Tom Waits; Beth Orton; The Meat Puppets…
It was a tough winter up here in Seattle. Don't get into a panic though, eastern Washington -- the dirt-and-rocks counterpoint to the Evergreen State image, the part where they grow our big $$$ Frenchie-style merlot -- had a temperate, mild season. Last we checked, vines were still there, and they seemed just fine. West of the Cascade mountains, where Seattle sits, however, it sucked. Cold. Dark. Windy. And not just "Seattle-style" rainy, but every-gawd-damn-day-rainy. Every day. Rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain. Jesus, enough already.
Sure, it's nice now, but winter was... Well, thank god there's wine, huh? Thank god there're the restorative pints of micro-brewed porter. And, of course, on those disgusting winter days we spend in crappy, abused places like Seattle or Detroit, Boston or Philly, we sure can't forget to thank god for the glowing warmth of a single-malt scotch.
If there's one artist whose voice sounds well-acquainted with the inner reaches of a bottle of scotch it's Tom Waits - America's tattooed, carny-workin', cigarette smokin', probably-spent-more-than-one-night-in-jail, crazy-look-in-his-eye uncle. His first studio album in a few years, The Mule Variations, is also Waits's first effort for the punk rock label Epitaph. Instead of Epitaph's usual diet of hardcore and ska punk, Mule Variations is a classic dose of good ol' Tom Waits. More than anything, Mule sounds remarkably like Waits's productive Rain Dogs era material.
While Waits is as singular a performer as there is in contemporary pop, that doesn't mean he doesn't have his signature moves -- the clanky percussion, the akimbo guitar runs, the gruff and grunted, talk/sing storytelling -- and that's what we get on The Mule Variations. It's an interesting trip through a neighborhood with which, thanks to Waits's vivid narratives, we're all very familiar. Don't think, however, that Mule Variations is throwaway. Far from it. Tender ballads, freak shows, stumbling travelogues and tales of bad people doing bad things in bad places are all part of Mule variations. It's, like most of Waits's best work, music that's oddly fascinating, funny and sometimes even a little sad. Mule is just one more in a string of remarkable records.
Generally cold n' crappy weatherwise calls for the warm and wonderful scotchwise, something along the lines of the bare-knuckled whisky from the Island of Islay. A brawling, gust-of-sea-salt wind like the Laphroig or the more refined Lagavulin. This year, however, was the winter of Loch Du, the "black" scotch. And it is, indeed, black, due to its 10-year fermentation in charred barrels. Actually, this scotch isn't entirely black. Loch Du is more of a molasses/rootbeer-colored juice. Instead of sea, salt, tobacco and peat flavors, Loch Du offers an almost sweet mouthful of, oddly 'nuff, rootbeer and molasses. There are also fistfuls of cinnamon and clove and a good dollop of honey, not to mention that gritty, dirt-floor heft a good scotch wears like a hockey jersey. For all its sweet-spice flavorings, there's still something pretty, something sugar-spice-and-everything-nice pretty, about the Loch Du that'll make it an almost inviting proposition for even non-scotch fans. May even be a Loch Du and soda exploratory mission in the very near future.
Beth Orton is a folk artist who's certainly not single-minded when it comes to folk music. One of her early gigs was with the electronic band The Chemical Brothers, and Orton continues to mix her acoustic guitar with the occasional beat box and sampler. But her bedrock talent is songwriting -- communicating emotion and atmosphere with her words and arrangements. On Orton's new album, Central Reservation, she delivers her strong, leaning-into-the-wind tunes in a fragile voice that's at once calm and convincing. Orton's music is strong and insightful, taking time to linger over the details of emotional landscapes. And while Orton doesn't rush through her tunes, she's never boring, spicing her work with highly charged language or surprising musical innovations. Even more impressive is that, in her own quiet and unique way, Orton has managed to drag folk music into the 1990s without too much pain. And think -- only a decade late!
Remarkable is a word that's all too easy to abuse -- especially when you're describing wine or music. Remarkable this, remarkable that, blah, blah blah. But there's really no other word to describe the excellent sauvignon blanc now being created in that lil' island paradise we call New Zealand. Flinty and sharp, NZ sav blancs are wrung with mouthwatering citrus -- generally grapefruit with minor bolts of lemon and lime. Grapefruit is, however, the dominant flavor, and wines like the uber-hyped Cloudy Bay, and the excellent and inexpensive Stoneleigh, have set the bar high. Seresin 1998 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is yet another worthy of attention. With that gorgeous grapefruit tang leading the charge, the Seresin is full and up-front and almost entirely single-minded. This is grapefruit. Lip-smackin, pucker-inducing grapefruit, with just a suggestion of softness -- maybe vanilla-- in the nose and buried very deep in the finish. That single-mindedness, that dedication to one idea is what makes the Seresin so interesting. How far out there can these wines get? How intense and concentrated? We shiver in anticipation.
Drink the Seresin cold -- really cold -- and serve with simply grilled fish. This wine's tough enough to stand up to spiciness, but remember, it's a white, and if you overdo it on the pepper or the heat, you'll blow the guts out of this wine.
Speaking of coming to the party late, there're still people who bitch and moan that the turntable has no place in jazz -- that somehow and some way jazz should ignore innovations in how sound and music are created and stick to the basics. Those folks, sadly, haven't been hipped to what new tech can bring to the bandstand. Ki-Oku, a collaboration between DJ Krush and Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, presents the best the emerging hip-bop scene has to offer. Krush's beats, while certainly a focal point of the composition, don't come at the price of the melody -- which Kondo blows soft and breathy over the top of his partner's swirling atmospheres. Krush isn't only able to drive the direction and tempo, but he's also sublimely skilled in conjuring a mood -- often mixing up spooky n' somber sound collages that percolate and roil with a slow-motion grace. His up-tempo work is direct and solidly propelled. Thankfully, the canvasses Krush mixes up are large enough to include Kondo's color work. A richly toned player with a great sense of touch, Kondo's meshings add to the dreamy, psychedelic feel of the recording. While Ki-Oku is certainly a fresh-sounding recording, jazz fans might be surprised how traditional this sounds.
We've all got friends who get dreamy n' steamy over pinot noir. It's an interesting addiction -- quite similar to a taste for single malt, actually. Pinot (and scotch, for that matter) is a tough nut to crack. Smoky and complex, a good bottle is a riddle well worth puzzling over while you wait for the roasted/pepper-coated whatever to get cooked up and served. Oregon pinot, god love it, seems fully dedicated to this role of the mysterious beauty. Unless you live there, or really pay close attention, it can be tough to score a good bottle for a price that won't have you drinking beer out of a can the rest of the week. Adelsheim Vineyard's 1997 Southern Slopes Oregon Pinot Noir is one of us -- one of the good ones. One of the cheap ones. For under $15, you'll get a bottle filled with strong hits of chocolate and black pepper. Smaller traces of cherry, leather and tobacco round out the interesting corners. Light tannins, great with food, cool label... What are you waiting for?
While DJ Krush and Toshi Kondo are charting new paths in jazz, there's not a damn thing wrong with that old-style acoustic jazz, especially when it's in the hands of a demon the likes of Jacky Terrasson. Terrasson, a young pianist on the Blue Note label, usually records with his trio. But on this recording, Terrasson opens up the studio, and before you know it, tunes have been recorded featuring flutes, oboes, harmonicas, guitars...you name it. No matter how he dresses it up though, the show here is Terrasson and his flaming keyboard. Terrasson (a major wine-head, I'm told) is a muscular, powerful player who thrashes the keys with such speed and precision one wonders how his hands can keep up with his racing mind. The notes pile out of him while his band members, hanging on for their lives, somehow manage to hold on. The results on tunes like "What's Wrong" and "Le Roi Basil" are rhythmic and action-packed. Terrasson reaches deep into the trick bag for theatrical covers of "Bolero" as well as for a take on Pink Floyd's(!) "Money" that are both funny (a harmonica covers the melody) and interesting. An excellent work by one of our finest young pianists.
Be prepared for an interesting change as you pop the cork on a bottle of Windsor Vineyard's 1996 Private Reserve Chardonnay. Instead of a mixture of the regular chard flavors, Windsor serves up a glass full of spice -- 10 percent cinnamon and 90 percent vanilla. There's some fruit to this wine -- baked apple, a little pear -- but the dominant vibe is a delicious bowl of sweet and creamy vanilla ice cream with a dab of caramel. Rich, smooth and absolutely delish, the Windsor's a bottle to covet and drink slowly with a friend who's got a box of sugar cones.
While it's relatively easy to whip up a short list of smokin' young jazz pianists, when the question turns to smokin' young baroque violinists, the answer usually begins with, "ummmmm." Andrew Manze, however, is the name at the top of the list. Manze's latest outing is a recording of "The Devil's Sonata," a piece for solo violin written by Guiseppe Tartini in the early 1700s. According to legend, Tartini dreamed he made a pact with the devil. In the dream, Tartini handed his violin to the devil who, according to Tartini, proceeded to spin "a sonata so unusual and so beautiful, performed with such mastery and intelligence, on a level I had never before conceived was possible. I was so overcome that I stopped breathing and awoke gasping. Immediately, I seized my violin, hoping to recall some shred of what I had just heard." What Tartini ended up with is a lovely, graceful piece of music that just happens to be diabolically difficult to play. In the hands of Manze, however, the Devil's Sonata become a thing of beauty and exploration. Manze liberates the score, sometimes adding his own improvisational elements to the music all the while executing the finger-busting intricacies of the work without flaw. If it's been a while since you've been thrilled to the core by a piece of classical music, you need to hear this.
Honestly, Blackstone's 1996 Napa Valley Reserve Merlot probably won't thrill you to the very core. But it's good -- really good. Personally, I love the stuff. It's really fruit-forward, meaning it's sweet and juicy and easy to drink with or without food. There're tasty wafts of sugar-sweet strawberry, cherry, vanilla and not too much damn oak. It's got a soft mouthfeel, supple tannins and is round and plump like a little fat piggy. So, okay, it's a pretty thrilling wine. And since this bottle of snooty Napa juice is only about $10, my core is thrilled, chilled, and I'm getting all goose-bumpy. A toast to a classy wine at a bargain-basement price.
| ||Meat Puppets|
While our winter was beyond shitty, things have definitely turned around here in Seattle. The sun occasionally shines, the fish actually jump, and our SUVs turn over on the first twist of the key. A good thing too, because living in the West (or for that matter, living anywhere) involves a lot of driving. And there's no better time for listening to music than when one's behind the wheel, cursing fellow drivers and evading cops. Perhaps the best driving music of the last 15 years was created by the Meat Puppets, a trio that in the early eighties stumbled out of the Arizona dessert and into the very beginning of what's now known -- quite laughably -- as alternative rock. The Pups were an odd band in a time of odd bands. Like their contemporaries, Husker Du and the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets' sound was instantly knowable. Blending parts of the Grateful Dead's travelin'- down-the-road-feelin'-fine vibe with punk rock's energy and appreciation of emotional distance, the Pups were a country band that didn't know the first thing about country; a jam band that resented the excess of jam bands; a punk band so lost and outside the loud and fast boundaries that they seemed almost dropped from another planet. Ryko has just reissued the Meat Puppets' catalog, complete with the extensive liner note and bonus tracks treatment.
|The two essential recordings from the Pups are II (their second recording, duh, from 1984) and its follow-up, Up on the Sun, from 1985. II blasts out of the speakers with a swirling punk rock gusher called "Split Myself In Two," showing the band's punk roots. From that point, II is all over the map. Shuffling and bumping acoustic jams give way to wandering, trippy sun-baked tunes about being lost, wandering around and, oddly enough, tripping.|
For Up on the Sun, the Pups' most rounded, consistent recording, the band continued to emphasize its down-home, organic side. Sounding like a cross between the Dead, the Eagles and Country Joe and the Fish, the Pups continued to strain their influences through a punk rock sensibility. Sure, by now they could actually play pretty well and sing close to on key, but their charming weirdo approach and aggressive stylistic mix and match kept the band a singular voice in the increasing homogenous land of rock and roll.
For a band as full of nutty ideas as the Meat Puppets, a matching wine would have to be equally adept at taking risks and, like the Pups, stumble into something like greatness. Evolution #9 is that wine. In fact, the idea behind this Sokol Blosser white is so dumb, so destined to be mocked, that I'm not su
rprised for one nanosecond that it works -- and works well. Honestly, do you really think that a blend of nine white varietals is worth a warm bottle of green Gatorade? Nuh-uh, me either.
Surprise. This goofy bottle (and its self-consciously hip packaging) from the desserts of Dundee, Oregon is charming, sweet and full of interesting nooks and crannies begging for a little tongue exploration. Containing glugs of pinot gris, semillon, muller-thurgau and the mysterious "six other varietals," the #9 is a mouthful. Tropical fruits, grapefruit, a touch of lemongrass and a rounded heft -- maybe from an infusion of chardonnay's buttery vanilla vibe -- make this a great hot-weather bottle. Get this baby nice and cold, chill the glasses and repeat after me, "number nine, number nine, number nine..."
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