They Want My Soul.

I wrote about the Javier Baez callup today for Insider, and will chat at noon ET.

Spoon’s 2010 album Transference departed from the tightly-crafted, sparse rock of their previous albums, with abrupt transitions and less fluidity than Gimme Fiction or Ga Ga Ga & a few more Ga’s showed. Devout Spoon fans weren’t enamored of the change, but their newest album, They Want My Soul, should assuage their ire: It’s very Spoon, for mostly better and a little worse, with plenty of hooks and the same tight sound as their earlier works.

During the band’s layoff, lead singer Britt Daniel started up a side project, the Divine Fits, which included Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade as co-lead guitarist. The Fits were even more of a straight-up rock band than Spoon, although with Daniel on lead vocals it was hard for them to sound like anyone but Spoon. Some of that experience appears to have leaked back into They Want My Soul, because the album feels less expansive than anything previous from Spoon – but in a positive sense, as they seem more comfortable within their zone, more focused in a narrower range of styles, so that what was once experimentation now reads more as command. If the album lacks a song as immediate as “I Turn My Camera On” or “The Underdog,” that doesn’t detract at all from its maturity and depth of compelling tracks.

The best song is the opener, “Rent I Pay,” with Daniel’s staccato vocals over a throbbing guitar-and-drum line, along with one of those sharp silences that marked Spoon’s last album and another jarring curtain-drop ending. Starting the album with a hard indie-rock anthem may mislead you into expecting a return to the garage, but Spoon shifts directions multiple times, only returning to this style on a few tracks. Instead, we get the same sort of punctualism applied to different canvases, from the Roxy Music-inflected closer “New York Kiss” to the trancelike “Knock Knock Knock” (with a guitar riff sampled in to sound like a buzzsaw tearing through the sheet music). That track features the kind of layering and precise production I associate with alt-J’s An Awesome Wave, an album where every note and every sound effect seemed perfectly and deliberately placed; here Spoon use the technique to create a dark canopy over the paranoid lyrics.

Where Transference could feel deliberately weird, or at least overreaching, They Want My Soul is enjoyably quirky like Spoon’s previous work – indie-rock that doesn’t hew to any particular formula or obey any externally-imposed boundaries. “Let Me Be Mine” has Daniel repeating the lines “Auction off what you love/it will come back some time” over a shuffling off-beat rhythm with their typical sudden stops and restarts, a familiar execution of the Spoon formula that avoids sounding tired. (I could do without Daniel’s attempt at a Dick Van Dyke version of a cockney accent, though.) The aptly-named “Outlier” might be a Charlatans UK cover with its Madchester drums and keyboards, but then the steel acoustic guitar drops in to push the song even further into psychedelic territory. Even the cover of Ann-Marget’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” a dark waltz that stands out for its time signature and the match between the subject matter and Daniel’s raspy Kelly Jones-esque deilvery, manages to sound like a Spoon song even though it’s a cover of a track made famous by the Beatles.

“Do You,” the lead single, is a disappointing choice to push out to radio – it’s a good Spoon song, and I mean that in a good way, but it’s not a great one. It’s energetic and powered by the earnestness of Daniel’s voice, but not a track I walked away wanting to hear again and again. The lone dud on the album, “Inside Out,” might be the one track where Daniel et al try to break out of their genre, instead tossing out a failed trip-hop experiment that sounds cheaply produced and lacks any discernible hook.

I saw Divine Fits live in LA at the Fonda Theater, the last stop on their tour, and the one cover they mixed into the set was the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” a slow, bluesy track allegedly written by Mick Taylor rather than Keith Richards. It’s a telling choice because it doesn’t sound much like the Stones, except when Mick Jagger’s voice comes in and you know it couldn’t be any other band. They Want My Soul carries that same aesthetic through its brief, fantastic 37-minute run – ten songs that sound little like each other, but all sound very much like Spoon.

July music update.

All my trade writeups from last week are up for Insiders. I skipped some of the smaller deals because of my TV commitments that evening.

It’s turning out to be a good year for new music after a pretty slow start, and that’s before we get to a spate of promising fall album releases, none more exciting (to me, at least) than the alt-J album dropping on September 22nd, with Interpol, Ryan Adams, and the Kooks also on the watchlist. I spent a little more time than usual trolling for new music once we got out of the All-Star Break, so this month’s update is longer than normal. The Spotify playlist also includes tracks from albums I’ve reviewed since the last monthly post.

Cymbals – “Erosion.” This British quartet produces modern darkwave tracks that seem to take the whole ’80s thing a little too seriously, right down to understated production and lyrics that speak of anomie and disaffection. It’s a good song anyway.

Jungle – “Busy Earnin’.” This new soul “collective” draws more from the ’70s and its funk and disco movements than from traditional soul or Motown, adding twists like unusual percussion lines and instruments to establish their sound as something new. It’s not a genre of music I typically enjoy, but I’ve liked what I’ve heard from Jungle because it’s different from anything else I’ve heard in this vein.

Little Daylight – “Overdose.” My daughter might have this electro-pop nugget as her favorite song of the year, although it gets strong competition from Ingrid Michaelson’s “Girls Chase Boys.” The Little Daylight album sounds a lot like a lightweight Naked & Famous disc, more upbeat and less trancey, with “Overdose” far and away the best song.

alt-J – “Left Hand Free.” The A&R man said he didn’t hear a single, so the boys whipped up this very un-alt-J-sounding track, although even when trying to sabotage themselves they can’t help slipping in a few flourishes of their own. I actually like the track despite its unholy origin.

Golden Coast – “Break My Fall.” A suggestion from Paul Boyé (rap name: Chef Boyé D) when I pointed out that he’d recommended four albums in one tweet, one more likely than the next to send you for the liquor cabinet. Paul’s got pretty good taste other than his inexplicable love of St. Vincent’s music; this Golden Coast track strikes a good balance between pop and alternative, perhaps falling a bit short (pun intended) because it’s not built around a single hook, but provides a more consistent, energetic vibe throughout.

Spoon – “Rent I Pay.” I’ll have a review of their album, They Want My Soul, up tomorrow when it’s released. Preview: I like the album, and this is its best song.

Colony House – “Silhouettes.” A hesitant recommendation, because this sounds like every other one-hit indie-pop wonder I’ve come across in the last few years, a lot like Knox Hamilton’s “Work It Out” in that regard. It’s pretty catchy, but the wordplay in the chorus gets old given how often he repeats the line. The song is free right now through that amazon link.

Movie – “Ads.” I can’t be the only one who hears strains of Blur’s “There’s No Other Way” here in the bouncy guitar intro, can I? “Ads” has more of a quixotic funk vibe than Blur’s psychedelic-tinged early work, providing a darkly comical contrast to the anti-commercialist message of the lyrics.

Doss – “Softpretty.” I sense there’s some irony in the song’s title, as the brief lyrics present a harder edge than the bubbly electronic music beneath them. It’s not even clear who Doss is – her bios are brief and weird by design – but I think she’s a sleeper prospect.

White Lung – “Down It Goes.” A female-fronted punk band that would have been tabbed “riot grrrls” by the mainstream press twenty years ago, White Lung got a boost when one of their main influences, Courtney Love, proclaimed herself a fan of their music. It’s punk, not post-punk, and there’s a strong melodic element that makes it play nice with more pop-oriented artists without surrendering the ferocity of their core sound.

The Raveonettes – “Killer in the Streets.” This Danish duo released a new album last month without any advance warning, and it’s … well, it’s just okay, definitely not quite what I was hoping for, lighter on hooks and less distinctive than I expected. This song was the best of the bunch for me due to the layered sound, with guitar tracks that appear to head in different directions and a compulsive drum loop reminiscent of the Madchester scene of two decades ago.

Ages & Ages – “Divisionary (Do The Right Thing).” The song is good, but the video is wonderful, an actual story told in four minutes. They might get lumped in with the new folk-rock movement, but I think they have more in common with groups like the Mowgli’s, with big coed harmonies driving the song toward the big finish.

Dotan – “Home.” I don’t even know if I like this song, but I think it’s going to become a huge hit. It reached #2 in his native Netherlands and #6 in Belgium, with a very Bastille vibe about the song thanks to an earworm chorus.

Twin Peaks – “Flavor.” This song is also free on amazon through that link. Think the Orwells – slightly obnoxious, vigorous pop-rock, with this track built on an off-beat chorus and a completely unexpected acoustic guitar interlude in lieu of a screeching solo.

Jenny Lewis – “Just One Of The Guys.” I’m sure you’ve heard it by now, a very lizphairian track between the lyrics’ feminist lament and the sunny folk-rock vibe of the music. You’ll be hearing covers of this in coffeehouses from now until the end of time.

New Pornographers – “Brill Bruisers.” The title track from the band’s forthcoming album is their most promising song in years, effusive and ebullient and still very much out of the mainstream without ever sounding obtuse. I’m not a big NP fan, neither their work together or any of the members’ solo work (Neko Case and “Destroyer” Dan Bejar are the best-known), but this track has me very optimistic.

Run River North.

I wrote a guest piece for Stigma Fighters on my experiences living with anxiety disorder. I also have a new Insider post on some Royals, White Sox, Mets, and O’s prospects up.

Run River North first came to mainstream attention when a music video they filmed themselves in a Honda car caught the attention of the car manufacturer and led to an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Their self-titled debut album came out earlier this year, earning them a “new band of the week” nod from the Guardian but little other press, and the album barely charted – just one week on the Billboard 200 – before disappearing. That’s a bit surprising, as the disc fits right in with the recent wave of folk-rock acts that have followed on the heels of Mumford & Sons and Of Monsters & Men to find commercial if not critical success, and RRN has the raw ingredients to surpass other similar yet uninspiring acts like the Lumineers or American Authors.

The Of Monsters & Men comparison is the most apt here, as Run River North is also a sextet with male and female vocalists, although RRN only features a male lead, and they previously went by the moniker Monsters Calling Home before, I presume, someone pointed out that that hit a little too close to the mark. Where OM&M are exuberant and bold, however, RRN too often opt for subdued and precious, even though their best songs are bursting with energy and emotion from fear to anger to regret. I liked the album overall, but I found myself wanting to hear lead singer Alex Hwang just let it go and show a rough edge or two. Don’t tell me you’ve got the feels; sing it.

RunRiverNorthCoverThe standouts on the disc bring Hwang closer to that precipice, including “Beetle” and “Excuses,” the latter of which shifts the balance more toward rock than anything else on the album. I almost wonder if Hwang’s diction is too perfect for that kind of song; he’s enunciating every word like Eliza Doolittle going cup-cup-cup-cup of-of-of-of when the lyrics depict a man “acting like a fool” rather than show his true feelings. “Beetle,” my favorite track on the album, is the one time where their Of Monsters & Men impression clicks on all cylinders, building on a core image of someone “running from the ghost on top of the hill” and shifting energies and tempos like a car pulling a series of hairpin turns. “In the Water” dips into a minor key and uses an undulating percussion line to mimic the feeling of rocking on a boat in a swift current … until it slams to a stop for a pretty but incongruous violin line.

The new sounds here are swamped by more derivative tracks where Run River North seem to be paying homage to their influences with imitation rather than innovation. “Fight to Keep” feels culled from the discards off Mumford & Sons’ Babel, while the opener, “Monsters Calling Home,” could easily be from the next Of Monsters & Men record, with the same formula of sing-along “oh-oh-oh-oh” bridges between verses. But where OM&M can feel a little sloppy with their arrangements, giving the music an organic feel that I hope they don’t lose as their success leads to better production, Run River North is too clean and precise, which contributes to the feeling that this is synthetic rock – music by checklist, not by emotion. Just listen to the intro to “Lying Beast,” a song with a title that might lead you to expect a guttural scream to kick out the jam, but that begins instead with quiet parallel vocal that aims for plaintive and comes off as twee.

I think Run River North need to decide who they want to be – another fauxlk-rock act of the kind that are currently flooding the market, or a unique contribution to the field that takes elements of folk or traditional country in a new direction. The band members are all Korean-Americans and sing often of the immigrant experience, with frequent references to “home” as an abstract concept and “name” as a metaphor for identity, so they have something different to say from other artists, many of whom have appropriated these intrinsically American styles of music and merged them with traditions from their own countries. The challenge for Run River North is to turn their technical prowess into more compelling, authentic songs that stand out from the surfeit of similar acts on the scene.

Targi.

Andreas Steiger’s two-person game Targi, published in 2012 as part of Kosmos’ two-player series, combines several simple, familiar mechanics for a new, easy-to-learn game that still requires moderately difficult strategic decisions, with more interaction than most two-player games offer because of the nature of the board. Games took us 30-45 minutes, and I had no problem teaching the game to my eight-year-old daughter, especially since most of the scoring is clear and immediately visible on the game’s cards. The game was nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres (Connoisseur’s Game of the Year) in 2012, but lost to Village, which I own but haven’t opened yet.

Each player represents a tribe of Tuareg nomads competing to acquire goods (salt, pepper, and dates) as well as gold to allow them to acquire “tribe cards” that award both victory points and special abilities. Players purchase tribe cards and arrange them in their own camp, a 3×4 array where each row of four can earn bonuses based on the symbols on the cards placed there – four of a kind or four unique symbols in a row. The game has two end conditions, so its there’s a cap on how long a game can go, and also creates a little tension if neither player has filled his/her array before the final turn arrives.targibox

Targi’s board is created by placing cards on the table in a 5×5 grid, with the sixteen cards around the border fixed in every game. These “noble cards” include twelve cards that award free goods or special abilities that may be used only on that turn, as well as four “raid” cards that require all players to surrender goods, gold, or victory points to the robber. The central nine cards (3×3) change every game, and vary over the course of the game; they begin with five goods cards, from which a player may get salt, pepper, dates, a combination of two of those, gold, or a victory point; and four tribe cards, described above, awarding one to three victory points, bearing one of five card symbols, and possibly granting some special abilities. When a player purchases a tribe card from the central square, a goods card replaces it, and vice versa.

Each player has three Targi tokens and two marker tokens, and players alternate placement of the Targi, with the first player changing on each turn. A player places his/her Targi on the noble cards around the outside of the board, creating two points of intersection on cards in the central 3×3 grid, on which the player places her two marker tokens for a total of five affected cards for each player. One noble card is out of play on each turn because the robber occupies it, and a player may not share a noble card or place his own Targi on a noble card directly across from one of his opponent’s Targi. On his turn, a player may resolve his five tokens in any order he wishes. If a player has the opportunity to purchase a tribe card but lacks the necessary goods and/or gold, she may hold one tribe card in her hand for purchase on a later turn. After each player has taken a turn, the robber moves forward one space on the noble card track and all cards in the central grid that were used or purchased are replaced with a card of the opposite type.

The Targi "board."

The Targi “board.”

There are several ways to score points in Targi, starting with the most straightforward method – scoring one to three points for each tribe card purchased. There are a few opportunities to take a victory point directly from the supply, such as a goods card that awards one point rather than awarding salt or pepper. The key to maximizing your score, however, is to get the right cards into your 3×4 camp array in the right order. Each row can earn a four point bonus if all four cards in the row have the same symbol (there are five symbols in total), or can earn a two point bonus if all four cards have different symbols. Many tribe cards award other bonuses, such as granting an extra point for every two cards of a specific symbol in the camp – for example, one extra point for every two “oasis” cards the player holds – or doubling the two point bonus for a row of cards with unique symbols. Other tribe cards award goods rather than points, reduce the costs to buy tribe cards with specific symbols, or offer protection from or bonuses during raids, while tribe cards that bring three victory points carry no bonuses at all.

The main constraint in the game is gold. Of the 45 tribe cards in the deck, 26 require a gold token as all or part of the purchase price. Each player begins the game with a single gold token, but acquiring more is harder than acquiring more goods is. Three of the 19 goods cards reward the player with a gold token, but the exterior noble cards track has no direct way to get a gold token, as opposed to two noble cards each for salt, pepper, and dates. Players may use the Trader card to swap three goods of a single type for a gold token, a function available once per turn to whichever player places a Targi token on that noble card, and unavailable when the robber occupies it during the game’s fourth turn. There’s also one tribe card that grants a one-time bonus of a gold token, and that’s it. Therefore acquiring gold is key for players, as is using it wisely and avoiding a commitment to a strategy that requires more gold than the player can get.

The game’s main interaction comes in the competition to place tokens around the noble track. It can be easy to guess what your opponent wants or needs, and because the game includes just three goods it’s also likely you’ll be going for the same thing(s) and can line up your move with one that blocks your opponent or at least reduces her options. There’s one end-run around this, the “fata morgana” noble card, which allows the player whose targi is on it to move a token from one central card to any unoccupied one, but at the cost of using two tokens (one Targi, one marker) to accomplish one goal.

Winning scores tend to be in the upper 30s and low 40s, and we’ve had games end due to both conditions – one player buying his 12th tribe card or the robber making it all the way around the noble track to the fourth and final raid card. Even our first game, where we only botched one rule (a record of sorts for us), took maybe an hour. Because the options for moves are few and there’s a constant back-and-forth, the game feels quick and players rarely have long to wait before they’re asked to do something. I’d still slot it behind Jaipur for pure two-player games, but Targi is among the best of its breed, a two-player game that doesn’t feel like it was dumbed down in any way.

Entombed A.D.’s Back to the Front.

My breakdown of the Peavy trade is up now for Insiders.

Entombed was one of the most important bands in the history of heavy metal, a death metal act that veered hard back toward the mainstream with their epic 1993 album Wolverine Blues, which featured substantially slower tempos, fewer blast beats, and somewhat more comprehensible lyrics. The band didn’t eschew its detuned guitar sounds or heavy riffs, but the newer style drew more from classic dark metal acts like Black Sabbath and Slayer, rather than the straight-on (and in my opinion unlistenable) early Nordic death metal pioneers like Mayhem or Emperor. Their new style earned the moniker “death-and-roll,” although that sounds pejorative to me rather than recognizing that what they were doing was ingenious.

Personnel disagreements splintered the band, however, and founding vocalist LG Petrov has split off with three later members of the band to form Entombed A.D., whose debut album Back to the Front is set to drop on August 5th. It’s not Wolverine Blues, but it’s very much in that vein, with huge, heavy, almost bluesy metal riffs reminiscent of British Steel-era Judas Priest, along with unmistakeable death-metal elements like growled vocals and faster percussion. The album is uneven, but fans of Entombed’s work with its classic lineup should be interested in the new output.

Back to the Front couldn’t start off any better, with the menacing “Kill to Live” driving forward on thick buzzsaw guitar riffs, leaving the rapid-fire drumming just to brief passages that punctuate the heaviness of the verses and chorus rather than overpowering the music. “Second to None” employs a similar mix of elements, like a sludgier, bluesier track left off of Pantera’s A Vulgar Display of Power. (I’m not a Pantera fan, though, as the whole “groove metal” movement left me cold.) The closer, “Soldier of No Fortune,” sees Entombed stretching out into more melodic territory, a nearly seven-minute opus with multiple segments and tempo shifts, but which never loses the force or heaviness of Entombed’s signature sound.

The album veers back and forth from the Entombed death-and-roll sound to some more conventional death-metal numbers, and the quality of the songwriting rises and falls at the same time. “The Underminer” opens with a incredible rapid-fire guitar riff, but the whole thing is, er, undermined by the blast beats that follow and wipe out the guitar sound. “Bait and Bleed” has a similar problem, starting with a pair of overlaid guitar lines that would appear to promise more complexity, but by the chorus we’ve drifted into more cliched death-metal territory and lost the plot of the opener. Even “Bedlam Attack,” which has some tempo shifts later in the song, loses me with the fastball before we get to the changeup because it’s so repetitive.

I said on Twitter last week that this album isn’t as good as Wolverine Blues, but it’s a solid add to the Entombed canon. The more I’ve listened to Back to the Front, however, the less positive I feel about it. There’s too much here that I think I’ve heard before, from Entombed’s early/mid-90s output to the groove metal movement to earlier touchstones like Motorhead, Sabbath, and Slayer. If you’re a longtime Entombed fan, Entombed A.D. won’t disappoint you, but I don’t think it’ll stay in my own rotation for long.

Saturday five, 7/26/14.

My content at ESPN.com over the last seven days…

* My analysis of the Huston Street trade
* My analysis of the Chase Headley trade
* My (very brief) analysis of the Kendrys Morales trade
* This week’s Klawchat

I reviewed the outstanding new boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving the Spiel des Jahres nominee a grade of 9/10. It’s also back in stock at amazon for $35, after some insane pricing earlier in the week when the award was announced. My daughter loves this game and grasped the basic strategy very quickly.

And now, this week’s links – a few more than five, as I came across too many things worth passing along…

  • Nobody had a better take this week on the joke of a punishment wife-beater Ray Rice received from the NFL than Keith Olbermann did.
  • The little girl who may hold the secret to aging. She’s five years old with the body of an infant, but is her whole life just to be a test subject for scientists?
  • On the nascent baseball culture in Iran. I love the idea of sport as diplomacy, although I fear it makes for better headlines than understanding.
  • Nestlé is bottling huge quantities of water from the California desert. Not that anyone’s inclined to stop them.
  • John McPhee on writing, part of The New Yorker‘s now-free archives. Warning: There’s a fair amount of rambling here for a piece on writing.
  • How to spend the first ten minutes of your day, from Harvard Business Review. I use several of these tips, from a morning to-do list to tackling some more daunting tasks earlier in the day – but I also try to knock off a few quick items in the first hour, because there’s a quick psychological payoff from crossing off a few things on the list.
  • R.J. Anderson with a good piece on Big Data coming to baseball. His piece is ostensibly about defense, but the real message here is how critical data management, from building and maintaining a data warehouse to developing tools to access and query it quickly, has become to baseball operations – which supports David Murphy’s excellent column for philly.com on how the Phillies need to revamp their organization.
  • And finally, an audio clip from the BBC: This week’s World Have Your Say discusses balance and media bias in the coverage of the Israel/Gaza conflict, which is great until they invite three guests who claim the media are biased, all three of whom sound like tin-foil hat lunatics and/or teenagers who just read Howard Zinn for the first time and think they have the world figured out. The one guest who claimed there’s an anti-Israel bias was the worst, however, with frequent invocations of the guilt by association fallacy when discussing al-Jazeera.

Minneapolis eats, 2014 edition.

Today’s Klawchat came a day earlier than normal to accommodate my travel schedule. I’ve already filed my Soria trade reaction post.

I didn’t get to try nearly as many places as I wanted to hit in Minneapolis, since I had the family in tow and was a little limited by actual work. We also all overate so much at Tilia, in Linden Hills, for lunch on Monday that no one wanted an actual dinner that night.

Tilia’s menu changes often and features more small plates than entrees, so, with a group of four adults and four kids, we went mostly for the former. The first start was the braised pork belly, finished with a sweet glaze and I assume roasted at high temperature to brown the exterior; that’s just so not good for you but one of the greatest pleasures of the meet world thanks to the texture of pork belly fat. The roasted Brussels sprouts were the other star, featuring “ham” (not just ordinary country ham though – some sort of dry-cured variety instead) and walnuts as well as a very lightly applied sweet/tangy balsamic glaze. The grilled chicken thighs came with diced chorizo, pickled pineapple, & black bean-Oaxaca cheese fondue; I actually would have been happy with a plate just of the accompaniements, like a bowl of that chorizo served over a little rice, as the chicken was well-prepared but a bit light on the seasoning. The grilled shrimp plate came with fresh English peas, grilled scallions, and a “spicy” (highly flavored, but not hot) sauce, but the general sense around the table was that it was just okay.

The flat bread starter with olive oil and dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend that often includes seeds and nuts, here with slivered almonds) is a must, and the French fries with a mayo/ketchup style fry sauce were a big hit with the kids. I didn’t try the fish taco torta, but the friend who tried it raved, and it looked ridiculous with an enormous piece of fried fish (I think the server said mahi-mahi, although that’s not frequently deep-fried) on a telera-style roll. The only miss was the “chicken liver BLT,” mostly because the bread had an off taste to it, like it was made with too-sour buttermilk or sour cream, but also because there was no bacon involved, despite the name. The server, whom I might have mentioned looked quite a bit like Anna Friel (this is a good thing), ended up taking the charge off the bill even though I didn’t ask her to do so.

A reader of mine invited me last year to visit Saffron, where he worked in the kitchen at the time, so that was my first stop on this trip. Saffron offers eastern Mediterranean food, mostly straight-up, including some of the chef’s family recipes – like the slow-cooked green beans with tomatoes, good enough that we ordered a second dish of them to pair with the hummus and warm pitas (that was our server’s suggestion). I think the fried cauliflower was the best of the mezze (small plates) we ordered, with a thin crispy coating along with a moderately spicy harissa mixture and a thick sheep’s milk fondue for dipping. The grilled octopus a la plancha was my least favorite starter, but then again I’m not sure I’ve ever had an octopus dish I really loved because the meat is always tough, the result of cooking something with a very high protein content but little fat. The grilled kofta meatballs with a spicy tomato sauce were the hottest thing we ordered, so the kids didn’t enjoy them but the adults inhaled them; they’re denser than Italian meatballs (at least good ones), but the salt and spice were perfect with alcohol, such as the house negroni I ordered.

Two of the three larger plates we ordered were huge hits. The gnocchi were spectacular, pan-seared, soft and light inside, served with a panoply of herbs and spring/summer vegetables. The roast chicken was among the best I’ve ever had, perfectly crisped but incredibly moist and juicy on the inside, pulled from the oven at just the right moment. The chicken comes with a giant lavash wrapped around steaming-hot roasted vegetables, which were well-cooked but underseasoned. However, the chicken “bisteeya” was a little too odd for me – an aromatic saffron-stewed chicken & almond pie, wrapped in a phyllo pastry and dusted with cinnamon sugar. I don’t mind savory applications of cinnamon at all, but the overt presence of the sugar turned my palate to dessert mode, after which it’s not so receptive to meat. We didn’t have room for dessert, as with Tilia.

At Target Field, I only had time for a quick stop at the Butcher & Boar stand for the BBQ rib tips, which were delicious, with a sweet/smoky sauce and good tooth to the meat, as well as very, very messy. It wasn’t really a full meal – I love meat, but generally in concert with something not-meat at the same time, perhaps a plant of some sort – but I wouldn’t be able to walk past that stand again without stopping for another serving.

While we did one breakfast at Hell’s Kitchen, because I love their cornmeal waffles and our friends in town (and their kids) like the lemon ricotta pancakes, we had breakfast two other mornings at Blackbird, a very cute corner coffee shop with a lot of local ingredients across the menu. I ended up getting the same thing twice because it was so good – their norske scrambler, with house-smoked salmon and crème fraiche, alongside these almost-perfect hash browns (really crispy exterior, soft interior, just a little bit greasy) and toast made from Patisserie 46 breads. I tried the sweet potato biscuit, which, shockingly, tasted like a sweet potato in biscuit form – a good idea but too dense for me. They brew coffee from local small-batch roasters B&W, with bagged high-end teas from Tea Forte, both good options for your caffeine intake.

Finally, I managed to try an espresso from Dogwood Coffee Company, which appears to be the best artisan roaster in the Twin Cities, with a late-night run to Urban Bean Coffee at Lyndale and west 24th street. It’s small and simple, just expertly prepared coffees, and Dogwood’s Neon espresso beans (a blend of Colombian and Brazilian coffees) produce a shot with great body and sweet-tart berry notes.

Readers offered many, many suggestions of other places to try that I just didn’t have the time or opportunity to reach. Chris Crawford checked out the Bachelor Farmer and raved about it. Travail was closed that week. I didn’t make the Butcher & Boar, Brasa, 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Sparks, or Coup d’Etat. We stopped by George & the Dragon again (hi, Fred!) for beer and a few small plates in lieu of dinner a few hours after the Tilia extravaganza, and one of these trips I’ll have a proper meal there. I do appreciate all the recommendations you offered. Now I just need the Gophers to bust out a junior lefty throwing 95 next year.

Midnight Masses’ Departures.

I ranked the top five farm systems right now for ESPN, and broke down the Headley trade. I also reviewed the Spiel des Jahres-nominated boardgame Splendor for Paste, giving it a rating of 9/10.

I’ve never been more than a casual fan of … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead fan, although I love contorting their fantastic band name to mock arm-shredding coaches and managers. Their music defies categorization beyond “alternative” or “indie rock,” as they moved from noise-rock in the late 1990s to the less aggressive and more nuanced sound of 2002’s Source Tags & Codes, earning the band universal acclaim but not commercial success. It’s a solid album, but I concede I didn’t share the priapistic enthusiasm of so many music critics of the time.

In 2008, founding member Jason Reece formed a side project with Autry Fulbright II, who is now the bassist for Trail of Dead as well, called Midnight Masses, with Fulbright the project leader and a number of mostly NYC-based musicians rotating through the other spots in the lineup. Their debut album, Departures (amazoniTunes), came out on Tuesday of this week, and only bears a passing resemblance to Trail of Dead’s music, more in structure than in sound. Where Trail of Dead are guitar-heavy and deeply rooted in rock, Midnight Masses is spacey, ethereal, built on percussion and bass lines that lull you into a trance-like state when they work … and might put you to sleep when they don’t.

Departures opens strongly with two of the album’s best tracks – a trend I’ve noticed recently that I suspect has something to do with the rise of album streaming, so listeners get hooked right away and don’t have to go six songs deep to get to The Hit. “Golden Age” epitomizes Midnight Masses’ blend of throbbing drums and waves of keyboards, giving the impression of languor at the tempo of a typical rock song, before a confused drum loop kicks in around the three-minute mark behind heavily reverbed vocals to enhance the song’s mimicry of a chemical high. Lead single “Am I A Nomad” is the catchiest song on the album, with the rhythm of a traditional march but reverb and delay on the drum lines, destroying the sense of order that tempo might evoke, replacing it with an impression of disorder. Later in the album, the two-minute “Clap Your Hands” provides a needed respite from the melancholy of the album’s midsection, with a syncopated drum/guitar riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Motown record aside from the guitar’s repetition of dissonant chords, culminating in a brilliant descending staircase in the brief chorus – and it’s the perfect example of a songwriter getting in, having his say, and getting out just in time. “Be Still” also marries sparse instrumentation with intense percussion to build a spooky, psychedelic framework around Fulbright’s lyrics, a little reminiscent of Syd Barrett-era Floyd.

Midnight Masses came about after the death of Fulbright’s father, and much of the album takes on the tenebrous tenor of a funeral, including the barely-there “If I Knew” and the anti-ballad “All Goes Black,” songs that desperately needed any kind of sonic or textural contrast to break the cafard that overwhelms those tracks. The formula works better on the closer, “There Goes Our Man,” where the morose vocals take on a gospelly quality thanks to more uptempo drum lines and piano lines, alluding to earlier tracks while also suiting the more spiritual lyrics. A similar attempt to merge two contrasting lines falls short on “Broken Mirror,” largely because the production creates a seething mass of unfriendly sounds between the various keyboard lines and the insistent drums, none of which sufficiently lifts the tempo, only providing relief when the noise stops in the final minute and guest vocalist Haley Dekle (of Dirty Projectors) can actually be heard again. And the title track just completely lost me, between more underproduced vocals and music that made me think I was trapped in a bad planetarium show.

I’d prefer not to consider Departures as a collection of singles, which is how I approach every album I hear, but as a single if disjointed experiment in undefinable alternative music. I haven’t heard much that sounds like this, and Midnight Masses is certainly creative even if only some of the attempts are successful. It’s also an album that grew on me through repeated listens, perhaps because it’s so quiet in places that it was easy for me to zone out and miss some of its subtler points – but that’s not to say the album is soft, merely a different approach from that of Fulbright and Reece’s other band.

Saturday five, 7/19/14.

Busy week here between travel and a few major events. Here’s my ESPN content from the last seven days:

* My ranking of the top 50 prospects in the minor leagues.
* On the Astros failing to come to terms with Brady Aiken or Jacob Nix.
* My recap/analysis of the players in the Futures Game, part one and part two.
* This week’s Klawchat.

This week’s links…

And a bonus link: one of the chefs I follow on Twitter (probably Tom Colicchio but I’m not sure) posted a link to exo, a company that makes nutrition bars using cricket flour – yes, cleaned, dried, ground-up bugs. While my immediate reaction was to be very weirded-out, that’s probably not rational, no more so than people who eat common cuts of meat (as I do) but refuse to eat offal (much of which I do eat and enjoy). So, would you eat a protein bar made of finely milled crickets?

The Dagger & The Monuments’ The Amanuensis.

My Futures Game preview went up this morning, and I did a Klawchat on Thursday. I’ll be at the Futures Game, of course, and will head to the Butcher & Boar stand out by right field after BP, around 3 pm. Hope to see many of you there.

The Dagger’s self-titled debut album (due out July 22) is one of the strangest releases you’ll hear this year – the music itself isn’t odd at all, as the eleven tracks are all very straightforward blues-rock songs, the kind of tracks you’d expect to hear on a classic-rock station. What’s strange is that the trio of death metal musicians in the band have produced a record that, if you didn’t know it was new, you’d assume was written and recorded in the late 1970s. It’s not especially innovative and a little lacking in certain areas, but if The Dagger wanted to bring the New Wave of British Heavy Metal back to life, they’ve succeeded.

Three of The Dagger’s members were once part of the defunct death metal band Dismember, and here they’re joined by Swedish vocalist Jani Kataja, who sang in a pair of stoner-metal acts before joining the Dagger in 2010. (It’s not that strange a transition for Kataja; Bill Steer, co-founder of Carcass and former Napalm Death guitarist, had a blues-metal side project called Firebird before Carcass reunited a few years ago.) Their bio specifically refers to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Rainbow, and Deep Purple as influences, although I also hear a lot of lesser-known acts from that era like Saxon and Quartz, bands that leaned toward the less heavy, more melodic end of the range. You’ll hear that especially on The Dagger‘s best tracks, “1978” and “Inside the Monolithic Dome,” songs driven primarily by brief, pronounced guitar riffs and mid-tempo rhythm sections.

As a whole, however, the album feels far too familiar, as if these are actually songs we all heard in the late ’70s or early ’80s but haven’t heard much since because they were overshadowed by stronger tracks. There aren’t enough memorable hooks, and the lyrics vary from weak to embarrassing (“Nocturnal Triumph” is just cringe-inducing, which is too bad as the guitar lines behind the verses would make it a great driving song). The Dagger appear to be more influenced by bands that drew from blues-rock rather than acts like Maiden or Priest that used faster tempos and, in Maiden’s case, more technical skills that came down from classical roots.

The Monuments’ sophomore album, The Amanuensis (for the people who like country music, amanuensis means “the secretary”), melds progressive metal with heavier “groove” elements – I hate the term, but it does fit here – like a blend of early Fates Warning and peak Pantera, with both clean and screamed vocals along with fugal guitar lines. There isn’t enough variety across the entire album, with many of the guitar melodies sounding too similar in structure, but it’s a highly precise, almost severe album, with appropriately serious lyrics. They also get bonus points for naming a song “Horcrux.”

That song and “Origin of Escape” are among the highlights of Amanuensis for the variation within each song – changing tempos, lyrical styles, but still relying on the same staccato-picked guitar riffs that populate the entire disc, so the second half of the album starts to sound too much like background noise. “Atlas” begins with the clich&ecaute;d death-metal growl but morphs into a jazz-metal track, a little less experimental than Cynic or Atheist might have produced but in a similar vein, with a seamless transition into the very similar “Horcrux,” which makes better use of undistorted passages to break up the monotony of the austere up-and-down lead guitar lines, concluding with the counterpoint pairing that makes the song the strongest on the entire disc. (It doesn’t hurt that the song also includes the highest ratio of clean to growled lyrics of the eleven tracks here.) But by the time we get to track five, “Garden of Sankhara,” the lead guitar riff style, both in meter and technique, has become too familiar already. Using the same motif across an entire album can be clever, providing a measure of artistic unity to a set of disparate songs, but the Monuments take it too far.

The Monuments rose from the ashes of English experimental-metal act Fellsilent, who had a cult following among fans of extreme metal but lacked enough of a melodic component to find a broader audience or to appeal to me. The Amanuensis is a significant step in that direction, even further towards the commercial end of the extreme-metal spectrum than their debut album, Gnosis, although it’s best consumed in small chunks, with a focus on the first four tracks of the disc – which on their own would have made an outstanding EP release. It’s not up to the standard set by Insomnium earlier this year but worth the $6 amazon is asking for the album right now.