Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Quick Update

I feel bad about how long I've been going between posts lately, so here's a quick update on what I've been drinking and listening to:

What I've been drinking:

2012 Yvon Metras Beaujolais

Just discovered an awesome new wine store, not too far from me in Prospect Heights, called Passage de la Fleur.  Apparently it's owned by the same people who own the lower east side wine geek destination The Ten Bells.  They have a ton of really interesting direct import stuff, and also a really impressive amount of large format bottles.  They only stock natural wines.  I bought both this wine and the following wine there.  

Yvon Metras is a culty producer I've read about a fair amount, but I had never seen any of his wines in any of the stores I usually patronize.  Major props to PdlF for stocking this.  The woman working there, I believe her name was Emily, said she found the wine very "poulsard-like," and I totally agree.  In fact, tested blind, I would probably mistake it for poulsard, with its light color, and rose petal and orange peel aromas.  But it did have that telltale "vin de soif" transparency on the palate that makes good Beaujolais so lovable.  Really awesome wine, improved for days, great value at 20 bucks.  I couldn't keep my nose out of the glass.  

2011 Nicolas Carmarans L'Olto

Very interesting wine, also recommended to me by Emily at PdlF.  This wine is made by a producer I know nothing about, from a region I know very little about, with a grape I've never heard of called Fer Servadou.  The wine was dominated by peppery/vegetal sort of flavors with a parsley/cilantro bitter herb kind of thing going on.  There was a subtle berried fruitiness as well, but this was a far cry from anything I would call "fruity."  Nice and light on the palate with an interesting savory, almost cheesy kind of thing on the finish.  Honestly, the flavor profile was so bizarre I thought the wine could have been flawed, but I still really liked it, and I don't have the tasting experience to definitively say when a wine is flawed. Very interesting wine, if a little scary.  

2010 Domaine Gabriel Billard Cuvee "Milliane"

Definitely an earth driven wine with nice minerality and a leathery licorice sort of component on the nose that made the wine feel almost nebbiolo-esque.  Nice tart sour cherries on the palate.  The grand cru drinkers among you might fine this wine to be a bit "thin" but I found it to be light and bright and unpretentiously drinkable.  $24, for me, is a lot to spend on a bottle of wine, but for great burgundy it's a steal.  

2011 Huet Vouvray "Le Haut-Lieu" Sec

I bought this wine because I wanted to try some good quality Loire chenin blanc, and Huet seems to be a very esteemed domaine, but to be honest I found this wine disappointing.  It was very tight aromatically and just generally austere (even after a decent decant). Definitely had a nice mineral component and good acidity but if I'm going to shell out 30 bucks I want a little more.  I found myself wishing I were drinking a $15 Muscadet.  Maybe 2011 was a weird year in Vouvray, or more likely this wine just needs 10 years in the cellar. In any case, this wine just wasn't singing that night...

2012 Berhard Ott "Am Berg"

The wines of Bernhard Ott have already gotten a lot of hype and seem be to selling like Miley Cyrus albums this holiday season, so I'll just add that I too think this wine rocks.  This is Ott's entry level Gruner Veltliner, which at $15 would be uneconomical NOT to buy.  This wine is delicious, complex, very versatile with food, and working well above its pay-grade. Great stocking stuffer.

What I've been listening to:

Jorge Ben-A Tabua De Esmerelda

I love Brazilian pop music.  I love the grooves, I love the sophistication, I love the singers, I love the songs, and most of all I love the unpretentious joyfulness that is hard to find in our overly angst-driven American cultural landscape.  But, I will admit, I often struggle with the slick, cheesy, elevator style production used on a lot of Brazilian music.  In some cases, I'm able to ignore the copious flutes and dated synthesizers and enjoy the music for what it is, but other times I find it completely unpalatable.  However, with this record I don't need to compromise.  I love the production, the record has a ton of "vibe," and the music is incredible.  This record is a complete powerhouse in terms of vocal performance.  And yes there still are flutes.  

Azealia Banks-"212"

I think I'm a bit late to the party on Azealia Banks, but my god she is amazing.  Just when you were starting to get dark on your city because all these articles by David Byrne and Patti Smith and the like started floating around talking about how New York City is on its way out as a place where the arts can thrive, and you start thinking about moving to Detroit or Poughkeepsie or Estonia, you hear something like this and your faith is completely restored. A friend was explaining to me how Banks writes the rhythms for her verses first and then after the fact plugs in words whose syllables match those rhythms.  I don't know if that's true, but that would make sense to me considering the incredible dizzying musicality of her lyrical phrasing.  Azealia Banks, you make me proud to live in the 212.  WARNING: this track contains some pretty unsavory language.  My 13-and-under readership should seek parental supervision before listening.  


Ismail Jingo came up singing covers of songs by American musicians like Percy Sledge and James Brown in Kenyan night clubs.  Supposedly he even performed for the Godfather of Soul himself at the airport upon his arrival in Nairobi and, as the story goes, was so good that Brown joined him onstage and sang "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing" with him.  "Fever" was by far Jingo's biggest hit during his lifetime, and the track enjoyed a resurgence of crossover success when it was featured in the soundtrack of the 2006 film "The Last King of Scotland."* This is one of those tracks that is like candy for me.  Whenever I don't know what to listen to immediately I put it on, and I've listened to it on repeat.  I have a fever, and the only prescription is more "Fever."

Kanye West-Yeezus

That's right.  I'll admit it.  I love this record.  When I first listened to it I was blown away: the minimalist palate and the dark industrial sort of textures were very striking. But I decided after that that I had no desire to ever listen to it again.  I thought it was another example of high-concept, low-content music.  But sure enough, this record has crept its way back into my consciousness and back into my listening rotation and, I have to say, I think it's really good.  Does it seem a bit half-baked lyrically?  Sure.  Is the overall aesthetic a bit grating at times?  A bit.  Do I find some of the Justin Vernon stuff unnecessary and annoying? Definitely.  But I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most adventurous and fearless hip-hop albums I've heard all year.  And by one of the most commercially successful artists in the world no less.  No one can deny the charisma and passion and intensity West puts into his delivery, even if the words, at moments, miss their mark.  And the record has a fascinating patience to it—it's more about tension than release. It completely upends the dynamic contours (or lack thereof) that have become the status quo in modern hip-hop production.  If nothing else, this record is important because it has set a new standard for how experimental and groundbreaking a commercial hip-hop record can and should be.  

Anyway, I was given the job of curating the wines for Thanksgiving dinner, so expect an update on how that went soon...

Happy Holidays!

*I got all this background info about Jingo from an amazing blog about African music called "Afro7."  Check it out!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Drinking about Music

Truly great wine is indescribable.  It has to be experienced.  This makes someone writing about wine’s job very difficult.  The approach most people take is to rattle off a list of all the flavors and aromas they detect (black currant, river stone, cat-pee, etc.) and describe the structural elements of the wine (body, weight, length, etc.).  It’s a necessary evil in writing—it’s useful in pointing out a wine’s “quirks”—but it can never give the reader a true impression of the wine.

I happen to like a lot of wines that could be described as “quirky.”  I hesitate to use the word “quirky” because it sounds a bit diminutive, but in my mind a wine can be grand and majestic and still be “quirky.”  These are wines that have novel characteristics, and they are easier to describe. Tasting notes are much more impactful when the notes of a wine are unique and exotic.  Poulsard comes to mind: a red wine that can display dried cranberry, blood orange, roses, and brine. Sounds pretty interesting right?

But how do you describe a wine whose characteristics aren’t necessarily that interesting, at least on paper?  A wine that is classic rather than surprising.  I ran into this problem in my attempt to describe this wine:

2010 Gerard Duplessis Chablis Premier Cru, Montee De Tonnerre

This is one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted but if I were to read off my tasting notes—citrus, seashells, minerality, brine, flowers—it would sound like textbook Chablis and tell you nothing about how special it is. Instead, its uniqueness has something to do with the way all these elements come together; the harmony of the wine, the energy and vibrancy of it.  How the wine feels like a living thing, and how it changes over time—how the wine makes you feel.  But that all sounds vague and fluffy and does an equally bad job of describing the wine as the Chablis laundry list I wrote before. 

I have the same issue with music journalism.  Music writers love to list all the different things they hear in cringe-inducingly silly language using phrases like “splashy cymbal work,” or “incendiary overdriven guitar riffage.”  Even if a writer manages to accurately describe the different instruments on a recording and the sounds they make, it still won’t give the reader an idea of how the music will make them feel.  As Elvis Costello famously said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

For example, I wonder how a critic would describe the band Big Business.  Big Business was one of my favorite bands in high school.  They regularly toured with the Melvins, another one of my all time favorite bands, as their opening act and eventually became members.  I saw them every time they came to town and was always blown away.  

They started as a two-piece, a bassist/vocalist and a drummer, but they usually toured with a guitarist as well.  I’ve just rediscovered their album “Here Come the Waterworks” which was a real standby for high school me. The nostalgia factor alone makes it fun for me to listen to but I still find the record impressive.  The instrumentation is pretty much exactly like their touring setup—bass, drums vocals and sometimes guitar—and they definitely took a hands-off approach in terms of production.  I could try to describe their style but I would feel a bit hypocritical, and luckily I can just do this…

What blows me away is how the band makes so much music happen with so few resources. If I tried to describe each musician’s individual contribution, the band would sound pretty unremarkable, yet the music is powerful, heavy, catchy, fun and above all unmistakably them.  The bass playing, the singing, and the drumming are all excellent, but it isn’t any one of these elements that makes the band great, it is all of them together.  The bass and drums can play a melodic role, while the vocals can contribute texture, or the rhythm of the lyrical phrasing can work together with the drums to contribute to the groove.  It’s a careful balancing act that the band manages masterfully.  At no point does the music feel incomplete, and in fact they deliver more in terms of power, texture and even pop-sensibility than many bands with much larger or more unique instrumentations. 

Big Business’ music is more than the sum of parts.  I think writers, myself included, overemphasize parts because they are tangible and relatable.  But then again, the day a writer or a critic can articulate everything that’s great about wine, or music, or anything else is the day it’s no longer necessary experience it.  Maybe a writer’s job is just to whet our appetites for the real thing.