05.14.2020
Little Wings
Zephyr

It's been over 10 years since I was last compelled to listen to a new Little Wings album. This is partly because in the mid aughts he released a few odder, less interesting albums in a row that I couldn't engage with, a sort of diminishing results of weirdness when all I really wanted was more of his perfectly constructed diy ditties. But it's also partly because he straight up stopped releasing stuff for a while. But then suddenly in April, whether because of the lockdown or Bandcamp's occasional artist-friendly sales, or just because he got bored, he opened up the floodgates. He's released (or re-released) 4 or 5 full albums in the last month or two, and one of them is Zephyr, which according to the description is an official release and reworking of an Australia-tour-only cassette from a few years ago, that he had been meaning to flesh out into a full studio album. I'm glad he didn't, though, because this is a fantastic little collection as-is. It's mostly (or all?) Kyle Field and one guitar, no slapped-together backing band, no extraneous experiments or improvised goofiness, no waste, no nonsense. The songwriting on every track is focused and thoughtful, almost every track showing a more mature side of Little Wings, versus the K-Records teenage-symphonies-to-god fantasias that he often works in. But if that sounds a little too dad rock for you, don't worry, he also released a full band improvised garage recording of his make believe surf rock bar band The Be Gulls if that also interests you. I mean to be honest it interests me, too.

05.09.2020
Pure X
Pure X

The first 5 seconds of this album is the album of the year. The dirtiest, grimiest, distortiest guitar you've ever heard, but it's actually playing rich chords, deep grooves. I think the rest of the album is pretty good too, but all that really matters is that one track, "Middle America," and all that really matters about that one track is that damn guitar. (Also, not actually album of the year, that's just a little hyperbole to make for a fun blog. But shit.)

04.28.2020
Gaytheist
How Long Have I Been On Fire

This band is called Gaytheist and they started as a novelty gay-themed metal band in Portland. And they're way better than those two statements would have you imagine.

04.28.2020
Nicolas Jaar
Cenizas

Cenizas is one of the most perfect walking-around-late-at-night-with-headphones albums I've heard in a long, long time. Probably since the last Nicolas Jaar album.

04.28.2020
Fiona Apple
Fetch the Bolt Cutters

If you're reading this in the future (and of course you are, because that's how this whole reading and writing thing works), more specifically, years or perhaps even a decade or two into the future, I wonder what you think of Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Do you think anything of it? Do you think it's a laughable mess and wonder how on earth it got rave reviews upon its release? Or has it grown into an all time classic, an era-defining work of art? What's Fiona up to these days? What did she do after this? And like, did we ever make it out of this mess?

Those are things I wonder. But there are a couple things I need you to know about this album at this time. Foremost is that, for a brief moment, one late Thursday night through the weekend, it was Special. Truly, genuinely, heart-achingly special. This is a shitty time we're living in—not just the pandemic, but everything surrounding, leading up to, and being borne out of it. The bad guys just keep winning, and everything is hopeless. Shit sucks. And not to go too philosophical, shit has sucked for a lot longer than this difficult time. It's sucked specifically women for a whole lot longer than that. And then, just a couple Thursday nights ago, Fiona Apple (already beloved amongst the more in-touch populations of music nerd-dom, and perhaps even beloved-er over the last year after her classic song "Criminal" appeared in a memorable scene in the pretty-good movie Hustlers), decided she was going to release her new album early, and it was exactly what we all needed.

For a couple days, none of the other shit mattered. Fiona was saying everything we've wanted to hear, spewing fire, line after line, song after song, truths we've all been thinking for years now. This world is bullshit. It immediately got rave reviews from outlet after outlet. It famously, in a matter of just a couple hours, got a 10 on Pitchfork, and you'd have a hard time finding anybody who didn't think it deserved every decimal of it. People on Twitter were losing their shit, changing their screen names to bolt-cutter-related puns, changing their avatars to Fiona. Something about the music on this album—the primitive percussive pounding, the gut wrenching vocal missives, the hot knife sharp lyrical veracity—got into not just the zeitgeist, but deep into people's psyches, like no other music release I've experienced in my lifetime. More than Kid A, more than any Kanye release, more than Lemonade or 1984. Which is especially impressive considering this album is nuts. And beautiful. It brought me to the point of tears 4 different times on my first listen. Which I don't mention because I think bringing someone to tears is a reliable sign of a good piece of art, or that I'm trying to cash in some woke points for being a sensitive male or some bullshit—simply that Fetch the Bolt Cutters contains a power that transcends music.

You're in the future, and I have no idea how that statement will land with you. Maybe we're all suffering mass psychosis. Maybe it's just a noisy, fussy follow-up to her actual masterpiece The Idler Wheel. Maybe everyone makes jokes about that "10" that's still sitting on its Pitchfork review. To be honest, after that first weekend finished and Monday rolled around again, and the bullshit of this world kept on piling up and the people in charge kept on shoveling onto it, we all moved on. But for about 3 days, we felt like we might actually win, and Fiona was leading the fucking charge.

You're in the future, and I hope the bolt cutters have been fetched.

04.18.2020
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.

04.17.2020
Laura Marling
Song For Our Daughter

I'm sorry that Laura Marling released this album a week before Fetch the Bold Cutters. Well no, actually I'm glad she didn't release it the same week, because it would've been totally eclipsed by the sheer gravity of that thing (not that we're comparing), and that would be a shame. Because Laura Marling is an overlooked gem of a singer songwriter, and this album is just as pristinely listenable and comforting as her last, oh, five albums (over the same stretch as Fiona made her one. Not that we're comparing).

04.17.2020
Hailu Mergia
Yene Mircha

Just getting some posts out of the way so I can write a few dozen paragraphs about Fetch the Bolt Cutters!

Jk. Well not really. But mostly. Look, I only got into Hailu Mergia with the album Lala Belu he released a couple years ago; I'm not going to pretend like I first heard his obscure 1970s Ethiopian club recordings on some limited vinyl release or something. But that album totally surprised me with its left-field organs and surprisingly soulful accordion jams and one of the most hootin'est hollerin'est upbeat tunes of that year, and one of the prettiest solo piano exercises on this side of Brad Mehldau and McCoy Tyner.

Yene Mircha caught me fully by surprise. I had no idea he was planning on releasing a new album (he'd only released that one in the last 40 years after all), until I saw it on some new release list somewhere. And then it caught me by surprise again. The first run through this album left me a little cold. Where Lala Belu was a made by a simple trio, this one fills out the band with electric guitar and more drummers and backup singers and a full band sound that can veer real close to adult contemporary, jazzamatazz territory. But even by the second listen, I got over that stuff and realized there was still this unique melodic voice underneath it all. And some weird ass keyboard, organ, and accordion sounds. The highs aren't as high as Belu, but it's a dang fun time anyow.

03.28.2020
Fluisteraars
Bloem

Fluisteraars is a Danish black metal band who put out an incredible song, "Oeverloos" a year or two ago. It was just one song one one side of a split single with another metal band, but it was a masterpiece. Part of what made it great—as is usually the case with great black metal songs—is that it didn't necessarily follow the rules of black metal. It had melodic moments, it had moments that sounded like early 90s alt rock, it vibed. And it left me desperate for a full-length from these guys.

Bloem is finally that full-length, and I'm confused. It doesn't seem to be breaking any rules, it doesn't seem to have many outside influences beyond extreme metal, and yet—it vibes. My initial reaction was disappointment of course, but it's one of those albums that somehow hooked into me despite myself, and I've probably listened to it a dozen times already. Something about the melodies on it, redundant as they get from track to track, feel timeless. Like this is the only black metal music ever recorded and we already know it all by heart.

So now I'm just desperate for a follow-up to this one.

03.26.2020
French Vanilla
How Am I Not Myself?

Last Friday Bandcamp had a very nice deal where for 24 hours they gave 100% of purchases to the artists, rather than taking their usual 15% cut (which is actually a totally fair deal, and by all accounts Bandcamp is an honest and decent company who's service to artists is heads-and-shoulders above the big streaming companies, so this isn't an interrogation of them. But good on them anyway). It was a huge day, and the community of internet music weirdos seemed truly engaged with jumping on Bandcamp for a day and hoarding as much digital download loot as possible—help out some small artists, hear some good tunes, what a deal! The site seemingly had a massive day, based on the fact that it was completely overwhelmed and had numerous outages throughout the day. But no worries, I got some stuff, everyone got some stuff, it was a nice little event.

Of all this stuff, the one that's really stood out to me is French Vanilla's How Am I Not Myself?. This album came out last year, and I heard a couple singles from it and thought they sounded fun, but as these things go sometimes, I just kinda forgot about them by the time they released the full length. Thankfully something jogged my memory on Friday, because just like I remembered, this album is hoot! It's tight, upbeat, angular music that's got a fun beat and is easy to dance to. It's music that could have a handful of genre descriptors attached to it—indie pop, post punk, dance rock, twee new wave—but I'm going to dare to go one scary step further:

5th wave ska.

And before I elaborate on that, I'm just going to go ahead and end this music post. French Vanilla is 5th wave ska and I be you'll enjoy listening to them. Stay safe out there.

03.17.2020
Snarls
Burst

Gen Z'ers who are deciding to pick up guitars are also seemingly deciding to pick up Sundays and Cranberries and Ride and Lush records, and we're all extremely lucky for it.

02.16.2020
Walter Martin
The World at Night

Charming.

11.13.2019 - by Steve
Luke's Italian BeefChicago
Italian beef

Al's Beef is closed apparently. So I had Luke's instead. It was good.

11.13.2019 - by Steve
5 RabanitosChicago
Pork mole

Erin is always saying New York's Mexican food stinks compared to Chicago. She's right, and 5 Rabanitos is proof.

09.19.2017 - by Steve
Pequod'sChicago
Deep dish sausage pizza

Since a polish and cheese fries and lime Oreo shake weren't quite enough, and since it's been a solid 7 or 8 years since I've last had "real" Chicago style pizza, we went for a legit bang bang, and ventured down to Pequod's, the former punk-rock bar in Lincoln Park that some of the more in-touch locals (and Anthony Bourdain, for what it's worth) would happily tell you is the best deep dish in town, better than that slop they serve you at Gino's East and Lou Malnatti's, and, god forbid, Giordano's. I wouldn't disagree with them necessarily, but in fairness it's been years and years since I've had Gino's, I don't think I've ever had Lou's. But yes, Giordano's is trash. But Pequod's, hell, I have have no complaints! It was a damn good pie! So, sure! Trust those who know. And just order a small. You'll be fine.

09.19.2017 - by Steve
Susie's Drive ThruChicago
Polish, Green River Oreo shake

Stop #2 on my one-day whirlwind trip to Chicago: Susie's Drive Thru. This is some Chicago insider shit, you guys. You won't find it on lists, you won't find it in your local alt-weekly, you won't see it on the Food Network. But it's what dreams are made of. One of those tiny little corner joints way out in the boonies of Chicago, far enough away from the train that the cool kids will never make it there, with a menu that somehow has about 120 items on it, all of which are terrible for your health, but great for everything else, and at least 60 of which are probably delicious. I can personally vouch for the Maxwell polish and the Chicago dog and the cheese fries. But the main attraction here is some real batshit nonesense: The Green River Oreo shake. Green River, see, is some little midwestern-based citrus soda—think a slightly more limey Sprite. The Green River Oreo shake, then, is a shake with Green River and Oreos in it. The idea of mixing Oreos with limey citrus pop doesn't immediately sound too appealing. But let me tell you, it works. God knows how, but it works. Susie's isn't going to franchise any time soon, and I couldn't even tell you how to get there if you're ever in Chicago (do they even have a website or Yelp listing?), but if you happen to get lost and look up and see its glorious neon trim, do it.

09.19.2017 - by Steve
Jaimito'sChicago
Al pastor taco

Jaimito's is one of hundreds of neighborhood taco joints in Chicago, so this isn't me trying to rank it or compare to any of the others. This just just me saying, "Hey, I was in Chicago and I was hungry so I popped in to this place called Jaimito's and got a taco. It was pretty good, and even though it was a traditional style taco place, they also put lettuce and shredded cheese on the taco, and I'm totally okay with that because it tasted good."

04.01.2015 - by Steve
Bang Bang Pie & BiscuitsChicago
Malted chocolate pie

So here's Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, a cool homey little nook of a cafe in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, that makes, yes, pie and biscuits. It's a totally righteous little spot; cool but not annoying-cool, a clearly focused menu that's small but not too small. But mostly it's got delicious pie. I got the malted chocolate, which was sort of like a french silk (my favorite thing in the world), but had a thick, almost torte-like texture, on a graham cracker crust. Guess what? It was great. Not too rich, not too malty. It was a subtle malt, not like a goddamn Whopper or something. I tried to go back the next morning to get a breakfast biscuit, but it was a Saturday morning, and every cool mom in the city was lined up down the block for brunch. I hightailed it out of there. Next time, maybe.


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04.01.2015 - by Steve
Al's BeefChicago
Italian beef

Al's Beef isn't a quality establishment. It isn't grass fed beef and locally-pickled peppers on home-baked buns dipped in craft-ale au jus. It's garbage food for drunk people to eat at 1 in the morning, for construction workers to stuff in their gullet on their lunch break. It's a Chicago chain that has probably seen better days, and isn't necessarily universally beloved. But their garbage sandwich was so, so, so tasty at midnight after a day of endless walking. I loved every bite of it. Possibly the most satisfying thing I ate in Chicago.

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Do-Rite DonutsChicago
Lemon pistachio donut

I think beyond being "trendy," good quality donut shops are in for the long haul. Because donuts are great. They're way better than cupcakes. And while the Twin Cities hasn't quite experienced the full-on renaissance yet (close, though), it seems Chicago is well into it. I basically picked Do-Rite by closing my eyes and putting my finger down on a map. And I wasn't disappointed. Just look at that donut up there. Doesn't it look tasty? It was. And there's probably a twenty other equally good donut shops in that city. I am not complaining.

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Green Street Smoked MeatsChicago
Chopped brisket sandwich

Surprisingly affordable barbecue in a super cool "hidden" warehouse space in between a bunch of much more exclusive restaurants for much more exclusive people. There's definitely a regrettable sense of trying-too-hard-to-make-it-look-like-you're-not-trying-hard at Green Street Smoked Meats (like, just call it "barbecue, man!"), but they pull it off. This is a cool place, with great, but not epiphany-inducing, barbecue and interesting sides. It's cheap for what you get, the service is fast, and the seating is plentiful. My only complaint is I should have ordered the sliced brisket rather than the chopped. The chopped tasted a little like it had been sitting in a pot for too long, rather than the fresh cut juiciness that the slices would've got me. Oh well. Next time!

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Cozy NoodlesChicago
Crispy pad kee mao

Wrigley Field is an American treasure. I love it. Wrigleyville, its surrounding neighborhood, is a nightmare. A Bud-fueled, tramp-tatted, Tapout-shirted, frozen-chicken-wing defrosted dude-bro nightmare. It also hosts the surprisingly hospitable Wrigleyville Hostel, where I decided to stay for my Chicago weekend because I'm a cheapskate with little self respect. But since I at least have some self respect, I skipped all the Wrigleyville sports bars, and instead had dinner at the one place in the entire neighborhood with dignity, Cozy Noodles. It's small and tucked away, and inexplicably decorated with all sorts of retro Americana ephemera, but it serves totally solid Thai food. Their "specialty" is that they do crispy fried noodles in their pad thai and pad kee mao, which ends up being just too crispy for my taste. But otherwise, it's a great place. Don't go out of your way (I'm sure there are plenty of equally good Thai restaurants in Chicago), but if you're stuck in Wrigleyville, you'll have no other choice.

03.27.2015 - by Steve
ArtopolisChicago
Roast lamb leg

I'm currently staying the night in a hostel above a Greek restaurant in the Greektown neighborhood of Chicago. No joke. So I have to have some Greek food for dinner, right? The running joke about Greektown, as far as I could tell from my brief scans through Chowhound, is that all the restaurants in Greektown share the same kitchen. They're all apparently good, but just very similar. And walking down the street here, I really get that vibe. Lots of white table cloths. Lots of blue and white. Lots of logos designed around 1988. The one I chose, Artopolis, is supposedly a newer, fresher take. It actually touts itself as a bakery, and the best comparison I can make is French Meadow. It has both a bakery counter and full dining service. It has a big menu with everything from light sandwiches to full entrees. It has many deserts. And most of all, like French Meadow, I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu and it was... okay. I was expecting a bone-in lamb shank, and got slices. And they were a bit dry. But the sauce, a light tomato and mint based number, was great, as were the roasted vegetables (squash, zucchini, and red pepper? Get original, Artopolis!). I had a desert, as well, a sort of lemon custardy thing inside a phyllo dough shell. It would've been great if it was chilled, but they... microwaved it?. As far as I can tell, they did. So Artopolis did everything they could to ruin my meal, and I probably payed about $5 too much, but I still left satisfied. Now if only this hostel would turn their AC up a bit!

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Lito's EmpanadasChicago
Empanadas

An empanada is a delicious little fried pocket of dough, stuffed with fillings of your choice. "A Hot Pocket?" Yes. But a Columbian Hot Pocket. Everyone really enjoyed theirs, but my personal favorite was filled with ground beef, potatoes, olives, raisins, and dipped in homemade jalapeno, onion, and cilantro salsa. It was our last "meal" (heavy snack, really) in Chicago, and made me want to find a good empanada source in Minneapolis. Or I'll just buy a Hot Pocket and tell the cashier about how much better the real ones are.

03.27.2015 - by Steve
WishboneChicago
Andouille sausage hash

Wishbone is is what Sunny Side Up would be if it wasn't a total dump. Great breakfast food, based on 'southern-style' cooking. Grits, corn muffins, catfish, all that stuff, and my andouille sausage hash was probably the best thing I ate on this trip. I'd wanted to go there the whole weekend, and we finally found some time to do so. Plus, it's only a block away from where Oprah films her show! OMG!

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Chicago DinerChicago
Black bean burger

It's hard to believe that, of all the diners and eateries in Chicago, the one that actually gets to be called "The Chicago Diner" is located in a classic old diner space in a big gay neighborhood and is entirely vegetarian. And yet their menu contains buffalo wings, Philly cheesesteaks, bacon cheeseburgers. Entirely fake meat, yes, but as I recently learned with the fake pork at Evergreen, this can totally work--and it pretty much did. The buffalo "wings" (their usage of quotes, not mine) were weird at first, but then once you realized that the sauce contained no butter (50% of wing sauce, really), and the chicken obviously wasn't chicken, they were pretty tasty, and very spicy. My black bean burger was good, and had a great mustard sauce on it. Everyone else had good to great food, and were all impressed that such a place can even exist. And in a city as ridiculously large as Chicago, it actually does a ton of business.

03.27.2015 - by Steve
Eleven City DinerChicago
Chicken Sandwich

This was the second time eating at Eleven City Diner near downtown Chicago, and it was nearly as good as the first. In a place where you need to order corned beef or pastrami or something of that meat family to really get the full experience, I was worried about the potential of a cajun chicken sandwich, but it ended up being a well-above-average cajun chicken (which can often be pretty boring). The bread really made it. Big, fat, soft, and almost french-toast-like. Well worth the 5 hour wait. Or maybe a little less.