Monday, December 27, 2010

The Ten Best Albums of 2010

Various Artists - "Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974" (Sublime Frequencies)

Life during wartime at its hippest.

The National - "High Violet" (4AD)

Interminably hyped, overblown, anticipated, and loathed by some, yet adored in this household. Moody, precise, and deftly crafted songs.

Bill Callahan - "Rough Travel for a Rare Thing" (Drag City)

As intimate, warm, and inviting as a live album can get. I was initially disappointed that none of the tracks from his superb 2009 offering (Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle) were included, until I learned it was recorded in 2007. Huh.

Beach House - "Teen Dream" (Sub Pop)

I liked the first two Beach House albums, but their soporific, opium-den vibe could make one a little sleeeeeepy. This album is imaginative, pretty, and lush all within a pop context. Good mid-morning breakfast music.

Midlake - "The Courage of Others" (Bella Union)

Although panned by some due to its overtly derivative take on seventies British folk (Pentangle, Fairport Convention, etc), this album grew and grew on me until I also sprouted roots and became a resident of the dark, gnarled woods and windswept moors it conjures.

Teenage Fanclub - "Shadows" (Merge)

The stereotype of embittered, cynical, middle-aged Scots is shattered by this album. These clever, catch-laden, ebullient songs glisten throughout. Use this album to defrost an icy windshield in the dead of winter.

Roky Erikson/Okkervil River - "True Love Cast Out All Evil"(Anti-)

The endlessly eccentric elder-statesman of pysch-rock hangs out with young, accomplished musicians and makes a startlingly brilliant album. Raucous and soaring at times, sparse and lugubrious in others, save this for a good bottle of whiskey.

Sleepy Sun - "Fever" (ATP)

Noisy, swirling, bubbling, hazy, cacophonous, and (sometimes) proggy. These guys/gals are based in San Francisco and make informed neo-pyschedelia that drifts into folk at the right time. You can read to this music; conversely, you can convulse and shake in rhythm to it.

Neil Young - "Le Noise" (Reprise)

Bad album cover, good songs. I heard some of these tracks in a live setting during the summer and was initially skeptical. After hearing the minimalist treatment that Daniel Lanois gave them in the studio, I am now a believer. Aurally austere, yet thematically wise and introspective, this album fits somewhere between the soundtrack he did for Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" and his early nineties return-to-form "Harvest Moon".

Phosphorescent - "Here's To Taking It Easy" (Dead Oceans)

Ambitious individuals beware... aptly-titled, this album won't increase worker productivity or efficiency. These are simple melodies to float to - listen to this poolside with a cold beer and a spliff. Country music for the rare optimist entrenched in the Van Zandt camp.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Neighborhood Celebrity

We headed downtown the other night to grab a few (too many) lagers with friends and  found ourselves in an atypical traffic jam.  We were surrounded not only by thousands of other bikes as usual, but bikes laden with children.  We had hit the after-school rush that usually occurs while we are working.  In Vietnam, the majority of families have one motorized vehicle and two children, clockwork.  It is not uncommon to see a family of four perched on their motorbike, the proverbial sardines. Generally, the youngest sits or stands between the arms of the driver, resembling a proud captain posted on the bow and gazing ahead to uncharted waters with a furrowed brow. The older child is then sandwiched between Dad and Mom.  It gets even more comical when you see mothers "carpooling" with an array of kids.  The most people I have seen on one bike here is six, but I'm sure some Vietnamese family out there has managed to cram more people on board.  As we slowly crawled our way downtown, we became a bit of a spectacle for the hordes around us.  Being a pseudo-celebrity can be slightly entertaining, but Vietnamese moms have a habit of forcing their progeny to turn around and gawk at us while they wildly point and produce Cheshire Cat smiles . They prod and poke while imploring the little ones to acknowledge these new, strange tall beings and  "Say hello!".  This situation can arise anywhere - the park, the market, in elevators.  Back in that traffic jam, we found ourselves the center of attention.  The cultural ambassador in me took control as I tore off my face mask to exchange smiles and reply to the children.  Although no handshakes were exchanged, I felt like a slimy politician greeting throngs of constituents during primary season.  I hope the kids don't have nightmares about the whole deal.  I did however manage to get the ultimate Christmas-in-Saigon picture out of the whole ordeal.  Behold...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Our favorite songs released in the past year are now posted to the right (in no particular order). Add your own lists to the comments section and we will think you are cool. Thanks.

Vung Tau: Part Deux

Our second day along the Southern coast commenced with huge bowls of Pho Bo to calm our uneasy heads before a journey up the coast to Long Hai.  Long Hai is one of the many coastal villages and beaches that are scattered along the mostly undeveloped coastline.  We had heard that the water was cleaner and the view from the winding sea road was worth the trip alone.
 Due to the heavy local production of dried squid in the area, this otherwise pristine tidal valley reeked of noxious fumes.  A definite contender for worst smell I've ever experienced.

  Arriving on the outskirts of the dusty seaside village mid-morning, Gavin and I enjoyed coffee and some adolescent squid grilled and stuffed with onions and local herbs.
This was our view while we were snacking:
We weren't really sure what to do once we reached Long Hai.  As we drove along the coast and stopped at multiple beaches, the water appeared unhealthy and the sea was clogged with fisherman laboring under a strong sun.  Not wanting to get entangled in any nets and served up for dinner, we decided to hit up some of the local resorts.  We stopped by a few to have a look around, but ultimately settled on the Long Hai Beach Resort and Spa to spend our day.  Tucked between heavily forested hills, the great green sea, and tall dunes, the resort was the perfect setting for a day of post-celebratory relaxation.  For a small fee, we were allowed access to their monstrous pool, on-site restaurant, grounds, and secluded beach.
Inexplicably, we were the only people there with the exception of staff.  On weekdays, the area is a ghost town.  It wasn't only in Long Hai either, the entire stretch of coast seemed to be created solely for us. We were kept company by the detritus lining the beaches and the irregular fisherman shuffling down the sandy expanse.  The only other visitor to the nearby bay, an iridescent sea snake (pictured below), was unfortunately dead upon arrival.  So, in true neo-Colonial fashion, we spent this blissful, sun-scorched afternoon lazing at the swim-up bar, snacking on seafood, blaring the Ipod (Galaxie 500 made for quintessential sun-bleached sounds), and exploring the beach.

The aforementioned lunch - including scallops, spinach and grilled white fish.  Again, I wasn't so impressed with the fish, but the scallops sauteed in garlic butter melted in my mouth.  This was actually my first time trying scallops.  I definitely plan to add them to my growing repertoire of seafood.
After hours of lounging, eating, burning, reading... it was time to leave the life of luxury and head back to Vung Tau and our more modest accommodation.
We caught another breathtaking sunset on the way home.
For our last big feast in Vung Tau, we thought we would check out a seafood joint some of the locals had raved about the night before.  Ganh Hau is a little classier place than the sidewalk bar we previously patronized.  They actually had a menu with fairly true English translations and white table cloths to boot.  They appeared to cater to the oil-rich Russians and Scots that live in the area due to the extensive vodka and whiskey lists.  Gavin and I had the meal to end all meals at Ganh Hau.  We started with three enormous raw oysters and continued on to a whole crab, grilled cuttlefish, veggie spring rolls and sauteed morning glory. (The atmospheric lighting in the place made for strange photos.)
We ate until we could hardly breathe then headed back to our hotel to get a good nights sleep. 
Unfortunately, our holiday came to an end Friday afternoon, but we did manage to fit in one last swim and I got a festive holiday pedicure at another local resort...bright, sparkly red! By four, we were back in the hustle and bustle of Saigon, pushing our way though avenues choked with motorbikes.  It's comforting to know that a decent beach fix is only an hour and a half away.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Vung Tau: Part One

At Gavin's request, we took a little holiday to the beach for his 26th birthday.  We decided on Vung Tau, a small, oil-rich seaside town an hour and a half away from Saigon by hydrofoil.  Although we had heard many negative things about the quality of the beaches and cleanliness of the water we decided to check it out for ourselves.
 After a pleasant trip on the slim boat, we arrived at our destination.  Subsequently, we hired a bike for the duration of our stay ( newer model of our Saigon steed), checked into our bare-bones hotel, and headed out for the first of many epic seafood meals. 
 We split a fired tofu dish for an appetizer and feasted on a whole crab and a massive pile of shrimp for our main course.  Fun with crustaceans ensued...
 And, of course, we had a few celebratory Saigons!
 After lunch, we decided it was high time to take a dip.  With the South China Sea a stone's throw from the restaurant, we tumbled down the forgiving hillside and dove straight in. Although the sea water is normally thick with garbage and the beaches littered with trash, the winds were to our favor and some of the locals told us the water was looking much better than normal.
Once we had dried off and sobered up, we took a drive around the town and beach front.  There sure was a lot to see!  Some of the highlights included a massive stone Jesus Christ that is perched atop the "Small Mountain".  (The Vietnamese are akin to the Turks in that their naming of geographical features is extremely literal.) God's son is 32 meters high, 6 meters taller than the giant J.C. that looms over Rio.  He sees all.
I also liked the massive Mary.
And the Buddhist temple was rad as well.  I loved all the birds.  The man watching over the temple told me with a series of hand gestures that they later release the birds.  Not really sure when or why, but it seemed pretty neat.
All the fishing boats were also amazing to have a look at.
 My ever-patient driver waiting for me after hopping off the bike a million times to take pictures!
Since it was Gavin's special day and all, we decided to treat ourselves to a spa treatment at one of the local resorts.  We opted for a steam room and sauna excursion followed by hour-long massages.  It felt so nice to be pampered!  We finished up just in time to catch the sunset.
We finally headed to a sidewalk seafood stall recommended to us for dinner.

 We had our pick of several different types of fresh seafood, plucked from the depths just hours before.

 After choosing a healthy octopus and a plump mackerel, the chef prepared our feast on her makeshift barbecue.
The grilled octopus was braised with a spicy, chili sauce and was tender perfection epitomized.  On the other salty hand, we weren't so keen on the fish, mostly because they neglect to gut it before they cook or serve it, leaving the customer to pick his way through dark flesh and mushy bowels.
We also munched on quantities of unpictured quail eggs, steamed peanuts, and shrimp spring rolls bought from the local street vendors.  Gavin's birthday celebration continued after dinner, as we bar hopped, shot billiards, and rubbed elbows with the locals. (Vietnamese and local ex-pats as well as a few travelers with their working girl partners.)  Our night ended around midnight where it began at the beach side restaurant for a late night dip in the warm seas and some dried squid.  Gavin drunkenly claimed it was his best birthday ever right around this time.