Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicago eats, 2014 edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of Midlothian and other recent reads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Casual Vacancy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Want My Soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July music update.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Run River North.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Targi "board."

The Targi “board.”

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

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

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

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

Entombed A.D.’s Back to the Front.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday five, 7/26/14.

My content at over the last seven days…

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

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

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

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