New York City eats, 2014 edition.

The highlight meal of the trip, and the one big splurge, was a recommendation by Sother Teague at Amor y Amargo, whose establishment I’ll discuss in a moment. Sother directed me to the tasting menu at Hearth, which is only* $86 for a seven-course meal that showed incredible skill and breadth within the farm-to-table genre.

* I say “only” because this kind of meal can easily cost you north of $100, and I think the only thing Hearth’s tasting menu lacked was flash.

The meal started with an amuse-bouche, a chilled carrot soup with blackberry-balsamic drizzle on top, served in a tall narrow glass to allow you to drink the soup in one or two shots. The first proper course was also a chilled soup, this one a zucchini soup with pistachios, sun gold tomato, basil, and chunks of Parmiggiano-Reggiano. The zucchini was pureed and slightly aerated; I assume there was cream added given the soup’s tremendous body, but that much fat would have muted the flavor, and in this case there was no dampening of the taste of the squash itself at all. The nuts and small chunks of cheese are sprinkled throughout the soup, emphasizing the textural contrast – and I can’t say I ever realized what a great combination pistachios and zucchini would make until I had this soup. I was hoping I could get a gallon of this to go as a parting gift, but no such luck.

Second course was my favorite of all seven savory courses: a warm summer vegetable salad with a red wine vinegar/shallot dressing that reminded me in flavor of a buerre blanc, but in fact was made by simmering potatoes and then using some of them to thicken the dressing and coat the remaining vegetables, which included green beans, more zucchini, and cauliflower. People who think they don’t like vegetables should go eat this dish. I’ve never had a vegetable dish with this much flavor that didn’t involve cooking the vegetables to the point where they brown.

The next three courses involved proteins, and each was very good to great. The swordfish dish with eggplant, tomatoes, shelling beans, and black bean puree had two issues for me, although the fish itself was perfectly cooked – by far the most important part. I personally like swordfish served very simply: grilled, topped with sea salt, fresh black pepper, a little olive oil, and citrus juice. The way steak lovers want a fine steak is how I want my swordfish – don’t get in the way of the star ingredient. The other issue was that the eggplant was very soft, too much so, and I ended up setting it aside. The restaurant was dark enough that when the dish arrived, one strip of eggplant with a little of the skin and cap still on the end … well, I’ll just say it didn’t look very appetizing, because this isn’t Top Chef.

The lamb dish involved two different cuts, including a small piece of lamb rib meat that had been rubbed with Middle Eastern spices, smoked off the bone, and seared on both sides, giving it the look and texture of Texas BBQ but with the flavor profile of Turkish or Arabic cuisine. The remaining lamb pieces were slices of loin, served very rare, with roasted carrots and a smear of labneh (Lebanese strained yogurt) underneath. I wouldn’t have ordered this because lamb is my least favorite protein, but as it turned out the dish was fantastic and my only complaint is that I wanted more of the smoked rib (even if it meant less of the loin meat). The carrots were coated in some amaranth kernels, giving the dish a little more crunch – kind of like quinoa but without the bitterness.

Their “iconic” (that was my server’s word for it) meatball dish was very good, but I’m a tough critic on meatballs and I think I’ve had better, including Coppa in Boston … and in my own kitchen. The meatball comprises veal and ricotta, served in a traditional southern Italian tomato sauce (don’t call it “gravy,” please) with cannelloni filled with “market greens.” I prefer meatballs that have been browned more, to max out that Maillard reaction, and like a mixture of meats that isn’t so veal-heavy because veal is so lean that the proteins in it can tighten up when cooked through, as a meatball has to be, and there’s always a slightly dry mouthfeel because of that lack of fat.

The first dessert course was more like a palate cleanser, a watermelon granita with a tiny quenelle of creme fraiche and some toasted pine nuts. It looks like pink rock salt, so the fact that it’s subtle and sweet and cold is a big surprise – and, as with the pistachios and zucchinis, the pine nuts and watermelon worked shockingly well together.

The second dessert was the memorable one, as in I’ll remember eating this for the next twenty years. It was a chocolate-peanut butter sundae, without ice cream: Chocolate sorbet on soft whipped cream on a peanut-butter sauce, surrounded by a crumbled peanut butter cookie. Sure, you could make the whipped cream and cookie at home, and the sauce is probably doable (it was smooth like caramel), but that sorbet – I don’t know how you get something that dark and cocoa-intense without dairy or eggs. Grom in the west Village does a chocolate sorbet with egg yolks, but I think Hearth’s is just sorbet, based on what two staff members told me. Speaking of which, everyone I spoke to there was wonderful – I ended up chatting with a few of them up front before leaving and they’ve clearly done a good job assembling a team full of good people.

I visited two cocktail bars while in the city, one of which was the aforementioned Amor y Amargo, Sother Teague’s 240 square foot place in the East Village where he stocks no juices or other mixers. It’s all spirits and bitters – liquors, liqueurs, potable bitters (like Campari or Aperol), and the little flavoring agents you probably think of when you hear “bitters” (like Angostura or Peychaud’s). Sother’s good people, so if you go and you see him behind the bar, mention I sent you. I tried two of his drinks, one his own suggestion – a mixture of three varieties of whiskeys, finished with a habanero bitters, so the result was like standing over a grill on which you’re smoking a pork shoulder over hickory. It’s a really cool space too, and most of the bitters are out on display – I’d never heard of more than half of the brands, and Sother told me he’s got a dozen or so bottles of stuff that’s no longer made or otherwise very difficult to procure. If you’re also a fan of Amor y Amargo, you can vote for Sother in Edible Manhattan’s Cocktail Contest, which runs through August 31st. The winner gets a $5000 prize.

After recommending Hearth, Sother also recommended Pouring Ribbons, a hidden bar on Avenue B just off 14th, in Alphabet City, so well disguised it might as well be a speakeasy. (The password is to be very nice to the guy at the door.) I got one drink, because when I’d finished that I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose, generally a sign that the libation has done its job. The Trouble in Paradise cocktail starts with Appleton V/X rum, probably my favorite rum for mixing, and adds a charred pineapple-infused rum, sweet vermouth, and campari – a small upgrade on a Kingston Negroni. For a drink that was all alcohol, it was surprisingly subtle, even understated – the booze doesn’t overpower the rest of the drink. It’s rich, well-rounded, a little smoky, a little sweet (I find rum in general is a little sweet, as if it has memories of whence it came), better than any true Negroni I’ve ever had – and I do like true Negronis, which are made with gin rather than rum.

While in the neighborhood one of those nights, I stopped into the renowned Big Gay Ice Cream shop to see what the fuss was about … and I was underwhelmed. It’s decent soft serve ice cream, served with lots of crappy toppings. You can’t make premium ice cream and then coat it in stale grocery-store marshmallows – but that’s just what I ended up with when I ordered the Rocky Roadhouse cone. You can build your own cone or sundae, but the use of subpar ingredients is a big negative for me.

Whenever I’m at Citi Field and can sneak away long enough for lunch, I take the 7 train one more stop to its end in Flushing’s Chinatown, which seems to get bigger and busier every time I go there. I usually go for a dish of steamed dumplings (xiao long baozi), which is a popular item in that neighborhood and the kind of thing that can serve as a meal in itself. The serious eats blog had a few posts extolling the virtues of a small basement food stall called Tianjin Dumpling House in the Golden Mall, located down Main Street towards 41st Ave, which serves an absolute bargain of a dozen dumplings for $3-6 total. The pork, shrimp, and chive version didn’t seem to have much shrimp, but the pork and chives were well seasoned and juicy without any grease. The dough wrappers were just thick enough to retain a little tooth and didn’t tear or leak, but not so much so that they came out gummy or undercooked.

Their dumplings were much better than those at the very popular table-service restaurant Nan Xiang Dumpling House on Prince Street, which took much longer to get (even for take-out). Theirs are soup dumplings, so inside the wrapper is a tablespoon or so of broth that bursts (or slops) out when you bite into it – on to your shirt if you’re not careful. The tradeoff is you get less filling, and since their servings are only a half-dozen to an order, I added an order of vegetable dumplings, which were filled mostly with spinach. Unfortunately, I found a hair in the container of the latter – not actually in the dumplings, but still a hit to the confidence even though the place has an A rating from the board of health.

I almost never go into NYC without hitting up at least one pizzeria, and tried two from that old Food and Wine list of the country’s best pizzerias … neither of which was all that special. Don Antonio by Starita, which is partly owned by the co-owner of my favorite pizzeria in the city, Keste, is VPN certified for authenticity, but I thought the crust was too thick in the center for that. The dough was otherwise the strength of the pizza, though, with good texture and just a little charring around the outside. I went with one of their signature combinations, a pistachio pesto and sausage pizza with mozzarella but no tomatoes or sauce; the pesto itself was kind of heavy and gave the pizza a nut butter-like flavor that just didn’t seem to belong on a pizza. I’d like to try this place again with a more traditional set of toppings to see if the dough holds up better under a lighter load.

Nicoletta, also in the east village area, was a big disappointment – their pizza is a hybrid of New York-style and Italian-style but doesn’t grab the best traits of either of them. The crust was crispier and held its shape when pulled off the plate, with very little lift at the edges. The tomato sauce tasted overcooked and acidic, and there was grease on the top like you’d expect at a mediocre pizza shop. I can’t imagine why it was on Food and Wine‘s list.

Anxious child.

This is a continuation of a piece I wrote for Stigma Fighters in July about my struggle with anxiety. The response to that column was so positive that I wrote some more about what my life as someone with anxiety has been like. Thank you all for your kind words and support.

I was a nervous kid. That gets chalked up to all kinds of things – someone being shy, nerdy, socially awkward – but in my case, it was brain chemistry, exacerbated by the fact that I was a year younger than all of my classmates, a year less mature both physically and emotionally. That in turn meant that I didn’t have size or athletic ability on which to fall back – I wasn’t blessed with any kind of athletic skills anyway, although I didn’t learn the reason for that until my daughter was born with an inborn error of metabolism – and I was always a step behind everyone in my understanding of behavior and social norms. All of that, and it’s a lot, would have added up to a rough ride on the social side of the equation, made even worse by the added scrutiny that came with being a good student whom everyone knew as the kid who skipped first grade.

But no one ever seemed to grasp that my nervousness was more than just nerves, although maybe at the time, the late 1970s and eary 1980s, that wasn’t even something people would look for. They weren’t going to give a kid Valium, although Lord knows it might have helped. So instead, I was just unhappy a lot. I had friends, and I did have fun at school sometimes, but I was always much happier outside of the school calendar. My daughter can’t wait for school to start again; I dreaded the arrival of September the way I now dread the arrival of winter. School meant being put in situations over which I had little or no control, and I had absolutely no coping skills to handle that at the time.

I have memories of social anxiety going all the way back to preschool, and they become more frequent and more acute as early as second grade. Jumping into any grade from outside the school would have been easier, but moving from kindergarten, where I had made many friends (some of whom I’m still in touch with, one of many blessings of social media and the way the passing of time smooths over a lot of rough edges), straight to second grade, where I was immediately labelled as the kid who skipped a grade, was difficult. I didn’t feel academic pressure; I probably could have kept going, and there was a later discussion about skipping me another grade that my parents wisely shot down. Had that happened, I would have graduated high school a few weeks after my 16th birthday, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I was not emotionally strong enough to survive what that would have entailed. Doogie Howser might have made for a cute plot point on television, but that would be a shitshow in real life.

Acquiring those labels, and the associated attention from teachers who knew that I’d been singled out for different treatment by the school’s administration, didn’t invoke rough or mean treatment from other kids; I don’t think I got it any worse than anyone else did, at least. But being different, and knowing that everyone else knows you are different, carries its own kind of pressure, one that I placed on myself. I wore every awkward or unpleasant social interaction as an open wound. I became increasingly hesitant to try anything new or different socially, something that lasted more or less until my junior year of high school. If I didn’t do anything different, I could stay out of the center of attention, and that was more or less my goal, because I was always convinced that everyone’s eyes were on me.

I say “more or less” because I didn’t view all types of attention as equally painful. Doing well in class was fine; it was almost expected of me, and I know I expected it of myself. I hated not knowing the answer, but because I was always a self-starter when it came to learning, reading anything I could get my hands on in my spare time, it wasn’t a frequent problem for me. (That said, I do remember my sixth-grade math teacher, a lecherous man whom I’ll call Mr. J, enjoying a laugh at my expense by because I gave the answer “subtraction” when he wanted “difference.” That was 31 years ago, and I remember it well enough to tell you where I was sitting in the room when it happened, and turning to the left to see Phil, a neighbor and sometime friend, mocking me for it. I should really have been able to let go of that memory by now, but it is mine for life.)

Instead, my anxiety – not that I understood it as such at the time – emerged outside of the classroom. I watch my daughter now, and I see so clearly how she has what I lacked, and how much better off she’ll be in life for it. She can walk into any situation and introduce herself, make a friend, and take off to play. She’s fearless like that, despite being the child of two parents who’ve fought anxiety, and when I see her do it, I’m beyond proud – I admire her for it. Even today, it is a real effort for me to go into any group of people I don’t know and do anything more than stand at the edge and listen. I can’t even tell you what I’m afraid of anymore; the behavior is so ingrained at this point that it’s no longer about fear or anxiety over some specific outcome. I am anxious, full stop.

Third grade, age 8, turned out to be the tipping point for me, although in this case I don’t remember any specific incident or even series of incidents that pushed me over the edge. For whatever reason, and there may not have been one, my anxiety began to wreak havoc on my stomach, to the point where I had to go home for lunch most days because I was getting sick for no apparent reason. I’m still not sure why it happened, but the fact that the symptoms that appeared 33 years ago went away almost immediately when I started taking an SSRI (escitalopram) in 2012 tells me that it had to be mental or emotional in origin. I have other GI issues – when a gastroenterologist tested me in 2011 for lactose intolerance, my test results were so bad he started laughing – but no treatment or medicine worked until I started taking medication for my anxiety. And suddenly my stomach became somewhat predictable again. Part of me wants to rage at every doctor I saw about my stomach troubles over the last twenty years for failing to even consider the possibility that the cause was psychological, but most of them just fall under the axiom that a man with a hammer sees everything as a nail.

I think back on that year as the place where my life forked. Had that happened today, it’s at least possible that my symptoms would have been recognized as anxiety, or at least as a mental illness rather than a physical one, and I might have received treatment – medication, therapy, both – that would have stopped it in its tracks. Instead, it developed into the condition that dictated my life, creating a vicious circle that made me into someone whose answer to anything was always “no.” I didn’t want to go to strange places, because I might be put in uncomfortable social situations – and might get sick. I didn’t want to go to a new restuarant because I might get sick – and I found that, even just having to spend more time in the bathroom, deeply embarrassing.

As hard as dealing with the emotional and physical aspects of anxiety was, I think I was most hurt by seeing the gulf between myself and close friends when it came to just being comfortable with who I was. I could watch friends be at ease in social situations – with guys, with girls, whatever – and understand exactly what they did that I didn’t, but I couldn’t emulate them. You can’t fake feeling safe in your own skin.

It did get better, eventually, although it took a lot of effort on my own part and a good bit of luck as well. I knew to some extent that I was high-strung, at least enough that it was creating a barrier between myself and many of my friends and even classmates. For reasons I’m not even sure I understand now, I decided that the way to get around that was … to be funny. Whether I succeeded in that endeavor is both another question and a story for another day, but it was nothing more than a band-aid on the suppurating wound of anxiety that ruled most of my life. It did, however, lead me to a group of friends that made my last year of high school by far the best year I had in school at any level, and I’m still close to many of those friends even today.

But the fundamental problems – the anxiety, and the way it discouraged me from being social the way most people my age were – persisted into my 30s, with some facets lingering until I finally got treatment two years ago. Habits I learned as a child – avoiding situations that might make me uncomfortable – came to dominate my life. I still don’t like to ponder the cost.

A Beautiful Blue Death.

Yesterday’s Klawchat transcript is up. I’ll be at Citi Field Saturday and part of Sunday for this year’s Metropolitan Classic tournament.

I received Charles Finch’s debut novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, as a gift for my birthday from someone who knows of my affinity for both detective novels and British literature, making it a potentially perfect fit, with reviews and pull quotes comparing its main character to Sherlock Holmes. With that leadup, you know I’m going to tell you that I hated this book for its dull-as-an-old-butterknife protagonist, formulaic plot, and obvious resolution. It’s a sappy trifle that I was sad to see has spurred six sequels in a matter of as many years.

The detective at the heart of the novel is the Victorian gentleman Charles Lenox, a man of leisure and broad knowledge and apparently some renown in London of the 1860s for solving difficult crimes, something we learn by frequent mention of these amazing feats of deduction – all seemingly non sequiturs that make no sense to the reader because they refer to events that never happened. More problematic is that Lenox is a damn bore. He’s too perfect – kind to everyone, thoughtful, sending anonymous gifts and donations to side characters who might otherwise make the reader sad – and has a strictly platonic relationship with the widow next door, Lady Jane. Lenox’s biggest flaw seems to be a habit of disappointing his travel agent, with whom he plans long international journeys only to cancel them, but he even sends the gentleman a £50 deposit just to make everything okay.

The story itself is fairly mundane, a slight twist on the formula that’s as old as Miss Marple – a murder in a closed house, with a limited number of suspects, one of whom will inevitably be killed in the middle of the book around the time that he becomes the primary suspect himself. The first murder is that of Prudence Smith, former lady’s maid to Lady Jane, later a maid in the house of George Barnard at the time of her death. Barnard had two nephews and three business or political acquaintances staying with him at the time, all of whom become suspects as well as one or two of the servants. Lenox dispatches his Jeeves-like butler on various fact-finding missions, gets assaulted by a pair of thugs who leave a cryptic message, then stumbles through a series of incorrect theories before arriving at the right one – little of which bears any resemblance to Holmes or any other “gentleman detective” of that era.

Dorothy Sayers created the archetypal gentleman detective with Lord Peter Wimsey, setting her character in interbellum London, but infusing his character with more complexity and even a few flaws, something Lenox lacks. Wimsey was wealthy with a patrician upbringing, but speaks in a lower-class vernacular. He suffers from shell shock (PTSD) after service in World War I, which redefines his relationship with his manservant, Bunter. Yet Sayers received criticism for making Wimsey too perfect, given his breadth of knowledge and talents, which grow over the course of the series. (Full disclosure: I read the first book, Whose Body?, didn’t love the ending, and haven’t picked up the second title.) Yet Wimsey is a train wreck compared to the pristine Lenox, whose character has no flaws and no exceptional strengths, making him the worst thing a fictional detective can be: Boring. Hell, even Holmes had his cocaine. Perhaps Lenox should give laudanum a try.

Next up: I’m slogging through Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, only to learn yesterday that there’s a newer, better translation than the one I’ve got. I’m halfway done so there’s no point stopping now.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation veers from the subject matter of his previous books* toward an examination of how and why we cook food – the application of heat and/or microbes to raw ingredients to transform them into dishes that are more nutritious, more portable, easier to digest, and more flavorful. He runs through four major methods of preparation – smoking, braising, fermenting with yeast (for bread, mostly), and fermenting with bacteria (for pickling) – dealing with their histories, cultural significance, biological relevance, and a little with environmental impact as well. It’s a highly educational book, especially at the macro level, although a little speculative in places, and Pollan’s prose is often pretentious and admonishing.

* Full disclosure: I’ve never read his two biggest bestsllers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, which dealt with the ethics of responsible eating and questions of how to feed the growing global population. I think I’m pretty aware of these issues, but his tone (in excerpts I’ve read) has turned me off.

Pollan’s premise is simple and important: We cook less than we ever have, even though food content in the media is more popular than ever. He argues, mostly successfully, that this change hurts us physically, psychologically, and culturally. Our lack of connection to our food – where it comes from and how it’s prepared – leads to our ignorance about the true costs of, say, debeaking chickens or feeding cows and pigs unnatural diets or growing crops with fertilizers made from petroleum. It’s also a function of larger societal trends that Pollan can’t cover, like the rise in two-income households, but he can at least delve into how and why we cook, and I think his criticism of the time we spend watching food-related television as time better spent preparing food for ourselves is a reasonable one.

Pollan makes a tenuous connection between the four cooking/fermenting methods he covers and the four elements of antiquity: fire, water, air, and earth. That gives the book an outline, but the link is irrelevant to the actual material, which fares much better when Pollan gets into the individual stories he’s exploring, such as Ed Mitchell and Samuel Jones on Carolina BBQ, or Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Pollan dissects each method, goes into its history, and discusses why these methods matter, such as the way applying heat or microbes to various foods makes their nutrients more available, or how Western fear of bacteria has led to a rise in allergies (behind which there’s a lot of science) and in gluten insensitivity and lower nutrient absorption (which he presents with less evidence). Breads made with the sourdough method and longer autolyses may be more nutritious even than “whole-grain” breads made with single, commercial yeast strains and shorter processes. Smoking meat for hours over low temperatures produces complex chemical reactions in surface proteins and sugars, while also allowing interior fat and connective tissue to break down, keeping the meat from drying out even as it reaches temperatures approaching 200° F. Braising, the process of cooking something very slowly with liquid at a low temperature, breaks down long protein chains in meat that produce glutamates, which are the chemicals that provide us with the taste we now refer to as “umami.”

Within each section, Pollan provides useful tips on each cooking technique, gleaned from his own experience shadowing at least one expert in the field – including a wonderful passage on the famous “cheese nun” of Connecticut, Sister Noëlla, where she explains why “clean” isn’t cleaner, and tells of putting the lie to a state inspector’s criticisms of her use of wooden materials to make cheese. You can always cook better if you understand why things are happening in the bowl, the pot, or the pan, and Pollan delves into each of these questions in a way that fans of Alton Brown or Michael Ruhlman will appreciate. Why do you sweat a soffritto or brown meat? Why do you want the slow fermentation of sourdough breads? What are those lactobacilli doing to the cabbage in kimchi or sauerkraut – and what do you do when the bacteria aren’t cooperating? Between the advice he offered and the growing body of information supporting a diet higher in fermented foods, I’m more emboldened than ever to spend the offseason pickling the fruits of our garden and making a new sourdough starter.

Pollan’s content is solid, if occasionally undersourced, but his prose is not for everyone. Witness this description of a drive into rural North Carolina:

The coastal plain of North Carolina is one of the sacrifice zones that Big Hog has consecrated to industrial pork production, a business that shrinks the number of farms in a region even as it massively expands the population of pigs. Long before I registered the pheromones of barbecue, occasional passages of less winning animal odors assailed my nostrils as I navigated the gray roads leading into Ayden.

Tone and style are highly subjective things, but I find this passage overwrought and bombastic without telling me much of value. Factory farms stink. Film at 11. Spare me the “pheromones” stuff unless you really want to do dirty things to hogs, and in that case, please leave me (and the hogs) alone.

The whole book includes language like this – Pollan can’t help but reach for the $2 word when a ten-cent one will do, and in the barbecue section in particular it often seems like he’s patronizing his subjects. References to Greek mythology abound as well. An exhortation to the American public to cook more can’t come across as a castigation, and it can’t be in language that readers won’t follow. There’s plenty of good information in here, with material to help change the way you approach food and cooking, if you don’t mind wading through Pollan’s prolix prose to get to it.

Chicago eats, 2014 edition.

I’ve got a few recent pieces up at, including an early postseason awards preview, a report on a few Binghamton Mets prospects, and a recap of the Under Armour All-American Classic. My last Baseball Tonight podcast as guest host included some great guests, including Bizarre Foods star Andrew Zimmern.

My trip to Chicago for the Under Armour game was, as always, too brief – I was on the ground only about 24 hours, spending seven of them at the ballpark and another eight or so asleep in the hotel (I was so tired I passed out at 11:30, in my clothes, on top of the covers, while trying to read The Magic Mountain). I did get to one new restaurant for lunch, plus revisited an old favorite after the game for a quick dinner.

A friend whose identity shall remain hidden introduced me to a new fried chicken joint in the Avondale neighborhood just west of Wrigley Field called Honey Butter, so named because you get a little cup of soft honey butter that I’m told you’re supposed to smear on the outside of the fried chicken before eating it, and really, who am I to argue with custom? Honey Butter serves boneless breasts and thighs as well as drumsticks (not boneless – that would be difficult), plus a variety of fantastic sides, with a huge emphasis on local, responsible sourcing, including antibiotic-free chicken from a farm in Indiana. (If you want to make one difference in the world based on how you eat, just one simple switch, demand antibiotic-free meat wherever you go.)

The chicken itself was spicy and crispy but still completely moist on the inside; Honey Butter fries at a lower temperature, 315 degrees, to crisp the skin by rendering out more of the fat than a higher temp would, which also helps avoid drying out the exterior part of the meat. As good as the chicken was, however, it was the sides that would send me back to the restaurant: schmaltz mashed potatoes, creamed corn with Thai green curry, roasted garlic grits with scallions and “chicken crust crunchies,” roasted sweet potato salad with cilantro-lime dressing, and kale/cabbage slaw with yogurt-cumin dressing and dried pomegranate arils. The creamed corn was my favorite by far – I would never have thought to mix corn with coconut milk and basil, but the combination was bright and avoided the heaviness I associate with creamed corn. I believe my friend would have voted for the mashed potatoes, another excellent choice, one of which I believe Michael Ruhlman – who wrote an iPad ebook about the fat, one later published as a hardcover – would approve. I’d probably skip the kale salad, especially if they have the collard greens, which weren’t available the day I went.

Honey Butter also serves little half-dollar-sized corn muffins with their meals, a little sweet with an excellent crust all around the exterior, and they offer beer, wine, and cocktails as well. They are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan your visit accordingly.

When I appeared on First Take the day after the trade deadline, Skip Bayless came to greet me off set beforehand, and the first question he asked me was, “Have you been to my brother’s restaurant?” (I know Skip doesn’t have a great reputation online, but I’ve enjoyed working with him, and I find him to be both friendly and thoughtful when we talk off air.) That was all the prompting I needed, because while I had been to Frontera Grill before, it had been way too long – over five years, in fact, too long to go without visiting one of the most important Mexican restaurants in the country, especially when it was within walking distance of my hotel.

Rick Bayless was a pioneer of authentic, regional Mexican cuisine in the U.S., and remains dedicated to that cause, even bringing his vision to a tortas stand at O’Hare Airport, a setting where you would never expect to find anything of that quality or focus. Frontera, his flagship, offers a number of Mexican dishes you’d more or less recognize, but prepares them with top-notch ingredients and surrounds them with smaller dishes, like street food, that are probably less familiar to American diners. Since it was late and I’d already had a large amount of meat at lunch, I decided to sample a few of those smaller dishes around a serving of ceviche, which was more than a meal’s worth of protein in itself. Their “tropical tuna cocktail,” served in a martini glass, comprises sashimi-grade Hawaiian bigeye tuna, mixed with a mango salsa and served over a tangy, creamy tomatillo guacamole, with fresh tortilla chips on the side to take the place of utensils. The fish was pristine – I expect no less at this kind of restaurant – but the guacamole was the part I remember most, with enough acidity to balance out the fat of the avocadoes.

For side dishes, I went with the raw jícama salad I posted on Instagram and my Facebook fan page, as well as the callejero-style grilled corn with serrano mayo and cotija. The jícama, tossed with with a chili-lime dressing and served with a little bit of sliced cucumber as well, was shockingly bright and juicy, more than any other jícama I can remember having. It’s served with extra lime wedges, which I thought it needed to bump up the acidity, since jícama itself is more texture than taste. The corn was absolutely ridiculous, sweet and salty and a little spicy with a little acidity from the cheese, decadent with the fat from the cheese and the serrano mayonnaise – the best thing I ate during the visit, even though it’s a dish I’ve had a dozen times at other restaurants.

I sampled the dessert my server suggested, an almond brown-butter cake with almond-cream cheese frosting, a quenelle of toasted almond ice cream, and some almond crumble scatted over the plate. I’d take a cone of that ice cream to go, and the cake itself was moist and had that nutty flavor of the browned milk solids from the butter (in addition to the flavor of the almonds). I could have done without the frosting, but I’m not a huge fan of cream cheese in any form; the tangy, slightly off flavor I always detect in cream cheese dominated even with all of the sugar and almond flavoring added to the frosting.

I also made a pair of visits to Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Millennium Park location, because their coffees are some of the best I’ve ever sampled. They offer a standard espresso made from their Black Cat blend, but also (for an extra dollar) offer a single-origin espresso that changes daily, which I prefer because I get to sample beans from more regions that way. Just be prepared for a little wait, as it was pretty busy both mornings I was there – a good sign given the proliferation of lesser coffee places that don’t offer this kind of quality or this level of income for the farmers.

The Heart of Midlothian and other recent reads.

I hosted the Baseball Tonight podcast today, and will do so three more times in the next week – Thursday, Friday, and Monday the 18th.

Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian was the last of his Waverly novels, a series of books set in the Scottish highlands that drew on local culture and tradition (distinct from that of England), including use of the local dialect, an aspect of his books that does nothing so much as make them harder to read. Scott also liked to mine true historical events to form the backdrops for his novels, and here chose the Porteus Riot, a major event in Scottish nationalism where a vicious English military commander who was pardoned after receiving a death sentence for firing on protesters was himself kidnapped and lynched by another protest mob. That story opens the novel – of course, it’s the most satisfying passage in the entire book – so that Scott can lay the historical groundwork while also borrowing one of the perpetrators of the lynching, George Staunton, for a central character in his story.

Jeanie and Effie Deans are half-sisters, living as tenant smallholders on a larger estate with their twice-widowed father David. Jeanie is relentlessly good: honest, pious, meek, in love with her neighbor the local minister but afraid to marry him due to her father’s disapproval. Effie is the wild child, and ends up disappearing from home briefly, only to return and be arrested on suspicion of infanticide under a new, cruel English law that allowed for the conviction of a mother even if no proof of the murder (like a body) could be established. Jeanie is given the chance to exonerate her sister with a tiny lie at trial, but refuses to do so after swearing before God to tell the truth, a step that sends her daughter to death row and forces her to make the long journey to London, some of it on foot, to seek the Queen’s pardon.

Scott worked in the era of the gothic novel and the romance, before the rise of realism in the 1800s, so all of his works are blatantly melodramatic. Every character is just so good or just so bad; every conversation, especially those between fathers and daughters or sons, is wrought with emotion. It’s too easy for the modern reader to tune this out because of the unrealistic nature of the dialogue, and Scott’s overreliance on heavy, coincidental plot twists probably doubled the length of the book. It also reads much slower than a typical novel of that era, as he uses muckle Scottish words the modern reader won’t likely ken.

This leaves me with two books remaining on the Bloomsbury 100 – Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I’ll tackle later this month, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which seems like a fitting way to (try to) finish the list.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, which is probably why I picked it up at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe back in March; for the life of me I can’t find a better reason for me to have done so, as the book was absolutely dismal and relied on some now-hackneyed plot twists to get to where we always knew it was going.

The gathering of the book’s title refers to the many siblings of the narrator, Veronica, coming together for the funeral of their brother Liam, a cheerful, promiscuous, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who took his own life by drowning himself off the shore of Brighton. Veronica unpeels the layers of her family’s history, with unsparing candor and graphic language, to determine the cause of Liam’s depression and decision to take his own life, but also to examine her dissatisfaction with her own. She goes back to her grandparents, over her family’s comically fertile history, and eventually to the incident she witnessed as a child – the sexual abuse of Liam by a close family friend – that she blames for his lack of anchoring, his sexual rapacity and carelessness, and the inner void with which he apparently lived his entire life.

The book is absolutely dreadful. Veronica’s grief doesn’t play out as emotion beyond self-pity; she looks back at her family history and forward at her own life with incredible dispassion. Not only is she unsympathetic – she seems unreal. If she’s as broken as Liam, she never explains why. Her only moments of grief that ring true are those where she thinks Liam is there, or expects him to be so; coming to terms with the permanent loss of a family member or friend who’s “always been there” means facing the grief anew every time you think that Liam is going to call or might be standing in the room, only to have you realize he’s gone.

As for the Man Booker Prize … well, I’ve read a handful of them, and there’s a clear affinity for this type of novel, which is why I have never decided to work through that list of books as I have with several others.

Caroline Blackwood’s novella Great Granny Webster is creepy, weird, and compelling for its depiction of one of the strangest villains I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. The great-grandmother of the title is a woman decidedly stuck in the past, refusing any sort of adjustment to modern life or conveniences, waiting out her own demise in a decaying manse, neither spending nor sharing her immense fortune, mostly cut off from her relatives – not least her daughter, in an insane asylum due to what would today be recognized as schizophrenia. Based on episodes from Blackwood’s own childhood, Great Granny Webster has no overtly sinister elements; there’s no murder or intrigue, no suspense, no hammer to eventually drop. The macabre feel comes from the shocking behavior of the main character, who appears not as evil but as the complete absence of empathy, and the environment in which she lives, which is so austere as to make an ascetic hermit worry his life is too opulent. At just 100 pages it’s a quick read, not comparable to anything I’ve read before, although it might not even be as fascinating as Blackwood’s own life, which included a marriage to the American poet Robert Lowell.

My wife bought Christine Trent’s Stolen Remains for me as a birthday gift, knowing my penchant for mysteries with an English twist. The second in a series revolving around a British female undertaker in the 19th century who solves murders thanks to an impossible series of coincidences that put her in position to do so, in this case because Queen Victoria liked her work when burying the Prince Consort and now wants her to handle the burial of a Viscount who died mysteriously after returning from an official trip to Egypt with good ol’ Prince Bertie.

Forcing the lead character here to be female, a historically unlikely situation to be kind, requires a suspension of disbelief that I had a hard time mustering – and that suspension was further challenged by some incredibly silly behavior, too-modern dialogue, and those numerous coincidences that kept the plot going. Trent also goes too far in the direction of historical fiction by weaving in more real people than the novel can support, and she makes what I’d consider a rookie mistake with an obvious variation on Chekhov’s gun: Any time a mystery novelist tells you early in a book that someone disappeared and is presumed dead, you know the character will appear at some point and be involved in some significant fashion in the murder or its denouement.

Next up: I just finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked, which merits its own full review, and am about to start Charles Finch’s mystery novel A Beautiful Blue Death, both also birthday gifts from my wife (as was Great Granny Webster … I tend to read books in the order in which I got them).

The Casual Vacancy.

My Tuesday column this week covered the Javier Baez promotion, and I held my weekly Klawchat yesterday too.

J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, met with huge commercial success (of course) and mixed reviews, many glowing but many disappointed, although I wonder if they were just hoping for more Horcruxes. I waited for the furor(e) to die down and for the book to come out in paperback, reading her wonderful detective novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, first, so my expectations for Vacancy may have been different than those of reviewers encountering it fresh off the last Harry Potter book. (Witness the savage takedown of the book offered by the New York Times‘ Michiko Katukani.)

I thought it was fantastic, melding the classic British literary formula of centering a wide cast of characters in a single English town with the modern, wry realism of small-town novels like those of Richard Russo. The Guardian review, also slightly negative, jokingly referred to the book as “Mugglemarch,” although I’m not clear why that would be a bad thing. George Eliot’s magnum opus has to be the model for countless novels of this order, just as Ann Patchett says half-seriously that each of her novels is her own attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. What it lacks, if anything, is a truly sympathetic central character; Harry Potter, who lost his parents at age one, sustained a miserable childhood, and even at Hogwarts was hounded by death threats from without and spiteful classmates from within, was never pathetic. He was a clear hero, flawed and complete, the Boy You Could Root For. There are many characters within A Casual Vacancy for whom you will feel great pity, and there are probably a few in whom you’ll recognize friends, family members, or perhaps bits of yourself, but there are no heroes, and no one behaves heroically, not until it’s a little too late.

The small English town of Pagford is rocked by the sudden death, due to a cerebral aneurysm, of beloved town council member and father of four Barry Fairbrother, which creates the “casual vacancy” of the title and leads to much political jockeying to fill his open seat. Pagford is split down the middle on the subject of The Fields, a low-income housing community that puts a financial drain on the town and is home to some petty criminals and lower-status residents, including the Weedon family, with teenager Krystal, destitute because of her mother’s chronic drug addiction. The pro-Fields council members, which include Dr. Jawanda and included Barry, want to keep the Fields under Pagford’s budget, while the anti-Fields contingent, led by the fatuous Howard Mollison, wants to dump them on neighboring Yarvil. Mollison views himself as the town’s de facto mayor and leading citizen, thanks in part to his successful market and the opening of a new cafe that employs a trio of the adult characters’ teenaged children.

The political intrigue increases when those children of these various “grown-ups” – and I use the term only the biological sense here – begin posting revelations anonymously on the town council’s badly-managed website. Those attacks form the bridge between the town council storyline and the various goings-on of the kids, from sex to drugs to rape to self-mutilation, which form the second layer of subplots. The idea that the Kids Are Not All Right and that their parents really have little idea, along with the kids generally knowing more of what the parents are up to than the adults think, is a common trope in modern literature and television (Dawson’s Creek would not have existed without it), but Rowling deploys it well by at least making the kids flawed in their own ways. They’re still kids, not wise beyond their years, just bearing the split of wisdom and ignorance that all teenagers carry (and many of us carried into our 20s … and 30s…), so they make huge mistakes too, ones that carry consequences for themselves and their parents. Posting the anonymous attacks to try to slow down their parents’ political ambitions have consequences an adult would foresee but an angry son or daughter might not – outing an affair, revealing a theft, divulging a secret attraction, these are words that cannot be borne and one by one they slow or derail their parents’ plans.

Rowling takes a grim view of the provincial provincials who populate her novel, and she blankets the book in coarse language to describe their selfish and self-destructive doings, some of which made me wince and wonder if she was perhaps overdoing it to shed the children’s-author label. (I hope not; Rowling’s prose has never bothered me as it has many readers, but in particular I’ve always appreciated her willingness to deploy her advanced vocabulary.) Her greatest gift in storycraft has always been her ability to weave unconnected subplots together into a unified conclusion – in the Harry Potter stories, every detail mattered, even across multiple books – and she’s able to do that here, but with far more morbid results. The council subplot comes to a head just as Krystal Weedon’s fractured family falls apart in the Fields, and the novel concludes with a funeral,
One character of the whole panoply emerges as a half-hero, the one truly courageous act of anyone in the whole novel coming from perhaps the least courageous character of them all, and one of the only ones to receive a full fleshing-out – perhaps why she’s the closest thing to a sympathetic protagonist in the book.

As for the common criticism that the book is “boring,” that’s always in the mind of the reader, and I can only say I was never bored – I tore through it as if it was a thriller, but I’ve always enjoyed Rowling’s prose more than most readers because I find her highly descriptive style creates clear imagery in my mind as I read. The novel has very little “action” in the traditional sense, but I thought that was in many ways an homage to classic Brit lit, to which I found countless allusions in the Harry Potter series too.

If you’ve read the book, regardless of whether you enjoyed it, you’ll probably get a laugh from the Guardian‘s “digested read,” which summarizes and satirizes the book in a few hundred words.

Next up: Oh, I’m a few books behind here, but since finishing this one, I’ve read Anne Enright’s dismal Man Booker Prize-winner The Gathering>The Gathering, Caroline Blackwood’s autobiographical novella Great Granny Webster, and Walter Scott’s Waverly novel The Heart of Midlothian.

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.