Monday, August 22, 2011

Art Project: Your Neighborhood

My 5-year-old students had a project this past week: to recreate their neighborhood with cut-out buildings, crayons, and glue.  Surprisingly, they took the task quite seriously and we spent three lessons diligently working on their creations and constructing them with focused glee.

When I whipped out the camera to take photos of their work, they were ecstatic to share what they had done.  They raced into a desultory queue and proudly posed with their masterpieces, their miniature chests swollen with pride.

A nice depiction of the traffic below, except motorbikes are conspicuously absent.

This is Ho Chi Minh City from the eyes of the wee ones.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Where Have We Been?

I'm sure our scant but loyal readers have noticed our recent absence from the blog.  Despite a tremendous drop in blog productivity, we are still here and alive and slightly productive in other ways.  The past month has been cluttered and frantic:  a visit from an old friend, an Istanbul-pals move to Vietnam, an exhausting social existence, and Gavin's taking on of a heavier class load (including some particularly lucrative corporate lessons with Japanese students).

The most drastic change for me has been getting a second job.  Regularity and routine has set in: I spend three hours every weekday morning teaching ESL to 3 and 5 year olds.  While I am still teaching a few adult classes and weekend children's classes at my old school, I am thrilled to be stepping into a new groove.  Old ruts create furrowed brows and it feels good to shake things up. It's always a pleasure to rise early and hang out with these little faces:

Many more posts to come on my sweet classes and all the ecstasy and agony of being a demi-god to thirty wonderful little souls.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What We're Listening To: Pure X

Pure X
[Acephale Records; 2011]

Although seemingly named after an over-the-counter aphrodisiac, Pure X (formerly Pure Ecstasy) has no intention of giving listeners a painfully overwrought tumescence in their unmentionables.  Instead, the Austin trio’s first full-length album “Pleasure” works as a stimulant to one’s melatonin receptors.  Common side-effects may include drowsiness, an inability to stay alert, and an all-encompassing sense of crepuscular tranquility.  You could call this somnambulant shoegaze or drone-pop; it is music made for nodding off and it is made well.

Nate Grace’s waves of reverb-drenched vocals (which range from a laconic, earnest croon to a Jonsi-esque, cetaceous falsetto) mingle with his languid, fuzzed-out guitar leads to create a distinctively rich atmosphere on the album.  The deceptively simple sonic landscapes formed are immense and desolate, yet simultaneously cloistered and claustrophobic.  

This may indeed be beach music, but from the opener “Heavy Air”, listeners are treated to the not-altogether-unnerving feeling that the shore in question is a forlorn strand of greasy sand adjacent to a dying inland sea.  At times, the music can feel overtly ominous – as if the land in question has no known boundaries, but is enclosed on all sides by unseen walls that vaguely threaten to collapse inwards.   Conversely, the layered sounds can also create an overriding sense of warmth – like a hypnogogic womb where the listener drifts on the cusp of consciousness in a bath of subtle light.

On “Dream Over” and continuing into “Twisted Mirror” (think Sweet Jane with an ample helping of the Field Mice), a simple back beat and warm, sticky bass lines tick on inexorably as molasses-seeped guitar leads drift into the thick air with the help of a bit of pedal wizardry (a hallmark of the album).  Hauntingly omnipotent vocals echo off the aforementioned walls and immerse one in a hazy, soporific dreamscape.   “There’s a mirror in your eyes and every time I look, all I see is me in disguise”.  Lyrically obtuse, Pure X ostensibly sings about relationships, but this may also be a reference to the pantheon of forbearers who have informed their swirling, narcotic sounds (Spacemen 3, Ride, and even Brian Eno’s minimalist textures come to mind).

Pure X - "Easy" from Malcolm Elijah on Vimeo.

“Easy”, the most decidedly upbeat song on the album, brings light to the ethereal gloom as a bubblegum-doo-wop melody rises through the murk and trails into a lilting harmony reminiscent of Galaxie 500.  However, the light-hearted moments are ephemeral here and the instrumental coda gives tidings of the twilight to come.  “Voices”, another standout track that was released on an earlier 7-inch, plays sonically like an Angelo Badalamenti score as the empathetic refrain serves up solace through shared experience.  “I know, I know, I know.  It seems like there’s no place left to go.  I know, I know, I know. Everywhere you look is dark. ” A Faustian deal gone awry or just another mind-numbing day at a shitty job?  As the album rarely flirts with absolutes, my guess is as good as yours; but fear not young acolytes, as Grace later assures us that “the walls aren’t caving in”.  (A seemingly spurious claim from a purveyor of such close-quartered music.)

While drug references and this band go hand-in-hand, Pure X doesn’t feel like reckless intoxication or dopey glee to me.   This is comedown music and “Surface”, an enchanting slow-burner with a playful beat, sums up the overarching vibe of the album - don’t expect to be singularly moved by the music, but it should entangle you amongst the detritus and flotsam flowing in its current and pull you along for the ride.

By the time the album starts wrapping up, the listener is mired knee-deep in its thick, washed-out brilliance.  “Stuck Living” reinforces the masterful restraint exhibited by Grace.  Self-indulgence is far from an issue as each understated note resonates and his plaintive voice hits eerie heights.   While “Dry Ice” may at times sound like Yim Yames fronting Isn’t Anything-era MBV, the end-result is strangely invigorating as guitar bends and squeals transition into the introspective instrumental “Pleasure”, where the listener is whisked back to the earlier scene of indolent waves lapping at a darkened coast.

The album could have naturally culminated here, but we are treated to an encore of sorts with “Half Here”.  Again invoking an early Sigur Rós, Grace’s whale-song permeates the air behind a drifting melody until a fierce cacophony impetuously rises into a maelstrom of sounds, quickly subsides, and then abruptly stops.  An aptly disconcerting and inchoate end to a terse and restrained album that won’t be remembered for its songcraft or sonic diversity, but for the stark, unique atmosphere it creates.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mandala Vegetarian Restaurant

Recently, we tried Mandala, a vegetarian restaurant located amongst the towering teak trees at 110 Suong Nguyet Anh in District 1.  We are always interested in trying vegetarian spots in town and were excited to try the Tibetan cuisine promised in an article by the all-knowing The Word Saigon.

While the menu was populated mainly by standard Vietnamese vegetarian fare with a few dishes from left-field, the decor was resoundingly Tibetan; complete with prayer wheels, tapestries on the walls, and an entire bookshelf dedicated to Tibetan literature and Buddhist pamphlets.

I checked out the modern, business-lunch-meets-monastery ambiance while we waited for our meals.

 First to come out was a tofu curry served with soft french bread.  A strange pairing and the curry proved to be quite insipid, but the delicate squares of tofu were good.

Soon after, Chinese broccoli, sauteed eggplant with peanuts, and an unusually massive bowl of white rice arrived.  The veggies were served Chinese style - drenched in sauce and were cooked to perfection.

We enjoyed our meal, but left with a devoutly ambivalent feeling.  Good place for an air-conditioned business lunch or when entertaining the elderly, but it kind of felt like we were cheating on our beloved com chay joints.  Recommended, but with a lukewarm push.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Under Construction...

We watched these men at work for quite sometime as they slaved under a cruel sun building a seawall amongst the tide pools and rocks jutting out into the Bien Dong Sea.

They carefully carried one stone out at a time, stacked them, then covered them with cement.

The cement was made with sea water, and the workers hands were washed after each stone was set into place in tide pools teaming with living creatures.

Unused cement dust from the bags was callously thrown over barnacle and mussel covered rocks. 

All in a day's work...