Bob Dylan Reviews #10

 

Bob Dylan Reviews

Album #10, Self Portrait

Columbia Records, 1970

 

In Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume 1, he writes in the chapter entitled “New Morning,” “I released one album–a double one–where I just threw everything I could think of at the wall and whatever stuck, released it.

Bob Dylan’s, Self Portrait, is one of rock and roll’s most notorious album duds. It’s also one of the few albums in the artist’s canon that few people, critics included, have actually sat down and listened to in its entirety.

 

Hype is a funny thing. Coming off an impressive run of nine solid, and universally lauded albums in the 1960s, Bob Dylan released an album that puzzled fans, yet again, but also garnered one of the most infamous reviews of any album in rock and roll. Greil Marcus’ scathing Rolling Stone review of the album opens with, “What is this shit?”

 

Self Portrait is not a great album, but it’s also not as bad as its reputation claims. Self Portrait is, rather, an experimental album, possibly intentionally executed by Dylan to kill some of the spotlight swarming his life.

 

Let’s take a look at Dylan’s current predicament: In 1966, he had survived a near-fatal motorcycle crash, that no doubt opened his eyes a bit. He was fed up with the media and his fans labeling him the messiah of rock and roll and a voice of his supposed generation. He seemed completely ready to ditch this built up “false persona” in lieu of a normal life with his family in upstate New York.

 

Nashville Skyline had left listeners and critics, “scratching their heads” as Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume 1. By the end of the decade that made him a star, Dylan was ready to move on. He recalls spreading rumors that he was going to retire from music all together. He took a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and wore a skull cap in front of the press just so he could be written up as a zionist and ultimately shed the baggage of his followers.

 

That Self Portrait’s title alludes to Dylan trying to show the world his true side (or perhaps an imagined-self that would send obnoxious his fan-base and critics alike running) shows that once again, Dylan was eager to send a message to the public.

 

The music on Self Portrait is not bad, it’s just not as good as everything that preceded it.

 

The 24-song collection is comprised primarily of studio B-sides from the Nashville Skyline sessions, covers of traditional and contemporary folk and rock songs, and a handful of live tracks recorded with The Band at the Isle of Wright Festival.

 

What’s striking about Self Portrait is that it’s a mish mosh of songs carrying no overlying message or theme, setting it apart from the previous nine records. Nashville Skyline came as a surprise to some but at least it felt like a concise exercise, channeling a love of country music and showcasing a new style of singing. Had Portrait been released solely as a “bootleg record,” much like the still-ongoing Bootleg Series that would eventually arise, the album might not have incited Marcus and others to impale Dylan and call this album the end of his career.

 

If you look at the year Self Portrait was released, it’s understandable that many fans felt betrayed by Dylan.

 

1970 saw The Beatles’ breakup, not to mention Simon & Garfunkel (but more on that later). Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin both bought the farm, and a wave of long-winded progressive art-rock from Europe seemed to be ready to explode. It was a sudden and harsh end of a fruitful decade for rock and roll.

 

Leading up to the release of Self Portrait Dylan had given the public plenty of warning signs that he was an unpredictable artist unwilling to play into the media’s portrait of his place in the world. Why fans and critics would be that shocked by Portrait remains the album’s biggest mystery.

 

Self Portrait opens with the enchanting but bizarre “All the Tired Horses,” which upon first listen must have seemed even more out of left field than Skyline’s introduction of Dylan’s country crooning voice.

 

“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any riding done?” This is how Portrait opens. Sung by three gospel singers and set to swelling strings and a simple guitar riff, the song instantly puzzles the listener, but does so in a surprisingly beautiful way.

 

Some view the song’s sparse lyrics as a nod to the fact that the album is admittedly void of the epic Dylan songs we’re used to. “How am I supposed to get any riding done?” could easily be mistaken for “How am I supposed to get any writing done?” which some see as Dylan saying that he’s done writing the “protest songs” that the masses still expect.

 

At only two lines, it’s also worth mentioning that this song is the only track on side one that is a Dylan original, the remaining songs being covers and arrangements of traditional folk tunes.

 

The cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain” is forgettable but feels like a direct spawn of the Skyline sessions.

 

“In Search of Little Sadie” gets things moving at the end of side one, and carries into its sister song, “Little Sadie” on side two. The arrangement of a traditional folk ballad about a man coming to grips with the fact that he murdered a woman in cold blood is actually a perfect Dylan song. It wouldn’t have felt out of place on say, John Wesley Harding.

 

The “Sadie” tracks differ only in terms of instrumental arrangements, and both feature choppy production, again giving the impression that Portrait truly is an officially released collection of outtakes and bootlegs.

 

“Woogie Boogie” is a fun instrumental that again feels like an extension of the Skyline songs, most notably “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The song builds to an eventual onslaught of brass culminating in a rip-roaring sax outro. The song, which was written by Dylan, is the result of an artist no doubt having fun in the studio. It’s an ode to “the blues” that Dylan so often returns to in his career and is an all around standout track on Portrait.

 

“Belle Isle,” another arrangement of a traditional folk song, carries on with the crescendo of strings first heard on “All the Tired Horses” and is one of Portrait’s more tender moments, save for the fact that Dylan’s vocals seem off key. Nevertheless, the tale of a man falling in love with a mysterious Celtic maid on “the banks of Belle Isle” is enough to warrant the song’s beautiful orchestral arrangement.

 

The live version of “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded a year earlier at the Isle of Wright Festival, is not the best live cut of the song available, but it captures perfectly the time of its recording. The Band’s presence is understood with Garth Hudson’s organ and the backup vocals from Robbie Robertson and company playing a vital role in the late 60s sound.

 

Self Portrait was officially released before the monstrous double album with The Band, Basement Tapes, but many of the songs on Portrait seem to be rejects or leftovers from those fruitful sessions. The version of “Like a Rolling Stone” is also an early sign of how Dylan would often deconstruct and alter his songs throughout his career. To this day no single live version of his hits are the same. His music always seems to evolve over time, taking on new forms–sometimes improving, sometimes causing fans to cringe.

 

The live version of “She Belongs To Me” (taken from the same 1969 concert) is another noteworthy example of this idea. Dylan’s songs take on different lives over his career. It’s an aspect of his music that fascinates some and infuriates others. Still no matter how you feel about it, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t keep things interesting.

 

Self Portrait’s most famous song, that is to say the only one people seem to reference when talking about the album, is “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” one of the album’s more successful covers and easily one of Dylan’s more underrated songs. Period.

 

Again blending strings, backup female vocalists, and a simple, albeit off-key vocal style from Dylan, this song seems to be one of several tracks on Portrait that carries a similar style and mood. Combined with “Belle Isle,” “All the Tired Horses,” and “Let It Be Me,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight)” takes the tenderness of Nashville Skyline and ups the production ante by adding, dare I say, a Phil Spector “wall of soundesque” level of instrumentation.

 

The song, a cover of a traditional folk song set during the Whiskey Rebellion in the United States is an ode to back-country moonshining. Its a romantic portrait of the love of homemade whiskey and a lawlessness that was required to keep this passion alive during a time when the taxman wanted a piece.

 

Build you a fire with hickory, hickory, ash and oak
Don’t use no green or rotten wood, they’ll get you by the smoke
You’ll just lay there by the juniper while the moon is bright
Watch them just a-filling in the pale moonlight.

Listening to “Copper Kettle” you again get the feeling that, like many of the other folk songs recorded throughout Dylan’s career, this is a song and a setting in America’s past that Dylan cherishes deeply. It chronicles the kind of simple life Dylan yearned for.

Unfortunately unlike “Copper Kettle,” not all of the covers on Self Portrait end up as successful. The most criticized examples being Dylan’s lackluster covers of “Blue Moon” and Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”

“Blue Moon” is a rock and roll standard that has been covered by a countless array of different musicians. Perhaps Dylan wanted to join the party, perhaps he just likes the song; whatever the reason, Dylan pulls out his “Lay Lady Lay” vocals but does little else to amp up the performance. It’s not that the version is horrible, it’s just boring, predictable and doesn’t bring anything new to the fold.

On Nashville Skyline Dylan’s crooning, soft-toned vocals work best when paired with “Girl From the North Country.” Here he takes one of his immortal classics and sheds new light on an otherwise familiar sound (this move is aided by Johnny Cash of course). Dylan’s “Blue Moon” sounds exactly like you would expect it to sound like, which does the song a disfavor.

On the other hand, Dylan’s rendition of “The Boxer” is one of Self Portrait’s moments that must have really inspired Greil Marcus to famously open his Rolling Stone review with such a harsh choice of words.

Many of posited that “The Boxer” is one of the Dylan’s more humorous offerings. It has been seen as a parody of a song by one of his contemporaries that he either respects or loathes. Some see it merely as Dylan messing around in the studio, possibly while under the influence of something that toys with one’s judgement. Whatever the reasons are for the song’s existence, the fact remains that the cover just doesn’t work.

For starters, Dylan records a duet with himself, channeling both the scratchy Dylan vocals we grew accustomed to throughout the 60s with the country crooning imagined in Nashville. It’s an interesting move that, in this writer’s humble opinion, backs the argument that this is a song in which Dylan is poking fun at “The Boxer,” a classic song recorded by musicians who have truly beautiful voices at their disposal. Whether or not this is a direct response to something personal between Simon and Dylan remains unknown.

Dylan has always had a very subtle sense of humor. It pops up on songs throughout his career, and most notably during his mischievous probing of the media during his now infamous interviews. You don’t have to look farther than Dylan’s most recent album of Christmas songs set to blues and polka music to realize that behind those serious eyes there is a clever and dark sense of humor.

Self Portrait is hardly Dylan’s worst record to date (many argue that its sloppy follow-up compilation of Portrait outtakes, Dylan, is an even more dismal affair) but it still remains one of his most discussed mishaps.

During the eighties Dylan went through creative slumps that produced songs that make the music on Portrait seem like classic Dylan. What Self Portrait teaches us is that the media does in fact have power over listeners.

During the research for this entry I discovered a fan-made documentary on Self Portrait. What’s most striking is how many of the commentators who bash the album have never listened to the record all the way through. This is, of course, a sign of an unsuccessful album, however, when taking into consideration that Self Portrait contains 24 tracks, it should be assumed that amidst the duds there are some high notes.

Had Self Portrait been released simply as a collection of bootlegs and B-sides more people wouldn’t be as quick to follow suit and judge the songs. Countless magazine lists heralding the supposed “Worst Albums of All Time” place Portrait on a pedestal of disdain. Instead, I feel that Self Portrait is one of Dylan’s more curious moments in his career. How else should he have started a new decade? How does one follow a string of immortal, game-changing albums? Dylan would follow Portrait the same year with New Morning, one of the artist’s most underrated albums to date and one that garners this title because it comes in the wake of Portrait’s dismal press.

Self Portrait enabled Dylan to personally diminish the hype revolving around him, ultimately allowing him to start over and take his music into a new direction. He did this when he alienated fans by going electric, he would later do this during his “born again” years, and in the 90s, when his music and style changed so drastically that he worked diligently to attract a completely new fan base to his music.

David Bowie is often labeled a “the chameleon of rock and roll” for his many musical and physical transformations over the years, but its Dylan who really makes the best use of this career concept. For Dylan, the music always came first. The collection of songs on Self Portrait are exactly the kind of songs you would expect Dylan to release. He is a lover of obscure Americana and folk music (his current radio program showcases this passion perfectly) and he has always yearned to shed his musical skin for something new and less obvious.

Self Portrait is possibly Dylan’s most fascinating career move and is an album that demands to be revisited at least once more by skeptics. It’s not perfect but succeeds at capturing a moment in Dylan’s life and musical career. Sure The Basement Tapes is the better double album, but that documents, first and foremost, one of the truly rare and magical musical pairings in rock and roll.

Greil Marcus is a prolific music writer and his admiration for Dylan’s canon is unprecedented, however, one can’t help but think that his now infamous Rolling Stone review might have been the exact response Dylan was looking for at the time. It’s as if he walked right into the trap which makes Dylan’s persona as trickster and media manipulator, all the more intriguing.

6.0/10

Essential Tracks: “All the Tired Horses,” “In Search of Little Sadie/Little Sadie,” “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” “Bell Isle”

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52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK NINE

Week 9: Got Me This Song, Ha Ha Ha Ho
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today



“Ana”
Pixies

Album: Bossanova

1990

4AD


She’s my fave

Undressing in the sun

Return to sea – bye

Forgetting everyone

Eleven high

Ride a wave

–”Ana” Pixies


With Bossanova the Pixies made what might be the best modern day surf record. Considering the band hails from Boston, Mass. this feat is all the more impressive.


My appreciation of the Pixies maturated in waves. When I was younger my father passed on to me a cassette rip of Doolittle that his friend had given him. Up until high school, this was my only window into the band. I didn’t appreciate everything on Doolittle at that young age. Lead singer Black Francis’ exercises in primal scream found on tracks like “Tame” or the frightening lyrics on “I Bleed” warranted pushing the fast-forward button on my Walkman.


As for the rest of Doolittle, however, I liked what I heard.


The Pixies are masters at producing seemingly cool sounds. “Monkey Gone To Heaven” was catchy enough to make me utilize the rewind button, “Silver” was eerie, in an intriguing way, and “Mr. Grieves” was just plain weird with Francis’ menacing laughs opening the fast-paced chaos of the song.


Doolittle was unlike anything I had ever heard at the time, and was almost too much to take in. The album is non-sensical at times–pairing familiar pastime musical genres–surf rock, bubble gum pop, traditional hymns–with bizarre, often terrifying surreal lyrics (read: “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs” from the rip-roaring opener “Debaser,” which, as I would later discover in college, brilliantly pairs Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel with rock and roll).


Francis’ words aside, the adornment I have for the Pixies and Doolittle has always been attributed to guitarist Joey Santiago’s masterful blending of sound assaulting guitar shredding with Beach Boys era surf rock. While present on all of the band’s records, this style was best put to use on 1990’s Bossanova.


I uncovered the Pixies short, but sweet discography over a long stretch of time. For a long time Doolittle was all I knew (and maybe all I wanted to know). The release of David Fincher’s film Fight Club shed new light on the superb track, “Where Is My Mind,” which ultimately encouraged me to check out both song’s album of origin, 1988‘s Surfer Rosa and also The Pixies debut EP, 1987‘s Come on Pilgrim.


For one reason or another it took another four years, well-into my stint at University, for me to explore Pixies’ latter two efforts, Bossanova and 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Why, you ask? Not sure. Perhaps a band like this should be examined over time.


Attention was first turned to
Bossanova one summer towards the end of University after I raided my cousin’s iTunes music library, which happened to have a handful of random Pixies tunes, including “Ana.”


I remember vividly the moment I first heard the song when it came on while my stereo shuffled through my newly acquired library. I didn’t know at first that it was, in fact, Pixies and Black Francis. The song is a rarity in the band’s canon in that it is the epitome of sleepy beach sounds. If the Beach Boys had ever had a truly menacing trip, they might issued something like this.


Opening with a quick drum crash and build, Santiago’s melodic guitar harmonies come in to set the mood. Enter Francis‘ whispering lyrics as he runs through an acrostic poem about a dreamy surfer girl riding an eleven-foot high wave. Carry the groove on for over two minutes and that’s all she wrote.


The song is dark, fairly simple in its music and lyrics, but intoxicating.


It’s safe to say that before I even ventured through the rest of the tracks on Bossanova I was obsessed with “Ana.” It was like a fix for the addict in me. The song was on damn near every mix CD made during my Junior and Senior year of college, and more often than not when it was played, one singular listening was never enough.


Eventually I bought Bossanova and was blown away, yet again by its offerings. The album’s opener, “Celia Ann,” an obscure cover of a Finnish instrumental surf rock band (?!?!?!) called The Surftones, is perhaps Pixies best album opener, besting Doolittle’s “Debaser” and Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine,” respectively, in terms of setting the proper mood for the songs that follow. Bossanova is surf rock, stripped down, run through a wave of distortion and taken to some dark places. It’s surfer rock on peyote.


The album is twisted yet brilliant. Loud and jarring at times, then suddenly and without warning, cool and melodic. Its “girlfriend” series of songs–starting with “Cecilia Ann,” followed by the epic “Velouria,” then the concise, angry “Allison,” and finally ending with “Ana–remain four of the band’s greatest songs.


Deeper cuts like the album’s beautiful closer, “Havalina,” the haunting “Down to the Well” or the insanely-energized cluster fuck of sound that is “Rock Music,” don’t require much adornment but get some nonetheless.


Still if I had to pick a favorite on Bossanova and really, in Pixies’ oeuvre, it would have to be “Ana.” The song is simple but musically packs a lot. It’s a song to unwind to. A song best heard at night. It’s on a short list of my favorite driving songs, and has a truly mesmerizing guitar riff.


When listening to Pixies my ranking of which album is the best slides in direct proportion with Joey Santiago’s guitar meanderings. When I discovered Bossanova it was, for a time, number one. Eventually the ridiculous title undoubtedly returned to Doolittle. When I finally got around to uncovering Trompe le Monde, it was a surprising victor, thanks in large part to its standout masterpiece, “Motorway to Roswell,” a moving tale of an alien visitor’s capture and eventual tomb of experimentation told in a way that only the Pixies could.


Sure both Bossanova and Trompe le Monde showed signs of cracks in the band’s infrastructure, most notably the tenuous relationship between Francis and co-singer/songwriter and bass player, Kim Deal. Many are quick to tag the latter two records, primarily when referring to Monde, as essentially Black Francis AKA Frank Black solo albums. While Deal isn’t as present during these records, they’re very much Pixies efforts, especially when you consider Santiago as an essential part of the band’s unique sound.


In the pantheon of rock and roll the Pixies doesn’t demand much more praise than it already receives. The band influenced an entire genre of music. Its blending of music and surrealism is ingenious and Black Francis is a masterful wordsmith. His songs are dark, violent, funny, bizarre, lovely, and, as the cunning linguist recently said in an interview on NPR’s rock and roll radio show, Sound Opinions, he “likes words for word’s sake.”


“Ana” never ceases to blow my mind. It’s a song that I can always turn to if I want to cap a long night. If I smoked cigarettes I’m guessing it would be my favorite smoking song, especially on a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. I’m still waiting for someone to utilize the song in a film soundtrack since, like many Pixies tunes, it feels like a score to a “surf noir” film, if such a genre ever came to life. I can always fall back on a Pixies album to take me away from reality for a bit, even if it’s to a dark, dark place full of “Stormy Weather” or “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey.”


Summed up: if, according to Pixies reasoning, “man is 5, the devil is 6, and God is 7” then Pixies is just shy of a perfect 10.


Top Albums of 2009

Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Domino Records

The true test of a great album is longevity–can the record be revisited a year after year and still pack the same punch that you get during its initial run? Merriweather Post Pavilion was released just six days into 2009 and has been the one album all year that has given listeners more than ample time to soak up what it has to offer. As Collective’s eighth studio album, the hype surrounding the album’s release was high. In the end the group delivered.

The music seems to be the culmination of the band’s musical progression, which in the past featured records with moments of brilliance, sandwiched between harder to handle filler. The past albums, while excellent, never sufficed as being singular masterpieces (the group’s 2004 album, Sung Tongs comes closest to perfection but suffers from carrying on for too long with not as much deviation).

Post Pavilion’s “My Girls” was the perfect first single and easily one of the top tracks of the decade. “Summertime Clothes” floats along on a sea of processed sounds but manages to be the album’s most catchy and fun tune. On “Daily Routine,” rising vocalist/multi instrumentalist in the group, Panda Bear, muses on the daily grind of being a father set to sprinkles of keyboard swirls and pounding drum and bass rhythms. The record’s closer, “Brother Sport” is the one arena rocker on the disc that could truly bring the house down at the real Merriweather Post Pavilion outdoor arena in Maryland. The dreamy “Bluish” may be the band’s most beautifully lush song to date, overtaking Sung Tongs’ spine chilling opener, “Leaf House.” Comparisons to The Beach Boys have been made when discussing Animal Collective and in particular Panda Bear’s solo endeavors, however, the band has gone beyond mere imitation.

Through its impressive career thus far (eight studio albums, four EPs in ten years!) the group has continued to create a sound that is entirely their own. With Merriweather Post Pavilion their importance in the lexicon of modern music is completely realized. Now we wait for what’s next.

St. Vincent

Actor

4AD Records

Rising from the cult shadow of Polyphonic Spree, a fairly kitchy group that never managed to find their relevance in my humble opinion, Annie Clark put out one hell of a twisted record. Actor is at times truly like the Disney movie soundtracks she quoted as being influential. At the other end of the spectrum the album has moments that are truly frightening, both lyrically and with her use of screeching distortion and eerie background vocal walls. The music is puzzling at time. The lyrics range from tender, “I lick the ice cubes from your empty glass” to the macabre, “We’re sleeping underneath the bed / To scare the monsters out / With our dear daddy’s Smith and Wesson / We’ve got to teach them all a lesson.” The album may be the prettiest dark album of the year or the darkest pretty album of the year. Clark leaves you to decide.

Songs like “Save Me From What I Want” open with a suspenseful crescendo of electro string notes which then burst into a steady and terribly catchy back beat set to Clark’s ethereal pipes. “The Neighbors” finishes her musings on “psychotropic Capricorns” with a mighty closing stanza that could serve as the album’s unofficial manifesto on who Clark is, where she fits in the arena of indie rock, and what this album is all about.

How can Monday be alright

Then on Tuesday lose my mind

Tomorrow’s some kind of stranger

Who I’m not supposed to see

Were it not for Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Animal Collectives Merriweather Post Pavilion, Actor would be the clear victor for album of the year. It’s a triumphant sophomore release from an artist to keep an eye on. When she sings on the harrowingly titled, “Laughing With A Mouth of Blood,” “And I can’t see the future / But I know it’s got big plans for me,” one can’t help but think she’s right.


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

ANTI- Records

To say that Neko Case can do no wrong would be a bit unfair but throughout her solo career she continues to release masterful albums that showcase her lovely voice, which seems to only improve with age. Middle Cyclone, along with most of Case’s past efforts is the perfect album for driving on a warm summer’s night, windows open and the air tickling your dangling hands.

“This Tornado Loves You,” a song that truly swirls into motion like a cyclone, opens the album with a bang. The song showcases a funnier and wilder side to Case until the following stanza brings home the true Case: a poetic lyricist, in the tradition of Joni Mitchell and Carole King who wants nothing more than to write tender love songs.

“Cause I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss

How you’d sigh yourself to sleep

When I’d rake the springtime

Across your sheets”


“People Got A Lotta of Nerve,” is a masterpiece (joining the ranks of Fox Confessor Brings the Flood’s “Star Witness” as essential Case) and contains a moment that brings Case’s vocal range to the forefront and has the ability to induce a surge of the shivers with every revisit. Even on the record’s two covers, Case manages to add her own touches, with Sparks’ “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” taking an otherwise cautionary tale and fusing it together with bubblegum pop.

“Magpie to the Morning” is an oh-so-tender lullaby with Case’s vocals shining bright. “I’m An Animal” makes best use of the album’s various notable guest musicians, including The Band’s virtuosic organ player, Garth Hudson.

Middle Cyclone has been tagged by Case as an homage to nature and the singer’s fascination with its mysteries and beauty. With any other artist fifteen songs devoted to mother earth (including an unnecessary 31-minute track of birds chirping) might seem silly or predictable but it suits Case. This is Case’s best record to date. It’s funny, beautifully romantic, deeply saddening, but is all together candy to the ears.

Phoenix

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

V2 Records

The feeling you get after listening to a completely awe-inducing record from start to finish for the first time is what music enthusiasts yearn for. It’s what keeps us listening. It’s our drug of choice and is potent enough to make a junkie out of us all. French electronic pop band, Phoenix’s album Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a perfect drug.

The record is short at just over 35-minutes but still manages to assault the ears with a sound that borrows and references damn near every rock genre–pop, prog, synth, rave, Kraut techno, indie. The songs are often of the historical nature with the band alluding to classical music obscurities (“Lisztomania’s” Franz Liszt), but lyrics aside, the must is what counts here.

Make no mistake, this is a pop album, but it’s one with surprises. The back-to-back album changers, “Love Like a Sunset Parts 1 & 2” come at nearly the album’s halfway point and are remarkable exercises crescendo. While lacking lead singer Thomas Mars’ signature squeaks and high notes, the first part is a Kraut rock-inspired groove instrumental that is at times menacing and at times hypnotic as it trudges along. It’s the album’s most surprising moment and easily the one track that sets this album apart from being, “just another French pop effort.”

“Lasso” might be the catchiest pop song of the year, and “Girlfriend” is a tender lament to loosing someone close.

Arising from the same French town that gave us Air, Phoenix is officially on par with its country cousin. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a flawless record, albeit a concise one. It takes the best elements of the aforementioned electronic genres of yesteryear, and sheds a new light on the familiar.

This is an album that begs you to seek out Phoenix’s past efforts and one that has remained timely well into 2010.

The Best of the Rest

Maxwell

BLACKsummers’night

Columbia

The return of neo-soul? How about simply put: the hottest R&B album of the year. “Love You” weaps. “Pretty Wings” channels Prince in his prime. While “Phoenix Rise” brings back the long-honored tradition of featuring one solid synthesizer instrumental track, the “Contusion” to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life.

Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Matador Records

Fans who commented that 2006 Rather Ripped showed a mellower, more conventional side to Sonic Youth were shaken from their lament with The Eternal. Raw, visceral, pounding, loud, and most importantly, laden with the band’s signature guitar butchery, are just a few ways to describe Youth’s newest opus. At 56 Kim Gordon still knows how to bring the sexy with “Anti Orgasm’s” pulsating guitar waves and primordial vocal grunts. By the time you get to The Eternal’s nearly ten minute closer, “Massage the History” the record has taken on through Youth’s lush musical history and back to the present, showing us that these New Yorkers’ sound is eternal.

The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Capitol & Rough Trade Records

The return of the truly weird progressive rock record. While its previous album, The Crane Wife, told a similar story, its music tended to be more on the cute side than Love’s hair-raising tracks. With church organs, an accordion, strings swells, and probably a lute or two thrown into the fold, Love’s mythical love story sounds like a joke gone terribly wrong on paper, but is fully realized when listened to thanks to Colin Meloy’s lyrics and notable guest vocal appearances from Becky Stark and Shara Worden, the latter actually stealing the show on the folk rock album’s only arena rocker “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.”

Moby

Wait For Me

Little Idiot/Mute

Surprised? Yeah, me too. After the breakout hit, Play, it seemed like Moby was on that oh too familiar trajectory into musical irrelevance. His 2008 club album, Last Night was a terrible let down, and past attempts to be the leader of a rock band rather than being the maestro at electronic symphonies that he truly is didn’t pay off. Sure Wait For Me follows the exact formula that Moby used on Play and its underrated follow-up, 18, but it still manages to sound fresh. Moby could be written up as ambient, since Wait For Me is a cool record to leave lingering in the background at the end of a long day, but really the best way to describe this album is: it’s Moby, but done well.

Malaysia: Days 4 & 5

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Days 4 & 5

Patriotic Frisbee–Robed Tourists Swarm the Mosque–Lamb–Butterflies–Orchids–Saturday in Little India–The Fifth Largest Building in the World–The Red Light District of Berjaya Times Square–A Massage–Don’t Put that in Your Ear–A Final Hookah–Roti Baba–Farewell Curry

Still recovering from the Christmas feast the day before, we skipped breakfast, grabbing only a quick froth tea before heading back towards the Islamic Art Museum to visit the Kuala Lumpur National Mosque. Christmas day we were denied access to the mosque on account of it being closed for prayer at the time, so we decided to remedy the setback.

On the way we stopped at Merdeka square, Kuala Lumpur’s very own independence memorial and the original site of the first Malaysian flag raising in 1957. After a quick survey of the park and the building surrounding it, we decided it best to pay our respects to the country’s independence with frisbee.

We reached the National Mosque, a fairly modernized looking edifice that is KL’s largest, and slowly walked around the building’s exterior and interior. 

Being a holy place, Mosques expect a certain attire from visitors wanting to enter. The usual tourist garb of shorts and sleeveless tee-shirts doesn’t fly, especially for female guests. Therefore the National Mosque requires all visitors with excessive exposed skin to dress in what could easily pass as a purple Jedi nightgown or Jeremy Irons’ brightly colored gynecological scrubs from David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers–all references to the loose-fitting purple robes seemed feasible at the time.


We lingered for a bit watching various Chinese tourists pose for photos with “real-life praying Muslims” but eventually headed out to check out Taman Rama-rama (which sounds like a children’s song) AKA the KL butterfly park.

The butterfly sanctuary was a lot more interesting that it sounds. The outdoor, netted sanctuary houses roughly 6,000 butterflies, with over 120 species present. Butterflies are easily taken for granted, but they truly are beautiful–each with its own color scheme and no two butterflies the same.

The Perdana Lake Gardens is a truly remarkable part of Kuala Lumpur, an otherwise major chaotic city. The gardens seem to represent the natural, more serene side of Malaysia and give residents a much needed break from city life. Walking around the butterfly park, and later the orchid and hibiscus garden, was a wonderful transition from the hustle and bustle of the city center.

After the butterfly park we made are way back to the Islamic Art Museum for lunch at the much-applauded museum cafe, which we had heard served up some incredible Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine. The cafe overlooks an outdoor courtyard that features one of the museum’s aforementioned five domes. The spread was indeed a treat: roast lamb, grilled eggplant, spicy barley soup, fresh roti bread, a lump-tuna salad that instantly brought to mind Iberia (taste bud déja vu perhaps), fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and salt, and an impressive olive, hummus, and baba ghannoug bar to start things off.



Among other world cuisines, Taipei is lacking solid Mediterranean food. There’s a halfway decent chain of falafel joints around the city but unfortunately years of wolfing down sandwiches at Chicago’s Pita Inn and Sultan’s Market have made me a bit of a connoisseur of the chickpea and its brethren and Taipei’s Sababa just reminds me of what I’m missing at home. It was therefore a treat to have some truly decent food at the cafe.

After getting our fill at the cafe (gluttony seems to be an underlying theme of travel in Malaysia) we walked towards the park’s orchid and hibiscus garden, an impromptu decision but one that was worth it.

I don’t pretend to know anything about flowers. During my childhood my mother was always an avid weekend gardener, I’ve visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens a number of times, and I thoroughly enjoyed the Charlie Kaufman film “adaptation” of Susan Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief, Adaptation, which philosophizes about the beauty and mystery of orchids. Still I wouldn’t consider myself the type who normally seeks out gardens while traveling.

Like the butterfly park before, the Taman Orkid was another beautiful departure from busy KL central. The garden boasts addressing over 3,000 global species of orchids, 800 of which come directly from Malaysia. The garden is broken up into a series of small walking gardens and one orchid bazaar.
The variety of colors and shapes found makes it easy to understand why there are orchid festivals and fanatics to attend such galas. An orange sherbet flower in particular caught my eye.


Along the way I spotted a foreigner reading on a bench under a canopy of hanging flowers, in an area void of the sounds of tourists or garden hands at work. Whether she was a fellow traveler enjoying the park or an expat living in KL was irrelevant. It seemed like a blissful moment. I remember thinking, “yeah, this is pretty nice.”

After wandering around for a while we decided to catch a taxi back to Little India to check out the Saturday street market. This would be my second of three trips to Little India but was without a doubt the most memorable.



The Saturday market spans the length of a major street bisecting the district. From the narrow row of stalls vendors hawk clothes, textiles, discounted copy-products and a colorful and delectable array of snacks. Samosas and deep-fried snacks of the fritter genus, fish balls wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, the smell of curry wafting in the air, spicy tandoori style chicken, candied fruit and jellies, dates, tea and then some, and even some out of place Chinese fare to stir things up.




We were still recovering from the lamb and humus feast at lunch but couldn’t resist taunting our stomachs, yet again. We walked around before dodging an afternoon rain shower at Little India’s Capital Coffee shop, a supposed landmark establishment. With its old electric ceiling fans, tile floors, and large diner style wall menu, the place felt more like what I imagine of French colonial Vietnamese cafes look like.

We drank more froth tea, possibly the tenth cup of the trip, but who’s counting. The place served staples like coffee and tea but also had a sweaty, seasoned grill man stationed at a hibachi on the sidewalk dishing out satay. A table of four Malay woman next to us must have ordered at least 50 of these yummy meatsicles.

At around five we caught a train to Bitang Street, a flashy upscale district in KL near Petronas towers that houses most of KL’s nightlife. We spotted a large red Borders Books neon sing outside the entrance of large building called Berjaya Times Square and decided to kill some time in the bookstore. The allure of checking out some English language magazines was reason enough to get out off the steamy streets.

A recent Wikipedia search confirmed my suspicions that this was no ordinary shopping center but rather an obnoxious mega mall. With 7.5 million square feet of built up floor area, Berjaya Times Square is the fifth largest building in the world (measured by floor area), according to Wikipedia. That this same ranking states Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 is the largest makes that obscenely excessive oasis in the desert all the more ridiculous.

The Borders it turns out is also the company’s largest franchise store in the world, though it seemed like just another mega bookstore to me.

In terms of grandiosity I suppose you could say that Berjaya Times Square is impressive. The shear size of the building coupled with the 1000+ different retail stores housed under its roof is overwhelming but also yet another sign of what Kuala Lumpur dreams of becoming: a major Asian metropolis on par with its neighbor to the south, Singapore, along with the usual East Asian suspects–Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai.

Berjaya boasts having an indoor theme park, the largest in Asia, which features, among other attractions, a large candy-colored roller coaster. To exemplify just how big this mall is, I had no idea this place even had a theme park until I later researched the building for this entry.

Photo c/o The Internet

After skimming through Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” end of the year issue and debating whether or not to stock up on some hard to find books, we decided to meander around the mall a bit longer, soaking up its opulence.



Malls throughout America are known for housing some strange stores. It’s safe to say the larger the mall, the weirder the array of shopping possibilities. It’s not uncommon to find an entire store devoted to Christmas ornaments or Yankee Candles, or a snack stand that takes something as straightforward as “the pretzel” and ups the stakes by adding maple syrup, frosting and/or pepperoni. This shopping center seemed like more of the same only with the number of random, brand-free stores outnumbering the familiar. For every Nike or Calvin Klein store there were ten oddly-named fronts selling knock-off clothing and accessories under a fancier roof. It’s as if they took the street market goods and pitted them against big names like Polo and Dockers.

Places with names like Magma, Tough, French Kiss, Fellini’s Boutique, Old Scull Clothing, Slipper World, Vamp, Private Shop International (underwear), and the trio of boutiques Rum, Romp and Rock and Roll, were filled with loud teenagers, and the flashy attire that they pined for. The place was what I expected Minnesota’s Mall of America must be like, only with a more global clientele in lieu of overweight Midwesterners.

Still had I known that I would have found a store in which customers pay money to dangle their feet into a pool filled with ravenous fish, I might not have been so quick to write this shopping center off as, “just another mall.”

We stumbled upon the fish spa massage parlor tucked away in what looked to be the shopping center’s very own red light district. This wing of the mall housed a number of kinky Japanese clothing stores with names like S & M Dream Shop and a tiny, neon-lit sex shop that had customers spilling out of its entrance. It could be that edible underwear are in season. 

The massage parlor was one of two in the area and had an unassuming sign out front offering up foot massages (which are big in KL), full-body rub-downs, and something called ear candling. It was the large fish tank with its padded bench island in its center that managed to catch our attention.

It took me a bit longer to fully comprehend what the hell was going on. Stuart, having lived in East Asia coming on almost four years now, instantly knew what the tank was for and without much discussion coaxed me into booking a 20 minute session.

I wouldn’t uncover the details surrounding Garra Rufa, or Doctor Fish as they’re more commonly referred to as, till an Internet search long after the trip. Like the medicinal use of leaches, Doctor Fish have long been called upon for the revitalization of weathered-skin. The ancient act of “fish nibble feet” spa treatment has roots in China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East where the fish originate. This particular species of fish have a taste for human flesh and have been used for years as an effective way to remove dead skin from bathers at spas. At the time I was only focussed on the reality facing me: I was about to pay the proprietor (who I was convinced was taking the piss out of us– “come on man, this tank is just for decoration. You don’t actually expect me to go through with this” I thought.) to feed his fish with the flesh from my rank, well-travelled trotters.

While a place of this nature was just screaming, “anything goes,” I was surprised to find that the proper etiquette before the feeding frenzy is to cleanse the feet with a hose in a back room. Had I previously waltzed around barefoot in cyanide I might have understood this precaution, but I found it hard to believe that these fish had standards.

Following the instructions, I rinsed my long, bony feet, rolled up my pants to the knees, took a seat on the island and dangled my toes over the water, taunting the little buggers, and procrastinating the eventual plunge.

The tank was divided into two sections. The front section looked out to the mall’s corridors, granting strolling shoppers the chance to watch the spectacle of a couple of clueless foreigners wriggle and squawk as fish chew their feet. Its tank featured fish of the minnow variety–small and plenty of them. These younger, more ambitious fish clearly had stronger appetites and were handy for getting into the hard to reach spots like the web of skin between toes. The back tank had bigger fish, which I gathered served no other purpose other than to make me squirm like a child getting a splinter removed.

I started with the little buggers. They wasted no time in surveying the terrain of my size 13 feet jumping right in, their little mouths picking away at every corner. The scary part of the initial ride was how quickly the feeling went from just plain weird to surprisingly comfortable.

After feeding the kids for about five minutes, I moved over to the papas next door, unsure of how their bites would compare. While slower with their eating habits, and hardly as efficient as their brood, the sensation that the bigger fish issue out was enough to completely irk me out.

With their teeth clearly more developed, their mouths bigger, these diligent monsters went right for the heel and were more adventurous with their trip up leg hair alley.

After about ten minutes I was ready to stop but when the woman massaging a man’s big toe in the massage stall closest to the pool asked me why I had removed my feet so soon, I realized that throwing in the towel early would be weirder in the eyes of the locals than continuing the squirming and hissing.

When the proprietor’s timer went off my feet flew out of the water, my toes pruned, cherry-colored and a hell of a lot smoother than before.

When later asked about the meal the wee diners wrote the meal up as “adventurous,” complimenting the notes of foot funk and calling the amuse bouche of hiker’s blister on left Achilles’ tendon, as “a pleasant surprise.” Second seating enjoyed the big toe knuckle hair and were floored by the lower shin region’s smorgasbord of pre-softened skin and sock lint.

After drying off and putting our shoes back on we were set to leave but were drawn in, yet again, after reading a sign offering a discounted ear candling.

Ear candling, aka ear coning, aka, sticking a friggin’ lit candle up your ear canal, is supposedly a therapeutic method of cleansing the ear of toxins, such as wax, dirt and sinister ear goblins. Unlike the fish spa treatment’s instant tickling results, the jury is still out on whether or not this “alternative medicinal” procedure works or if it is simply another new-age body cleansing scam. After the feet-feeding-frenzy–having just done that–my immediate response to the, “ear candling? Come on!” proposition was, “eh, what the hell.”

Ear candling is quite simple really. The patient, or should I say sucker, lies on his/her side while a perfect stranger who may or may not be licensed but does in fact own some fish, sticks a conical paper candle of sorts deep into the ear canal and then lights it up like a cigarillo. As the candle slowly burns its way down, the sensation is that of, well, something long burning its way closer to the eardrum.

After about fifteen minutes the rolled earwax blunt is removed and the remnants–charred pieces of ash and wax, which may or may not come from the ear–are shown to the customer as proof of what just went down.

According to a Montreal Gazette article entitled, Don’t put a candle in your ear and save $25, “as of 2008, there are at least two cases in which people have set their houses on fire while ear candling, one of which resulted in death.” It’s in the humble opinion of this author that records like the aforementioned article should be burned so as not to give future generations the ability to say, “you’re kidding me, right?”

Coupled with the fish spa, the experience cost about US$20.

After realizing how long we had just spent in the shopping center we made our way out and checked out some more of the surrounding area before heading back to our nightly hookah spot at the Kampung Baru Night Market.

Over another fruit-themed water pipe, I ordered a couple satays and some fresh squeezed orange juice, while we chatted with the hookah stand’s owner. He talked about the Kampung Baru market being a popular hangout for young people and of how down-to-earth Malaysians are. I couldn’t agree more with him.

The next day was my last day in KL. We grabbed a coffee and a small bite to eat at a cafe outside of Little India that was written up in the New York Times as serving up a sinfully delicious treat called roti baba. This “light” breakfast monstrosity is essentially a greasy, fried dough pocket stuffed with greasy pork and grilled onions. The Malaysian calzone is then doused with Worcestershire sauce. Damn.

Afterwards we made our way into Little India so I could pick up some goodies at the local grocery store, mainly candy and treats for my students and co-workers, not to mention some Tongkat Ali ginseng coffee, another supposed Malaysian specialty. Before heading back to grab my bags we had one last feast at a hole-in-the-wall South Indian cafe, which I feared would rid my pores with pungent curry before boarding a plane but ultimately seemed like a sacrifice I was willing to make. The things we do for food.

The flight back to Taipei was relaxing with lots of fond memories of this amazing place to keep my mind occupied. Back home I immediately uploaded some photos and replayed the trip.

Malaysia gave me a taste of more travels to come in Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is a lively metropolis, and his home to people from all over the planet. Its diversity and peacefulness in spite of this varied make-up was refreshing and kind of eye-opening. While I might not have gotten the true Malaysian experience (the peninsula’s interior might be a separate trip down the line), I was definitely treated to a truly global experience.

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 3

Christmas on Foreign Soil–Multiple Mosques–A Camel Gun–Christmas Buffet–Garbage Monkeys–A Bar in the Sky–Hookah: Part II–Rats Underfoot


When waking up on Christmas morning in a dank youth hostel in Kuala Lumpur, it’s easy to forget that it is in fact a much cherished Western holiday. This would be my first Christmas away from family and while this realization stung a bit more than Thanksgiving, which went by like any other day, I was buzzing from the natural high of being somewhere completely exotic.


Still, it being Christmas and all, Stuart and I had previously decided that a proper Christmas meal would be necessary.


Prior to arriving to KL we both researched various hotels and restaurants offering “traditional” Christmas brunches and settled on a pleasant enough spread to be held at the distinguished Carcosa Seri Negara hotel. We were to meet two of Stuart’s Japanese friends from Hong Kong (who were also visiting KL for the holidays) at one so we decided to start the morning off semi-early with the intention of perusing the Islamic Art Museum and National Mosque, both situated in the general area as the hotel.


The Kuala Lumpur Islamic Art Museum is a gorgeous building constructed around five ornately decorated domes. With a collection largely devoted to Islamic architecture, the building is one of the more beautiful museums I’ve visited.


Top: One of the five domes PHOTO C/O The Internet
Bottom: The Architecture Wing, PHOTO C/O The Internet


The first wing we entered was the Architecture Gallery which features an impressive collection of scaled down models of various mosques spanning the globe. Each was designed with such a precise attention to detail that viewing the models was a window into a truly remarkable side of this religion that I know so little about.


Each model was coupled with a description of its architectural style and a brief history of its construction. The room was organized by geographical region, and while the major mosques present–Masjid al-Haram at Mecca, India’s Taj Mahal and Turkey’s Blue Mosque–were impressive in their respective grandeur, the real gems of the collection were the lesser known exmamples.


I’ve written before of my interest in a number of the Central Asian countries, most notably Uzbekistan, so it wasn’t a surprise that the Central Asian section captured my attention right away. Equally exciting were examples from Southeast Asia, with the Indonesian and Malaysian styles being the most “untraditional” and an example of one from Southern China being the most downright curious, featuring the construction methods might expect in a Buddhist temple coupled with a Muslim architectural sense of space.


We took our time surveying the museum’s collection. The remaining rooms tended to blur together with a focuses on textiles, household artifacts, various styles of Quran binding, and ancient armory pieces, most notably a small cannon that was once attached to the sides of warring camels. A camel gun. Who knew!

Camel gun PHOTO C/O The Internet


We spent about two hours in the museum and eventually made our way to the hotel for what we had been preparing our grumbling stomachs for all morning.


The Carcosa Seri Negara hotel is a beautiful colonial style estate built in the hills around the Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens, which is a wide jungle of a park featuring a butterfly habitat, wild bird sanctuary and an orchid and hibiscus garden. The hotel is owned and operated by the government and was once the residence of high-ranking British commissioners in then Malaya. We later found out that Christmas day was the last day of operation, as the hotel would close down indefinitely for repairs.


Carcosa Seri Negara Hotel PHOTO C/O The Internet


We arrived, accepted the glass of champagne that was offered to us by the waiter and surveyed the hotel’s long porch waiting for the girls to arrive.


Mickey and Jiggy are co-workers of Stuart’s in Hong Kong, working as Japanese teachers at his school. They were excited to be dining at such a beautiful hotel and though I was left out of some of the Japanese conversations that commenced, they were very sociable.


The Christmas spread consisted of the usual fare: roast lamb with mint jelly, an impressive salad and appetizer bar with a focus on marine life, stuffed chicken and polenta, fine cheese, and a colorful dessert selection that was alluring enough to make us rethink the fact that by the end of the main meal we were clearly stuffed.


The added expense option for free flowing wine was only debated briefly with the go-to excuse of, “what the hell, it’s Christmas,” taking over. Needless to say we left the hotel fatter and more inebriated than when we had arrived.


After the three and a half hour gorging we followed the girls back to the art museum and said our farewells and I coaxed Stuart into trudging along with me to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park, written up everywhere as “The World’s Largest Free-flight Walk-in Aviary,” which is a mouthful of an endorsement.


Outside of the entrance I was pleasantly surprised to find a family of greedy tree monkeys scrounging through the public trash receptacles. These filthy buggers had no respect for the park’s otherwise serene beauty and took to throwing their rejected finds on the ground, with not a single flinch from the movement of the spectators (myself included) inching closer with cameras ready for something mischievous to capture.



While I secretly prayed for one monkey to go bezerk and attack a woman’s purse or lunge at some poor spectator’s ear, the monkeys just carried on with their tasks at hand. “How bout that man over there with the video camera,” I thought. “He’s just screaming to be made an example of. Or the unassuming child with the ice-cream cone, you could easily take her treat for yourself.”

The Walk-in Aviary turned out to be the kind of over-priced park one might expect at Disney World, rather than the wicked place to have birds fly around your heads place I imagined. With the red wine taking its toll and some menacing storm clouds soiling the morning’s beautiful blue skies, we made an executive decision to head back towards our hostel for a much-needed late afternoon siesta before heading out into the city in the evening.


We walked down the hill back towards the museum where we had left Mickey and Jiggy and encountered a Romanian tourist who had just left the sanctuary. She was traveling in KL solo and was also headed back to her hotel for a little rest before heading back out into the city. She told us that many Romanians travel to Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the cheap-airfare and more importantly, cheap exchange rate. She complained, however, that taxi drivers in KL had been taking advantage of the fact that she was a foreigner and looked instantly put-off when we saw her get into a cab outside of the museum.



After a two hour siesta of sorts back at the hostel where I read up on some possible sights for the next day, we made our way towards Petronas Towers to soak up the night lights and possibly find a bar for a drink.


Even though I had seen the towers on my first night in KL, they were equally as stunning. We sat for a while in the crowded fountain park on the backside of the towers looking up at a number of the surrounding hotels and buildings, wondering what their views were like and if any of them had sky bars.


Two days before I left for KL the New York Times travel section had printed one if its, “36 Hours in___________” stories on Kuala Lumpur, naming The Trader’s Hotel SkyBar as the best place to soak in the “silver, scalloped buildings light up at night.” After a while we meandered through the towers’ exterior park towards the hotel and quickly found ourselves sipping cocktails with the towers glistening in the background.



Eventually we headed back to the hostel, opting to walk the distance, in lieu of the monorail, seeing as the towers were practically in the backyard of the previous night’s market. Our plan was to cap the evening with yet another hookah.


The night market was bustling as always and once again the large projector screen was flashing Hollywood Christmas flicks to a fairly indifferent crowd.


After taking our time with a melon flavored nargila, we made our way back to the hostel with the intention of calling our family as they celebrated Christmas morning.


In my typical controlling fashion I had taken on the role of navigating the city during this trip, and I knew the hostel’s surrounding area very well. This said, my suggestion to cut through the Chow Kit Wet Market after dark was not one of my finest moments.


“Trust me, if we cut through here it’ll take us right to the front door, saving us the trip around the block to the monorail station,” I told Stuart.


The market route did in fact take us right to the hostel entrance as I had promise but the market, which in the morning was alive with the sounds of commerce, was empty at night, save of course for the hoards of giant Malaysian rats feeding on the day’s scraps.


The market stretched a lot deeper in than I had anticipated going in and street lights quickly faded leaving us to transverse through a dark and damp series of narrow walkways with bits of fruit and meat being feasted on below our feet. That this was the first and only time during the trip I had worn sandals out made the experience that much more hair raising. Way to go.


After making it a third of the way in before truly realizing the vermin situation underfoot, we decided that it would best to just run the remainder of the stretch with the intention of scaring away whatever might be chewing away in our path. While I can’t be sure of what I was feeling around me, it’s safe to say I startled a number of rats, many of which were no doubt drunk on rotting fruit, and am sure a tail or two brushed up against the exposed flesh of my naked feet. Remember that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when Indy and a busty Fräulein head into the Venice sewers surrounded by rats, well this wasn’t that far off in terms of moments to make you squirm.


Back at the hostel I called home via Skype and caught my family in the middle of Christmas morning. While it felt weird and bit sad that while my family sipped mimosas and carried out our traditional Christmas morning tradition of poached eggs and a candied holiday-themed coffeecake, I had just sucked down a fruit cocktail-flavored hookah amongst a group of muslim youths, and had just fled through an alley overrun by scurrying rats, I was pleased that this one Christmas would undoubtedly be one to remember forever.




52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK EIGHT

Week 8: What A Day That Was
Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Talking Heads

Album: Stop Making Sense

1984

Sire Records


The band in Heaven, they play my favorite song.

They play it once again, play it all night long.

-“Heaven”


1984 was a good year for music. The Smiths recorded its album debut, Prince unleashed Purple Rain, Bruce made a splash with Born in the U.S.A., The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime was released, as was Zen Arcade from Hüsker Dü, and Let it Be by The Replacements, to name a few. Then there was the Stop Making Sense soundtrack.


One month before I was born, Jonathan Demme’s concert film, “Stop Making Sense” was released. Its soundtrack, released the same year, was one of a handful of records my parents so wisely schooled my sister and me with. It was played at home, in the car; through headphones and speakers, and eventually out of the shoddy mono speakers of my household’s vintage Sony Trinitron when I finally saw the actual film.


For the record, the Stop Making Sense soundtrack was my gateway to Talking Heads’ music and to the film. But really, one couldn’t ask for a better introduction.


What else can be said about Stop Making Sense that hasn’t already been written before. It’s one of the most beloved concert films and albums of all times. It captures the Heads in its prime, serving as a retrospective of sorts of the band’s musical evolution up to that point. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, taken from one of the greatest films of all time.


Need one more bold statement? How about this: Talking Heads is the greatest American rock and roll band. Don’t you think?


Think about Heads’ transformation from stripped down, quirky new-wave punk outfit (as seen on ‘77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food) to the experimental, genre bending band it ceaselessly morphed into (from Fear of Music onwards). At only eight studio albums released, the band’s discography is concise, but one could say that the players said what they wanted to say, played what they wanted to play and then cleared the stage, ahead, ultimately paving the way for equally rewarding solo careers from each band member.


The music has influenced so many of its contemporaries and future acts, and “Stop Making Sense” the film changed the way filmmakers and viewers viewed the concert film genre–one will notice early on that the audience is hardly seen during the film and the stage is bare-boned, going against the flashy trends of bigger bands of the time.


David Byrne is one of rock’s true geniuses. An ambitious, almost mad visionary who has never slowed down in his quest to change how we experience music, which he’s long seen as platform best suited for all of the senses, not simply the ears.


Heads’ rhythm section is one of the great collaborations in music, with Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (real-life married couple) bringing an almost mathematically calculated sense of timing to the band. The bass line in the band’s mega hit, “Once in a Lifetime” alone is one of the great moments in musical rhythm. One bass line, played in repetition like a metronome, but capable of bringing the groove.


Keyboardist and rhythm guitar player, Jerry Harrison, had already come out of the equally influential Modern Lovers outfit before joining Byrne and gang, adding the final essential piece to the band.


Production wiz, and possibly the only other musician at the time with the brains and visions to keep up with Byrne, Brian Eno, would later play a key role in the band’s progression. And the backing musicians on Stop Making Sense, most of them spawns from George Clinton’s funk factory, managed the remarkable feat of taking beloved songs and not only shedding brand new light on them but at times improving on them (the non-Heads track, “What a Day That Was,” originally drawn from an obscure Byrne solo effort, being the perfect example).


I currently have three copies of Stop Making Sense on CD: one “borrowed” early on from my parents, another expanded Special Edition version bought later, and yet another rescued from a garbage bin my college roommate had put together, the latter thus becoming a permanent fixture in my car’s glove compartment. I own its LP and have long dreamed of pulling off the film’s signature “Big Suit” for Halloween. The film is the one DVD I own which I watch on a monthly basis and it has traveled with me to Spain and here in Taiwan.


It’s hard to pick a favorite track on the album, or in Heads’ catalogue for that matter.


The aforementioned “What A Day That Was” is pretty terrific. But so is “Making Flippy Floppy,” “Heaven,” “Crosseyed and Painless,” “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody),” and of course the album’s tried and true mission statement of an anthem, “Burning Down the House.” When Byrne shouts to the seen but not seen audience at the end of “Life During Wartime,” “Does anyone have any questions?” The answer is always an unanimous: no, no we don’t.


I remember not really understanding what Stop Making Sense was all about when I first heard the album. Having not seen the film yet and being only slightly familiar with Talking Heads, made the experience all the better. For me, like my introduction to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the music just sounded great and it pulled me in.


The African percussion was flawless, bringing on the dance grooves. The rhythm guitar was tight and polished, and Parliament-Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell’s sparingly executed synthesizer notes sounded futuristic in a surprisingly interesting way. As a budding drumming growing up, the tom-tom fills on “Burning Down the House” inspired many a table/chest drumming fits. Once I finally had a drum kit of my own I often reenacted these moments, much to the neighbors’ dismay.


Really, what else can be said about Stop Making Sense. I’ve listened to this album over a hundred times and it only improves with age. The world is a better place because of this film, this album and Talking Heads contribution to music. When you realize how much is going on within each song–the sonic complexities, nuances and how much of the attention to detail was undoubtedly calculated down to every individual note and beat–reverence is the only proper response. Rock/dance/funk/pop nirvana.


Does anyone have any questions?