09.01.2014
Opeth
Pale Communion
Here are the words I've been fearing to write for the last decade, but I regret that I have no other choice: This new Opeth album is lame. That's all there is to it. They're back in Heritage mode, all-out prog, no death growl vocals, barely a single heavy metal indicator in sight. I'm fine with that. The problem is a complete lack of ideas. There's nothing to grab on to. It's all harmony, no melody. It's the same handful of themes recycled from Heritage, but without the excitement of being new that Heritage actually had. It's a lack of any connection or relationship between riff A, riff B, outro C, and bridge D—a problem that has been slowly revealing itself in the Opeth canon since Ghost Reveries, made itself particularly known in Watershed, and overwhelmed Heritage (though, again, it was forgivable because of that record's otherwise experimental vibe). But this isn't experimental anymore. It's like when Green Day released a rock opera, and then released another rock opera. The first one is forgivable and even exciting. The second one is beating a dead horse. Pale Communion is lame. In the literal sense of the word. It feels week and tired and unable to carry its own weight. I don't blame Mikael Akerfeldt for wanting to do something else with his career; Opeth's 15 year run of awe-inspiring music is nearly peerless. The guy can do what he wants. I just get the feeling that the classics are behind us.
08.25.2014
The Fiery Furnaces
Widow City
I'm really, really enjoying Widow City today. I've never been too high on it, chalking it up to being generally uneven with a few fun points scattered throughout. But I'm realizing now that, if you just give yourself over to its fucked-upness, it's actually a fantastic record. The back end, especially.
08.25.2014
Noise for Pretend
Happy You Near
In a mind blowing (to me, anyway) revelation I came across yesterday, the teenage lead singer and upright bass player of unheralded and mostly unknown indie rock band Noise For Pretend, who's sole, and pretty decent, album Happy You Near I picked up back in 2002 while on a Hush Records spending spree, but haven't really listened to in the last 10 years, turned out to become, in intervening years, world renowned and universally recognized jazz bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding! I'm still trying to come to grips with this. It's like if you would've told me, "Hey, remember that band The Merediths that released one EP that you kinda liked? They're singer was Josh Groban! So weird.
08.23.2014
Sturgill Simpson
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
At first I was like, "Interesting, a country music guy who writes about drugs and the cosmos and stuff." Then I was like, "Eh, he's just a boring country guy who used a couple big words and dresses like a hipster." But then I actually listened to the album. And now I'm like, "Hey, this guy and his band really have their shit together. These are some solid tunes with some honest lyrics performed with care. I like it." He's not as left-field and druggy as you'd think, nor is he some old-school country savior. But he's good.
08.13.2014
Adult Jazz
Gist Is
I posted about this Adult Jazz album a while back, and how the singles they released in anticipation for the full length got me terribly excited, perhaps more excited than I've been for a new band in years and years. Well now the full length is here, and I am thoroughly satisfied. And more. What we have here is a band that, despite the obvious similarities to the indie stalwarts of Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear, carry a vision and self confidence, as well as sheer technical talent, that, after this one album that has essentially sprung from nowhere, has already floated them well over and above their influences. These guys know what the fuck they're doing. At its core, it's indie rock. Sure. But it's also prog. And soul. And, goddamit, it's jazz. The whole record has an air of improvisation to it, not exactly like jazz necessarily, but using some of its tricks, without feeling the need to swing or bop or even solo. Every member feels important to the whole; get rid of any player, and they will sound very different. It's not perfect; I wish they'd not rely so heavily on the start/stop jerkiness of their arrangements, and not be so afraid to embrace the pop aspect of their music. But that just gets me excited—already—for what they have in store for the future. If they can keep the same lineup together, and really tighten up their songs a bit, the ceiling is incredibly high for these guys. Love it.
08.10.2014
Spoon
They Want My Soul
This new Spoon album is just as good and no better than every other Spoon album. I can't really point out any particular high points or low points or even compare it to their past work, but I can tell you that I listened to it about 4 times in a row on my road trip last week while driving around Canada. I have no idea what it is that Spoon has figured out, but they've totally figured it out.
07.21.2014
Rachel's
The Sea and Bells
Existing somewhere within the Slint/Rodan/Tortoise/Godspeed continuum, Rachel's feels like they've never made the same waves as their contemporaries. Makes sense I guess; this album, at least, takes some of that post-rock Godspeed thing (perhaps before Godspeed), but does so while leaning preciously into the world of Kronos Quartet style contemporary chamber music, which doesn't necessarily lend itself to the angry college music snob crowd. If you know those references above, then you already can imagine exactly what this record sounds like. And it's exactly as enjoyable as you'd think it is. (Very!)
07.13.2014
Behemoth
The Satanist
Proving yet again that I am simply out of touch with the heavy metal community, I find this Behemoth album to be technically competent and well engineered, but otherwise vacant bombast. And yet people are going crazy for it. They love it. I don't get it. There's no ebb and flow, no yin the the yang of the cookie monster vocals and blastbeats. No movement. I've learned this with Agalloch already this year, but clearly the tastemakers of the metal world have a different set of standards than me. But I think we can all agree: That album cover kicks ass.
07.11.2014
Nick Drake
Five Leaves Left
What I want:

5. A fully remixed/remastered version of …And Justice for All
4. A new Jon Brion solo album
3. A new Devin Davis album
2. A reissue of Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later, stripped down to voice and guitar with all the accompaniment removed.
1. Newsom Sings Nilsson Sings Newman

(1)
07.09.2014
Ought
More Than Any Other Day
An equally satisfying and disappointing melange of old-school Tortoise, old-school Talking Heads, and old-school Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, with a little Television, Wire, and Don Cab thrown in for good measure . And I'm not going to write anything more about it, because I just depressed myself by using the phrase "old-school Clap Your Hands Say Yeah."

(1)
07.05.2014
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
Damn the Torpedoes
I decided maybe I should dig into Tom Petty a little bit. Damn the Torpedoes felt like the place to start. I like it just fine, but have very little of interest to add beyond that. Although, it's funny that, maybe it's a generational thing, but I've always somehow associated him more with the rootsy Bob Dylany side (like his Wildflowers album) than the Elvis Costello / Nick Lowe thing that he really fits into. Nice music to drive to, otherwise I think I can live without it.
06.26.2014
Mastodon
Once More Round the Sun
Mastodon has finally done it. It took 12 years of awesome-at-worst / untouchable-classic-at-best records, a flawless track record of flawless tracks, and uninterrupted progressive evolution in their sound, but they've finally released a dud. It pains me. I don't even really want to get in to it, because at face value, it's not that bad. If it was some random new pop metal band that your little cousin liked, you'd say, "Wow, these guys are way better than most of those other shitty bands you like." But this is Mastodon. I expect a perfect 10 every time they release something. Pitchfork actually compared this album to "Foo Fighters style hard rock," which is kinda cruel, and not totally valid, but there's some truth there. It's predictable. Lame arena choruses. Guitar tones that are just a little too perfect. Boring old bass/snare/bass/snare drum beats. Funny thing is that there are identifiable sounds all over the record that point to every one of their earlier releases. "Oh, that sounds like Blood Mountain. That part sounds like Crack the Skye. Holy shit, was that a Remission riff?" And it all is mixed with a good handful of The Hunter's streamlined song structures and catchy hooks. But The Hunter seemed (not unlike the Decemberists' The King is Dead that same year), like the end of a line of evolution. Like a predictable yet refreshing destination. Once More Round The Sun—even the album title sounds dubious—feels rudderless. Like they've gotten too good at what they do, have nothing left to prove, and are finally, 12 years later, just going through the motions. I'm not writing them off yet; a 10 year run of perfection is more than even many legendary bands could pull off, and even this "dud" of theirs has moments—in every song—of brief genius. But I have to wonder where they go from here.

(2)
06.19.2014
Courageous Endeavors
Prototype
Ignore, to begin, the fact that this group is called Courageous Endeavors. Have you ignored it? Okay. Moving on. Here we have a Minneapolis jazz quartet—MPR approved!—of sax, bass, drums, and electric piano (a Fender Rhodes, I believe). What I like about these guys and their debut record here is that there is really a focus on composition and melody, rather than the contemporary jazz crutches of dischord or experimentation. The entire record is comprised of original songs, carefully but not brazenly played, that feel refreshingly unconcerned with jazz tradition. Yes, what they're playing is clearly and unquestionably "jazz," but my point is that they let the song guide their compositional choices, rather than a need to give this guy a solo, or to make sure that middle section is properly "modal," or to test out that new analogue delay unit. I'd say it's closer in spirit to 1970s European/Scandinavian ECM stuff than their contemporaries like Happy Apple or The Bad Plus. It's not a perfect record, and some of the tracks in the first half do sometimes fall into these jazz platitudes, but there are moments in the latter half, particularly some of the more solemn stuff, that really excite me, and give me hope for what these guys might record in the future, as long as they stick to the mission statement of their stupid band name and worry about making music instead of jazz.
06.15.2014
The Royal Tenenbaums
Soundtrack
This is flawless. It was flawless in 2001 and it's even flawlesser today. The only flaw is that "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" and "Hey Jude" aren't on it. But that's my fault, because I bought the CD back before they got the rights to those two songs, but shortly thereafter they did, so now it is no longer flawed. I'm convinced that there are extra-aural calming tones placed behind this entire record that make me want to crawl in a quirky, symmetrical living room tent and fall asleep until the closing credits.

(1)
08.23.2014 - by Steve
Local Public Eatery - Medicine Hat
Chicken sandwich
I hate this. I show up to the one 'cool' looking place in the externally-sprawling-internally-wilting-but-still-potentially-wonderful Alberta city of Medicine Hat, Local Public Eatery, sit down, look at the menu, and realize, "Oh, shit, this is a chain." This is yet another Canadian trend I noted in my time up there: the hip chain. There are a handful of these places. They only appear in the 'urbane' parts of cities, and only one per city, as not to appear like a fucking Chilis or something, and are decked out with the standard graphic accoutrements of your local gastropub and microbrewery. Pre-packaged foodie auteurism, I guess. The place is called "Local", for god's sake! It's all a lie! I should have noticed when every waitress in the entire place looked like a carbon copy of the same car show model. Actually, I should have noticed when I saw how someone had invested at least a million dollars into this restaurant in the middle of a downtown that was otherwise crumbling, while all the other money was being invested in big boxes out by the highway. So annoying. Great chicken sandwich though. The bun was "Portuguese."
08.23.2014 - by Steve
Kim Anh Submarines - Calgary
Lemongrass chicken banh mi
The entire city of Calgary seems like it was built after 1990. And much of it in the last 15 years. It's a metropolis filthy with oil and cattle money that feels less like a city than a real estate developer and corrupt city council's shared fantasy of what a city is. It's situated geographically much like Denver, but it feels much like what I imagine Dallas feels like. Except without any decent Mexican food. Instead, like every Canadian city, the ethnic food of choice is Asian. In the middle of its nightmarish "trendy" district (17th Avenue! Where faux-contrusctivist red star tattoos are still en vogue! And there's a Best Buy at the end of it!), I found a well-reviewed banh mi place called Kim Anh Submarines. Because it's Canada, we call them submarines, I guess. The term "banh mi" never appeared once on the premises. But we all know the deal. Anyway, it was tasty, I was happy with it. However, they microwaved the meat! Screw that. Put it on a grill! Also, you can get cheese on your banh mi Vietnamese submarine. WTF?
08.14.2014 - by Steve
Little Red Market Cafe - Mortlach
Duck breast
This blog was not designed to present the type of writing necessary to convey the significance of my experience with the Little Red Market Cafe. It was one of those enlightening life moments. The kind of thing that I'll still be speaking about fondly when I'm a wrinkled old man. The kind of food-meets-travel serendipity that I'd otherwise roll my eyes at when an NPR host talks about it. I've written it out three times now, and I haven't been able to capture what it is this tiny little place in the middle of nowhere, the only operating business in tiny Mortlach, Saskatchewan, did to me. I was in dire straits, and it appeared out of nowhere. Apparently people get reservations weeks in advance, and I just happened upon it on a Friday night where another reservation cancelled and they were more than happy to seat my sorry ass a table (one of 7) by the window, the waitress/owner showing me nothing but hospitality and goodwill, and her husband, the chef, making me the best duck breast I've ever had. Perfect.
08.12.2014 - by Steve
Tim Horton's - Winnipeg
Maple donut
Tim Horton's seems like a quick easy joke to us Americans. "Oh, those Canadians and their Tim Horton's donuts, har har har!" So when I was driving into WInnipeg, and I saw my first Tim Horton's on the road, I was pretty excited. Nearly wanted to pull over and take a picture. But then a mile later I saw another one. And another one. And then two across the street from one another. And then one inside a gas station. They're everywhere. And they're always busy! I don't understand! No matter what time of day, no matter what neighborhood, there's a line of cars around the drive through, people sitting in the booths in the windows, and somebody sipping a coffee on a bench outside. It's unlike anything I've seen here in Minneapolis. It's inexplicable. Even more inexplicable is their menu. Donuts are what I know them for, but then they have, like, Blizzards. And chicken sandwiches. And hot dogs, maybe? It's so odd. I had a donut. It was good enough. Exactly like Dunkin Donuts, which I think is its closest American parallel. You don't need to go out of your way to get a donut there if you're ever in Canada, but there's a good chance you won't have a choice.
08.10.2014 - by Steve
Baked Expectations - Winnipeg
Key Lime Pie
$7.50 for a totally mediocre piece of key lime pie in a place overloaded with "cool" high school kids having a night in the big city and suckers like me who assumed that its popularity must equal its quality. Nope. Don't bother. Unless the cake is better.
08.10.2014 - by Steve
White Star Diner - Winnipeg
Pulled Pork Sandwich and Poutine
My second meal in Winnipeg was a great little (little) diner in the Exchange District (think some combination of our Warehouse District and Boston's North End, but smaller and somehow less yuppyish) called the White Star Diner. It's truly a tiny place, just an ordering counter, four or five seats by the window, and two tables outside. They specialize in pulled pork, according to their own menu, and poutine. So I ordered pulled pork and poutine. (Here is where I need to add an entire sidebar about poutine and its relationship with Canada and Western Canada. From what I know, poutine has its roots in eastern, particularly French Canada, Quebec, Montreal, etc. Toronto maybe even has a little history with it. But in the western provinces, Winnipeg included, it seems to be a trend, as if in the last few years western Canadians have realized that everyone [Americans] loves the idea of poutine as an iconic Canadian food. So, with few other truly unique Canadian cultural touchstones to romanticize, restauranteurs in western Canada are jumping on a poutine bandwagon. When a place there serves poutine, it seems to be in a sense that says, "Hey, check this out, we've got that poutine that everyone's talking about!," rather than, "Obviously we have poutine, we've been serving it for decades." There'e even a trendy little chain called Smoke's that's quickly taking over the entire country, but we'll get to that later). Anyway, the pork was just fine, more of a dry rub than a sauce, but tangy and satisfying. The poutine was also fine, with great fries, rich gravy, but less-than-satisfying cheese (it seemed to be shredded rather than curds). I'd totally recommend checking this place out if you're ever in town. I bet it has an amazing breakfast, too.
08.10.2014 - by Steve
NuBurger - Winnipeg
Asian slaw burger
And so begins my trip to the Canadian West! First stop: Winnipeg! What I found with Winnipeg is that, while there are quite a few decent looking restaurants, there doesn't seem to be any consensus on which are the best, or which are the most uniquely Winnipegian. But after a little internetty research, and driving around town, it was clear that, maybe 2, 3, 4 years ago, Winnipeg was hit with some sort of healthy burger craze. As far as I can gather, it started with a little place called Boon Burger, which serves entirely vegetarian burgers (we'll get there later!) and has a couple Winnipeg locations now. But from there came another place called UnBurger. My guess is that UnBurger tried to basically copy Boon, but failed. So they added meat (wow!), and changed their name to NuBurger. And that's where I ate my first night in town. It was good. The burger itself seemed to be mixed with a bunch of stuff other than simply beef (and had a deep red color), but I'm not sure what. However, the patty itself actually played a secondary role to the toppings of homemade Asian slaw and some spicy sweet sauces and peanut stuff. Throw it on some decent bread rather than a bun, and perfectly good fries, and I was happy. The interior was a little too graphic-designery for me (note to restauranteurs: never let graphic designers design your restaurant interiors), but it passed my vacation food test: If NuBurger existed in Minneapolis, I'd eat there.
07.20.2014 - by Steve
Tacqueria la Hacienda - Savage
Tacos
The generically named Tacqueria la Hacienda is as good as any tacqueria I've been to in this town, except perhaps Riendo. Great tangy al pastor, great cinnnamony barbacoa, great rich chorizo. Okayish beans and rice. I went to their location in Savage, but you can certainly go to the one on Lake Street if you feel like that will help.
07.20.2014 - by Steve
Yo Yo Donuts - Minnetonka
Donuts
I guess I could see how the people of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie might think Yo Yo makes unique and interesting donuts.

(1)
07.20.2014 - by Steve
Babani's Kurdish Restaurant - St. Paul
Kubay sawar
I assumed going in that Kurdish food at Babani's (on the edge of downtown St. Paul; you've probably seen it while getting off the highway at some point) was going to be something like any number of other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern restaurants. Kabobs, shawarma, yellow rice, hummus, maybe some stewed goat of some sort. But I was surprised that it really had a character of its own. Similar, sure (rice and a very viscous hummus-type side dish was involved), but it almost had an Italian overtone to it. Like there was a good amount of oregano in the mix or something. I like it. I could live without the feta-crusted bread I ordered on the side, but the kubay sawar—essentially spiced beef in a fried dough—was very nice. In an odd twist, "kubay sawar" seems to only appear on Google in reference to Babani's specifically. So as far as I know it's not ever Kurdish. But anyway, Babani's gets a thumbs up from me, especially considering the dearth of ethnic restaurants in downtown St. Paul. I'll be back.
07.20.2014 - by Steve
Seward Co-Op - South Minneapolis
Key Lime Pie
The rumors are true. The Seward Co-Op does indeed make fantastic key lime pie. I have to try Birchwood's again to see if I can still claim theirs to be the best; from this distance it's anybody's race. Funny to think, though, how the two best slices of key lime pie in the entire Twin Cities can be found only a few blocks away from each other

(1)
07.05.2014 - by Steve
Sunshine Kitchen & Moonshine Lounge - Brainerd
Sweet and Spicy Burger
The Sunshine Kitchen & Moonshine Lounge (cute, right?) is some aspiring soul's attempt to bring some urbanity to the distinctly inurbane town of Brainerd. And it's a start. They have hip exterior wood paneling fancying up a former biker bar. They have Belgian beer on tap. They have Arcade Fire playing on the sound system.They have a live music stage. They have a burger on their menu that features roasted jalapenos and grape jelly. But that's where they stopped, it seems; the interior of the place is "Shaws with a fresh coat of paint," and beyond the Sweet and Spicy Burger, their menu is disappointingly pedestrian. But I will say: the jalapeno jelly burger is a hit! It totally works. If the Blue Door served it I'd order it all the time! This place needs to take the goodwill this one burger is earning them and run with it, and bring the plebes of Brainerd along with it.

(2)
07.05.2014 - by Steve
The Farm Market Cafe - Onamia
Taco salad
A good thing about the Farm Market Cafe is that the food tasted good. Another good thing about the Farm Market Cafe is that, if their claims are to be believed, most of their ingredients come from within 15 miles of their location in Onamia, MN. A third good thing about the Farm Market Cafe is that they are located right off of 169, just south of Mille Lacs, so you can stop there if you're driving up north on 169. The bad thing about the Farm Market Cafe, however, is everything else. The interior is weird. The menu is indecipherable. The music is non-stop Christian rock. Our server, bless her heart, might have been the worst server we've ever had (respect to our pal at the now-defunct Singapore). At one point, when the table behind us asked what "braunschweiger" is, since their sandwich special that day was braunschweiger, she responded—I am not joking—"Um, I don't really know. It's, uh, it's kind of like cat food." I died a little. I wanted to go find the owner and pull her aside and say, "Ma'am, please, you can not let that girl be a server anymore. She does not know what's going on, and she's making me feel so sad I think I might throw up. And also, please, please take down those NCAA Tournament 2004 San Antonio banners you have lining the walls of your restaurant. They make no sense." I want you all to support this place, because, as I said, the food was good! And they're trying to do the right thing as a business, which is more than 99% of any other highway-stop cafe you'll ever find. But they need serious, serious help in the running-a-restaurant department.

(1)
06.25.2014 - by Steve
Butcher & the Boar - Downtown Minneapolis
Texas beef link
Okay. I've been to Butcher & the Boar now, are you happy? Am I credible enough to continue to maintain a food related weblog now? Here's my hot take: Look, it was good. It was a spicy beef link with spicy pepper sauce and some slaw. For what it was, I don't know if it could have been any better. And for $12, I feel like was worth it. Great, awesome. But considering it was Tuesday night and you needed reservations not to get stuck at the bar, and every table in the place was taken up by a group of dress-shirt-tucked-in, silver-fox-hair-cropped-conservatively, expense-account-sucking business travelers who had clearly just walked there from their hotels by the convention center because they read about it in New York Times Travel & Leisure, and B&tB can go ahead and charge whatever they want for everything on the menu because this clientele of theirs isn't actually spending their own money, I don't know if they really need me back any time soon. So I won't bother.