Sophisticated Whoppers


Last month my neighborhood Burger King underwent a cosmopolitan rhytidectomy, in accordance with mandates to transform such troughs into elegant gastronomy. McDonald’s has emerged in recent years from an extended postpsychedelic adolescence to embrace the Library of Alexandria aesthetic, while Jack in the Box, under direct orders from draconian CEO “Jack,” has jettisoned its staple blues and reds for a soothing Humidor Autumn. The desired effect, according to corporate literature, is contemplative chi, as opposed to “Holy God, this Applewood Bacon Cheese Fist is wrapping itself around my heart.”

Having never patronized a chic Burger King, I decided this morning to have it my way. On foot I passed the phantom of its children’s playset — the industry no longer caters to plebes. In its place stood a scale replica of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon complete with tanzanite wall, over which flowed a talkative Chianti stream. Occupying its drive-thru lane were sleek fleets of Google cars activated by smartphone apps. Four impeccably attired valets monitored the parking lot, sending any vehicle older than 2008 to a “VIP lane” seven blocks away.

The building’s exterior could best be described as futuristic neoclassical. Its sanctum, inspired by the parlor in Don and Betty Draper’s Ossining home, wallows resplendent in oaks and comfortable beiges. Posted advertisements no longer boast of “flame-broiled” or “flame-grilled” meats; they’re now “artisan-crowdsourced.” Six overhead flatscreens broadcast “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” with a corner space nearby to discuss the film with the shift manager, a former Harper’s editor-at-large. Wafting through the restaurant: Herb Alpert’s “Fandango,” on 180-gram vinyl.

I immediately recognized my counter garcon’s uniform as Yves St. Laurent. “Yes,” she confirmed. “They outfit us all.” “But what about grease stains?” I asked. “Those,” she said, “are flown in from Vienna.” She then apologized for the store’s wine steward, whose flight was delayed in Milan. “That’s fine,” I replied, and ordered the venison curly fries with a 32-ounce growler to go.

Because of the restaurant’s new decibel regulation, I saw only one other “broseph,” as BK calls us nonemployees: an older gentleman pecking at a laptop while seducing a mimosa. Sans prompt, he told me, “It’s a Dogme-esque novel about a man who’s smarter than everyone else but is too humble to share his rare gift, so he hangs out at Burger King, tormented in self-imposed silence, until a beautiful cashier who recognizes his shyness as intellectual superiority offers him her soul. I liken its tone to a Ferrari 458 speeding recklessly past the intersection of Huxley and Terry Southern, and crashing into an abandoned storefront that once sold steampunk fetish wear.”

Alas, I left before the BK book club convened in the alcove, but I’ll be back for the Appalachian dulcimer jam this evening. If you’re not too busy with the Taco Bell barrel tour, feel free to bro by. Bring your Konghou — and plenty of antacids.


Review: NEeMA, “Watching You Think”

Watching You Think

(Sony International)
U.S. release: March 1, 2011

I close my eyes and I see hers. Curious, sparkling, deep, windows to a voice but a breath away. It caresses syllables like fingers in tangles of a lover’s hair. Even when absent it wafts through rooms, the ghost of an intimate whisper.

The eyes and voice and presence on NEeMA’s Watching You Think are gone, long gone, the bittersweet welt of One Last Kiss. No hard feelings, no cross words — it’s just that time. “I’m standing at the crossroads and I still don’t know / which direction or path to walk, which way to go,” she admits in “Unwinding,” the “un-” companion to “Unspoken,” an exchange of glances and furtive yearnings. Yet she knows that this is Right. Her heart and mind are free to travel, twirling in gusts as light as memory on a tempo of enchanting grace.

There’s a certainty to her dissolutions, an acceptance of come-what-may. She crafts on “Eternity” the usual pop song true love, then sends it crashing to earth so effectively that a listener accustomed to never-part forevermore is bound to be shocked and heartbroken. It’s a testament to NEeMA’s strength as a writer that she can fuel a familiar idyll with such fetching detail (“Then one day I saw you standing there / on the road to the town fair / When you looked at me, I just froze / I thought, ‘I’ll follow him wherever he goes'”; “I still remember what we said while touching Juliet’s golden breast”) and dismantle it just as naturally.

There are few storybook endings here. People change, ardor fades. Even Shakespeare’s template star-crossed lovers aren’t immune, separated by a chilling gulf. NEeMA unravels Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” to its narrative muscle, replacing the original’s gurgling guitar and witsful drum with an acoustic brook and low whistling organ. The effect is a dreamy and longing but futile pine.

Overall, Watching You Think is similarly light, its minimal instrumentation like dots of summer rain against a cabin window. There are nice added touches throughout, however. Pedal-steel sighs float through “Eternity”; violins skid across the slightly abrasive “Jealousy,” where even guitar strings snap loosely, violently against the wood; and Tijuana brass chortles agreeably in “Escape.”

The instrumentation’s gentle poetry allows NEeMA’s own poetry to speak for itself. She contemplates mortality in “Bone to Pick with Time”; “We’ve a very little window,” she observes, “to do what we must do: write a song, bear a child, fall in love with you.” “Elsa’s Lullaby” explores a companionship based on simple, pure devotion. “I love the way you wait for me / ever so patiently,” NEeMA coos to a pair of adoring dog eyes, “how you lie near my guitar / oblivious to how gorgeous you are.” (It’s a happy ending.)

Watching You Think was produced with Pierre Marchand and mentor/friend Leonard Cohen, an old hand at seducing words to parchment. His endorsement is impressive, but NEeMA’s is a singular voice within a radiant countenance. Cohen captured this essence in a network of ink and paints, which he then struck to the album’s sleeve. Voila. That her image appears unfinished seems appropriate somehow: this is an artist as a work-in-progress, a palette that, two albums in, we’ve only just begun to explore.

Review: Leonard Cohen, “Songs from the Road”

Leonard Cohen
Songs from the Road
Sept. 14, 2010

As most people know, I am a collector of audiences. My favorite moments on live albums are those spaces between songs when a mob belts out orgasmic gusts of adulation. Or, even better, when the instrumentation unravels to its basic roots and lets a room lift the chorus while a vocalist wets his lungs and observes an epidemic of communal goose bumps.

I first became fascinated by this phenomenon as a child with Kiss’ Alive II. It sounded as if the whole city of Los Angeles had swarmed the stage like a fleet of taxiing jets. Other favorites include “Everything Counts,” from Depeche Mode’s 101, where a lone synth whistle nudged the edges of a clamor enamored of its own size and power. Or the final few minutes of the expanded Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture as an entire arena shuffled toward the Hammersmith Odeon exits, murmuring over the dying echo of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide.” I have autographs from the majority of the Cow Palace Row C that witnessed Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Rust Never Sleeps. Also in my possession: a soundboard dupe of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” — as recorded in Muskogee! “Do you mock us, bearded sir?” bellowed the audience as one. (Merle chuckled.) Then there’s that Deep Purple BBC session taped prior to Machine Head’s release. To modern ears, the silence that greets “Smoke on the Water’s” opening riff is downright unsettling.

So naturally I am thrilled beyond words with Leonard Cohen’s Songs from the Road, more so than I was with last year’s Live in London, whose scope was confined to the O2 Arena. Oh, the performances were grand, but as a din connoisseur I prefer an international smorgasbord of polite applause.

Songs from the Road answers my plea by trotting across Mr. Cohen’s ballyhooed 2008-2009 world tour to create the sonic equivalent of travel stickers on a steamer trunk. Leonard and his band soothe Ramat Gan Stadium in Tel Aviv with “Lover, Lover, Lover,” then it’s off to the mythical Albert Hall, a considerable distance from the “Chelsea Hotel” Cohen penned to immortality. Yet when the then-74-year-old seductively whispers, “And those were the reasons, and that was New York,” a packed house of Londoners seems to understand. Imagine — this man traversed the universe and addressed palatial rooms with an intimacy usually shared between lovers a pillow apart.

Admittedly, I was a latecomer to the Leonard Cohen phenomenon. I didn’t hear his voice ’til my early 20s, ’92-’93, when an acquaintance slipped me one of those dadblasted mixtapes. Burbling from the flip was the morning-dew-fresh “The Future”; its verbal flourish engulfed my fancy and sent me on a costly binge through a prolific back catalog. Such potent aphrodisiacs. Approximately 2 minutes and 12 seconds into “Love Calls You by Your Name” (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971), it is biological certainty that you will breathe dark, tiny secrets against welcoming, permissive flesh.

But, I digress. Cohen’s band is sumptuous here. Of particular note is wind-man Dino Soldo’s mesmeric flutter on “Waiting for the Miracle” and the divine tonal precision of “Lover, Lover, Lover’s” supporting vocals. Among seamy tours of familiar backstreets (“Chelsea Hotel,” “Suzanne,” “Famous Blue Raincoat”) are newer shadows like “That Don’t Make It Junk.” He may not uncork such beauties often, but oh, how they flow when poured.

As expected, audience participation peaks on “Hallelujah,” caught on Road in the Hipster Alps of Indio’s Coachella. Everyone knows the words because by now, everyone’s recorded it. Here it’s established that the song beats proudest within its creator’s breast; his chorus is returned to him en masse, in appreciation of his stake in the Great American Songbook.

The disc ends, appropriately, with “Closing Time.” The artist tips his hat in farewell from the John Labatt Centre in London, Ontario, cooing distance from his ancestral home of Montreal, Quebec. All roads may cover the world, the sequence seems to say, but they eventually return to a warm light in a familiar window. And we are blessed, indeed, that Mr. Cohen allows us to journey with him.

Review: Koot Hoomi, “The Dark Side of Hall & Oates”

Koot Hoomi
The Dark Side of Hall & Oates
(Velvet Fallopian Tube/Luria Music)

Lately I’ve had Hall & Oates on the brain. It started with the news of poor T-Bone Wolk, truly the duo’s heartbeat at bass and oh, so much more. The day he died all I could think about was his delightfully goofy puss, a wall of infectious amusement that made Hall & Oates videos tolerable. In fact, he was often more diverting than the marquee blue-eyed brain trust, the sugar-sugar money lungs. T-Bone was just as much a hoot on Saturday Night Live, standing to bandleader G.E. Smith’s (another from the H&O bloc) right and throwing his gawky frame into every summoned thump. When he shuffled off to permanent Buffalo, a lot of sparkle left this cold, dumb world.

Robert Lurie

Now, this month, we’re due a pair of Hall & Oates tribute discs, the most prominent being The Bird and the Bee’s Interpreting the Masters, Volume 1: A Tribute to Daryl Hall and John Oates, scheduled for a March 23 descent. (You can watch this while you wait.) But they’ve been beaten to daylight by a pack of erudite swells (one is Robert Lurie, author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and the Church) called Koot Hoomi and their stupendous The Dark Side of Hall & Oates, available right this very second and game for a good home. So dump those hoary Hooters and make some goddamn room!

Everyone’s so anxious to spread the word they’ve even e-mailed ME, and I blog from my glacier-top once a WiFi Equinox. There I was, at my neighborhood Shop-N-Sneer, the digits of my right hand clamped to blue jeans desperate to meet my shoes, the fingers of my left hand alternately shuttling discount preservatives into a red plastic basket and fondling the putrefied rice cakes. Suddenly my hip pocket stirred with a gentle VVVT!, signaling a missive from the urban beyond — in this case, the Portland-based Pet Marmoset PR. Scanned the release, drooled my consent. Yes. “The Dark Side of Hall & Oates,” I murmured to the Totino’s pork-rub pizza sticks, 3 for $6.99. Thus enraptured, I drop-kicked my groceries back to their vermin wombs, side-armed a clerk in the parking lot for fun, and marched three blocks home in the pouring yawn to load this fucker with a posthaste quickness.

This was kismet. This was fate. This was meant to be. Two nights earlier I’d had this woozy dream of a friend I hadn’t seen since Taylor Swift’s mom was still kissing throw pillows in her parents’ den. Except in my dream, 2010 was actually 1990 and we were the same age we are now, reminiscing about a past that predated our own. We tooled through the villa in sore-gullet Mustang, windows down and rattling. At some point, Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List” filled the shell and I remarked that it was the one song I knew of where the pre-chorus was superior to the chorus. Because it was all about the anticipation: pitter-pat keys goading Daryl Hall’s hover and soar. It hangs, a giddy cloud float, that moment when the windows are just beginning to fog.

None of that anticipation exists on the Koot Hoomi version. All the synthetic early-’80s elements have been gutted, discarded, and trucked to oblivion’s darkest market. This “Kiss” begins with the wind-chop throttle of a helicopter delivering fresh meat to The Shit. It’s like a pop-song memory that comments on itself, an oasis from the danger representing both the longing for home and its presently inaccesible representative. Soldiers slog through bogs or tromp down dunes, minds heavy with fantasies of the sweet and real. An acoustic guitar shivers anxiously under a voice forlorn.

Daniel Lurie

Sonically, Koot Hoomi are reminiscent of (no offense intended) The Godz, a freak-raga fistful championed in the wayback by Lester Bangs when Hall & Oates were still slugging through nightclubs and Econo Lodge frissons with lost-eyed townies gone on Boone’s Farm and napkins stamped in lipstick. If you’re unfamiliar with The Godz — a likely assumption — imagine, then, say, Simon & Garfunkel fed their weight in Bombay opium and locked inside a freezer. The powers-that-be at the old ESP Records would’ve shit themselves reborn distributing Dark Side to every head shop in America. The poets and the pilled-up would congregate over a communal hookah and nod their blown noodles. They’d dig the exotic tingle, the thunder of a million gurus seeking enlightenment only to find it in Philly soul.

In the Koot Hoomi prism, “Maneater” is less of a warning to a bro than grim resignation — which, if you think about it, is a more realistic response to the futility of dispensing advice. You’re doomed, it says, and you’re going to savor the bloodshed even after she’s sucked every corpuscle dry. A violinist (Harper Piver) has already been commissioned to weep you into the earth. Hell, all the necessary arrangements were made in advance. What you’re hearing is a eulogy; by now, she’s driven an icepick through your guts and flitted to her next victim. We’ve left no flowers on your plot, old friend, just a row of planted suckers.

Harper Piver

Like any good tribute project, the track list invades the dustier corners of the H&O canon, flying in Laura Nyro’s piano from the afterworld to hammer jolts into “Back in Love Again” and weave a church-recital groove through “A Lot of Changes Comin’,” both adeptly ivory-dropped by the Swami Premananda. “Wait for Me” is quite beautiful (as is “Had I Known You Better Then,” delivered in an aching Kinks-ian croak), guaranteed to envelop your aura in angora and loving sighs falling like the softest-dropped bomb.

For all the deliberate reinventions, Koot Hoomi’s approach to “One on One” is surprisingly straightforward, minus the late-night R&B waterfalls and the scales Daryl caresses with those buttered tonsils. Sadly, no amount of tinkering can save “Adult Education”; it remains a misstep in the gilded wilderness pre-Big Bam Boom, when John Oates had golddust implanted above his upper lip so his mustache made a profit and Daryl Hall bought every mirror in existence, then ordered them re-installed at strategic angles so he could monitor his coif from anywhere in the world.

BVVVVT! Hey, another e-mail! “Dear Cory: Pardon me for interrupting your flow, but I find these Koot Hoomi chaps intriguing enough to stalk to the point of restraining orders and possible jail time. Tell me, before I plunge into this rabid obsession, do they do anything with ‘Rich Girl’?” I’m sorry, they do not. But there’s plenty left to give them cause to call the cops.

Purchase The Dark Side here, here, or here.

Track List:

1. Kiss on My List (suite)
i. Still in Kabul
ii. Kiss on My List
iii. Open Market Stomp
2. Say It Isn’t So
3. Maneater
4. I’m Sorry
5. Out of Touch
6. Back in Love
7. Had I Known You Better Then
8. I Can’t Go for That (suite)
i. Om Guru Oates
ii. I Can’t Go for That
9. Lot of Changes Comin’
10. Wait for Me
11. When the Morning Comes
12. If That’s What Makes You Happy
13. Adult Education
14. One on One
15. Maneater (Reprise)

Mondo Diggage: Bei Bei & Shawn Lee, “Into the Wind”

Bei Bei & Shawn Lee
Into the Wind
Release date: Jan. 26, 2010

File under: Spaghetti Eastern, if only for its expansive terrain and mandible-mangling iridescence. What Bei Bei accomplishes with the guzheng — a large stringed and ancient beast that must be played in the seated position — and the places she takes it with prolific multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee, whisking it through urban jungles on breathless tours of melting-pot grit, casts thick shadows on astounding.

She’s backed by a sturdy wall of sumptuous funk throughout, but the groove really locks ‘n’ cooks on “Hot Thursday,” an intergalactic nod-bobber that drop-kicks tingles down your earholes. Ubiquity label mate Georgia Anne Muldrow (her own Kings Ballad drops Feb. 9) gives voice to this sublime East/West throwdown, soaking “Make Me Stronger” and “Willingness” in a sultry soul that soothes Bei Bei’s restless plucks, edges complimented by vibes on “The Master Room,” a slow climber that jacks the temperature on a thrilling night of promise. Similarly, “Blue Grotto” finds Bei Bei dancing with her instrumental partners in an intimate promenade.

“East” finds the Bei Bei regime charting the chewed-up sprockets of kung-fu drive-in grind — specifically those scenes where Our Hero scales the enemy’s fortress under cover of night, silently dispatching scores of henchmen en route to the top floor. A bass hangs back, hands in pockets, waiting for shit to go down. Thank God it does, with a goosebump exoticism. Flutes whistle at the shimmy as it tiptoes past. Meanwhile, Bei Bei shreds with a near-possessed fury (she’s such a blur she evokes a pizzeria mandolin on “Whiskey Waltz”); girl’s got chops to sculpt your trench into a lifelong “O.” “I’m goin’ East!” someone cries. Pack your bags and get gone, brother; I’m right behind you on this here trip.

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band: “Celestial Green Monster”

Fred Ho and the Green Monster Big Band
Celestial Green Monster
Mutable Music
Released: Jan. 2010

This cover’s popped up in many an online geddaloada booga-booga, but fuck that shit, for real. This is Fred Ho, and for 20-plus years he’s chucked earholes to nirvana with some of the most thoughtful, powerful, and joyful living jazz ever breathed. So, really, if you can’t get past a jacket shot of a naked man painted green and posed with a baritone sax large enough to ride the big-boy bumper cars, perhaps you should go back to snorting oatmeal and leave the rest of us alone.

“What, ho!” cries Mr. Ho, and we’re off to pleasures unbound on soundscapes with teeth. First served is a version of the “Spider-Man” theme, then we bubble as one into a casino-lounged-up (remember to tip yer waitress, and mitts off the valleys, bub, or KIRIKKKK!) “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” with vocals and spellbinding ululations by Abraham Gomez-Delgado and Haleh Abghari (the spellbinder), and familiar, snarly-gnarly catgut from the faithful tendrils of Mary Halverson.

While the band chugs and vamps for the next 16 minutes, let’s list the lineup by name and trade: Fred Ho (leader/baritone sax — we’ve met); Bobby Zankel and Jim Hobbs (alto sax — hopefully, they each have their own); Hafez Modirzadeh and Salim Washington (tenor sax); Stanton Davis, Brian Kilpatrick, and Samir El-Amin (trumpet); Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet/”Name Game” inspiration); Robert Pilkington, Marty Wehner, and Richard Harper (trombone, 93 short); Earl MacIntyre and David Harris (contrabass trombone); Art Hirahara (piano, electronic keyboard); Wes Brown (electric and acoustic bass); and Royal Hartigan (drums). Ah, we’ve finished just in time for Mr. Hartigan’s solo shift, here titled “Journey to the Dark Heart, Enter the Serpents of Stratification.” Oop — solo’s over. Isn’t psychedelic music a hoot? I’ll have another shot of the Iron Butterfly; put it on Doug Ingle’s tab.

Awright, enough fun and games. Ho goes serious on “Liberation Genesis,” an original composition first burned to parchment in 1975 and still exploding with coldcock 35 years later. Teams of saxes contemplate one another carefully, then unite as one chuffed front of freedom, their solidarity stamped and approved by triumphant trumpets (can’t say one without sorta sayin’ the other, right?) and a light ivory back-scritch from a flirty lover who digs your open-minded vibe. The tone lasts through “Blues to the Freedom Fighters,” as an entire horn section gooses itself for thrills; trombones harrumph in response. Wes Brown thumps a creep-a-deep bass to grip our hips and help us transition to the big-finish crush.

At last we arrive for the “The Struggle for a New World,” a 38-minute soiree prefaced by an unsettling epigraph from Rachel Carson. “The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity,” she mused, “and of quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry, monstrous evils have arisen.” Here’s the spooky part: These sage words were uttered in — gasp! — 1963. Who knows what the poor woman would think now. She’d probably just truncate her disdain, tweet it with a trending hashmark, and hope for the best. Musical movements tussle within the confines of the piece, amid a hearty maelstrom of squawks, squeaks, and scolds. Ho stuffs his pipes with thorns in the “Battleground Earth Blues” section; Art Hirahara stumbles down electronic keys as Royal Hartigan knocks them all about. The piano rules in “Patience, Passion and Praxis” — perhaps it perseveres on alliteration alone. (The part of “Passion” will be played by piano.) Lip-smacking skins propel “Up Against the Wall You *$%&@# Gods of Corporate Profit!” — “Guerillas Gone Wild,” indubitably.

Whew. Man, that Ho whips up a helluva soup, and you best come famished, friend. Clothing optional. At the very least, you’ll get your socks blown off.

Willie Nelson, “American Classic”

Willie Nelson

Willie Nelson
American Classic
(Blue Note)

Original release: August 25, 2009

After the success of his Two Men with the Blues collaboration with Branford Marsalis last year, Willie Nelson ambled into a studio to clasp a fistful of American standards to his bosom. The result is 12 most agreeable tracks that highlight the legend’s way with a lyric. He caresses every syllable like an old lover come to call, his mesquite-cured lilt pouring just one more glass, for old time’s sake.

Musically, Willie’s surrounded by some of the finest jazzmen to ever handle a melody. Pianist Joe Sample drives most of American Classic, an able accompanist and foil. Christian McBride keeps a steady hand on bass, and Anthony Wilson’s guitar burbles sweetly when called. Even old pal Mickey Raphael drops in to saw through a few numbers on harmonica.

To his credit, producer Tommy LiPuma keeps an orchestral urge to swell in check; when strings do surface, they’re unobtrusive — supporting, not overwhelming. This is especially evident on a pop evergreen Willie long ago made his own, “Always on My Mind,” here refreshingly spare and reflective, with that bombastic yearning left in the distance.

Willie’s covered this ground before, most famously on 1978’s Stardust, yet he remains revelatory in this setting, forever as depicted on Classic‘s back sleeve: a laid-back, long-haired interloper in a tuxedo. He will always be the party-crasher, a hell-raiser among the swells.

And there is a rascally flavor to his voice, even on the straightest interpretations. It’s hard not to hear a devilish rake when he swears, “I’m gonna be true — if you let me” on “Come Rain or Shine.” He locks smoky horns with Diana Krall on “If I Had You,” singing to her as if she’s already sitting in his lap. His other duet partner, Norah Jones, doesn’t stand a chance against the elements in “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”; wily Willie sounds as if he’s delivering the most practical advice (“Look out the window at that storm”), even though we know his true intent.

But there’s no denying the love and reverence he has for this material, how carefully he carries the collected works of some of the last century’s greatest tunesmiths. While American Classic may not match the historic status of Stardust, it sits up there in those very same heavens, a gentle beacon shining down.