Monthly Archives: May 2014

…2014 w 22 – Album of the week is ”Billion Dollar Babies” by Alice Cooper.

billion dollar babiesFormed by Vincent Furnier in the late sixties, this band broke a large number of contemporary rock conventions while still conforming to the idea of the independent rock group. Despite several earlier albums, this is the one that turned Alice Cooper into a concern of mainstream rock. “Billion Dollar Babies” was their sixth effort, and as such a collection of music that captured the contemporary zeitgeist.

I still remember the impact that this album had on me upon its release in 1973, listening to great songs delivered by a singer that ticked all the boxes on the list of things that horrified the parental generation. More important than anything at a certain age. The allure of the album started with the sleeve, with its green python pattern and the gatefold opening to pictures of the band and the big billion dollar bill. Although this stuff felt really special to my ten year old mind, it´s still the music that´s stuck with me. Most people have one or a few such albums, that survives through the years perhaps more on the merit of what they invoked at the time than on a lasting impact. That said, opener “Hello! Hurray!” still gives me goosebumps.

I hadn´t listened to this more than 40 years old album for a long time, until hearing one of its songs on the radio the other day sent me scurrying to my vinyl collection. Aahh, the nostalgia. It seems like many of my choices for album of the week are older stuff, and maybe that figures. Not only me, but the whole music business is going through a backwards-looking phase that´s lasted for a long time and doesn´t look like it´s finishing anytime soon. Looking back isn´t necessarily a bad thing though. After all, it´s a part of what you´ve experienced growing up and has helped form you into who you are. That holds true even if it´s just a piece of rock spectacle.

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…The Shins might be the ones who got away.

Oh inverted worldFormed in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1996 around the nucleus of songwriter James Mercer, the band went on to secure a record deal with Sub Pop and released their debut album “Oh, Inverted World” in 2001. (What´s the deal with that? “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”?).

The movie “Garden State” directed and starred by Zach Braff of “Scrubs” fame prominently featured songs from the album, which despite receiving almost instant indie credibility very much was a work of a band in transition.
“New Slang” showed the way forward and more songs were written and eventually ended up on their next album “Chutes too narrow”, released by Sub Pop in 2003.

Chutes too narrowHere we all of a sudden had something altogether different. Everything from the sleeve to the song titles were unique. Who except James Mercer could think up titles like “Kissing the lipless” and “Mine´s not a high horse”? Apart from the brilliant lyrics the sheer melodic abundance simply dazzeled the listener. Nowhere else could you get pop music with such a sense of melody and structure. A typical song by The Shins had a verse with more ideas than other groups would reserve for all the choruses on their last album. Everyone with an ear for pop music found this album extraordinary.

Wincing the night awayThe next record “Wincing the night away” followed in 2007, recorded largely by Mercer himself, showcasing his songwriting skills more than anything. Better songs, better singing and better playing. This album definitely raised the stakes and the likes of “Phantom limb” and “Sealegs” are nothing less than modern classics. I don´t think I will ever stop listening to this album and pop music doesn´t get much better. A truly remarkable achievement.

After that a long hiatus followed, during which James Mercer indulged in his side-project Broken Bells together with artist/producer Danger Mouse. Regrettably not that interesting and in essence easily forgettable. Having fulfilled his obligations to Sub Pop, Mercer started his own label “Aural Apothecary” to be distributed by Columbia, for the release of his new music.

Port of morrowThe old Shins were unceremoniously fired and a new band assembled for the recording of “Port of Morrow” (2012). While probably being the most sonically realized album from Mercer it´s also in parts a departure from his usual style of songwriting. The sense of melody is undoubtedly intact, but with some excursions into previously unknown territory. The country-flavoured “September”, the falsetto singing on “40 Mark Strasse” and the title song “Port of Morrow” with it´s classical The Shins soundscapes tinged with soul and lounge jazz. That said, numbers like opener “The rifle´s spiral” and “Simple song” will be instantly recognizable as an evolution of Mercer´s very special expression. Without a doubt an album that will be listened to for a long time.

There are not that many bands comparable to The Shins. The naïve and not fully formed debut showing so much promise. Spectacular musical refinement on their second offering, while still keeping their unique lightness and flow. Further honing of the art on the third album, reaching a pinnacle of creativity in both words and music. The way forward shown by “Port of Morrow” seems to be both a development of what´s come before and stepping into new grounds. In some ways a plateau if you look at The Shins in the light of what they´ve already achieved, but in other respects possibly a new platform for further explorations. Not sure what´s going to happen and this might well be the last album from The Shins. Let´s just agree to hope it´s not.

…2014 w 21 – Album of the week is ”Stoneage Romeos” by Hoodoo Gurus.

Hoodoo GurusThe eighties was indeed a wonderful period for Australian rock music, with so many high quality acts that I could fill an entire blog post just by naming them. One of these was Hoodoo Gurus, formed in Sydney in 1981 as Le Hoodoo Gurus. Coming from different Sydney bands and coalescing around singer/guitarist/songwriter Dave Faulkner, the group went through a series of personnel changes between first single “Leilani” and the debut album “Stoneage Romeos”.

Sporting a cover with a dinosaur menacing a scantily clad woman, depicted in comic book style day glo colours, this is a veritable treasure trove of inventive, highly energetic and melodic rock music. Very few people will be able to sit still when opener “(Let´s all) turn on” gains traction and it´s simple but unforgettable baseline blasts through the speakers. I still remember being thoroughly blown away by this fast paced delicacy when the needle hit the groove of my imported vinyl LP some 30 years ago. Impossible not to love and so much what rock music is about.

The twangy power pop of “I want you back” carries the momentum forward through the driving verses and lifting chorus. Straightforward rocker “Arthur” chronicles the untimely death of a fictive Gurus bass player, moonlighting as a taxi driver. One of the album´s stand-out tracks is the formidable “Death ship” which just flows so effortlessly, perched somewhere between intricate pop sensibilities and driving rock. “Dig it up” takes off into Cramps-territory, both musically and lyrically, with a swampy tremolo guitar solo and that cool guitar howl at the end. Making an about-turn from the lurid stories of digging up your love, “My girl” is a pop gem that wouldn´t look out of place on a Big Star album. So catchy and sweet you´ll want to listen to it again and again.

“Zanzibar” is the record´s emotional ballad, with great singing by Faulkner. The tribal drumming of “Leilani” follows, a bigger production version of their debut single´s story of virgin sacrifice and erupting volcanoes. Big rhythmic fun. “Tojo” is a remake of their second single, a straight pop song with lyrics about hurricane Tracy and Japanese WWII General and Prime Minister Hideko Tojo. These guys clearly doesn´t lack a sense of humor.

Even though the quality of the songwriting sags a little in the two closing numbers, “In the echo chamber” and “I was a kamikaze pilot”, this such a great album. Playful and inventive, full of great songs and melodies, simply the sound of a band doing almost everything right. Although their career holds many a great disc, I don´t think they´ve ever bettered this one.

…Donna Tartt is back in style with ”The Goldfinch”.

Donna TarttContemporary American author born in Mississippi in 1963 and educated at Bennington College together with amongst others Brett Easton Ellis. Her debut novel “The secret history” was published in 1992 and became an almost instant bestseller. Described as a murder story in reverse, it was in many ways an original debut that I, contrary to almost universal acclaim, found to be well written but not extremely engaging.

“The little friend” followed in 2002, and despite having its moments felt a bit unfocused. Again dealing with murder going unpunished, its storyline often felt unbelievable and unnecessarily sprawling. Although many years has passed since reading it, I seem to remember having a hard time shaking the feeling that the book had a little too much of teenage crime mystery in it for its own good.

If you´re interested in the development of her particular style and themes, this wonderful article from Harper´s Magazine might be a good place to start.

The GoldfinchAfter yet a decade of silence, “The Goldfinch” turned up in 2013, and despite Pulitzer Prize and all went largely unnoticed by me until I accidentally happened to see it at the book store at Stockholm Central Station, in search of entertainment for a boring train journey. Quite a hefty tome, with its 700+ pages, it´s Donna Tartt´s most voluminous work so far. The opening pages with the protagonist Theo Decker holed up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, anxiously scanning Dutch newspapers for mention of some for us yet unknown events involving bloody murder, sets the tone. A beginning not that unfamiliar to her two previous novels, managing to grab your attention and pique your curiosity of whatever could have led up to this.

The book rapidly leaps back in time to a 13 year old Theo living in New York with his mother, abandoned by the unreliable alcoholic father/husband. A series of coincidences leads them into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a terrorist bomb attack kills Theo´s mother along with several other people. Theo survives and experiences some life-changing moments when he before the explosion sees the girl Pippa, and after the blast shares the dying moments of her caretaker Welty, who gives him a ring and an address to a New York antique shop and asks him to take one of the museum paintings with him, which he does. This is the titular “The Goldfinch”, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, and the fact that Fabritius himself died in an explosion of a gunpowder magazine in his hometown of Delft the same year sort of ties it to the events of the novel.

Fabritius GoldfinchGrief-stricken and alone in the world Theo ends up at the home of the Barbours, the socialite family of school friend Andy, in what seems to be a temporary arrangement. Following the dying words of Welty in the museum, Theo goes to the antique shop and presents the ring given to him to the proprietor – a furniture restoration expert called Hobie. The two become friends and Theo gets to meet the girl Pippa again, who apart from recovering from serious injuries from the blast also like Theo suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This meeting sets off a life-long romantic obsession on Theo´s part, which infuses the story throughout its course.

The stay at the Barbours is swiftly brought to an end when Theo´s father comes along, sweeping the boy with him to his dreary Las Vegas home where his alcoholism has been traded for compulsive gambling and pills. Theo is more or less in limbo, with the painting as his only comfort, until he meets the energetic Boris, neglected son of a Russian mining engineer living a nomadic life with brief stops in remote places all around the globe. Sharing a camaraderie fuelled by vodka, drugs and shoplifting they become inseparable until unforeseen events makes Theo flee back to New York. Appearing at the doorstep of Hobie, Theo is taken under his wing and finds a place taking care of the business part of the antique store. Opiate addiction and ill-advised shady dealings together with a reunion with Boris eventually leads to the trip to Amsterdam, where we found him at the beginning of the novel. Much drama follows, of which I avoiding further spoilers will say nothing.

Let me be clear about this at once, I really like this book. Without a doubt this is Donna Tartt´s most accomplished and mature work. The vivid and exact prose filled with keen observations and careful characterization. The rich storyline with echoes of both “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”. The individual pacing of the different acts of the novel. The philosophical monologue at the end. The perhaps useless but still engaging and interesting forays into the art of furniture restoration and Dutch 17th century painting. This is great writing.

Two of the book´s difficult parts are handled very well by the author. Firstly portraying the grief and dislocation felt by the orphaned Theo as he shuffles from the indifferent hands of Social Services to the slightly cold welcome of the Barbours, and secondly the adolescent maelstrom shared by Theo and Boris, growing up practically without any adult supervision and only saved by that special type of male closeness that you probably only experience in your teens. Definitely a book you should read and well worth the time spent. Let´s just hope we won´t have to wait another ten years for the next one.

…2014 – w 20 Album of the week is “Loyalty” by Phillip Boa and the Voodoo Club.

Phillip BoaNext year will see the 30 year anniversary of this fantastic band, fronted by Dortmund-born singer/composer/guitarist Phillip Boa. Counting his 1998 solo album “Lord Garbage” this is their 17th effort, which is by any terms quite remarkable. One of my absolute favourite groups ever, since first hearing the debut “Philistines” in 1985. Even though it could rightfully be argued that Germany isn´t exactly known for its wealth of inventive rock bands (Krautrock excepted, of course), I would be hard pressed to mention any other group having produced so many wonderful albums as this lot
Initially inspired by British new wave, Boa has since forged a style of his own characterized by an eclectic mix of rock, pop and avant-garde, with his trademark melodic choruses melting hearts and minds. Always adventurous and extremely inventive, creating a sonic universe all his own. A constant component of the band´s sound being the juxtapositioning of Boa´s slightly idiosyncratic singing and Pia Lund´s beautifully soaring voice, creating a very special effect. I must confess to being totally defenseless to the particular dynamic of this music as well as to the lyrical content, through the years going from charmingly semi-intelligible dictionary English to well-phrased absurd dramas.

At least in my mind, the artistic arch of their career showed signs of dipping somewhat around the release of “She” and “Lord Garbage”, which also coincided with Pia Lund leaving the band. The next three releases used the services of Alison Galea and Julia Chard respectively to emulate the light/dark vocal sound. Although only “Lord Garbage” (credited as solo Boa) disappointed, there was still a sense of homecoming when Pia Lund rejoined for 2003´s “C90”. The subsequent series of records might not have been as daring as the albums from the 80´s and early 90´s, but has definitely served to hone the sound of the band into something that´s both instantly recognizable and fresh.

Boa LoyaltyBeing the latest release from the group, “Loyalty” (2012) carries the Boa sound forward. Even though it would seem impossible to vary this concept anymore, they still present a collection of songs that dazzles and intrigues. The sound of the album is very coherent, containing all the ingredients you are supposed to find on a Boa record, while still managing to tweak the songwriting and going into territories both old and brand new.

Opener “Black Symphony” blends scorching guitars with a symphonic synth chorus, with lyrics referencing Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno. As he´s been fond of doing before “Eugene 2” references an earlier song, “Eugene Statue” from the “Hispaniola” album, sporting a beautiful piano melody and a chorus underscored by a dreamy guitar loop. Title track “Loyalty” is a big production number where frantic guitars give way to simple melodies, string arrangements and a seriously addictive chorus.

“Sunny when it rains” showcases the type of Boa song where the aethereal sound of the oboe meets synth-based rock music. “When the wall of voodoo breaks” manages to both emulate his 90´s output in the verse and contemporary Boa in the chorus. One of my absolute favourites on the album. I can listen to this one again and again. Being the last song on the regular CD release, you need the Deluxe edition to get the wonderful “Blue film and the jilted lover”.

An immensely enjoyable collection of great songs that continues to grow on you. I love this record, exactly as I´ve loved every single album this remarkable group has made. Already looking forward to the next one.

…Gourmet dining in Stockholm is getting ridiculously good.

Another weekend in the Swedish capital spent exploring two Michelin-starred establishments, Restaurant Ekstedt and Oaxen krog. Places that´s been on my to-do-list for some time now, and finally a suitable occasion for visiting them both occured.

EkstedtLet´s begin with Ekstedt, started by chef Niklas Ekstedt in 2011 and receiving one Michelin star in 2013. Eschewing modern molecular gastronomy for a return to the age-old practice of cooking over open fire or a wood-burning stove has gained the restaurant attention both in Sweden and internationally. Fresh seasonal ingredients tasting of fire, ashes and smoke is what´s making this place special, and as a culinary idea extremely interesting.
The design concept is pretty rustic, including the heavy-duty aprons of the staff. Not the most beautiful dining room I´ve ever visited, but still warm and inviting. On this particular night the clientele was seriously underdressed for a Michelin restaurant, in a way that can´t be anything than anxiously calculated. Probably not that different from any other night.

After the customary glass of champagne swiftly brought in by our friendly waitress, an amuse consisting of a small pizza from the wood-oven with duck liver and truffle was served. Very simple and extremely tasty. A six course menu with wine pairings followed (there is also a four course variety), making good use of the signature fire-fuelled cooking. Sea cucumber with oysters, lobster with chimney-baked tomato and a dish consisting of octopus fried with chorizo starts the procedings. Lamb sweetbread served with morels followed by hay-baked ribeye and corn, truffle and marrow makes up the main courses. Everything served has a beautiful and slightly deceptive simplicity that´s not so easy to attain. Dessert is Socca with raisins, nougat, hazelnuts and coffee ice cream. Fairly unremarkable, to be honest.

Ekstedt 2For many reasons a restaurant that I´ve wanted to visit for quite some time now. The concept of cooking by fire is both its raison d´etre and its most severe limitation. Although the menu is innovative and extremely well-tasting, it´s still more dependent on what can be done with the cooking techniques at hand than what suits the raw-material best. Despite enjoying my night at Ekstedt immensely, I would be very surprised if this restaurant is still in existence five years from now.

If Ekstedt could be seen as a novelty hit, Oaxen has a tradition of extreme excellence hailing back to 1994. Founded by couple Magnus Ek and Agneta Green on the Stockholm archipelago island of Oaxen and repeatedly chosen as one of the fifty best restaurants in the world by Restaurant Magazine. I only managed one visit there before they closed, but what a night that was. A fantastically remarkable dinner in the beautiful ambiance of Oaxen island, followed by an overnight stay at the hotel-boat Prince van Orangien. Having a wonderful breakfast on the deck of the boat in Swedish summer sunlight is a memory to cherish. It doesn´t get better than this.

Oaxen 1After 17 years on Oaxen, the couple decided to call it quits and the idea of a new restaurant started to form. Located at the part of Stockholm district Djurgården bordering on Beckholmen, this new establishment is located a bit more peripherally than most of the capital´s prestige restaurants. However, if there was ever a place worthy of a trip this is it. The taxi driver hasn´t got a clue where he´s going and directions are given with the aid of Google Maps. A nice example of better living through technology. Following both the fashion of the times and economic necessities the house contains two restaurants, the simpler Oaxen Slip and the high-end Oaxen Krog. To get to our table we need to walk through the Oaxen Slip bistro part before arriving at the entrance to Oaxen Krog, under the envious stares of the other guests.

Oaxen 2Having the big doors open and being let into the inner sanctum of Oaxen Krog is just the beginning of a culinary show that will rock our foundations. After choosing the signature 10 course menu we´re treated to a series of amuse boches that would absolutely kill a lesser establishment. Celery crisps filled with celery cream served on a bed of glowing wood giving it a wonderfully smoky touch. Poached quail egg with crème of Kalix bleak roe, in my opinion the best you can get in terms of fish eggs, Russian caviar included. A mushroom-shaped crisp of Swedish Karl-Johan mushroom with accompanying mushroom crème that blends sublimely together. Roasted artichoke served with smoked ox-marrow making a wonderful marriage of tastes. A slice of the restaurant´s own Parma-style ham, hailing from a nearby farm and dry-cured for 10 months. If this wasn´t enough for you, the show continues with a slightly bizarre dish consisting of filled bladder wrack accompanied by a thin slice of smoked zander, followed by sweet shrimp with a succulent dressing served on hot stones. Wow, what a beginning!

The menu itself which follows can be seen here (Oaxen meny), and is nothing less than fantastic. (Hold the cursor over the small yellow boxes to see an English translation.)
Beautifully presented, fresh and innovative cutting edge cuisine from a master. Locally produced Nordic ingredients, with most of the herbs and spices used collected in the Djurgården area around the restaurant. The wine pairing is very well chosen and substantially adds to the experience, with the wonderful Portuguese dessert wine as a standout.

The service is perfect throughout the evening, with attentive and knowledgeable staff making everything flow seemingly effortlessly. A little bit more than halfway into the dinner something interesting happens – after receiving a warm blanket over your shoulders (after all it´s Sweden in early April), you´re invited out on the veranda where Magnus is manning the grill, serving up a small but fresh extra course while amiably chatting with the guests. A both unexpected and very nice part of a splendid evening.

It´s very reassuring to see that the culinary dedication and finesse developed during the years of the original Oaxen restaurant has been passed on to this new establishment. World-class cooking with a decidedly Swedish touch, served by competent staff in a stylish dining room situated in the beautiful surroundings of Djurgården. A night out doesn´t get much better than this. With Oaxen Krog the gourmet dining crowd of Stockholm has gained a new top of the line restaurant, spreading both inspiration and envy to lesser establishments. I wouldn´t be the least surprised if a second Michelin star soon follows.

…2014 – w 19 Album of the week is “Soak” by Foetus.

J G ThirlwellLong serving vehicle for the Australian born musican, composer and artist J G Thirlwell, Foetus has long been one of the most original and influential forces of modern music. After a brief stint in post-punk band Prag Vec in the late 70´s, Foetus hit the music scene with his first singles in 1981, pioneering experimental and industrial music in an age where you had to rely on real instruments and tape loops instead of samplers. Many of the early works (like 12″ singles “Calamity Crush”, “Wash/Slog”, “Finely honed machine” as well as LP´s “Hole” and “Nail”) were miles ahead of his contemporaries. Seriously, in the beginning of the 80´s, there was absolutely nothing like Foetus. The sonic inventiveness, the almost absurd level of intensity, the black humour and real darkness of the lyrics, which in combination with the idiosyncratic artwork made up an absolutely unique experience.

Continuing to be prolific down the years he has released a string of albums under the Foetus moniker, as well as more orchestral material under the names Steroid Maximus and Manorexia. The latest album “Soak” (2013) has obvious connections to the preceding album “Hide”, released in 2010. A disparate collection of original Thirlwell songs mixed with chosen renderings of material from Daniel Miller, the John Carpenter “Halloween”-theme, Nino Ferrer and the Danger Global Warming project. Lately he´s been turning down the manic energy slightly and stumbled into a musical landscape characterizeed by some sort of alternative universe perverted opera that sometimes overplays the theatricality.

Foetus Soak

Opener “Red and black and grey and white” turns out a high energy blend of the kind of big band jazzy things he used to do with Steroid Maximus and the early Foetus apocalyptic outbursts. A beginning of the album that absolutely blows you away. “Pratheism” is a perfect example of the bombastic operatic craziness mentioned above, that is guaranteed to make you wonder – WTF is this?
The disturbing ballad “Alabaster” contrasts the beautiful orchestration with lyrics full of unsound imagery. The cover of Mute Records founder Daniel Miller´s “Warm leatherette” perverts the original´s rather neutral presentation into something that sounds like it´s sung by the dirt-caked homeless person on the corner. “Kamikaze”´s sweet piano-driven pop wouldn´t have sounded out of place on John Lennon´s “Imagine” album, if it wasn´t for the lyrics. “Halloween/Turbulence” drives John Carpenter´s film score classic into Foetus opera-mode, adding to strangeness and sense of wonder.

Nino Ferrer´s “La rua madureira” is equal parts French chanson and vertiginous carnival orchestra, and is followed by some dramatic music from the Danger Global Warming Project, apparently penned by old Stranglers man Hugh Cornwell (??!??). “Spat” begins with echoes from early 80´s Rupert Hine before going weird orchestral Foetus with eerie lyrics. The remix of “Cosmetics” from the “Hide” album is a no holds barred 8 minutes plus indulgence, and if it was a bit too much on that album it´s even more so here. If he´s singing about the Brazilian benzodiazepine or about something else is hard to say, but closer “Mesmerin” leaves you with a chilly and slightly anaesthesized feeling – “live your life thru your dreams but the body is numb”.

Let me say something about the artwork of this album in particular and Foetus in general. Ever since his first efforts this has been an artist with a fully realized concept of music, lyrics and album art. The general style has changed over the years, into his current aesthetic of optical illusions on the discs themselves and the stylized covers with their pseudo-asian letterings. Instantly recognizable with a lot of red, white and black they create a visual language all his own. The fact that the lyric sheet for this particular record contains both a close-up of Bassett´s Liquorice Allsorts and a picture of the Philips PM5544 test card for channel two of Swedish National Television just adds to the intrigue.

I have huge respect for J G Thirlwell as an artist, and advise anyone unfamiliar to his work to start exploring. Despite being sort of a rollercoaster ride this album is brilliant in many parts, and never ever uninteresting. It´s difficult to find artists that manage to consistently deliver output with this level of quality and innovation for so long.