Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What We're Listening To: Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes
Helplessness Blues
Sub Pop Records 2011

Winter 2008. Seattle, Washington.  I am curled into an off-white, overused blanket on a slumped piece of Ikea flotsam in a dismal, corporately-provided studio apartment in struggling-to-gentrify Belltown.  A brief glance towards the calendar haplessly tacked to the paper-thin wall provides me with ephemeral relief. It's a Saturday, which at this point in my timorous existence signifies a day removed from the banality of Microsoft Office.  A recklessly brash wind is rolling off of the Sound, shaking the panes of my sliding door, and I feel slightly prepared for the day... I had recently met a fine girl, maybe we would rendezvous for lunch or something.

As was my morning ritual at the time, I scraped the obstinate sleep from my overwrought eyes, muscled up some instant coffee, and cracked open that week's well-worn copy of The Stranger.  Somewhere nestled amongst the words and pictures and erotic services' advertisements was a blurb about a local band with a penchant for vocal harmonies, woodsy imagery, and antiquated instrumentation.

I read with benign interest about these Fleet Foxes, purchased their second EP some months later, went to a few shows, and have since followed their rise to the ranks of indie royalty.  Nellie and I have always felt a bit proprietary about their music, as if their meteoric ascent in the music world has mirrored our own tiny successes in life.


Fleet Foxes' distinctive brand of timeless, baroque chamber-folk has never failed to conjure up snapshots of overgrown, rural landscapes dotted with groves of fruit trees and cottages seeping into the flora.  With Helplessness Blues, songwriter Robin Pecknold's lyrical density has evolved into an entirely new beast, giving the lush and evocative portraits we have come to expect from these guys a new, wistful dimension of personal existential confusion.

The plangent opening lines from "Montezuma", placed over a tactful arpeggio, quickly set the tone for the entire album:
"So now I am older, than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me?" 
Here we have a young man maturing in the Great Age of Expectations, coming to terms with one's place in a fickle era smothered in digitized information, obsessed with success, and faltering in its unending quest for perfection.

The eponymous single "Helplessness Blues", a standout from the middle of the album, further develops the idea of the individual vs. the collective.  With a pensive Pecknold questioning the sociologically-dictated need to distinguish oneself from the pack, rather than fall seamlessly into a carefree existence based on anonymity. On a cursory first listen, it may be discounted as a Marxist ode best hummed on a permaculture commune ("If I had an orchard, I'd work 'till I was sore"); conversely, I read it as a response to the band's success and the struggles that accompany being an instantly recognizable face.

"The Shrine/An Argument" currently represents the musical apotheosis of the album for me. The abrupt switch from medieval harps tickling the surface of a hazy, pollen-choked afternoon to the pulsing, relentless onward momentum of "An Argument" is stirring. A great ride for its entirety, the song even culminates in a Beefheart moment -  squealing atonal horns and a somewhat organized cacophony closing out what may be the weirdest addition to their song catalog.  Stick around for the eight minutes and ye shall be rewarded fair listener.

Placed after the sparse, wistfully pretty "Blue-Spotted Tail" (a standout penultimate track that poses a line of metaphysical queries), "Grown Ocean" is a proper encore for the album. Akin to a Fleet Foxes' Greatest Hits album condensed into a single song, we get an inexorably-pounding, pseudo-tribal kick-drum beat, angelic harmonies, and abounding pastoral references to please the inner-Yeats in all of us.  A good send-off for a thoughtfully constructed album.

Monday, May 30, 2011

In My Free Time: Making Music

Gavin's song repertoire has grown ten-fold since we have been here.  Often I will find him hunkered over a scrap of paper in the living room, writing down music and lyrics and pensively tinkering with his guitar or the strange Vietnamese xylophone (Dan T'rung).  More an outlet for random thoughts than an actual undertaking, he has been churning out bedroom pop songs at an alarming rate.  Many of his pals in the community are musicians and when he started jamming with a few friends, pretty soon a few gig offers came in.  Alas, Gavin turned down them down one by one as he realized that his stage fright could easily be the premature end of his career.

When an offer came in from Snap Cafe, a family-friendly atmospheric wonderland, bar, and restaurant set deep amongst the suburban palaces of District 2, we just couldn't resist.  Gavin said he would play based on the fact that if he made a complete fool of himself it was a-ok, as we don't know anyone that lives in that part of town.  He played a three-hour marathon acoustic set comprised of covers and originals with two semi-accomplished musicians and friends: the unparalleled, spasmodic troubadour extraordinaire Alec and Merv the Low End Critic.

Although the trio of string-strummers never really had time to practice together before the show, they had clearly spent enough time together talking about music to sound proficient.  Despite a slew of broken strings and some cacophonous moments, it worked out well. The long, beer-soaked affair finished up with a jam session as several other musicians that showed up to hear them joined the fray, including two tenor saxophones players and some other guitarists.

Apparently they were good enough to be invited back for the next Saturday.  When we arrived, the restaurant was flooded with tiny monsters; so the guys, this time joined  by Andy on a snare drum, played many a children's song to keep the masses dancing.  If you would like to see the epic crowd reaction to "Saigon Weasel Goes Pop" , check out the shaky video HERE.

After the children dispersed, they kept playing and playing and playing... actually they still might be playing.  As long as people enjoy fractured popular hits and off-kilter folk, who knows what's next for this rockin' trio.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Black Bean Burgers

As I have recently been delving into a predominantly vegetable and fruit-based diet, I have have had plenty of time to research, cook, and re-invent some of my favorite meals.  One of which is the classic veggie burger.  Rather than choking down a dessicated, relatively expensive, store-bought, freezer-aisle special, try these tasty, homemade black bean burgers! They are naturally constructed, moist, friendly, flavorful, filling and easy to make.  (The following recipe makes four large, dinner-sized patties.)

Drain and bathe a can of whole black beans.

Mash virtuously with a fork in a large bowl.  Add a pinch of salt and seasoning.  I usually go for cumin and paprika, but curry powder is tasty as well.  You can also add a tablespoon of whole wheat flour if you are worried about the burgers falling apart and would like to employ a trustworthy binding agent.

Add two or three minced garlic cloves, a cup of drained corn, and some finely-chopped green or red peppers.  I generally cook sans onion, but feel free to substitute a half cup of chopped onions for the corn.

Mix together and chaperone.  Once the ingredients have combined forces, form them into aesthetically-pleasing patties.

Heat a pan with a bit of olive oil and drop in your newborn burgers.  Cook them for several minutes on each side or until brown.  Top with cheese if desired.

Serve on a toasted bun or some grainy whole-wheat bread with mayo, ketchup, and mustard to flavor.  Pile on ostentatious toppings such as tomatoes, fresh field greens, and delicate slices of avocado.  Serve with a pile of taro or potato chips on the side.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011



When looking for tasty, consistent, no-frills Indian, Punjabi is waiting just a short bike ride away in the great, windswept land of human detritus - the Pham Ngu Lao.  Punjabi is located at 40/4 Bui Vien in a well-worn alley dotted with budget hotels, cafes, and blackmarket-book sellers .  Although the dishes lack some of the fire that northern Indian cuisine is often synonymous with, this modest locale is reasonably priced, decidedly simple, and repeatedly fulfilling.

Although Gavin and I usually go there for an expeditious lunch while running errands in the area, a couple of sturdy, wooden tables open up in front of the restaurant at night, providing excellent people watching opportunities.  There is no better soup for the jaded soul than gawking at frazzled backpackers adjusting poorly to the frenetic Saigon streets.

Our recommendations?  Start with the capable vegetable samosas and some crispy papadums dipped in chili sauce.  For your main feed, share a few dishes at the table and rejoice in lively conversation.  Our favorite dishes are standard Indian fare - butter chicken, verdant palak paneer, hearty dal fry, and creamy malai kofta.  To accompany the rich sauces, order freshly-baked nan bread (plain or garlic) or go for my personal favorite, whole-wheat Tandorri roti.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shonen Knife

This should make you smile...  a music video that is unequivocally cute and a (not so) biting indictment aimed at the music industry and its skewed idea of success.  Woodland creatures, nausea-inducing graphics, and long-standing Japanese punksters hammering out three chords coalesce into four-minutes of bliss. 

Thanks to Merv Espina for sharing this during his fuzzy convalescence.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Tribute to Poppers

66 years ago today, Betty and Bob Entrikin welcomed their first and only child into this world: David Leighton Entrikin.  Poppers, as I would learn to know him by 40 years later, spent his life doing extraordinary things: joining the Peace Corps during the organizations' halcyon days, traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe, battling illiteracy within the adult population of Washington D.C., running marathons during spare moments, and working tirelessly within the social services communtiy in Seattle during the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies.  Over the past four decades, Poppers has lived in India, Afghanistan, Scotland and numerous cities in America.

He eventually settled down in Seattle with his wife, my mother Carol.  Amongst the ferns and coffee shops, they ran a used and antique furniture business that progressively blossomed into Ballard Bookcase Company.  In Popper's later years he pictured (sic) up a new hobby - photography.  What began as a photographic dialogue between man and rust with a rudimentary point-and-shoot Kodak digital camera quickly morphed into a passion.  Poppers started waking up before the rising sun to photograph graffiti around town before it was blotched out by the mayor's minions and their primitive tools. 

With nearly 2,000 people sleeping on the streets of downtown Seattle at that time, his focus soon shifted to the homeless, a largely ignored-by-the-public and incessantly-harassed-by-the-police demographic. Poppers is the Cal Ripken of urban, neo-realist photography - while spending every Sunday morning for the past five years roaming through dingy city streets, he has amassed thousands of inimitable photos, videos, and interviews.

In the fall of 2008,  that collection was painstakingly organized and displayed to the public in a tear-rendering exhibit, "Outsiders".  His photos have been displayed throughout Seattle since and were predominantly used in a recent documentary for DESC, a non-profit organization that helps attain housing for chronically homeless people.

DESC in 3D: A Documentary from DESC on Vimeo.

Happy Birthday Poppers... we love you.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Central Highlands of Vietnam: Out and About

While staying at Lak Lake, we pushed against sounder judgement (R&R is overrated) and hopped back on the bike for a cruise around the surrounding area.

After a quick bowl of steaming morning pho amongst a thick cloud of flies, we headed to Emperor Bao Dai's former lakeside villa.  The last puppet had a penchant for hunting and as the highlands around the lake were once populated by tigers, elephants, and wild gaur, he built a large house on a modest hill near the shore.  The droning of cicadas at the top of this hill was aurally overwhelming and we quickly took refuge in the cafe of the villa (which has since been turned into a drab hotel).

While talking to the friendly woman working there and reading an even friendlier article plastered on the wall, we discovered there was quite a lot to see in the area.

Before we got back on the road, we dropped by the local Lien Son Market to stock up on fruit for the days' sojourn.  Per norm, we were instantly heralded by the masses and quickly morphed into local celebrities.

We even had a ragtag band of small children following us Pied Piper-style for a bit.

We drifted past gargantuan squashes, ruby-red tomatoes, and local fish and squid pulled from the murky depths; but ended up only picking up a few mangoes, a robust dragonfruit, and a knife for roadside slicing.

After getting our grubby paws on a local map, we bid adieu to the sun-baked market and set out for a small lake set in the hills southwest of Ho Lak.

Besides meager government subsidies and a slowly burgeoning tourist scene, there isn't much dong pouring into this part of the country.  Coffee and rubber plantations provide income for some families, but most of the folks in the region cultivate rice.  The cloth sheets lining the roadways are used by farmers for drying their bounty in the muscular mid-day sun.

Dodging sun-crisped farmers sifting through raw rice on the roadway, the otherwise laconic 15km journey down the winding back-country road came to an abrupt end at the base of a mid-sized hill with a crumbling stone staircase.  Here a gaunt cow herder motioned for us to park on the side of the road, leave our bike in his avuncular care, and ascend the slope.

We marched upwards in the blistering heat and upon reaching the top discovered a lost world.  Set into a haze-encrusted crater and surrounded by alternating swathes of thick forests and burnt, desolate hillside was a seemingly prehistoric tear-drop of tepid water.  Unforgiving shale shores (we couldn't even find a lakeside seat) and a few fisherman lazily drifting across the surface in ancient long boats added to the otherworldly character.  A continuous blasting like the sound of heavy artillery and ringlets of smoke rising from the undergrowth on a distant shore added to the unsettling character of this hidden reservoir.  Slash and burn...

Pictures from our aging camera do not bring proper justice to the scene.  Gazing at the lake and the surrounding hillsides we both couldn't help but drop a post-apocalyptic reference or two. 

With our reflections in the dingy water and faraway, faceless fishermen as our only company, the ominous stillness was overpowering.  It was as though the end of the world had come in one bright flash and this was all that remained.  We crouched down on the sharp, rocky shore near a lonely burnt stump, proceeded to take out our knife, and sliced into the moist, comforting flesh of our dragonfruit.

We returned to the bike, slightly surprised to see it was still there, and gave the weathered and nearly emaciated Drover some money and a few mangoes seeing as though he had watched over it in our absence.  He became so overjoyed at the gift he insisted I take a few pictures of him while he posed with several of his prized cows.  In this wild, wild country...

By this time the sky was starting to darken with the impending threat of rain and we noticed that the large cloths laden with drying rice were quickly disappearing and the workers tending them had banded together in an articulately coordinated team effort: sifting the rice using large woven baskets, then scooping and packing it into large plastic sacks, which were then either loaded into trucks or storage sheds strategically situated along the roadway.

As an afternoon downpour began, we took refuge at a local watering hole and were served a couple of warm beers by a darling 11 year-old girl before returning into town.

We passed through town proper and veered northwest to the edge of Lak Lake to visit Buôn Jun, an area of traditional long-houses and tourist trinkets where members of the M'Nong ethnicity dwell.  We were greeted at the entrance by some of their tamed wild elephants.  Although they offer rides on them for visitors, we decided to pass.

Slowly making our way down the single street of the village, passing endless rows of longhouses and their dour inhabitants, we came to the waters' edge.  Here, we decided to end our spirited day with a few cold beers on the concrete veranda of the villages' sole restaurant/beer hall/home of illicit karaoke to chat with some of the local teenage girls and survey the lake.

We watched a family of pigs dutifully make their way along the shallows, pausing only to root around in the muck and to copiously relieve themselves.

Also, we witnessed a group of men hauling long planks of seemingly brand new wood from the depths of the lake.  Was it a collapsed attempt at a dock or a way of treating the wood before using it to build with?  Nevertheless, the village was pulsing with construction so who knows who long the M'Nong can preserve their atavistic integrity.

Finally, we called it a day and returned to the "resort" for a final feast before the long, painful trip back to Da Lat the next morning.  But we couldn't say goodbye with out one a final glimpse of the forlorn pachyderms and the tribesmen and women working together on yet another farming endeavor.