Drenge & These New Puritans.

My analysis of the Josh Johnson and David Murphy signings is up for Insiders.

Drenge is a duo act comprising brothers from Derbyshire, England, whose self-titled debut album dropped in the United Kingdom in mid-August and will come out here in January. First recommended to me by one of you, a promo copy Drenge came across my desk this week (figuratively, since it was via email), and it’s promising if uneven, an intriguing blend of rock styles from post-punk to grunge to garage with at least three standout tracks. (If you’re in the U.K. you can buy the album via amazon. Otherwise, you can stream it on Spotify below.)

Although the White Stripes have set the standard for guitar-and-drum rock duos, Drenge have a little more in common with Jeff the Brotherhood, another sibling act that opts for heavier riffs and a chunkier sound for the guitar, without Jack White’s peripatetic musical style. Guitarist Eion Loveless’ rhythm lines are loud and aggressive, with abrupt tempo changes and shifts from the cleaner post-punk of Gang of Four to the fuzzier sounds of early Soundgarden or vintage Mudhoney. You can even hear bits of darkwave in some of the slower tracks, like the latter half of “Nothing” or nearly all of the eight-minute non sequitur closer “Let’s Pretend,” which might also be the result of distant influences from Black Sabbath or Angel Witch.

Where Drenge separates itself from similarly lo-fi/garage acts is in the five-song stretch from the album’s second track, the grim “Dogmeat” (which reminds me of a slowed-down take on Shed Seven’s “Dolphin”), through the pleasantly annoying “Face Like a Skull.” That quintet includes the album’s first single and best track, “Bloodsports,” where the brothers Loveless start to borrow more heavily from UK superstars the Arctic Monkeys in sound and melodic strength. The energy on “Bloodsports” starts with the fast-paced guitar line behind the verses, a la the intro to Nirvana’s “Breed,” but kicks up another gear with the drum-less riff right after the chorus, a trick Jack White has long used to great effect. “Backwaters” is the disc’s closest thing to a pop track, like Radiohead’s “I Might Be Wrong” tidied up for mass consumption yet still sinister enough to deliver lines like “I never seen blood or milk mix so divine/I never seen such beauty so malign,” a line followed by a riff so heavy you think the boys are shifting into mid-80s thrash mode. “Gun Crazy” turns the tempo back up to punk speed, a song to make Mark Arm proud for its first half that adds some complexity with off-beat staccato strumming in its final thirty-second coda.

The remainder of the album is far less consistent, including “Let’s Pretend,” which feels out of place and thoroughly bombastic for clocking in at twice the length of the next-longest song, “Fuckabout,” which is about as intellectually or aurally pleasing as the title indicates. “I Wanna Break You in Half” works as a suitably obnoxious fast-paced sub-two-minute track, but the same conceit flops on the unfunny “I Don’t Wanna Make Love to You” or the opener “People In Love Make Me Feel Yuck.” Eoin seems capable of lyrical subtletly, but too often settles for a sledgehammer to the forehead with a joke that feels like we’ve heard it a dozen times before. That can improve with experience and maturity, but Drenge’s ability to craft memorable hooks and evoke so many different eras in songs typically just two to three minutes long is already plus.

I also received a copy of the new album Field of Reeds by another English act, These New Puritans, which comprises twin brothers plus a third member, although the disc includes prominent contributions from over thirty-eight session musicians (per Wikipedia). I’ve previously mentioned the lead single, “Fragment Two,” which is also by far the album’s most conventional track in song structure, although even its music rarely follows the rules of modern rock music. I feel underqualified to talk about the album, given its experimental and highly artistic nature, with only Talk Talk’s Laughing Stalk coming to mind as a reference point (and I wouldn’t even say I know that album that well). The overwhelming sense I got from Field of Reeds was one of vastness, of the attempts to fill enormous ranges of space with haunting sounds that expanded upon release but never managed to reach the area’s borders. There are moments on the album of beauty, and just as many moments where it appears the band is trying to create a form of anti-music. As someone who tends to choose singles over albums, and gravitates towards melody over sonic textures, however, I found myself coming back to “Fragment Two” and the hynpotic “Organ Eternal,” the album’s two most accessible tracks. Field of Reeds is for mature listeners only.

Middlemarch.

This week’s Behind the Dish podcast reunited me with my old Baseball Today co-host Eric Karabell. And you all thought I died when I went over that waterfall with Bias Cat, didn’t you?

George Eliot’s Middlemarch appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and ranks 9th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, but after my intense dislike of her novel Mill on the Floss*, I expected a similarly arduous read, with slow prose and distant, even odious characters. Middlemarch feels like the work of a different author, however, less bleak and moralistic, with stronger, better-rounded characters (and a few jerks), and every bit as pointed a perspective on the restrictive nature of Victorian society, especially regarding the rights of women.

* Not to be confused with Millon de Floss, one of the great biographer-stalkers of his time.

Middlemarch weaves several related stories together, all centered in the fictional English town of the title, revolving around idealistic young characters whose desires go beyond the traditional spouse-seeking of English literature prior to the 1860s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, destined to be the semi-tragic heroine of the novel’s first major plot, as she rejects a suitor nearer her age and emotional temperament to marry the dour, chauvinistic theologian Edward Casaubon, a blowhard who is the first of the novel’s many comic side characters. Dorothea’s other suitor, Sir James Chettam, marries Dorothea’s sister in what becomes a far happier marriage. Edward refuses to induct Dorothea into his intellectual life, perhaps because it is nearly bankrupt, leaving her bored and unhappy until his early death, at which point an absurd codicil to his will forbids her to take up with Edward’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is a far better emotional match for Dorothea.

Middlemarch is also home to the Vincy siblings, Rosamund and Fred, a financially irresponsible pair who have very different aims in romance: Fred wants to marry Mary Garth, with whom he’s been in love for years, while Rosamund sinks her claws into the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, because she sees him as a path to upward mobility. Fred’s ability to marry is hampered by his dissolution, which leads him to bankrupt himself and nearly do the same to Mary’s father, while Rosamund manipulates the idealistic Lydgate, who doesn’t plan on marrying because it would interfere with his professional endeavors, into a betrothal he didn’t desire.

Eliot takes the usual themes of marriage and inheritance as the starting point for deeper explorations of character and societal mores than contemporary novels typically explored, helping usher in an era of fiction where independent women were increasingly found as central characters and where their lower standing in a male-dominated culture was fodder for entire novels. Dorothea begins as a high-minded, emotionally immature woman who reaches for some ill-defined goal in marrying the old pedant Casaubon, only to realize she’s grasped at a cloud and lost her independence without any intellectual gain. Fred has to be shamed into a life of industry and diligence, in a career that seemed beneath him, to have any chance to marry the woman he loves. Lydgate’s match with Rosamund turns out to be disastrous, as her extravagance nearly bankrupts him, his researches grind to a halt, and he’s caught up in a scandal involving the local squire Bulstrode, who makes ill use of the doctor to try to hide his own mistakes. While some characters face consequences for their own sins, others find their lives constrained by the need to keep up appearances, or by the effects of gossip about untoward appearances. Even in the epilogue, Eliot grants most of her characters middling outcomes, where financial success and happiness are mutually exclusive; Dorothea may at least fare the best, as she can find happiness even in an imperfect situation, telling Ladislaw that “if we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for,” marking why she stands above the rest as the novel’s real protagonist and most empathetic character.

As much as Dorothea stands at Middlemarch‘s moral center, Lydgate struck me as the most fascinating character because of the small window he provides into Eliot’s own views on the rise of science and research in English society and culture. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to work as a doctor to fund his researches, bringing ideas for reform and for greater service to those unable to afford proper medical care to a small town with decidedly staid ideas on what a doctor should do and say. The obstacles he encounters from the town’s aged, established medics slow his practice significantly, even when he has some success in treating difficult cases, but it is the marriage to the dim-witted, materialistic Rosamund that destroys his intellectual curiosity, because he can no longer devote time to research or volunteer work because he has to pay the debts she has accumulated. Coming from a male author, this might read as misogynistic, but Eliot imbues all of her characters, male and female, with strengths and defects, so even the venal Rosamund is multi-dimensional, while the reader cannot exonerate Lydgate of blame in his own downfall. (It’s also hard to accuse Eliot of anti-feminism when she has Mary say, “Husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”

Middlemarch might be the most-praised novel ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf referred to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” A.S. Byatt used that quote in her 2007 review, saying it was possible to argue – seriously, can you get more wishy-washy? – that Middlemarch is “the greatest English novel.” Daniel Burt’s top 100 only lists two English-language novels ahead of it – the abysmal Moby Dick and the abstruse Ulysses, the latter by an author who’d abandon English entirely in his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot’s prose is far more pleasant to read than Melville’s and easier to digest than Joyce’s, with incisive wit (as in the “husbands” comment above) or profound renditions of human emotions:

When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.

Writers who craft realistic characters typically exhibit this understanding of emotion and thought, whether the feelings depicted are negative (fear of mortality) or positive. Eliot can drift from compassion to disdain – Mary, the novel’s most insightful speaker, points out that “selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything in the world,” which is undeniable – over the course of a few pages, but there is always the sense that she reveres character, even if she doesn’t always revere her specific characters. I don’t share Woolf’s and Byatt’s veneration of Middlemarch, as the Lydgate/Rosamund thread tended to meander and Rosamund was the least compelling character in the book, but it is a marvelous novel, a broad study of many brilliantly rendered characters, and a lesson in integrating multiple storylines into a single narrative.

Pizzeria Vetri and Barbuzzo (Philly eats, part one).

Today’s Behind the Dish podcast featured physics professor Alan Nathan plus my thoughts on the World Series and the two Cuban free agents who just signed.

I’ve now had two meals at Pizzeria Vetri, the latest outpost of the Vetri family empire of Philly restaurants (including Vetri and Osteria), and am thoroughly impressed by their authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas and commitment to simple recipes with a handful of fresh ingredients. The pizzas come with the appropriate char on the exterior, moderate air bubbles in the exterior crust, and enough interior crust to hold together but not enough to support the weight of the toppings (which is correct, oddly enough). That exterior crust was softer than some other authentic Neapolitan pizzerias I’ve tried, but it was a net positive as it didn’t become tough once it cooled.

The margherita is dominated by the bright, sweet flavor of San Marzano tomoates, with huge basil leaves and a few dollops of fresh mozzarella, light enough that my daughter, age 7, could eat five of the six slices and still have room for dessert. I preferred the crudo, with prosciutto crudo, mozzarella di bufala, and shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, which had better balance across all the flavors with a slightly salty profile from the meat and the hard cheese, but the crusts on both were very good and cooked perfectly from char to center.

Vetri also offers a rotating special of Silician-style pizza (thicker crust, cooked in a sheet pan), which often reflects the chef’s caprices on that particular day. For our last visit, the “pizza al taglio” (pizza by the slice) special was roasted quince that had been cooked with red wine, along with fresh herbs including rosemary, and mozzarella and shaved pecorino romano. It was peculiar, a little like a wine-and-cheese course on top of a thick pizza crust, but the sharp crunch of the crust was the main selling point of the slice, with a little dose of olive oil like the underside of a good focaccia (which is pretty much Sicilian pizza dough cooked without toppings).

Vetri’s non-pizza offerings are limited, but they do include a Caesar salad and a “wood-fired” salad, the latter coming with roasted corn, green beans, and chanterelles, along with a generous portion of sliced prosciutto cotto and some Microplaned ricotta salata. With a drizzle of olive oil and a hint of vinegar, it’s an earthy mixture bound by the powerful umami notes of the roasted chanterelles and sweetness of the corn, and far more satisfying than I’d expect an item in the salad section of the menu to be. Vetri also offers a few dessert items and my daughter would like you to know that the fior di latte (sweet cream) soft-serve ice cream is the best soft-serve she’s ever had, although I warn you her affections can be fickle.

My daughter also accompanied me to Barbuzzo earlier this month, a restaurant I’d wanted to visit since coming across their salted caramel budino recipe in Bon Appetit several years ago; I’ve made them four or five times and wanted to compare my results to the real thing. Aside from a small lapse in service, the entire experience was superb, with some huge highlights from the savory part of the menu.

The kale salad was the surprise hit of the meal for me, featuring thinly sliced ribbons of dino kale (a.k.a. Cavolo nero or Tuscan kale or lacinato, it’s all the same damn leaf) tossed in a pistachio pesto dressing, served over a few slices of roasted red and yellow beets with soft goat cheese. I find kale an incredibly versatile ingredient, pairing up well with other flavors from across the spectrum, from bacon to nuts to cranberries or pomegranate arils, so I wasn’t shocked that it played well with pistachio, but was shocked by how much body the pistachios gave to the entire salad; kale can be a little tough, and a little bitter, but the broad coating of the dressing reduced the feeling that this was just a pile of leaves. The only problem with the dish is that the menu refers to it as a roasted beet salad when that is maybe the third or fourth ingredient on the list; this is a kale salad, plus some beets and goat cheese.

Although the various pizzas on the menu were hard to ignore with the wood-fired oven right in my line of sight, I went with the server’s suggestion of the pan-seared gnocchi with bacon, mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes, with no sauce but the slight glaze of the bacon fat. The gnocchi were the lightest I’ve ever eaten, strong enough to hold a brown crust from the searing but light enough that an entire plateful was more like an appetizer than a full entree (so it’s a good thing I was full of kale salad by that point). They were powerful bacon-infused pockets that crushed all other comers, the rare example of a plate delivering a bacon punch without delivering a similar blow to your gut. My daughter was satisfied with the burrata plate with several kinds of fresh tomatoes, nut-free pesto, and sliced onions along with a serving of grilled country bread (an add-on for $2), all of which was fresh across the board, even the tomatoes, which surprised me with their sweetness given the time of year.

The dessert … well, the salted caramel budino didn’t quite live up to expectations; the recipe may have changed, but there’s nothing tangy in the version I make at home, whereas something in the mason jar I received at Barbuzzo was, possibly due to the incorporation of crème fraiche somewhere along the line. I can’t say mine is better, since it’s their recipe, but I prefer it without that sour note. My daughter ordered the apple raisin bread pudding with bourbon sauce and malted buttermilk gelato, which tasted strongly of bourbon and, not surprisingly, which she loved. The only real complaint I had about the meal was the 15-minute lag between when we ordered dessert and when it arrived; to a seven-year-old, or her anxious father, that’s a long time. The bread pudding had clearly just come out of the oven, though – it was practically in flames when it reached the table – and their expediter was otherwise on the ball as everything reached the table quickly and at the right temperature. I’d love to go back and sample other parts of the menu, including the pizzas, the other house-made pastas, and the wild mushroom bruschetta and sheep’s milk ricotta starters.

Arizona eats, October 2013 edition.

My first Arizona Fall League update went up on Thursday afternoon. The next one will go up on Monday morning … that is, a few hours from now.

I had a bittersweet experience in Arizona last week, my first extended trip there since we moved out of the state in June. The pleasure in seeing Fall League games, catching up with some friends, and visiting old haunts couldn’t surpass the feeling that all of that – plus the spectacular weather – was no longer mine, that the drive south on the 101 was no longer to my house, that winter was waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (I define winter as “not summer.”) I did manage to distract myself by hitting four new restaurants while I was on the ground there, at least.

Crêpe Bar in Tempe is the new brick-and-mortar place from the chef behind Truckin’ Good Food, and you know they’re serious about food when you see they use coffee from heart roasters in Portland, Oregon. Turns out they have a real barista who pulls a damn good shot of espresso, and the drip coffee earned raves from my friend Sam. Crêpe Bar also offers cold-brewed coffee, which they prep daily and allow to steep for about 24 hours, as well as V60 and Aeropress pour-overs, so it’s worth going if only for the coffee. As for the crepes, I’ll just point out that I had a crêpe with vanilla custard, strawberries, toasted slivered almonds, and some 55% Valrhona chocolate, and you’ll just be jealous.

Located in the Bespoke Inn in Old Town Scottsdale, a mere 12-minute walk from Scottsdale Stadium, Virtu Honest Craft just made Esquire‘s list of the 18 best new restaurants in the country, and it might be the best restaurant in the state of Arizona now – something I wouldn’t say lightly, having tried and loved crudo, Citizen Public House, Pizzeria Bianco, cibo, and others. Virtu’s food was just a slight cut above its competitors, offering inventive plates that played with flavors and textures in clever ways with visually appealing presentations. Kiley McDaniel met me for dinner, but was a little late, so I ordered one of the happy hour crostini options, with piquillo pepper jam and manchego cheese, a great twist on the ordinary fig jam or quince paste crostini concept that brought a hint of spice and less straight sugar to the bite. Then the gluttony began in earnest: the chef sent out a large antipasto plate with three cheeses, truffled salami, Sicilian olives, and marcona almonds, as well as honey to pair with the blue cheese. That was free (I think all the early tables got one), but came out after we’d ordered two starters and two entrees, so things got out of hand quickly. The chef’s snack starter is almost a meal in itself: A pile of hand-cut French fries tossed with sausage, mozzarella curd, and what I think was a sweetened balsamic reduction, topped with an over easy egg. We also went with the item that the Phoenix New Times’ Chow Bella blog highlighted, the grilled asparagus with duck egg, bacon candy, peppered feta, and foie gras hollandaise. The chef’s snack was comfort food, hearty, salty, fatty, and of course a little heavy, while the asparagus plate was like brunch for dinner, bright colors leading to brighter flavors if you could manipulate everything into one bite, which wasn’t always easy.

For the mains, I went with the smoked duck, which came on a smashed plantain with small grilled chunks of foie gras and pomegranate arils. Kiley ordered the seared scallops, served on a pumpkin/onion mash with a white chocolate beurre blanc. I think we both preferred the scallop dish, which was better executed across the board, with perfectly-cooked sea scallops paired beautifully with the fall flavors of the squash and onion; my only comment here is that the dish needed a finish of acid, even something as simple as lemon juice (although I imagine a place like Virtu would instead go with a yuzu foam or a champagne vinegar gelée). The duck itself was cooked nicely but smoking duck does rob you of the glory of crispy duck skin, and the plantain mash had been cooked a second time on a griddle to provide that crispness, a process that made it too crunchy and even charred the edges a little bit. The proteins seem to be standard here but the sides change at least every few weeks depending on what’s in season; I’d recommend whatever they’re doing with scallops and would trust in the chef beyond that.

Otro Cafe is the newest spot from Doug Robson, the Mexican-born (really) chef behind the menus at Gallo Blanco and the Hillside Spot. Otro’s menu is simple – a few taco items, a few tortas with the same meats you’ll find on the taco menu, a few Mexican street-food starters, and a full bar. Kiley joined me for this meal as well, so we split the elote callejero – roasted corn on the cob with paprika, cotija cheese, and a little mayonnaise, which the server will shave off the cob for you tableside. I also ordered the small guacamole because Kiley is a misanthropic devil-worshipper who hates avocadoes. Both were superb, just simple and fresh items with big flavors thanks to the tomatillos in the guacamole or the salty-tangy burst from the cotija in the corn. For tacos, we each ordered the same trio (tacos range from $2.50 to $3.50 apiece) – the pork “al pastor,” the carne asada, and the grilled marinated shrimp, all of which were excellent. The carne asada was my favorite, even though I’m generally not a big steak eater; Otro uses seasoned grilled ribeye, chopped and topped with lettuce, an aji (chili pepper) aioli, cilantro, and guacamole. The shrimp was second, marinated in achiote and topped with red and white cabbage, chili pepper, and more guacamole, all outstanding although the shrimp ended up in the background beneath the spice and acid of the cabbage/chili slaw. The pork al pastor was still good, served with salsa verde, a little pineapple, and more cilantro, although I missed the better bite of the steak and, well, that was the only taco without guacamole and it was going to suffer by comparison. Otro also offers a number of small side dishes, including two rotating options from local farms/CSAs, for just $4-5. Some items are $1 off at happy hour so the two of us got out of there for under $30 combined and had probably consumed too much food.

The Gladly is the new venture from the group behind Citizen Public House, focused a little more on cocktails and small plates and less on the mains that made CPH our favorite spot for an elegant dinner out. The Gladly’s chicken liver pate starter, where the liver is blended with pistachio nuts, was by far the best item I had, and while I’m not sure eating a half-cup of the stuff at one sitting was the wisest nutritional move for me, that is what I did because it was too good to pass up (especially with whole-grain mustard and pickled onions to add to the crostini). The Brussels sprouts starter might be a meal for a vegetarian, as it’s served on a plate of creamy white-corn polenta; I prefer Brussels sprouts a little more cooked than this, as they were still too bitter at the center and hard to cut, but the combination of the sprouts and the grits was excellent. The one dish I didn’t love was the duck ramen – five-spice duck “ham” served in a giant bowl of miso broth with ramen and pea greens. The broth itself was a little bland, light on salt but also lacking any clearly defined flavor, and while I love duck prosciutto, its flavor was muted after sitting in the hot miso broth for a while. I’d love to give the Gladly a second shot, preferably when I can indulge in the drink menu, but also to try some of the other small plates like the paprika-cured pork belly, or the pigstrami sandwich, which turns my favorite starter at CPH into a smoked pork butt sandwich with a Brussels sprout sauerkraut as the slaw.

As for repeat visits, I had breakfast at the Hillside Spot three times and everything was just as I left it, from the chilaquiles to the pancakes to the chocolate chip cookies, so good job there. I also went back to Matt’s Big Breakfast which remained top-notch and swung by Giant Coffee (owned by Matt) and had a great espresso there. Saigon Kitchen in Surprise was a little disappointing, but only in that the bun with chicken I ordered came with these giant pieces of lettuce that got in the way of the noodles and other vegetables that were sort of buried at the bottom. I did have the hilarious experience of watching the seventy-odd woman next to me send back a bowl of pho (soup) that was hot enough for me to see the steam from a meter away because she claimed it wasn’t hot enough.

Some places I wanted to try but didn’t have time to visit: the Welcome Diner, La Piazza Locale, and Bink’s Cafe, all in Phoenix proper, and Altitude Coffee Lab in Scottsdale. There’s always spring training, I guess…

Pandemic iOS app.

The biggest iOS boardgame app release since June’s appearance of Agricola came this past Thursday, as the leading cooperate boardgame Pandemic was released for the iPad, bringing the same tension as the boardgame to a pass-and-play app with a slick, intuitive interface. If you don’t mind failing to save humanity over and over around your occasional successes, this is the app for you.

If you haven’t the physical version of Pandemic (which I reviewed in December 2010), it’s a different kind of game than most boardgames you’ve ever played. Two to four players work together to try to win, rather than competing. The board is a map of the world with various cities on it, connected by lines that indicate travel routes. The ‘enemy’ here is disease – four of them, each affecting a different region of the world and threatening to spread out of control and wipe out the human race. Cubes represent diseased populations in various cities, with one to three per location; when a city with three cubes in it acquires another one through the draw of a card or a spreading infection, an “outbreak” occurs and new cubes go into each city that connects to the original one. Eight outbreaks means you’ve lost. You can also lose if you have to place all 24 cubes of any specific color (one color per disease), or if you exhaust the deck of city cards before curing all four diseases. It’s difficult and cerebral, requiring you to make numerous decisions, often balancing short-term needs against long-term goals.

There is a way to win Pandemic, however. Each player collects city cards, two per turn, that can be used to cure a disease – five city cards of the same color, sent en masse to the discard pile while the player in question is in a city with a research station, cures that disease. In the meantime, however, players can go from city to city, removing cubes to try to hold off outbreaks. Each player has a specific role that gives him/her a special ability, such as curing a disease with just four cards, building a research station in whatever city he’s on, or moving other players around the board. There are also four special cards that allow the player to skip new infections for a turn, build a research station, remove one city card from the infection deck, or move one player to any place on the board. And the players’ deck also includes Epidemic cards, each of which triggers a new three-cube infection in one city while also raising the infection rate on a sliding scale that starts out at two cities per turn and eventually reaches four. You can adjust the game’s level of difficulty, which affects the number of Epidemic cards in the deck – from four (easy) to six (heroic).

The iOS app is an outstanding, faithful adaptation of the game that plays quickly and easily with only one very minor technical glitch through over a dozen plays (with no crashes). The interface is very clear and crisp, although the city names might be a little tough for some players to read without zooming in. (It helps to know your world geography here.) The screen has to deliver a lot of information at once, but the division of information across four side menus is easy to follow once you know the rules – all players’ cards in the right-hand menu, card history on the left, the current player’s cards and potential actions on the bottom, and the overall stats up top. Moving around is easy, as the game highlights cities to which the current player can move and confirms any move that would require the disposal of a city card. You can also undo your last few moves with a click of the undo arrow symbol in the upper left.

The one technical glitch I mentioned was minor – I have had a few instances where the app wouldn’t allow me to open the right-hand menu showing which city cards the players held, but could exit to the main screen and resume the game to open the menu again. I have noticed an unusually high probability of an epidemic card appearing in the first first turn, which makes the game harder to win; I actually had a game end after only two of the four player-roles had a chance to go, because a series of outbreaks in the red (Asia) region used up all 24 cards, thanks to an epidemic on the first turn. Such unwinnable games are a part of Pandemic, although in my experience with the physical game, they’re pretty rare.

Pandemic is a game meant to be played in person, with lots of communication between players, so I didn’t mind the absence of online multiplayer; slowing this game down would also reduce the tension that’s a key part of why it’s fun. (Although my daughter might question that; after playing alongside me twice, she asked, “What’s the point of this game? Losing?”) The game also has no AI component; if you want to play solo, just choose the number of roles you wish to play and handle them yourself. That also means there’s no downtime: You are always in the process of doing something or deciding what to do, and never waiting on an AI player or an online opponent (or partner). For a competitive game, the lack of online multiplayer would be a drawback, but I don’t see it as one here.

The game doesn’t include either of the available expansions for the physical game, although I imagine those will eventually be available as in-app purchases. Its current price of $6.99 is about par for a high-end adaptation of a popular game, in line with the popular Ticket to Ride or Small World and with the more complex Agricola. If you’re into the physical version of Pandemic, or want a game for your iPad that is very challenging with high replay value, this is a must-have.

The Bones of What You Believe.

The Bones Of What You Believe (iTunes link), the debut album from the Scottish electro-pop act CHVRCHES, dropped today, over a year after their first single came out and a good eight months after I first encountered them on a promotional sampler from a publicity firm the band no longer uses. Three of the album’s tracks have received heavy airplay this year on alternative radio, including Sirius XMU and Alt Nation, so much of what’s on the new album is familiar, but the deeper tracks show greater breadth than you’d get from just listening to the singles, with many harbingers of more promising material down the road.

CHVRCHES is, by and large, the Lauren Mayberry Project, as the 26-year-old singer and erstwhile music journalist dominates the record (and their live shows) with her piercing vocals and impassioned delivery. Singing largely in the first person – more on that in a moment – Mayberry projects a variety of personae across the ten tracks where she handles the lead vocals, occasionally coquettish but more often strong and fearsome, sometimes even stalkerish (“We Sink” has a chorus that starts with “I’ll be a thorn in your side/Till you die” … all righty then), in contrast to her diminutive stature and high register. She elevates some of the filler songs to a different level, and the half-dozen radio-worthy tracks all stand out in large part because of what her vocal style brings to the table.

The band’s music draws heavily from early 80s new-wave influences, particularly Yaz, the short-lived project involving Vince Clarke between his tenures in Depeche Mode and Erasure, but drawing from other sources as diverse as Kate Bush and Prince (whose “I Would Die for U” they used to cover during live shows). CHVRCHES love their synths and they’re not ashamed to put the keyboards front and center of nearly every song, without filling the space between the melodic synth lines and the drum/bass with layers of added noise, meaning that Mayberry’s vocals and the lead keyboard lines are the stars of every track where she sings. That’s most pronounced in “Gun,” the most recently released single from the album, where the counterpoint between Mayberry’s top-register vocals and the descending keyboard lines underpins the conflict she’s describing in the song’s lyrics (where the gun is, fortunately, of the metaphorical variety). When they try a little more layering, like adding reverb to Mayberry’s vocal lines on “Lungs,” the melody remains strong but her voice and charisma are blunted, to the detriment of the overall track.

The album’s lyrics lean heavily toward first-person narratives, which Mayberry makes more powerful with a style that makes it sound like she’s singing directly to the listener, whether she’s threatening you as she does on “We Sink” or is proclaiming herself to be the “Night Sky.” The strongest track lyrically, as well as musically, is the single “The Mother We Share,” which careens to and fro with tempo and volume changes to match the chaotic anti-romance of the lyrics, where Mayberry describes being “in misery/where you can seem/as old as your omens.” Several songs here are built around a single compelling image or metaphor, like “Gun” or “We Sink.” Others run too short and lack that tangible center, such as the catchy “Recover” or the lesser track “Tether,” where the lyrics don’t stand up as well – although Mayberry’s Scottish pronunciation of “don’t” in the chorus of “Recover” is incredibly endearing.

Mayberry cedes vocal duties on two tracks, which robs them of the urgency she brings to the other ten, and was made worse in concert when Martin Doherty took over lead vocals for a song and was off key (as he was when providing backing vocals behind Mayberry). The show I saw, at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, was otherwise outstanding, although it was odd to hear Mayberry’s chatter between songs, almost sounding nervous and dropping f-bombs as if she was trying to show the crowd that, despite her pixie-like appearance, she was fierce. When you sing with a passion that could damascene steel, you don’t need to act fierce. Fierce will list you as a reference.

The Bones of What You Believe is a deep, intense pop experience that doesn’t demean its audience, but at the end of its twelve tracks, I was also left with the feeling that this was more of a coming out party for Mayberry than for the band as a whole. Her presence overwhelms sections where the music feels unfinished or even amateurish, a contrast that was even more stark when I saw them live. Whether the music catches up to the force of her character or she leaves the group for greener pastures, she’s destined for bigger things than this otherwise very solid debut album.

Hanns and Rudolf.

I only became aware of Thomas Harding’s new book, Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz, because of Harding’s recent piece in the Washington Post about the Kommandant’s daughter, Brigitte, who still lives in northern Virginia. The book’s publisher reached out to me after I tweeted the link to the article and sent me a review copy, which I tore through this weekend because I couldn’t bear to put the book down.

The subtitle is a little misleading, as this book isn’t so much the story of a chase as it is a pair of contemporary portraits of two German men whose lives headed in opposite directions with the rise of the Third Reich, setting them on courses that end in one hunting down and capturing the other after the war’s conclusion. The chase itself isn’t long, so most of the book is spent getting us up to that point. Harding’s achievement here is making both biographies interesting enough that the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages – and in presenting Rudolf in a neutral fashion even though he’s one of the worst monsters in our species’ history.

That Rudolf is Rudolf Höss, the man who oversaw the construction of the concentration camp at Auschwitz and devised the scheme where the pesticide Zyklon-B was used to exterminate Jews and other prisoners in huge numbers, with well over a million killed at the camp. Höss’ eventual devolution into a calm, apathetic architect of history’s most efficient mass producer of death starts from early childhood – including a fanatical father who died young and a lack of any close ties to family members – but also reveals a tremendous amount about the “just following orders” mentality of so many members of the SS, the Nazi Party, and of the German population as a whole. While running Auschwitz, Höss would return home each night to his villa just beyond the camp’s walls, where he lived with his wife and five children in a luxurious house staffed with slaves drawn from the prison.

Hanns, the hero of the story and the author’s great-uncle, is Hanns Alexander, a German Jew born into fortunate circumstances that would largely disappear before he fled to the UK with his family in 1936. Left without a state after the Nazi regime revoked their citizenship, Hanns chose to join the British army, which set up a separate unit for refugees seeking to fight their former countries that allowed them to serve in non-combat roles (because, you know, can’t trust ‘em). After the war ended, Hanns became a private hunter of war criminals in his spare time, eventually parlaying that into a formal role that led him to recapture the puppet ruler of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon, and to earn a command to track down Höss himself. Hanns’ own drive to fight against Germany – more than fighting for Britain or the allies – derived from the personal injustice that he underwent when he and his family had to flee from the Nazis, as well as the more general sense of outrage from the massive crimes the German state and its people had committed against the Jews and other so-called enemies of the state.

Höss’ testimony played a pivotal role in the Nuremberg trials because of his willingness to admit his own role in the Holocaust and in the chain of command that made the mass murders possible, which means Hanns himself contributed to the convictions and executions of many of the surviving leaders of the Third Reich. Höss comes across as a weirdly complex character, a loving father and family man who beat down his rare compunctions over gassing hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children because he refused to show weakness to his superiors or to those under his command. Did he do this for fear for his own safety in a regime where guards who showed mercy to prisoners would be beaten or killed? Or was he simply nursing his own desire for success and praise by trying to set an example of fanaticism that others would revere?

The conflict between Höss’ work and family selves, his apparent apathy toward his victims, and his unclear motivation for his actions at Auschwitz make him the far more compelling character than Alexander, whose life is much easier to understand. Hanns watched fellow Germans pull the rug out from under his comfortable life, and his personal fury combined with that from his moral compass to turn him into a rabid Nazi hunter, yet one who declined to discuss his role in capturing these criminals for most of the rest of his life. It’s a simple narrative for a man’s life, one that’s easy to fathom. Turning into a cockroach the way Höss did is a lot harder to understand, and it’s part of why I couldn’t avert my eyes from Hanns and Rudolf until he’d been hanged.

I’ve been busy plowing through more titles from the Bloomsbury 100 as well, but nothing that merited a long post here. Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which draws parallels between the swift decline of a noble Austrian family and that of the Hapsburgs’ reign, heading into the disaster of World War I that led to the breakup of their sprawling, unwieldy empire. It dragged horribly, however, with Dickensian descriptions and an absurd amount of moralizing over peccadilloes that barely merit mention today.

Theodor Fontaine’s Effi Briest, named by Thomas Mann as one of the six most essential novels ever written, was a stronger read, even though the morality play also fails to resonate today. Based on a true story from the late 1800s, Effi Briest tells the title character’s tragic history from her arranged marriage to a man much her senior through her extramarital affair with the lothario Crampas to her divorce and fall from grace. It’s far more believable than the similar Madame Bovary and less prolix than Anna Karenina, two similarly-themed novels, working more along the lines of The Awakening, another novel of adultery where the plight of the woman in a male-dominated, moralistic society takes center stage.

Eugenie Grandet is the second Balzac novel I’ve read, along with Old Goriot, both part of his Human Comedy novel sequence. It’s another tragedy, this one the story of Eugenie’s miserly father and how his parsimony destroys his wife, himself, and, even after his death, his daughter, when even a small count of generosity would have saved them all. I’ve found Balzac’s prose to be his great strength – I enjoy his phrasing and descriptions yet never find them slow or monotonous – but the story in Eugenie Grandet had less of the dark comedy that made Old Goriot a better read.

Next up: Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.

AM.

Today’s Klawchat is starting as I post this, so the transcript will be at that link once it’s over.

Arctic Monkeys have been superstars in the UK since prior to the release of their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, but have seen little breakthrough here in the U.S. other than having HGTV rip off their song “Fluorescent Adolescent” for the theme music to the show “Income Property.” Their first album was smart, often obnoxious, and punchy, a nod to old-fashioned rock-and-roll values but with more thoughtful and clever lyrics than their influences could ever deliver. Lead singer Alex Turner showed an innate sense for melody and drama, which he developed further over the Monkeys’ next three albums as well as with the baroque-pop side project The Last Shadow Puppets, but the band’s overall sound seemed directionless as they moved further from what made them instant stars in the first place.

Their fifth album, AM, released earlier this week, represents the band’s first clear, deliberate step forward since their debut, an evolutionary shift that regains the immediacy of Whatever People Say I Am… while introducing heavier elements, larger influences from the soul and funk genres, and ever-sharper lyrics. It’s their best album yet and worthy of the Mercury Prize nomination it earned the day after its release.

AM begins with the seductive “Do I Wanna Know?,” the first single released in advance of the album, with a Bonhamesque percussion line mimicking a heartbeat beneath Turner’s trademark wit and wordplay, even messing with meter on couplets like “So have you got the guts?/Been wondering if your heart’s still open and if so I wanna know what time it shuts.” That slower yet more intense drum-and-bass aesthetic permeates the entire album, with greatest effect on the mid-tempo tracks like the opener and “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?”

Track two, the 2012 one-off single “R U Mine?” (which made my top 40 songs of 2012), fits remarkably well into the new sound of this album, pairing a vintage Turner guitar riff – tuned down and turned up for 2013 – with a heavier but slower drum line, backing up vocals where Turner again plays with rhythm and meter in slightly unusual ways. That heavy feeling hits hardest on my favorite song from the disc, “Arabella,” which borrows the signature two-note guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” for its chorus even though the song is an ode to a woman with “a ’70s head” whose “lips are like the galaxy’s edge,” picking up the pace for the dramatic rush to the coda. Turner’s natural feel for irony and contrast works best on this track, where it falls short on songs like the morose “No. 1 Party Anthem” or the just slightly more upbeat “Mad Sounds.”

AM‘s back half, after that two-song lull, brings in different influences from the first half, starting with the Last Shadow Puppets-esque “Fireside” as well as the rousing call-and-response “Snap Out of It,” both of which wink at the earliest decades of rock music, where the genre was almost synonymous with pop. That latter track highlights Turner’s obsession with creating contrast between his music – here a mostly sunny jangle-pop track – and his lyrics, here telling an ex-lover to snap out of her delusions before life passes her by. I’ve also long admired Turner’s use of imagery where most pop lyricists rely on the same trite phrases and references to intangible feelings, from rhyming Tabasco with rascal on “Fluorescent Adolescent” to pairing “sky blue Lacoste” with “knee socks” on AM‘s penultimate track. Turner refuses to talk down to the listener regardless of the theme, an incredibly welcome attitude when so few bands, even alternative ones, seem to put the same effort into their words as they do into their sounds.

The influence of Turner’s friendship with Josh Homme – Turner appeared on Queens of the Stone Age’s 2013 album …Like Clockwork, and Homme appears on two tracks here – is evident throughout the album, as the Monkeys have borrowed a bit of QotSA’s blend of melodic sludge rock on tracks like “Arabella,” “Do I Wanna Know?,” and “One for the Road,” with Homme singing background vocals on the last one of those. The key to QotSA’s popularity has always been that Homme has the heart of a pop songwriter, and has the ability to translate that sensibility into other genres, like the stoner metal of Kyuss or the bar-blues of Eagles of Death Metal. Turner showed he could branch out with The Last Shadow Puppets, whose underappreciated album was like a lost 12-inch from the age of mono, but now he’s bringing that broader songcraft back home with an album that is heavy and slow, sinuous, and eloquent. It’s his best work yet, more mature and confident without ever seeming cocky, functioning as a complete work as well as a collection of great singles. If America doesn’t catch on to the Arctic Monkeys now, they likely never will.

Animal.

Recent ESPN content includes my Perfect Game All-American Classic recap, a piece on the Giants’ AZL team, and this week’s Klawchat, plus Behind the Dish with Cubs senior VP/future GM candidate Jason McLeod.

I’m a little behind on recent eats, so before that gets any worse, I’m going to write up the marquee meal from my recent trip to California, dinner at Animal with my former colleague Kiley McDaniel, now of Fox Sports.

Animal is among the most famous and trendiest places going now, appearing on Bon Appetit‘s list of the twenty most important restaurants in the U.S.*, while its two founder-chefs served as judges of the fried chicken challenge on the most recent season of Top Chef. Friends and readers have been recommending it for what seems like ages. I had to go there. And that’s before I heard they had crispy pig ears.

*I’ve been to five: Animal, Cochon, Momofuku (just the Ssäm bar, though), Husk, and Shake Shack.

Every dish but one was spectacular, even if it did produce a bit of a meat hangover. Kiley and I ended up with a lot of pork, although I find pig offal far more interesting than offal from cow or … well, I’ve never had deer offal or kangaroo offal or anything, so I’ll stop there. The three pork dishes were all superb. The pig ears were served the only way I’ve ever had them: braised, julienned, and fried like french-fried onions, served with a chili-lime dressing. Animal’s version has a sunnyside-up egg on top that the server recommended we break and toss with the ears, sharp counsel that paid off by giving some richness to balance the bright tartness of the lime. Once you’ve had fried pig ears, no other fried product can ever quite measure up.

The crispy pig head was a tremendous, rustic twist on what is better known as “head cheese” (or testina if you want to use an Italian euphemism), served in a big, loose pile with a consistency like that of a jumbo lump crab cake, where the whole thing falls apart at the touch of a fork. The meat, which is mostly jowl meat and is as flavorful as bacon but as tender as shoulder, is lightly fried to get a crispy breading on top, but that’s just Animal’s nod to the Japanese dish pork tonkatsu, something they continue with the use of Bulldog sauce, a Japanese sweet-tangy sauce with MSG, prune puree, sugar, vinegar, apple, and spices. It’s all served on a bed of short-grain rice, with another egg on top. It’s incredibly rich, and Kiley’s assessment, that it pushed the limits of how many competing flavors you want in one dish, was spot on.

The star of the night was the least unusual of the three pork offerings, the barbequed pork belly sandwiches: A small brick of pork with a big dollop of fresh slaw on top (cabbage with mayo and I believe a little mustard), served on a brioche roll. They’re slider-sized, maybe two bites if you’re greedy, and I would gladly swing by there for a dozen of those to go, White Castle-style. The slaw/pork ratio was perfect, given how rich (read: fatty) the pork was, so the acidity from the slaw was critical. This is on the short list of the best things I’ve ever eaten, which is mostly a list of things made from pig.

For starters, we tried the salad of lettuce, beets, avocado, feta, and creamy sumac dressing, which was both gorgeous (thanks to two colors of beets) and clean despite all of the different textures and flavors. I love fresh beets – not the crap from a can – and avocadoes and often pair them together with a citrus dressing at home, but the lightly creamy sumac dressing surprised me by not overwhelming the dish. That salad was better than the charred shishito peppers with shaved dried white anchovies (which weren’t listed as dried on the menu, so I thought we were getting fresh ones), a dish that had a lot of bitter and salty notes but no contrast or complexity.

The one item I just did not like was the fried sweetbreads, which had two very peculiar textures, both unpleasant – one like gummy melted cheese, the other like overcooked pork loin. It’s possible that I don’t like sweetbreads, as I think this was just the second time I’d had it, but it was also the only item we didn’t finish.

For dessert, even though we were too full, we still had to get the bacon chocolate crunch bar with salt and pepper ice cream. I liked it more than Kiley did, I think, admiring both the playfulness of black pepper in the ice cream (which looked like specks of vanilla) and the fact that the chocolate to bacon ratio was very high (so the bacon was a secondary flavor). It was still sweet enough to be dessert, but not cloying, with enough other elements that it transcended the normal dessert menu that tries to browbeat you with fat and sugar.

We were both somewhat surprised by how small the bill was for the quality and quantity of food we got, as well as the name value of the place, which seats just 45 people – about $120 total including a couple of beers, tax, and tip. I understand that’s not a cheap dinner by general standards, but a restaurant with this level of fame, located in one of the two most expensive cities in the country, could charge more, and I’m impressed that they don’t. It’s absolutely worth the trip, and now I need to try its sister restaurant, Son of a Gun, to see if it measures up.

Savages – Silence Yourself.

Savages’ debut album Silence Yourself is the album of 2013 for me so far, a dense record that is three parts post-punk to one part feminist rage to one part everything else, with a broader range of influences than you’d think a 39-minute album of tight songs could possibly include. They are in many ways the anti-Elastica.

Silence Yourself opens with one of the two tracks getting some airplay on XM, “Shut Up,” which not coincidentally is one of the most accessible songs on the album. Starting with a heavy, driving bass line, “Shut Up” picks up a staccato guitar riff that brings in the first of many notes that harken back to Gang of Four, but also bringing to mind Romeo Void’s New Wave hit “Never Say Never.” Lead singer Jehnny Beth (previously half of John and Jehn) has a tighter, angrier delivery, bringing desperation to every track, not in the sense of despair but in the sense of someone who must be heard at any cost, which comes through even more strongly on the next track, “I Am Here.”

The other song you’re likely to hear a little on alternative radio is “She Will,” maybe the most traditional rock song of the album, with a reverb-laden guitar riff over a quick, intense drum beat, letting up on the throttle for the verses. The lyrics that seem to describe a woman taking charge of her sexuality, but shifting to something darker which I interpreted as the reaction of a woman who’d been raped or assaulted and is now stuck in a downward spiral as she tries to recover, with that desperation reentering Beth’s voice as she shouts “she will” repeatedly during the chorus. That contrast, a melodic yet heavy lick set underneath dark, angry lyrics, is the most consistent theme on the album and lies beneath most of the disc’s highlights.

The brief “Hit Me,” clocking in at 1:41, opens with a riff that sounds an awful lot like the opening lick in Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” but with lyrics that point very much in the opposite direction, apparently an homage to the adult film actress Belladonna. Other tracks bring back some of the earliest grunge artists, before the term was co-opted, bands like Mudhoney and Green River that claimed lo-fi as an ethic (but probably also did it because they didn’t have the cash to be hi-fi), with heavy distortion and loud walking bass lines. Savages slow it down on three tracks, succeeding most with the sludgy “Strife,” and least with the album closer “Marshal Dear.”

I admit to being a skeptic of the whole “riot grrrls” marketing angle from the 1990s and early 2000s, which tended to trivialize any of those artists’ attempts to make serious feminist arguments, but Savages aren’t yet facing that kind of pigeonholing, perhaps because the music itself is good enough to stand on its own. It’s potent, hard-hitting stuff, righteous and clean like Gang of Four, but bearing some of the musical twists and production qualities associated with later post-punk acts like Joy Division or Killing Joke – to say nothing of the too-obvious comparisons to the Slits. It’s intense start to finish and deserves far more attention than just a little airplay for the two singles.