Alexander “Truth”

Take a theremin, make an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western hook, then mash it with a languid hip-hop beat and some disorienting lyrics. That’s a great way to understand this gem of a song, “Truth,” by Alexander (also know as Alex Ebert, lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros).

This was one of my crazy favorites from 2011.

[soundcloud width=”580″]http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/8975154[/soundcloud]

Hat Tip: DMPulse

Spanakopita, and recent food action

We have been on a cooking tear lately: beef short ribs, Chinese chicken wraps, tons of BBQ (more on that later), oh so much.

Last Friday night, we entertained friends from Miami, so, playing to the crowd, I made a magnificent pot of sublimely smoky Cuban black beans with pork, Arroz con Pollo, and an avocado-mango salad that, were it the last food you ever tasted, would guarantee a happy deliverance from this mortal coil. (That was my Alexandre Dumas sentence du jour.)

The spanakopita above was similarly wonderful. How many times have you been to a Greek Restaurant (most of which have about as much relation with Greek food as Mars does with Jupiter) and had a soggy pile of spinach and phyllo that the chef had the nerve to call Spanakopita? Well, it can be an absolutely superb bite of buttery, crunchy phyllo, salty feta, and slightly bitter spinach with just a hint of mint. That’s what I’m talking about, dog!

The recipe was from America’s Test Kitchen 2011, Mediterranean Specials, which is available on Amazon Prime, or you can watch the video here. It takes a little time to put together, but it is oh, so worth it.

Gazpacho

Gazpacho photo

For beating the heat in the summertime ATL, nothing succeeds quite as well as a cold bowl of fresh gazpacho, which is a Spanish tomato soup made of chopped peppers, onions, cucumbers, garlic and sherry vinegar.

Many of the recipes you find will include green bell peppers, but this is one ingredient I do not like in my gazpacho. It’s too bitter and doesn’t complement the acidic tomatoes like sweet red and yellow peppers. Most recipes also call for some degree of blending after you’ve chopped all the veggies. This one (from Cooks Illustrated) was a pure chop but after some experimentation, Kristin and I both agreed that blending about half of the veggies gives you just the right texture, and it saves a ton of time on the chop!

Here’s a quick tip: always chop peppers and tomatoes skin side down. If your knife isn’t razor sharp, you’ll crush the tomato before it cuts, so placing the skin side against the cutting board gives you a chance to slice through the meat before you cut the skin. (That sounds kind of violent, doesn’t it?)

Have fun. Eat well. 🙂

Freelance Whales

In 2010, Brooklyn’s Freelance Whales released their debut album “Weathervanes” which ended up on most of the “Best of 2010” critics lists, including mine. It has remained in heavy rotation around the studio ever since.

“Hannah” has a goofy video, but it’s a great example of their instrumentation (banjos, glockenspiels) and beautiful harmonies. If you like this, you’ll love the rest of the album.

Adron

Adron is a local Atlanta artist with an extraordinarily unique sound: sort of a neo-psychedelic Joni Mitchell with a Brazilian Seu Jorge vibe, bird whistles swirling about, finger-plucked nylon guitars, and a lovely, hypnotic voice.

I first heard her one quiet Saturday afternoon on 88.5 and was utterly mesmerized by You Could Be Anywhere:

[soundcloud width=”630″]http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/1764790[/soundcloud]

Here’s another great track, Timid Young Ones:

[soundcloud width=”630″]http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/9835513[/soundcloud]

Obviously an amazing talent, and she’s all of 23! Seriously, wow.

Hat tip: Album 88

How much for one rib?

St. Louis style ribs on the grill

Oh, I love me some ribs, dog. And ribs really aren’t too hard to BBQ, so we eat a lot of ribs.

Start with a good dry rub, or buy pre seasoned racks like these babies from Costco.

If you have a grill with a smoker attachment, you can really spread out the racks and not have to babysit too much. If you’re on a charcoal or gas grill, you can heat one side (or pile the charcoal there) and use a metal box that holds the hardwood chips for you, or just wrap the wood in foil and poke a few holes in it. I really love mesquite but any good hardwood will do.

Keep the grill around 250 degrees, and keep the smoke coming. The smoke gives it that beautiful red exterior and the awesome flavor.

Now, here’s a great secret: You don’t have to completely cook the ribs on the grill, which can take many hours. If you smoke them for about two hours, that’s plenty, and then you can remove the racks, wrap them individually in several layers of foil, and pop them in a 300 degree oven for two or three hours until the meat gets very tender. Sometimes it takes longer, but the point is, they get all the flavor from the smoking.

After the meat is tender, remove them from the oven and put them into a large paper bag, or wrap them in towels to help trap in the heat and the steam. I usually let them cool down this way, refrigerate, and then eat them the next day.

You’ll have some serious, melt in your mouth ribbage!

Then and Now

How things were is not necessarily how they are. And how things are is not how they will be. So much of life is caught up in the now, what we want this instant, food, a drink, to read a book, to watch a show, a new movie, to see how the Supreme Court ruled, or will Europe finally implode, or, what did my friend’s cat cough up on Facebook?

Photographers are all obsessed with the now. We spend our time looking for moments where the world all seems to align in a strange perfection of nowness, so we can be there to witness it, capture it, pin it like a butterfly and ask others “look… see!”

Store_Front_by_Eugène_Atget_1924

Eugène Atget, Paris, 1924 – This Parisian storefront recalls a brief interlude of peace between the destruction of two world wars, and of how ordinary people, pitted against one another, can become monsters.

It’s so difficult to remember that the photographs we create today, in all their multitudes, aren’t really for today, or even tomorrow or next week, or next year. They ferment over decades, and a transfiguration occurs. Even the most pedestrian snapshot carries within it not only the specific description of a time and a physical reality that no longer exists, but also the accumulated historical knowledge of all that has passed since that brief moment.

You can look at an Instagram of your children made yesterday or last week or even a few months ago, and it has a certain, although mild, psychological impact on you. Now, imagine opening a box of snapshots of those same children that are five or ten years old. The impact is considerably more dramatic, and can often bring one to tears.

So, does “art photography” exist in some space outside of the psychological impact of time? Yes and no. I think the finest of photography has a quality of timelessness — of being of indeterminate age and origin — that deepens its mystery.

Cape Canaveral 1950

The first rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, 24 July 1950, reminds us of the endless human drive towards seemingly unattainable goals, and of how people can, given the proper political and economic environment, work together and occasionally arrive at a point near perfection.

Photographers are also obsessed with meaning, and this is really my point. Most spend tremendous amounts of time — and some engage in elaborate psychological contortions — in an attempt to assign values and interpretations to their photographs and those of other photographers. But value and meaning is welded to time and human experience. At one time, people valued salt and gave it great commercial significance. Then people realized that it exists in practically unlimited quantities. There was a time when no one valued the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and he died in despair. Obviously, people now assign great value to his art!

We as photographers think “is this art?” and most of us rightly consider if our work could possibly add anything at all to the incredibly rich history of the medium. But it’s not for us to decide, is it? It seems to me you have to do the work you are called to do, move forward slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, and let time work its magic.

You may die and the estate sale people dump your entire life’s work into the 1-800-Got-Junk? bin. Or, your work could end up on the wall at The Met.

The photographs aren’t for you, they are for others. We too often forget that.

Ray Bradbury, 1920-2012

Author Ray Bradbury

“The great thing about my life is that everything I’ve done is a result of what I was when I was 12 or 13.”

One of my lifelong heroes, the great American writer Ray Bradbury, has died. He is generally pigeonholed as a science fiction writer, but any reader of his work will quickly understand that whether he was telling stories about the colonization of Mars, firefighters who burn books, or some strange, fleshy object floating in a jar somewhere in Arkansas, his subject was always human nature: our weirdness, our heroicism, our ability to be simultaneously many different, often contradictory beings in one shell. Over the decades he explored how we behave in groups (“The Crowd”) and how we behave when there is nothing but the stillness of the night. He wrote about utopias and dystopias, all of them worlds we create for ourselves.

Bradbury is the favorite son of Waukegan, Illinois. Being the place of his birth is perhaps the greatest claim to fame of this small, mid-Western town perched on the edge of Lake Michigan just a few miles from Wisconsin, and just a few too many miles from Chicago to qualify as suburb.

My lifelong love for Ray Bradbury began when I was a young boy growing up in that very same Waukegan. (My father had taken a job at a local engineering firm, and we were firmly settled into a classic two story brick home perfectly situated within walking distance of the school, an enormous park, railroad tracks and Lake Michigan; quite the ideal arrangement for childhood.) At some point, I gathered his books from the library at Greenwood Elementary and the book mobile and immersed myself in their worlds.

Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine takes place in Greentown, Illinois, his literary double for Waukegan. In this book and his many other novels and short stories, he creates a mythology of boyhood, of love and devotion for his hometown, describing summer days playing in the mysterious ravine (“And here the paths, made or yet unmade, that told of the need of boys traveling, always traveling, to be men.”), drinking an elixir of dandelion greens (“summer caught and stoppered…like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark”), of fall days full of thrills and dangers, of traveling carnivals with electric men (“Live forever!”), the elderly who were never young, the wonders of new tennis shoes (“somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and could springs in the soles…”), the deaths of Fall and the resurrections of Spring, and so much more.

Looking back, I now realize that I was literally living in Bradbury’s childhood, walking in his footsteps. Time had, of course, moved on, but nothing much changes in a town like Waukegan. The ravine will always be filled with bugs and birds and Poplar trees, as beautiful in the sunshine as it was terrifying at night. You could tumble down the steep sides and never hit the bottom. You could take the little flowers off the Dutchman’s Breeches and laugh and pretend they were fake teeth.

You could stand with your bike and your friends at the top of a frighteningly steep hill and goad each other into going first (“man, I was booking!”), or smash pennies on the train tracks, perhaps fear the dark corners of the basement as the radiator belches and grinds. Or dig in the water and find salamanders with frilly gills, maybe sneak onto the driving range and snitch golf balls. One day after school, you get punched in the face and feel blood pour out of your nose; or, alternatively, smash a bully upside his head with your Evel Knievel lunch box and watch him crumple as you stand triumphant, heart pounding in your chest.

Or, you might have a lively, well-traveled woman of 85 who lives next door and teaches you how to read and do math before you are in kindergarten. She shows you a map of the world, covered with pushpins in Europe and Russia and China and South America — everywhere — and tells you all about the places she has been and seen. Endless possibilities!

Dandelion Wine lives in that dizzying point in your childhood where you realize that you are alive, and that life is incredibly beautiful, because the birds sings every morning, and yet also indescribably sad, because some day it will all be gone. I think that is why I am a photographer: to see, to feel, to witness, to try so very hard to hold on to the time.

Here is a particularly touching passage from Dandelion Wine about the extraordinary power of photography:

It was the face of spring, it was the face of summer, it was the warmness of clover breath. Pomegranate glowed in her lips, and the noon sky in her eyes. To touch her face was that always new experience of opening your window one December morning, early, and putting out your hand to the first white cool powdering of snow that had come, silently, with no announcement, in the night. And all of this, this breath-warmness and plum-tenderness was held forever in one miracle of photographic chemistry which no clock winds could blow upon to change one hour or one second; this fine first cool white snow would never melt, but live a thousand summers.

Ray Bradbury never stopped being a boy, wanting to touch things, and see things and take them apart and smell them and lick them and feel them. He never lost what it is that makes boys tick like clocks and vibrate like tuning forks, that magical sense that the world is a wonder, that to truly live is to bear witness to all the tiny miracles of life that surround us every day, that feeling so many of us lose as we grow. We’re taught to sit down, be quiet, don’t fidget, stop talking. We’re told by the media that there is a problem with the American boy. We hear this so often that we now believe it. And yet, the vast majority of the largest and most dynamic companies in the world are run by American men, who were once boys, so what’s the problem?

Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn before them, Bradbury characters like Pip and Tom and Doug live in a space where imagination is everything, even to the point of absurd superstition. So, Tom and Huck want to wave a dead cat around the cemetery at midnight; Pip and his friends want to fly around the world with old Moonshround, and visit all the dark places of history (“The Halloween Tree“), the mummies, the gargoyles, Samhain and Mexican graveyards. Maybe we can all learn to be a little more superstitious again, to feel spooked, or maybe just to feel.

Ray Bradbury always had astonishing stories to tell us, the kind of stories that teach you how to live. I’ve been reading him to my boys for years, and I hope that maybe you’ll do the same.

Cute Boots

LOVE this song from local Atlanta band Cute Boots.

“The Fire” has a great early 70s feel, mixed with maybe a little Can’t Buy a Thrill era Steely Dan, and a spiffy guitar lead, too.

If you like the song, be sure to check them out!

[soundcloud]http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/31083107[/soundcloud]

Hat tip: Album88

R.E.M., Rest in Peace

Yesterday, R.E.M. announced that they have called it quits after three decades together. Having lived in Athens and seen them live on several occasions, I’d like to share some thoughts on a career that maybe outlived its legend.

Back in December 1990, Drivin and Cryin’s Kevin Kinney was doing a show with Robyn Hitchcock at the old 40 Watt on West Clayton Street. I called my sister and bro-law and told them they might want to come down from NC, as conditions were ripe for an REM show.

The old 40 Watt was the size of a shoebox, and because it was Christmas break, there couldn’t have been more than about fifty people there. As expected, out walked REM.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that R.E.M. was only about 10 years past their stellar debut “Murmur,” still one of the great indie rock albums of all time. They were hot, having signed with Warner Brothers for something like $50 Million, released their terrific WB debut “Green,” and now looking like they would challenge U2 for the title of Biggest Rock Band in the World.

And here they were on the tiny stage at the dingy 40 Watt! The room was ecstatic.

Stipe informed us that we were to hear the first single off the new album, and they launched into “Losing My Religion,” which was the first time it was ever performed live. Not a bad Athens moment to be a part of! See the set list here.

That next year “Out of Time” was everywhere you went, every club, every party, every restaurant, everywhere. (Athens loves a winner.) Even my painting teacher Mr. Bill — a cross between a Southern Gentleman and The Mad Hatter — was walking around singing “LowLowLow.”

That summer, Stipe came into the Taco Stand as I was rocking the register and ordered a grilled chicken quesadilla with hot sauce (recipe available upon request). I told him how much I loved the new record and he said, simply, “Thank You.” To their credit, the R.E.M. guys never seemed to get comfortable with the rock star identity, even though they had the #1 record on the Billboard charts. They were always hanging at The Globe or the Uptown Lounge or just wandering around. To see them you would never suspect that they were worth millions. They looked like they still shopped at The Potter’s House.

Critics gave “Out of Time” some middling reviews (my buddy Rob rewrote “Shiny Happy People” as “Slappy Happy People trading blows”) but it was the sound of the moment. It still stands as one of their finest records, perhaps their peak.

In Jan 1992, I caught R.E.M. again at the new 40 Watt Club on Washington St. They did 8 songs, including an excruciatingly tense version of “Country Feedback,” and a cover of The Troggs “I Can Only Give You Everything” (See the setlist). And again that November at the 40 Watt for a Greenpeace Benefit show! (That was the deal: if there was a benefit show, you could almost guarantee R.E.M. would play.) Hog Heaven, ya’ll! It was a very good year.

For a long time, R.E.M. said they would play their last show on New Year’s Eve of 1999, and then break up. Looking back, I’m wondering if R.E.M. shouldn’t have kept that promise, as everything after “Automatic for the People” felt like they were moving uphill, losing steam. After the so-so “Monster” (caught the tour at the OMNI) and Bill Berry’s 1995 aneurysm, they croaked out “New Adventures in HiFi,” before Berry left the band. They soldiered on until yesterday, but never seemed to recover from the loss of Berry (he contributed greatly to their songs and is credited with writing their two biggest hits, “Man on the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts”).

However you think their career ended (up, down, in between) there is one thing that is indisputable: R.E.M. was the genesis of alt rock, to their eternal credit.

UDATE 9/28: For another — perhaps more charitable and certainly more articulate — view of their later career, see this excellent post over at The Atlantic, titled simply “America’s Greatest Band.”