03.19.2018
The Decemberists
I'll Be Your Girl

I was going to say this is the worst Decemberists album, but then I remembered Hazards of Love exists, so I'm not very sure anymore.

10.09.2015
The Decemberists
Florasongs EP

Remember that new album the Decemberists put out earlier this year? Yeah, me neither. (Aww, Steve, that was mean. It wasn't bad!) Well this is a little post-LP EP, with a handful of songs that didn't make the cut of that album that was already seemingly full of songs that didn't make their cut from their previous album—which I honestly think was one of their best, and should've been their swan song. Anyhow, Florasongs isn't bad, nor is it particularly impressive or interesting. A few good songs that could've made good replacements for Beautiful World's clunkers, one clunker of its own, and a couple nice breezy sweet nothings. That's about it. Good enough!


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03.27.2015
The Decemberists
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

I'll write something here eventually.

06.04.2011
The Decemberists
The Crane Wife

Get this: The Crane Wife is actually pretty great. Wow. I guess I couldn't really appreciate it until I lived with the Hazards Of Love monstrosity for a couple years. Well played, Meloy.

01.23.2011
The Decemberists
The King Is Dead

What's funny is that the more I've listened to this album in the last few days, it hit me that this "new" "radio friendly" version of the Decemberists is actually closer to their very first EP, 5 Songs, than any of their ensuing full lengths. I could easily imagine an alternate universe where The King Is Dead was the major label debut of the band after some A&R guy discovered 5 Songs, as if the intervening seven years never happened, and "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist" was just a one-off novelty, as opposed to the basis for the rest of their career. Also funny, when you listen to King and 5 Songs back to back is how the Decemberists have taken a similar route as Belle And Sebastian in transforming themselves from scrappy amateurs to impeccable studio vets; they may be the same band, but by god they can actually play their instruments now.

01.18.2011
The Decemberists
The King Is Dead

A breath of fresh air after Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife, that is for sure. Easily their most earnest work yet, albeit not nearly their best. A little overkill on the harmonica and pedal steel, as well. But still good. Good. As odd as it sounds, however, I'm struck by a feeling that this could very well be the last Decemberists album. I have no reason to believe that, and please don't go around giving them any ideas, but something about the vibe here makes me think that they've hit that, "Okay, we've accomplished everything and maybe it's time to move on" point. If I was in the band, I wouldn't know where to go from here. They did the build up to the prog rock opera (uh, twice), and now are doing the solid country rock studio band thing. Where else do they go? Their separate ways, that's where. Don't say I didn't warn you.

08.31.2010
The Decemberists
Castaways and Cutouts

Splendidezine (or just "Splendid," to remove the wonderfully anachronistic descriptor "e-zine" from the title) was once a competitor to the now-mighty Pitchfork, but called it quits back in 2005. It's funny to go back and look at the site, which is still online, nowadays. It's like a time capsule, stuck a half decade in the past, with outdated graphic design, and randomly loading reviews on the front page from bands you and I have never heard of, and will never hear of again. But in the upper right of the page is a link, still alive, to the last feature interview they every did, with Grizzly Bear, years before they became the indie powerhouse they currently are. And in a way, that's perfect, because it really sums up everything that was great about Splendid. They ignored trends, they reviewed everything they received, and they never gave anything a quantifiable grade. They simply described what the music sounded like, who it might appeal to, and what positive attributes it had. Nothing was panned, nothing was ripped, nothing was lionized. And best of all, they offered audio samples of every record. That doesn't sound like a big deal now, but back in 2002 it was practically unheard of. Even Pitchfork only recently started linking to samples. Splendid had one for every album, right there on the page (in RealAudio format. Talk about dated.) But all these things combined to make Splendid the best place to actually find good new music. Hell, they pointed me towards the Decemberists months before they were even on the radar at most other music sites. And now they're dead.

03.22.2010
The Decemberists
Always The Bridesmaid EP

"Valerie Plame" is still a great, great song. And listening to it today really made me long for the 'old' Decemberists, despite the fact that the song could probably be considered 'new.' (Are we looking at two Decemberists, like how we have two Metallicas? Pre-Crane Wife and post-Crane Wife? Seems fair to me.)

03.26.2009
The Decemberists
The Hazards Of Love

Well, it seems that they've done it. The Decemberists have released an album that I just plain don't like. You can read my previous post about the album if you really care about why I don't like it, because my opinion hasn't really changed since then. Hell, you could read just about every other Decemberists post on here, because the theme has remained the same: They're just a better band, and Colin Meloy a better songwriter, when they stick to more humble pop songs. I don't mean that to bash them or something; their "humble pop songs" are exponentially better than 99% percent of their peers'. But it seems to me that they've already proven with The Tain that they can do a hard rockin' conceptual song set, but have also proven with The Crain Wife that they maybe shouldn't stretch that into an entire full length. I'm already just about tired of listening to it, and I can't imagine coming back to it much in the future, which is something I can't say for any of their other releases. Oh well; six out of seven isn't too shabby, I guess.

03.24.2009
The Decemberists
The Hazards of Love

11 tracks into the new Decemberists record and I've yet to actually hear a song. Lots of intros, a couple choruses, a handful of bridges, and a vamp here and there, but nothing that I would qualify as a "song." If you told me 5 years ago that the Decemberists would release a dark, heavy, experimental rock opera, I would've taken an entire bottle of sleeping pills and set my alarm for March 2009, because it just sounds too perfect. But now that it's here... I don't know. At least I have my new Mastodon album to look forward to. I just hope it's not a collection of anachronistic folk pop ditties about sailors and scallywags.

12.07.2008
The Decemberists
Always The Bridesmaid: A Singles Series

After looking for weeks to find it, I finally came across the Decemberists' "Always A Bridesmaid" records at the Cheapo on Snelling. It's a series of three vinyl-only singles (and B-sides) that aren't on any other albums or EPs, and are well worth the somewhat ridiculous pricetag. They all have beautiful die-cut and silver leafed packaging, and (as usual) cool illustrations by Carson Ellis. But beyond all that, the music is all really solid--especially first song "Valerie Plame," which is probably the best song they've done since "The Sporting Life." Most of the songs really prove a point I made on my previous Decemberists post; for all the focus they've put lately on big "proggy" arrangements and epic, quirky historical English-major lyrics, they might be at their best when sticking to simple pop tunes with much simpler lyrical themes. I mean, really, would you rather spend your time listening to "The Infanta," or "Grace Cathedral Hill"? And no, the answer can't be "neither."

11.30.2008
The Decemberists
Castaways And Cutouts

Enough years have past now that I'm just going to go ahead and say it: I think Castaways and Cutouts is the Decemberists' best album. Yes, everything they've done since has all been excellent in its own right, but there's something about Castaways that lets it dodge some of the potholes that their later albums occasionally hit. Since it was their first album, there's a certain lack of self-consciousness that makes all of the ridiculous lyrics seem just a little more honest, and the arrangements are interesting, upbeat, but never overblown. Basically, they weren't trying to outdo themselves yet. Funny how when it came out, everything written about them compared them (favorably and otherwise) to Neutral Milk Hotel. And now, listening to the record years later, that comparison doesn't enter my mind for a second.

03.16.2019 - by Steve
Lions and Tigers and SquaresManhattan
Detroit style pizza

I'm going to try to keep this short. Because there's so many levels to it that I'm just exhausted from it already, especially having just written a 30 page essay about black and white cookies. Here's what's up: Detroit-style pizza is a thing now. It's a thing. Do they really make pizza like this in Detroit? Because if you ask me, what's known as Detroit-style pizza is what Rocky Rococo has been making my entire life. Square pan, thick crust with butter-crispy edges, personal sized pizza. You can even find versions of it in this city called something like "Sicilian style" or "grandma style." Where did this Detroit thing come from? Are you from Detroit? Can you help me?

That said: Detroit style pizza is delicious. Lions and Tigers and Squares, a new little shop that's decided to kickstart the trend in Chelsea, does a fine job of making it. It's probably an insult to them for me to say I like Rocky Rococo better though. But that's okay; Rocky Rococo is the best. Have you been there lately? There's one left in Brooklyn Center. Check it out.

And I have to admit, despite my annoyance at this whole "Detroit" thing, Lions and Tigers and Squares is an extremely clever name. Think about it.

03.09.2019 - by Steve
Zabar's Manhattan
Black and white cookie

I'm here to talk about the black and white cookie. This post specifically says "Zabar's" on it, which is where I purchased and photographed this particular black and white cookie, but having eaten a handful of different cookies from various locations—from trashy deli to beloved contemporary bakery—I have thoughts on this style of cookie in a more general sense, and subsequently thoughts about New York City's cultivation of a unique and hyper-local cuisine. If you would allow me to elucidate? Thank you.

There are certain foods that have been used for decades as a shorthand for "New York." Hot dogs. Bagels. Pizza slices. Pastrami on rye. These are all still pretty apt choices, but it's also an old list. It's 2019, times change, a whole new crop of people have been living here long enough to become a part of it. There's still a clear family of foods that are not necessarily unique to this city, but are so ubiquitous here while remaining somewhat niche in other places, that they feel truly like part of the makeup of New York's ecosystem. The list as I see it:

1. Halal chicken on rice
2. Pizza slices (going nowhere)
3. Bacon egg and cheese sandwiches
4. Bagels (going nowhere)
5. Boar's Head deli meat sandwiches (Boar's Head feels like a fancy good brand at stores in Minnesota. Here it is literally everywhere. You can't not buy it. Even the shittiest scariest lamest bodegas serve Boar's Head without fail.)
6. Seltzer
7. Jamaican beef patties
8. Hot dogs (going nowhere, but seemingly overtaken by halal chicken on rice carts)
9. Pickles
10. Black and white cookies

The black and white cookie might be the least visible of the items on this list, yet it's still extremely New York. It was even part of a Seinfeld gag! I don't think I ever saw one for sale anywhere in the Twin Cities. Maybe possibly once or twice in little bakeries, but not really. Here they're almost always right there in the pastry rack, next to the chocolate chip cookies and muffins and cakes, and just as often are up on or near the front counter of random crummy delis and bodegas, pre-packaged from whatever food distributers make them. What surprised me most about the black and white cookie, though, is that's it's barely even a cookie! I bit in, expecting sort of a standard sugar cookie, or perhaps something like a snickerdoodle, but really they're practically cake! They're extremely soft, like a very thin cake; or like a very wide muffin top. The icing, as you can see, is half chocolate and half plain (or vanilla?). And that's it.

I've had 3 or 4 at this point, and while the quality of course varies on the quality of the bakery. I've had them pre-packaged from a deli, and I've had one from a artisanal bakery in Prospect Heights that was listed on one food blog as the best black and white cookie in Brooklyn. In general they're always tasty. But they're too big, the icing sometimes gets weirdly chemically and kinda gives me a headache. But they're always satisfying.

This specific cookie that's up there in the photograph (and listed as the title of this post!) is from Zabar's, a "famous" Upper West Side grocery store that is supposedly famous for the black and whites. All I can say is it was good. Maybe the best I've had? It was certainly better than the cheap deli ones, and I actually didn't like the aforementioned Prospect Heights one all that much. So I guess Zabar's is technically the best I've had. But mark my word I'm going to track down the true king of black and white cookies in this town.

(Oh, also Zabar's pastrami sandwich was incredibly mediocre. Not worth a post.)

(Oh, oh, and the new Vampire Weekend music video was filmed in Zabar's! And Jerry Seindfeld was in it! We've come full circle!)

03.09.2019 - by Steve
Brennan & CarrBrooklyn
Roast beef sandwich

Brennan & Carr is somehow maybe the least New York restaurant in New York, and yet has been around longer longer than almost any other restaurant in New York. Located way down in deep Brooklyn—we're talking old Italian families who still probably have mob ties, entire neighborhoods of Russians who probably also have mob ties, and actual grass yards—this place was supposedly built in the mid-30s, and at the time was entirely surrounded by farm fields. Which makes sense when you see it; it's built as a freestanding house-type structure, with a couple additions that have been built over the years. It feels old and almost Midwestern in a way that hardly anything else in this city does. And their specialty is equally old and Midwestern: roast beef sandwiches. They've got other stuff on their menu, notably clam chowder (not so Midwestern), but it's the kind of place where if you order those other items, the waiter (a scummy teenager in a white shirt and bowtie) might honestly get confused for a second. You go to Brennan & Carr for the roast beef and chowder. And the wood paneled walls and old cowboy paintings. The sandwich itself was, I guess, satisfying. It didn't stack up to some of the classic Minneapolis roast beef joints like Wally's and Maverick's, but it was doused in jus and generally tasted pretty good. It could've used some horseradish though.

02.12.2019 - by Steve
Andrew's LuncheonetteBrooklyn
Cheeseburger

This is the best burger in Brooklyn until further notice. I want another one right now.

02.12.2019 - by Steve
Foxfire Mountain HouseThe Catskills
Flank steak

I've already typed a bunch about the Catskills being uncomfortably bougie and urbane given its status as a woodsy mountain getaway (see my Phoenicia Diner post below), so I won't do that here. I also won't do that here because it would make me a hypocrite. See, on our last night in town, we wanted to get a nice meal, and found this seemingly new boutique hotel restaurant called the Foxfire Mountain House, which was well reviewed, albeit by very few people. In fact, when we showed up, there were only 3 other people eating there, and the staff seemed genuinely surprised to see us. But let me just say: this entire meal was a wonderful fucking experience. The place was super charming (if a little interior-decorator-y), the cool guys running the place were extremely pleasant and decent, and the food was truly one of the best meals I've had in a while. Erin's in particular was mind blowing; a slow roasted pork rubbed in some sort of garam marsala maybe (it was slightly Moroccan, see also my Phoenicia Diner post below!), with a corn meal mash and some apples. It was out of this world.

So, yeah. I can't hate on the Catskills. They treated us right.

02.12.2019 - by Steve
Phoenicia DinerThe Catskills
Moroccan chicken sandwich

We took a mini-vacation up to the Catskills this weekend, and I have thoughts.

1. Holy cow the Catskills are close to New York City. And very pretty, to boot. For as much as you think of the city as this huge, gray, sweaty, uncaring block of concrete—which yes it is—you never really think of the fact that it's basically situated in a river valley at the foothills of mountains. When you're in the city, nature as you know it is basically confined to a rectangle in the middle of Manhattan. But even getting towards the outskirts of the Bronx, you can start to make out real hills, actual topography. Then once you pass Yonkers, you're basically in the forest. Sure the forest is hiding any number of dead and dying industrial towns and suburbs, but gosh it's lovely. And then in just about 2 or 3 hours, you're in the mountain wilderness. Or at least a relative wilderness, because:

2. Wow even the small towns are fairly dense. At least compared to my midwestern definition of a small town. Unless you're in the actual, government-protected wilderness, there isn't really any "free" space here. Not even the appearance of it. I figure people have been building and farming here since the fucking 17th century, so any bit of open space has generally been claimed and partitioned. Plus the fact that you're just a short drive north of 20 million people. Which then leads to:

3. Urbanity. You can "get away", but you can't get away. People in New York have money. And they like to open bakeries and eat at farm-to-table restaurants and teach yoga and acting classes. And they like to drive up to the Catskills. So, of those 20 million people, of course there are any number of entrepreneurial souls with money to burn who want to open bakeries and teach yoga in the Catskills. So in just about every town you drive through, you are never far away from the creature comforts of the city. Modernist AirBnbs, kombucha bars, pop-up fashion boutiques. And of course:

4. The Phoenicia Diner. This place pops up on nearly every Guide To The Catskills article, and Retreats From Brooklyn blogs, and probably Gweneth Paltrow's magazine. It's basically an old 60's roadside diner that has been carefully retrofitted to the needs of the Millennial. Cool minimalist logo, alcoholic milkshakes, kale. Think Hi Lo Diner but about two clicks cooler. But, hey, I like the Hi Lo Diner! A lot! And I like the Phoenicia Diner too! They do just enough to keep the real old diner charm to not turn it into some sort of bullshit faux-earnesty charade. I had a Moroccan-spiced chicken sandwich, and I have to say it was damn good. Fries were a little greasy and limp, but whatever. The chicken itself was seasoned nicely, and cooked perfectly considering it was grilled, which is often a dry disaster in any setting. And I guarantee every person eating there was on a road trip from Brooklyn. So shit, I'm guilty as anyone I guess.

02.12.2019 - by Steve
La Caridad 78Manhattan
Cuban pork and dumplings

To get this out of the way, let me first say that La Caridad isn't particularly great. It's totally acceptable, but disappointing for the price point. Now, the interesting part:

La Caridad 78 is the oldest of the Upper West Side's Chinese Cuban restaurants. Which is a crazy thing to parse, because that means it's not the Upper West Side's only Chinese Cuban restaurant. There are more. 3 or 4 more, in fact. What happened is, back in the 50s and 60s, when the Castro regime took over Cuba and boatloads of defectors and asylum seekers fled to America, many of the ethnic Cubans ended in and around Miami. But Cuba also held a surprisingly large Chinese population, many of which came up to New York City, home to an already substantial Chinese community. These Chinese Cubans did what so many other new American transplants did, and started restaurants. But because they had a tradition of both Chinese and Cuban cooking, they just went ahead and opened restaurants that served both. Why not, I guess?

The excitement of learning of these places is tempered somewhat, when you learn that the Chinese side and Cuban sides of their menus are more or less independent of one another. There's no fusion here. No plantain dumplings, no szechuan cuban sandwiches. The closest you can do is to order a side of yellow rice and beans with your kung pao chicken instead of plain old white rice. It seems like a huge missed opportunity, but when you consider these places have been around for 60 years, I guess you can't complain.

Anyway, as I mentioned, there's nothing spectacular about the food. It's all good, yes, and if you got this quality of Cuban food from some hole-in-the-wall joint on Flatbush for $6 in a styrofoam container, you'd be thrilled. But this is the Upper West Side we're talking about, and you're paying Upper West Side prices. So yeah, it's charming and weird and maybe worth the trip if you're in the area and open to some novelty. But otherwise, just sate yourself on the knowledge that it exists at all.

02.11.2019 - by Steve
Sabor UnidoNewark
Portuguese beef rib

Hey I bet you didn't know this: Newark, New Jersey has a large and concentrated Portuguese population. You didn't know that, right? I certainly didn't know this. But it does! Portuguese immigrants started coming to town in the 50s and 60s I guess, and took over a neighborhood adjacent to downtown Newark that's called—seriously—The Ironbound. Which is the most Game of Thrones shit I've ever heard. Anyway, there's still a good amount of Portuguese people there, but in the last couple decades the Ironbound has also attracted a lot of Brazilians, which makes sense when you think about it and didn't fail 7th grade Western Civ class. So now, driving down the main drag of the Ironbound, it's just one Portuguese/Brazilian restaurant after another. Seriously, you can't throw a rock without hitting one; I've seen Chinatowns and Little Italys like this before, the there's something very odd about being surrounded by red and green Portuguese flags while just a mile away from downtown Newark. Which, by the way, is a dump.

So since we had about 20 places to choose from, we more or less threw that rock. And checked the online ratings. And what we chose is Sabor Unido, which was pretty well rated and not terribly fancy. The gist of the menu at this place—and most any other place like it—is a grilled or stewed meat, rice and beans, and some kind of veggie. I went with the beef rib, with fried plantains and steamed spinach. Erin, meanwhile, got their special famous pork stew, which was basically jazzed up black beans with hunks of roasted pork and sausage. I don't know exactly what Portuguese cuisine usually consists of, but this mostly felt more Brazilian/Latin to me than anything Iberia-Peninsulan. But either way, it all tasted great. The beef was maybe a bit fatty, and it was all on the slightly pricey side considering this wasn't exactly the fanciest place in town. But I cleaned my plate and was sad when I finished, so I guess that qualifies as a success.

So, while I can't recommend you ever, ever go to Newark NJ for any reason, I do recommend that, if you do, you absolutely need to get to the Ironbound and eat some meat. You don't necessarily have to go to Sabor Unido, but really you may as well. Recomendado!