Monthly Archives: July, 2014

How to drink Kentucky straight bourbon

The Setup

  1. Get a snifter: A snifter is glassware designed for brandy and cognac and it happens to be good with bourbon. Since you get lot of your hand on it, it warms the liquor through the glass. A shot glass will also suffice (the Marker’s Mark wax dipped ones are cool).
  2. Look into whiskey stones: If you like your bourbon slightly chilled so that it warms up on your tongue, try out whiskey stones. They’re rocks that can be cooled in the freezer and used like ice, except obviously they don’t melt or water-down your beverage. Ice is still fine, though, and can actually complement some whiskeys.
  3. Get some Woodford Reserve Double Oaked: I could have picked any number of bourbons, but this one is good for beginners and enthusiasts alike. Its smell is incredible – wood and chocolate – and it is powerful yet gentle, with lots of smoothness. It’s also more affordable than Pappy van Winkle.

The Three-Sip Method

  1. Smell the bourbon and then take a light sip to coat your mouth: Take a long smell, then sip just a little bit to coat your mouth. Doing so resets your palate from whatever you ate.
  2. Take a bigger sip and let it linger in your mouth: About half of the remaining volume should be consumed in the first big sip. Let it fill your mouth and don’t swallow too early.
  3. Finish off with a quicker sip: That sip gets you into the game. Now that you’re more comfortable (and probably buzzed), finish the glass off.

The Postgame

  1. Clean your palate with bourbon candy: These chocolates keep the buzz going while also providing the sweetness to clean your palate.
  2. Store your bourbon in a temperate, dark place: Don’t refrigerate it, but do keep it in a cabinet at room temperature and away from light.
  3. Look for other flavors: There are many to try. Pappy van Winkle is pricey but well-loved. Maker’s Mark has an unusual recipe and edge. Knob Creek is particularly strong.

Primal Scream’s “XTRMNTR” and the age of inequality



Primal Scream once entitled a song “Bomb the Pentagon,” before 9/11 happened. By 2002, it had morphed into a mediocre stomper called “Rise,” and the legendary Scottish band was never the same.

See, from 1999 to 2001, Primal Scream were angry and politically prescient. That’s a rare combination, a glass of ice water in a hell of Rage Against the Machines.

Plus, despite their name, The Primal Scream (as they were dubbed on records from this period) weren’t/aren’t always a noisy band. Prior to the 2000s, they were most famous for an LP called Screamadelica, which was chock-full of gospel rockers and slight synth plinking. I never got into it, but it was a seminal record in the UK house scene and it set the stage for Britpop’s subtle mixture of rock and dance. The group followed it up with a terrible, Stones-y album of boogie rock with the Confederate battle flag on the cover (1994’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up).

XTRMNTR was the anti-Screamdelica. Just look at that opener – “Kill All Hippies.” The moment when the synths finally kick in after the sample dialogue intro is one of those Album Moments (like the first drums on Nevermind, or the opening notes of “Come Together” on Abbey Road) when you know that something good is underway. It’s loud, it’s ballsy, and it sounds good, without the excessive dynamic range compression that makes so much music unbearable.

I got XTRMNTR in the mail on a rainy day in early 2003, when I came home from school after vomiting in the hallway outside history class. So I got listen to Bobby Gillespie shout “sick, sick, fuck” at the end of “Pills” for the first time while actually sick. This album will always be with me, having engrained itself so vividly into my mind and my body on that January day.

11 years later, what sticks with me about XTRMNTR is how it manages to be both catchy as hell and, improbably, a proper assimilation of jazz (one that’s not stuffy or rambling at all). “Swastika Eyes” has a melody and bassline that cannot be forgotten (and that production! Jagz Kooner pulls his best saber of paradise for this cut) – try going around humming it some day and see what kinds of reactions you get (it’s an anti-fascist song, but easily misunderstood out of context). It’s only minutes separated from “Blood Money,” which is just about as good as a rock band can do in getting to 1970s Miles Davis. Then there’s MBV Arkestra, a jazzed-up remake of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em” from 1997’s Vanishing Point.

What kind of band could make “autosuggestion psychology/elimination policy” a hummable couplet with first-rate musical backing? One with a first-rate cast. In addition to the core members, Primal Scream assembled a who’s who of 80s and 90s rock and electronica – Bernard Sumner (Joy Division/New Order), Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), Gary Mounfield (The Stone Roses), The Chemical Brothers, half of the Two Lone Swordsmen (Keith Tenniswood).

XTRMNTR has its foot on the pedal the whole way through, except for the peaceful respite “Keep Your Dreams,” which is easily the most gorgeous song they’ve come up with. It’s anger, but versatile anger – in addition to the aforementioned edgy jazz, there’s scuzzy distortion rock (“Accelerator”), bass-driven nightmares (“Exterminator,” “Insect Royalty”), angry faux hip-hop (“Pills”) and something that defies all categorization (the awesomely futuristic “Shoot Speed Kill Light”).

Even though I’m a writer by trade, I often give lyrics a pass when I review music. But here, Primal Scream does real work with its words. Look at “Exterminator”:

Gun metal skies
Broken eyes
Claustrophobic concrete
English high-rise

Exterminate the underclass
Exterminate the telepaths
No civil disobedience

This album came out at the height of the U.S. dot-com boom (early 2000) and on the eve of 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and its lyric sheet can be read as a compelling document signifying that the blissful 1990s were finally over in the West.

I didn’t place it in that context since I didn’t listen to it at all until 2003, but looking at it now I can see it as not only a commentary on the violent currents running beneath the peace and prosperity of the 90s, but as a predictor of the recent age of inequality. “Exterminate the underclass” has been the implicit goal of years of policy on both sides of the Atlantic, while “no civil disobedience” is the unwritten slogan of an era in which politics are brushed under the rug of  subtly normative concepts like “innovation,” “solutions,” and “disruption.” Even the seemingly throwaway “English high-rise” has economic undertones, plus added weight in light of the growing movement for Scottish independence.

Later in 2000, fellow Britons (for now) Radiohead released Kid A, which topped numerous best of the 00s albums lists and was heralded as the Last Real Album (I think this claim is hard to quantify). I didn’t hear Kid A until after I had spun XTRMNTR countless times, and Radiohead’s “masterpiece” sounded so slight in comparison.

It wasn’t just the sound quality and production and songwriting, either – it was the entire approach. Kid A has been lauded for its commentary on pre-millennial angst and the vague “computer age” (picking up the torch from 1997’s OK Computer), but it’s basically a blank canvas that isn’t political in any discernible fashion. XTRMNTR isn’t specific enough to seem dated, yet still not so generalist that it ends up meaning all things to all people. If we’re discussing the scarier implications of an age of robots, automation, surveillance, advanced AI, and big data, it’s worth it to look at them as political creations, with human authors seeking fame and money, rather than immutable forces that just materialized out of the ether.

Primal Scream did that in a way that Radiohead didn’t. But that’s the least of XTRMNTR‘s merits. Listening to it again yesterday for the first time in years, it seemed fresh, and angry in an evergreen way that so much angry music – which is almost always exhausting – isn’t. Keeping the dream (alive), indeed.

La Roux – “Trouble in Paradise”


La Roux en bleu

Kentucky is blue, and not just because of the countless shirts, caps and jackets adorned with the colors of the University of Kentucky. The grass is blue in select parts of the Bluegrass State. Down along the EST/CST divide near Greensburg, the sky over its knobs is azure well into the night.

La Roux means The Red in the English. I first heard both of The Red’s albums in The Bluest of states, Kentucky, five years apart in different towns.

La Roux’s 2009 debut was a labored nod to the 1980s, an attempt to bow politely in spite of one’s rogue quiff and stiff suit. Its “Bulletproof” improbably blared out of the blue on the speakers of a Lexington bar, while I drank Old Rasputin and chatted with two mathematicians. My blonde hair stood up just like ton the album cover.

Its hooks got under the skin, but aside from opener “In the Kill” and the pouting “I’m Not Your Toy,” no other song on the self-titled LP registered. Listening to it sober was no different than hearing it inebriated; one long, sub-Working for a Nuclear Free City haze, the Reagan/Thatcher years filtered through the “Flashdance” soundtrack rather than The Stone Roses or Grace Jones.

It was the typical 2009 pop record given that just like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (remember “Bad Romance”?) it was basically one monster sleek single, surrounded by material that was consciously retro. Just as Gaga mined Queen, La Roux excavated deep Eurythmics and Duran Duran album tracks.

While on vacation in Kentucky last week, I sat down and listened to La Roux’s belated follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, in one sitting, which I hadn’t sadly done with any other album in more than a month (the last being Deadmau5’s spectacular While 1 2). The sky was clear, there were clinking bottles or talk of real analysis in a crowded room; down home sapphire paradise gave Paradise a rapt audience of one.

The first thing you notice about La Roux’s sophomore effort is the guitar. The rhythm playing on “Uptight Downtown,” by Elly Jackson herself (now the sole proprietor of the La Roux enterprise,) imparts a muscularity that would have seemed gauche 5 years ago, amid all those cold, maudlin synth lines on La Roux. The six-string is a mainstay throughout, and Jackson’s scratchy rhythm playing is sometimes complemented by intricate picking.

Its momentum, started by the opening guitar work, never subsides. The production is open and spacious, with ample room for echoey Caribbean tones and full-bodied guitar, bass and drums. It’s a bit more 1970s than 1980s, with shades of Van Dyke Parks’ silly Discover America in particular and an AOR vibe in general – even the deep cuts are hooky. This is Rumours for synthpop.

“Kiss and Not Tell” (are you getting the clever titles yet?) throws a ton of shit into the mix – piano runs, synth-like guitar, guitar-like synth, prominent bass, multi-tracked vocals (Jackson’s voice is much better utilized here than on La Roux), and yet it never sounds dense. There’s room galore for all that Caribbean (Hawaiian? oh yeah, “Hawaiian breeze” – there it is on “Paradise is You”) air. The music is tight yet there’s space all around.

With the first two tracks so taut and thrilling, the third track, “Cruel Sexuality,” swoops in to loosen things up. For a while, anyway. It takes a left turn into a catchy chant midway through and then slowly weaves the original hook – also memorable – back into the mix. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night?” could be a sentiment for the album’s song structure transitions and balance of breeze and bravado.

There is some sameness throughout, which Pitchfork noted in its somewhat negative review. “Sexotheque” (again with the titles!) uses the rhythm guitar + synth + tropicalia formula from “Kiss and Not Tell,” but it has its own fantastic hook (the same goes for the epic “Silent Partner,” which one-ups Flock of Seagulls). Jackson’s vocal hooks help differentiate these songs. She even dredges up a Grace Jones sample to give extra smokiness to the already sultry “Tropical Chancer” (my favorite of the album’s wordplay titles).

And look at that: there are a mere 9 tracks on this album, with no Best Buy/iTunes/digital exclusives, remixes, or bonus discs. It clocks in at only 41 minutes; it could be an LP! There are two tracks more than 5 minutes long, with one over 7 minutes long. This is a classicist album from an artist who half a decade ago seemed like just another post-album singles act. I hope the next one isn’t five years off.

What the White Stripes taught me about writing and painting

The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity.” – Jack White, 2005

For a band that relied almost exclusively on rock’s two most recognizable instruments (electric guitar and drums) and played economical, 4/4 songs that drew upon country, blues, and the British Invasion (40 years on), The White Stripes drove a lot of people to do some weird things. Just look at Elephant, the group’s fourth LP.

I drove my mom home the day of its release, a pristine April 1, 2003 in rural Kentucky, having just obtained my driver’s license that day, to find it waiting for me on the porch swing, inside an Amazon box, alongside The Essential Clash. It was mere hours old and already it had:

  • Been named one of the best 100 albums ever by NME.
  • Incited possibly the most left-field of Pitchfork’s Brent DiCrescenzo’s many left-field reviews (have you read his paean to Kid A and its “mating tyrannosaurs“?); he fixated on “Ball and Biscuit,” reading “biscuit” as “vagina” rather than “MDMA.” Apropos, he rated it 6.9 (also, if you’re new to Pitchfork, 7.0 is basically the cutoff for “good”).
  • Inspired a similarly unhinged rant from Stylus Magazine’s Colin McElligatt: “When I see them plastered all over today’s music magazines as rock’s new saviors, I want to grab the offending article’s writer, shake him or her like I’m the only sane guy in an insane world (think 12 Monkeys) and yell “The White Stripes aren’t special!”, because, let’s face it, they’re not.

Later that year, Jack’s guitar work on “Ball and Biscuit” helped him clock in at 17th on Rolling Stone’s list of rock’s 100 greatest guitarists. The adulation for the Stripes and for White in particular from 2001 to 2003 is puzzling in retrospect. The band had nothing in common with the most popular music of the time, such as nu-metal and Eminem. Indeed, an entire superficial movement – “new garage” or “rock revival” – was constructed to unite dissimilar acts like The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, and The White Stripes, who shared little more than an affinity for definite articles and electric guitars.

Maybe this revival was the last gasp of rockism as it railed against hip-hop and Christina Aguilera. For non-cynics, though, the obsession with rock in the early 00s may have been a reaction to the dawn of Too Much – too much “information,” too much Internet, too much potential customization via ProTools. Where had the easily digestible, listen-in-one-sitting album, with clear progenitors, gone? New classics like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP were products of byzantine production and enormous guest lists. Albums, transitioning from LP to CD to MP3, were becoming longer than ever and making focus (from artist and listener alike) more difficult.

The White Stripes, more so even than their rock revival peers, made material the perceived simplicity of the past. Through a basic setup and whirlwind recording methodology (their albums were recorded in only days or weeks), they literalized clichés about “back to basics,” “raw sound,” and “down home authenticity” (they were from Detroit, the least glamorous big American city) seeming to peel back the layers of artifice that had accumulated on rock since at least the 1960s.

At the same time, they were futuristic. The lack of a dedicated bassist foreshadowed the lessening importance of sonic details in the age of the MP3 and shitty earbuds. The “disruptive” (I hate this word, but here I think it’s apt) ethos of making more palatable resources with fewer resources foreshadowed the tiresome arguments of a thousand Silicon Valley startups eager to take down nominally better-equipped competitors.

What DiCrescenzo saw as a limitation, this approach so akin to “paying tribute to Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams, Robert Colescott, and Georgia O’Keeffe in mural with a foot-pump-operated Wagner Power Painter and buckets of red and white,” years later seems startlingly prescient. As a painter and writer, I have come to feel that options are overrated.


A pastel done with 3 basic colors in 20 minutes.


I remember doing chalk pastels in high school and limiting myself to just a few colors from a simple set for each one – neutrals for one, red/green for another, etc. I produced 20+ pieces for a portfolio this way, while years later, burdened by ambition and huge color sets, I felt paralyzed – where would I start? What if I messed up? My mother, an artist and art teacher, has expressed similar feelings to me, saying that she can only paint well when she paints quickly.

Writing is much the same. I don’t enjoy agonizing for days, months or years over details; a lot of the time, it barely helps and ends up muting the raw fervor of first drafts. I wrote a 30+ page analysis of the Shakespeare authorship “controversy” (it’s nothing of the sort, really) in 2005, as an 18 year-old, without the pressure of publication or assessment, in just two days, and it reads much better than any of my laborious undergrad papers.

None of this is to say that editing or careful reworking is bad. Still, from Flaubert to Brian Wilson, we have romanticized the tortured tinkerer for centuries, and strands of such work-worship are everywhere, from Malcolm Gladwell’s pseudo-profound 10,000 hour rule to job postings that glorify meaningless years of experience. Sometimes the best strategy is, as trite as it sounds, to just do it, as a track from The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan (my personal favorite from their catalog) suggested – to add constraints, to limit yourself, and to be free.

Don’t Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Where did the “comfort zone” come from? It seems of recent vintage, although the combination of words may have been influenced by thermostat marketing. From the 2004 New Yorker story “The Comfort Zone,” chronicling an episode from 1970s America:

“My father came home on cool nights to complain about the house’s ‘chill.’ My mother countered that the house wasn’t cold if you were doing housework all day. My father marched into the dining room to adjust the thermostat and dramatically point to its ‘Comfort Zone,’ a pale-blue arc between 72 and 78 degrees.”

The story traces a back-and-forth between the couple. What’s striking is how both the father and the mother have good arguments for setting the “right” temperature. A current reading would probably scold the father for being intransigent and praise the mother for her support of hard work.

Should he have stepped outside (the most common phrase used with “comfort zone”) his comfort zone? The house was cold to someone who had been in the heat, but normal for someone who had been working in it all day. Instead of dogma about “your comfort zone,” perhaps we should see that what’s comfortable depends on the person’s situation, and that having comfort – a temperate house, a relaxing chair from which you can reset your brain by staring off into space – is not always bad or “safe” (regrettable that this word has negative connotations now).

I thought of this New Yorker vignette when I recently visited Mammoth Cave in Brownsville, Kentucky. It was in the high 80s F outside, but once we neared the cave’s entrance, cool air wafted over us. The cave itself was a constant 54 F. After a working up a sweat from walking and ducking through the passages, we barely noticed the temperature that just minutes ago had seemed cold.

Maybe we had stepped outside our etc. But that 54 F became comfortable too, and it felt good to go back to the 80 F temps from before. We stepped back inside the comfort zone, one could say, and it felt good. Despite having trekked through a 54 F cave, I wouldn’t say that it is now within my “comfort zone,” though – it would still feel weird at first, and I wouldn’t want to stay forever.

Anymore, “comfort zone” is a dark place for peddlers of corporate management theory or lifestyle coaching. It’s not hard to see why – you need to get out of it before buying into their programs, which presuppose that:

  1. everyone benefits from the new stimuli of doing “uncomfortable” tasks
  2. doing “uncomfortable” things is voluntary – a matter of “want to” not “have to”
  3. it’s possible to fundamentally change someone’s attitude, usually from a “negative” to a “positive” outlook.

# 2 sticks with me. I think of how many people involuntarily venture beyond what a life coach would euphemistically call their “comfort zones” just to survive – working a job for which they’re overqualified, having to apply for unemployment insurance, raising a child for the first time. They’re constantly having new experiences that aren’t comfortable and that they may not want to repeat, but if evaluated through the lens of “comfort zone” behavioral analysis or Internet discussion, would likely be “ordinary” people, “trapped” in 9-5 work and unwilling to “step outside the comfort zone” by skydiving, doing improv comedy, or being put in charge of some intramural game.

Indeed, the stakes of voluntarily ditching the vaunted “comfort zone” through such activities are often low. I can remember doing many such extroverted activities to feel more comfortable, only to see the same feelings of anxiety crop up again over the years in similar situations. The experiences were not transferable, and I questioned their value as anything other than lingo in practice. Plus, it’s ironic that proponents of extra-“comfort zone” expansion express their views through a cliche. It’s so meaningless that even uncomfortable actions that are familiar – living with pain or sadness – qualify.

For the father coming home to his thermostat in the 1970s, having a literal Comfort Zone on his thermostat was probably a relief from the pressures and annoyances of work. It’s ok to rest, to slip back into what we’re comfortable doing sometimes; otherwise we’re tasked with reinventing ourselves around the clock, “stepping it up” to meet some unfulfiling ideal, and heading toward burnout.