Rendezvous with Rama.

A brief Insider piece where I rank the top ten prospects by position went up this afternoon.

I’m gradually working my way through the list of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, mostly concentrating on recent winners, but jumping back for a few of the classics I missed when I went through a heavy sci-fi phase as a teenager. Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo in 1974 (and the Nebula and a bunch of other significant awards in the genre) and remains highly-regarded four decades later, even though it’s extremely light on conventional plot elements, focusing instead on hard science and some philosophical questions around what an encounter with a superior alien intelligence might entail.

Rama itself is a giant alien vessel that enters our solar system on a parabolic trip around our sun in the year 2131, by which point humanity has colonized several other planets and bodies in the system (including, bizarrely, Mercury and the Neptunian moon Triton), and has also set up an early-warning system to detect possible threats to earth after a meteorite fell on northern Italy in 2077. This system identifies Rama first as a fast-moving asteroid or meteorite, but when it comes closer it becomes apparent that it’s some sort of extraterrestrial ship or device, larger than many asteroids, a giant cylinder spinning at a rate impossible for a natural object. The confederation of planets sets up a manned mission to Rama to explore it, assuming the world itself is dead, which sets up the bulk of the book as a description of what the mission finds once they reach Rama and make their way inside of it.

Clarke’s interests here seem to split into two areas – the internal construction of Rama as a self-sufficient entity with a sort of artificial intelligence powering it (Rama has been in transit for so long that no purely biological life remains, if it ever existed), and some of the moral and ethical dilemmas around the exploration of the world. Since its creators are not present, and could not have left any explanation of their intentions, how would the explorers balance scientific inquiry with the moral imperative to do minimal harm? At one point, the Mercury colonists (“Hermians”) – and let’s not even get started on the absurdity of that – decide to set up a preemptive strike, even though there’s no clear sign that Rama has been sent to attack anything in our system; again, where is the inflection point beyond which the proper response is self-defense?

Because Clarke moves everything so quickly, and sets up just the briefest tensions, there isn’t much discussion or even time for thought about these issues – he’s sort of throwing the questions out there for the reader, then moving on to whatever’s next. I’m not suggesting he had to go Full Tolstoy and give us 80 pages on the morality of space exploration, but a novel that wants to confront these philosophical questions probably should have a little more internal debate among the characters than Rama did. Clarke tries to include this by jumping from the actions of the crew on Rama to the conferences among the various emissaries from the various colonies across the solar system, but these focus as much on problem-solving as on ethical concerns.

I’ve read in a few places, including (but not limited to) Wikipedia, that filming Rendezvous with Rama is a longtime goal of Morgan Freeman, but I can’t imagine this book as a successful film without major script changes. There are no aliens, so there’s no antagonist. The explorers fight a little bit against time, a little against the “elements” within Rama (which is essentially a world turned inside out), but the standard sources of tension are simply absent here. Clarke creates narrative greed only by keeping the chapters short and the action quick, but once it becomes clear he’s not going to kill off a large section of the crew, we’re just watching the explorers peel back layers of the onion and racing a little bit against the clock. The purpose of Rama itself doesn’t become clear until near the very end of the novel, and the crew has little or nothing to do with the revelation. It would likely be a spectacular film visually, but it needs a stronger plot to be a commercial success, and I’m not sure that could happen without throwing the science out the window.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance.

Is there anything quite so Belle & Sebastian as a song titled “Enter Sylvia Plath?” The veteran Scottish indie-folk-rock-whatever group, known as much for their low profile as for their music, have always enjoyed great critical acclaim but never much commercial success, which I believe is the result of their refusal to sound un-British and their use of song titles and lyrics that range from abstruse to sinister, too cerebral for mass appeal even though much of their music is blatantly pop in nature. They’ve had a few gold records in the UK, but have had very little sales traction outside of Britain, not even in Australia, often the most receptive market for distinctly British acts.

“Enter Sylvia Plath” encapsulates the paradox of B&S, as it’s a 131 bpm electronic dance song that name-drops a poet/author who produced depressing material that matched her tragic biography. It’s part of the soft middle of the band’s new album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their first since 2010’s quiet, underappreciated Write About Love. The new album kicks off with a quartet of effusive pop songs that would fit as well on any pop/top 40 station as on independent or alternative radio, including the lead single “The Party Line” (#3 on my list of the top songs of 2014), enough to buoy almost any album on to a year-end best-of list. Beyond the initial promise the boys (and girl) can’t sustain the energy that drove the opening chapter, with music that’s more pleasant background listening rather than the hook-laden stuff that demands your full attention, more intriguing lyrically than musically.

Ah, but that opening tetrad is something else. “Nobody’s Empire” begins with a swirling piano riff and softly thumping bass drum before lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch introduces a sunny melody that goes back to 1960s pop, belying the lyrics describing Murdoch’s own experiences with the debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome, along with the first of many wonderful quotes from the record – “Marching with the crowd singing dirty and loud/For the people’s emancipation” (Shouldn’t all protest songs be dirty and loud?) “Allie” plays like a sly, sinister detective story describing a woman fighting some kind of mental illness that puts her through delusions and desires for self-harm, over the album’s best hook, a shuffling minor-chord blues pattern that refuses to let you catch your balance any more than the song’s subject can. “The Party Line” might be the best pure pop song Belle & Sebastian have ever recorded, replete with Murdoch’s typical wordplay (he’s calling you to the dance floor more than to a partisan debate). “The Power of Three” at least starts to downshift the listener before the softer middle third of the album, moving towards a glammier ’70s vibe with the tinny synth riff that powers the bridges after each chorus, although by the end of its four minutes they’ve dissipated much of the energy that powered the first trio of tracks.

The middle of the album drags both due to the drop in tempo and the length of several of its songs, with “The Cat with the Cream” a sedative to bring everyone down from the high of the start of the album, leading into “Enter Sylvia Plath” almost with a whisper. “The Everlasting Muse” dips into a musical allusion to Russian folk dances for an incongruous middle movement, certainly true to the band’s roots in folk music but less subtle than their best work. The pace doesn’t pick back up until the seven-minute opus “Play for Today,” featuring Dum Dum Girls singer/songwriter Dee Dee Penny sharing vocal duties with Murdoch in a song laced with mid-80s new wave trappings that seems to run far shorter than its actual length thanks to the shared vocal duties. That song sets up “The Book of You,” with Sarah Martin taking over lead vocals on another banger that builds up to an old-fashioned rock guitar solo, but the newfound momentum collapses with the dirge-like closer “Today (This Army’s for Peace.”

For a band that’s been around for nearly twenty years now, releasing nine albums, Belle & Sebastian manage to sound new at several points on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, never more so than when they live up the album’s title by producing songs that combine great hooks with beats and rhythms suited for the dance floor. The album is surprisingly incoherent for a group whose songwriting and production always feel so meticulous, almost like it’s two half-albums mashed together without a thought to sequencing. The portion that finds Belle & Sebastian feeling the urge to get up and dance is the revelation here, a new dimension from a group that, while talented, seemed to have fallen into its own set ways.

January 2015 music update.

The whole top 100 prospects package is now up for Insiders, including:

I got a complaint yesterday that one of the team reports wasn’t long enough. With over 48,000 words in the whole package, you can send any such criticisms to /dev/null.

January was a great month for new releases, especially tracks previewing albums coming in March or April. Here’s the Spotify playlist, with a note on each song coming up below:

Purity Ring – “Push Pull.” I didn’t love their first album, Shrines, but this lead single from their upcoming sophomore LP Another Eternity is a marvel, especially in Megan James’ lyrics, which seem to draw heavily from classical English poetry. “A fever billowed with the wind/And I bade the sky therein.” The music struggles to keep up with her vocals, at times sound like a weird remix the way the track doesn’t line up with her meter, but she could probably sing this a cappella and I’d still listen.

Wildhoney – “Molly.” This Baltimore shoegaze act, one of two Charm City bands on this playlist (along with Lower Dens), is signed to a Canadian punk label, but their music is more Curve, Swervedriver, and early Lush than Bad Religion or the Descendants. The tiny guitar line behind the vocals is the track’s separating factor, although I liked how the walls of guitars in the chorus referenced My Bloody Valentine without drowning out Lauren Shusterich’s vocals.

HOLYCHILD – “Running Behind.” The percussion lines remind me of tUnEyArDs’ “Water Fountain,” but with non-irritating vocals. My daughter loved this song on first listen, and I have a feeling it’ll be a quick crossover to pop radio, since it’s only “alternative” in the sense that it’s not popular yet.

The Districts – “Peaches.” Seems like my favorite fruit (especially for pie) is a popular topic for songs of late, including this new release that has some resemblances to the Hold Steady with its blues/roots-rock backing and sung-talked descending vocal lines. The whining guitar riff that parallels the vocals in the chorus strikes a fine balance between hooky and annoying.

Viet Cong – “Silhouettes.” I admit to being a little off from the consensus on this debut album featuring two of the three surviving members of Women, finding it very uneven, with lead single “Continental Shelf” missing my top 100 from last year. “Silhouettes” has a dark, Joy Division/Bauhaus kind of vibe but with harder guitar lines that made it the standout from their eponymous album, relased two weeks back on indie Super Tuesday.

Modest Mouse – “Lampshades On Fire.” It almost sounds like Johnny Marr never left. I never loved Modest Mouse before “Dashboard,” which I suppose means I’m not a True Fan or something, but also means I particularly like this new song’s rhythm – and as always there’s a lot of fun wordplay in the lyrics.

Coasts – “Oceans.” They’re going to be compared to Coldplay because their next single is called “A Rush of Blood,” but the similarity is just in the attempt to craft songs that feel anthemic with big climaxes of drums and shimmering guitars. Coldplay has its detractors, and I find their work frustratingly inconsistent, but they do write some pop hooks that prove indelible, something few imitators (save, perhaps, Bastille and Imagine Dragons) have been able to do. Coasts has a shot, though, based on these two singles, both of which came out last year in the UK.

Matt and Kim – “Get It.” Solid melody, weak lyrics, which unfortunately has been the duo’s formula for much of their careers.

Belle & Sebastian – “Nobody’s Empire.” I adore the first four tracks on this album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, but it tapers off into maudlin material that is probably more authentic B&S but just not my style. “The Party Line” was my #3 track of 2014; “Nobody’s Empire” will likely rank very high for me on this year’s list.

A. Sinclair – “Suit Up.” From this Austin band’s October album Pretty Girls, this single kicks the door down with the intense introductory riff. I imagine they’d be fantastic to see live given how much energy comes through in their studio recordings.

Young Ejecta – “Welcome to Love.” Formerly known as Ejecta, this side project of Neon Indian’s Leanne Macomber – who is once again au naturel on the album cover – put out their second short album of ethereal, quietly melodic synthpop that highlights Macomber’s breathy alto.

Sleater-Kinney – “Price Tag.” The opener from their amazing comeback record, No Cities to Love, which I reviewed in January.

Tobias Jesso Jr. – “How Could You Babe.” I’m still not sure how much I like this mournful piano ballad, which is driven primarily by Jesso – whose debut album comes out in March – crooning the song’s title repeatedly. It’s been stuck in my head a few times already, though.

The Mowgli’s – “Through The Dark.” They may never do anything I like as much as “San Francisco,” but I do love this septet’s sound when the entire group starts singing in unison, practically begging you to join in. Their second proper album is due this spring.

Death Cab for Cutie – “Black Sun.” It seems like 2015 is the big year for comeback records from some of the biggest alternative acts of the aughts – these guys have been gone for four years, Belle & Sebastian for five, the Decemberists for four, Modest Mouse for six, and Sleater-Kinney for nine. “Black Sun” is very promising, especially the guitar interlude, which brought back to mind my favorite track from 2011’s Codes and Keys, “You are a Tourist.”

Lower Dens – “To Die in L.A.” Did they steal that guitar sound from Robert Plant’s “Big Log?”

Courtney Barnett – “Pedestrian at Best.” When she plugs in and there’s some real music to back up her brilliantly twisted lyrics, she’s among the best voices in independent/alternative music today, contorting the language into whatever shapes she desires, with brilliant imagery and incisive wit. Here’s hoping her next album continues what she’s started here.

Twerps – “Back to You.” Twerps, an Australian quartet who remind me in many ways of the Go-Betweens, seem to specialize in understated, pleasantly annoying pop tracks, a formula that works about half the time on their debut album Range Anxiety. Everyone’s raving over “I Don’t Mind,” one of the two longest tracks on the album, but the off-key singing and twangy, repetitive guitar licks work much better on songs half that length, as with the syncopated riff that powers this sunny bit of indie-pop.

Voivod – “We Are Connected.” Voivod’s 1989 album Nothingface had a huge influence on my tastes in music; at a time when “metal” largely meant the glam-rock derivative of hair bands, with Metallica the edgy alternative to Poison and Cinderella, Voivod – who toured off this album with two similarly unknown acts, Faith No More and Soundgarden – produced intelligent, aggressive, intricate songs exploring dark themes with lyrics that, if nothing else, moved beyond what was available on the radio in those pre-satellite, pre-web days. The band’s sound changed in the mid-90s with Negatron, going more toward death-metal growls and “groove” riffs; withh the 2005 death of original guitarist Denis D’Amour they will probably never recover their original vibe, but “We Are Connected” at least restores the clean vocals and spaced-out thrash sound that made them one of metal’s first real innovators.

And while I’m not going to put anything from Napalm Death’s upcoming album on the playlist (I’ve never been a fan of their brand of extreme grindcore), this piece on the letter that lead screamer Barney Greenaway wrote to Indonesian President (and Napalm Death fan) Joko Widodo is worth a read. Here’s hoping it succeeds in convincing Widodo to commute those two criminals’ death sentences.

Saturday five, 1/31/15.

The ten prospects who just missed the top 100 column is up today. Over the previous three days, we posted my top ten prospects and full farm reports for all 30 teams (that’s the index page; Tampa Bay’s report is free), my ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball, and my ranking of all thirty farm systems from best to worst.

I also answered a slew of questions about the lists in this week’s Klawchat.

I’ll have a January music update out in the next few days.

saturdayfiveNow, this week’s links, heavy on vaccination stories because the country is finally waking up to what a threat these anti-vaxxers are:

Rainbows End.

I’ve written an organization report for each MLB team, including a list of that team’s top ten prospects; you can find them on the full index of all thirty clubs. The Rays’ piece is free; the rest are Insider.

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Novel, beating out four books I don’t know by authors I’d never heard of (although one of them, Peter Watts’ Blindsight, also received high critical praise). In a world ripped straight out of the fiction of William Gibson, a plot to undermine humanity in the name of saving it ends up foiled by an 11-year-old girl and a virtual entity known only as the Rabbit. It’s a book so in love with its setting that the plot is unfortunately drowned in a sea of irrelevant details.

In 2025, everything and everyone is connected, constantly online and accessible via wearable technology, coding via hand gestures, with their movements and actions easily tracked by the government (okay, that last part might be closer to truth than I’d like to admit). A global intelligence investigation has uncovered a plot to make humans more suggestible via coded transmissions within ordinary broadcasts like commercials – a sort of ‘mind virus’ – that was in fact developed by one of the people supposed to be leading the investigation. He hires the Rabbit to unwittingly help him retrieve the technology before it’s discovered, only to find the Rabbit is more feline than leporine when it comes to curiosity and doesn’t stop where his orders end.

Meanwhile, Robert Gu, a once world-renowned poet who was stricken by Alzheimer’s, is miraculously cured not just of that malady but of old age, restored largely to the body of a teenager, but without the one thing he’d most like back – his ability to craft poetry. He’s approached by an earnest graduate student – virtually, as most meetings in this book seem to be – to help with the latter’s thesis, only to have that student’s online persona hijacked by another entity that offers him a Faustian bargain: help with this project (tied into the same investigation into the UCSD bio-research facility where the mind-control experiment lives) and you’ll get your muse back. Gu was a miserable wretch before his dormancy, lashing out with intent to wound at anyone near him, but after doing so once to his granddaughter Miri, the two end up with a tenuous bond that draws Miri into Robert’s endeavor, without his knowledge at first, and gives her a pivotal role in the attempt to stop a global takeover.

Vinge is himself a transhumanist who has written on the inevitability of the merger of man and machine known as the singularity – an idea first encapsulated by Ray Kurzweil in his non-fiction treatise The Singularity Is Near – and here he has created a world where the singularity is quite close, so much so that he can’t stop telling us about it. The story is overburdened with the minutiae of the operations of these net-enabled clothes, with their own lingo (either you’re “wearing” or you’re hopeless), and the same attention to detail turns the climactic passage, a battle waged on the ground as well as over the net from points around the world, into nearly two hundred pages of confusing, slogging prose. We get the conclusion we expect – did you really think Vinge would let the bad guy take over the world with a mindworm? – and a minimum of damage to the protagonists; the only way the resolution could have been more maudlin would have been to have Gu reconcile with the ex-wife who dumped him for his malicious behavior.

I think a big part of the appeal of such books is the predictions inherent in the writing – wearable technology is certainly getting closer, with the mild success of Google Glass, and our access to the Internet is becoming broader, which makes our movements easier for someone like the NSA to track. Vinge doesn’t seem to worry much about the enormous energy requirements of his near-future vision; virtual-reality remains stubbornly separate from real reality, we don’t hold meetings with overseas colleagues via projections or holograms; and the silent instant messaging he has the more sophisticated wearers use seems too much like the Red Herring telepathic-email device called orecchio, which was an April Fool’s hoax.

I’d recommend anyone interested in this particular branch of science fiction to read William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash instead. Both cyberpunk novels deal with the melding of man and machine in a more humanist light, keeping the narrative moving without the juvenile obsession with sci-fi trappings.

Next up: Going old-school with Arthur C. Clark’s Rendezvous with Rama, winner of the Hugo Award in 1974.

Top Chef, S12E13.

The top 100 prospects ranking is up, in two parts, numbers 1 through 50 and numbers 51 through 100. My ranking of all 30 major league farm systems went up on Wednesday. All pieces are Insider. On Friday morning, my top ten prospects and full farm report will go up for each team. In total, you’ll get over 48,000 words of content – longer than Heart of Darkness and less creepy, too.

Top Chef logoOn to Top Chef … where the Last Chance Kitchen winner is (drumroll please) Doug. George loses again, unfortunately, but at least that ends the mini-controversy about him getting this far after jumping back in halfway through the season. Two of the season’s final four chefs are from Portland.

* The final four are in San Miguel de Allende, in the state of Guanajato, about 270 km northwest of Mexico City. The guest judge for this episode is Enrique Olvera, whose restaurant, Pujol in Mexico City, was named one of the world’s 50 best restaurants by some site or other and who can really take a list like that seriously? Really? Can anyone have ever properly sampled the world’s great restaurants to make such a list? I’m sure Olvera’s food is great, though. He’s written two books that appear to have vanished completely into the ether, but there’s another one coming soon from Phaidon Press, which also published the modestly-titled Mexico: The Cookbook, which includes contributions from Olvera. Anyway, it’s great to see a new face at judges’ table, and one from another country too.

* Quickfire: Create a dish that highlights the xoconostle, a fruit similar to a prickly pear but from a different cactus, prized by chefs for its tartness and frequently used in salsas. Olvera says the plant’s growing season is very short “so when we get it we eat it all the time.” Any of you ever had one? I don’t recall seeing them in Arizona, but I’m not sure I would have known what I was looking at if I had seen one in Pros Ranch Market.

* Mei can’t get the salmon she wanted because Melissa took it – again, what does that accomplish, making it a race for proteins? – so she chooses steak. She covers her steak in salt to sear it. I thought I was aggressive when seasoning meat, but apparently I’m about 50% short of the mark. She realizes she won’t have enough time to cook it through, so she calls an audible and makes a steak tataki, seared on the outside but effectively raw on the interior. I’ve had that with tuna, not really my favorite preparation, but never with steak.

* Melissa is making ceviche. Don’t be afraid to cook something, Melissa.

* Padma is sauntering around this public square in a white dress and heels. There’s no crowd of people staring at her? She looks like she might be starring in a shampoo commercial.

* Mei made a ribeye tataki with cactus salsa verde and xoconostle salsa. The meat’s a mess, in case you missed that foreshadowing. Doug made an all-vegetable xoconostle and tomatillo stew with roasted peppers and pepitas and purple cactus. Enrique likes that he made a vegetable-driven dish, saying that Mexican cuisine is mostly vegetables, despite what people (coughAmericanscough) might think it is. (I’ll be over here swimming in a tub of carnitas.) Melissa made a salmon ceviche with xoconostle, leche de tigre (which is what you marinate ceviche in – lime juice, sliced onion, chilies, salt, pepper, and of course the fish juices), guava, celery, shallots, and beets. She might use as many ingredients as Katsuji did. Gregory served shrimp with garlic, olive oil, two prickly pear sauces, and xoconostle relish.

* Gregory’s was the worst dish, as it was overpowered by the olive oil. Mei’s meat was not cooked correctly. Melissa’s leche de tigre was “refreshing.” I don’t get it – I like ceviche, but how much skill or creativity is required for that? Don’t you just chop and serve? Doug’s was mostly vegetables, which Enrique praises with “that’s the way we eat here most of our days,” and likes that you could really taste the xoconostle.

* “The winner is the one that takes risks in this life.” Is that about the quickfire, or just general advice? I like it. By the way, Doug wins and gets an advantage in the elimination challenge.

* Elimination challenge: Each chef randomly gets the address of a local artist – apparently San Miguel de Allende is the Portland of Mexico – and will meet with the artist, then design a dish inspired by the artist’s work, while the artist will in turn create a painting that will be on display during service. The chefs’ dishes must represent their artists’ work visually. This has “I was gonna use a condom, but I figured, when am I gonna get back to Haiti?” written all over it.

* The eliminated chefs are all there to serve as sous. Doug gets to pick his two first and takes Adam and Katsuji because he’s apparently building a new sitcom. (Katsuji’s deadpan “I don’t cook Mexican” got glossed over, but it was pretty sharp.) Melissa gets George and James, Mei gets Keriann and Rebecca, and Gregory gets Katie and Stacy.

* Mei says, modestly, “my dishes have been described as works of art.” No, Mei, the diners meant they thought Art Smith made your dishes. You know, works of Art.

* Melissa’s artist is a total space cadet. No, like, even more than that.

* They go shopping at Mega, which is absolutely enormous. Personally I prefer Femto. They keep it small and local.

* Doug is flustered by the store, saying “This is not Whole Foods… my spanish is poquito.” How do you work in a kitchen and not know Spanish? Doesn’t half the staff in every restaurant in the United States speak Spanish, including a lot of the people who do the truly hard, manual work? I don’t get how anyone who ever eats out could oppose immigration reform, but that’s another story.

* Mei is saying filet or PEE-lay instead of “piel,” although I’m not sure if that’s the right word or if it would be “pellejo,” which I think is the word for the skin of an animal. Piel might be human skin and this is just not that kind of competition.

* Gregory’s strip loin steaks are at least a little overcooked, although somehow after a rest they’re not overcooked and I must have missed something because that’s not how it usually works, right? Although I guess if scientists can unboil an egg, maybe you can uncook a steak too.

* Gregory’s artist and dish feature “dark, complex flavors.” Just how I like my women. Anyway, his dish is a grilled strip loin with an ancho chili and tamarind sauce, beets, cilantro purée, and a Valencia orange sauce. His artist’s painting has a lot of earth tones, with orange and green the only vibrant colors, both mirrored in the dish. Gail and Tom both love it.

* Doug is slightly apoplectic that he’s serving chili to Tom Colicchio in the Top Chef final four. Just embrace it, man.

* Gail’s dress is too tight. I can’t imagine the pressures women face when going on TV – their looks are scrutinized fifty or a hundred times more than the looks of their male counterparts – but this dress just did not fit, and it was a bad look.

* Doug’s dish is “Texas red,” a beanless chili made with brisket, tomatillo, and a masa cake, paralleling the structural nature of his artist’s painting. He braised the brisket slow. Gail says it’s earthy, has good acidity, and the cheese adds bite. Tom pauses, to give Doug angina, and then says he loves it.

* Melissa makes a “land and sea” dish with smoked eggplant ravioli, shrimp, chorizo, and cotija, and some beet juice to represent the artist’s graffiti. Padma loves the eggplant, saying it’s beautifully done. But this jumped out right away as the losing dish – there’s no cohesion here, and I wondered why all that stuff was on the same plate. The Cheesecake Factory will have this on page 63 of its menu by next Thursday.

* Mei made a snapper and bass crudo with a chicken skin crumble, soy gastrique, and radish pickles. Tom and Gail love the chicken skin, and who wouldn’t? It’s like savory candy when it’s done right. (If you have the skin from a roasted or otherwise cooked chicken, just run a paring knife over the inside to scrape it out so you’re just cooking the skin, then pan-fry it on both sides, no oil required.) I thought Mei’s dish was the most attractive, although that’s a subjective thing and I’m the last person to ask about art.

* The judges’ comments after the fact were pretty predictable, at least based on what the editors showed us already. Gregory’s sauce was complex and subtle. Padma says Mei’s dish wasn’t as wild as the artwork, but Tom thought the flavors were wild, and Gail loved the chicken skin like it was pepperoni sauce. The judges all liked the warm flavors of Doug’s chili, and Tom likes that inspiration outside the kitchen made him cook something different. Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, which we knew, but Tom says some elements were there for shock/color and not for flavor, and he might as well have read her eulogy right there.

* Judges’ Table: Tom loves that the challenge got something more out of Doug, who Gail thought was very literal to the painting (I think that was a compliment). Gail likes that elements of Mei’s artist’s work were in the food, but that the food was still clearly Mei’s. They all wish the presentation had been wilder, but at that point, it would no longer have been Mei’s, right? Her plates are always immaculate. Padma wanted more envelope-pushing; Enrique says he liked the clean flavors, and how the dish was subtle but still playful. (I wish he’d spoken more. His English is fine, but I wonder if he was shy about speaking because it’s not his first language, or if we just lost a bunch of his comments in editing.) Padma loved Melissa’s ravioli, but wasn’t sure what the shrimp was doing there other than to add the pink color. (Pickled red onions could have done the same thing, and would have paired better with the eggplant, I think.) Tom thought it was playful but the chorizo was over-rendered, the only execution failure we’ve heard about. Enrique says Gregory’s dish repped his artist Artemio’s work very nicely, with powerful ingredients and strong flavors that stayed with you. Gail said the elements spoke to Artemio’s vision with the “marigold yellow” from the orange/ginger sauce (this judges’ table brought to you by Crayola).

* Gregory and Doug had the favorite dishes. Doug wins, and gets to take home the painting, which he’ll send to his mom the art teacher. Maybe Mos Chef got his groove back, too, now that everyone had a few weeks off. A competitive Gregory in the final two challenges would make this all much more entertaining.

* Melissa is eliminated. Tom says, “you did nothing wrong, you just came up against three dishes that were stronger.” That means the best three chefs from the early and middle parts of the season are the final three.

* Rankings: I don’t even know any more. I think Gregory, Mei, Doug, except Doug just won the Quickfire and elimination challenge straight out of winning LCK, and Mei’s been better later in the season than Gregory, so I got nothin’ except that I’m glad these are the final three and I’d at any of their restaurants in a heartbeat.

* Next week: Ant eggs? Really?

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

Saturday five, 1/24/15.

I’m still working on the top 100 prospects package, although at least I’ve got enough done that I’m not coiled up like a spring any more. The organization rankings piece will run on Wednesday, and the top 100 itself will run on Thursday, when I will also chat. The current plan is for one league’s top tens to run Thursday and the other Friday, but my editors haven’t finalized that.

And now, this week’s links…saturdayfive

  • Longform piece from Vulture/NY Mag: Baohaus founder/chef Eddie Huang’s foul-mouthed tract on watching his memoir (and life) become a bowdlerized sitcom.
  • From the increasingly indispensable British paper The Guardian why the modern world is bad for your brain. We think we can multitask, but we can’t.
  • The Senate passed an amendment 98-1 affirming that climate change is not a hoax. What a world that we have to do this.
  • Scientists slowed the speed of light. Of course, the particle theory of light is just a theory anyway.
  • Munchies (at VICE) tackles the question of the California attempt to ban foie gras in a 41-minute video documentary. It’s remarkably calm and rational for a look at an issue that inspires more emotion than reason. I come down on the side of allowing foie gras production, because I don’t want any government body making choices about what I should and shouldn’t eat when I’m better capable of making those choices myself. Asking the government to stop antibioitic use in livestock is a matter of global health and safety; asking the government to protect ducks and geese who may not be suffering any harm imposes someone else’s views of animal rights on my plate.

    John Burton, now the Chairman of the California Democratic Party, comes off worse than the ducks in this documentary, swearing at the interviewer at least twice, dismissing a very reasonable question as “stupid,” appearing to have little familiarity with the issue at hand, even proudly defending the fact that he never visited the farm that his bill put out of business. I’m not a Californian, but if I were a Democrat and lived there I’d be livid that this was the man at least nominally in charge of the state’s party.
  • Just because evolution is settled science doesn’t mean we’re no longer learning more about how it works. This week’s discovery: Evolution may be able to reverse itself, according to one study of the evolutionary process in birds.
  • I tweeted this yesterday but it’s worth reposting – one chart that shows how effective and dangerous vaccine deniers’ efforts have been. And don’t believe them when they say it’s not a big deal, because getting the measles is horrible.
  • Goofiness: How people in the small Swedish town of Ůmea say “yes.”

Top Chef, S12E12.

I’m not chatting this week to allow myself more time to write the top 100 prospects package.

Mei says correctly that Gregory would have gone home after the previous challenge if there’d been an elimination. Of course, the absence of an elimination threat may have affected each chef’s choices on what to cook, but I think her comments led the show to hammer home the point that Gregory, who lapped the field in the first half of this season, has slumped toward the finish.

Top Chef logo* George’s comment before the quickfire, to the confessional: “I never in a million years would have made as far as I have.” Rosie Ruiz said the same thing, if I remember correctly.

* Wylie Dufresne, who just closed his restaurant WD-50 in Manhattan and still needs a haircut, is here for the final Quickfire. He’s a molecular gastronomy guy, so of course the challenge is about … beans. (And I thought Chicago was Beantown. Did Andy Dwyer lie to me?) The chefs can prepare any dish they want that features beans. Wiley says texture is the key to success with beans. Since they only have an hour, the chefs all go for the canned beans – I’ve pressure-cooked beans in less than an hour, but only for dishes where I’m going to mash or purée them.

* Did you know beans give you gas? I did not know that. I’m so glad George told us about that.

* Gregory says he rarely cooks with beans because they’re not common in Asian cooking. But they go well with pork and rice, both of which are kind of common in Asian cooking, so assuming he knows how to prepare them, this doesn’t seem like it should be an issue.

* Melissa says of Gregory, “you can’t really win Top Chef just making curries.” Yeah, but you can win with knife skills and vegetable dishes?

* Mei knows Wylie “loves eggs;” I believe he called himself an “egg slut” in a previous judging stint. She’s aerating beans in an iSi gun to make bean foam. It kind of looks like coarse butterscotch pudding.

* George made yigandes plaki, a Greek bean dish with a tomato-based sauce, using chickpeas, cumin, paprika, and pork tenderloin.

* Mei made black beans and corn with chipotle, bacon, a poached egg (pandering!), and pinto bean foam. Wylie comments on … the egg.

* Melissa made a seared pork tenderloin with bacon, butterbean puree, roast carrots, and fried chickpeas. Wylie points out that “beans are not really the focus” of the dish, which was kind of the point of the challenge.

* Gregory made navy beans with sake, ham, avocado, and carrot chips, using ginger, shallots, and serranos as aromatics. Padma loves to cook navy beans, but both she and Wylie note a bitter finish in his dish which could come from the sake, avocado (if it starts to cook), or shallots (if they burn). The avocado detracted from the dish as well; the beans were slightly overcooked, so that made for two soft textures without much contrast from other elements.

* Mei’s dish didn’t look appealing, but Wylie thought the textures and flavors worked really well, and he liked that she used the bean two ways. She wins the challenge, her first Quickfire win, and a trip to Napa. “Napa, here I come! I’m gonna get wasted.” Look, I’m not judging her, but you don’t really need to go to Napa to get hammered, and maybe that’s not the best way to soak up the Napa experience either?

* The final elimination challenge in Boston, before the show shifts to Mexico: Make a dish that’s innovative, pushing culinary boundaries. That’s why Wylie is here, I assume. That’s all the direction the chefs get, unfortunately, which is going to be a problem for the rest of the episode, because it isn’t even clear what the judges mean by “innovation” – and I’d say the judges themselves aren’t consistent about it. There’s a $10,000 prize, so there’s something on the line that means I’m not just arguing semantics here.

* George points out that innovation means failing, which means you probably won’t nail it the first time, so doing it just once doesn’t give you much chance to innovate.

* Their Whole Foods is out of pork belly, which ruins George’s plan for his dish. I’ve only bought it a few times, but I know that the various Whole Foods where I’ve shopped over the years have all been inconsistent about carrying it.

* The chefs are all interpreting “innovative” by using ingredients they don’t normally use. In this context, shouldn’t that term be about technique and presentation? It’s not like the judges haven’t had octopus (George) or chicken skin (Gregory) before – there probably isn’t an ingredient anywhere in Whole Foods that these judges haven’t eaten.

* Mei went to nursing school because it’s what her parents wanted, then dropped out to go to culinary school because it’s what she wanted, and her parents were pissed. Don’t you want your kid to be happy and successful and safe? What the hell is wrong with these parents?

* George making a green apple harissa with octopus, charring the tentacles and puréeing the heads for fritters. It’s definitely weird; I don’t know if I’d call that “innovative.” It’s just a poor word choice for the show; maybe it isn’t possible to innovate when you have three hours in total to cook your dish.

* Gregory stumbles when Tom and Wylie ask how he’s innovating. Even if you’re not innovating, you need to have a bullshit answer ready for this question, which you had to expect Tom to ask.

* They’re cooking and serving at Catalyst in Kendall Square, which is in Cambridge (across the river from Boston) close to MIT. The chef William Kovel doesn’t appear in this episode, but he’d previoulsy helmed the kitchen at Aujourd’hui at the Four Seasons, which was one of the top fine-dining restaurants in Boston before it closed in 2009.

* One of the guest diners is Dr. Michael Brenner of Harvard, who brings chefs in to speak to try to inspire people to want to learn about science. He’s a professor of engineering, applied math, and physics, and among his many research foci is the observing practical operation of evolution by examining the functions of two protein families – hemoglobin and voltage-gated sodium channels. So he’s reasonably bright.

* We get a little physical comedy in the kitchen, as the line is too narrow for all four chefs to cook and plate at once, leading to a lot of one-word shouts between them, including Mei’s galline refrain of “back!”

* The dishes … Gregory serves a pan-roasted salmon in tom kha broth with roasted tomatoes, crispy salmon skin, and crispy chicken skins. Padma says it’s delicious. Gail asks what’s innovative about the dish, and Gregory says it’s about playing with textures, so at least he was ready with an answer this time. Tom says he’s “having a hard time finding the innovation.”

* Mei shows no emotion when winning or losing anything. She says she suffers from “chronic bitch face.” See for yourself.

* Melissa serves a seared duck breast with farro, walnut miso, and pickled cherries. She says this was out of her “comfort zone.” That’s also not innovation; that’s just growing up. Everyone likes the dish, but other than her combination of walnuts and miso, no element receives any praise for innovation, and really, she just took two high-umami ingredients and stuck them together.

* George makes charred octopus and octopus head fritters with yellow split pea puree, green apple harissa, pickled mustard seeds, bacon chips, lentils, rhubarb, and God knows what else. It’s a complicated plate, but the bottom line is that he charred the octopus too far and it came out bitter. Poor George is sweating like mad as he gets the feedback. It’s a Mediterranean thing, George. I feel your pain.

* Mei’s dish was duck curry with vadouvan, coated with fish sauce caramel, served with lemongrass ginger and yuzu yogurt. She says tried to make it lighter than most curries. Tom smiles and says, “I like it but I don’t know how to describe it. As you eat it, it changes … it’s really complex.” If there’s any innovation anywhere here, I think this is it. Innovative or highly creative (as a proxy) dishes should confuse you and make you think or rethink what’s in front of you.

* Blais argues that Melissa’s dish was the best, with the walnut miso as the innovation, and that it had the best flavors. Gail says it was the least exciting, and Mei’s was the most creative and interesting. Wylie says Melissa’s duck and Mei’s curry together would be the winner, so he’s useless. Tom says George’s octopus was overcharred. He swung for the fences, but Gregory didn’t. Dr. Brenner says that he’d rather eat Gregory’s than George’s. So it’s Gregory’s execution without innovation versus George’s innovation (maybe) without execution.

* I love how the camera always shows the four judges at the table, trying so hard to look deadly serious before they tell the chefs who won or lost. Some are better than others; Gail’s serious face reminds me of Paddington’s cold dark stare, where no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t possibly look intimidating.

* Tom points out that there wasn’t a whole lot of innovating. Yeah, no shit. Maybe the chefs should have had two days to cook if the goal was to get real innovation – or maybe access to different equipment, such as devices not typically seen in the kitchen.

* Mei and Melissa made the two favorite dishes … and Melissa wins? What the hell was the innovation there? Well-executed but so what? Granted, it doesn’t affect the chefs’ advancement in any way – Mei also goes through to the finale – but the $10K ain’t nothing to sneeze at, and I have no idea at all how Melissa’s dish answered the challenge more than Mei’s did. Gail’s blog seems to say the same: Melissa won for execution, even though Mei’s dish was more innovative. So the main criterion for the dish wasn’t the main criterion in the final judging?

* George is eliminated. Failure to execute loses to failure to innovate – not that George innovated wildly, but I think he did more than Gregory did. That said, I’d rather see Gregory in the finals than George, based on their relative track records on the show.

* LCK: George vs. Doug. Doug gets to choose clams or octopus, and chooses clams. He uses a grilled pineapple butter, tomatillos, and onions, and says he grilled everything he could. George steamed his clams, them made a soup with a lot of aromatic vegetables and fruits as well as serrano chilies. Tom loves both dishes. As usual, we don’t find out the winner of LCK until we tune in next week.

* Rankings: Mei, Gregory, whoever wins LCK, Melissa. I’m a bit relieved to see Gregory execute this challenge’s dish well, as he’s been more stymied by failures of execution than creativity over the last few episodes, and him vs. Mei would be the ideal final two based on what we’ve seen from all of the chefs so far this season.

No Cities to Love.

Just a reminder that the top 100 prospects package will appear on next week for Insiders, running from January 28th to the 30th. I’ll chat on the 29th (but not this week), the day that the top 100 itself goes up.

Regardless of the actual quality of the album, Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities To Love (also on iTunes) was going to garner rave reviews from critics and fans who were just happy that the trio was back after a nine-year absence from recording. It didn’t matter whether their sound had changed, whether they could still write great hooks, whether Corin Tucker could still sing, as long as they were still Sleater-Kinney, because that band and that name stood for something, although for what it stood probably depended on where you were standing – independent music, anti-corporatism, feminism, LGBT issues, sometimes stuff the band themselves never openly espoused. They never experienced commercial success commensurate with their critical standing, perhaps in part because of Tucker’s deliberately abrasive vocal style, but also because they never did much to court it. Their breakup in 2006 and move into other projects, notably Carrie Brownstein’s career as an actress (co-creating Portlandia with Fred Armisen – go Thinkers!), only served to heighten their legend, with Brooklyn Vegan promising to play a Sleater-Kinney track on its Sirius XMU show each week until the band reunited. By 2014, Sleater-Kinney was an idea rather than a pretty good, defunct punk band.

That makes it all the more gratifying that their album No Cities to Love, released on Tuesday on Sub Pop, is such a tight, sophisticated, hook-filled record, sophisticated without becoming staid, more of a second take on the Sleater-Kinney sound than more of the same they gave us through their first half-dozen albums. There’s a cleaner sound throughout the record, better production quality combined with less distortion on the guitars (Sleater-Kinney has never used a bass guitar, ironic since that’s often what the token girl plays in male-fronted rock bands), which means the songs are carried by memorable riffs, layered vocals, and non-traditional (for them) drum patterns. Tucker’s vocals are just as intense and emotional as ever, but it’s a lot easier to pick up what she’s saying and to distinguish each vocal or guitar track within a song.

Lead single “Bury Our Friends,” my #12 song of 2014, gave a strong preview of this slight shift in Sleater-Kinney’s direction – angst-ridden yet hopeful, stomping through the chorus (“exhume our idols/bury our friends”), driven both by one of Brownstein’s strongest riffs ever and some intricate drumwork from Janet Weiss. Weiss’ role on the album may be the most pleasant surprise, as she’s expanded her style and is mixed more toward the front; “Fangless,” which opens almost like a prog-rock track that’s made a small withdrawal from the jazz machine, would go nowhere without Weiss’ syncopated percussion lines. You can hear throughout Cities why Weiss has been in such demand from other indie rock acts during Sleater-Kinney’s hiatus.

Album opener “Price Tag” serves both as one of the album’s best tracks and a transitional song to reintroduce old listeners to the band’s slight shift in direction while bringing new fans immediately into the fold, building up a store of potential energy in the verses before exploding into a chorus where Tucker sounds like she’s still holding a little piece of rage in reserve for future use. “Surface Envy” completes the opening troika by paradoxically turning a descending scale into a memorable riff, I think primarily because of how it ends in a crash between Brownstein’s power chords and Weiss’s pulsating drums, an aural waterfall hitting the rocks and splashing everywhere. “No Anthems” borrows a little from stoner rock to underlie Tucker’s introspective lyrics, evincing some nostalgia for the band’s former, reluctant role as standard-bearers for the riot grrl movement. The album’s only real stumble, “Hey Darling,” a stab at power-pop that sounds wrong coming from Tucker’s lungs, gives way quickly to the melancholy closer “Fade,” which alludes to pre-grunge sounds from Mudhoney and Soundgarden in the first movement, after which Weiss powershifts into a march for the bridge, leading into Brownstein’s pedal-point riff that drives the reprise of the first third to close out the song and the album. It’s the most ornate song on Cities, the right way to finish an album that would otherwise have been split in two by its complexity amidst a run of tighter, faster tracks.

I was never fully on board with the hype around Sleater-Kinney, because I thought they were more of A Really Important Thing than a producer of great tracks, which may color my impression of No Cities to Love … but it’s my favorite album by the band, by a huge margin. This is the kind of album we would hope middle-aged punks could produce after some time away from their main act, but that very few artists are capable of pulling off.

If you’re a fan of Sleater-Kinney, I highly recommend this Pitchfork feature story on the band, with many enlightening comments from the band members on the direction of this latest album. I also suggest you check out the 2013 album Silence Yourself by Savages, who walk the same paths first plowed by bands like Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland, and 7 Year Bitch.