Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Eat, Think, Gossip

While I was in the States in October, I was lucky enough to acquire a copy of this book, The United States of Arugula by David Kamp, which I'd been wanting to read for some time. Foodie-ism, if I may be forgiven the term, is an interesting cultural phenomenon, and hardly restricted to the United States, although the degree of it there and the swiftness with which it arrived can be unnerving. Furthermore, this book ties in with a couple of others which have been getting a lot of discussion recently, most notably Bill Buford's Heat, and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, , the former of which I've read, the latter not. I did, however, read Pollan's great article on "nutritionism" on Sunday, and suddenly a bunch of stuff came together in my head. Now let me see if I can disentangle it.

Kamp's story begins with pioneers like James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne, each of whom had an individual way of awakening postwar Americans towards the possibilities of what they put on their tables. Beard's approach was that of the hearty bon-vivant, a man's man who wasn't afraid to mess it up in the kitchen to produce good-tasting, all-American food, and who was particularly adept at that manliest of all pursuits, outdoor cooking -- although he could also whip out a mean loaf of bread. Child and Claiborne, on the other hand, were lucky enough to come onto the scene just as America's Francophilia was initiated by Jacqueline Kennedy's love of French food and put into high gear by the restaurant at the French Pavillion of the 1964-65 World's Fair on Flushing Meadows on Long Island. Child had taken cooking lessons in Paris while her husband was employed there and came back to the States determined to turn Americans onto this amazing cuisine. Claiborne, for his part, was reviewing restaurants for the New York Times and got to watch the phenomenon grow, eventually hooking up with one of the chefs who'd worked at the Fair, Pierre Franey, to make the Times' food section the template for all other American newspapers'.

But the story really becomes important when the idea of eating well leaves the expensive restaurants and democratizes by merging -- in California, of course -- the impulse for fine cooking with the search for perfect ingredients, which latter was an inevitable product of the hippie-driven natural foods movement. The central figure for this was -- and, really, still is -- Alice Waters of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, and the early chaos of that revolutionary place is a story which meets Kamp's skills head-on. The intrigue, the musical beds, the drug use, and above all the titanic egos on display are perfect fodder for his Vanity Fair sensibility. Still, he never loses sight of the Big Picture, which was that ultimately this was a very, very successful movement, one which soon expanded past the California borders and into other states, and also expanded past the restaurant business into producers like Celestial Seasonings and Ben & Jerry's and -- especially -- into the grocery business through America's Whole Foods chain (which started in a building near my house in Austin which is now a laundromat).

The book's momentum is such that you're just swept away by the stories, and the skillful way Kamp joins them all together. The Food Network! Iron Chef! The Zagat Survey! Mark Miller! Tony Bourdain! It really is a great read. Except...

Except three really important figures in my own telling of this story are missing, two entirely, and one mentioned in passing for something I don't consider his most important contribution to the story. And, in a really, really backhanded way, this also reflects on Pollan's essay. Let me take these three missing persons in roughly chronological order.

First is Edna Lewis. who died last February at the age of 90. Mrs. Lewis was, unlike anyone else I can find in Kamp's book, black, and she learned how to cook the traditional way from the traditional sources. Untraditionally, however, she left for New York at the age of 16, and, after a short time as a domestic, became known as a cook. She ruthlessly pursued that career, doing private catering work and finally taking over the kitchen at Barney Josephson's Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, a hangout for all manner of lefties and jazz fans. She worked in several other restaurants, gave cooking lessons, and kept up her catering business, and in 1972, put out her first cookbook, The Edna Lewis Cookbook. Four years later came The Taste of Country Cooking, which made her reputation. I finally caught up with her (in a manner of speaking) in the late '80s, when she was brought in as executive chef to help rescue Brooklyn's fabled Gage & Tollner steakhouse. I remember going there with a group which included two German friends who loved to cook, and on the way out, one of them bought one of her cookbooks -- one I already had -- at the cashier. "You won't be able to make any of that back home," I warned her. "I don't care," she said. "Anyone who takes this much care knows things I don't know, and they're things I can turn to my own uses. This is a very wise woman." And she nailed it.

Edna Lewis was fanatical about two things: paying attention and having the perfect ingredients. Observing what you were doing while you were doing it so that it became part of you was obviously something she'd picked up from her mentors. And having perfect ingredients, although it was considered eccentric when she first came into the public's notice, is now a sine qua non of any good cooking. It wasn't so much that Mrs. Lewis brought Southern cooking north, but that she brought what she considered Southern practice public. And yet, she is ignored in Kamp's book.

The second figure is Raymond Sokolov, mentioned in passing as the guy who replaced Craig Claiborne as the Times' restaurant reviewer. Which he was, at the beginning of his career. He also became, through his books and his column in, of all places, Natural History magazine, one of the first to make the point that there were a lot of native American ingredients and foodways which were vanishing thanks to Big Agriculture and the Interstate highway system. I'm not even sure his 1981 book, Fading Feast: A Compendium of Disappearing American Regional Foods is still in print. While writing other books, including a cook's apprentice narrative which pre-dated Buford's Heat by a couple of decades, The Saucier's Apprentice, which also serves as a practical guide to classic French sauces. But it was his sounding the klaxon about the "fading feast" which puts Sokolov in line for mention in this book, because people heard the alarm and responded to it, which has at least as much to do with the current greenmarket revival as Alice Waters and the guys in Union Square. (Due diligence: I worked under Sokolov during the years I was a cultural correspondent for the Wall Street Journal Europe, and had dinner with him once or twice, and although he can be a tough editor, I really like the guy).

The third missing figure here is one you can link to from the list over there on the side of the page: John Thorne. Thorne is far more of an outsider than the other two, but once again, I consider him important to the American food story for his doggedness in seeking out historical precedents and attempting to reproduce classic bygone dishes at a time when this was something very few were doing, as well as his non-gor-may attitude, and, most importantly, his ability to render that attitude and the reasoning leading up to it in absolutely crystal-clear prose. Thorne's never been in much of a position to deal with classic French cuisine, having spent his formative cooking years in rural Maine and, now, in Massachusetts, but his was the absolutely perfect recipe for cornmeal pancakes I cooked this past Sunday morning and when I heard he was investigating Louisiana Cajun and Creole cuisine for his book Serious Pig, I was happy to pass on to him all the knowledge -- and recipes -- I had. (He wound up quoting me). I'm happy to have noticed that, after a slight interruption, he seems to be publishing the Simple Cooking newsletter again, and you could do yourself no bigger favor if you like to cook -- and, just as importantly, if you want to read some of the best-written, best-thought-out writing on food and foodways -- than to send the Thornes money for a year's subscription.

What all three of these figures have in common is what breakaway cookbook author Eric Gower calls "mindfulness," a being-there-in-the-moment approach to the not-so-simple acts of cooking and eating. This kind of mindfulness is at the core of the approach Pollan is suggesting in his long essay -- and about as far away from the celebrity-driven honky-tonk of the second half of Kamp's book as you can get. It's also, I'm utterly convinced, at the heart of healthy, sane living, something I may not always achieve, but not for the lack of these exemplars' lessons. In short, I'm glad I read Kamp's book, for the scandal and for his attempt to structure a story which didn't seem to want to sit still. But I do think it's necessary to point out that that's not all there is to the story.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How Green Was My Week

Over the years, it's become something of a tradition: a visit to Green Week at the mammoth ICC convention center, perfect for combatting those mid-January blues. It's a huge celebration of food, a Berlin tradition ever since the end of World War II, with countries from around the world and all of the German states showing their wares.

But I think I'm over it.

I hadn't been in a couple of years, so this time I guarded my cash reserves so I could go there and, I hoped, pick up some cool stuff I couldn't get anywhere else, which is something that's always happened before. It was going to take a little more cash than usual; in the past, I'd either had a press pass or had friends in the restaurant business who were overwhelmed by freebie tickets from their suppliers. After all, the real reason for this event is so that German wholesale grocers and restaurant suppliers could make contacts with the agricultural export and processed food export divisions of other countries, although we normal consumers could always get something unusual to eat and sometimes bargains to bring back home.

Olive oil, for one thing. Back when quality olive oil was hard to find in this city, Green Week gave you the opportunity to sample oil from the entire Mediterranean, with Greece, and particularly Crete, selling a wide range of oils. My bet, though, was always the guy from Tunisia who showed up with oil from the same farm on which he grew the grapes for his (not very good) wine. Tunisia is Italy's dirty little secret: "Italian" olive oil only has to contain a limited percentage of grown-in-Italy oil to be so labelled. The rest is almost always made up of high-quality, low-price Tunisian stuff. Thus, I could buy a half-liter of pure Tunisian oil for five Euros, thereby saving myself about 15 Euros for a fancy label.

Another regular stop was the Irish stand, where I not only knew a couple of the people working there, but I could also pick up some actual Cheddar cheese with flavor. Yeah, it was Kerrygold, from some huge mega-corporation, but after the orange rubber which passes for Cheddar in Berlin, it was pure heaven, and never lasted very long.

Then there'd be serendipity: the year some Mexicans gave me a bunch of jalapeno and serrano chiles because they couldn't give them away to the Germans and were happy to see someone who knew what they were and appreciated them. The year I suddenly realized, in the middle of the exhibition hall, that I was out of coffee and almost immediately came upon the Cameroonian stand, which sold me some stuff that turned out to be delicious. There was the intensely smoky (and never again seen) sauna ham from Finland, the hair-raising and sweat-inducing Estonian mustard, the year the Portugese were unloading cans of tuna in olive oil for 19 cents. Before the pasta ladies started showing up at the Thursday market at Hackescher Markt (before there was a Thursday market at Hackescher Markt, for that matter), it was a source for high-end Parmesan cheese, and the guy always talked me into buying a salame soaked in Barolo wine, which could turn an ordinary pizza truly extraordinary.

But this year: nothing.

Well, almost nothing. The Tunisians had long ago stopped bringing wine and olive oil, and concentrated on herbs and crappy handcrafts, but this year, that same olive oil (with a much-improved label) was there, and was dutifully scored. As was almost-authentic Cajun sausage (under the name Knoblauch Knacker) from the Wattwurm Wurst guy, who shows up at various markets -- although not, alas, in Berlin -- around this part of the country. But something basic has changed in the way this thing is presented to the public, and not in a good way at all.

Part of the problem is alcohol. Green Week has always had a large contingent of vendors of beer and wine -- indeed, it's impossible to imagine a German food show without big displays of German beer and wine, with the former, at least, being done around bars dispensing the sponsor's product. And, of course, people drink it and become what the American alcohol industry calls "overserved." National stands always offer some sort of local schnapps, too, and people drink those on top of the beer. Late in the day at Green Week can be pretty nasty, especially in the men's bathrooms. But if you wanted something else, there was a wide range of stuff to eat. There was far less of that this time, and people were far more drunk at 3 in the afternoon than I'd ever seen them. And on a Tuesday, at that. (Always avoid Green Weekends). No doubt, behind the Albanian vodka, there were Albanian export guys selling Albanian lamb to German restaurant suppliers. But boy, was there a lot of alcohol.

Another part of the problem, sad to say, is Germany. The Republic of Malaysia, which is spending millions this year promoting its cuisine, a promotion I'd love to get in on, was absent. Fortunately, I had a real live Malaysian to consult on this, and he told me that the government gave up. "The Germans hated the food." Well, I can understand that: it wasn't Chinapfanne, that gooey, malodorous concoction so many Germans think is what people eat in that (broadly defined) area of the world. The Malaysians made the mistake of offering actual Malaysian food instead of Malaysiapfanne, and got rejected. Meanwhile, I stood by the Vietnamese stalls, which were cooking up Chinapfanne of some sort while waiting to hook up with a friend who was at the show and was going to meet me there, and I finally recognized the component of the dish that makes it smell so bad: overcooked cabbage. Germans, of course, have no problem with overcooked cabbage.

But it goes beyond the Malaysians and their hurt feelings. Other nations were missing as well. Israel, purveyor of loads of the vegetables and fruits in our markets during the winter, was absent, as, thank heavens, were their stinky Pfanne. Ireland, where I'd usually beg off a steak sandwich one of my pals was ready to cook up for me, and where I'd really hoped to stock up on some white sharp cheddar: missing, although Guinness was represented by two bars. France, which is usually promoting beef (which Germans barely eat), cheese (but not the higher-end stuff, just the heavily-processed fake Brie and so on you find in our supermarkets), oysters (which R in season!), and downmarket wines (wine "tastings" with an eye towards getting you to subscribe to regular deliveries are a big scam at Green Week): pas la. The United States of America, for heaven's sakes, which was usually willing to embarrass itself by a hotdog-and-doughnut stand, another place selling Samuel Adams beer, a wine-subscription guy selling Californa wine, and, uh, some company in Wisconsin that made pots and pans: outta here.

My take on this is that the world's exporters have more or less given up on Germany as a market for quality stuff. Of course, I didn't need to go half-way across town and spend 12 Euros to get into the ICC to postulate this: all I'd need to do would be to visit the "upmarket" food floor at Kaufhof in Alexanderplatz, but spending three hours on the floor of Green Week brought it home. The people who buy for the German mass market haven't yet discovered what I know to be a sizeable contingent of younger (ie, 30-40-year-old) consumers with more refined (or, let us at least say, less crass) tastes which are making inroads even here in impoverished Berlin. So they buy what they've always bought, and feed the masses with booze and Pfanne and stuff that looks just like traditional German food but which is jacked up with MSG (that's E 621 for you label readers, or Natriumglutamat). Meanwhile, the jungle telegraph among my friends passes along news of a new store where you can get some good things that were hitherto unavailable, a new restaurant that is good enough that it probably won't make it, a mail-order house which ships to Germany. In fact, I'll be posting some of this stuff as soon as the info reaches critical mass.

But Green Week? Nein, danke. Und...schade.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Tamales in Berlin? Impossible. Well, not entirely. There was a Mexican woman who showed up at the first Karneval der Kulturen and handed out tamales to promote her new tamale-making business, and dissolved in tears after the Germans first accepted them, then threw them in the street because they couldn't bite through the corn-husks. Never occurred to them to unwrap them, I guess. But -- wise woman that she was -- she soon gave up the business.

Late last summer, though, a friend from Texas announced he was coming over, and I asked him if he could bring some stuff over for me, including some cornmeal. Instead of cornmeal, I got a four-pound sack of masa harina, the treated cornmeal you make tortillas from. Oops! But when I mentioned this to RFM, he mentioned he was going to California and could pick up some corn husks and any other stuff I might need to make tamales with. Just the ticket! He dutifully bought a few thousand of them, and I researched a recipe, coming upon this one, which, with some tweaking, looked like it would do the trick.

Finding a time and a place that was convenient to all took a bit of doing, but on Sunday, he, his friend Kristen, and I showed up at the dancer's place (she's got the only kitchen big enough to do this) and got down to some serious tamale making. Actually, I showed up first to get five pounds of pork roast and two chickens boiling and returned some hours later to find them boiled and cooled off. I proceeded to shred nearly the whole meat-mountain by hand, which was essential; as we discovered, the strings of meat are like shreds of tobacco to be rolled into a tamale/cigarette.

Next, I heated the meat-seasoning paste on the stove and cooled it some. By this time Mike and Kristen had showed up, and it was time to get to work. First, Mike kneaded the spice-paste into the meat:

Next, I stirred more spices into the dry masa, added some oil, and then we whisked in the broth with an electric mixer. All this while, the corn husks had been soaking in the sink, so we were ready to go. Here's the wet fixins:

Learning not to overfill them, learning to roll them correctly, and learning to fold them carefully wasn't easy, as you can see from the wide variety of shapes they wound up in:

As it turned out, Kristen was extremely proficient at making perfect tamales:

Her secret was to really roll them back and forth in the husk, just as you shape a cigarette in a cigarette paper. She can probably roll something that looks like a Camel with one hand. Anyway, we took the first batch and steamed them while we were rolling the next batch: we had two pots and two steaming baskets we could use, which was fortunate because it sped things up well. The recipe said to steam them for two hours, which seemed excessive and -- fortunately, because we were starving by now -- was. About 30 minutes proved to be enough to firm up the gloppy masa and heat the meat all the way through, and before long we were attacking them like the ravenous beasts we were: the smell had long since permeated the kitchen.

They don't look so good, but if you could smell this photograph, you'd know that looks aren't everything:

After dinner, we realized there was a lot of meat left over, so we whipped up another bowl of masa and continued rolling. This last batch we didn't bother to steam, and I produced a box of Zip-Loc bags and proceded to pack tamales, six to a bag, ready to freeze. We each wound up with three bags apiece, each as heavy as a brick. Kristen shows off part of her take:

Quite a project, and physically exhausting, but I'd happily do it again. Once, that is, I'm through eating the ones I have.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

First Crumbs of Oh-Seven

Good-bye to all that. Well, not good-bye, but here's the stack with just about every CD I played in 2006 in it, from which I drew the last two posts. Exceptions are the box sets and the discs I've used for radio pieces, which got filed elsewhere. As impressive as this stack is, it's not nearly as large as you'd think, especially once you subtract the many CDs with similar spines you see in there, which are CDs burned from downloaded Indian classical music, which I played a lot of this year, for some reason.

Sometime in the next couple of days, these will be filed away and a new stack will start.

* * *

Now, here's a campaign I can get behind! On Jan. 21, there'll be a vote as to whether to re-name a part of Kochstr. Rudi-Dutschke-Str. For those of you who don't know who he was, there's a decent bio of the charismatic left-wing rabble-rouser who later became a committed Green here in German. The really edgy thing about this proposal is the segment's propinquity to the Springer Verlag building, where Germany's right-wing press lord printed lies about the youth culture of the '60s and fostered the climate that saw Dutschke take three bullets to the head during a demonstration. He lived, but he was never the same again, and died after an epileptic seizure in his bathtub in 1979, aged 39. I'm not eligible to vote, but I'd be proud to if I could. Dutschke was the kind of thoughtful West Berlin politico this city needed more of, which, I guess, is why he was eventually driven to exile in Denmark.

* * *

I thought I'd seen the end of stupid brand-names with the Puky bicycles and the SMEG refrigerators, but no: visiting some website the other day, I saw an ad from Neckermann, a big German mail-order house, for their hip new line of footwear: Re-Ject Sneakers. Uhhh, guys? Sneakers are supposed to be a prestige item, not something for losers. Try again.

* * *

Okay, it's a cliche to talk about what the search engines are looking for when they hit your blog, but ever since someone in Turkey found me by searching for "fried tits," I've done my best to check out what's going on out there. I guess the search for "Berliner luft cake recipe" was pretty odd; I've never understood the obsession with the air here, and why it's supposed to be so special, but there really are songs about the "Berliner Luft." But a cake? I wouldn't touch it!

Still, this all fades into normality in the face of the person about a week ago who landed here after Googling "Mayonnaise spread on one's lawn to attract the zombies."

Not that I'm going to try that, understand.

* * *

And finally, one nice addition to the neighborhood that I discovered while walking around on New Year's Day: a new Nike! This is good because a number of her pieces have disappeared: the three identical women doing yoga, which was the first of hers I saw, the one outside Cafe Burger, and the fat girl by Friedrichstr. station, among others. I found another in Kreuzberg that I haven't shot yet, but it may no longer be there, because it had signs of having been attacked from below by a crowbar, and I found a couple yesterday in a part of Prenzlauer Berg I hadn't visited in about a year that I'm going back up to shoot soon. But, not very far from the mad installation Invalid Beach on Invalidenstr. here's Nike's new year present:

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Best Of The Old, 2006

As I said last time, I spent more time listening to old music this year than I did to new music -- when I bothered listening to music at all. Part of this is due to the fact that I have writing commitments to a couple of magazines and a radio show, all of which have to do with reissues or older music. Part of it, though, I have to admit, is that at least I knew what I was getting, and it wasn't all confessional songwriting, which seems to have taken over these last few years -- or at least taken over what shows up in my mailbox. At least there was some diversity in the reissues, and I appreciate that.

So, in no particular order, here are some of my faves. And, as with last time, remember that clicking on the link and ordering from it brings me a whopping 4% of the money, bringing me ever closer to getting out of Berlin -- a worthy cause if there ever was one. Or, well, of course, that's what I think...


Bob Wills: Legends of Country Music: Amateur rock historians always talk about how Elvis pioneered the vital fusion between black and white popular music, but that's hooey. Bob Wills was there first. So were a lot of other people, but none of them was as successful, and as successful for so long, as Wills and his parade of brilliant instrumentalists. West Texas fiddle tunes and hot swing jazz only sounds like a weird idea until you drop the needle on some, and this collection is by far the finest assembling of Wills' output ever. And although Legacy has the jump on others who'd compile this stuff, since most of Wills' best music was made for Columbia, Gregg Geller and Rich Kienzle, who put this together, managed to come up with a whole disc's worth of stuff made after he left that's top-drawer. This set is not only an education in itself, it's some of the greatest American music ever recorded. You need it.

Friends of Old Time Music: The Folk Arrival, 1961-1965: It was a total shock for the young folkies who'd been listening to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music that not only could some of these people still be alive, but that a lot of them actually were. After a number of them were located -- and others, who'd never recorded, also showed up -- there was a mad scramble to record them and present them live in concert. Probably the most notable concert series was run out of Izzy Young's Folklore Center on McDougal Street in New York, by a group calling itself Friends of Old Time Music. True to their mission, they recorded every show, and the compilers of this three-disc set had their work cut out for them culling it down to what you see and hear here. What's most remarkable -- and, in a way, discouraging -- is that most of what's on this set is previously unissued; it's discouraging in that the FOTM albums Folkways put out in the '60s had some amazing stuff on them, and I don't know where to point you to it. That said, this is heartwarming stuff, from Dock Boggs unveiling a new song to Mississippi John Hurt's totally engaging on-stage presence. It's a document of something that won't pass this way again, captured when it was in its full flowering. Essential.

Country & West Coast: The Birth of Country Rock: It was only a short step from the folk revival to the birth of country rock, where various California cowpersons, would-be cowpersons, hippies, and Bakersfield malcontents -- not to mention dissident folkies like Jim McGuinn -- conspired to bring about a change in rock no less important than the one the Beatles had sparked. It wasn't an easy transition, but it succeeded -- all too well, as the birth of the Eagles attests. Compiler Alec Palao has done his homework, and this set not only includes some of the obvious -- the Byrds, the Burritos, et al -- but some worthy obscurities. Me, I'm really hoping for a Volume Two, but until then, this will continue to satisfy.

B.B. King Sings Spirituals: Another byproduct of the folk boom was the eventual concession by the folkies that maybe electricity was okay after all, and the subsequent discovery by the rock crowd of the great electric bluesmen who were still among them. None benefited from this quite so much as B.B. King, whose guitar style was one of the touchstones of the electric blues revival. But one of the things people have always missed about him was that it was his voice as much as his guitar virtuosity which had made him popular with black audiences from the beginning. On this album, Lucille takes a bit of a rest -- although she's by no means silent -- and the result is an album that King has always said is his favorite of all of his extensive catalogue. Fans have long clamored for a second one, and maybe now that he's retiring, we'll get one. Meanwhile, this more than does the trick. No, the blues isn't the devil's music.

Hearing Is Believing: The Jack Nitzsche Story, 1962-1979 and Hard Workin' Man: The Jack Nitzche Story, Vol. 2: Phil Spector's Wall of Sound? That was Jack Nitzche. Phil had the idea, but it was his arranger who put it on paper for all those musicians. Naturally, an ambitious guy like Nitzche wasn't going to stay in Spector's shadow for long, and he went on to produce and arrange albums by a huge number of people, from Doris Day to Willy de Ville, before moving to the even more lucrative field of film scores. These two records document a wide variety of his work, from his early single "The Lonely Surfer," through an absolutely radiant arrangement of Neil Young's "Mr. Soul" for the Everly Brothers, to his work with Neil Young (and his playing in Crazy Horse), all the way up to his last work, with the obscenely talented young Louisianan C. C. Adcock. Two of my most-played discs of the year. Incredible stuff.

Rockin' Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly: Another piece of good homework. Rockabilly can be terribly tedious, as we listen to washed-up or never-was country singers attempting to get down with the kids, or kids thrashing around trying to be as cool as Elvis. By recasting this movement as "punk and rockabilly," complier James Austin not only builds a bridge to the present, but clarifies the past, so that the hillbilly component is only part of the mix, and outright zaniness comes to the fore where it belongs. I've got some quibbles with the selection, but overall, this is a wonderful presentation of an era in American popular music when nobody knew what the formula was, but didn't figure that was any reason to stop.

Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel: A figure in both rockabilly and country rock, Waylon Jennings was yet another of those Texas guys whose music didn't fit in anywhere but refused to let that stop him. This four-disc collection is exhaustive, and I bet most of you will be satisfied with The Ultimate Waylon Jennings, which is a tidier selection, but then you'd miss Lenny Kaye's liner notes and the version of "Jole Blon" Buddy Holly produced for him.

Spencer Wiggins: The Goldwax Years: Damn those Brits! When you think you've discovered all the great soul singers there ever were, they go and launch another CD full of astounding vocal work backed with great arrangements at you! Wiggins was from New Orleans, which figures, although his work didn't partake of any of the Meters/Toussaint brand of exotica but went straight for fine country soul, which was what Goldwax did best. This is as fine a collection of his stuff as you'll find, and I recommend you get it before the next amazing soul singer's CD slides into my mailbox.

Wanda Jackson: The Very Best of the Country Years: Wanda Jackson wasn't fazed by the fact that she didn't become the female Elvis -- at least in sales, since artistically she more than met her goal. She slid gracefully into a career as a country singer, and she sure had the pipes for it. So it's hardly surprising that this collection is as good as it is, since the compilers were able to omit the so-so stuff that was a fact of life for every Nashville-based entertainer at the time and concentrate on stuff which extends her legacy. And when the new tough-girl Nashville gals -- read Loretta Lynn -- started happening, Wanda was ready: check out the bizarre "This Gun Don't Care (Who It Shoots)."

Good God! A Gospel Funk Hymnal: Can I hear the congregation say, "Just plain weird?" Amen! This actually takes me back to the gospel shows I wrote about in my post about Village Music. The headliners would be in the grand tradition, but somewhere down the bill would always be a couple of groups of ambitious young local kids who just loved to jam, and, I bet, later wound up working the secular side of the street. But this, like most of the Numero Group's releases, is completely idiosyncratic and bizarre, a collection of releases on private labels and limited pressings by funky gospeleers working a style that never took off and was eventually crushed by the '80s mass choir movement. This has shown up on a lot of year-end best-ofs, and no wonder.

Eccentric Soul, Vol. 11: Mighty Mike Lenaburg: You know that "Funky Broadway" Dyke and the Blazers were singing about? It wasn't in New York. It was -- of all places -- in Phoenix, Arizona, and Dyke was just the most successful of a whole bunch of funky guys, many of whom were captured on wax by -- who else? -- a white guy from Liverpool, who seems to have considered it his mission in life to document the Phoenix Scene. Some of these recordings are rough, but some are exquisite. Eccentric soul, indeed.

Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story: Oh, go ahead, listen to this. You won't turn gay. I haven't, anyway, although this does bring back the days when gay taste ruled the dance music scene in New York and the rock kids would gingerly approach clubs like the Paradise Garage, where Levan ruled the decks, if they were feeling adventurous. This collection is pretty much a primer of New York in the late '70s and early '80s, and ought to get any intelligent person re-thinking the opprobrium levelled at "disco" -- or even whether such a label makes sense or ever did.

Lorraine Ellison: Sister Love: She was too old when she started, her career had a disastrous start with a jazz album (included here) that's all but unlistenable, and then she cut a single that couldn't be topped -- by anybody, let alone herself. Lorraine Ellison had rough luck, if you want to look at it that way. But she also had the great good luck to hook up with one of the greatest soul music producers of all time, Jerry Ragovoy, for that single, "Stay With Me," and then to make one more excellent album with Ted Templeman, a producer I've never liked. It's all here, along with a whole disc of her demos, recorded with members of her family gospel group. Soul was giving way to funk when Ms. Ellison was doing her best work, but this is definitely worth hearing. Well, except for the jazz album. Jerry, what were you thinking?

James Brown: The Federal Years: Yeah, we lost him this year, but here's how we got him in the first place. He burst onto the scene with "Please, Please, Please," described by his ever-articulate label-owner, Syd Nathan, as "the worst shit I ever heard," and then sold so many copies of it that he had to cut pale imitations of it for Nathan for four years in the hopes of achieving another blockbuster success. It wasn't until he used his own money to cut a demo of a ballad, "Try Me," and convinced them to let him record it that he had another hit. But then he was on his way, inventing a whole new kind of music. This starts slow, but Disc 2 takes off like a rocket.

The Complete Motown Singles, Vol 4: 1964: Motown Select has now gotten to the real nitty-gritty. 1964 was the year of the Supremes' "Baby Love" and the beginning of the Motown juggernaut. You can still hear them tinkering with the formula here, but this is where they found it. Even the flops are hits. I'm most of the way through the 1965 box and have the '66 sitting waiting to be heard. This series has its occasional bad tracks (less so after this volume, when Gordy finally abandoned his -- yes! -- country label, Mel-O-Dy), but this is a project no student of American music can pass up.

That's just the best; I'm out of energy for the rest. Anyway, this'll give you lots of listening pleasure, and I've got to get busy with next year's batch. I mean this year's. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006: Best Of The New

In which I try to recommend some newly-created albums in a year when I pretty much gave up listening to music completely. The reasons for that will have to wait -- I'm going to write about it at some point, but it's not a priority at the moment and so I'm putting it off -- but suffice it to say that I've never listened to less new music in the course of a year than I did in 2006. And only part of that is because a lot of what I heard just plain wasn't very good.

At any rate, the small list below will be dwarfed by the reissues I'll be posting next -- I listened to far more old music than new, and not just for work-related reasons -- and it's always appropriate to remind readers that if you click most of these links, you'll be taken to Amazon.com, and buying any of these records through this blog causes them to cut me a check, which will bring me a millimeter or two closer to getting out of Berlin. So it's for a good cause.

On to the winners:

Willie Nelson: You Don't Know Me, The Songs of Cindy Walker: Okay, so I'm a classicist. This isn't insurgent country, Americana, or any of that other stuff, it's just plain country music, played by a hand-picked band of stellar old-school pickers steeped in the Nashville and Texas traditions, sung by a great interpreter. Given all the idiotic costumes country music's been forced to wear since it's become the pop genre of choice for suburban 25+-year-old religious females (which is its current demographic), I sometimes need to be reminded that I once loved it. This is the kind of record that reminds me. Walker was a top-quality writer of lyrics, and not half bad with a melody, either, and it's no wonder that so many of the songs here were classics. And good on Willie for being able to get this record out before Ms. Walker passed away this year. I'm tempted to say that even people who don't much like country music will like this, but I underestimate their dislike most of the time. And it does, yes, have steel guitar. Excellent steel guitar.

Charanga Cakewalk: Chicano Zen: Charanga Cakewalk is Michael Ramos, a percussionist I used to see in some of the better Austin bands, and this album is a testament to the anybody-can-make-an-album ethos which has resulted in so very much terrible product being released. Ramos used time off on the road, playing as a hired hand with various outfits, to sketch this stuff on his laptop, after which he took it back to Austin and added a few things, most notably vocals from some of his friends. This is "Americana," in the very best sense of the word, for those of us who don't believe "America" is restricted to the United States. Atmospheric, almost abstract in places, yet also rooted, this is an album I'd like to see do well enough that Michael can make a couple more of them, if he wants to.

Dave Alvin: West of the West: Dave Alvin is grumpy, irascible, passionate about a lot of things that have nothing to do with what he does for a living -- enough like me that I mistrust my own reactions to his records. Not all of this collection of under-known songs by California songwriters is up to his usual high standards -- a doo-wop group doing the Beach Boys' parts on "Surfer Girl" is a notable miscalculation -- but he also manages to remind us of how wonderful John Stewart's "California Bloodlines" is, as well as reminding us that Kevin "Blackie" Farrell, a criminally neglected songwriter I happen to know about because he used to run with the Commander Cody/Asleep At the Wheel crowd and write songs for them, is worthy of further investigation. And anyone who can get me to sit through an entire Jackson Browne song -- and like it -- has definitely still got something going for himself.

Buckwheat Zydeco: Jackpot!: It's been years since I've been to Louisiana, and even longer since I've relaxed with one of those tiny beers in Richard's Club just outside of Eunice, but it appears that zydeco is still a contemporary, living, kind of music. Buckwheat's been one of my favorites -- okay, so I'm a little old-fashioned that way, although I was also a great fan of the late Beau Joque -- ever since I used to see him in Houston's Third Ward at the church dances back in the early '80s. The great thing about Jackpot! is it's not Buck trying to cross over. Been there, done that, didn't, apparently, much like it. Homefolks are forgiving, though, and this is an album for them. Maybe not the best place to start with zydeco if you're not used to it, but for those of us who've been on board a while, a nice enough way to pass a good time.

The Waybacks: From the Pasture to the Future: It's a jam band! It's a bluegrass band! Awww, who cares? As long as the musicianship's this good, the communication between the players so utterly clear, and the songwriting's not obtrusively bad, it's fine with me. A guilty pleasure, and, admittedly, something of a lesser one in terms of number of spins, but I'm pretty sure I'll be going back to this again some more.

I See Hawks In L.A.: California Country: I have no idea who these guys are, but I suspect I'd enjoy seeing them live. Once again, California and Americana, but with a weird overlay of darkness that's perfectly expressed by the nighttime gas station on the cover. They're a bit of a throwback -- I could see them as some tangential Byrds spinoff that I'd have to use one of Pete Frame's family trees to decipher, but that's not a bad thing at all. I might try to rustle up their previous record next time I'm in the States. They're that interesting.

Hazmat Modine: Bahamut: Again, not a perfect record, but an interesting one without a doubt. Two amplified harmonicas, a tuba player, drummer, guitarist, and trumpet player. Oh, and the occasional Tuvan throat singing. There are lots of things you could say about this if all you wanted to do is crack wise -- the Delta Blues goes to Mars, world music from another world -- but although the eclecticism wears over the course of an album that's a bit longer than it absolutely needs to be, the elements which are brought together are approached without too much reverence, but a lot of respect, if that makes sense to you. Another outfit I'd like to see live, but maybe only for one set.

Pet Shop Boys: Fundamental: Whut th'?!? Sorry, but there'd be more stuff like this on this list if I'd been exposed to it. I love pop, and I love smart people, and there's certainly no doubt in my mind that Neil Tennant shares my sentiments. Tennant's at his best when he's pissed off or downcast, at least to my taste, and I'd like to see another songwriter this year who came up with something as wrenching as "I Made My Excuses and Left," or as nuanced as "Twentieth Century." You may think you've outgrown this sort of thing, or you may only know the PSB through "Go West" or the campy like, but this is the other side of the picture. The nearly all-black cover is quite appropriate. As (heh) is the shocking pink disc inside.

Jon Dee Graham: Full: No-brainer: Jon Dee Graham puts out an album, it winds up here at the end of the appropriate year. Yeah, it's not as good as his last one, and I'd have been shocked if it had been because then it'd be tempting to think he wasn't human. It's not as boisterous, not as wide-open personal, and yet it's still him because nobody else in the world writes songs like this. I'm looking forward to seeing him in Texas (or maybe over here, since he does well in Holland), and I'm sure he'll make better and lesser records for years to come.

Jon Hardy and the Public: Observances: Another no-brainer, from a guy who I think -- and I seem to be the only person in the world who's aware of his existence -- is one of America's great songwriters. You can't even get his stuff on Amazon (although you can on eMusic), but you can get it from his website. As with Jon Dee's album, this ep isn't quite as good as his debut album, but I suspect he's been frustrated by lack of gigs and lack of opportunity to record, and I've been dragging my heels on getting some music he asked for to him, so I'm guilty, too. But maybe this year his application to SXSW will come through and someone else will figure out what I hear in this guy's writing and playing and he'll get to make another full-length album and maybe even tour outside of St. Louis. He's too good to get lost in the torrent of mediocrity, but man, swimming that stream is tough.

Alejandro Escovedo: The Boxing Mirror: Possibly the only album out of all of these which'll show up on anyone else's list, this, I suspect, fulfills a long-time dream of Al's: to make a John Cale record. I know, the sensitive chronicler of the Mexican-American family and the bittersweet edges of love gained and lost and the guy who screamed "They say FEAR is a man's best FRIEND!" seem one hell of an odd couple, but Al's been doing Cale's "Amsterdam" pretty much ever since he broke up the True Believers, and we should never forget that he's had a nasty, loud, hard-rocking side to him since he started. Yes, the story this year has been his remarkable uphill climb from almost dying from Hepatitis C, but for me the news has been this wonderful Cale-produced bunch of songs, with Al letting Cale run riot in the studio and keeping up with him every step of the way. Now, Al, about doing one with Oontah...

So that's it. Pretty anemic, huh? Mind you, I stand behind every one of those choices, and there were a lot of albums that hit the toss stack, but I'd have liked more rawk, more British stuff, more variety last year. Ah, well, there's always this year. If I get around to listening to anything, that is.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Technical Matters

We seem to be experiencing technical difficulties in the archive since the move to the New! Improved! Blogger. None of the photos are showing up. Our team of seasoned experts (oregano, basil, some thyme) are hard at work. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Very shortly, my summary of this past year's music. Please be patient.