Wye Oak’s Shriek.

I’ve got a chat today at 1 pm ET, and my one column this week was on the Nationals’ mishandling of Bryce Harper.

Indie-folk duo Wye Oak overhauled their entire sound with their latest album, Shriek, released earlier this week on Merge Records to strong reviews (Pitchfork and AV Club both raved about it, while Consequence of Sound was more guarded). Ditching the jangly guitars of their earlier work, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have stripped everything down to a synth-drum-and-bass sound that sounds like a search for something that the pair weren’t truly able to find.

Shriek starts off with a grand announcement that this is no longer the Wye Oak of Civilian, with a throwaway keyboard line that goes on, without any backing, for about 15 seconds too long, before we get the potent bass line (one of the album’s strengths is Wasner’s bass work throughout) and the half-a-drum loop, resulting in a dreary if atmospheric dirge that will likely feel like a letdown to anyone who enjoyed Wye Oak’s earlier work. The first three songs, including the title track and the abysmally cheap-sounding “The Tower,” all share that maudlin feel, with Wasner’s vocals and bass somewhat wasted over insufficient percussion and synth lines, and tempos that left me waiting for someone to pick up the pace.

“Glory” finally finds Wye Oak veering more into electro-pop territory, not as bright and sunny as CHVRCHES or St. Lucia, thanks to Wasner’s smoky vocals and the sudden stop at the end of each four-beat drum loop. The result is a darker, more seductive sound that still finds Wye Oak in unfamiliar territory compared to the preceding trio of songs. “Sick Talk” is more overtly CHVRCHES-like with the spare synth-and-drum riff behind Wasner’s higher-pitched, ethereal vocals – reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins, especially since I can’t make out much of what she’s saying – while “Schools of Eyes” starts to wind the tempo back down; it’s not quite as languorous as what comes afterwards, built on a brushed drum pattern and the application of reverb to Wasner’s vocals that give the song a richer texture than most of Shriek‘s other material.

The final four tracks harken back to the opening triad, with slower pacing, starker production, and amateurish synth lines that I’ve always found irritating for the way they seem to emphasize the instrument’s artificality. “Paradise” at least makes its synth riff a dissonant one, and the texture provided by multiple layers of percussion and a vocal that is set off from the primary rhythm of the song by about a half-beat makes the song compelling despite the lack of a clear melody, similar to Bjork’s less poppy work from her last few albums. It’s the last great moment on the album, however, a disc that ends with the whimper of “Logic of Color,” which sounds like it was recorded on a $99 Casio synthesizer from 1988, beneath the weakest lyrics on the album as well. Wye Oak’s decision to abandon guitars for keyboards was a radical shift, but one that could have worked better if they had maintained portions of their old sound rather than producing a record that, around a few standout tracks, sounds like the debut record from a new artist.


Himalayan, the third album from English rock trio Band of Skulls, finds the band moving into more nuanced, original territory, keeping the heavy guitar sounds and blues-rock influences from their last album Sweet Sour but stepping up the songcraft enough to make it sound like something new. There are plenty of winks and nods to other bands, some welcome and some tired, but the result is powerful and intense, and one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year. (It’s $6.99 through that amazon link above; it’s also on iTunes for $9.99, including a bonus track.)

Band of Skulls have taken some heat for sounding too derivative of other artists, but if you’re going to be derivative, at least be derivative of a broad list of influences – and Band of Skulls certainly do that. You could pick out Black Sabbath (“Asleep at the Wheel”), Led Zeppelin (“Heaven’s Key”), and White Stripes (“I Guess I Know You Fairly Well”), but there’s also Marilyn Manson (“Hoochie Coochie”), Arcade Fire (“Nightmares”), and even a little Bowie (“I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying”).

The twin strengths of Band of Skulls are the huge guitar riffs by Russell Marsden and the shared vocals between Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson, with the two aspects helping balance each other – the riffs border on New Wave of British Heavy Metal territory, but the harmonies and female vocals provide the contrast to keep them off Ozzy’s Boneyard. The album starts with the lead single, “Asleep at the Wheel,” built around a riff to make Tony Iommi or Brian Tatler proud, but the lead-in is, appropriately, a driving minor-chord pattern from ’70s AOR, leading into the title track’s Zeppelin-esque rhythm guitars, a track that makes great use of the two vocalists in its chorus.

That takes us to the most interesting song on the album, “Hoochie Coochie,” which sounds for all the world like a reconstructed take on Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” right down to the high/low vocal pattern, but with a guitar part more in line with vintage Iron Maiden for its faster tempo. Himalayan‘s shortest track, clocking in at a brisk 2:40 and never letting up on the groove that drives the verses, the song probably has as little to say lyrically as any other on the album, but the main guitar riff gives such a strong impression of wheels turning at high speed that the song compels further listens – and the Bonhamesque percussion, present on several tracks here, helps add to the sense of urgency.

Band of Skulls deviates once more from their basic blues-rock formula with “Toreador,” which is the first hard-rock paso doble song I can remember hearing, with the guitar and drum playing a synchronized two-step rhythm behind the vocals (sung by Richardson), referring to the bullfight as “just a cloak-and-dagger score.” Rapid tempo shifts evoke the changing directions of the toreo, leading into a machine-gun riff that once again calls Adrian Smith’s early work to mind, until the uncertain conclusion after one more iteration of the chorus. It’s a clever transposition of two styles that wouldn’t seem to have any natural connection, and probably has more airplay potential than anything else on the album.

Himalayan can drag when Band of Skulls decides to slow things down, exposing both the weak nature of some of their lyrics and the lack of texture inherent in a trio when you have to turn off the heavy distortion of the lead guitar; for example, “I Feel Like Ten Men, Nine Dead and One Dying” starts off like a Doves B-side, leaving the listener waiting for the Big Crunch to arrive (which it does, in the chorus). “Nightmares” is the album’s strongest mid-tempo song, with the ethereal production of pre-Reflektor Arcade Fire, but again the weak lyrics become more noticeable when the guitars are toned down. There are more than enough high-energy tracks and passages on Himalayan to make up for some soft spots, and I particularly enjoyed its updating of classic sounds from the late-70s/early-80s period of British hard rock and metal that was prevalent even when I was in high school a few years after that. When Band of Skulls decide they want to rock, they rock. They just need to do more of that.

Saturday five, 4/26/14.

The weekly roundup of my ESPN content from the past seven days:

* The top 25 MLB players under age 25. The comments are a cesspool of no-one-ever-reads-the-intro ignorance, too.
* Scouting notes on Lakewood and Charleston prospects, including Aaron Judge and J.P. Crawford.
* Draft blog post on Virginia prep RHP Jake Bukauskus, who is graduating a year early and will likely go in the first round.
* This week’s Klawchat.

The original purpose of the Saturday five post was to include a list of five somethings that had caught my eye or ear recently, like songs, but eventually I just stripped it down to five links per week so that I could post more regularly with a little less pressure on myself. I’m bringing that old format back this week to talk about one of my newest obsessions – coffee. Here are five small roasters, some pretty well-known, whose coffees I’ve enjoyed both at home (with one exception) and on the road.

* Four Barrel. A San Francisco-based roaster focused on single-origins from around the world, and whose coffees I first tried at Phoenix’s wonderful Giant Coffee bar on First Street, not far from Matt’s Big Breakfast (owned by the same guy). A reader who works at Four Barrel was kind enough to send me some of their offerings from this spring, and the Rwandan Musabiymana beans made the best espresso shot I’ve ever pulled at home, with blackberry and blood orange notes and just the right amount of acidity for my particular tastes. I also recommend their Friendo Blendo blend.

* Intelligentsia. One of the biggest of the small guys, Intelligentsia has made huge inroads into the restaurant side of the business as well as opening a handful of high-end artisan shops where the coffee is just part of a larger experience. Their roasts are very light, at least relative to what I think American coffee drinkers expect (Starbucks, Peet’s), and like Four Barrel they specialize in single-origins, engaging in direct trade with farmers around the world. Their Ljulu Lipati beans from Zambia are the only ones from that country I’ve ever tried, and they have a little less acidity and citrus notes than other East African beans I’ve had, with cherry and honey notes making a more balanced cup. Their Black Cat espresso makes a well-rounded shot with great body and the sweetness you’d expect from a blend of South American beans. Intelligentsia has multiple coffee bars in LA and Chicago, plus a new one in the High Line Hotel in New York City.

* heart coffee. A friend of mine at Intelligentsia first introduced me to heart as well, and I’ve since found their beans at Crepe Bar in Tempe and at Culture Espresso in Manhattan. They’re smaller than the preceding two roasters so their options are fewer, but they seem to always have choices from Central/South America as well as Africa, along with a seasonal blend. I particularly liked the Colombian La Pradera beans, which had enough vanilla notes to give it a sweet veneer over richer fruit notes – their website suggests cantaloupe, which I didn’t pick up at all, as well as “nougat,” which I can’t even imagine what that means in a coffee.

* Counter Culture. This is the one on the list I haven’t tried at home yet, but I’ve had them all over the south, including at Joule in Raleigh last month. Hugh Acheson also swears by these guys, and that’s a pretty good recommendation as he’s become a dedicated coffeehound recently. (He’s a good follow on Twitter/Instagram for his coffee meanderings, along with snark and the occasional baseball and hockey commentary.) My favorite so far is La Golondrina, sourced direct from the farm in Colombia, with cocoa, caramel, and bourbon (the drink, not the coffee cultivar) notes.

* Downtown Coffee. This Honolulu micro-roaster and cafe offers a rare opportunity to buy American, if you’re so inclined – Hawai’i is the only U.S. state with the proper climate for coffee cultivation, and Downtown Coffee roasts beans from four of the islands in the chain, both as single-origins and in blends. We visited the shop on our family vacation to Hawai’i in 2012, and loved their coffee and the homemade Japanese pastries they sell, including a fantastic matcha torte that I’ve never had anywhere else. I just ordered beans from them a few weeks ago and have been tearing through their Spring Blend, a medium roast offering with beans from Maui and Waialua (Oahu); its espresso shots have great body and more of the cocoa notes I love in espresso. If you visit the shop, ask for Fred or Fumiko to give you a “tour” of all of the local beans they offer – they’re very knowledgeable, since everything is roasted on-site, and walked me through the differences between beans from each island.

And now, for the Saturday links…

Manchester Orchestra’s Cope.

Manchester Orchestra’s newest album, Cope, has the biggest guitar sound I can remember hearing on any record, gigantic, immersive riffs that I’d love to hear when I plug my own axe into an amplifier. Hell, I want these chords to play any time I enter a room. If Sam Cassell pretended to hold guitar riffs instead of his balls after making a big play, he’d be holding the riffs from Cope.

MO layers these riffs over lugubrious rhythms that derive more from doom metal (acts like Trouble or Cathedral) than from any subgenre in the indie or alternative rock worlds, a formula that produces an uneven album but that works more often than it doesn’t, especially given the naturally despairing tone of Andy Hull’s voice. Album opener and first single “Top Notch” best demonstrates this combination of left- and right-hand paths, with an enormous crunch to open the track that evokes early Black Sabbath both in its force and in the use of sudden transitions from high-intensity riffs to slow, quiet passages beneath the lyrics, the strongest on the disc. The lyrical yearning pairs with the tantalizing pause and buildup into each chorus; the quick stops after each riff leave you standing at the edge of a crumbling cliff, waiting for the next giant crunch to arrive, only to have it come a beat later than you expected.

When MO utilize that set of contrasts – loud/quiet, staccato finishes/tentative restarts – they provide Cope with its strongest tracks, including the opener, “The Mansion,” the 6/4 track “The Ocean,” and “Trees,” the last of which has an opening lick that could have come off a recent Black Keys album. The plaintive riff that opens the waltz “All That I Really Wanted” prop up the generic expressions of regret in the verses – Cope isn’t Hull’s strongest work as a lyricist – in a track that might have served as a better closer than the title track. “The Mansion” is more straightforward, at least in tone and time signature, but another dramatic shift into the chorus punctuates the rather morbid verses that precede each one.

However, when the pace picks up, the music becomes a little one-note – the harmonies sound overproduced, the tension is lacking, and the weaker lyrics become more noticeable. “Girl Harbor” sounds like an aborted attempt at a straight pop song, lacking not only the huge riffs that distinguish the album as a whole but even missing any kind of dissonant or contrasting note to tone down the saccharine lyrics. “Every Stone” is similarly upbeat without balance; that’s not who Manchester Orchestra is, and it’s certainly not what they do best, so when they head in this direction, the harsh or heavy elements are notable by their absence. Those vocal harmonies work so well in the midst of a song that otherwise borders on hard rock or metal, but they risk coming too close to OneRepublic when they indulge in those harmonies without that note of acidity to create a more complete dish.

Cope represents a step forward again for Manchester Orchestra, whose critically-acclaimed 2011 release Simple Math dwelled too much on insular, tenebrous sounds and didn’t have anywhere near the aural appeal of this album. Some listeners may not appreciate the shift from indie-rock quirkiness (like Simple Math‘s “Pensacola”) to full-on metal-tinged rock, but of all of the stylistic dialects the band has tried, this one suits Andy Hull’s voice and lyrics the best, even with some inconsistencies in their transition to this kind of sound.

I take a fair amount of time to review albums, giving them as many listens as I think necessary to write up a proper review, which means I won’t usually have a review out the day an album’s released (only if I have a promo copy), and I won’t review every album I hear. I’m hoping to write up at least three more recent releases before draft season starts to overwhelm me – Band of Skulls’ Himalayan, Jimi Goodwin’s Odludek, and The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream.

Saturday five, 4/19/14.

My ESPN content from the past week:

* Scouting reports on prep RHP Tyler Kolek and JC righty Heath Fillmyer.
* My report on this week’s Sally League matchup between Hunter Harvey (Baltimore) and Lucas Giolito (Washington).
* Scouting notes from my Georgia trip last week, including a rant on NC State overusing Carlos Rodon.

There was no Klawchat this week because my flight to Houston didn’t have wifi, and the “Top 25 under 25″ ranking has been pushed back to April 24th. Also, as I mentioned here last week, if you want new Behind the Dish episodes any time soon, let ESPN know.

* If you missed my review of Thinking, Fast and Slow, it’s worth checking it out – the book is popular among the more analytically-minded front offices in MLB.

* The wonderful Agricola iOS app is on sale right now, $4 (down from $7), and the two IAPs are on sale as well. I own the whole set, and it’s the best complex boardgame app available.

And now, to the Saturday links….

Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (yes, the ‘fake’ Nobel) for his groundbreaking work in behavioral economics, the branch of the dismal science that shows we are even bigger idiots than we previously believed. Kahnemann’s work, and his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, identify and detail the various cognitive biases and illusions that affect our judgment and decision-making, often leading to suboptimal or undesirable outcomes that might be avoided if we stop and think more critically and less intuitively. (It’s just $2.99 for the Kindle right now, through that link.)

Kahnemann breaks the part of our brain that responds to questions, challenges, or other problems into two separate systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the fast-reaction system: When you hear or read a question, or face a specific stimulus, your brain brings back an answer, an image, or a memory without you having to consciously search the hard drive and call up the file. System 2 does what we would normally think of as “thinking:” slow calculations, considering variables, weighing options, and so on. The problem, as Kahnemann defines it, is that System 2 is lazy and often takes cues from System 1 without sufficiently questioning them. System 1 can be helpful, but it isn’t always your friend, and System 2 is passed out drunk half the time you need it.

Thing 1 and Thing 2
Systems 1 and 2 in a rare moment of concordance.

The good news here is that Kahneman’s work, much of which with his late colleage Amos Tversky (who died before he could share the Nobel Prize with Kahneman), offers specific guidance on the breakdowns in our critical thinking engines, much of which can be circumvented through different processes or detoured by slowing down our thinking. One of the biggest pitfalls is what Kahneman calls WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is, the process by which the brain jumps to a conclusion on the basis of insufficient evidence, because that evidence is all the brain has, and the human brain has evolved to seek causes for events or patterns. This leads to a number of biases or errors, including:

  • The halo effect: You like someone or something, and thus you judge that person or object or story more favorably. This is why good-looking politicians fare better than ugly ones in polls.
  • The framing effect: How you ask the question alters the answer you receive. Kahnemann cites differing reactions to the same number presented two ways, such as 90% lean vs 10% fat, or a 0.01% mortality rate versus 100 deaths for every 1 million people.
  • Base-rate neglect: A bit of mental substitution, where the brain latches on to a detail about a specific example without adequately considering the characteristics of that example’s larger group or type.
  • Overconfidence: This combines the WYSIATI problem with what I’ll call the “it can’t happen to me” syndrome, which Kahneman correctly identifies as a core explanation for why so many people open restaurants, even though the industry has one of the highest failure rates around.

Although Kahneman has crafted enough of a flow to keep the book coherent from chapter to chapter, Thinking, Fast and Slow is primarily a list of significant biases or flawed heuristics our brains employ and explanations of how they work and how to try to avoid them. This includes the availability heuristic, where we answer a question about probability or prevalence by substituting the easier question of how easy it is to remember examples or instances of the topic in question. If I give you a few seconds to tell me how many countries there are in Africa, you might name a few in your head, and the faster those names come to you, the larger your guess will be for the total.

Thinking, Fast and Slow also offers an unsettling section for anyone whose career is built on obtaining and delivering knowledge, such as subject-matter experts paid for their opinions, a category that includes me: We aren’t that good at our jobs, and we probably can’t be. One major reason is the representativeness fallacy, which leads to the base-rate neglect I mentioned earlier. The representativeness fallacy leads the subject – let’s say an area scout here, watching a college position player – to overvalue the variables he sees that are specific to this one player, without adequately weighting variables common to the entire class of college position players. It may be that college position players from that particular conference don’t fare as well in pro ball as those from the SEC or ACC; it may be that college position players who have or lack a specific skill have higher/lower rates of success. The area scout’s report, taken by itself, won’t consider those “base rates” enough, if at all, and to a large degree teams do not expect or ask the area scouts to do so. However, teams that don’t employ any kind of system to bring those base rates into their overall decision-making, from historical research on player archetypes to analysis of individual player statistics adjusted for context, will confuse a plethora of scouting opinions for a variety of viewpoints, and will end up making flawed or biased decisions as a result.

Kahneman’s explanation of regression to the mean, and how that should impact our forecasting, is the best and clearest I’ve come across yet – and it’s a topic of real interest to anyone who follows baseball, even if you’re not actually running your own projections software or building an internal decision-sciences system. Humans are especially bad at making predictions where randomness (“luck”) is a major variable, and we tend to overweight recent, usually small samples and ignore the base rates from larger histories. Kahneman lays out the failure to account for regression in a simple fashion, pointing out that if results = skill + luck, then the change in results (from one game to the next, for example) = skill + change in luck. At some point, skill does change, but it’s hard or impossible to pinpoint when that transpires. Many respected baseball analysts working online and for teams argue for the need to regress certain metrics back to the mean to try to account for the interference of randomness; one of my main concerns with this approach is that while it’s rational, it may make teams slower to recognize actual changes in skill level (or health, which affects skill) as a result. Then again, that’s where scouts can come in, noticing a decline in bat speed, a change in arm slot, or a new pitch that might explain why the noise has more signal than a regression algorithm would indicate.

One more chapter relevant to sports analytics covers the planning fallacy, or what Christina Kahrl always referred to as “wishcasting:” Forecasting results too close to best-case scenarios that don’t adequately consider the results of other, similar cases. The response, promulgated by Danish planning expert Bert Flyvbjerg (I just wanted to type that name), is called reference class forecasting, and is just what you’d expect the treatment for the planning fallacy to include. If you want to build a bridge, you find as many bridge construction projects as you can, and obtain all their statistics, such as cost, time to build, distance to be covered, and so on. You build your baseline predictions off of the inputs and results of the reference class, and you adjust it accordingly for your specific case – but only slightly. If all 30 MLB teams did this, no free-agent reliever would ever get a four-year deal again.

Thinking explains many other biases and heuristics that lead to inferior decision-making, including loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the one Ned Colletti just screwed up, the sunk cost fallacy, where money that is already spent (whether you continue to employ the player or not) affects decisions on whether or not to continue spending on that investment (or to keep Brandon League on the 40-man roster). He doesn’t specifically name recency bias, but discusses its effects at length in the final section, where he points out that if you ask someone how happy s/he is with his/her life, the answer will depend on what’s happened most recently (or is happening right now) to the respondent. This also invokes the substitution effect: It’s hard for me to tell you exactly how happy or satisfied I am with my life as a whole, so my brain will substitute an easier question, namely how happy I feel at this specific moment.

That last third of the book shifts its focus more to the psychological side of behavioral economics, with subjects like what determines our happiness or satisfaction with life or events within, and the difficulty we have in making rational – that is, internally consistent – choices. (Kahneman uses the word “rational” in its economic and I think traditional sense, describing thinking that is reasonable, coherent, and not self-contradictory, rather than the current sense of “rational” as skeptical or atheist.) He presents these arguments with the same rigor he employs throughout the book, and the fact that he can be so rigorous without slowing down his prose is Thinking‘s greatest strength. While Malcolm Gladwell can craft brilliant narratives, Kahneman builds his story up from scientific, controlled research, and lets the narrative be what it may. (Cf. “narrative fallacy,” pp. 199-200.) If there’s a weak spot in the book, in fact, it comes when Kahneman cites Moneyball as an example of a response (Oakland’s use of statistical analysis) to the representativeness fallacy of scouting – but never mentions the part about Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito helping lead to those “excellent results at low cost.” That aside – and hey, maybe he only saw the movie – Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most important books for my professional life that I have ever read, and if you don’t mind prose that can be a little dense when Kahneman details his experiments, it is an essential read.

Atlanta eats, 2014 edition.

I’m starting with the least famous of the three restaurants where I had dinner, The Lawrence, where the kitchen is run by former Richard Blais protege Chef Mark Nanna. The Lawrence’s menu focuses on local produce in southern-influenced dishes, many straightforward, a few with clever twists, but all easily recognizable to diners who aren’t familiar with (or, God forbid, fans of) Blais’ more experimental style.

I went with small plates at the Lawrence, rather than the very reasonably priced entrees (none over $26), so I could sample more items, which turned out to be a great call because I ended up with a pair of superb salads along with one meat course and one fish. The first salad was the kale “seasar,” using fried smelt as the croutons rather than mixing anchovies into the dressing (which isn’t authentic anyway), so the dish had that umami component but without the stale croutons you’re probably used to finding in most Caesars. The mixed radish salad was a small portion of thinly shaved radishes, including daikon and Cherry Belle, with a light lemon/celery seed dressing, slighty bitter but balanced by the acidity of the lemon juice, and generally a good representation of early spring produce on the plate.

For proteins, I couldn’t pass on the tuna tartare, the Lawrence’s twist on the familiar “spicy tuna” abomination found at most sushi places, where you get the scrapings left over after the tuna fillets are sliced for nigiri, all tossed in spicy mayonnaise so you no longer taste the fish. The Lawrence’s version has diced tuna mixed with a scallion mayonnaise and a spicy sambal sauce, but the fish’s flavor and texture remains at the front of the dish, with the heat from the chili coming afterwards, balanced out from the fat in the mayonnaise. It’s served under a hilariously large rice cracker that doubles as your serving spoon when broken into bits. My server said the baby back ribs starter was their most popular dish (of the small plates, I assume): served with a sriracha glaze, pickled chili peppers, and cilantro leaves, they are fiery, but I was most impressed by how the meat tore right off the bone without falling apart itself, retaining sufficient tooth to give that primal satisfaction that only meat can provide.

And that led me to dessert, my favorite dish of the meal, a chocolate tart with spiced nuts, cinnamon/sugar ice cream, and honey. The tart itself reminded me of one of my favorite packaged cookies from when I was a kid, even though I’m sure I’d despise them now: Stella d’Oro Swiss Fudge cookies, a shortbread thumbprint cookie with a creamy milk chocolate filling. (Fellow New York natives may remember their “no cookies?” commercials, as well as the “breakfast treats” commercial parodied by Patton Oswalt.) Anyway, the Lawrence’s version is a trillion times better – a perfect shortcrust tart with a dark chocolate filling, curried crushed peanuts, and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream with a faint cinnamon flavor. The crust was the revelation, crumbly but not brittle, easy to break into pieces without shattering all over the plate, and the chocolate was dark enough for my tastes but I don’t think it would turn off people who prefer milk chocolate to bittersweet. The entire meal, all five plates, was about $44 before tip.

The first meal I had in Atlanta was dinner at Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South, where Kiley McDaniel and I opted for the six-course tasting menu rather than trying to pick and choose from all the appealing menu items. It was too much food overall for me, but I didn’t care for the dessert option (personal tastes, nothing wrong with it) so I stopped there. The meal started with an oyster shooter as an amuse-bouche, then led into the one vegetarian course, a salad of beets and strawberries, with house-made ricotta, candied pecans, rhubarb, burnt honey, and bee pollen – a lot going on, but the dish was primarily about the beets and strawberries, with the rhubarb (pickled, if I remember correctly) providing some acidic to balance the sweetness of the two central ingredients. That was followed by the catfish sausage, which was … well, exactly what you’d expect, served over a smoked catfish crème fraiche. Fish sausage is peculiar, I think because lifelong carnivores have programmed their brains to expect a different set of flavors and textures when presented with something that looks like sausage, but this version had that mild, freshly-caught catfish flavor – not “fishy” in the pejorative sense, but I do find even very fresh catfish to have that sort of creek flavor that marks it as fish. It benefited from the searing that’s visible in the photo below.

Jumping forward a little bit, after a seared flounder dish and a “stuffed” quail with andouille sausage (not really astuffed so much as served-with, still very good), we got to the star of the meal: Medium-rare New York strip steak served over braised short ribs. I don’t often eat cow, but when I do, this is what I want, the best-quality beef cooked two ways, both superbly, and in ways that complemented each other, particularly the slightly tannic note from the short ribs (which may have been cooked in red wine, although I don’t think the menu or server said).

Oh, and I can’t forget the cocktail of choice, the Circuit Hymn: Bourbon, Rainwater Madeira (a lighter, drier variation of regular Madeira), vanilla liqueur, and orange & chocolate bitters, served in an old-fashioned glass with one enormous ice cube. I’m not a straight bourbon drinker, but the combination here amplified bourbon’s better qualities and tempered the smoke note that has always dominated aged whiskeys to my palate.

The third dinner was back to Blais’ place, the Spence, where I’ve spent enough time that my server recognized me from last April. The Spence is conveniently located within walking distance of Georgia Tech’s baseball field, so I was able to sneak in there for a dinner of a few small plates and still make it into the stadium in time for Luke Weaver’s first pitch. I think my favorite plate this time – the menu changes every few days, although there are a few standbys – was the one I didn’t order, a gift from the kitchen since Alex (my server) recognized me: salt-cured sunchokes, quickly fried, served with a romesco sauce, a traditional Catalunian sauce made from pureed nuts, red peppers, and often roasted or smoked tomatoes. The Spence’s version was creamier than others I’ve had, more like an aioli than a pesto, and was the ideal sauce for the sunchokes, like an upscale variation on the popular hand-cut French fries with spicy mayo combination you’ll find at upscale burger joints.

I always try to order one of the two fresh pastas on the menu at the Spence, taking Alex’s suggestion this time of the tarragon bucatini with pulled chicken and grapes – a chicken salad sandwich reimagined as a piping hot pasta dish. A bite with every element in it did indeed evoke the sandwich, but in a much more enjoyable way – I tend to think of chicken salad as a combination of dried-out meat and too much mayonnaise, but this, of course, had neither of those problems. I also loved the white anchovy tartine, with avocado, thinly sliced black radish, and candied kumquats, although I’ve never met a white anchovy dish I didn’t like. They’re natural brothers to avocados, and whatever bread the Spence uses for its tartines and terrines, it is absolutely inhalable when grilled.

Moving on from dinner, I had one lunch of note, meeting a friend for sushi at Tomo in Buckhead, what I’d call solid-average for its nigiri offerings, getting bonus points because the snapper came with lemon juice already on it and the server said not to dip it in the soy sauce – usually a good sign of authenticity. The fish was fresh but not California-fresh, more noticeable in the texture than the flavor. The rolls tended toward the American palate, with lots of inauthentic ingredients, and the spicy tuna roll my friend ordered was, as usual, oversauced with mayonnaise. I’ve definitely become more spartan in my sushi tastes over the years – a seaweed salad and some simple nigiri options are a perfect meal for me – so those of you who enjoy American-style rolls and combinations may enjoy Tomo more than I did.

My coffee quest brought me to Octane Coffee in the Midtown West area, almost by mistake – I’d read they served coffee from Counter Culture, one of the best roasters in the country, but it now appears Octane roasts its own, with single origins for pourovers as well as a blend for espresso that changes regularly. The espresso the day I visited was mostly Brazilian and Peruvian (I think), with a little Yirgacheffe (Ethiopian) to add some citrus notes. I like a little more character in an espresso but the shot was perfectly pulled and had good body to it. Octane also has a few food items, including a very fun “PB&J granola parfait,” with yogurt, peanut butter, fresh strawberry preserves, and granola in it, as well as locally made pastries like the oversized croissant I ordered but couldn’t finish after the parfait. This Octane location, one of five (three in Atlanta, two in Birmingham), serves beer and lunch as well, and the whole vibe is somewhere between hipster hangout and European cafe. They get bonus points for the cashier taking an extra minute to answer my question about the espresso blend with the actual ratio of beans – even though it held up the line for another minute or two, I appreciate the effort.

Sip the Experience was the one disappointment of the trip; they do serve Counter Culture Coffee, but my espresso was watery and bland, and the egg scramble was overcooked to the point of rubberiness. I also found the service unfriendly, not that I’d care that much if the coffee was solid.

One last Atlanta food note: My #sources tell me Top Chef alumnus Eli Kirshtein is opening his new restaurant, the Luminary, possibly in May, in the Krog Street Market development in Inman Park, just east of downtown. It’ll be one of my next stops whenever I get back to Georgia.

Kaiser Chiefs and Cloud Nothings.

My latest post at ESPN is on the draft blog, discussing Carlos Rodon’s pitch counts and scouting some draft prospects, including Luke Weaver and Max Pentecost.

Kaiser Chiefs’ second-ever single, 2004′s “I Predict a Riot,” was a global hit and one of my favorite songs of the first decade of the 2000s. Their second album had one solid single, “Ruby,” but since that point the bad seemed to hit new lows with each release; their 2012 album Start the Revolution Without Me was so bad I never bothered to review it.

That devolution makes this year’s Education, Education, Education & War (also on iTunes) all the more fantastic: It’s the best album of the band’s career, packed with blue-collar anthems, still melodic but with a new lyrical maturity and more consistent hooks from start to finish. No track stands out quite like “Riot,” but there are a half-dozen songs on here that would hold up well as singles, and fewer filler tracks than any of their previous full-lengths. The album even gets bonus points for a cameo by the wonderful actor Bill Nighy, narrating a brief poem at the end of the disc’s best song, “Cannons.”

Education opens with a statement of purpose, “The Factory Gates,” a morbidly witty elegy to the dead-end job of the factory worker – ineffective as any kind of protest song, but more profound as a statement of despair at a career that no longer offers any kind of upward mobility: “I’m a shopworn sales campaign/Trapped behind yellow cellophane… ” That leads into the first single, the downtempo “Coming Home,” before the album’s first stumble in “Misery Company,” where a hackneyed bit of wordplay and overplayed cackling line after the chorus sound like someone’s trying too hard to get airplay.

The Chiefs’ strongest moments have always come when they infuse their songs with high-energy riffs, and other than the slower “Coming Home,” the same applies on Education, including “Factory Gates,” the stomping “Ruffians on Parade,” and the quartet of songs that starts with “One More Last Song” and concludes with the anti-war song “Cannons.” I don’t think there’s anything new to be said on the whole “war is bad” theme, but the Chiefs work in some clever imagery – “they treat us like we’re extras in an epic” – without resorting to cheap humor, all above the album’s best earworm, the “we’re gonna need a lot more cannons/if you want to be home by Christmas” couplet that opens the chorus. That song dissolves into the two-minute poem read by Nighy, penned by Chiefs songwriter Ricky Wilson, about “the occupation of Damnation Eternal” by an unnamed superpower, a strange interlude for the middle of a rock album, although I could probably listen to Nighy narrate the unabridged War and Peace without losing interest.

Lyrical cleverness is great but hardly sells me on an album; where Education, Education, Education & War succeeds and its predecessors failed is in the music. Something clicked back into place for the Chiefs, perhaps related to the departure of lead songwriter and drummer Nick Hodgson, so this album is packed with more memorable riffs than their last three discs combined, many of which are just begging to be played live. It’s a choppy experience, with tracks like “Meanwhile Up in Heaven” and “Roses” depleting the energy the band has built up through preceding songs, and “Misery Company” inducing some cringes with the same bad puns that Soul Asylum used 15 years ago. The album’s title comes from a famous (in the UK) 1997 speech by Tony Blair, where he may not have used the “and war” part of the quote, and there’s a clear nod back to the Blur camp of the mid-1990s Britpop divide. That melodic sensibility breathes new life into the Chiefs, a band that appeared to have wound itself down as recently as two years ago.

* Part of why I’ve dithered on posting any album reviews is that I kept listening to Here and Nowhere Else (also on iTunes), the latest release from Cloud Nothings, and found myself failing to draw anything resembling a conclusion about it. After two more listens during my trip to Atlanta, I’m ready to say it: It’s not that great.

Cloud Nothings are primarily the brainchild of Dylan Baldi, a Cleveland-born singer-songwriter who wrote and recorded their entire first album in 2011, since which point the solo project has morphed into an actual band. Baldi et al tend to write their songs quickly, and it shows on Here and Nowhere Else, an eight-song, 30-minute album where each track sounds like nothing so much as the ones before and after it. There are a few more melodic songs, notably lead single “I’m Not Part of Me” and opener “Now Hear In,” but there seems to be an almost deliberate desire to recreate the kind of simple bang-on-a-can ethos of teenaged garage bands that, recorded professionally by seasoned musicians, can come off as repetitive. When Baldi stretches out on the album’s one long track, “Pattern Walks,” he starts screaming the lyrics as if to recapture the listener’s attention, which has wandered after the previous six tracks of pleasant sameness. There’s nothing inherently bad about the album, but I keep waiting for something truly new from Baldi, while instead, Here and Nowhere Else sounds like a good band in stasis.

Saturday five, 4/12/14.

Just two ESPN.com posts from me this week, although there’s more coming up next week:

* A long post on Wilmington (Kansas City) and Myrtle Beach (Texas) prospects.
* This week’s Klawchat transcript.

Many of you are asking about Behind the Dish. I don’t have an answer for you yet. I’m sorry. Feel free to let ESPN know you want the show back soon.

And now, for this week’s five links of interest:

The Comedians.

What use to anyone was the body of an ex-Minister? A corpse couldn’t even suffer. But unreason can be more terrifying than reason.

I’ve made my adoration for the novels of Graham Greene, particularly his political novels, clear on this site many times; I’ve read more novels by Greene than those of any other author but Wodehouse and Christie. The Comedians (Penguin Classics) isn’t often listed among his greatest works, perhaps because it’s seen as less serious than his Catholic novels, but it remains a serious work in theme and tone. As an indictment of Third-World despotism in general and of Jean-Claude Duvalier in particular, it is searing and angry, yet Greene also manages to populate his novel with rich, flawed characters in whose struggles against the irreversible tide we find mirrors to ourselves.

The novel begins, with the wry humor that Greene always manages to slip into his works, with three men in a boat: Brown, Smith, and Jones, all “comedians” on the stage of life, each playing a part. Jones is the English confidence man, Brown the American hotelier in Haiti who has played his share of marks, and Smith the do-gooder American hoping to open a “vegetarian center” in Haiti with government funding. Brown returns from a lengthy stay overseas to find a government minister dead in his hotel pool; Jones is arrested as he tries to enter the country, triggering another long con for him; Smith and his wife find themselves unable to reconcile their good intentions with the corruption of the Duvalier regime. When Jones’ game turns around his fortunes, Brown becomes involved, putting himself at risk and that of his relationship with his unhappily-married mistress, Martha.

The tensions that result from Jones’ alternating hero/villain status with the State push the other central characters, including Martha, into situations that expose their rawest nerve endings. Every action they take bears multiple levels of meaning, for the regime is always presumed to be watching or listening, and punishment for its enemies is brutal, but not always swift. While the Smiths are innocents unable to adjust their worldview to fit a country ruled by a dictator with a secret police force, Brown and Jones are forced into the uncomfortable situation of having to confront their own histories of failure that they fled to Haiti to try to escape.

Brown narrates, but as with most Greene narrators, he’s adept at historical evaluations of his own emotions as well as those of others – but he’s also inept at anticipating the reactions of others. Brown knows he’s creating additional barriers between himself and Martha, beyond those of her husband, her needy son, and her social status, yet seems unable to stop himself from issuing the cutting remark or asking the wrong question. In the process, Brown manages to con himself, while also showing Martha a side of his personality she’d probably have preferred not to see. No one was better able to explore the nature of an affair of the heart in a novel that ostensibly dealt only with affairs of state than Greene, whether here, in The Quiet American, or even in a weaker novel like The Human Factor.

Failure looms as the other overarching theme of The Comedians, from the failure of Haiti itself to establish a functioning, democratic government to the failure of U.S. policy in Haiti, supporting a borderline fascist autocracy because it stands as a bulwark against communism; from the failures of Brown, a moderately successful confidence man now running a de facto bankrupt hotel in the world’s least desirable location, to those of Jones, whose invented history may contain some or no kernels of truth whatsoever. Brown can’t run a business, manage an affair with a woman who is more than willing to maintain the status quo, or even help a political refugee escape. He is the greatest comedian of them all, an actor on a stage speaking someone else’s lines.

Nothing new from me on ESPN since the last update, but Chris Crawford has weekend draft update and his first weekly top ten prospects ranking for fantasy players.

Also, for Top Chef fans among you, Hugh Acheson tweeted a link earlier today where you can vote for the West Athens, GA, community garden to get a large grant from Seeds of Change. You can vote once a day while the contest is open.