Man of Constant Leisure

"Cultivated leisure is the aim of man." ---Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Until further notice...

Saturday, February 16, 2008


I have been a big fan of Mario Batali's for years, and he has waxed rhapsodic about cardoons so often that I have developed a near-pathological desire to try them. Unfortunately, we don't see so many cardoons around our parts. Most folks around here don't even know what they are.

So what are they? Cardoons belong to the artichoke family. We grew one a few years back but unfortunately couldn't figure out how to harvest it; when it flowered, the flower looked just like an artichoke. You don't eat the flower of the cardoon, however; you eat the stalks, which look like celery on steroids.

The local Whole Food had cardoons in stock a few days ago. It was the first time I'd ever seen them in their 'ready to cook' format, and I immediately knew that my commitment to eating locally was about to be compromised. I grabbed what appeared to be the best looking bunch (what does a good cardoon look like? I truly have no idea), plunked down my $3, and started planning my preparation.

Fortunately I have a mountain of Italian cookbooks at home. I lean most heavily on Mario Batali, Marcella Hazan, and Giuliano Bugialli, so that's where I started my research. They all agree that cardoons should be washed, cut into 2" or 3" sections and soaked in acidulated water (a little lemon juice does the trick; skip this step and they will start to turn brown, which I'm pretty sure does not effect the taste but does mar the presentation), then simmered for 30 minutes in acidulated water. The tough strings running through the ribs must be removed; most chefs say that this is easiest to do after cooking.

Because I had never had them before, I wanted a simple preparation that focused on the flavor of the cardoons, so I rejected a delicious-looking but too-elaborate-seeming recipe for cardoons baked with béchamel, cheese, and the like, and chose instead to sauté the cardoons briefly, then dress them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper.

My results were mixed. My instinct was to boil less rather than more; I didn't want the cardoons to turn to mush. As a result, they were cooked but still a bit crunchy. A few of the smaller pieces had cooked further and had the consistency of a well-prepared artichoke heart; they offered a little, but not much, resistance to the bite. This is the way cardoons should be prepared, I think; cooked this way, they truly are the poor man's artichoke.

One bunch of cardoons makes an awful lot of cardoons, much more than the missus and I could eat in one sitting. I used the rest the next day in a lentil soup that also featured pancetta, parsnips, carrots, garlic, and onion. As we say down here in the South, it was some good.


Tacos de Lengua

I was a lucky kid; my mom knew how to get me to try foods that I never, ever in a million years would have tried if she told me what they were. The most memorable example is tongue. The first time she served it, I asked what it was. "Beef," she said. By the time I knew what cut of beef I was eating, I was hooked.

Tongue is very, very tasty; if you haven't tried it, you really have missed out on something wonderful. Like most organ meats, it's not especially good for you. It's high in calories, high in fat, and high in cholesterol. But like all such things, it can and should be enjoyed in moderation.

The tongue my mom served was a cured beef tongue, the style preferred by Jews. Mexicans eat fresh tongue, and because there are so many more Mexicans than Jews in North Carolina, fresh tongue is generally what's available to me. That's fine, because fresh tongue is what you need to make tacos de lengua (doesn't that sound so much better than 'tongue taco')?

I bought a locally produced buffalo tongue (frozen) at the Carrboro Farmer's Market. I defrosted it, brined it for several hours, then simmered it in salted water spiked with some peppercorns and a few bay leaves for three hours. After it had cooled enough to handle, I stripped off the skin. This is easy to do, as the skin is thick and separates easily from the meat. You just have to slice through to the meat, grab a sheet of skin, and pull. It'll come off in a half-dozen or so pieces. I discarded the skin; it's garbage. Then I cut the portion of tongue I planned to use into 1/2" cubes and reserved the rest for later use.

Finally, I heated a skillet with a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When the oil started to shimmer, I added some ground cumin, some cayenne, some garlic salt, some salt, and some pepper and let that all toast for 10 or 15 seconds, stirring constantly. When the aroma of the spices started to waft up from the stove, I added the cubed tongue and cooked until the edges started to crisp a bit, stirring frequently so that the spices would coat the tongue evenly.

Heat some corn tortillas. Did you forget to make pico de gallo? Make it now; diced onion, diced tomato, chopped cilantro, maybe some jalapeno, maybe a little minced garlic, lime juice. Toss, taste, adjust. Fill a tortilla with tongue, dress with pico de gallo, eat. Yum.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Toxinex™: For the New You

Do you sometimes feel a little blue? Do you occasionally think that your life may not be working out as you'd hoped, that you haven't quite met your potential? When you see a stranger laughing in a public place, does it ever occur to you that he could be laughing at you? Do you yawn simply because you are tired?

If you suffer from any of these troubling symptoms--and quite likely even if you do not--Toxinex™ may be for you. Toxinex™ is a psychoactive drug developed by Pfister Pharmaceutical and Munitions for the treatment of Sporadic Atypical Non-happy Ideation or Tired Yawning (SANITY) disorder.

Toxinex™ is not for everyone. Only your physician can determine whether Toxinex™ is right for you. Visit your physician today and insist that he prescribe Toxinex™ so that he can determine whether Toxinex™ is right for you. Do not take 'no' for an answer; amenability is a leading indicator of SANITY disorder.

Side effects of Toxinex™ may include one or more of the following: rapid hair growth, dry heaves, acute pain in the testicles or labia, development of a tail, profound enlargement of the eyes and/or tongue, spontaneous and frequent orgasm, kidney and liver failure, suicidal thoughts, hearing voices, acute depression, and an irresistible urge to procure an automatic weapon and take out every last bastard at the nearest McDonalds, starting with the one who was laughing at you the last time you were there. If you experience any of these symptoms, contact your physician to determine whether you should increase or, God forbid, decrease your dosage of Toxinex. Under no circumstances should you discontinue the use of Toxinex™; Toxinex™ changes the chemistry of your cells so that they can no longer form cell walls without Toxinex™. Cessation of Toxinex™ usage typically results in immediate and painful death by internal hemorrhaging.

Toxinex™: For the New You. Ask your doctor for it today, lose your SANITY tomorrow. The first bottle's free!


Saturday, February 02, 2008


There are many, many different wonderful ways to prepare chicken. For presentation, you can't beat roasting a whole bird (we always stick a lemon, flesh perforated by a fork, in the cavity as per Marcella Hazan's instructions; we refer to this dish as Chicken Lemon Up the Bum). Roasting is not without its perils, however; it is difficult to gauge exactly when the bird is done, and when chicken is cooked whole, the various parts of the bird don't always finish cooking at the same time. The result is either a dry breast or a dark meat portion that could give you the trots.

Then there's braising chicken parts, as in a fricassee or coq au vin. The results are delicious, but I find it impossible to prepare chicken this way without turning the skin into a pale, unappealing goo. Dredging in flour and browning up front helps a little, but fact of the matter is the bird will eventually wind up steaming, and that's going to take all the crunch out of the skin. Also, the resulting sauce must be carefully defatted unless you're going for that Eastern European/Jewish where's-my-heart-attack-I-want-my-heart-attack-right-now!!! effect.

Chicken under a brick is a fabulous preparation, but it's a little labor intensive. Also, because it requires prolonged browning over very high heat in a shallow pan, it results in a lot of fat spattering. The missus, who is on cleanup duty, does not so much appreciate this, so I've shied away from this preparation lately.

For now, my preferred method is to bake the chicken parts. Baking and roasting, in truth, are pretty much the same cooking technique; baking traditionally refers to chicken parts, however, while roasting refers to cooking a bird whole. No, I do not know why that is. What do I look like, the danged Internets? But I digress…

I like to buy my birds whole. They are cheaper that way (making it easier for a cheapskate like myself to pay the 100% extra for an organic chicken or more still for a pastured bird--see note below), and it seems intuitively obvious to me that a whole bird has less likely begun the rotting/degrading/flavor-shedding process than has a package of chicken parts, all other things being equal. Buying a whole bird also means that I can butcher the bird exactly to my specifications and treat myself to some gizzards when I'm done with my prep work. Cutting up a chicken takes all of two minutes. With poultry shears I cut out the spine, then split the bird along the breastbone. Separating the dark meat quarter takes no time at all, as at this point it is attached to the breast quarter only by skin. I trim off the wing tip, find the joint between the wing and breast, and--snip!--I have six pieces to cook: two breasts, two wings, two leg/thigh portions.

Next up is the brine. Brining effects a magical transformation on poultry (watch Alton Brown to find out why; I've had the how and why explained to me many times but it keeps escaping from my head when I'm not looking) that makes it more tender and flavorful. A brine is basically a saline solution, which you can spike with other flavor enhancers. I add some peppercorns, a few bay leaves, and a splash of fruit juice (lately I've been using apricot nectar; try it!). I generally prep and brine the chicken in the morning or early afternoon. It's ready for cooking by dinnertime.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cook the chicken parts, skin side up, for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and cook for another 30 minutes (for a 4-pound bird; I'm no rocket scientist but I suspect you'd want to cook a larger bird for a little longer and a smaller one for slightly less time). The skin will start to brown a bit and perhaps puff slightly. The chicken parts will release some juices and they will be clear, not pink. When these things happen, it is time to eat chicken.

Last night I served this with a mixed green salad (we are eating a lot of salad around here these days, probably more in the last month than we had in the previous seven years) and parsnip-and-sweet-potato home fries. These were very easy to make. I simply diced the parsnips and sweet potatoes up into a fine 1/4"-dice, heated some oil in a hot skillet over high heat, tossed in the veggies, and started cooking, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. High heat caramelized the exterior, giving each piece good crunch and extra sweetness. After about five minutes I tossed in some fine-diced onion and a little butter, then a little more butter, and then just a wee bit more butter. Once the butter goes in, make sure to reduce the heat to medium, because butter burns easily and you do not want that to happen. I was a little worried about this dish as I've never tried cooking potatoes in a skillet (without boiling them first, anyways) but I had no cause. This dish was a winner and will be entering the regular rotation around here.

NOTE: There are so many different types of chicken out there in the marketplace today. Most common are those produced in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). These are your Perdue/Tyson/etc. chickens. I am now committed to avoiding these birds for so many reasons: (1) they have been genetically modified for size, growth speed, and resistance to disease when placed in unnatural conditions (i.e. living nuts to butts with thousands of other chickens in very confined quarters), but not for taste; (2) they are raised in unnatural conditions which also happen to be extraordinarily inhumane; (3) these unnatural conditions under which they are raised also result in all sorts of significant environmental damage.

Organic birds are better, but the term "organic" only means that the birds weren't fed genetically modified plants or plants that were grown conventionally (an odd term since "conventional" growing is a relatively new phenomenon, while its counterpart "organic" is how humans have been growing food for millennia). It usually means they weren't pumped full of antibiotics, either. Most organic birds you'll find at the Whole Foods will ensure right on the packaging that the birds are antibiotic-free. However, organic birds are often raised in CAFO-like conditions. I'd rather the bird I eat didn't spend its entire life as if it were experiencing a never-ending New York City rush hour subway ride.

The term "free range" chicken suggests the bird led a better life, but that's not always the case. Government regulations allow the designation "free range" for birds raised in confinement pens so long as the birds have access to a pasture. That access is typically located at a single point at one end of a long pen; few birds ever find their way to the pasture, nor would they be inclined to since all their food is in the pen. This, unfortunately, is the way a lot of producers of free-range organic chickens run their operations.

So now I try to buy my chickens at the farmer's market from someone who raises chickens the old fashioned way, in a pasture. I must admit I'm not orthodox on this because those chickens are pretty expensive, but as often as possible that's the way I go. The organic and free-range organic birds, while not ideal, are at least a lot healthier for us as consumers than are those CAFO birds, I'm convinced.

Thus ends our lesson on chicken! Oh, yeah, one more thing:
C is the way to begin
H is the next letter in
I, I am the third
C, that's the middle of the word
K. I'm fillin' in
E, we're gettin' near the end
That's the way to spell chicken!


Friday, January 25, 2008

Green Beans à la Andy

My newest favorite side dish/snack couldn't be easier to make. My friend Andy served me a plate one day and I've been making it 3 or 4 times a week ever since.

You need the following ingredients:

green beans
olive oil

1. Wash and dry the beans, then snap off the stem ends.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet until it's not quite smoking; the secret to delicious Green Beans à la Andy is to get that skillet plenty hot.
3. Put the green beans in the skillet. Season with salt. You want the beans all in one layer so that they can be in constant contact with the skillet. I always use the biggest skillet I own so I can make lots of Green Beans à la Andy.
4. Sauté the green beans. The only trick here is to leave them sit long enough so that the beans brown and wilt a bit but not so long that they burn. You have to keep an eye on them and give them a regular toss, but you don't need to keep them moving constantly. Cook until done and serve.
Up to a certain point, the longer you cook these the better they are; the bean exteriors caramelize, making them sweet and a little smoky. At some point they will turn into wilted garbage if you keep cooking them, but there's no way you will be able to cook them for that long. The beans will smell too good and be too tempting; at some point you will no longer be able to resist plating and eating them. That's when they're done (10 minutes probably will do it).

All hail Chef Andy!


Thursday, January 17, 2008

On Shopping Across the Spectrum, and Thoughts on Pasture-Raised Chicken

My sister Amy called the other day to gloat over the fact that I am now shopping at a food co-op. At first her good-natured taunts didn't quite register; I don't really think of the Weaver Street Market Cooperative as a co-op, even though--duh!--it advertises that fact prominently in its name. My confusion arises from the fact that Weaver Street is well stocked, well lit, and professionally run, three characteristics I don't associate with cooperative grocers. I've been to co-ops in New York City and in downtown Durham and they are uniformly dreary places staffed by lotus eaters, stocked sparsely with flaccid produce stored in containers that appear to have been scavenged from dumpsters, and so dimly lit that one suspects it is by design--if one could get past the obvious fact that nothing in these places could possibly be the result of conscious design--in order to confuse and disorient the shopper, thus rendering him unaware of how dolorous an experience he is having. Oh, and they tend to be expensive to boot.

Way, way at the other end of the shopping spectrum, I found myself in a Wal-Mart the other day. Wait, let me explain! I had some items to drop off at the local Goodwill center, which is located next door to the local Super Wal-Mart. I needed windshield washer fluid and a new pair of sweatpants and figured it was less evil to buy these items at a nearby retail giant than to burn gas driving all over creation for two nominal purchases. Once inside, of course, it was impossible to restrict myself to just two items. I remembered we needed some food storage containers for the fridge, and then I decided to explore the grocery section and discovered, much to my delight, that Wal-Mart sells my favorite Amy's frozen entrée for more than $1 less than anyone else in the area, so I piled a bunch of those into my cart as well. I was also delighted to discover cans of Progresso Turkey Noodle Soup, a product that has mysteriously vanished from the shelves of all other grocers. And so I was actually pretty pleased with the experience on the way out the door. Did I get my karmic comeuppance? Would I be telling this story otherwise? On their second day of service, my new sweatpants divested themselves of their drawstring. They are now good for comedy routines that require one's pants to fall to one's ankles, but not for much else (someone 50 pounds heavier than I might be able to use them, I suppose, although that's something I surely would not want to see). Alas, I lost the receipt so I'm just going to have to write off that $7.55 investment. I can't help wondering whether the windshield washer fluid I bought is right now inflicting thousands of dollars worth of damage on Donnie.

Finally, last night I baked the locally produced pasture-raised chicken I bought at Weaver Street over the weekend. It was much, much better than the factory-farmed chickens we'd previously grown used to: lots more flavor, and not so grotesquely proportioned (factory chickens are built like Mamie Van Doren). However, it was a little rubbery. Small price to pay for knowing that this chicken was actually allowed to use its muscles during its lifetime, but all the same I'll try to remember to brine the next one, which should help. I cooked it with the red rice mentioned in the previous blog, which was disappointingly ordinary in taste, although quite appealing to the eye. Salt helped it quite a bit (that's the Marge Simpson cooking tip of the day!).


Sunday, January 13, 2008

In Which Our Hero's Faith Continues, Some Tasty Victuals are Recollected and Still More Tasty Victuals are Collected For Future Ingestion

It has been a little over a week since I recounted my alimentary epiphany, and I am pleased to report that its mandate to eat healthier and more healthfully grown foods has not subsequently weakened. This week the missus and I ate not just healthily but also quite well: grilled lamb andouille sausage with sautéed chard and a basmati rice pilaf; grilled pork chops with pan-roasted potatoes, steamed asparagus, and a delicious salad; coq au vin and spaghetti dressed with sautéed chard, olives, garlic, and plenty of my favorite olive oil; a Trader Joe's frozen pizza (mundane, sure, but quite tasty, truth be told); and plenty of leftovers. Much of what I prepared (including all the meat) was locally and sustainably raised, and much of the rest was organically grown. It was a good week in the kitchen.

I was all set to return to the Carrboro Farmer's Market yesterday to lay in another week's worth of meat products plus whatever produce and cheeses looked good, but alas fate had other plans for me. On Friday night the world-famous juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers performed in Garner, NC, a good--no, check that, lousy--hour's drive from my home. My college buddy and longtime bandmate Mark is an FKB, so of course the missus and I went to see the show and to hang out with Mark until all hours of the night. The farmer's market closes at 12 and is picked clean well before that hour, so I opted for sleep and allowed that window of opportunity slam shut. Although it made me feel bad to neglect a resolution so recently made, getting up at 9 would have made me feel much, much worse.

Fortunately there was another option: Carrboro's Weaver Street Market Cooperative, which carries a fine assortment of locally and sustainably grown produce and meats. I've been vaguely aware of this store for many years but have rarely set foot in it, as I've always found it a bit off-putting. The clientele mostly look like the sort of people you see at a Sufjan Stevens show: wispy folk with serpentine postures and facial expressions that seem to say "Where did I leave that hackysack?" Despite being surrounded by so much healthy food, they do not look at all healthy. Peppered among the young ectomorphs are equally ectomoprhic academic types, pony-tailed and batiked and more stern than dreamy in demeanor. Perhaps this is what will happen to the Sufjan fans when they grow up.

Customer base aside, Weaver Street is a paradise for folks seeking a healthier diet. The produce is much more robust than it is at the similarly positioned Whole Foods Market up the way in Chapel Hill, and my first impression is that it's much more reasonably priced. Plus, it's pretty much all organic; no having to choose between organic and agrindustrial here. Here's what I scored:
1 beautiful fennel bulb, $2.29 (Whole Foods fennel tends to be pretty sickly and dessicated)
3 portabella caps, $3.71
I large and lovely bunch of red chard, $2.79
2/3 pound green beans, $1.32
2.25 pounds red potatoes, $3.12
1.5 pounds yellow onion, $1.45
1 pound bag of Bhutanese red rice $3.79 (exotic and ostensibly pricey, but I'll get 6 to 10 servings from it so it's really not that bad)
1/2 gallon locally produced low-fat milk $2.89 (plus a hefty $1.20 deposit on the bottle)
1 French bread, baked on premises $2.00
1 ciabatta to eat on the way home $0.75
two substantial locally raised smoked pork chops, $7.20
1 whole locally raised chicken, $6.88
I figure I've got 3 or 4 dinners for two there with some leftovers to boot, all for a little over $40.00. Yeah, the conventional grocery store is cheaper, but not so terribly much so. And for now at least, the way I'm shopping really has me looking forward to another good week in the kitchen. I'll keep you posted.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

In Which Our Hero Gets Religion, and an Apology is Proffered

A while back--two weeks ago, to be exact--I was the sort to scoff at the notion of organic farming, sustainable farming, humane farming, and a whole bunch of other good things that I thought of collectively as "hippie sh!t." I would look at the organic carrots at the Whole Foods, which often cost twice what conventional carrots cost, and laugh that I'd buy the inorganic carrots--you know, the ones made of petrochemicals, I joked--instead. Hahaha. It's funny because it's true. Except it's not funny, and I didn't know how true it was when I was making the joke.

That all changed last week, when I finally read The Ominvore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (I'd bought it over a year ago but managed to dodge it until now), an engrossing book about food production in the United States. Pollan has a gift for taking complex subjects--agribusiness and monocultural growing, large-scale organic farming and smaller-scale sustainable farming, how economics and not nutrition drives food production policy, etc. etc.--and making them both understandable and extremely compelling. Sometimes I forget how a book can change your life. This book reminded me.

It's impossible to summarize this book in such a short space, but the crux of Pollan's argument is this: the way we produce food in this country is unnatural and unhealthy. Instead of rotating crops and promoting diversity to keep farmland healthy, we grow the same crops on the same ground over and over again, depleting the soil so that we must 'replenish' it with artificial fertilizers (these fertilizers are petrochemical-intensive--hence, carrots made of petrochemicals). We subject our food animals to unimaginable cruelty that in turn makes them susceptible to all sorts of horrible diseases in order to produce cheap meat of dubious quality. The processes required for such large-scale crop and animal harvesting are tremendously damaging to the environment. Occasionally they are tremendously damaging to us as well (e.g. mad cow disease), not even taking into account the effects of living in an increasingly toxic environment.

Pollan spends a good deal of time on the subject of food animals and the ways they are treated by various types of producers. He is a devoted carnivore, as am I, and his experiences with our nation's Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) do not cure him of that. They do, however, cure him of the desire to eat CAFO-produced meat ever again, an effect his book probably has on most readers, myself included. I won't disgust you with the details, but I will warn you that after you read this book you will likely always feel a little queasy whenever you look at a Tyson chicken or a large-scale produced pork loin. Man has been eating animals for millennia, and I still don't see anything wrong with that. We only started torturing them in the last century, though, and that's wrong. And we do it just to save a dollar or two on the pound.

Admittedly, that sounds like a substantial savings, but Pollan argues convincingly that these savings are illusory. Hidden in the low prices are the tax breaks to large producers that we pay for, the price subsidies we pay for, the cleanup of the singular forms of pollution that industrial farming produces that we pay for, etc. Calculate the true cost of that pound of chicken into its retail price and suddenly it's not the bargain it appears to be.

Pollan contrasts the agribusiness model with both the large-scale organic industry (better but hardly perfect) and smaller local sustainable growth producers. 'Sustainable growth' means doing all the things farmers have done throughout the millennia before agribusiness: rotating crops to maintain fertility, managing pastures, grazing feed animals… basically, creating and managing a complete ecosystem that, because of its thoroughness, doesn't require the annual purchase of seed, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, etc. etc. It's not easy work but the sustainable farmers Pollan profiles are committed to the principle of sustainability, and they sound pretty darn fulfilled in their work.

But is their food any good? This morning I decided to put my money where my head has been. I visited the Carrborro Farmers' Market--an emporium of organic and sustainably produced local food--to see what I could scrounge up for tonight's dinner. January in North Carolina means slim pickings for produce but I did manage to find a lovely bunch of red chard ($2.50) and a beautiful head of purple cauliflower (just under $2). Meat selections were much more plentiful. For tonight's dinner, I bought a fresh ham steak (when it comes to ham, the term 'fresh' designates uncured and unsmoked) about an inch thick (1.5 pounds, $10). At $15, my haul seemed a little pricey for a home-cooked meal for two, but I decided to put that thought on hold until after the meal was done.

I prepared the food pretty simply. The ham steak was frozen, so I had to defrost it. I then brined it for a few hours in a saline solution spiked with some peppercorns and a splash of fruit juice (peach nectar, to be precise) to add a touch of sweetness. When it came time to cook, I rinsed the steak, seasoned it lightly, and threw it on a hot grill. About 4 minutes per side did the trick; it was crispy and singed on the edges, cooked firm through but not overdone.

I diced some onion and smashed a garlic clove and sautéed it all in olive oil, then added the washed and chopped chard and a pinch of salt, covered it, and let it cook down (5-6 minutes). I cut the purple cauliflower into florets, tossed them with a little salt and olive oil, and roasted them in a 460-degree oven for 15 minutes. And that was it, a simple but conceptually appetizing dinner.

And good news--it tasted as good as it had in my mind's mouth. I won't even pretend I can distinguish between the actual taste of the food and the way that my preconceptions of how much 'better' this food was than agribusiness food colored my judgment. For whatever reason, the ham steak was the tastiest piece of pork I've had in a long, long time, and the vegetables seemed to have a more intense and enjoyable flavor than I've come to expect from a serving of veggies. It was all very good. We even had leftovers, meaning that $15 price tag isn't so terribly high after all.

OK, I'm sold. Good thing, too--I've got some lamb andouille sausage and some beautiful pork chops I bought today to cook later this week. I'm all out of farmer's market produce but I can get some of the organic stuff at the local Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. I'll be sure to take my NPR tote bag with me so that I don't have to waste any plastic bags. Dear God, is there a pair of Birkenstocks with my name on them out there somewhere? Peace, man.

PS That apology mentioned in the subject heading belongs to my sister, who has been preaching the virtues of organic and sustainable farming to me for a long, long time. In response, I have joked, scoffed, and parried, but I haven't until now given the subject serious thought. Sis, you were right and I was wrong. I'll even be joining a CSA this year, as you have suggested I do for so many years now. I apologize.

Now let us never speak of this again. :-)

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cheese is Crizal™ Mighty!!!

I have traditionally been a frugal consumer of eyewear. Since college I've favored those little round wire frames that some refer to as 'granny glasses' but which I've always thought of as 'John Lennon glasses.' They're cheap, they're practical, and they look good to me. The worst you can say about them is that they are inconspicuous, which is hardly a demerit in the eyewear universe. Grandpa glasses, on the other hand--those giant plastic frames that somehow make all old men look like cartoon turtles--are another story entirely.

My wife thinks I can do better, and has reminded me of this point often enough that, last time around, I decided to relent and buy something 'fashionable,' even though doing so would surely double the cost of a product I hardly ever even see. She reminded me that she has to look at me and my glasses all the time, for which there was unfortunately no reasonable rejoinder. And so 'fashionable' glasses for me it would be.

Thus the missus and I went foraging for spectacles the last time we were in New York City. Our wanderings naturally led us to SoHo, for that is where one is most likely to find the most expensive eyeglass frames in this or any neighboring solar system. It took a while to find a pair I liked. The first pairs I tried on were at a distinct disadvantage: I would find out what they cost and then put them on, only to discover that my reaction to the price had turned my skin a shade of green that did not at all complement the color of the frame. Eventually, though, I grew accustomed to Soho prices, to the point where I could laughingly scoff, "What? These cost only $700? I'll take six pair!!!!" Finally I found a pair I liked and they weren't even that terribly expensive. And, truth be told, they looked pretty darn good on me.

I figured it made most sense to have the lenses installed back in my hometown of Durham, NC, just in case there were any problems that required repair or replacement. Having been broken of my eyeglass frugality, I was now intent on spending 'good money' to finish the job. I identified a tony eyewear boutique and headed off to discharge my business. I already had a prescription, so all that was left to do was to deliver the frames, make a deposit, and await the results of this shoppe's anticipated fine work.

Unfortunately, it wasn't quite so simple. The woman working in the shoppe would not allow me to leave until I'd made a seemingly endless series of choices about my lenses. Did I want the lenses tapered on the sides so that I would not look like I was in need of special education? Yes. Did I want lenses that turned dark in the sunlight, clear in the dark, and rose-colored when I was feeling a little gloomy? No. Did I want scratchproof coating? No, I like my glasses really scratched up. That's a joke! Yes, please, scratchproof coating. How about Crizal™ anti-glare coating? Feeling extravagant, I assented.

At this point, I detected just the slightest look of concern on the woman's face. I now speculate that she must have been new to her job and had not yet learned never to cue a customer who has made a terrible, terrible mistake. Alas, her error did not register profoundly enough with me, and soon the inquiry continued. I left her with a ridiculous amount of money as a deposit that, sad to say, covered only half the cost of the lenses, and went on my way.

But I was pretty darn pleased with the glasses when they were ready just a few days later, and after trying them on I was quite happy to bail them out, even though it meant a diet of rice and beans for the rest of the month. I enjoyed them all that first day. Right up to the point, that is, that it came time to clean them. The optometrist had supplied me with a special Crizal™ cloth specifically designed for cleaning Crizal™-coated lenses, which made me feel very special indeed. Out came the special cloth. Rub, rub, rub. Hmm. Jeez, these lenses are still pretty dirty. Rub, rub, rub. No, still not quite clean. Rub, rub, rub. Rub, rub, rub, rub. Rubrubrubrub. Rubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrubrub!!!!!! Sigh.

OK, so here's the thing. The special Crizal™ cloth actually does a pretty good job of removing dirt and dust. What it isn't so good at is removing grease, such as might spatter on your glasses, say, when you sauté something, as I am wont to do. Or, if you are human, such as you might excrete as one of the regular biological processes that keep you alive. The cloth does an excellent job of moving that grease around, sometimes relocating it in more or less the same shape elsewhere on the lens, other times smearing it in a delicate veneer across the entire lens, but always, always, always leaving it on the lens.

Thanks to Crizal™, I do not see glare. I do, however, constantly see rainbows. Also, there are times when the world through my glasses looks like a goddamn Monet; a pleasingly glare-free Monet, to be sure, but a Monet nonetheless. I can only imagine that no one at the Crizal™ company has ever been forced to wear Crizal™-coated lenses, because the evil required to knowingly market so profoundly defective a product is too terrible to contemplate. Next thing you'll tell me is that there are folks out there who would start a war based on false pretenses.

I'd like to say I've learned a valuable lesson from this experience, but the lessons here are either too specific ("Don't by Crizal™-coated lenses!") or too trite and obvious ("Let the buyer beware!"). I have learned exactly nothing other than the fact that when you have made a costly mistake, you no longer have enough money left to undo that mistake. I suppose I could have taken the lenses back and demanded satisfaction, but I am unfortunately a little slow witted, and it took quite a while before I was certain of the cause of my consternation. I figured somehow--mysteriously, inexplicably--that my inability to clean my glasses was somehow my fault. That sounds dumb, you say? Are you surprised? I'M THE IDIOT WHO BOUGHT CRIZAL™-COATED LENSES!!!!!

PS As requested by Dave P, a photo of myself in the lovely but smeary glasses. Note my slightly confused look, the result of not being able to see so terribly well.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Glutinous rice ball, a food traditionally served during Dong Zhi

When the Princeton Review Vocabulary MInute was starting up two years ago, I wrote a seasonal song called "Happy Holidays." It's always been one of my favorite vocabulary songs and I always felt that it deserved to be fleshed out.

To that end, I recently wrote a second verse and a bridge to the song, upgrading "Happy Holidays" from its Pinocchio-like status to that of a "real song." I couldn't convince The Princeton Review to release the entire song as a Vocab Minute (it was too long for the format) but did get them to bend enough to allow me 1:40 for the second verse and chorus, bridge, and reprise of the first chorus for this year's holiday song.

And so I point you to my myspace page, where you can hear both the original "Happy Holidays" and the new "Happy Holidays 2007." Play them one after the other to sort-of kind-of hear the song in its entirety. One day I'll record a full version of the song but it won't be soon; the 2007 version took 7 hours to track, mix, and master. The Phil Spector sound is a real challenge when you've only got one musician to work with.
Happy Holidays

If you want to wish someone a happy holiday
Here's how you can do it in a brand new way
You'll spread a little universal mirth and glee
Bringing joy to the world in perfect harmony

Have a festive Festival of Light (Happy Hanukkah is what you're sayin')
May you have a jubilant Yuletide (Have a Merry Christmas eve and day and)
Hope you have a jovial Kwanzaa, happy as can be
And my New Year bring good tidings, meaning better news for you and me!

If you want to be a part of the latest craze
Just take your favorite greeting for the holidays
Then use some synonyms to write a paraphrase
Change the words but not the meaning that the greeting conveys

May your Kwanzaa be full of elation (hope that it's as happy as can be)
Hope your Christmas bring you exaltation (celebrating 'neath the Christmas tree)
May your Hannukah be blissful, full of joy and mirth
And may New Year's Eve inaugurate an age of peace and love on Earth

Let's wish all Muslims an idyllic Eid al-Adha
And for the Chinese, a delirious Dong-Zhi
Let everyone on Earth be a persona grata
Blessed with the Maker's love and sweet tranquility

Have a festive Festival of Light (Happy Hanukkah is what you're sayin')
May you have a jubilant Yuletide (Have a Merry Christmas eve and day and)
Hope you have a jovial Kwanzaa, happy as can be
And my New Year bring good tidings, meaning better news for you and me!

by Tom Meltzer ©The Princeton Review


Friday, December 07, 2007

Thought For The Day

Do not walk behind me, for I may not lead.
Do not walk ahead of me, for I may not follow.
Do not walk behind me for a while, then walk ahead of me, then go wandering off in every which direction, for I may get confused.
Just walk along beside me, so I can punch you in the arm if I have to.


Monday, December 03, 2007

Carolina Rollergirls

Last night I made my first-ever trek to the roller derby. I cannot do justice to my elation at this experience in prose, alas. Fortunately, sweet Euterpe smiled upon me on my way home and inspired a song, a paean to the sport and the ladies who compete in it.

You can hear the song over at the myspace page for Meltzer-Hart, my new band. I should warn you in advance that I programmed the drums, and that they are lousy. The drum rolls sound as though they were played by someone who doesn't play drums, which is close enough to the truth. Ignore them the best you can, and enjoy.

Here are the lyrics, so you can sing along.
You can have every other woman
In this whole wide world
Ain't a one who can change the way I feel
About my Carolina Rollergirl
About my Carolina Rollergirl

You can take all your girly girls
Their pillbox hats and their strings of pearls
I like my girls in helmets and pads
Good girls who know how to be bad


You can hang out with your glitterati
I got no need for anybody that snotty
I like a girl who knows how to jam
That's just the kind of guy I am


You'll never see her on Access Hollywood
But you can find her hangin' in her Raleigh 'hood
And if her name is never up in lights
She'll still look good in lycra and tights


Update: Couldn't resist--I had to contact The Carolina Rollergirls organization to let them know about this song. Do they like it? Apparently so--it's been added to the team's myspace page! Go Rollergirls!

Update on the update: Ah, how fleeting is fame. The Rollergirls have already replaced my song on their website with one by some fellow named Petey Pablo, or Pablo Peaty, I forget which. His song has nothing to do with roller derby at all! It does, however, sound like it would be a lot of fun to skate to. I take solace in the fact that Rollergirl skater Violet Femme--my new favorite member of the team--still has the song posted at at her myspace page.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Off-the-Beaten-Path Television

Like most modern Americans, we subscribe to a service that provides our television programming. We use DirectTV because it is the only way for North Carolinians to get Baltimore Oriole games. Don't ask, just accept that it is a sickness and that I will probably never be cured.

DirectTV provides us with roughly ten million channels of programming. Most of what's broadcast is wholly worth ignoring, but with ten million channels something good is bound to be on every once in a while, right? The question is, how do you find good programming among ten million channels worth of (mostly) drek?

I'm going to do my best to help you here. Now, I know you do not need my help to find your way to Law and Order reruns. In fact, I assume you are watching one right now, as you are reading my blog. You are, right? Not such a lucky guess; the odds are in my favor.

No, I'm talking about stuff that runs on channels you don't even know you have. Programs that you therefore don't know exist, yet which are really, really good, even better than Law and Order reruns. For example:
Ninja Warrior, G4--On one level, this is just a goofy obstacle-course competition. But the great thing about it is, it's a Japanese obstacle-course competition, and Japanese television is awesome. The announcer sounds like a very angry Toshiro Mifune, growl-shouting play-by-play (thankfully the show is broadcast in Japanese with subtitles, not in some lame dubbed version like Iron Chef). Competitors behave as if this competition is the only thing that has ever mattered--or ever will matter--in their entire lives.

then there's
Nothing But Trailers, HDNet--Admit it, you don't go to the movies any more. You can't stand paying $10 to see something you can watch on your bigass TV at home for free in just a few months, you can't stand paying $7 for a vat of greasy day-old popcorn, and you really can't stand all the morons around you who are either yelling at each other or at the movie screen or into their cell phones, which if there's a God in heaven will be eternally and painfully inserted into their recta for the endurance of the Afterlife. But... you miss seeing trailers, which are so often the best part of the moviegoing experience. HDNet has your back, baby: one half hour of nothing but trailers. Crank up the home entertainment center until the furniture rumbles. It's exactly like being at a movie theater, minus the morons.

finally, there's
Prime Minister's Questions, CSPAN--OK, I have to admit that I haven't seen this since Tony Blair stepped down, so I have no idea if it's still the great program it was back in the day. Question Time, for those unfamiliar, is when Britain's leader comes to Parliament to answer a bunch of questions--some softballs, some incredibly pointed, depending of course on who is asking--from 'backbenchers' (i.e. not Ministers) in the House of Commons. Blair was a master of the format; he handled it like Plato deconstructing the Sophists. He answered so firmly, so authoritatively, so confidently that you couldn't shake the feeling that you agreed with everything he had just said, even when you were quite certain that you adamantly did not agree with anything he'd just said. Great theater, and something that is sorely lacking from the American form of government. Seriously, how great would it be for George W. Bush to have to take questions from the likes of Jerrold Nadler and Dennis Kucinich for a half hour every single week? I bet Bush would've been a one-term-and-out president, a compelling enough argument on its own to institute President's Questions right here in the U S of A.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Only 14 minutes, 57 seconds remaining...

If you watched The Daily Show last night, you saw Demetri Martin do a bit on the SATs. If you were watching carefully, you saw the home page for Princeton Review podcasts flash on screen for a full three seconds! During which time, if you were really paying attention, you would have seen the title of the podcast I create for the Princeton Review right up there on national television!

Don't believe me? Hit The Daily Show link above and scroll down through the videos until you find the title Martin-The SAT. Click it and let the video stream begin! My moment of fame arrives at 1:08 and lasts clear through 1:10.

I have dropped Mr. Martin the appropriate thank you note via his my space page. I promised him I would mention him next time I'm on television, which seems only fair.

Is this the beginning of a Vocab Minute media blitz? My Warholian clock is ticking.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dick Cheney's Day of Sport

Dick Cheney visited an exclusive hunting club in Dutchess County today. From the New York Daily News:
Farm-bred pheasants were released on the preserve 24 hours before Cheney arrived, making them easy targets for the hunting party.

"The way they hunt, I'm not fond of," said Linda Smith, 52, who runs a local preschool. "It's not what I would call a real sportsmanlike activity."
After the hunt, Mr. Cheney and his party repaired to Winged Foot Country Club for a round of golf. In preparation for Mr. Cheney's visit, several modifications to the course were made:
•Holes were widened to a 6-foot diameter
•50-foot tall barricades were erected along the fairways to prevent errant shots from entering the rough, woods, creeks, etc.
•Each tee was moved to a distance of 100 yards from the green
•A "maximum score of one stroke per hole" rule was enacted
The vice president reportedly shot an 18, although White House sources would neither confirm nor deny that. "The vice president's score," said to a spokesperson who asked not to be identified, "is classified."


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Live or Let Die?

This is my car. Its name is Donnie. Donnie is named after Steve Buscemi's character in The Big Lebowski.

Donnie and I have a special relationship. Owing to the fact that I was a miserable and dangerous driver in high school who was fortuitously relieved of his license almost as soon as he got it; and to the fact that I moved to New York City when I was 18 and stayed there until I was nearly 40; owing to these circumstances, Donnie was the first car I ever bought.

Donnie is a 2001 Ford Focus. He's not that old in car years, but he's definitely been through the wars. Between numerous family visits (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Atlanta) and even more vacations (western North Carolina, the Carolina coast, the Delaware Coast, New York City), Donnie has logged some serious miles. It won't be long before Donnie logs his 130,000th mile, in fact.

Donnie still drives great. He has plenty of get up and go both from a dead stop and on highway onramps, he gets great mileage (about 36 mpg on the highway), and he still handles great in turns. He is as fun to drive as any reasonable person can expect an inexpensive sedan to be. However, Donnie is a Ford, which means that he is an American car, which means that before he was built someone somewhere in an office in Detroit spent a lot of time figuring out how to take this perfectly well designed car (the Focus got its start in Europe) and f##k it up. That someone decided to skimp on some peripherals, no doubt calculating that the resulting savings of $.057 per car might ultimately cover his salary while simultaneously making millions of people like myself very, very angry at Ford, so angry that we swear we will never buy another Ford as long as we live, nor in any subsequent lives we may live, should we be reincarnated.

For instance, a seal on the right side of my windshield failed some time around mile 90,000; this caused the footwell of the front passenger seat to fill with water whenever it rained. Search the net for the terms FOCUS, PASSENGER, FOOTWELL, and BUCKETS OF WATER and you will learn this has happened to nearly every Ford Focus, yet there was never a recall. The dealer knew exactly what my problem was when I called to complain, and how much it would cost me to have it repaired. The question "Why should I have to pay for it?" elicited a shrug and a "Whaddayagonnado?" response I hadn't heard since leaving New York.

Another place where Ford skimped was in a plastic clip that holds the power windows in place. Again, seach the net and you will learn just how many people have had the unhappy surprise of opening their power windows, hearing the bright snap of plastic, and realizing that that window will never close properly again. Again, no recall. Here is a picture of Donnie's rear passenger window.

Recently, Donnie and I reached a crossroads. As previously mentioned, Donnie is approaching 130,000 miles. That means he was very much in need of a new timing belt ($220). He also needed a new set of tires ($360). Making these repairs basically meant committing to another three years with Donnie, begging the question "Should I get that broken power window fixed?" ($300). And what about the other rear passenger window, which, if it's like the rear window on so many other 2001 Ford Focuses, is soon about to snap its clip and descend into the door? Am I ready to sink a pile of cash into a car with 130,000 miles on it?

The decision, it turns out, wasn't such a difficult one. Donnie and I, we're buds. I'm not going to abandon him. Not until I can afford a really pimped out Mini Cooper, anyway, which I currently cannot. So Donnie got a new timing belt and a new set of tires to go with his new clutch (at 120,000 miles). We (Donnie and I, that is) decided that the duct-taped window was "cool," so that remains unrepaired. Soon it will have a parallel twin, no doubt.

Nefarious Ford man in your office somewhere, Donnie and I await the inevitable result of your other niggardly decisions. Fortunately you appear to have had nothing to do with designing engines and drivetrains, so while all your knickknacks and gewgaws break, degrade, disintegrate, and explode, Donnie and I will continue choogling on down the road.

At least until I can afford that Mini.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Monkin' Around

This past October 10 would have been the 90th birthday of Thelonious Monk, jazz pianist, composer, and eccentric extraordinaire. My adoptive home state of North Carolina lays some claim to this musical giant, as he was born in Rocky Mount. The fact that he moved to New York City at the age of five and thereafter made that grand city his home has not deterred us Tar Heels in the slightest; on the contrary, our six-week, eighteen-event Following Monk celebration has to be one of the more impressive homages to Monk ever mounted.

For my money, the one 'don't miss' event of the festival was last night's recreation of Monk's famous ten-piece 1959 Town Hall concert, performed by the Charles Tolliver Orchestra. The missus and I were so stoked for the event that we made sure to attend a Stanley Crouch lecture the previous night, anxious to gain some valuable insight into the music we'd be hearing. We had reason to be hopeful; Crouch is a heavyweight jazz critic, and the subject of the lecture was indeed supposed to be the Town Hall concert. Alas, someone must have failed to inform Crouch, because while he spoke entertainingly (and sometimes informatively) on subjects ranging from Shakespeare's genius to Louis Armstrong's genius to the differences between blacks and whites to the fact that even light-skinned blacks are a little put off by dark-skinned blacks to the superiority of live music to recorded music to the names of perhaps every famous musician and writer he has ever met, he never really got around to the Town Hall concert. He was considerate enough to circle around to the subject of Monk every so often, for which those of us who remembered that we were attending a Following Monk event were very grateful. The lecture was free, and the dictum 'you get what you pay for' was evinced.

Fortunately, it cost good money to see the concert, so we had cause to expect value, and we got plenty of it. Pianist Stanley Cowell got things started with a fluid reading of "In Walked Bud," then was joined by the rhythm section for a lovely, lazily swinging "Blue Monk." Tenor saxophonist Craig Handy joined them for "Rhythm-a-Ning," demonstrating some very impressive chops and exquisite control of the tone of his instrument; he deftly went from sweet to flattened out to honking in his pursuit of some ugly beauty, and it was all good. Over the course of the night he would continue to impress, a vexing occasional tendency to showboat notwithstanding.

After that, the full band hit the stage to perform the set heard on Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall. The solos were different, of course, but the arrangements were pretty much dead on; Tolliver reportedly had access to some of Monk's rehearsal tapes for the original show and that helped him get the transcriptions right. The section playing, especially on up-tempo numbers like "Little Rootie Tootie" and "Friday the 13th," was in itself worth the price of admission. Everyone in the band was a player; my favorite was alto saxophonist Todd Bashore, who did a great job of weaving the melody of the tunes into his improvisations.

It didn't hurt that the Town Hall concert contains a few of my favorite Monk compositions: "Blue Monk," the glorious ballad "Monk's Mood" (although, truth be told, I much prefer the Monk/Coltane duet version of the song to this orchestrated version), and "Thelonious," an incredibly catchy melody that for vast stretches consists of a single note. The last of these is especially well suited to a big-band setting; you could easily imagine the Basie or Ellington bands tearing it up on that one.

Throughout the event it was clear—as it always is when you hear Monk's music—that Thelonious Monk was a truly singular artist, someone so unique in his approach to his art that it's very difficult to be influenced by him without coming across as an imitator. I'm trying to think of others who fit that description: Vincent Van Gogh and the Beatles spring immediately to mind, but after that I'm drawing a blank. It's a little sobering to realize that two of those three were batsh!t crazy. In one of his rare moments of focus on the topic at hand, Stanley Crouch answered a question about whether he thought Monk might have been slightly autistic. "Oh, no!" Crouch said animatedly, and then, after a pause that showed some serious comic timing, added "He was a paranoid schizophrenic! [another comic pause] But he wasn't autistic." He wasn't much of a Tar Heel, either, but last night at least I was glad we Carolinians don't sweat such details.


Monday, October 01, 2007

metube, part 3

Here's an email I received via The Princeton Review a few weeks back:

I am a teacher for the School District of Palm Beach County, FL. I am participating in a technology seminar wherein we are expected to produce an enhanced podcast. I found your wonderful vocabulary songs, and illustrated one with video and text for my students (8th grade language arts).... I am attaching a copy for you to review.


Tom Felt
Bak Middle School of the Arts

And now I, likewise, am attaching a copy for your review, dear reader. Check it out!

PS Many thanks to Tom Felt for his excellent work on this!

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Monday, September 24, 2007

metube, part 2

More metube! Here's a video for one of my Princeton Review Vocab Minutes. It was shot by middle-school students in Gregory Andree's class up at the Old Rochester Regional High School in Mattapoisett, MA. Now this is cool!!!

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

metube, part 1

This video was made 22 years ago. I last saw it about 21 years ago and was fairly confident I would never see it again. Damn you, youtube!!!

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Underappreciated Geniuses, vol. 6: The Shazam

The first time I saw The Shazam was at Sparklefest 2004, a long-running Raleigh-based pop music fest that unfortunately pulled up stakes following Sparklefest 2006. Thanks to organizer Mike Nicholson and his fine taste in bands (as well as his ability to persuade them to perform for very little), that event also introduced me to the Rachel Nevadas, Cliff Hillis, and the brilliant Terry Anderson and the Olympic Ass Kicking Team, among others. In the rush of taking in so much new music, I have to admit that The Shazam only registered half a tick on my consciousness. I remember that they were loud as hell and that they all had 70s shag haircuts, and that I thought they looked and sounded a lot like The Sweet.

Then in early 2006, I got my hands on a copy of their 2003 album Tomorrow the World, and I quickly became a diehard fan. The album opens with the wonderfully cheeky anthem "Rockin' and Rollin' with my Rock and Roll Rock and Roller," a far better take on its familiar theme than, say, Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night" or a thousand other similar songs. That track begins a run of five songs that, if released on their own, would probably constitute the best EP of the new millennium to date. The highpoint is the glorious "Gettin' Higher," a paean to the futility of pursuing rock and roll stardom and rock and roll skirt, but each of these five tracks belongs in heavy rotation on every classic rock station in the country. The album loses a touch of momentum from track 6 on but remains strong all the way to the finish line. Fans more devout than I swear that their 1999 album Godspeed the Shaam is even better, and I may someday come to agree, but right now Tomorrow is the one I'd recommend.

What should you expect if you take my advice and get a copy? A band that draws copious inspiration from Cheap Trick, The Sweet, and Todd Rundgren, for one. A lead singer with a perfect pop voice, clear and sweet when it needs to be but perfectly capable of communicating an ironic wink or sarcastic snarl when necessary, supplemented by the requisite two-part backing harmonies, for another. And great songs written by a guy with a gift for guitar-based hooks and even hookier vocal choruses, as well as a great bag of tricks that allows him to add all sorts of nifty surprises to his song structures—an extra measure here, an innovative turnaround there, and other sorts of geeky songwriting stuff that sparks delight and admiration in geeky songwriting guys like myself.

The Shazam reportedly are putting the finishing touches on a new album. With any luck, that means they'll be touring sometime soon. Keep your eyes peeled for them, because unless you live in Nashville the opportunities to see them are few and far between, and they are a tremendous live band. They performed the penultimate set of Sparklefest 2006 and tore the house down. They were followed by The Upper Crust, who were also tremendous. If a festival has to close up shop—and it's heartbreaking that this one has—that's the way to do it.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Thalia and Popeye

One of the great blessings of attending college in New York City was, well, being a college student in New York City. College can be overwhelming and college students are not especially well equipped with perspective, so it's nice to be somewhere that encourages you to see your problems in their proper scale. Living in a city of 8 million gets the job done (especially when so many of those 8 million clearly have problems bigger than a late term paper).

New York in the early 1980s offered innumerable escapes from the college grind. My favorite was a dumpy movie theater called The Thalia, located on 95th Street just west of Broadway. The Thalia was a repertory revival house, meaning that it showed a different double feature of old movies almost every night of the week (occasionally a popular feature would run for two days). It was an extraordinarily poorly constructed space. The front half of the auditorium sloped away from the screen, meaning that someone sitting in this section had to be significantly taller than the person in front of him to have an unobstructed view. The seating sloped along a more conventional trajectory in the back half of the auditorium, which was also the smoking section. This is where I always sat. The whole place couldn't have seated more than 150. Ancient, decrepit, wired at the turn of the century, and with only one narrow exit, it was the sort of place you'd see illustrated in the dictionary next to the word 'firetrap.'

The Thalia is where I received my extracurricular education. I became something of a movie nut (I probably would have called myself a cinefile then, between puffs off a clove cigarette—ugh!), with a special affinity for pretentious foreign films, American film noir, silent comedies, and cartoons. In this last category I was especially lucky, as The Thalia regularly ran three-hour cartoon programs, all programmed by Greg Ford, a film historian who obviously knew his stuff. Programs were organized by main character, film studio, or theme (e.g. "Cartoonal Knowledge" for racy cartoons; there were also nights of appallingly racist cartoons, e.g. "Inky and the Mynah Bird"). A copy of Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic provided all the historical background necessary to achieve total cartoon geekdom.

It was during one of Ford's programs that I first realized the genius of Popeye. Like most folks my age, I'd grown up watching Popeye cartoons on television, but what I'd seen was a hodgepodge of 70 years of Popeye, most of them bland, unimaginative made-for-television cartoons. Ford showed only the cartoons created by the Fleischer Brothers Studio, the ones that begin with the title credits shown between slamming doors on a ship's deck. They are some of the best cartoons ever made, crammed to bursting with surreal gags, mumbled profanities, and a truly wonderful cast of lowlife characters: a one-eyed sailor, his weird beanpole girlfriend whom everyone inexplicably finds attractive, a big fat sociopath whom the beanpole inexplicably finds attractive, a hamburger-devouring mooch… it's a truly dysfunctional society, but one that makes complete sense, and is completely engaging, when taken on its own terms.

These cartoons made such an impression on me that, a decade after last seeing them regularly at The Thalia, I wrote a song about them:
If my life was a cartoon
I'd want to be Popeye the Sailor
I'd have a damsel in distress
And I would never fail her

I'd mutter something clever
Then I'd knock Bluto cold
I'd be a one-eyed mumbling crazy thug
With a heart of gold

And all my problems would be solved
Because I eat my greens
My life it would be measured out
In well-constructed scenes

I'd have drama without tragedy
Anger without pain
Love without loneliness
Hey, I would not complain

But I am what I am
And that's all I am
That's all I can stand
'Cause I can't stand no more

As a result of a rights dispute between various owners of different Popeye licenses, these cartoons existed in copyright limbo, with only a few that had crept into the public domain receiving DVD releases. The warring parties finally settled their differences last year, and today their truce bore its first fruit:Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938, vol. 1, a four-disc collection of the first 60 Fleischer Brothers Popeye cartoons, in chronological order. It's a beautiful set with lots of great extras (lots of documentaries, a good sampling of Fleischer Brothers silents, including a few of their wonderful "Out of the Inkwell" cartoons); the folks at Warner Brothers should look at this set and hang their heads in shame, as it is everything their animation collections should be but aren't. I spent a good part of today reacquainting myself with these cartoons and I'm very pleased to report that they are at least as good as I remember. Go get it, you won't be sorry. You might want to prescreen it for your kids, though, as they are incredibly violent and not infrequently racist. But hey, we saw them when we were kids and they probably didn't do us much harm.


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Friday, July 27, 2007

Khatte Chana

I am not a big one for vegetarian dishes. I have nothing against them philosophically, at least not in the way that a strict vegan would against, say, a duck stuffed into a chicken stuffed into a turkey stuffed into a giraffe’s neck. It’s just that meat seems to make all dishes better. Folks in my adoptive home in the South understand this; recipes for vegetable dishes almost always include a ham hock or fat back or bacon or something else greasy and porcine. That’s what makes it “food” down here.

If I had to pick one dish upon which to subsist for the rest of my life, however, it might well be the following vegetarian delight of Indian origin. It is savory (thanks to the Indian spices and the chickpeas), sweet (thanks to the caramelized onions and ghee), and a little sour (thanks to the tamarind paste). Fresh ginger and hot pepper add some zip. It is very, very satisfying.

It’s called khatte chana, which, I suspect, means “unbelievably delicious chickpeas” in one of India’s hundred and eighty thousand languages. Here’s what you’ll need to make it:

1 large onion
1 tbsp. ghee
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large tomato, seeded and diced fine
2 cans of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
tamarind pulp
½ tsp. turmeric
1 ½ tsp. ground cumin
1 ½ tsp. garam masala
½ tsp. cayenne pepper
2” of ginger root. grated

A note about ingredients: ghee is clarified butter and is available in jars at your local Indian specialty store, as are all the following; tamarind pulp comes in a black, sticky block about the size of a bar of Ivory soap; turmeric, cumin, cayenne and garam masala are all ground spices that will be much, much cheaper at the specialty store than at your local supermarket or, worse still, Whole Food. Chapati is a flat bread sometimes called roti. You’ll find it in the refrigerator or freezer section; it’s the perfect accompaniment to khatte chana.

All right, then, let’s cook us up a mess. Boil some water. Cut a 1 ½ inch square of tamarind pulp, put it in a bowl, and cover it with 1 ½ cups of boiling water. Let it soak for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cut the onion in half so you can cut semicircles of onion, then slice the onion halves real thin. Heat the ghee over medium-high heat in a large skillet or a Dutch oven. When it’s hot, add the onions and cook them, stirring occasionally, until they are well cooked, mostly golden brown but with some crispy bits. This will take 15 to 20 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the ground spices, stir through, and cook until the kitchen smells like a really good Indian restaurant. Add the tomato and grated ginger. Cook for five minutes.

The next step involves separating the liquid in which the tamarind pulp is soaking (good) from the tamarind pulp (bad). A fine-mesh strainer is perfect for the job. Pour the liquid into the skillet by passing it through the strainer, then give the pulp in the strainer a good squeeze to harvest the last of that good liquid. Stir the contents of the skillet, turn the heat to low, and let the dish simmer for 15 minutes. Add the chickpeas and cook for another 10 minutes. Salt to taste and garnish with a little fresh chopped cilantro if you like. You can make a bunch of khatte chana at one time and eat it over the next few days. You won't tire of it.

You can make chapati from scratch, but I never have. The store-bought stuff is pretty good and not at all labor intensive. Heat up a skillet (nonstick coated with a little cooking spray or a well-seasoned cast iron skillet) over medium high heat. When it’s hot, add a piece of chapatti and wait for it to start puffing up in places. Then flip it, cook it for another 30 seconds to a minute, and serve. The trick is getting the skillet the exact right heat so that the bread puffs but doesn’t burn. Practice makes perfect.


Sunday, June 24, 2007

Wings At the Speed of Sound

With Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full, due out the first Tuesday of June, this month seems as good a time as any to review Macca's solo career. I am a fan, not a fanatic; I'm in awe of the guy's talent, though, and find a lot of creative inspiration in his work. I don't own all of his solo albums but I own a lot of them. I'll be writing about them, in the order they were released, over the next few weeks.

All right, I want to use a lifeline here. The online equivalent of phone-a-friend, if you will.

See, I don't own Wings At the Speed of Sound, and, based on passing exposure to it over the years, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't enjoy listening to it often enough to write a decent review. Also, I don't want to blow $10 on an album I'm quite sure I won't like.

So this text, I hope, is just a placeholder. I'm hoping that one (or more!) of you, my dear friends, will provide a review that I can post here in lieu of this plea. It doesn't have to be anything lengthy or elaborate or profound. Heck, "Shit sandwich" will suffice. Just so that it comes from someone who actually knows the album and has a well-formed opinion about it.

Please email reviews to me at A hearty 'thank you' will be your sole remuneration. That, and the people's ovation and fame forever, of course.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Venus and Mars

With Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full, due out the first Tuesday of June, this month seems as good a time as any to review Macca's solo career. I am a fan, not a fanatic; I'm in awe of the guy's talent, though, and find a lot of creative inspiration in his work. I don't own all of his solo albums but I own a lot of them. I'll be writing about them, in the order they were released, over the next few weeks.

Venus and Mars opens with one of McCartney's great production numbers, "Venus and Mars/Rock Show," an acoustic homage to Mr. and Mrs. Macca that morphs into an anthem celebrating arena rock. Musically, it's a tour de force: great melody, great arrangement, great performances from get to go. Check out the chromatic electric guitar part that introduces the lyric to "Rock Show," the breakdown during the "drug scoring" section of the song, the bow to glam rock during the "green metal suit" section, the impassioned vocals, the ragtime piano outro… it's all beautifully conceived and executed, and all a great deal of fun. The lyric, on the other hand, is a bit perplexing. It's either entirely tongue-in-cheek or disturbingly self-celebratory. It posits the listener as an audience member in a sports arena, assures us that its subjects (so important they're represented by goddamn planets!) "are all right tonight," then reminds us of how thrilled we are to be seeing them in concert, noting that our "temperatures rise as [we] see the whites of their [Wings'] eyes." Regardless of its intent, it's hard to imagine that audiences hearing this number at the opening of a Wings show reacted by sitting back in their seats, nodding knowingly and saying to themselves, "Ah, yes, nice bit of ironic distance there." To a fist-pumping, screaming audience, it had to play as a paean to the thrill of seeing Wings, and that's a little weird.

Much of Venus and Mars pursues similarly confused/contradictory purposes. With lead vocals doled out to band members Denny Laine ("Spirits of Ancient Egypt") and Jimmy McCulloch ("Medicine Jar," a McCulloch cowrite and the only song on the album not written by Paul), Venus and Mars seems intent on presenting itself as a Wings album rather than a McCartney album; even so, there's no doubt whose hand controlled arrangements, performances, and production here. Furthermore, unlike McCartney or Wild Life, Venus and Mars is clearly intended to be a polished product, not a notebook of ideas and offhand jams; however, a lot of the songwriting is simply too frivolous or glib to sustain any gravitas, lyrical or musical. The album includes way too many genre exercises and throwaways like the 20's-style "You Gave Me The Answer" (whose chorus, "You gave me the answer to love eternally/I love you and you, you seem to like me" injects yet more of that ironic distance that makes "Rock Show" a little creepy), the pleasant-but-forgettable New Orleans blues "Call Me Back Again," the atmospheric rocker "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" (an excuse to play around with modal harmonies and Middle Eastern sounds, maybe?), and the execrable "Magneto and Titanium Man," as compelling an argument as ever there was that smoking marijuana can make you very, very, very stupid.

Still, Macca proves that he can still blow you away when he gives it his all. He keeps it simple on the minor blues stomp "Feel Like Letting Go" to deliver a great Wings arena rocker in the vein of "Let Me Roll It"; wisely lets the music do the talking on the lovely rock ballad "Love in Song"; and knocks it out of the park on the hit single "Listen to What the Man Said," a silly love song that is not nearly as annoying as, say, "Silly Love Songs." McCulloch's straightforward anti-drug PSA "Medicine Jar" stands among the highlights; its earnestness offers a nice contrast to McCartney's sometimes off-putting ironic distance.

Venus and Mars ends on yet another note of confusion, intertwining two songs--"Treat Her Gently" and "Lonely Old People"--that have no apparent connection other than key and feel. Each is a nice if humble vignette on its own, and together they are pleasant enough so long as you don't stop to ask yourself "Why the hell did he combine these two songs?" Maybe it'd make more sense if I listened to it after rolling a bone, but alas those days are long past for me. In the future, I'll try to remember to enjoy this album for its surface pleasures alone, which are considerable. Think too much about Venus and Mars, though, and might well wind up with a big headache.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Band on the Run

With Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full, due out the first Tuesday of June, this month seems as good a time as any to review Macca's solo career. I am a fan, not a fanatic; I'm in awe of the guy's talent, though, and find a lot of creative inspiration in his work. I don't own all of his solo albums but I own a lot of them. I'll be writing about them, in the order they were released, over the next few weeks.

Band on the Run is a lot like Red Rose Speedway, only more fully conceived and more expertly executed. The ideas here are better, the hooks are hookier, the arrangements more complete, but in essence this is just another exercise in pop mastery. It's a fun album that is extremely enjoyable when taken on its own terms, but it's very hard to shake the feeling that it's all a little bloodless. That would be disappointing enough on its own, but more bothersome are the deeper questions it begs. For me and, I suspect, many others, the biggest problem with this album (and other similar McCartney solo efforts) is that all the craft and effort invested in lightweight production numbers like the title track and "Picasso's Last Words" not only call into question the value of McCartney's solo work but also leave you questioning some of the Beatles' more ambitious productions (Sgt. Pepper, side two of Abbey Road, etc.). It'd be as if the author of the Bible followed it up by writing Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Even so, I'm extremely fond of this album. That's partly due to longevity. I received my first copy of Band on the Run as a bar mitzvah gift, and I wore the grooves out on that copy. It's a perfect album for a thirteen year old with a musical sweet tooth who can accept the often nonsensical lyrics for what they are likely meant to be: pleasant sounds whose primary purpose is to not interfere with the music. If they impart some platitudes about love, peace, and the environment in the process, so much the better, but Macca's approach to lyric writing here seems positively Hippocratic: First, do no harm.

Also, this is an album chock full of irresistible hooks and extremely clever musical ideas. OK, it's not Pet Sounds, but it's not Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods either. Judged against what was playing on the radio at the time, this is a damn good record. "Jet" and "Helen Wheels" are superb rockers, perfect summer radio fare. "No Words" is yet another gorgeous pop song that McCartney seems to dash off with maddening (to songwriters like myself, at least) ease. "Bluebird" is a lovely acoustic number good enough to survive a sax solo, the bane of 70s MOR music. "Let Me Roll It" is a perfect parody of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band on which, if I'm not mistaken, Macca basically calls Lennon a wanker ("You gave me loving in the palm of my hand"). It's all done with the trademark boyish charm, of course, which works a lot better than do Lennon's venomous attacks on his former partner. And, like so much of McCartney's work, this album would make a great semester-long course for any rock bassist looking to escape root-based parts without losing the bottom in the process.

On one front, though, Band on the Run represents a disappointing departure for McCartney, one that bodes ill for subsequent solo albums. On his first three albums, McCartney attempts to address personal themes of love, domesticity, "keeping it real," and the joys of making music. While his work may not have produced the most profound insights, at least there was a sense that he was writing from the heart, and a genuineness shines through that helps mitigate the lyrics' faults. McCartney's efforts to broaden his lyrical scope here don't often detract from the proceedings, but that's mostly because the music is so good that the lyrics are an afterthought. They don't add anything either, and they add distance that doesn't serve McCartney's art well. Commerce is another matter: unlike quirky little numbers like "Big Barn Bed," "Every Night," and "Some People Never Know," many of these songs are ready made to be performed in arenas and stadiums. With Band on the Run, one suspects that McCartney made the conscious choice to bring his organic/pastoral period to an end so that the era of "Wings: Corporate Entity" could begin.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Red Rose Speedway

With Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full, due out the first Tuesday of June, this month seems as good a time as any to review Macca's solo career. I am a fan, not a fanatic; I'm in awe of the guy's talent, though, and find a lot of creative inspiration in his work. I don't own all of his solo albums but I own a lot of them. I'll be writing about them, in the order they were released, over the next few weeks.

It's no understatement to say that Paul McCartney's early post-Beatles work was not well received in the press. Jon Landau described Ram as "the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far" and said it was "so incredibly inconsequential and so monumentally irrelevant you can't even [hate] it: it is difficult to concentrate on, let alone dislike or even hate." In his review of Wild Life, John Mendelsohn dismissed McCartney's first three solo albums as "largely high on sentiment but rather flaccid musically and impotent lyrically, trivial and unaffecting." These two selections are pretty representative of other contemporaneous reviews I've seen. More than a few get vicious; McCartney should probably be glad there was no Pitchfork back in the early 70s.

It's easy to imagine that critics back then were acting like kids in a divorce, feeling compelled to choose sides during a devastating breakup. Most chose John Lennon (although a thoughtful few decided that both John and Paul suffered greatly and equally from the absence of the other).

In retrospect, I think, McCartney wins the post-Beatles battle by a landslide. Even Lennon's best solo work (Plastic Ono Band, Imagine) is self-important and all too often mean-spirited (check out "How Do You Sleep?"). His worst solo work (Sometime In New York, the experimental albums with Yoko) is completely unlistenable. At his worst, McCartney is lightweight, but at least his work evinces enough craft to keep you engaged.

That said, Red Rose Speedway is one of those albums that helps explain why critics were so enraged at McCartney. Approach this album with high enough expectations--as critics of the day probably did--and this record is even more infuriating than Wild Life, which doesn't even present the pretense of craft or, for that matter, effort. Red Rose Speedway has hooks galore; it's just that on most of it it's hard to shake the sense that McCartney isn't really giving it his all. The lyrics are just a little too dopey, the arrangements a bit too underdeveloped, too simplistic--where the McCartney of Ram might have developed a contrapuntal line or an elaborate background vocal, the McCartney of Red Rose Speedway seems perfectly content with a facile guitar line or a simple stacked triad in the harmonies.

McCartney seems to be coasting on pure talent here, but because that talent is so prodigious, there's much here to enjoy for those who don't arrive expecting a masterpiece. The opening track, "Big Barn Bed," is an infectious trifle that probably celebrates domesticity, but with lines like "Weeping on a willow/Sleeping on a pillow/Leaping armadillo," it just as likely celebrates a particularly potent bong hit. "My Love" is a crafty bit of schmaltz, "Get On the Right Thing" is a great example of the sort of arena rock bombast at which McCartney excels, "One More Kiss" is a country throwaway most songwriters would gladly take credit for… and thus the album proceeds. It's a little like watching a great boxer who's perfectly happy to outbox an inferior opponent without even trying to deliver a knockout blow. It's all very impressive while at the same time a little disappointing.

There's no need for me to go on; the great Lenny Kaye (aka "Doc Rock") wrote a brilliant review of this album in Rolling Stone that pretty much says it all.

The current reissue of Red Rose Speedway includes several stellar bonus tracks, including the rocking "Hi Hi Hi." My favorite--one of my favorite McCartney songs, in fact--is "C Moon," a reggaefied homage to the McCartneys' love for one another. The term "C Moon," for those wondering, is the opposite of "L 7." Put an L and a 7 together and you get a square; hence, "L 7" for "square." Put a C and a crescent moon together and you get a circle; hence, "C Moon" for "cool." The song is quite a workout, complete with a great vocal and an equally great horn chart.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Wild Life

With Paul McCartney's new album, Memory Almost Full, due out the first Tuesday of June, this month seems as good a time as any to review Macca's solo career. I am a fan, not a fanatic; I'm in awe of the guy's talent, though, and find a lot of creative inspiration in his work. I don't own all of his solo albums but I own a lot of them. I'll be writing about them, in the order they were released, over the next few weeks.

It's difficult to imagine an album like Wild Life being released by a major label today; even in its day it had a lot of folks scratching their heads. Recorded in three days by a band that had barely played together before sessions began, Wild Life is a defiantly unpolished record, to say the least. That holds as true for the songwriting as for the performances. If the goal was to create an album that made McCartney sound like a finished, polished record, well, mission accomplished.

Give McCartney credit for not trying to dress this album up. No effort is made to masquerade this album as anything other than what it is, and that holds true right from the opening track, "Mumbo," the lyric to which consists entirely of improvised nonsense. It's not bad, exactly; the groove, the guitar riffs, and the churning rhythm guitars are all quite satisfying. But it's more the germ of a good song than the finished product. Like most of this record, it left me wondering why someone of McCartney's stature and talent would release something like this. This is the sort of thing that belongs on a collector's edition CD box set, not at the front of your brand new album.

You have to figure he just didn't care, a suspicion reinforced by the second track, "Bip Bop," whose lyric makes only slightly more sense than does its predecessor's. Again, it's a nice groove but there's nothing special about the track. By the third track, a hyper-synocpated cover of Mickey and Sylvia's 1957 hit "Love is Strange," it's pretty clear that either McCartney is saving his best for the end or this album just flat out sucks. The title track, a seemingly endless three-chord vamp over which McCartney sings impassionedly about zoo animals, does nothing to change this impression. At least this one has a really nice background vocal arrangement.

Track 5, "Some People Never Know," finally demonstrates some craft. It's a sweet love song with a simple, lovely lyric and a very pretty melody. Linda's vocal is pitchy but, as on much of this album, has a Mo Tucker-like quality that doesn't annoy, which is probably the best one can hope for. (I feel for the lady; she's not a musician at all and yet here she is in a band with one of the world's greatest and most famous pop stars. I try to appreciate her efforts for what they are and admire the McCartneys' approach to handling the challenges of celebrity marriage. And mostly I'm grateful she's not Yoko.)

Track 6, "I Am Your Singer," continues the momentum started by track 5, except with Linda taking a more prominent vocal part. It's a very pretty number, although nothing that stands out especially in the McCartney canon. The remainder of the album consists of reprises of "Mumbo" and "Bip Bop," each under a minute in length, a nifty piano pop song called "Tomorrow" (that, sadly, doesn't contain any apparent references to "Yesterday" but, happily, includes one of McCartney's gorgeous patented Beach Boys-influenced background vocal arrangements) and "Dear Friend," a piano dirge that many praise as a classic musical missive to John Lennon but which, frankly, leaves me cold.

And that's it. The whole thing clocks in at about 38 minutes, but it seems to pass more quickly because so much of it drifts by without your noticing it. When I read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay a few years back, I felt at the end as though I'd swallowed a basketball. I was extremely full, yet knew that one carefully placed pin prick would reveal just how little I'd just ingested. After listening to Wild Life repeatedly, I feel as though I've swallowed an inflatable golf ball.

The current reissue of Wild Life includes some great bonus tracks, including the rowdy stomp "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" and a remarkably enjoyable version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" (I shit you not). I won't bore you with the story of how McCartney came to record a version of this nursery school classic--read about it here if you don't already know about it--but I will note that its inclusion points up what's wrong with Wild Life. If McCartney can work such magic with this little bit of nothing, why is he foisting off stuff like "Mumbo" and "Bip Bop"? Ditto for the remaining bonus tracks "Little Woman Love" and "Mama's Little Girl," throwaways that are nonetheless strong enough that they would fit comfortably in the track list for Ram. Either could have replaced almost any track on Wild Life and, in so doing, improved the album.

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