clinton's first term, the Gods may smile upon you, somehow blessing that case and transforming the long shot into a champ. Viola! You're deep in a wildly great cab. And there's only one thing sweeter than hitting a long shot... hitting that long shot over and over. Remember, you've got an entire case of phat red at your disposal! That's the joy of the more "aggressive" cellaring approach.
Already Carmenet's 1995 Dynamite Cabernet Sauvignon is a pretty swell-looking bottle. A compact bundle of springy tannin, lurking fruit and youngish oak, Dynamite begs a little cellar time. What will become of those minty undertones? What red and black fruit shapes will emerge? How will this young, limber mystery pan out? Tom Petty said it: The waiting is the hardest part. But with Dynamite (named so because they had to blast the hillside with TNT to plant the vines), you can be reasonably assured your canny, aggressive cellaring strategy will pay off. Thank me later.
When it comes to the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus, it's time to stop waiting. Mingus, a monumental figure in American music, is the subject of a new five-CD set collecting his work from the amazing 1956 to 1961 stretch. Mingus, along with sidemen the likes of Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Mal Waldron and Bud Powell, is in classic form here. What emerges after repeated listenings of Passions of a Man is an artist incredibly talented and intensely driven. Often, while the band burns white hot behind him, Mingus can be heard exhorting his troops to push themselves even further. Often it's just Mingus shouting to shout, swept up in the huge whirlwind he's created.
Accompanied by a 120-page book, this set deftly pulls the legend of Mingus into sharper focus. We glimpse a snapshot of a man as fiery as his music. Sure it gets hot when Mingus gets cookin', but we could all use more of this heat.
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