The Mountain Goats
Getting Into Knives

With the (glaring) exception of Songs for Pierre Chuvin, the Mountain Goats first full length album of the pandemic and a glorious return to the lo-fi tape deck recording of his early days, I could use the same boilerplate format to review this second album of the pandemic as I could with every Mountain Goats full length of the last, oh, 10 years. In short: {Album title} isn't bad by any means, but it lacks the energy of Darnielle's best work. Still, I think it might at least be a little better than {previous album}, but I'll have to sit with it for a while before I have any stronger feelings. {Steve then sits a little longer but ends up with no stronger feelings and never really returns to the album once the next one is released.}

Songs for Pierre Chuvin though. Fuckin rules.

The Mountain Goats
Songs for Pierre Chuvin

I never got into the Mountain Goats until they (he) was past their (his) extremely lo-fi, record-directly-into-a-boombox-cassette phase. My intro happened I believe around 2009 when The Life of the World To Come was released, which more or less marked the beginning of what might be phase three of the Mountain Goats. We're talking full band, pristinely engineered, studio recorded collections of songs which generally floated around (or directly interrogated) a single theme—not quite rock opera style, but far more linear than the lyrical concerns of most other bands. Life of The World still feels like a wonderful album to me, but in the 10 years since, I have to admit their output has suffered from long, slow, diminishing returns. And despite the thematic differences (one album about professional wrestling, one album about a D&D campaign), their studio sound has sounded more or less the same from album to album. Crisp and clean and full, yes, but the spark from those early boombox recordings has been sanded off almost completely.

But then what happened—have you heard?—is we're suddenly living in these difficult times. John Darnielle is stuck at home, and is sitting on a pile of songs. And whether he came up with the idea, or whether hoards of his fans shouted the idea at him after hearing him play some of his new songs into his smartphone camera, he decided to get his old boombox out and record Songs for Pierre Chuvin

It's a minor revelation. The joy of hearing him shout these words onto a tinny hissing cassette tape is genuinely refreshing. I don't think the studio sheen was ever hurting the Mountain Goats necessarily, but you hear him play these songs and you realize how unnecessary it's been, like we've been missing out on something essential about his songs for the last decade.

But that's the other thing. I don't know if these songs are exactly up to the task. They're interesting, they're clever, they make you want to know what's going on (did I mention the whole album is based off a book by a Harvard historian about the pagan cultures of the 5th century AD who were confronting the new specter of mass Christianity entering their worlds? That's what the album is about. That's what the phase three Mountain Goats do). But no single track on it has the power of his best early work. "This Year," "No Children," "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton", these are the obvious 3, but the list could go on well beyond that. Those songs were deeply human, richly described, absolutely cutting in a real way. I don't remember the last song Darnielle has written that's cut to a core in the way that these do, and none of the songs on Songs for Pierre Chuvin hit that mark, despite the boombox.

Still, simply listening to Darnielle sing his guts out into a boombox was exactly what some of us needed right now. Well, until we were asked to Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

The Mountain Goats
Get Lonely / We Shall All Be Healed

Continuing my dive into Mountain Goats fandom, I just picked up both Get Lonely and We Shall All Be Healed in a used bin the other night. And I'm gonna go ahead and clump them into the same review. They're both good. They're goth listenable. They seem to create a dividing line between 'old' and 'new' Mountain Goats; Healed is a little rough around the edges, natural distortion and tape noise, while Lonely has a crip studio clarity to it, as well as more gentle piano and guitar strums. But neither fully satisfy me like some other MG collections, and beyond maybe "Home Again Garden Grove," there don't seem to be any knockout singles on either record. Still.

The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree

It took me until I was 33 years old to fully appreciate the teenage discontent of the Mountain Goats. I love it. I mean, I've been a huge fan of The Life of the World to Come, and was more or less appreciative of his other work, but that was it. But the more I dig into it, the more it all makes sense. Tallahassee is quite good, All Hail West Texas is better still, but I think The Sunset Tree is perhaps the purest example of what it is John Darnielle can do.

The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth

Continuing right along with their last album (only about a year ago), I can't really point at a single thing wrong with this new Mountain Goats record, but it doesn't excite me at all. I totally respect what they do, and still absolutely love The Life of the World To Come, but it seems now about 15 years into their (his?) career, they're starting to tread a little water.

The Mountain Goats
All Eternals Deck

Hmm. Not feeling it yet. I'll let you know.

The Mountain Goats
The Life Of The World To Come

Despite the running joke of my supposedly unabashed love for The Mountain Goats, I had never actually owned any of their (his) albums until this one. At first I enjoyed it, but didn't think much of it. But after a week or two, I found myself constantly revisiting it, finding something there that kept me hooked. Now after a month or two, I can honestly say it's one of my favorite albums of this year, some songs being the most heartbreaking I've ever heard, and others being so stupidly catchy that they leave me with no choice but to enjoy them. It's all in the lyrics, as this guy is clearly a writer first and a musician second. But there are some gorgeous, stand-out lines in some of these songs. "Drive til the rain stops / keep driving." "People screaming when the engines quit / I hope we're all in crash position when we hit." "I remember seeing you / my tongue struck dumb / When you first came here from wherever it is you came from." But I'll stop that now, lest I become the kind of idiot who quotes song lyrics on the internet.

12.31.2020 - by Steve
Steve's Favorite Food of 2020Queens
A List

Boy what a year, huh? Okay, let's get on with it.

1. Caleta 111 (Queens) - Ceviche
2. Its-It (San Francisco) - Ice cream sandwiches
3. Emily (Manhattan) - Emily burger
4. Talula’s (Asbury Park) - Pepperoni honey pizza
5. F&F Pizza (Brooklyn) - Sausage sage and brown butter pizza
6. Phayul (Queens) - Hot sauce
7. Peter Pan Donuts (Brooklyn) - Donut
8. Arepa Lady (Queens) - Arepa de choclo
9. Randazzo Pizza (Brooklyn) - Chorizo pizza
10. Tung Tung (Brooklyn) - Char siu
11. Pastrami Queen (Manhattan) - Pastrami sandwich
12. Ugly Baby (Brooklyn) - Kang prik
13. Korzo (Brooklyn) - Korzo Burger
14. Hassan Halal Meat & Grocery (Brooklyn) - Kebab
15. Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao (Queens) - Potherb mustard salad
16. Regina’s Grocery (Manhattan) - Meatball sandwich
17. Thaan (Queens) - Various Thai things
18. Original American Chicken (Queens) - grilled chicken and rice
19. Los Tacos No. 1 (Manhattan) - Tacos
20. SriPraPhai (Queens) - Duck curry

12.31.2020 - by Steve
Arepa LadyQueens
Arepa de choclo

Arepa Lady began in lower case, "the arepa lady" who became a sensation running an arepa cart around Queens a few years ago. But then recently her two sons decided to capitalize the operation (get it??), and now it's Arepa Lady, a full-on brick and mortar restaurant in Jackson Heights, literally one block away from my new place. I don't know if they're the best arepas in the neighborhood, because there are so many arepa options around here, but I'm perfectly comfortable putting them at #1 on the arepa de choclo alone. Get it with chicharron, and you're basically eating super-powered Colombian pancakes and bacon. Everything else here is good too of course, but the de choclo is the winner. This is actually the first case where I've actually lived so close to a legit amazing restaurant, and we're trying hard not to just eat it every week. Maybe tonight though?

12.31.2020 - by Steve
F&F PizzaBrooklyn
Sausage and sage pizza

A few years ago, before I lived here, I made a visit to a restaurant called Frankie's 457 Spuntino. I wrote about it. Look it up, won't you? Well so about a year ago, Frankie's opened up a slice shop called F&F, right next door (although they also have a pizza restaurant called Frank's, on the same block. It's all very confusing), and I ran into one of those situations where suddenly, out of nowhere, every food-ish type media outlet was casually referring to F&F as one of the best pizza joints in the city. Lucky for me, I happen to get my hair cut at a place right across the street, and stopped by after a pre-pandemic haircut to get a slice. Pepperoni, I believe, because they were out of everything else that evening. It was good, but I wasn't fully moved to declare F&F the best anything.

Fast forward to this year—I dunno, August? (I'm just posting this now because I forgot to back then. It's been a stressful year okay?). I was in the neighborhood again, and thought I'd give it another shot. This time they were fully stocked, and specifically pushing this one particular pie, hot sausage with sage and brown butter. Say no more! And this time around, yes, absolutely ready to declare F&F the best something.

Without going too far, in terms of preparation or presentation or thankfully price, F&F is absolutely dabbling in "elevated" pizza. The dough has a sourdough bite, the sausage and sage are conservatively spread, and it's cooked to just a little more of a browned char than at your average slice place. And it all comes together absolutely beautifully, the cheese and grease and brown butter sage caramelizing together into a rich singular thing, all on a paper plate for about $4.50. Best pizza in the city? Impossible question. But as far as your standard NY style triangle slice joint goes, sure, yes, I don't think I've had better.

12.30.2020 - by Steve
Regina's GroceryManhattan
Meatball parm

Regina's is a new-fake-old Italian deli in a real-old space in the old-fake-new Lower East Side. The guy who runs it was rude as hell and I waited a half hour for my order, but I wasn't even mad because this was the best meatball sandwich I've had in this town.

12.30.2020 - by Steve
Amdo KitchenQueens

I had to look up the fact that this momo truck is called "Amdo Kitchen." As far as I'm concerned it's just "that momo truck outisde of Phayul with the Golden Momo Award advertisement on the side." As I said in the Phayul post (scroll down a few why don'tcha?), this little corner of Jackson Heights is swarming with momo trucks and carts. This is one of them. But they won a Golden Momo award, so of course I'm gonna eat at this one!

Good momos. Better than Phayul's. Hot sauce wasn't nearly as good. Now if I could get Phayul's hot sauce with this truck's momos...

12.30.2020 - by Steve
Sammy's Fish BoxThe Bronx
Lobster roll

It was so nice and Spring-like on a mid-December afteroon, we took a trip to City Island and ate lobster rolls. I will never get used to how galldang expensive lobster rolls are. But these were good ones at least.

(Please see this post about Johnny's Reef to read about the weird marvel of NYC that is City Island.)

12.30.2020 - by Steve

Okay tacos. Don't know why I'm posting about them. Moving on.

12.30.2020 - by Steve
Lamb chops, thenthuk, momos

According to sources my new neighborhood has the largest population Tibetan and Nepali people outside of Asia. I can think of one or two Tibetan or Nepali restaurants in the entirety of the Twin Cities, but on one block of one street a quick walk from here, there are at least 6. Not to mention all the momo trucks that linger around the area. I mean the topic of Jackson Heights' mind-bogglingly diverse food options is a whole thing that I can barely even wrap my head around, but the sheer density of Himalayan restaurants alone is a topic in itself.

Of all these spots, Phayul seems to be the one that grabs the most acclaim from people (although if we're judging purely on curb appeal, I'd have to say Himalayan Yak is the king. How can you ignore a place called Himalayan Yak?) It was a while ago that we ate here, so I can't get into too much detail, other than the fact that it was pretty good. But! The real highlight of meal was the hot sauce. Which isn't to minimize the quality of the lamb chops and momos and thenthuk—remember me just saying they were pretty good? But the two hot sauces that came with the momos were both out of this world. Truly some of the best hot sauce I've ever had. No idea what was in either of them, but they were rich and flavorful without losing any heat, and complimented every dish absolutely perfectly. I was gobsmacked; didn't even know that Tibetan cuisine included hot sauce.

There's a certain category of food rating where something can be so good I don't even want to eat it again in fear that it will disappoint me next time, and I think Phayul's hot sauce falls into this category. Their lamb chops and momos? Sure, I'll eat em again.