Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bettye LaVette

I would have gotten around to it sooner or later, but I should thank Mark for expediting my exposure to Bettye LaVette's "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise." It's excellent. I leant it to Alma tonight to listen to in the car while running errands, and when she came home she told me she hated it, even after (or especially after) I noted they were all gritty soul intepretations of the likes of Sinead O'Connor, Lucinda Williams, Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple. Maybe she'd be more receptive on a Sunday morning.

I'm also about 100 pages into Peter Guralnick's "Dream Boogie," the Sam Cooke bio. It's not as good as his Elvis books, but it's fine so far as a portrait of an ambitious and talented young kid on the South Side of Chicago. Interesting how so many stars apparently sense they're going to be stars at a young age. Then again, stars are the only people asked if they thought they were going to be stars when they were kids, and of course they say yes. But all kids probably dream of being famous someday, somehow, in some way. Maybe not Sam Cooke famous, but famous all the same - no doubt there's a great deal of projection going on with "American Idol." Yet the dashed dreams of all these millions of kids - bound for mediocrity and disappointment at best - are never part of the public record, just part of a shared mass consciousness marked by failure.

Depressing? Sure. But the American Dream wouldn't be what it is if it came true for everyone, would it? And Sam Cooke wouldn't be special if everyone could do what he did. If it takes the failure of millions to ensure only one singer like Cooke comes to light, then so be it.

And another

Now that she knows absolutely, 100% what I'm up to with the camera, I get a lot of photos like this one. That's what happens when it's just Z. and dad on the town, with nothing to distract her while I snap away. You know, like millions of other kids or colorful fish or something.

Walks with the Fishes

The one, the only, Baby Z., at the Shedd Aquarium last week. In the background, blurry and grey, you can see an actual dolphin. Z., if memory serves, was looking at an illustration of a dolphin on the wall.

Back Home

Over the weekend I took a rare post-Thanksgiving trip to be with friends and family in Philadelphia, leaving behind my patient wife and beautiful daughter. I had lots of good food, caught up with my friend and her cute 8-month old daughter and, of course, went record shopping.

One thing I picked up was Richard Thompson’s “Grizzly Man” soundtrack. A lot of people are calling this a return to form, but I think these same people haven’t listened to anything Richard Thompson has done in the past 15 years. Most recently “Mock Tudor” and “The Old Kit Bag” were excellent conflations of his folk past and pop instincts, with a distinctly contemporary bent. This year’s “Front Parlour Ballads” is the closest he’s come to what some probably consider his classic material, and I think it’s pretty dull. So there you go.

Anyway, the instrumental “Grizzly Man” is Thompson at his best as a player, which he rarely is less than. I’m excited about next year’s boxed set.

The biggest surprise came with two Phil Manzanera solo albums, “6pm” and “50 Minutes Later,” each featuring most of the rest of Roxy Music, plus Brian Eno, Chrissie Hynde and Robert Wyatt. Manzanera’s playing is strong, but he’s become a pretty great songwriter. I’m not sure how to categorize the discs, but they’re hardly prog or the mood music of Roxy’s later years, closer to the quirks of Eno’s pop albums and Wyatt’s artily introspective solo discs.

The Choking Game

Everywhere I look, it's "the choking game"-this or "the choking game"-that. I remember "the choking game" from my own childhood, back when it was called "choking."

Friday, November 25, 2005


We're watching the anti-Wal-Mart documentary screed, which should give any amateur iMovie user faith. It's OK so far, though we don't need convincing. Blight on the economy or not - I think Wal-Mart accounts for 10% of the trade deficit - we tend to avoid the local Wal-Mart since it's oddly claustrophobic and always looks like a tornado touched down inside.

Early tomorrow I fly to Philly for family stuff. Should be 10% not relaxing but 90% enjoyable change of pace. I'll miss baby Z., though, especially since she's been so much fun lately. I wonder if she'll react to me coming home the way she reacts to Alma coming home each night?

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Alma made the best turkey I've ever had tonight. The stuffing and cranberry sauce were great, too. Very nice dinner that we got to eat in peace, at least until Baby Z. woke up and wanted to partake. She did throw a small fit when we failed to procure her favorite frozen carrots fast enough. Just like the pilgrims did.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


From the New York Times today, in an eerie bit of good timing:

November 23, 2005
Ruth M. Siems, Inventor of Stuffing, Dies at 74

Ruth M. Siems, a retired home economist whose best-known innovation will make its appearance, welcome or otherwise, in millions of homes tomorrow, died on Nov. 13 at her home in Newburgh, Ind. Ms. Siems, an inventor of Stove Top stuffing, was 74.

The cause was a heart attack, according to the Warrick County coroner's office in Boonville, Ind.

Ms. Siems (pronounced "Seems") spent more than three decades on the staff of General Foods, which introduced the Stove Top brand in 1972. Today, Kraft Foods, which now owns the brand, sells about 60 million boxes of it at Thanksgiving, a company spokeswoman said.

Prepared in five minutes on the stove or in the microwave, Stove Top stuffing comes in a range of flavors, including turkey, chicken, beef, cornbread and sourdough.

Comforting or campy, Stove Top stuffing is an enduring emblem of postwar convenience culture. Its early advertising tag line, "Stuffing instead of potatoes?" remains in the collective consciousness.

As Laura Shapiro, the author of "Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950's America" (Viking, 2004), said in a telephone interview yesterday:

"Stove Top made it possible to have the stuffing without the turkey, probably something no cook would ever have dreamed of but people eating Thanksgiving dinner might well have thought of: 'Take away everything else; just leave me here with the stuffing!' It's kind of like eating the chocolate chips without the cookies."

Stove Top's premise is threefold. First, it offers speed.

Second, it divorces the stuffing from the bird, sparing cooks the nasty business of having to root around in the clammy interior of an animal.

Third, it frees stuffing from the yoke of Thanksgiving; it can be cooked and eaten on a moment's notice any day of the year.

In 1975, General Foods was awarded United States Patent No. 3,870,803 for the product, generically called Instant Stuffing Mix. Ms. Siems is listed first among the inventors, followed by Anthony C. Capossela Jr., John F. Halligan and C. Robert Wyss.

The secret lay in the crumb size. If the dried bread crumb is too small, adding water to it makes a soggy mass; too large, and the result is gravel. In other words, as the patent explains, "The nature of the cell structure and overall texture of the dried bread crumb employed in this invention is of great importance if a stuffing which will hydrate in a matter of minutes to the proper texture and mouthfeel is to be prepared."

A member of the research and development staff at General Foods, Ms. Siems was instrumental, her sister Suzanne Porter said, in arriving at the precise crumb dimensions - about the size of a pencil eraser.

Ruth Miriam Siems was born in Evansville, Ind., on Feb. 20, 1931. She earned an undergraduate degree in home economics from Purdue University in 1953, and after graduation took a job at the General Foods plant in Evansville, where she worked on flours and cake mixes. She moved to the company's technical center in Tarrytown, N.Y., not long afterward. Ms. Siems retired in 1985.

Besides Ms. Porter, of Copley, Ohio, Ms. Siems is survived by another sister, Rosemary Snyder, of Chicago; and a brother, David, of Milford, Mich.

As a mark of just how deeply inscribed on the American palate Ms. Siems's stuffing has become, there are several recipes, available on the Internet, that promise to reproduce the taste of Stove Top from scratch, using fresh ingredients.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Odds and Ends

I heard Chris Whitley on the radio today, for the first time in ages. It's sad to think that it surely took his death to inspire the DJ to dust off one of his records, and his sole major label offering at that. Amazingly, the guy released something like 11 albums before succumbing to lung cancer at the age of 45, and most people never heard him, let alone heard of him.

It's just as amazing to consider it sometimes takes only one hit song to sustain a career. Link Wray also just died, and while few will remember the guitarist for anything more than "Rumble," that song has always been enough to fill clubs and attract praise.

In completely unrelated news, I watched "Danny the Dog" today - aka "Unleashed" - and Jet Li plays a remarkably sympathetic and sad killer, basically a modern-day Frankenstein monster, though the odd film rarely feels like it takes place in today's world.

Tonight I get to play the modern dad, putting Baby Z. to bed and baking a pie while my wife goes out to hang with friends. Very modern, no? If I have time, maybe I'll hem my new dress.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Best of the Year?

I had trouble settling on a best-of music list this year, at least this early. But here's what I was able to scrounge up and what I'm sticking to for the time being.

1. Sufjan Stevens, “Illinois” (Asthmatic Kitty): Pretty, whimsical, moving, an indie-rock update (or throwback) to the Penguin Café Orchestra.

2. M.I.A., “Arular” (XL/Beggars): A truly of-the-moment hodge-podge, great fun despite dating immediately.

3. The Hold Steady, “Separation Sunday” (French Kiss): Classic rock revivalism by way of Craig Finn’s brilliant and funny stream of conscious lyrics.

4. The Go-Betweens, “Oceans Apart” (Yep Roc): The first of the reconvened pop act’s albums to not just match past glories but in some cases surpass them.

5. Sleater-Kinney, “The Woods” (Sub Pop): Smart enough to admit that something fresh was in order, and talented enough to pull it off.

6. Head of Femur, “Hysterical Stars” (SpinArt): The Beach Boys by way of XTC, orchestral spazz pop featuring everything but the kitchen sink.

7. Richard Hawley, “Coles Corner“ (Mute): Rainy day ghost story snapshots of Sheffield by way of Sun Records.

8. Low, “The Great Destroyer” (Sub Pop): Too easy to take for granted, if only because they make such power and grace seem, well, easy.

9. Andrew Bird, “Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs” (Righteous Babe): The melodies finally catch up with the wordplay and arrangements.

10. The Rosebuds, “Birds Make Good Neighbors” (Merge): Indie-rock by the numbers, but with uncommon innocence and emotional honesty.

Weak year for music? Maybe. I couldn’t find any hip-hop or electronic music that compelled me, though many albums entertained me; I’m going to give the second Kanye another chance ASAP, and maybe the Edan another chance. Does Dalek count as hip-hop? Some heavy-hitters like Depeche Mode, New Order and Madonna made albums I love but which need more time for their relative merits to sink in or fade away. There were a bunch of great discs from around the globe that I would sort of feel patronizing including. And in the end I could make a list of 50 reissues full of unearthed gems– from a slate of esoteric Soul Jazz comps (Brazil had a new wave?) to Rhino’s Girl Groups box – that I enjoyed more than most new albums released in 2005.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Oh, come on!

Has it really come to this?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Dropping the Dropped Ball

No question the Congress and Senate (and, who knows, maybe the entire Job Administration) are struggling for a semi-face saving way to get us out of Iraq. "Semi" since our very presence there and the increasingly shaky stuff that got us to this point has already cost this country much "face." But the Dems are missing a big opportunity to push loud and hard for our withdrawl. If they're not careful, the Repubs will do it themselves, making the Dems look like passive observers while the Repubs get credit for a very popular move. Get with it, losers on the left!

In other news, the oft overlooked second album by Urban Dance Squad - "Life 'N Perspectives of a Genuine Crossover" - still sounds pretty ahead of its time. Also ahead of its time: the obscure folk-rock of Bill Fay, whose first album not only informs recent Wilco but also this year's great album by Richard Hawley.

Speaking of great albums, there really haven't been many this year. Reissues, yes, always reissues. But new albums? With a few exceptions - Sufjan Stevens, Hold Steady, MIA, a couple of others - it's stinkers across the board, pretty much, unless someone can point me to something I missed.

As for boxed sets, Rhino's recent girl group collection is ace. (Many links to be added later when I have more time.)

Today I hope to pick up that Springsteen "Born to Run" boxed set, but I'm pretty patient when it comes to shelling out dough for new (old) stuff.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Konono No. 1 and On

Last night marked the Chicago debut of Konono N.o1, the Congolese band currently taking the hipsters by storm. Hipsters, largely, because someone (the band/ I doubt it) was savvy enough to brand their music “Congotronics.” Street performers, Konono struggled for a way to be heard over the din of the everyday. Their solution was whistles, hotwired thumb pianos and amplified pieces of tuned metal.

It wasn’t nearly as great and melodic as much African music, but each of four half-hour-plus pieces proceeded with a certain musical logic (not unlike, as a friend pointed out, a good Detroit DJ, or as I kept thinking, minimalists like Steve Reich). But most of the almost entirely non-African crowd ate it right up and danced for hours, while I stood sleepily. It was the end of a long day watching baby Z..

As per that non-African crowd, another friend there (bumped into lots, actually, at the end) noted that because they speak French in the Congo, there isn’t a big Congolese population in Chicago. Paris, of course, may be a different story. When my friend saw King Sunny Ade a few months ago, the crowd was apparently overwhelmingly African, robes and all.

Watching all the hipsters (most of Tortoise, etc.) and white folk watching the show reminded me what a big deal it was that Paul Simon broke through with “Graceland.” Sure, it’s a different, peppier and more melodic strain of Afro-pop, largely South African and definitely bolstered by some of Simon’s strongest writing and the clever/cutthroat way he ripped off Ladysmith Black Mambazo (among others).

Back in 1986, “Graceland” was pop music. Paul Simon got played on top 40 and MTV. This was back when Tom Petty and his ilk were also getting played on MTV, in the days before hip-hop saved/destroyed top 40 forever.

Speaking of top 40, my instincts were sort of right in that the new Madonna disc is one of the best produced things I’ve ever heard. Credit goes largely to Stuart Price (aka Les Rhythm Digitales aka Thin White Duke aka Jacques Lu Cont aka Zoot Woman aka a few other aliases), since the singer may as well be Gwen, Kylie, Annie or any other mainstream or underground diva (banal self-help lyrics aside).

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Who knows if the new album by the Darkness will be any good. Most likely it will just be more of the same. But this album cover is something else. Note: the album is actually called "One Way Ticket to Hell ... and Back."

Intelligent (Re) Design

All eight members of the PA school board that stuck "intelligent design" nonsense into the curriculum lost their seat.

Combine that with a new Dem. governor of VA (even with President Job campaigning for the Republican guy), plus a few other subtle and not so subtle defeat,s and perhaps the tide could finally be turning. Now, knowing this country, it probably won't turn too far, but since so many arguments of the day are of the polarized pro/con variety, the best anyone who disagrees can do is just say no and vote the bums out.

Oh, also, a huge percentage of Americans have deemed Libby's indictment "important". That means any future pardon may be deemed important as well, to equally detrimental effect. We're a far cry from rioting in the streets, but all this stuff is going down with three more years of Job to go. At the rate we're going, every last optimist or innocent left in America will be turned off traditional vite-and-debate politics forever. And that's when the riots start.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Civilization Rules

Forget how people react during disasters, or when under undo stress. The real test for any civilization is what happens when a key traffic light goes out and drivers must revert to primal right-of-way rules. I'm always impressed when this goes off without a hitch. Sure, traffic ebbs and flows a little more nervously and less aggressively than usual, but this afternoon on the way to Super Target it ebbed and flowed all the same, with no screaming, shouting, honking or shooting.

Monday, November 07, 2005


Reading the Sunday paper, I noticed that Time's Richard Corliss is blurbed on two separate film ads, calling each touted cinematic fete "exhilarating." Now, I know there are only a limited number of adjectives in the world, but if your goal is to get quoted on these things, then pick a new one!

For that matter, not many movies are exhilarating, and if they are, they're usually something in your face, like "The Devil's Rejects" and not "Chicken Little".

My basement smelled like sewage, but it is much better now

One of the most frustrating yet ultimately most satisfying aspects of owning a house is encountering any number of inherited or new problems and learning a cheap or free solution.

Increasingly, my basement was smelling like sewage. I just figured it was a passing thing, but the gas did not pass. So I thought of the number of things it could be:

1) Cat poop/litter box. The smell was poopy but not that kind of poopy. And the cats' leavings never leave that much of a lasting stink.

2) Dead animal, either in the basement or in the wall. I looked but didn't find anything. And besides, the smell was organic and bad but not rotten. More like really strong mildew and, well, sewage.

3) Stale air. The windows hadn't been opened since it got cold, but opening them was only a temporary solution.

Then in struck me: maybe something was off in the floor drain that leads to the catch basin? Eureka! It smelled really bad and was the source of the basement (and rising) stink.

What to do but head to the internet and search for "bad smell basment drain"?

Lo and behold, it turns out if the basement drain is not used often (check), you run a dehumidifier (check) and a boiler (check), the standing water in the drain and basin steadily evaporates, breaking the "seal" between the drain pipe and What Lies Beneath.

The solution? Dump several gallons of water down the drain. It doesn't get much easier than that, and it worked! The only downside is now I'm obsessed with filling buckets of water and watching the water trickle down the floor. Oh well. Beats that smell!

One Year

Amazing to think that Baby Z. turned one on Saturday. That first year went by so fast, which really underscores how few of these birthdays we get. I'm 30, which is like a small lifetime of experiences, but in what other sense does the relatively tiny number "30" - let alone "1" - connote some sort of big achivement or milestone? I guess it just shows how special our lives are, or at least how much weight we give every day, week, month and year. Or at least how much weight we should give them. I suppose babies really emphasize the importance of each minute, since in those first months they advance so quickly. Even a smile is considered a big deal, and when they begin stumbling around the house - toast in one hand, milk in the other, a mouthful of teeth showing as they lurch toward the sleeping cat like a drunk lion tamer - you really take note at how far they've come.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Category 7!

I've got lots of good stuff I've been working on for the DVD column. This week is the directors of "Paradise Lost" and the "Metallica" doc. Tuesday I interview Ray Harryhausen (again; I love that guy). Then I've got interviews with the director of "March of the Penguins" (does everyone know that the original French version features penguin dialog and pop songs rather than narration?), the director of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (who did talk a little about Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie and whose dad oversaw the Iran/Contra trials) and then even Julie Andrews, who was as close to I've ever come to speaking with royalty. Mary Poppins!

But right now I'm most excited that Alma called me up from the basement to watch "Category 7: The End of the World" on CBS, which is apparently about killer tornadoes but also seems to have something to do with plagues. No doubt the religious nuts are riveted across America right now, but the rest of the country surely finds this crap hilarious. Really, forces of nature make terrible antagonists. You can't fight them and all you can do is run. With the exception of "Twister," where people sought out the killer tornadoes for some reason and then got scared and ran when they, um, found them.

"There's a twister! Let's get it!"

"OK! Now let's run away!"

Ooh, a sleepwalking Tom Skerritt, Shannon Doherty, Gina Gershon... TV-movie a riffic. Anyway, if God fails to make an appearence by the end and save America, I'll be profoundly disappointed.

Come to think of it, the last time I caught Alma engrossed in a movie sans me was when I found her watching "Pearl Harbor," cracking up on the couch.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


Hey, look, two monkey posts in a row! I guess the least I can do is offer this post.


Yeah, yeah. You can't judge a book by its cover. But tell the truth: does the title or subject of this book even matter?

Friday, November 04, 2005

King Kong

I was watching the upcoming restored DVD edition of “King Kong,” listening to the commentary with Ken Ralston and stop animation genius Ray Harryhausen, when I came across this hilarious exchange, around when Kong is about to make his appearance and snatch the primed-for-sacrifice Fay Wray, right after the native chief has the big gong hit:

Ralston: “Ah, the dinner bell. I hope he’s not too hungry, because it’s a small meal.”

Harryhausen: “What I want to know is, what happened to the other girls?”

Ralston: [pauses, thinking about what must have been countless nubile girls strapped to the alter over the years] “”Yeah, how about that?” [chuckles]. “I don’t want to know!”

It’s a good question, considering Kong doesn’t eat Fay Wray and, indeed, she wouldn’t make much of a meal for such a big monkey, anyway. One must only assume that Kong’s previous blind dates just didn’t strike his romantic fancy and got the gong themselves.

Cocoa Pollution

Apprently, the Blommer chocolate plant in Chicago is spewing so much cocoa powder into the air that it has violated EPA "opacity" standards. I hope this gets cleaned up, stat, so that the city can go back to smelling like exhaust, tar and body odor.

Wow, you don't say?

I hope someone got a lot of money to write this story.