Friday, February 26, 2010

Barcode: Pops Restaurant


When we’re looking for a bar to write about for this column, it usually helps if a space has an actual bar. Until recently that wasn’t really the case at Pops, the small South End bistro with the cozy greenhouse dining room. A recent major renovation has remedied that, flipping the four-seat service bar over to the other side of the room and expanding it to about 16 seats. In conjunction with that they’ve also just introduced a new seasonal cocktail and small plates menu.

Breaking new ground always brings a few inherent risks, however. The cocktail menu, which covers a lot of interesting territory, is a little bit all over the place in terms of quality. Fortunately it’s broken down into five categories - Fresh, Fizzy, Fruity, Bold, and Luscious - so drinkers can more easily steer themselves toward their personal tastes. “The categories come from the fact that the menu was designed by a chef, and flavor profiles are usually what chefs think about first,’’ says chef Felino Samson. “It is a way of simplifying the choices that can be overwhelming to novices.’’

Novices will find the Yuzu Lemondrop (limoncello, Grey Goose Citron, yuzu, with tapioca pearls, $11) from the Fruity category user-friendly. The tapioca is a fun touch, like big bubble tea pearls that bring a hint of vanilla to the acidic fruit. They pick up a lot of the lemon in the preparation process, says bartender Terry O’Donnell. “It’s kind of like a last mouthful of citrus.’’

The old classic variant of the Biltmore 560 (Bombay Sapphire, cherry liqueur, sweet vermouth, fresh pineapple juice, $10.50) certainly earns its designation in the Bold category. “I feel customers are expanding their options and vodka drinkers are rediscovering gin again,’’ says Samson. “I love fresh pineapple juice, and it was used frequently in cocktails in the 1920s and 1930s. The Biltmore has layers of flavors that I love. There is a balance of the bite of the gin with the sweetness of fruit from cherry. Pineapple adds a beautiful froth and vermouth gives it complexity.’’

Balance is harder to find in the Absinthe Horchata (Kubler absinthe, cinnamon schnapps, almond milk, orange blossom water, $12.50; pictured). Every ingredient in here needs to be used sparingly in other cocktails. Mixing them together is a bit of a mess. The Fresh Grape Caipirinha (grapes muddled with lemon, 51 cachaça, Gewürztraminer, $9) is also a bit off. A smoother cachaça like Leblon might alleviate some of the burnt-wood qualities that overshadow the grape.

The Lychee de Tigre (Grey Goose Citron, sake, guanábana fruit, lychee, $10.50), representing the Luscious team, washes those two away. Lychee is ubiquitous now, but it’s not so easy to balance as they’ve done here. The more interesting fruit comes in the guanábana puree, a slightly sour citrus with creamy coconut-like qualities. The mild Dreamy Clouds sake adds a little acidic, milky sweetness.

“I didn’t want to stick in a bunch of weird ingredients for the sake of being different,’’ says Samson. “I wanted to focus on flavors people related to and to be as fresh and natural and clear in flavor to pair with our food.’’ For the most part he’s done just that.

Pops Restaurant , 560 Tremont St., Boston. 617-695-1250. www.popsrestaurant.net

Boston Globe

Monday, February 22, 2010

In online music reporting, is it better to be first or factual?


Scan the front pages of the tabloids on display at the store or take a quick stroll through the tangle of online celebrity gossip sites that have become popular, and it doesn't take long to realize that we're all apparently fascinated by the idea of other people's misfortune. Angie and Brad are breaking up! (For the 10th time no less.) It seems strange that this headline could still grab anyone's attention after so many false alarms, but it still works.

Compare that to how we behave in our own social lives. Let's say a couple that you are friends with breaks up after years of dating. Well, that's news. Having access to fresh news, the first thing you want to do is call your other friends and let them know. But why? Do the feelings of excitement we have about being privy to information before anyone else necessarily equate with a level of deriving pleasure from other's misfortune? Do we want the people that we care about--be they movie stars, or rock bands, or our own friends--to suffer or do we just want to make sure that if they do, we're in on the ground floor as the story develops?

When it comes to availing ourselves of the perverse pleasures of breaking the bad news, sometimes it doesn't even matter if the story turns out to be true or not. Considering a news story that we as music fans probably deem important--the rumored breakup of a favorite band--provides an example. Last week, music blog SupJustin.com posted news that Brand New are going on hiatus. It's not exactly national-security-level news, but disturbing nonetheless to thousands of their fans. AP promptly called a representative for the band to confirm the rumor. Turns out that's just what it was--a rumor.

It's a practice that's become increasingly common with the proliferation of music blogs, each one striving to make themselves noticed in a crowded marketplace; splash the page with an eyeball-grabbing headline, then report the story backward from there. In recent months, more than a few bands have found themselves in similar situations. At any given time Fall Out Boy, the Academy Is..., the Killers or Straylight Run have all been shuffled through the rumor mill in various states of dissolution, their membership status in a sort of limbo that extends from proposed hiatus to a minor break to official breakup to none of the above. It's become difficult to even tell which of the bands we follow are together even more.

So why break the "story" in the first place? Is our drive to be the bearer of news--and particularly bad news--strong enough that it compels us to disregard actual facts? The answer to that is a little complicated, and it brings into question the ever-changing face of journalistic practices and our own prurient desires as readers and music fans. Depending on where you stand on the sanctity of capital J "Journalism" (and probably what side of 30 you are on), the idea that a blog would report a rumor as fact is not exactly breaking news itself. Rather, it's become part of our expectations in the way we process online news. We log onto a site like media gossip source Gawker.com not because we want to find out about actual events that have taken place, although there is some serving of that. We want to find out about events that seem believable enough to have taken place featuring people whom we're vaguely aware of, and then read all of that filtered through an air of "gotcha"-style reporting that transfers negative news into a pleasurable personal feeling of well-being. "At least that's not me," we think. If the news in question turns out to not be true, no matter, it was only of passing concern in the first place. We're probably onto the next bit of gossip by now, anyway. The same is true when we read about bands we follow going through breakups, or slumping sales and concert attendance.

The pace of online journalism has further confounded matters, with an always-moving news cycle making the appetite for breaking news even bigger. But blogs didn't invent the idea of rushing to be first at the expense of accuracy as Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer told us in an e-mail. "Long before the internet, top-notch MSM [mainstream media] journalists hoping to be first with breaking news have frequently published or broadcast hooey," he wrote, referring me to a piece he published in The Wall Street Journal that touched on the subject:

"...readers prefer immediacy to perfection," it states. "It's an excellent bargain as long as journalists limit their goofs and correct them. Mostly, they do."


Mostly. But when the speed of releasing the information itself becomes less valued than its truthfulness, everything becomes meaningless.

"I've seen a ton of half truths about things that I've been involved with," says John Nolan of Straylight Run. For the record, he says, Straylight Run are currently on indefinite hiatus. "Somebody gets part of the story, and then fills in what they don't know, but do it as if they have some information to fill in the rest of the story. They make no distinction between what's filling in the blanks and what they actually know. That's been the biggest thing to me. I don't think that I've ever seen anything that seems completely out of left field and made up. But I also stopped looking at a lot of websites awhile back, so I'm sure they're out there. That half-truth thing is the biggest. A little bit of something real [gets] in there, but it gets kind of distorted and messed up and twisted around and becomes something different than reality." Nolan thinks the bigger problem is the internet in general, he says, it's not specific to the writers at music blogs. Message boards are even worse. "Most of the stuff I've seen is on the message boards on the music sites," he says. "I never know how seriously people are going to take those things. But it is a strange thing with the internet, that anybody can just get on a message board and really say anything and there's gonna be people [who] believe it. Nobody has to have any sources or any proof to get something started."

Being "first" provides a sort of ego boost to a journalist, says Gina Chen, a 20-year newspaper veteran who writes frequently about the intersection of online media and traditional media on her site SaveTheMedia.com. "It's an adrenaline rush when you break a big story. If you're a journalist that doesn't feel that, you might want to be in another field," she tells us. "It's intrinsic to the job. With that said, there's always been that tension between breaking the big story and getting it right. I think that tension has been heightened because we can break it so much more easily. The old days forced us to have a whole afternoon to think over a story and have a bunch of editors look at it. Whereas now, I can sit at my desk and blog, and boom! It's out there."

The ability to break a story today has been magnified because everyone with a computer can break a story instantly. "In some ways that's leveled the playing field for newspapers and magazines. At the beginning of my career, if I had a big story I couldn't break it until the next day's paper, and that would be frustrating. I'd know the TV station would have it, and I knew I had it first. There's something fabulous about online [journalism]. If I find out at 10 a.m. that the mayor has been indicted, I could have it on the web at 10:15 a.m. and I could beat my competition. That's the real plus side of it."

Or in the music world, if you hear Pete Wentz is leaving Fall Out Boy from the brother of the guy who did merch on one date of their last tour, you can throw that up against the internet wall and see if it sticks. It's that push to "win" the story that makes the dissemination of information online at the elevated pace of the news cycle difficult to trust at times. "People are competitive and sometimes it might cause people to release information that's not fully baked, is how I put it," Chen says. "Maybe we wouldn't have released it if we were putting it in print, but, well, what the heck, we'll put it on there. That can be a slippery slope. It doesn't mean we should stop breaking news online; it just means we should have a thoughtful conversation before we release something and say, "Hey, do we really have this story? Do we really know it from someone who is in a position to know it?" If we don't, and we release it anyway, we can still bask in some of the perceived glow of having planted our stake before anyone else, so to speak.

Justin Goldberg, the blogger behind the SupJustin.com post about Brand New, recognizes that feeling. He doesn't necessarily feel pressure to report something first, but says it's simply an expectation that comes with the territory. "The only satisfaction I get from being the first to report something is knowing I did it before the 'big dogs' did," he says. While there is certainly an element of pride to be found in that sort of David vs. Goliath mentality, it still raises issues of journalistic due process. Goldberg doesn't see a problem with the blogging style of reporting where you build the story in real time as it progresses, changing the facts as they come in. "I think the blogging style of reporting is great. Everything happens so fast these days, and it's a great way to keep people up-to-date with the most current news at any time." Whether you call that process journalism or blogging, it doesn't matter. "I refer to myself as someone who delivers news. I don't believe there's a specific name that should be given out because in the end, I'm still doing the same thing--reporting news."

As the popularity of music blogs continues to grow, it seems like it's an issue that is only going to get worse, especially, as the Chariot's Bryan Taylor points out, blogs continue to encroach on the territory of mainstream news sources. "It seems to me like a lot of traditional media is being replaced or becoming less popular because of blogs," the guitarist says. "When you go to a blog, you can skim over all the subject matter and quickly see the news that you care about. A lot of blogs cover a lot of topics, bands, etc... and give you news every day, while traditional media comes around once a month, week, year or whatever the case."

That wider umbrella of coverage on music blogs is good from a publicity stand point, says Tes Davison of management firm The Blood Company. But there's a downside as well. The internet "brings amazing and new possibilities for promoting record releases and tour dates. However, because of this, we are sadly watching music magazines and television channels go out of business. People want their music news now, and they want it for free."

That's the inherent problem in the increased appetite for news: the rapid production schedule as well as the reluctance to pay for actual reporting. Making conjecture about music--or anything else online--doesn't take much time and money. Reporting does. What happens when the site that has to put something out every day doesn't actually have anything new to write about? The beast, after all, is hungry. That's where rumor and speculation come in, and a general lowering of the quality of the information being shared. "Blogs kind of dumb down the media news and make it easier to see what you really want to see," says the Chariot's Taylor.

For media outlets like alt-weekly The Boston Phoenix (full disclosure: a publication this writer has contributed to), breaking national music stories all the time isn't necessarily of primary importance unless there is a Boston angle, says music editor Michael Brodeur. "In our case, I think we feel responsible for breaking things when there's some local interest. If Grizzly Bear get attacked by grizzly bears, we'd be on it, as [frontman Ed] Droste has roots in Watertown, Massachusetts. If Christie's auctions off one of Lady Gaga's farts trapped in a Fabergé egg, we'll let Gawker or The Atlantic field it, and maybe reflect on it later in the afternoon if nothing else has come up."

For Brodeur, the freedom of running stories online as they come in is liberating, he says, but contrary to conventional wisdom, he says it also brings with it an added pressure to report accurately. "When you fuck up in print, you have to run an ungainly item in an errata box. This just makes it easier to hop on mistakes, and extra incentive to get things right the first time, as your credibility can now be judged instantly against other sources. Look at papers from September 12, 2001, and nobody had a stable fact except for what happened before their eyes. Sometimes the value of any kind of journalism is just freezing a moment of something unfolding."

He's right. When it's skillfully and thoughtfully employed, reporting online can be an invaluable tool. Keep in mind, however, that the Phoenix is primarily a print publication, one with decades of top notch reporting and high standards under its belt. Blogs, on the other hand, run the gamut of credibility, says Chen. "Some of them are as responsible as what we call a traditional news organization, and some are not. I don't think there's any way to stop that train. People are going to report what they're going to report. News organizations still need to be responsible. It's not okay to say, 'Well, the bloggers aren't following the same ethical guidelines as we do so we can't compete with them.' If you're a trained journalist, you need to be ethical. I would hope bloggers would be ethical, too, and not report news that they don't know to be true. But even if that happens I think traditional media has to be ethical."

But when you combine a blogger's and a journalist's urge to report breaking news with the desire to be first and add to that the inherent tendencies toward schadenfreude that a lot of entertainment news engenders, you're left with a gnarled web of conflicting motivations, as media critic Ken Sanes posted a while back in a piece on his site TransparencyNow.com. For journalists, it reads, "The world and all its suffering becomes the raw material for their creations. Every catastrophe and every victory for someone else provides an equal opportunity for them to succeed and win acclaim. They are further estranged from the world by what they create, which is a kind of unreality. They process and filter real events, creating a distorted reflection that condenses the drama and pain of life into a form of entertainment or at least a product that is entertaining. This unreality then has a profound impact on real events. It changes reality and, in its distorted way, records the change."

Sanes probably wasn't talking about the dissolution of an emo band, but the point still remains. Journalists report the bad stuff because it brings readers to them in droves. Considering that, does it poke some pleasure center in our brain then to hear that band X, Y or Z have broken up? "Yeah, I think there is some of that," says Goldberg. "Most of the time when bands break up, most people are happy, or at least I think so." Brodeur concurs, with a caveat. "I think that appetite is becoming less fashionable as humor-wise it's being replaced by a sort of hyper-indulgent self-awareness (i.e., Chunklet is down and HipsterRunoff.com is up); but anywhere you have keyboards, an audience and the potential for anonymity, you're going to have a platform for hateration."

Nolan of Straylight Run says he's not sure where people's interest in what bands are doing in their personal lives or outside of the music comes from. "I don't know if it's the same kind of thing as tabloid journalism. I think after everything that happened and all of the hype and the rumors at the beginning of Straylight Run [upon his leaving Taking Back Sunday], I think I kind of stopped really paying a lot of attention. After awhile, you can't think about it that much. It's just kind of pointless, and it will drive you crazy. I don't know how much of it is a negative, weird, celebrity-obsessed thing and how much is people just being interested in bands that they like. I really don't know."

It's probably a little bit of both, but as long we have writers following that drive to get things out there fast and first, and as long as we still get a charge out of hearing the bad news, it's a problem that seems like it's only going to get worse before it gets better. Hopefully it will, says Chen. "I think in the end, the blogs and news organization that are ethical and found to be credible will win in the end. Eventually, people will stop going to blogs that put out a lot of hype that turns out not to be true."

Let's hope so. In the meantime, the onus has to be on the reader to decide for himself or herself what's credible or not. Like this story I just posted about on my blog: Apparently All Time Low have broken up in a fight over Sierra Kusterbeck of VersaEmerge. It's true, Jesse Lacey just told me on his way out of his audition to be My Chemical Romance's new singer. Tell all your friends.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Barcode: Hungry Mother

We’ve been trying to write a Barcode about Hungry Mother for almost a year now, but every time we try, it’s been nearly impossible to get a spot at the bar. There are two reasons for that. One, it’s a small space, with only seven seats at the bar, plus a compact dining room. Two, Hungry Mother has also gotten such good reviews for its high-end, Southern-style comfort food and top-notch bar that the ranks of eager customers swelled.

It adds up to a spectacularly frustrating experience in the front room, where impatient couples jockey for seats at the bar, crammed between the host stand and the front door. Everyone is anxious. On a couple of visits we’ve encountered a generally surly, territorial crowd, and it’s an attitude that’s occasionally reflected in the service behind the bar. In a way you can’t blame them. When the guests are uncomfortable, so are the servers.

The good news is that if you can find a spot to relax, Hungry Mother boasts some exceptional cocktails to choose from, made with fresh ingredients that hint at their Southern roots. We’re thinking primarily of No. 2 (Maker’s Mark, sorghum syrup, Luxardo Amaretto, boiled peanut, $9; below right).

“Barry [Maiden], my business partner - the chef - is from Virginia. He introduced me to both sorghum and boiled peanuts,’’ says co-owner Alon Munzer. Sorghum, a crop grown primarily in the South, has a unique malty flavor. It can be very sweet, so they’ve cut it with water to lessen its power here. Boiled peanuts are another Southern staple, and they make for a unique garnish, even if the meaty consistency at the bottom of a cocktail isn’t something you’d expect.

The No. 43 surprises as well (Old Overholt rye, 10-year Ferreira tawny port, maple syrup, bitters, $9.50) with its Manhattan variation. It’s naturally sweet tasting with chocolate and orange from the port and bitters. “The port in this drink acts as sweet vermouth to a Manhattan, but is less herbal and a bit nuttier,’’ says Munzer.

Beer numbers among his mixing ingredients as well, which is yet another interesting change of pace. No. 57 (Don Julio Tequila, Becherovka, lemon, Mayflower Golden Ale, $9.50, below left) is all cinnamon, honey, and citrus undergirded by a malted, hoppy ale. Other intriguing options include No. 59 (Greylock gin, honey syrup, muddled cardamom and orange, $10), floral and herbaceous from the gin with spicy cardamom off the top and a soft, rounded orange finish. Like some of the others it’s served with a large, solid sphere of ice. “Almost every cold mixed drink has water in it, usually in the form of ice. This size ice allows us to limit the amount of water in a specific drink to its desired amount.’’

See what we mean? All pretty engaging, thoughtful stuff done the right way. We just wish it weren’t such a hassle to get a drink here more often.

Hungry Mother , 233 Cardinal Medeiros Ave., Cambridge. 617-499-0090. www.hungrymothercambridge.com

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Boston Nightlife

BORN OF FIRE Pretty much every other genre of music has had its own theme night in town. And now, like a mulleted phoenix with a battle ax rising from the ashes of a pillaged city, comes Born of Fire to fill that metal-shaped hole in the nightlife scene. “It’s a night of metal and movies’’ says Zack Wells, DJ and promoter for the biweekly party. “It’s for people who want to hang out, listen to some loud metal, watch some horror, sci-fi, and action movies, and see a couple of bands for $5.’’ Tonight Raw Radar War performs. 21+. 8 p.m. Feb 18. $5. O’Brien’s. 617-782-6245, www.greatscottboston.com/obriens

LIVE BAND KARAOKE One of the biggest problems with karaoke is that just when you expect the ripping guitar riff to come in as you’re about to hit the high note, you’re met with a cheesy sounding electronic simulation that leaves you flat. You need the power of a real band behind you onstage like the rock star you are. Enlist Juke Box Heroes to back you up on everything from Def Leppard to Miley Cyrus and 150 other songs for live band karaoke. Best part is you don’t even have to help them unload the gear at the end of the night. 21+. 9 p.m. Feb 18. The Lansdowne Pub. 617-247-1222, www.lansdownepubboston.com

BAR STOOL SPORTS MARDI GRAS Sports and Mardi Gras celebrations are going to have a close connection this year with the New Orleans Saints having brought a Super Bowl title to America’s honorary party town. You can get in on a little of that action here with this Mardi Gras-style party from Boston’s irreverent sports rag. Expect plenty of beaded debauchery and a performance from DJ Lord of Public Enemy. 21+. 9 p.m. Feb 19. The Paradise. RSVP to mardigras@barstoolsports.com

NERD NITE Our college lectures used to be a little bit dry. Then again we weren’t drinking a beer while listening. Not usually anyway. And we never studied topics like Octopus Images in Propaganda and We’re Dumber Than Elephants: Mathematical Abilities of Animals. Consider those two problems solved at Nerd Nite, which organizer Jeremy Kay calls “an event where curious people can get together in a bar and have a beverage or two while listening to a casual talk about some nerdy subject.’’ 21+. 8 p.m. Feb 22. $5. Middlesex Lounge. 617-868-6739, www.middlesexlounge.us

Boston Globe

Monday, February 15, 2010

Adam Green

Adam Green
Minor Love
Fat Possum

It’s hard to trust a prolific musician. If something comes that easily, it doesn’t seem earned. It doesn’t help when the artist’s entire shtick is built on two-minute song sketches that seem thrown together on the way out to the bodega to grab smokes. That’s the essence of an Adam Green record: casual, disinterested, observational humor set to lo-fi rock accompaniment that somehow, against all odds, still ends up being utterly compelling. On “Minor Love,’’ Green’s sixth solo record, he proves adept as ever traversing through the American popular songbook and filtering his findings through a hazy stoner’s smog of absurdity. “Lockout’’ drops mariachi horns and a relatively distorted guitar riff into the mix in the closest approximation of a rousing party song here. “Boss Inside’’ is a troubadour torch song with a foreboding fingerpicked guitar progression and compelling folk-tale narrative tempered by Green’s slouching, flat affect. It would be boring to continue to dismiss Green as an ironist, but it still seems like a big put-on. So what? Maybe he’s simply been through the looking glass and is dutifully reporting back to us earthlings on his travels. As ever, he’s a worthy ambassador.

Boston Globe

Friday, February 12, 2010

Barcode: Benedictine

First created by a Benedictine monk in 1510, the French spirit known as Benedictine boasts a unique blend of herbs and spices (including hyssop, lemon balm, saffron, cardamom, and angelica) that has been passed down over generations as a closely guarded secret. Although the recipe was lost to history during the French Revolution, it was rediscovered in 1863. Recently, it has become a staple for history-minded bartenders, and coinciding with its 500th anniversary, it seems to be everywhere.

The Benedictine brand recently conducted a nationwide contest to find the Alchemist of Our Age. One of the five finalists was Eastern Standard’s Jackson Cannon, the preeminent bartending historian in Boston. His winning cocktail, called the Vincelli Fizz, uses one egg white, 1 1/2 ounces of Benedictine, 1 1/2 ounces house-made rose vermouth, and 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The ingredients are shaken dry to emulsify, then shaken again with ice and poured into a coupe glass, topped with champagne and garnished with flamed Medjool date essence.

Benedictine appears throughout the Eastern Standard cocktail menu in drinks like the Commonwealth Cocktail (house-infused apple vodka, Benedictine, apple schnapps, $10), a woody, cocktail-savvy drinker’s alternative to an apple martini, and the King’s Yellow (Bombay Sapphire, Benedictine, dry vermouth, orange bitters, lemon oil, $10), the slower, more contemplative drinker of the three.

Deep Ellum, West Side Lounge, Drink, and Noir also mix it up with Benedictine. “New spirits are always coming out, and many fade away in under a year, but it’s the true classics that stick around for as long as they do because they’re just that good,’’ says Noir general manager Keith Warner. They’re currently offering the Ride the Pink Horse (pictured), made with 1 1/2 ounces of Benedictine, 22 splashes of Angostura Bitters, 1/2 ounce of peach brandy, two lemon wedges, two cinnamon sticks, and a dash of almond syrup, garnished with a dehydrated orange. The ingredients here “meld sweetness and the ‘herbalness’ of the Benedictine and the bite of the bitters,’’ Warner says. It is an extraordinarily bitter but drinkable mix of burnt citrus.

Further evidence of the liqueur’s versatility comes at Green Street. “Benedictine will typically have nice honey notes and sugars that lend a little body to cocktails,’’ says owner Dylan Black. As in the Fort Washington Flip (Laird’s applejack, Benedictine, Vermont maple syrup, fresh whole egg, nutmeg, $8.50). Here they wanted to use only ingredients that its namesake George Washington himself could have used. “He was a big fan of applejack and Benedictine,’’ Black says.

Rob Kraemer at Chez Henri is mixing the Chrysanthemum Cocktail (1 1/2 ounces dry vermouth, 3/4 ounce Benedictine, three dashes of pastis, $9), a light and extremely refreshing aperitif. “Benedictine is not as cloying as some other liqueurs as it’s got this cinnamon heat to it that keeps it buoyant,’’ he says. It sure does: It’s remained buoyant for five centuries now.

Eastern Standard, 528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. 617-532-9100. www.easternstandardboston.com

Noir, 1 Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-661-8010. www.noir-bar.com

Green Street, 280 Green St., Cambridge. 617-876-1655. www.greenstreetgrill.com

Chez Henri, 1 Shepard St., Cambridge. 617-354-8980. www.chezhenri.com

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It Takes A Nation Of Millions

Black punk and indie musicians on the scene's current state of race relations


Here's a little homework before we get this article rolling: Do a quick iTunes search for the band LET'S GET IT. Give them a listen. No peeking at pictures though. Totally solid emo pop, right? Now picture the band. You're thinking maybe a pasty white dude with bangs in his face singing, right? Maybe a tatted-up kid in eyeliner? What about an African American?

Be honest, the third option is probably not the image that came to mind. But why is that? And does it really matter? Maybe the idea of race never even crossed your mind at all. Congratulations, you're a part of post-racial America, but you're not necessarily in the majority. Because--despite decades of evidence to the contrary--it still seems like people tend to think about varying genres of music as being racially segregated. White dudes play punk and indie. Black dudes play hip-hop and R&B. Sure there are crossovers, but they're usually more the exception that proves the rule.


Let's Get It

But just how big a problem are expectations of racially specific music and racism in general for African Americans in the punk and indie scene at this point in American history? "As a minority and frontman of a band in the scene, I see instances of racism all the time," says Let's Get It's Joe Gilford. "Not all of the situations were hurtful or even meant to be so, however they are an indication of the current state of the race relations. I'm always mindful of the idea that there are people who might not be as open-minded as I am." He points to incidents like Travis McCoy of Gym Class Heroes getting into a physical altercation on Warped Tour after being provoked with derogatory insults. "People do still pay attention to what color artists are," Gilford continues. "Although certain artists are leading the way to bridging the gap, the idea of stereotypically 'white' and 'black' music still exists. However, this concept is meaning less and less every day. I attribute this graying of the lines to growing lack of importance to genre of music as people stop drawing lines and dividing music into small, dull categories and can start enjoying a wide pool of music without the politics of genre and racial demographics."

Lawrence Caswell of Cleveland punk band THIS MOMENT IN BLACK HISTORY says that things are improving on this front. "It's better than what it used to be," he says. "I think younger kids think about [race] a lot less." Part of that, he says, is the way that black popular culture has essentially become American popular culture. In 1993, when Dr. Dre's The Chronic was released, there was a shift in album sales to include rap and hip-hop in the mainstream that went a long way toward loosening traditionally defined roles of race in entertainment. Before then, Caswell says, 'It was like, okay, you guys do this and you guys do this.'"


This Moment In Black History

That was particularly true in the world of punk back in the late '80s and early '90s when Caswell was growing up. Although Cleveland has always had examples of African Americans playing in a variety of genres of music, discovering BAD BRAINS for him, like it was for thousands of other kids both black and white, was a transformative experience. "When I was younger, the bands that I saw that I liked who were playing the music that I was interested in, who were black and playing rock, you liked them because they were doing it. It wasn't always because it was awesome. I really liked LIVING COLOUR's 'Cult Of Personality,' but that was about the level of stuff you were getting. Seeing Bad Brains, not just for black kids but also for everybody, it was like a click. 'Oh, you can do whatever the fuck you want.' I heard [1989's] Quickness and it was like 'Oh, shit. Yeah.' It wasn't like, 'I can do that,' but more like, 'that's much closer to how I feel.' Not just because they were black, but because of the way they were approaching and thought about music. It opened up a realm of possibilities."

The seminal Washington, D.C., punk band Bad Brains formed more than 30 years ago. Los Angeles ska-punks FISHBONE assembled in the late '70s as well, not to mention African American members of Suicidal Tendencies and Dead Kennedys, and the fact that Ice T's punk/thrash Body Count song "Cop Killer" is almost 20 years old now. TV On The Radio, Bloc Party, the Noisettes, Black Kids, Santigold and many other artists are currently representing people of color on the indie rock side of the equation. So how is it possible that this is even still an issue? "I wish this topic wasn't even worth discussing, but it is," says A SKYLIT DRIVEFinding Equality to help racism awareness. "So many people are stuck under a rock thinking racism is a thing of the past. It's still a large issue everywhere I go. Sometimes I wish I could find a rock that I could fit under, so I was oblivious as well."

Caswell says to credit some of that to journalists, the ones who are most likely to ask about it. For many people, non-whites playing punk and indie rock still seems out of the ordinary. Stefon Alexander, the rapper known as P.O.S., has long played in punk bands and had crossover success within the scene--he even filled in on guitar for Underoath on this past summer's Warped Tour when Tim McTague couldn't be there. But P.O.S. says that it's journalists who bring up the issue more than anyone else. "I've noticed people saying, mostly in interviews, 'What's it like to be a black guy in a punk band? Is it crazy?' I think, to white people, if there's a black guy in a punk band, there might be a certain novelty for a minute. I don't think that's news. I've been in punk bands all my life."

Fishbone frontman Angelo Moore says it's a question as old as the idea of punk rock itself. He's been asked about race and punk rock so many times during the years, he's become numb to it. Despite that, he still sees racism in the music business, and in the ways people perceive the blending of different cultures as a problem. "I haven't really seen a big change as far as the stereotype that punk rock is usually white. That's what you always hear," he says. "But if you go searching deep, you'll find every kind of culture and color of people play the same shit too." Moore agrees that the media play a big role in the way this issue is filtered, but through negligence to expose the variety and depth of music being made. "You know the media, and the people who run the media, they are the ones who are responsible for what the majority of the world gets to see or think what's popular, or what kind of person of color does this or what kind of person of color does that." He says that some people don't even know that the phenomenon of racism in music still exists. "They're like, 'Oh, nobody does that shit anymore.' That's almost like saying nobody ever drives down the street and calls people 'nigger' anymore. You wouldn't think that shit still happens in America, but it still does. It's a trip."


Angelo Moore of Fishbone

It's racism in music that served as the catalyst for things like Afro-Punk, a movement of African-American punk bands and fans based around a yearly festival and an online community that sprung from a 2003 film of the same name. Moore appeared in the film and says it should come as no surprise that black people are going to play punk music. "People are gonna play different music from different races of people. They're gonna do that." But Afro-Punk came about because of that racist assumption. "[It's] because of white society saying, 'This rock music is ours, not theirs.' Then black people had to say, 'Hold on, man. We like to play it, too. By the way, we created rock 'n' roll anyway, so who the fuck are you to steal our music?'"

The Black Rock Coalition, a group founded in the '80s by musicians like Vernon Reid of Living Colour, aims to break free from the genre-specific molds the music industry shuffles musicians into. "The Black Rock Coalition came into existence to let people know that there are black people who play rock and there are black punks, just like Asians and Latinos and everything else," says Moore. "It's an exposure thing." Let's Get It's Gilford says that although things have gotten better, there's still a way to go. "We've definitely made major strides over the years especially in the music industry,' says Gilford. "However, just like in all of society, there are still struggles and battles to be won. A lot of the problems relating to race are ones that are a bit more 'low key.' Rather than focusing on etiquette and how a tolerant person should behave, we now have the problem of changing the way people think as far as stigmas and stereotypes are concerned."


P.O.S.

Stereotypes and the assumption of cultural signifiers is one of the problems that P.O.S. points to from his time on the Warped Tour and touring with rock acts as being particularly problematic in musical race relations. "I definitely have seen racism in the punk and hardcore scenes. Actually, a lot of people don't even realize that they're racist or saying racist stuff. They assume that the overall vibe of that [music], like unity and stuff, is ingrained in the culture of punk rock. They don't think about it. With the younger generations of hardcore kids--or whatever the [scene] is now where the kids have the keyboards--there's so much, like, wearing a bandana forward or wearing your pants low or cocking your hat to the side; things that are co-opted from black culture, fashion-wise. Catchphrases get picked up and spread. Everyone has appropriated hip-hop slang, and everybody has taken pieces of hip-hop fashion, but when it gets down to Warped Tour kids, or any young kid who's a fan of music, I don't think they think where some of that stuff is coming from anymore." Being on the Warped Tour and walking around the corner to find a bunch of white guys dressed like hip-hop dudes makes for an awkward experience, he says. Everyone gets quiet "because they don't know if what they're actually doing is okay in practice." That's a recurring theme with P.O.S. "Different members of different bands throughout my career have asked me my thoughts on the co-opting thing, whether it's fashion, or adding hip-hop beats to breakdowns. It's fine, but a lot of people take on the things they like about black culture and leave the rest behind. They don't know where it comes from or why it's there; they just know that it looks cool or sounds cool." He says not all of that suggests that those who ask that type of question are outwardly racist because black culture has always been co-opted by the mainstream. "[Young people now] are as subconsciously racist as they always were, they just don't acknowledge it."

While it's slowly becoming less of an issue on the surface, he and many others believe the root problems are still there. "I still see a look in people's eyes, no matter how cool or comfortable they think they are with black people, if they don't know me or barely know me and I walk into a situation," says P.O.S. "People will mention racist jokes without realizing they're racist jokes. A lot of people are oblivious. It's the same as it was when they were growing up. They hear what they hear on the radio, but they don't know any black people to put that into context." It isn't supposed to be that way, says Fishbone's Moore. "Music is a catalyst to help break down racial barriers. Music is a catalyst that helps people free themselves from whatever troubles that bind them. With music, we sing against racism."

But it doesn't always work out like that. The arguably troubled origins of punk rock--one can make a convincing argument either way that the early days of punk were either the essence of racial harmony or the antithesis--plays into the ways these behaviors or assumptions have been filtered down through the generations. "I don't think the roots of punk are racist; I think America

Apparently it still is, otherwise we wouldn't even need to ask this question--seeing black people behave outside of the parameters of their culturally coded stereotypes is still news. It's the same thing within black culture as well, explains Moore, who says that black people are very conservative in their own expectations for what they should be playing as well. If it's not hip-hop or R&B or jazz, "anything outside of that would be a minority when it comes to black culture." Who could possibly care? Apparently a lot of people. "I don't think not giving a shit means there's no racism," says Caswell. "I think now instead of it being, "Oh, there's a black guy!" it's more like, "Oh. There's a black guy." Adds Moore: "When people discover something like this, they say, 'Wow, I didn't know this was there.' There's a lot of ignorance going on. By 'ignorant,' that means they didn't know. There are so many different colors on this earth, genres and cultures and races that play everything. One planet, one people. Idealistically that's the way it should be. I don't get caught up in the racist thing anymore because it's there; it's fucked up. I really hope it gets better. That's my idealism, I guess you'd call it."
singer Michael Jagmin who started a clothing line called is racist," says This Moment In Black History's Caswell. "Britain, too. In the early days we associate with punk in the U.K., that was a racist culture. There's gonna be a racist element in that. But at the same time, there's no punk rock without black culture and black people. It's not just because of where the music came from, but also because of key artists who were very aware of black culture and incorporated that into punk, or were just black and changed everything like Bad Brains. All those early people loved black artists and talked about black artists, and they were a big influence on how punk came to be. Yeah, there was ton of racism in early punk, but it was just because it was a racist culture."

Alternative Press

Yeasayer

Yeasayer
Odd Blood
Secretly Canadian
An unfamiliar listener coming in cold to Yeasayer’s second full-length album probably wouldn’t make it too much further than the opener, “The Children.’’ It’s a choppy, dirge-like downer, the soundtrack to a spooky submarine’s descent into the abyss in cinematic slow motion. But it would be a tragic mistake to abandon ship on this avant-pop Brooklyn trio just before the fun starts. First single “Ambling Alp’’ is an exuberant charge of bliss slowed down to a world-beat rhythm replete with echoing drum triggers, fluorescent synth-riffs, African percussion, and an uplifting lyric: “Stick up for yourself, son/ Never mind what anyone else done.’’ It’s good advice, even if the band doesn’t seem to have taken it; the record is rotten with referents, from kraut rock to ’80s shoulder-pad-and-hairspray pop. “Madder Red’’ is all stuttering reverb and otherworldly tribal gospel vocals pulled straight from the Peter Gabriel wheelhouse. “O.N.E.’’ shares a lyrical hook with the like-minded Peter Bjorn and John’s “It Don’t Move Me’’ but manages to one-up the quirky party-pop Swedes - and pretty much everything else coming out lately in terms of sheer fun.

Boston Globe

Friday, February 5, 2010

Barcode: W Hotel

Although it’s been up for a while now, it’s still a shock to come around the corner onto Stuart Street and be confronted with the gleaming glass high-rise of the W Boston. Whether you find the hotel’s looming presence to be a good thing probably depends on how fondly you remember the gritty old Theater District. And how many pairs of expensive shoes you own. Regardless, progress marches on.

The hotel’s two new entries into the bar and restaurant scene have had a transforming effect on the area as well. Foodies are already flocking to Market, and W Lounge has become a destination for the power-lounging set - socialites in training, fashionistas - and, of course, theatergoers.

It’s a pretty fancy operation. In fact the word operation is the first thing that came to mind when we stopped in. This is a serious endeavor they’ve got going on here, with serious-looking people wearing earpieces hustling around on serious-looking business. There are a lot of moving parts in a machine like this. And as you might expect, some of them work a little better than others.

The bar at Market is more an extension of the dining room. The lounge however, is the real scene. It’s like a sophisticated cocktail party thrown by your rich friend with an eclectic design fetish. The bar is small, but low-slung pod couches sprawl throughout the room. Long mesh curtains hanging from the ceiling separate each table into its own pseudo-VIP section. It engenders a sense of removal from the crowd, but not so much that you don’t still feel like you’re in the middle of a scene. A fire pit is a nice touch, and hints of other elements throughout - water fountains, a metal, ivy-like installation climbing the granite walls - help create the outside-comes-in motif they’re shooting for here.

In keeping with the feel of the room, the drinks offered are more of the nightclub-style fruity variety than the ubiquitous retro-craft cocktail sort. This won’t be the historical cocktail hero’s bar of choice, but they do make some surprising nods in that direction. “We believe everything old can be new again and that is why you see some classic drinks offered,’’ says Market GM Marcus Palmer. “We tried to hit a broad spectrum of flavors, mixed between the classics and our own specialty drinks so that there is something for everyone.’’

Market’s bar offers a larger selection of drinks, and you may be pleasantly surprised to find a Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No. 1, Cointreau, cucumber, mint, ginger ale, $12, pictured) amid various fruity cosmos and mojito variations. The Ginger Margarita (Sauza Hornitos Reposado tequila, ginger, lime, ginger salt, $12) is spicy, strong, and has plenty of heat, but it stays refreshing. It’s built from one of their house-made bar bases which can be ordered as non-alcoholic sodas like Cheery Yuzu, Passion Chili, Jasmine Lemon, or Fresh Ginger Ale ($4). The base is fresh pureed ginger, steeped for hours then mixed with lime juice and sugar.

The Whiskey Passion Fizz (Bulleit Bourbon, passion fruit, ginger ale, $10) also uses one of the sodas to work up a cocktail thick with fruit and a deceptive heat. It’s made with passion fruit juice, lime juice, sugar, and red Thai chilies. The chili component isn’t announced, so it took us a while to figure out why our cheeks were hot when we were drinking it. We thought it was the fireplace.

W Boston, 100 Stuart St. 617-261-8700. www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels

Boston Globe

Monday, February 1, 2010

Midlake


Indie Folk
Midlake The Courage of Others
Bella Union
ESSENTIAL “Bring Down’’

It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes it takes a musician from outside the time and place of a country’s folk music to get to the essence of what makes it true. When it doesn’t work, it’s dismissed as unearned appropriation, but when it does it can unveil nuances that the progenitors of a musical form might not have realized. Distance plus time equals perspective. Where listeners fall on the relative merits of Midlake’s latest time-traveling effort will probably depend upon how readily they take to the idea of a Texas indie band recording an album of acoustic, flute-heavy Brit-folk haunted by hundreds of years of British Isles pastoral tradition. It’s a shift of geographical focus for the band - its last album traded in an Americana vernacular - that will likely garner comparisons to ’60s-era Brit folkies like Fairport Convention and Pentangle. The latter once referred to its music as “13th-century rock and roll.’’ That’s an apt shorthand for the work here as well. Or, more contemporaneously, you could say fans of fellow retro beard-rockers Fleet Foxes will find much to appreciate here. Radiohead fans, likewise, will relish “Bring Down,’’ a virtual rewrite of “Exit Music.’’ Everyone else will simply think it’s pretty.

Boston Globe