Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Rub's Best Records of 2010

In the interest of actually posting something on this blog for the month of December (sorry, November!), I thought I'd post my Top 10 Records of the year in advance of the year actually coming to a close. Then I thought I'd also follow that list up with a list of the Top 5 "things" that caught my fancy during the year.

But before doing that, I wanted to share a link to my friend Jairus Tonel's website: Besides being one of my absolute favorite artists here in Sacramento, Jairus is an all-around great guy; hilarious, profane, smart, and, in general, fun to be around (pretty much the opposite of pretentious).  At Jairus' site you'll find the downloadable playlist for my 2010 Holiday Mix-Off compilation CD, Aww, Shitness!, which Jairus graciously did the artwork for.

Every holiday season, my good friend Mark Hamilton and I make mix CD's and hand them out to our friends. Our friends then decide whose mix CD is the best, and the winner gets to claim bragging rights. This year, we're letting our friends vote by anonymous ballots and the winner receives a beer of his choosing at the loser's expense.

Twenty of our respective friends judge our mixes this year on everything from song variety, song flow and even cover art. As you see from Mark's CD cover ("Hello Young Lovers."), the competition this year was fierce; he really went all out with the 70's magazine collage art. Also, he's totally right about that Dave Eggers book.

So anyway, go to Jairus' website, download my Aww, Shitness! compilation and, while your there, purchase some of Jairus' art. The coasters would make a great stocking stuffer or birthday present!

Your walls will be glad you did.

So now, without further ado... The Rub's Top 10 Records of 2010:

10. The Fresh And Onlys Play It Strange (In The Red)
Is it possible to make a "mature-sounding" garage rawk record? With producer Tim Green (Comets On Fire) at the decks, The Fresh and Only's answer that inane question with a resounding "YES!" Call it 60's garage pop subtle epic-ness, if you must. A fuckin' killer.

9. Grass Widow Past Time (Kill Rock Stars)
I missed these ladies when they played The Hub here in Sacramento and have been kicking myself ever since. Oh, and it didn't help that this show was reportedly "legendary." Yeah, well so is this record. Like their all-female contemporaries Dum Dum Girls, Vivian Girls and Best Coast, Grass Widow make fuzz rawk of the highest caliber. BANG! 

8. Wild Nothing Gemini (Captured Tracks)
Gauzy, gooey shoegaze aplenty here. One of two bands to be featured on this burgeoning Brooklyn record label whose owners apparently have considerably great taste in music.

7. The XX "Crystalised" Single (XL)
Sure, the full length album featuring this single came out last year, but the folks at XL must have realized what everyone else (including the judges for the Mercury Awards) figured out: this song is way too good for last year. Hence, this repackaged edition of a song you can't hear enough of (yeah, well, this and "Fuck You!") Yes, it's that good.

6. Beat Coast Crazy For You (Mexican Summer)
The hell if I ain't in luv with this Bethany Cosentino woman based on her drone-tone-with-a-sting vocal delivery alone. Goddamn! I say goddamn! I think this may be the first album to be both a bittersweet and fun listen all at once. Cha-cha-cha!

5. Spoon Transference (Merge)
Brit Daniel's final entry into the "Ex-Girlfriend" trilogy? Possibly, but what a ride, aye? In a strange way, heartbreak has been good to/for the fellas in Spoon, with ditties like "I Saw the Light" and "Trouble Comes Running." And while Transference isn't the bands best outing, it could easily make a lesser band's career.

4. Beach Fossils S/T (Captured Tracks)
Hazy. Droning. Lush. These Brooklyn kids sound like OMD on quaaludes with a martini chaser prepared by The Telescopes a good way, of course. "Daydream" sounds just like the title suggests, while "Youth" is pretty much the only passenger you'll need for a car trip to absolutely no where (sounds like a good idea right about now, you gotta admit). Just sit back, relax and let Beach Fossils fold the map.

3. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti Before Today (4AD)
I was a huge fan of Ariel Pink's debut, The Doldrums, but leveled-off when it seemed every other band was aping Pink's hazy A.M.-radio-in-a-psyche-ward shtick. But Before Today cannot be denied. It's a fuckin' mammoth-ly brilliant record. All the proof you'll need of this bold statement can be found in the single "Round And Round"; a song that sounds like it was written backwards and performed forwards, with the lead-out in front, and the hooks at the end. Brilliant! In a mammoth way, apparently.

2. Belle And Sebastian Write About Love (Matador)
Enough with this "return to form" bullshit in regard to Belle And Sebastian's new album. Sure, sure; these Baroque Scottish Pop-sters experimented a bit with the Bowie-isms on that last disc six years ago, but making a solidly wonderful album from beginning to end does not signal reinstatement of old familiars. Write About Love is simply a great album - delightful listening on its own terms, which you will find yourself doing over and over again.

1. Beach House Teen Dream (Sub Pop)
It's not because this Baltimore duo managed to make a solidly proper album from beginning to end. Nor is it because they wrote 10 of the absolute best back-to-back songs of the year. Or even the fact that they've done the impossible and delivered one of the best shoegaze albums since Loveless (no, seriously!) Nope, it's all of this and so much more. Beach House have had an impressively shimmering track record in their few short years as a band in regard to output, but on this, their third record (and first for Sub Pop) everything just clicked ...perfectly. Victoria Legrand's Stevie Nicks-meets-Elizabeth Frazier vocals wind dense smoke rings around Alex Scally's weeping guitar work. Drums (both live and of the machine variety) are employed in equal measure, at times in unison, even! This gauzy, dream-like album has the feel of (dare I say?) an actual album; everything from the masterful production (recorded by Chris Coady - in an abandoned upstate New York church, no less!), to the track sequencing, and the long fad-out ("Take Care") seem calculated to give you a complete aural experience from beginning to end, and not just a smattering of one-off songs. And what songs these be! "Norway" is a slithering snake taking it's time wrapping itself around your face, while "10 Mile Stereo" is an epic slow-building sonic deluge. "Lover Of Mine" may have it's narrative teeth stuck in the jugular of some hapless virgin, but it's rhythm is akin to Atari's Space Invaders laying siege to a $3.00 dance club. But the best track on Teen Dream belongs to "Walk In The Park"; a song that is so simply transfixing and brilliant, you'll have no other option but to submit when the keyboard-heavy refrain smacks the lipstick off of your smiling face - over and over again (this entire album is very much a "repeater"). Teen Dream isn't just the best album of the year; it's one of the best albums to come along in, like, forever.

Top-4 Live Shows In 2010 That I Managed To Catch (Or - "I really need to get out and see more shows. I mean, four shows?!? C'mon!"):

1. Pavement
Edgefield Station
Troutdale, OR
Sept. 3rd

Quite simply an amazing, fun-filled show in Edgefield's summer camp-esque outdoor arena. All the ditties from the band's recent greatest hits record were on display, with the crowd singing along merrily, fanatically. Honestly, a few pounds lighter, a little less crow's feet and you'd swear this Pavement's band members (Malkmus especially!) just stepped out of a time machine with return dials set for 1994. This show was an absolute blast, and just thinking about it right now is putting satisfied smile on my face. A great rock show experience will do that to ya.

Guided By Voices
The Warfield
San Francisco, CA 
Oct. 5th

High kicks, an on-stage cooler full'a beer and flouting California's ban on smoking indoors. Fans old and new singing along to every single song this band belted out - a wonderfully drunken chorus of debauchery. Now this was a Guided By Voices show! It seems fitting that this reunion show featuring the original GBV line-up was sponsored by a beer company. Go figure! Legendary, pretty much.

3. Beach House
San Francisco, CA
April 14th

Mesmerizing, entrancing, haunting, and beautiful - all in a nights work for these Charm City dream-gazers. Their translation from album to live performance did not disappoint - as simply stellar as the San Fancisco fog circling the venue. One of the best parts of the show: when someone in the audience yelled-out a request for a song the band just finish playing ("Uh, yeah. We just played that one. Where were you?")  

4. Slumberland Records Showcase 
(feat. Tartans, Pants Yell!, Brown Recluse, Baby Grand, and English Singles) 
Sacramento, CA
Oct. 23rd

I'm so glad to see this twee-gazer record label resurface (did they really go anywhere?) This showcase was an absolute blast, boasting a darling indie-twee-pop line-up and plenty o' merch to salivate over. Oh, and that Black Tambourine reissue (with four brand new tracks recorded by the original line-up, no less!) was/is pretty fuckin' awesome, too! I'm still left with one question oh these many months later, however: when's that English Singles Slumberland 7" coming out?

The Top 5 "Thing" I Really Liked This Year.

1. Clarks Desert Boots
Super comfy, super stylish, and - since their covered in beeswax - super easy to maintain. My favorite part about these legendary and sophisticated-yet-laid-back English chukka boots (aside from the gum rubber soles) is that if you scratch 'em up, all you have to do is rub the leather and the scratches buff right out.  These shoes go with nearly any outfit and improve any article of clothing exponentially.

2. Vintage Marantz 6300 Turntable
Spotted this rig on the eBay and absolutely had to have it. So much so, that I hawked nearly all of my material possessions to buy it. But in the end, it was completely and totally worth it. Goodbye my old Techniques belt-driven. Hello my new vintage Marantz 6300! This thing is pretty much what appears to be: a block of wood with a huge silver strip of silver swathing one side. It sits in a box, under my Christmas tree, waiting to be unwrapped and set loose on my record collection ("Better Can't Make Your Life Better" by Lilys will be first on "the block"). All in good time, my sweet. All in good time.

3. The Fiat 500
Sure, the joke about Fiat is that it stands for "Fix It Again Tony," and its American edition will be made in the same  factory in Mexico that once built Dodge's PT Cruiser (which was retired this year, thankfully!), but just look at this thing. It's like a cute lil' Italian puppy. You can blast Belle And Sebastian in this thing with nary an ounce of irony.

4. The return of Conan O'Brien
Nine months were far too long to go without Coco's manic and hilarious antics beaming into my livingroom night after night. Far, far too long. But after getting the shaft from NBC ("Nothing But Cunts" according to Adam Sandler), O'Brien has reemerged with a newer (and quite frankly funnier) talk show on basic cable's TBS, simply titled Conan. While I miss classic skits like "In the Year 2,000" and "Triumph the Insult Comic Dog," Conan's transition to basic cable has given him much more breathing and throwing space for his brand of edgy comedy. Freed from the restrictions of broadcast television, O'Brien, his sidekick Andy Richter and the show's myriad guests can say and do much more than before (Seth Green's "Humping Robot" and "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer Meets Sarah Palin" come immediately - hilariously - to mind). The set looks great, the jokes, even when they fall flat, are funny (Conan knows how to rebound!) and the entire production feels like it's much, much more inclusive of the fans (you know, the dedicated Coco-head's that supported our lad even while the chips were down). It's always great to welcome an old friend back into your house, especially when that friend is a tall glass of orange juice like Conan O'Brien.

5. Pashley The Guv'nor
I spotted one of these puppies' at Citizen Chain in San Francisco and was instantly smitten. The black rims. The Brooks B17 saddle. The Raleigh-like forks. The inverse handlebar set-up. Homina, homina, homina! This bike is the Keira Knightly of modern retro bicycles. Apparently there's a wait list to buy this thing, but seeing as how it's under a grand to purchase, perhaps patients is a virtue.

Okay, that's all the writing I feel like doing for now. See you next year!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

GUIDED BY VOICES - The Warfield, San Francisco, 10/5/10

Guided By Voices
The Warfield
San Francisco, CA
Oct. 5th, 2010
8 out of 10

In an effort to cross-off more names from my bucket list of bands I need to see before my time on this mortal coil comes to a close, I'm finding band reunions to be indispensable. Earlier this year, it was the Pixies, then came Pavement in Portland. And now this: the original line-up of Guided by Voices in all their drunken, swaggering glory.

Hot damn!

I remember a time when bands reuniting and hitting the road was cause for slapping your hand over your face and shaking your head in embarrassment for whatever medieval wrinkly trolls decided to come out of the woodwork, reclaim what ever faded sock-stuffing glory they once had, while touring carnivals or state fairs just long enough to afford a new addition to their house or sustain their coke habit (for some reason, Night Ranger comes immediately to mind here). Now that I'm older, however, the reunification of those indie bands I love(d) so much in the 90's and Oughts is a cause celebration, if for no other reason than most of these acts still got it.

Guided By Voices is one such band. Robert Pollard may be pushing 50, but this dude can still fuck shit up like a champ. Given that it's been six years since Guided By Voices officially broke up, the throng of the band's loyal  fans both old and new chanting and cheering during this Tuesday night set illustrated just how admired and adored this lovably scrappy lo-fi indie band from Dayton, Ohio still is.

In the years leading up to Guided By Voices ultimate demise, the bands shows were considered by its fans - much like their then more recent albums - to be lackluster and by-the-numbers. Pollard, being the only original member left possibly felt the same, and officially disbanded Guided By Voices after the release of their final studio album, Half Smiles Of the Decomposed (which is still, in my opinion, highly underrated). Years of internal strife, infighting and covering Cobra Verte in a GBV tarp had seemingly taken it's toll on a band with three decades of maddening-to-collect output. Pollard put the band to rest in 2004.

But then Matador Records turned 21 this year, and suddenly it seemed like a great time to get this labels two flagship acts (Pavement and Guided By Voices) back together and out on the road for reunion shows. And what reunion shows they were: both bands have seemingly re-emerged recharged and refreshed, and in the appearances I witnessed of both, ready to put on stellar live shows.

Guided By Voices don't fuck around. When the "classic line-up" emerged on the stage, the Warfield's capacity crowd went apeshit. Pollard, Tobin Spout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Greg Demos all took their positions and proceeded to rock the fuck out of their adoring fans. It was as if the last couple of years never happened; this was the energetic and inebriated Guided By Voices fans have come to know and love.

The band blasted through classics like "I Am A Scientist," "Motor Away," "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "Gold Star For Robot Boy," and "Cut-Out Witch" (among many, many more classics) with a beer-fueled intensity that I can only imagine left the opening band (and Matador label-mates), Times New Viking, who watched the show from stage left, agape and taking notes on stage dynamics and performance. Robert Pollard, who seemingly took the stage while intoxicated, downed at least seven or eight cold ones from the on-stage ice chest, yet never missed a beat, microphone twirl or high kick.

In between this rousing set, Tobin Sprout took center stage, performing not only some of the songs GBV songs he'd previously written, but his own solo material as well. Pollard, for his part, would take rest breaks, either sitting on the drum kit's platform, or exiting the stage all-together to possibly take a much needed leak. This proved effective, not just for possibly relieving Pollard's bladder, but for rousing the audience when he re-emerged on-stage: the guy's got an energy and gravity all his own.

A brilliant set of course begets not one, not two, but three encores - each better than the last. When the lights finally came-up, you got this strange sense that everyone in the audience was leaving The Warfield completely satisfied with the wonderful spectacle they had just witnessed for two+ hours. Strange as it sounds, the normally pretentious and feted San Francisco snobberotty actually seemed grateful to catch this legendary line-up in what might have been the band's last live touring appearance (smile all around with the normally dour, yet beautiful Bay Area dwellers).

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

PAVEMENT - McMenamins, Edgefield, 9/3/10

McMenamins' Edgefield Manor, Troutdale, OR
Sept. 3rd, 2010
9 out of 10

A while back, I made a bucket list of 14 bands I needed to see perform live before my time on this mortal coil came to a close. This list consists of bands I've already seen and could cross-off (Lilys, Elliott Smith, The Shins, Pixies, Yo La Tengo, The American Analog Set, Pixies) and those I have not (Spoon, Belle and Sebastian, My Bloody Valentine, The Clientele, Guided By Voices - whom I'm seeing this October in San Francisco!). The 14th band to finalize this list would be Pavement, who I thought I would never be able to catch since they broke-up in 1999.

Then an interesting message made its way to my email Inbox from the Oregonian nick-knack hotelier and craft brewery gurus, The MeMenamin Brothers; Pavement would be kicking off their U.S. tour at the Brother's Troutdale, OR compound, Edgefield Station. Seeing Pavement play live, in a small town near Portland (AKA, my favorite place in the world)?!? It took me exactly 10 minutes to secure tickets, plane fare and hotel accommodations.

Edgefield Station is a sprawling estate, done-over in typical McMenamin Brothers fashion; a rehabilitated space (in this case, possibly an old mansion) whose walls are adorned with custom fresco artwork, tchochkies, show posters and any number of bars, restaurants or pubs to soak down the made-on-premises suds - all of which are bursting cozily at the seems. The smell of old wood mingled with beer and cigarette smoke sneaking in from outside (Portland recently banned indoor smoking). The Brother's definitely have a vision, and from one facility to the next (The Kennedy School, Ringler's, The Baghdad Theater, etc.), they've found a business model engages and enchants and intoxicates.

The show itself took place inside a fenced-in enclosure ("No I's Or Outs") steps away from the hotel's eastern wing. Once inside, stands selling craft foods, beer and show merch greeted at every turn. It was like summer camp for scensters. The main event was past this concourse, where the tree-framed Lollapalooza-like stage sat at the bottom of the inclined and green-grassed hill. Beautiful and lithe indie-rockers pre- and postdating Pavements formative years wandered the hillside, staking out spots best to unfurl blankets, kick-off their TOMS shoes and down PBR by the regret-the-next-morning-ful.

Portland stalwarts Quasi were the opening act (this pleasantly surprising little factoid was not made evident to this ticket-holder until the moment the band took the stage). Suddenly that steep ticket price was worth its wait in gold, if only to watch the incredible Janet Weiss beat her drum kit into submission. Honestly, Weiss is one of my favorite drummers, twice having seen her play with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Sam Combs paced the stage while wailing on his guitar, at one point standing atop Weiss's kick drum as he strummed away furiously. From her end of the stage, legendary Portland producer and multi-instrumentalist Joanna Bolme provided the bass duties. In a set that mapped Quasi's storied career, the band closed-out in mini-epic fashion. Witness:

But the night belonged to Pavement. To say that this show was "fuckin' awesome" seems like an understatement. The moment elder slackers-men Stephen Malkmus, Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, Mark Ibold, Bob Nastanovich, and Steve West waltz onto the stage, the crowd went gaga. "You didn't think it would happen," Malkmus told the cheering crowd. "You never thought you'd have to go to Edgefield for a show. You didn't think it would happen. But it did."

For a band that parted ways in 1999, Pavement sounded as tight as ever. Minus the adult-oriented pudginess, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish this Pavement from their younger incarnation when they were on top of the 90's alt-rock heap (and given this reunion performance, in many ways, they still are). Here were five guys rocking on stage, as happy to be there as the crowd was to see them.

Culling their set-list from the resent best-of compilation, "Quarantine the Past," each song was greeted by the audience as if they were again meeting long lost friends all these years later. "Cut Your Hair," "Shady Lane," "Gold Soundz" - all of Pavement's standards were on sonic display. And when it came time to play "Unfair," the normally California-adverse Pacific Northwest crowd were more than happy to sing along in unison with Pavement's ode to the Golden State.

Everything about this show was simply in it's right place - all the parts came together flawlessly. The pitch perfect sound mix, the audience in high spirits, the location wonderfully wooded like being away at camp, Malkmus' low-key and hilarious banter ("Twenty-two. You know what they call that on cruise ships? Double swans."), Nastanovich's spastic brilliance ("I'm trying! I'm trying! I'm trying!"), Spiral Stairs singing lead (three times, no less!), and the band as a whole sounding - yeah, I said it before, but it still bares repeating - tight. As the dusk settled into darkness, the hits just kept coming, one after the next (it seemed like the band had played a three hour set). Perfect sounds forever.

This is easily one of the best live concert experiences I've ever seen (right up there with Elliott Smith at the Fillmore, Yo La Tengo at The Great American Music Hall or The Shins at, well, any venue I've seen them play). I wouldn't have missed this Pavement performance for the world - bucket list notwithstanding.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

APPLE iPhone 4

Apple iPhone 4
Apple, Inc.
3 out of 10

A couple of months ago, when the next generation iPhone was leaked on gizmodo, I was prepared to sell my Grandmother to get my hands on Apple's sleek new smart phone. In the days after the iPhone 4's launch, however, I find myself far, far less inclined to purchase Apple's new whiz-bang plaything. Plagued by a technical snafu and a PR nightmare, my confidence in Apple's new gizmo - and the computer company as a whole - has been more than gently shaken.

The new iPhone 4 boasts plenty of new goodies to salivate over: all new HD quality video recording, video conferencing, a faster running speed,  easier user interfacing and multitasking between the dozens and dozens of new and wonderful applications. Plus, the new iPhone is pretty wonderful just to look at. Unlike it's hunch-backed predecessors - the iPhone G3 and G3S - this new iPhone 4 looks stylish, modern and touchable (the phone equivalent of Marion Cotillard).

The problem for the new iPhone 4 started when a number of customers complained about dropped calls. Apple's official claim at first was that this was a hardware malfunction, citing that in low frequency areas, the iPhone's signal indicator would read four full bars when in fact the phone really had two or less. Updated software fixes were on their way, the company promised. But there were rumors floating around that these dropped calls were actually the result of the phone's antenna being placed exactly where one would normally grasp the phone while in use: at the base corners.

Yes, simply holding your iPhone where you would normally hold any cellular telephone blocks the antenna and causes phone calls to be dropped. Mind you, this is a product from the same company that produces the Macbook Pro, the iPod and the iPad. Apple's products are known for being sleek, efficient and, above all, user friendly. Before this whole iPhone 4 debacle, Apple's product quality has rarely, if ever, been called into question.

Yesterday, Apple grand poobah, Steve Jobs, announced, in something reminiscent of a  humble-pie-eating press conference, that his new smart phone did have its quirks. His fix? A free protective sleeve which, in essence, hinders human flesh from touching the antenna on the iPhone 4 directly, thus negating the dropped call scenario all together. Now, protective sleeves on iPhones are fairly common (I have one for my G2 iPhone, which is - GASP! -still in use), but this new free-sleeve deal just seems so chintzy, that I would expect it from a PC peripherals-focused manufacturer, and not from the same creative minds that gave the universe iLife.

This is the equivalent of a kick-ass, visionary automobile tire manufacturer telling its loyal customer base that, "You know, our performance tires aren't perfect. We know that. You know that. Sure, if you make a series of left-handed turns, our new exotic tires may blow-out. But we have these patches - which are free to any customers who ask for them - that, when applied, allow your new tires to function flawlessly. Namaste."

But I must admit that my dubiousness with the new iPhone 4 goes beyond just dropped calls. It actually has more to do with the way in which Apple launched this product, and didn't produce enough of said product to keep-up with what would be its inevitable demand. In going to purchase the new iPhone 4 several weeks after its launch, I was told by a very knowledgeable and down-to-earth Mac Store employee that I would need to be placed on a wait list and that I would be emailed when my freshly-manufactured phone arrive in the store.

Have you ever seen the news coverage of when Apple announces a new operating system for their computers? News stations usually roll-out these stories, especially on slow news days (and also, because most local so-called news stations pander to the lowest common denominator by producing PR firm-supplied infotainment and fluff). In these pieces, we get shots of mostly pasty white middle-aged men waiting in long lines, while sitting in lawn chairs and watching themselves on the news from tiny hand-held television sets. My point is, if this level of dedication exists for Apple's latest operating systems, the company should have predicted that demand from both Mac and non-Mac users for the company's new magical smart phone would have been fairly high.

But no, demand far outpaced supply in this instance., and wait lists for the iPhone 4 were instated well before the phone was even released (!). And yes, I know that in business demand is better than surplus, but I think Apple could have hedged their bets a little bit better than they did in this case, and boosted production.

When my email alert arrived from Apple informing me that my new $200.00 iPhone 4 was in-store waiting for me, I had had time to digest the news about the phone's antenna problems, Apple's initial mishandling of that information, Job's less-than-stellar quasi apology, and the phone's damning review in this week's Consumer Reports, which suggests you pass on the iPhone 4 and purchase Google's new and intimidatingly sterile Droid X instead (um, no thanks!) But my decision ultimately not to purchase that new iPhone 4 came finally when I asked the studious and patient Mac Store employee if I would have to re-sign another 2-year contract with AT&T in order to purchase my phone. I would, or I could buy the new phone outright for a mere $700.00. It broke my heart just a little bit, but I had to walk away from the Mac Store sans iPhone 4, disappointed, with my money resting securely in my bank account.

I still champion Macs and Apple's various offerings over PC's and the cheesy add-on peripherals that revolve around them. But my confidence in Apple - especially in regard to their new smart phone - is at an all time low. I never thought I'd be saying this, but I definitely think I can wait for the next generation of the iPhone.

Monday, July 12, 2010

IRD "Defiant" Bicycle Crank Arm Set

IRD Defiant Track Crank Set
2010, Interloc Racing Design
8 out of 10

I've given up on having a perfectly complete bicycle. Every time I get to the point where I think my bike is at the pinnacle of its perfection, a new must-have part comes along that looks (and, oddly enough in many cases, performs) better that the component it will eventually be replacing. Case in point: the IRD Defiant Track Crank Set.

The Defiant is a quaint throw-back to the Campy Strada or Sugino Mighty crank arm sets of the 1970's. IRD has obviously taken great pains to replicate those legendary brand's fluting aesthetics, while updating the performance for today's cycling demands. For example, the Defiant is cold forged in polished aluminum, weighing in at a scant 600 grams (a bit less weighty than the Soma Hellyer cranks they are replacing on my rig).

But I have to be honest here; while quality and performance are key (and indeed they are with these cranks - this is IRD we're talking about, after all), this crank set is absolutely gorgeous looking. Everything about the Defiant - from the fluting design, to dual chainring, to the polished finish - drips with disco-era sexiness. Once mounted to my bicycle, I have to admit, I couldn't help just gazing longingly at these cranks. For the first time in quite a while, I'm actually ogling my bike again.

And the ride? Remarkably smooth. Eye candy or not, the Defiant powers through rides like a gold metal swimmer doing butterfly strokes in a pool of fine French cream, with absolute ease. These cranks want to go and go, and do so with a quickness. With these new cranks, my steed feels... oh, what's the word I'm looking for...? Um... "zippy?" Not a very sexy adjective in relation to these cranks, but completely apt, nonetheless.

The IRD Defiant retails for about $160.00, which is less than you would pay for  the vintage or NOS Campy or Sugino equivalent. The Defiant comes in three sizes: 165mm (tested), 167.5mm and 175mm arm lengths. These cranks fit JIS square tapered bottom brackets, and the chainring is 46t (standard for most fixed gear bicycles). The IRD Defiant Track Cranks are the perfect compliment to stunt frames, long-haul commuters and tweed steeds alike, and this reviewer cannot recommend them enough.

Yes indeed, yet another mighty nice addition to my two-wheeled steed. It's that whole "never-ending quest for perfection" thing - I'm sure you can relate. For instance, now that ratty ol' seatpost is looking a bit meh.

Here we go again...!

Monday, May 10, 2010


The National
High Violet
2010, 4AD Records
6 out of 10

High Violet, the new record by recent Brooklyn transplants The National is a bit of a downer. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing; it is what it is. And what it is , though, is good ...if you're in the mood for this sort of thing, that is.

You need to be in the mood for these romantic dirges to really enjoy them. Perhaps your lover has left you. Or you've been fired from your job. Maybe a parking ticket has recently been issued to you and your automobile. Worry not: High Violet has you covered.

"I don't want to get over you," inflects The National's Matt Berninger on "Sorrow" in a baritone reminiscent of Nick Cave, Stuart Staples or Leonard Cohen, but with a heavy shellac of cough syrup coating. His is a voice of longing, like an animal who has finally surrendered to a gun shot wound or toothy trap impaling its paw. "I don't have the drugs to sort it out," he later  throat-fully mellows on "I'm Afraid Of Everyone," as if the pain in his voice over the album's other 10 tracks didn't make this so, so evident.

If you're hoping for a high moment on High Violet, you ain't getting one. The Arcade Fire-esque "Bloodbuzz Ohio" may lull you into believing it might be the ray of light in the tar-covered walls of this album - what with it's shimmering guitars, jaunty percussion and such - but forget about it! Beringer's velvet hammer vocal make quick work of hope and happiness.

Now, all this moody and maudlin moaning and delicate slowcore instrumentation may not be the best pick for, say, a wedding, a graduation party or love-bugging, but High Violet is a pretty damn fine album, all the same. The National know that life isn't all rainbows, unicorns and cotton candy (yes indeed, they don't seem to frequent a lot of carnivals), and sometimes you need to wallow a bit, from time-to-time. Curled-up on a couch, watching the overcast day crawl by and wondering, "How could this have happened to me?", The National have practically provided you and your wounded heart with the perfect soundtrack.

Yes, you should to be in a sad space to fully enjoy the impact of this album. High Violet will not (NOT!) work as background music for a friendly get together. No. This is a solitary album, perfect for "alone time," replete with candles, a glass of wine and your journal. It's on 4AD, for crying out loud (oh, and you will!), and this label was practically responsible for over half of the depressing albums released during the 1990's. So there's that.

High Violet is your downtime companion - the only one you'll need. Let the tears commence.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

BIKE SNOB by BikeSnobNYC - Book

Bike Snob
By BikeSnobNYC
Chronicle Books -
8 out of 10

Such is the world we live in that bloggers now even get their own publishing deals. Pounding the keyboard every day, expounding on whatever it was that occupied their time worked out just fine for Diablo Cody and Julia Powell, so why not someone who is passionate about bicycle riding? Enter BikeSnobNYC, the highly opinionated, entertaining and hilarious scribe behind the aptly named blog,

For those unfamiliar with The Bike Snobs daily reports, BikeSnobNYC (whose real identity , thanks to the need to promote this book, has recently been revealed) serves-up a daily dose of face-slapping reality on a bike culture that has become regrettably full of wall-to-wall cheek (of the face and ass variety, especially). No quadrant of the bike universe, from the gray-haired recumbent slacker to the post-ironic hipster zombie, is safe from the Snob's pointed and clever jabs. The Bike Snob's main mission in life seems to be demystifying the simple act of bicycling itself, wrestling it from the hands of exclusive and pretentious bike jocks, and making it accessible to all.

Well, with a wink and a nod, of course.

This Snobbie does with aplomb. Each of his entries reads like a hilarious dis-assembly of a culture that has become so self-serious and self-aggrandizing, that it's almost a parody of bicycling culture. From the asshole clerk behind the counter of your local bike shop, to the messenger bag-wearing none-courier, to the podium-standing pro racer with asinine hand gestures, how could a lifestyle built upon the foundation of simply moving one's legs around and around one of the best machines designed by man not expect a bitingly-clever blogger's ridicule when said lifestyle has become, well, ridiculous?

Bike Snob, much like Bike Snob's online journal, manages to condense the blogger's thoughts and feelings about bicycling into 240 pages of equal parts clever satire, brutal honesty and a genuine love of the two wheeled beast. Within these pages we find a cornucopia of bicycling factoids, New York-based bicycling history (naturally), definitions and designations of different riders, riding tips and several excellent reasons to plant your ass in the saddle and ride like there's no tomorrow. When you stop from laughing out-loud long enough (The Snob is quite a gifted comedic writer, so this will be difficult to do), it become quite evident that this man loves riding his bicycle and just wants to share that love of bicycling with you.

"A lot of people - including me - will tell you what to do with and on your bike," writes the Snob, directly to the neglected.  "...but in the end it all comes down to what works for you. And if someone else doesn't like it, just tell them what they can do. AYHSMB." Below this statement is a picture of the rear wheel of a fixed gear conversion with the phrase "ALL YOU HATERS SUCK MY BALLS" affixed in sticker-letters along the bike's rim. And that just about sums-up the intention of this book perfectly.

Bike riding may be just about one of the absolute best activities a human being can do.  The Snob knows this. Besides entertaining his readers week-in and week-out - and now, in book form - he wants you, the average, lowly mortal curious about all things bike-related to realize that riding a bike is not the sole property of elite spandex-clad cube drones who seem to use bicycling as an excuse to uncork their pent-up assholish-ness "...on the trail." Nor is it the domain of pierced and be-tatted sneering hipsters who treat their bikes more like cafe accessories than a mode of transportation. And it certainly doesn't belong to beer bong-huffing douchebag and his douchette entourage when they awkwardly navigate the sidewalks of urban avenues on their Cadillac cruisers.

Nope. Bicycling belongs to you. To everyone, really. When the day comes that "serious" pedal pushers stop taking themselves so seriously, the Bike Snob may put down his reflecting mirror and computer (maybe). Until then, let's hope the sales from this book can afford him a beefier Macbook Pro and new mirror. A bigger mirror. I mean, one of those really big suckers.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

TWIN PEAKS - A Plastic-Wrapped 20th Anniversary

Twin Peaks: 20 Years Later

"Who Killed Laura Palmer?" This was the phrase David Lynch and Mark Frost placed on the lips of their rapt audience across the country (and around the world) a mere 20 years ago today. Over the course of two seasons in the early 1990's, television viewers got a weekly hour-long glimpse into the turbulent and twisted lives of the residence of the small Washington State milling town of Twin Peaks, which was shrouded densely in equal parts mystery, Douglas Fir trees  and donuts.

Twin Peaks mixed suspense, horror, comedy and surrealism into a heady cocktail of darkly mythic drama. Unlike anything on television at the time, Twin Peaks was cult TV at its most accessible; a dark soap opera that pulled its viewers deeper into its harrowing vortex, week after week. The eccentric, neo-noir template established by this show paved the way for worthy disciples such as The X-Files, Northern Exposure and Lost, as well as a handful of poor imitators like American Gothic, Wild Palms, and Push, Nevada

Twin Peaks was a town that, on its surface ,seemed like idyllic slice of Norman Rockwell-ian Americana. Under the hamlet's quaint veneer however, lurked secrets, lies, betrayal and murder.  This, of course, wasn't new territory for Lynch, who had covered this subject years earlier with his brutally perfect film, Blue Velvet. But where that film gave us a tiny cabal of murderous drug dealers headed-up by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and his violent, psychotic gang - which trolled the seedy underbelly of an otherwise innocently naive Lumberton - Twin Peaks exploded its dark and devious mushroom cloud to include nearly every resident in the dubious town's Dante-like sphere. As the tagline for the motion picture follow-up, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, put it so succinctly: "In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent."

FBI Special Agent, Dale Cooper (a brilliantly wide-eyed Kyle MacLachlan), is dispatched to the Pacific Northwest town to investigate the grizzly murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), Twin Peak's seemingly innocent and picture perfect prom queen. As Cooper's investigation progresses, he learns that Laura, much like the town she lived in, harbored dark secrets underneath that squeaky clean sheen. Back-stabbing, double crossings, blackmail, drug dealing/using, murder for hire, and exposure to a deep, dark and penetrating evil; all par for the course for Laura Palmer and Twin Peaks.

MacLachlan's Cooper grounds the show - we see Twin Peaks through his eyes. And conversely, he seems like just the savior the troubled little towns needs. Cooper is chipper and enthusiastic, but sharply intelligent and cunning at the same time. He's a no-nonsense, by-the-books Federal agent, with the squeaky-clean optimism of a straight-A Boy Scout... who studies Buddhism. Cooper is the positive node in a town where optimism has slowly started to dim.

Twin Peaks, as Cooper soon discovers, is populated by a dense cauldron of eccentric characters. There's The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), The One Armed Man (Al Strobel), Killer Bob (the too-perfect-to-be-real Frank Silva), and the Little Man From Another Place (Michael Anderson). Then there's the subtle insanity of drug dealing truck driver, Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe), the sociopath-in-training high school quarterback, Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook), megalomaniac entrepreneur Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer), his jail-baiting sexpot daughter Audrey (Sherilyn Fynn), and his mill-managing mistress, Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie). Swirling around them are a cast of near-innocents such as Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), Donna Hayward (Laura Flynn Boyle), James Hurley (James Marshall), Pete Martell (Eraserhead himself, Jack Nance),  the honest and homespun Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Onktean), Laura Palmer's manically grieving father, Leland Palmer (played to perfection by Ray Wise), and dozens and dozens more.

Season One of the show was an inspired sojourn that was at once dramatic, comical, frightening and (always) captivating. Lynch, Frost and their inventive production company always kept the viewer at the edge of their seats with each episode. The first season of Twin Peaks was inspired television of the highest order. By Season Two, however, things went slightly south. With the exception of the first couple of heart-wrenching episodes - wherein we learn just who Laura Palmer's killer truly is - the second season of Twin Peaks sputtered under the weight of its own irrelevance (once the killer was was revealed, Special Agent Cooper's reason for remaining  in the troubled town seemed both sadly shoehorned and pointless). When ABC didn't renew Twin Peaks for a third season (the network canceled the show due to low ratings, which it helped create by insisted that the production finally solve Laura Palmer's murder, thus causing audience interest to wane), an angry and frustrated Lynch penned and directed a finale that left nearly every character emotionally scarred, heartbroken and defeated. The follow-up film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which was a prequel to the events of the television series, raised more questions than it did provide answers to the events leading up to the end of Laura Palmer's troubled existence.

Given that, however, Twin Peaks was - and still is - one hell of a great show!

Twin Peaks enduring legacy stems from the show's dream-like quality. Though filmed in the early 90's - with clothing and hairstyles reflecting as much - Lynch and Frost crafted a show that seems as if it was (and still is) trapped in amber; in another place, at another time. Everything from the dialogue, to the production work and (especially) Angelo Badalamenti's brilliantly moody, haunting and, at times, playful soundtrack lend Twin Peaks its stasis-like quality. The cult fervor of this show gave us books, soundtracks, comics and a fan-made magazine, Wrapped In Plastic, which is still published today. Snoqualmie, WA, the town where the show was filmed, still draws fans from around the world. Twin Peaks gave American audiences its first taste of avant-garde serial television, the ripple effects we now see in mainstream  programs such as Desperate Housewives, Mad Men and Breaking Bad

Twenty years may have passed through the curtains of Twin Peaks' Black Lodge, but this show is still as vital as it was when it premiered in 1990. The coffee is just as fresh, the cherry pie will still "kill ya," and those damn owls will never, ever be what they seem. 

"Now it's dark."

Sunday, April 4, 2010

VELO ORANGE Montmartre Bicycle Handlebars

Velo Orange Montmartre Bicycle Handlebars
Velo Orange, LLC
8 out of 10

Loyal readers (Hi, Mark!) may recall when I posted a "meh" review of the Brooks Leather Ring Handlebar Grips last year, giving them a less than stellar review. I believe I called these grips "underwhelming," noting that the one major gripe I had with them was that these grips barely fit onto the Wald handlebars I was using on my bicycle at the time. Well, it looks like I owe Brooks of England a huge apology not only for that review, but for affixing their product to anything associated with products as dreary and dysfunctional as the once-great Wald (really, I should have scathingly reviewed those funky handlebars instead. My sincerest apology, Brooks.)

Turns out these Brooks Leather Handlebar Grips are perfect in every way (design, comfort, style, etc.) when attached to a complimentary handlebars: it appears that I simply had them mounted to the wrong handlebars. When mounted on to the stylish Velo Orange Montmarte promenade-style handlebars, these Brooks grips not only function properly, but they actually fit a promised 12cm grip area (Imagine that!), and they look pretty damned nice together, to boot.

Velo Orange is a wholesale cycling company known for their affordable, high quality bicycle parts, which are imported from Japan and Taiwan. The Montmartre handlebars, produced by Nitto exclusively for Velo Orange, harken back to those traditional bicycle handlebars designed to navigate the narrow city streets of the artist and cafe district known as Montmarte, in Paris, France. These handlebars feature a rise of 6cm, with a  reach of 16cm and a bulged and sleeved clamp diameter of 25.4cm.

For a geometry that is both tight and nimble, these Montmartre handle bars are surprisingly comfortable. The swept-back grip area allows for a relaxed, yet vertical riding position, especially when paired with a proper saddle (like say, a Brooks B-67, for instance). The hand position of the Montmartre - which takes a ride or two to initially get used to - is akin to cycling with "bum bars" (drop bars turned "up" - most popular in the skid row area of your town), albeit in a much more dignified fashion.

I purchased the Montmartre handlebars for my Tweed Ride rig, and I must say, they improved my ride comfort considerably. The cockpit of my steed feels more confined with these handlebars, but in a much more pleasant and precision-exact capacity. Steering is easier and I feel mush more in-tune with my bike ("Ommm... !") Augmented with the now properly fitted Brooks Leather Ring Handlebar Grips, a Velo Orange City brake lever and a copper Crane bell, my tweed stead is as impressive to look at as it is fun to ride.

As for the drawbacks of these Velo Orange Montmartre handlebars, I could find none to speak of ...whatsoever; they are simply perfect. For leisurely touring, with the occasional chance of a spirited and jaunty race here and there, these handsome chrome handlebars simply can't be beat. These are touring bars of the highest order, which are not only aesthetically pleasing, but brilliantly  functional as well.

Bon, pip, pip!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Black Tambourine
2010, Slumberland Records
9 out of 10

In the early-to-mid 1990's, there was a whole lot of underground and independent rock skipping across that great pond known as the Atlantic Ocean. Europe had Sarah Records, The Pastels and that darling C86 compilation cassette. In the States, we had Slumberland Records, Black Tambourine and homemade mixtapes.

My exposure to Black Tambourine's music was through a co-worker named Rose Melberg. We both worked at a cafe in Sacramento named New Helvetia way back there in 1993-land. I had horrible taste in music then, having fallen-off my Dinosaur Jr-appreciating wagon in order to allow the punishing sounds of industrial and goth to wipe their feet on my imagination (what a mess!) Rose, I quickly found-out, had just dissolved her band, Tiger Trap, and was setting course for a solo career with the help of Slumberland Records (I still have the flexi disc Rose gave me which featured her on one side, the The Magpies on the other, and the black-and-white cover art of Adriane Tomine which she and co-worker/friend Emily Elders had taken turns coloring-in with crayons).

Taking note of my lowered appreciation in music ("That stuff is really depressing and cheesy." Rose told me when I showed-up to work one day in a Godflesh t-shirt), she made me a cassette featuring The Ne're-Do-Wells on one side and Black Tambourine on the other (recorded from 7" singles, no less!) Needless to say, it was a transformative musical experience. While I had been wallowing-away in the defeatist schlock of music that wasn't really doing it for me (that new music kick I was looking for was more of a dull, unrelenting thud, really), the homemade dream-pop of Black Tambourine was what I had really been searching for, but didn't know where to look.

Thanks to this band, I later discovered and/or sought-out bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Lilys, Pavement, Guided By Voices, Thee Headcoats, The Pastels, The Mummies, Flake Music (who later changed their name to The Shins and wrote a song titled "Pam Berry," no less), and countless other lo-fi bedroom rockers making two minute micro-symphonies for penniless, skinny white kids to enjoy. I suspect Black Tambourine had the same influence on a number of other people, too, considering the bands (then and now) that cite Pam Berry and Co. as an influence (Whorl, Veronica Lake, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Vivian Girls, etc.)

I never owned any of Black Tambourine's 7" releases or the many compilation records they appeared on (save for the One Last Kiss comp on Spin Art Records). It wasn't until I finally wore-out the tape Rose made for me that I broke-down and purchased the 10" 10-song The Complete Recordings compilation Slumberland released years later. I played The Complete Recordings so much, I soon found that I was in danger of wearing-out the vinyl version as well.

Given Slumberland's recent revival (did this wonderful record label ever really go away?), it seems fitting that they would release this Black Tambourine collection with new songs tacked onto it. The results? Wonderful, of course. Seeing as how Black Tambourine's original songs are pretty damned fantastic to begin with, how could one really find any fault with the additional material that this collection provides?

I'm not sure if Black Tambourine invented the art of grafting shoegaze to doo-wop and merging that with raw, vulnerable, feedback-drenched noise pop, or if the band simply perfected it, but the 10 "original" tracks on this new collection are as accessible and dreamy as they were 10 years ago. "Black Car" still shimmers with Berry's hazy, longing vocals echoing against those heavy, weaving and bobbing bass lines. Ditto the Lush-esque "Pack You Up" and baroque "Drown" (if anything, this band could be held accountable for inspiring "air bass playing" in its listeners). No other band who has done a cover of any one of Love's songs has been able to attack them with the required verve and vigor the way Black Tambourine does with "Can't Explain." "Throw Aggie Off the Bridge" still resonates as the band's signature single, despite possibly still giving Stephen Pastel indigestion.

Of that bonus material are two "first demo" versions of "For Ex-Lovers Only" and "Black Car" recorded by the Lilys' Kurt Heasley, and four brand new songs; "Tears of Joy," "Lazy Heart," and covers of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" and Buddy Holly's "Heartbeat" (influences, damn!) Though this new material sounds a bit more polished than that of the songs recorded in the 1990's, Black Tambourine's twee-pop blitz is still as cuddly, kinetic and charming as ever.

As this collection illustrates, Black Tambourine made the kind of hazy, lo-fi music anybody could make, everybody tried to imitate and nobody could duplicate. That's the stuff of legend.

Lo-fi legend, that is.

Thanks again, Rose!