Archive for the ‘Anthony Bourdain’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: SMIF-N-WESSUN-Tiny Desk Concert #787 (September 17, 2018).

As this Concert opens, you hear Steele or Tek, the duo who make up Smif-n-Wessun say, “Very mysterious as you can see.  I’ve been his partner for 20 plus years, so it’s alright.”   The other replies “I’m not gonna do nothing crazy, I promise.”

And with that yet another old school hip-hop act whom I’ve never heard of gets their 15 minutes of Tiny Desk time.  And once again, they are pretty great.

And the blurb seems to really love them:

Brooklyn-bred hip-hop duo Smif-N-Wessun – consisting of partners in rhyme, Steele and Tek – illuminated the Tiny Desk with their signature, 80-proof poetry: straight, no chaser. Their music, inspired by their gritty and pre-gentrified Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville neighborhoods, offers the vocabulary of veterans who survived the grimy streets. The[y] represent quintessential ’90s true-school hip-hop from the bedrock, when Timberland boots were standard issue.

Backing Steele and Tek is D.C.’s own Black Alley band.  The Black Alley Band played (and were awesome) with Nick Grant some shows ago.  About the band I wrote

I really like the live band, Black Alley.  The percussionist (Walter Clark) is particularly interesting with his congas and an electronic “plate” that plays all kinds of effects.  The bass (Joshua Cameron) is also great and the guitarist (Andrew White) plays a lot of interesting sounds.  I also like how muscular the keyboardist is playing simple chords.  And the drummer is pretty bad ass too.

For this show, they were more subdued and there were only four of them, but their live music was great for the duo and made the whole thing sound great.

Steele says, “It’s always different for us to perform with a live band.  If I look a little sweaty it’s because I’m catching the holy ghost, alright.”

Smif-N-Wessun set things off with their classic debut single “Bucktown,” an ode to their native Brooklyn, which uses their love for lyrical clapbacks as an allegory for overcoming the violence-ridden reality of their wonder years.

Tek says “This was the first single from our first album.  Came out in ’92 that’s probably older than most of you all in the room.”

Throughout the performance, the two emcees dance, share easy banter and express their spiritual connection to the music they’ve created over the years.

Things climax when the two perform “Stand Strong,” another favorite from their debut album Dah Shinin’. Anchored by the mantra, “I never ran / never will,” … the music decries the struggles of late-stage capitalism and the plight of the disenfranchised. It’s a revelation of love, life, and brotherhood in an era when the antiheroes were really just the ones cunning enough to avoid becoming victims.

Steele says this goes out to our street soldiers.  Then says he says Rest in Peace Anthony Bordain, Rest on Peace Todd Banger.  Stay Alive, people!

That survivor’s drive is personified when Steele lets his guard down during the performance and gifts the audience a little boogie, “You can dance to Smif-N-Wessun music too, y’all.

The set concludes with an exclusive premier of their new single, “One Time,” from their forthcoming album, The All, produced by 9th Wonder & The Soul Council.

Steele says “I’m nervous about the next one, this next song has never before been performed.  It’s fresh off our yet to be released (maybe by the time you see this the album will be out).  Hope you enjoy it because we definitely don’t know what we’re gonna do.  I know these guys sound amazing so just listen to them.”

The song is smooth and cool and again the live band (this is the first time they’ve played with Black Alley) sound fantastic.

[READ: January 6, 2017]  “A Modest Proposal”

I don’t always get to read Sedaris’ pieces in order (if they are even published in order).  But this one follows up on a piece he wrote a while back about him picking up trash by the side of the road.

If memory serves he was picking up trash as a way to get extra exercise.  Anyhow, he states that he is still doing this. And while it doesn’t actually impact the story directly, it’s great to see the continuity.

It’s also hilarious to see that while he usually find candy wrappers and the like, on one outing he found a three-inch dildo: “You’d think that if someone wanted a sex toy she’d go for the gold-size-wise.  But this was just the bare minimum, like getting AAA breast implants.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PHISH-Live in Brooklyn (2006).

Just over ten years ago I started this blog.  And sometime in May of 2007 I wrote about this disc.  Well, actually, I didn’t really write about it. Initially the “soundtrack” was just the record I was listening to that day.  I didn’t really write about the music at all.  The only thing I noted about this disc was that a 17 minute guitar solo is not such a good idea when you are sleepy.

So, now that I’ve often spent more words on the music than the stories, here’s a full review of this live album (their fifth “official” live record).

This show was performed on June 17, 2004–the opening night of what was promoted as the band’s final tour, before their 2004 breakup.

This show starts with “A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing.”  It is a rocking opening although it sounds a bit flat.  “Dinner and a Movie” is fun, an angular version with a perfectly jazzy end section.  It segues into a great 13-minute version of “The Curtain With” and then a short, fast “Sample in a Jar.”

“The Moma Dance” has a lengthy intro before the song starts and then a long jam afterwards.  It’s fifteen minutes long and then segues into an outstanding “Free.”  There’s a particularly cool razzy funky bass solo.  “Nothing” is a sweet song from Undermind, a nice mellow come down after Free and a good workout for Page on piano.  It’s followed by “Maze.”  This one sounds a little funny, but there’s some great soloing from Trey and Page.  Trey’s solo starts trippy and then turns wild and really rocking.  “Frankenstein” is not quite as faithful to the original as some earlier versions, but they’ve played it many times by this point.

Set 2 opens with the crowd chanting “It’s 1, 2, 3, strikes you’re out at the old ball game” and then it’s a 17 minute version of “46 Days.”  It mostly a guitar solo that segues into a long version of “Possum,” although this “Possum” is rather slow, comparatively.  The solo grooves along until it gets down to a quiet moment.  Then there’s a short “Oh Kee Pah” that launches into a rollicking 18-minute “Suzy Greenberg” with a great jam in the middle.  It segues into a super rocking “Axilla” and then segues into a groovy “2001.”  The jam on that song lasts 9 minutes and it’s connected to an excellent “Birds of a Feather.”

They dedicate the insane “Kung” to the people at the US Open next door.  They are going to sing it very loud so that the players can hear it.  And after the runaway gold cart marathon, Trey says they’re going to slow things down with “Mike’s Song,” but its’ got a very fast jam in the middle.  It does slow down to a mellow “I Am Hydrogen,” which segues into a romping “Weekapaug Groove.”

The encore is “Divided Sky.”   There’s a 1:15 pause while Trey doesn’t play the next note before beginning the rest of the show.  The crowd gets really restless.  It’s pretty funny.

This entire concert was simulcast on over 100 movie theater screens around the country.  The band was supposed to break up for good after this tour.  But here it is 13 years later and they are playing better than ever.

[READ: March 27, 2017] “Down and Out in Paris and London”

This issue of Lucky Peach includes an excerpt from a book by George Orwell.  Down and Out in Paris and London was the first full-length work by Orwell, published in 1933.  It is a memoir in two parts on the theme of poverty in the two cities.

What does it have to do with food?  Well, it was originally called “A Scullion’s Diary.”  And this excerpt comes from around Chapter III where the narrator obtains a job as a plongeur (dishwasher) in the kitchen at “Hotel X.”

He explains that one of the few humane jobs in the kitchen was polishing silver and glasses–at least the waiters might treat you as something of an equal.  Otherwise he was washing crockery–often for thirteen hours a day.

He marvels that the squalor of their kitchen–“we are in disgusting filth”–was only double doors away from the splendid dining room.  He says “we slithered about in a compound of soapy water, lettuce leaves, torn paper, and trampled food.” (more…)

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peach13SOUNDTRACK: ULTRA LOUNGE: CHRISTMAS COCKTAILS Hi-Fi Holiday Cheer from Santa’s Pad (1996).

xmastails1Because I am a total hipster, I love these Ultra Lounge collections.  Actually, I don’t think we were called hipsters when these collections first started coming out, but I have loved all of them.  And I especially love these Christmas ones.  Indeed, this may be my favorite Christmas album of all.

I’d say in part it’s because I great up listening to big band and I can totally imagine my parents being into this back in the day.

BILLY MAY-“Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” opens with a crazy yelling of all of the reindeer names.  Then a funny, almost drunken, sounding horn version of the song with weirdly shouted phrases throughout. It really sets the mood.  PEGGY LEE-“Winter Wonderland” is a more familiar and traditional version of the song—it’s delightful although it’s hard to reconcile with that earlier piece.  RAY ANTHONY-“Christmas Trumpets / We Wish You A Very Merry Christmas” is a wonderful sorta cheesey version of “Jingle Bells” and other songs on trumpets.  LOU RAWLS-“Christmas Is” Rawls’ voice, which I don’t love in general works well for this song.  I like the big horns in the middle.  JIMMY McGRIFF-“Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town / White Christmas” this is some fun, easy listening Hammond organ instrumental.  It is 6 minutes of ice rink spectacular.

JULIE LONDON-“I’d Like You For Christmas”  The backing vocalists singing the tune of “Jingle Bells” (but slowly) and then Julie sings a slow romantic song that I’m unfamiliar with. Not my fave—too slow and I don’t care for the backing responders.  AL CAIOLA- “Holiday On Skis” but this is a zippy and fun instrumental on guitar.  KAY STARR-“(Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag” is a fun silly song and I like this version.  HOLLYRIDGE STRINGS- “Jingle Bells / Jingle Bell Rock” I love this swinging string version that is fun and a little off with the musical runs.  I would like more by the Hollyridge Strings who are known for their easy listening renditions of classic songs.

DEAN MARTN-“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” I love this classic version.  EDDIE DUNSTEDTER-“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus/Jingle Bells Bossa Nova” a wonderful ice rink version with a bossanova flair–the best way to hear the first of these two songs (instrumentally).  RAY ANTHONY AND HIS BOOKENDS “Christmas Kisses” wonderfully cheesey and fun song about kisses for Christmas.  I didn’t know this song before this version.  JACKIE GLEASON-“I’ll Be Home For Christmas / Baby, It’s Cold Outside”  The first bit is a somber, pretty instrumental version of the song, it is strangely mingled with a wild whistling version of the second song.  Gleason is wonderfully campy.  NANCY WILSON-“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Sweet version. I think I like Nancy Wilson a lot more than I realized.  CAPITOL STUDIO ORCHESTRA-“Cha-Cha All The Way”  The best Christmas song ever.

NAT KING COLE-“The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)” I love this song very much and Nat’s version is the best. I’m not exactly sure it belongs on this compilation, but I never don’t want to hear it.  LES BROWN AND HIS BAND OF RENOWN-“The Nutcracker Suite” I love this whole version of various Nutcracker pieces (it’s clear that Brian Setzer used this as the basis for his swinging version). I love the Nutcracker in general but this is so much fun.  FRED WARING-“Ring Those Christmas Bells” This opens with various songs thrown together by a jolly group of carolers. Then a jolly version of “Ring those Christmas Bells” another song I don’t know but which I like a lot.  THE CONTINENTAL-“Violets For Your Furs”  This is a strange “bonus” track in which over soap opera music an accented Lothario comes on to a woman with violets for her furs.  Weird. PEGGY LEE/NAT KING COLE./NANCY WILSON-“Toys For Tots”  weird “toys for tots” refrain, but nice vocals from the trio asking for help with the program (who knew it was that old?).  The final track is JOHNNY MERCER-“Jingle Bells” which is a fun Christmas Card from Capitol Records–I wonder who received this?

[READ: December 26, 2014] “Christmas Story”

After reading enough Lucky Peaches I have learned that chefs are bad-tempered, foul-mouthed individuals, who relish good living and big eating (and drinking).  So it should come as no surprise that Bourdain as a fiction writer lives up to that essence in his stories (vulgarities abound and there’s lots of good food).

This is the story of Ricky, a chef whom the narrator learned from.  Ricky was a lifer in the business, having worked first in the army and then as a line cook and for the past two decades as head chef for a club.

Ricky had a sixth sense–he could look at a crowd and determine what they were going to order before they even knew it.  He would be able to determine that they needed more shrimp or if the crowd was just a simple pigs in blankets bunch just by the way they walked in.

Ricky liked the narrator and so gave him Christmas off this one year–a rarity in any chef job.  The narrator was psyched until his wife said that they should cook and serve Christmas dinner, real traditional-like, to their families.  The narrator said he could do a room of 200 easily but a dinner for 12 freaked him out.

So he asked Ricky’s advice.

And the bulk of the end of the story is Ricky’s suggestion for what to cook (it’s like a huge long recipe).  I appreciated the idea that putting stuffing in a turkey is like a breeding ground for bacteria.  But I really liked his idea that you should cook two turkeys, a big one and small one.  The small one is the stunt turkey.  When it is cooked, you bring out the stunt turkey to the table but you have already carved the larger turkey so that moments later you bring in the bird all carved up and everyone oohs.  But more importantly, with two turkeys you know you will always have enough food.

It worked for the narrator, and would probably work for you, too.


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lp8.1SOUNDTRACK: TYPHOON-“Dreams of Cannibalism” (2013).

typhoonNPR was steaming this album for a while.  Now they’re giving away this song.

Typhoon is yet another band that has a crazy amount of people in it (between 12 and fourteen) and they have a vast array of instruments in play at any one time (Horns, violins, xylophones, electric guitars and mandolins for example).

At the same time, Singer Kyle Morton’s vocals are distinctive enough and are used like an instrument as well as to deliver lyrics.  This gives them quite a unique sound.

The song opens with an array of horns slowly building to a simple guitar melody.  The verses are somewhat quiet with occasional punctuations of band (and great backing vocals).  But as the song progresses, more instruments kick in (horns adding a melody line).  I really like the way the end of the song shifts direction totally, bringing in a complex instrumental section with interesting time shifts and even better backing vocals..

I enjoyed the whole album while it was streaming.  And while I can’t say that this song stands out more than the other songs, (I think “Artificial Light” is probably the best,) it represents the sound of the band pretty well.

[READ: September 2013] Lucky Peach Issue 8

I haven’t been reviewing Lucky Peach issues in their entirety because they are mostly about food and cooking and recipes and I don’t really have anything to say about that (I enjoy the articles a lot, but I don’t need to comment on them).

But I wanted to bring special attention to this issue because of the way it is presented.  This is the Gender Issue.  It has two covers (see the “female” cover tomorrow) and the magazine must be flipped over to read the different genders.

It’s not often that I think of food and gender as being connected, but there are some really interesting articles in here that talk about not only food itself, but about the people who prepare it.  Like the fact that most big name chefs are men even though cooking has traditionally been “women’s work.”

The women’s side of the magazine has these interesting articles: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHUMBAWAMBA-“That’s How Grateful We Are” (1990).

Chumbawamba called it quits this week after 30 years of being a band together.  Most people assume they put out one single and that’s all. And in some ways that is true.  Because most of their other music was way too radical to be played anywhere–even when it was as catchy as this.

This is a six-minute dance-funk song off of the first Chumbawamba album I ever heard (Slap!).  It opens with a little girl saying “Okay, lay some drums on me.”  After some drums and hammered percussion, she says, “gimme some bass” and a funky riff starts.  It’s followed with accordion, horns guitars and, Chumbawamba’s signature–chanting.

It’s a call and response song with a wonderfully catchy chanted chorus.

On first listen you might catch a few unexpected words (black lung, attack, attack, we took to the streets).  But then you get swept up in the chorus again (and maybe the accordion solo).  But on further inspection, the song is about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956:

Working in a forge, black lungs, burnt skin
Callouses, arched back, hammering, hammering
Stalin watching over us pigeon shit head
We’d spit on the floor at this red bastard god.

Not exactly pop music, but you can sure dance to it.  I haven’t listened to too much of their more recent music, but their early stuff is wonderful and worth looking for.  Thanks for the music lads and lassies.

[READ: July 2012] Lucky Peach Issue 4

I can’t get over how much I enjoy Lucky Peach.  I just loaned a past issue to a friend and he loved it too.  He’s looking forward to trying some recipes and he’s been fascinated by the articles, too.  I don’t read any other cooking type magazine, and yet I can’t get enough of this one!

DAVID CHANG & CHRIS YING are still on board with their note “From the Editors” and PETER MEEHAN, JONATHAN GOLD & ROBERT SIETSEMA talk about “American Cuisine, Whatever That Is”

This issue features a choose your own adventure from COURTNEY McBROOM AND ALISON ROMAN–“Voyage of the Taco Belles” in which they travel to Texas and California to compare “Mexican” food.  It’s a fun adventure with many pitfalls and many delicious locations.  No one could conceivably eat that much.

DREW ALTIZER-“Swan Oyster Depot” photos from the independent seller.

DAVID TREUER-“No Reservations” gives a fascinating history of the Objiwe peoples.  How they don’t have a cuisine per se, but they do have specific foods they eat.  Also, that their way of life was not decimated when the white man came because they did not eat bison, they ate from the water and from smaller animals.  But when the white man gave them fatty fried foods, their diet was changed for the worst.  A fascinating look and an unexpected content from a “food” magazine.

PETER MEEHAN, BRIAN KOPPELMAN, ANTHONY BOURDAIN and ELVIS MITCHELL all talk about the movie Diner.  I have never seen it, but it sounds pretty important in a certain range of cinema.  I liked hearing their various opinions of the movie.  Elvis Mitchell (from NPR’s The Treatment) is particularly funny.

TOM LAX-“The Schmitter” talks about The Schmitter a crazy sounding sandwich from Philadelphia that should give the cheese steak a run for its money.  (Cheese, Steak, Grilled Salami, “Special” sauce, Tomatoes, More Cheese and Friend Onions).  Yum!

HAROLD McGEE-“Harold McGee in Outré Space”–He’s back with a lengthy article on eggs and his attempts at peeling hard-boiled eggs without ripping the egg inside–his experiments are pretty out there!

BEN WOLFE–“American Microbial Terroir” How microbes and bacterium form on salami in different regions and how those bacteria inform the flavor of the meat.  Gross but very interesting.

STEVE KEENE-“Portfolio”  He did the cover for Pavement’s Wowee Zowee album and here has a new portfolio of his new style of painting–on plywood.

DANIEL PATTERSON-“We Waited as Long as We Could” He talks about the Rascal House, a restaurant that he went to as young kid with his grandfather.  It’s about the demise of this kind of establishment in general too.

BOB NICKAS-“Someone Has to Bring Home the Bacon” Nickas looks at Andy Warhol and his various accomplishments regarding foot (including the aborted Andymat)

JOHN GALL-“Defrosted Foods” a photo of defrosted foods

NOZLEE SAMASZADEH-“A Modest Proposal”  This clever article talks about eating foods and plants that we consider invasive.  The best idea is to sell back the Asian carp to the Chinese–they love it and we don’t eat it, meanwhile it is invading our waterways.  Seems we could get back all the money they owe us!  Plus, why not eat Nutria?

MATTHEW RUDOFKER-“Knives Out” Look at these amazing knives (that I will never buy).

JONATHAN PRINCE-“Photo-Op Food” A very funny article about politicians trying (and often failing) to blend into regions by eating “local” food.  And the funny photo-ops they often provide.

MARC MARON-“Pan-American” The tale of a used cast iron frying pan and the story behind it.

DOUGLAS WOLK-“Love, Love, and ALE-8 One” This is the story of an independent locally created soda.  It’s based in Winchester, KY and serves more or less the Winchester area.  The soda is in huge demand there.  It’s the story of a brief but failed expansion and a determined independent spirit.  Check out their site and stuff.

DAVID SIMON-“Pickles and Cream” appreciating the only contribution Simon’s grandfather ever made to the culinary arts.

LAUREN WEINSTEIN-“Sushi, USA” a comic about sushi.

MARK IBOLD is still on board (hurray!) bringing culinary fun from Southeastern PA.  This time: John Cope’s Fancy Golden Sweet Corn.

There’s of course lots of delicious (and sometime crazy) recipes written in their own wonderful somewhat disrespectful style.

Oh, and just to put your mind at ease, the picture on the cover is of a cow eating a veggie dog.  Even knowing that it’s still disturbing.

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This song was NPR’s song of the day on July 7th.  I’d never heard of Rockwell Knuckles before.  He’s a rapper from St. Louis and has at least one other album out as far as I can tell.  I was rather fond of this song for, as the NPR page says, he often prefers to be absurd.

This song has fast, manic music–jittery and confusing and the rap over the top of that music, especially the chorus, is equally frenetic and hard to fathom on one listen.  But the chorus has a interesting twisty melody and the lyrics (the ones that I can follow) are bizarre and thoughtful and not typical “street life” lyrics.

I listened to this sevral times in a row, and will defitely check out his full length (which you can stream here, and the songs I listened to are equally weird and catchy).

[READ: July 6, 2011] Lucky Peach Issue 1

McSweeney’s has yet another new periodical to occupy my ever diminishing reading time.  This one is a food magazine which, as the cover states is “the new food quarterly from Momofuku’s David Chang.”  I don’t especially like food magazines (Sarah subscribes to several, but I just can’t get into them–reading recipes to me is the equivalent of looking at XHTML code for most people).  I mean, I like to cook sometimes, but I don’t look for new recipes or anything like that.  So, I am probably the least likely recipient of this magazine.  Not to mention I’ve never heard of David Chang and only know about Momofuku because of the Elvis Costello album.

And then geez, the first issue is about Ramen?  Who gives a fuck about Ramen?  It’s that crappy stuff you buy 10 for $1 at the supermarket.  And you’re really going to devote 174 ad-free (except, obviously lots of mentions of Momofuku) pages to ramen?

Well, yes they are.  And holy shit if it wasn’t amazing.  David Chang is a really funny guy and co-editor Peter Meehan is a great foul-mouthed humorist.  [I have never seen so many “fucking”s in a cooking magazine before–in fact I suspect I’ve never seen any in a cooking magazine before].  The articles were funny and a little low brow (I doubt most cooking magazines mention people throwing up either), but they were engaging and interesting too. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BLUE ÖYSTER CULT-compilations and live releases (1978-2010).

For a band that had basically two hits (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You”) and maybe a half a dozen other songs that people might have heard of, BOC has an astonishing number of “greatest hits” collections.

Starting in 1987 we got Career of Evil: The Metal Years (1987), Don’t Fear the Reaper (1989), On Flame with Rock n’ Roll (1990), Cult Classic (which is actually the band re-recording their old tracks (!)) (1994), and the two cd collection Workshop of the Telescopes (1995).  There’s even Singles Collection, (2005) which is a collection of their European singles & Bsides.

This doesn’t include any of the “budget price” collections: E.T.I. Revisited, Tattoo Vampire, Super Hits, Then and Now, The Essential, Are You Ready To Rock?, Shooting Shark, Best of, and the 2010 release: Playlist: The Very Best of).

The lesson is that you evidently won’t lose money making a BOC collection.

I don’t know that any of these collections are any better than the others.

The 2 CD one is for completists, but for the most part you’re going to get the same basic tracks on all of them.

And, although none of them have “Monsters” for the average person looking for some BOC, any disc is a good one.

Regardless of the number of hits they had, BOC was tremendous live.  And, as a result, there have also been a ton of live records released.  Initially the band (like Rush) released a live album after every three studio albums. On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975) Some Enchanted Evening (1978) and Extraterrestrial Live (1982) were the “real releases.”

Then, in 1994 we got Live 1976 as both CD and DVD (which spares us nothing, including Eric Bloom’s lengthy harangue about the unfairness of…the speed limit).  It’s the most raw and unpolished on live sets.  2002 saw the release of A Long Day’s Night, a recording of a 2002 concert (also on DVD) which had Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma an Allan Lanier reunited.

They also have a number of might-be real live releases (fans debate the legitimacy of many of these).  Picking a concert disc is tough if only because it depends on the era you like.  ETLive is regarded as the best “real” live disc, although the reissued double disc set of Some Enchanted Evening is hard to pass up.  Likewise, the 2002 recording is a good overview of their career, and includes some of their more recent work.

If you consider live albums best of’s (which many people do) I think it’s far to say that BOC has more best of’s than original discs.  Fascinating.  Many BOC fans believe that if they buy all the best of discs, it will convince Columbia to finally reissue the rest of the original discs (and there are a number of worthy contenders!) in deluxe packages.  I don’t know if it will work, but I applaud the effort.

[READ: October 2009-February 2010] State By State

This is a big book. And, since it’s a collection essays, it’s not really the kind of big book that you read straight through.  It’s a perfect dip in book.  And that’s why it took me so long to get through.

I would love to spend a huge amount of time devoting a post to each essay in the book.  But, well, there’s 51 (including D.C.) and quite a few of them I read so long ago I couldn’t say anything meaningful about.  But I will summarize or at least give a sentence about each essay, because they’re all so different.

I’ll also say that I read the Introduction and Preface last (which may have been a mistake, but whatever).  The Preface reveals that what I took to be a flaw in the book was actually intentional.  But let me back up and set up the book better.

The catalyst for the book is the WPA American Guide Series and sort of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.  The WPA Guides were written in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration.  48 guide books were written, one for each state.  Some famous writers wrote the books, but they were ultimately edited (and many say watered down) by a committee.  I haven’t read any of them, but am quite interested in them (and am looking to get the New Jersey one).  Each guide was multiple hundreds of pages (the New Jersey one is over 800).

State By State is written in the spirit of that series, except the whole book is 500 pages (which is about 10 pages per state, give or take).  And, once again, famous writers were asked to contribute (no committee edited this book, though).  I’ve included the entire list of authors at the end of the post, for quick access.

So I started the book with New Jersey, of course.  I didn’t realize who Anthony Bourdain was until I looked him up in the contributor’s list (I’m sure he is thrilled to hear that).  And his contribution was simultaneously exciting and disappointing,.  Exciting because he and I had quite similar upbringings: he grew up in North Jersey (although in the wealitheir county next to mine) and had similar (although, again, more wealthy) experiences. The disappointing thing for me was that Bourdain fled the state  for New York City (and, as I now know, untold wealth and fame (except by me))  I felt that his fleeing the state, while something many people aspire to, is not really representative of the residents of the state as a whole.

And that dissatisfaction is what I thought of as the flaw of the book (until I read the Preface).  In the Preface, Matt Weiland explains that they asked all different authors to write about states.  They asked some natives, they asked some moved-ins, they asked some temporary residents and they asked a couple of people to go to a state for the first time.  In reality, this decision makes for a very diverse and highly entertaining reading.  In my idealized world, I feel like it’s disingenuous to have people who just stop in to give their impression of an area.  But hey, that’s not the kind of book they wanted to compile, and I did enjoy what they gave us, so idealism be damned.

For most of the book, whenever I read an essay by someone who wasn’t a native or a resident of a state, I assumed that there weren’t any famous writers from that state.  I’ve no idea if that played into anything or not.  From what I gather, they had a list of authors, and a list of states (I was delighted to read that three people wanted to write about New Jersey-if the other two writers ever decided to put 1,000 words  to paper, I’d love to read them (hey editors, how about State by State Bonus Features online, including any extra essays that people may have wanted to write).

From New Jersey, I proceeded alphabetically.  And, I have to say that I’m a little glad I did.  I say this because the first few states in the book come across as rather negative and kind of unpleasant.  Alabama (written by George Packer) comes across as downtrodden, like a place you’d really have to love to live there.  Even Alaska, which ended up being a very cool story, felt like a veil of oppression resided over the state (or at  least the part of the state that Paul Greenberg wrote bout.)  But what I liked about this essay and the book in general was that the authors often focused on unexpected or little known aspects of each state.  So the Alaska essay focused on Native fisherman and the salmon industry.  Obviously it doesn’t do justice to the rest of that enormous state,  but that’s not what the book is about.

The book is meant to be a personal account of the author’s experiences in the state. (more…)

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