Friday, July 29, 2011

The Eternal Garden

Hello loyal blog followers! (Just imagine my voice sounding like Henry Rollins for that moment.) I just wanted to give you a sneak preview of my project on Gothic Lolita / EGL called "The Eternal Garden." I'm going to publicly announce it tomorrow, but here are a couple images from it as well as the full artist's statement.

"Lauran"
Shirt: Metamorphose, Pants: Innocent World, Shoes: Angelic Pretty,
Necklace: Vivienne Westwood. 

from The Eternal Garden
Arhival Inkjet Print

"Sewing Room"
Baby, the Stars Shine Bright
from The Eternal Garden
Archival Inkjet Print

"Venice Beach"
Left: Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, Right: Metamorphose

from The Eternal Garden
Arhival Inkjet Print 

"Jenny"
Skirt and Parasol: Metamorphose, Jacket: Maxicimam, Bow: Angelic Pretty
from The Eternal Garden
Arhival Inkjet Print


 Japonisme is a term that refers both to an assortment of antique objects made in Western Europe which emulate Japanese goods as well as more broadly to Europe's obsession with Japanese art, culture and aesthetics after the Black Fleet forcibly reopened the country to Western trade during the nineteenth century. From the Impressionists, to the cultural elite, to the artisans the popular imagination of the time was obsessed with imagining the East as an exotic and sensual escape.

Today we have the virtual “Vocaloid” Japanese pop star Miku selling out shows Los Angeles and anime as a major player in the entertainment world across the globe while numerous magazines, academic journals and touring museum shows are dedicated to Japanese-pop-influenced art. So too there are legions of Hello Kitty fanatics, a sudden growing market for vintage avant guard Japanese photography books and the towering art phenomenon that is Takashi Murakami and his "Superflat" circle. We are experiencing a new Japonisme era.

Built out of rephotographed collages of anime advertisements, fan-created porn comics (hentai doujinshi), Japanese photo history and the lingering rich and troubled history of Japanese immigrants in Los Angeles, my work tries to delve past the slick, cute, glossy advertised surfaces to examine the orientalist legacy and erotic inspiration which bubbles under the surface of this new-millennium Japonisme



Thursday, July 28, 2011

CSA Recipe: Spanish Hash


This is the best way to use leftover braised meats and the amazing produce from the Silverlake Farms CSA. Feel free to substitute and roasted chicken, braised short ribs or what-have-you — It will still be amazing! Here's the original pork recipe I posted that you can use for this.


Next Day Spanish-Influenced Braised Pork Hash
Serves 4

1 Red Bell Pepper, chopped
1 lb Chile Braised Pork, chopped
1.5 lb yukon gold potatoes, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1/4 c raisins
1/8 sliced almonds, chopped
1 tsp smoked paprika
3 tsp chopped cilantro
4 fresh eggs
2 tbs olive oil + more for drizzling
salt and pepper

1) Parboil potatoes in salted water (boil for 3-4 minutes). Drain.

2) Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat (maybe a touch higher than medium). Add onions and cook until translucent (4-5 minutes). Add potatoes and cook until browned, 5-6 minutes.

3) Add bell pepper, cook for 2 minutes.

4) Add pork, raisins and paprika. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until pork is lightly re-cooked. Add a decent amount of pepper, taste for salt.

5) While the hash is making, fry the eggs olive oil in another skillet. I'll recommend over-easy so you can stir the yolky-goodness together with the hash.

6) Stir cilantro in to hash, serve in wide bowls with a fried egg on top and a slice of crusty bread. Feel free to drizzle a touch of olive oil on each each.

I had this with a fantastic bottle of funky, rustic Crotatian wine called "R6" which was recommended to me by the staff at Buzz, a stellar new wine and beer shop open in downtown L.A. at the corner of 6th and Spring. Check them out!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

CSA Recipe: Braised Chile Pork and Kale Stir-Fry


The pork portion of recipe is very loosely interpreted from a Rick Bayless recipe via the Santa Fe cooking school cookbook, but is really a pretty standard recipe across cultures.

Chile braised pork over kale and corn
Serves 4, with leftover pork for hash the next day!

Making the braised pork:

3 lb pork shoulder, cut in to 3" chunks
2 kinds of dried chiles, seeds removed or chile powder*
1 onion, roughly chopped.
2 tbs vinegar
1 bay leaf
4 garlic cloves
1 tbs mixed mexican herbs, such as oregano, thyme and marjoram
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp salt
1 tbs canola oil

1) Soak the chiles for 30 minutes in hot water. Drain, reserving water. Chop the reconstituted chiles. Preheat over to 325 degrees.

*Note, let's be honest, who has 2 kinds of dried chile pods around? Well, I happened to. But normally I don't. However I do have at least 3 or 4 kinds of dried chile powders. For this recipe, you can use 1-2 tsp each of anything like smoked paprika, hot paprika, regular paprika, chipolte, new mexican chile, korean chile powder etc. DON'T USE CAYANE. You will just add heat and no flavor. Just skip the soak step if using powder, and add more water.

2) Add the chopped chiles and everything but the pork to a food processor. Blend into a paste, adding water if it is too stiff.

3) Heat the oil in a dutch oven add the chile paste and cook until browning/darkening for about 5 minutes over medium high heat. Taste and season with salt.

4) Add the pork shoulder, stir to cover with the paste and add a little water so that the pork is covered with enough water to braise. Cover the pan and pop in the oven for 2.5 to 3 hours. Spoon liquid all over pork throughout cooking. Remove from oven and let stand for about 20 minutes before eating over the kale mix!


Making the kale and bean veggies. 

1 bunch kale, stemmed and sliced 
1 onion chopped
3 ears of corn, kernels cut off
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pinch cumin
1 pinch red chile powder
salt and pepper to taste 
1 tbs olive oil

1) Heat olive oil over medium heat and saute onion and garlic until lightly browned (about 5-6 minutes).

2) Add Kale, and cook for 1-2 minutes.

3) Add corn and cook for 1-2 minutes.

4) Add black beans, red chile, cumin, salt and pepper to taste., mix and heat the beans for about 1 minute. 

5) Serve in bowls with the braised pork on top. Make sure to have plenty of nice rustic, slightly fruity, slightly earthy red wine from Spain or South America handy.

Note: Save about 1 lb of the pork for making the next recipe I'll post, which in my opinion is even more tasty than this!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

CSA Recipe: Green Bean & Gorgonzola Bake




After a bit of an audio hiatus, I've got three new recipes developed from my CSA bounty to share this week! 


Green Bean & Gorgonzola Bake
Serves 4 with a side salad


1/2 lb green beans, trimmed, cut in to 2" chunks
1/8 c mild blue cheese like gorgonzola
1 tsp lemon juice
3 slices of french bread cut in to 1" chunks
1 small or 1/2 large chopped sweet onion, chopped
1 tsp olive oil
1/8 c cream
8 eggs
1/8 c pine nuts
2 tsp chopped fresh herbs
salt and pepper to taste


1) Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil (about 1 tsp salt in the water). Preheat oven to 350.

2) Boil green beans for 1-2 minutes, until just tender but still bright green. 

3) Saute sweet onion for 7-8 minutes over medium low heat in the olive oil, until soft and lightly browned. Season lightly with salt and pepper. 

4) Lightly taost pine nuts in a dry skillet for a minute or two.

5) Beat cream, eggs, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add half of the pine nuts, the lemon juice and all of the fresh herbs.

6) Lightly oil a medium baking dish, round or square. Place the bread chunks in the bottom and the onions on top of the bread. Put the green beans on the onions.

7) Pour egg mixture over the bread, onions and eggs. Sprinkle the remaining pine nuts over. Crumble the gorgonzola on top. 

8) Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the eggs are set the the top is lightly brown.

Slice and serve with a crisp, simple salad. You can drizzle with a tiny amount of aged Balsamic for an extra flavor burst!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Audio Guide Part 3 - Speakers!

Your music will sound this posh.

If you missed them, check out Part 1("An Introduction") and Part 2 ("Amplifiers").


Now that you have an amp, you need speakers! I'm going to give you 3.1 (ha! some audio humor there!) speaker options. All of the speakers we're looking at are what are called "bookshelf" speakers which despite there name, should never be put in a bookshelf. All the monicker means is that they are somewhat small and don't sit on the floor (called "floor standing" cleverly enough). 


Speaker Option 1 - "The Honda Civic" (around $350 for speakers):


In this setup you use two bookshelf speakers with your amp.

In my mind, it's hard to beat the Axiom Audio M3v3's

These are the third incarnation of a much-beloved bookshelf speaker. I own a set of the V2's and have to say they are beautiful sounding. For small speakers they really have a ton of presence a volume. They display a wonderful soundstage, filling the room with very clear, minute renderings of the music. You can hear the feedback from the pick touching the string, the intake of the singer's breath right before the snarl. 

This speaker priced simply at $348.00 for the pair, no shipping, no tax, is a steal. Besides having serious audio cred (read some of those reviews), and not paying a middleman, Axiom is one of the friendliest companies I've ever worked with. One of my speakers got damaged and they had a new diver shipped out to me at a very reasonable price in no time! 

(If you have to be a non-conformist and go with another speaker, though I haven't owned them, I have found that people like in the $300 range is the Wharfedale Diamond 10.1, which has a mature, if not totally exciting sound. The same reviews are often be said of the Mordaunt-Short Aviano 1 and the Polk Audio RTI A1.) 


Speaker Option .1 - "The Doom-bringer!": 

For this setup we're looking for speakers around $350 and a sub for around $300.

Basically, what a subwoofer does is add more bass range to your stereo. It extends the ability of the speaker system to render tones downward, like adding a bass section to a choir made only of tenors, altos and sapranos. Most bookshelf speakers, like the kind we're looking at, are just like that choir without a bass section. Electronic, metal, hip hop, and even most rock benefits from a fuller bass range the most, especially since most of the speakers in part one aren't able to reach anywhere near the lower limits of human hearing. 

To start, you'll pick a pair of speakers from Speaker Option One section. Let's assume you get the recommended Axiom's. 

Now if you want to hear and feel every sludgy rumble of that copy of "Dopethrone" by Electric Wizard (http://newmusicexcess.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/terrorizer-critics-albums-of-the-decade/) leap to your ears and touch your bones, you add in a subwoofer. 

Poking around many forums and review sites I found it can be a bit tricky to find a good sub for listening to music, seeing that most discussions focus on home theater, which is mostly raw boom and blast. We need something more nimble and musical. Something that will make an upright bass seem to be sharing our living room. And in our apartment-sized case, something that won't convince the downstairs neighbors that Jesus has descended in the midst of the whole seven-fold heavenly host to split the earth asunder every time you are dancing around in your boxers with a mop when the girlfriend is at work. 

From everything that I researched, the Hsu Research STF-1 (http://www.hsuresearch.com/products/stf-1.html) fits that bill perfectly. And at $299 direct from Hsu, this is a killer deal on a sub that will outperform anything near double it's price at a Best Buy or Magnolia, at least from when I was listening to them to pick mine out. 

The subs we are talking about are called "Self Powered" - which means they have their own amp. You just hook them up to the Sub Out on the amp with a long RCA cable and you're set. 

Also note, while this is only a 150 watt sub, holy hell this is loud. It will easily shake my concrete floors and annoy my neighbors if turned way up. However, it is really naturally integrated even on the most subtle jazz if its set up correctly (I had a listening party when I got my copy of the Vandermark 5's "Four Sides to the Story" and it sounded totally natural), which we'll cover later in the setup sections. 

Option 2 is the option I run *exactly* at home and I am in love with my albums, from jazz to metal to electronic to folk, all over again. 


Speaker Option 2 - "The Ritz": 

If you have some extra money and really listen intently to vocals, singer-songwriter, classic pop, jazz or classical, you can take a more classic audiophile approach (i.e. no subwoofer) and step up your main speakers and get extra precision and clarity which will make you giggle with glee.

So for this setup, we're looking at the same price point as "The Doombringer" but we are looking for a great pair of speakers at around $500-600 (with no sub). The trick is, at this range, matching speakers and amps becomes a much more important deal. Some speakers in this range get picky about their amp preference owing to the individual design tastes of the producers become more pronounced at the upper echelons of audio gear. Frankly, if this is your first system, I'd recommend just going with the basic (Yamaha + Axioms) and then you can step up later if you really love it.  

A couple options in this range:

Price to performance, I like the KEF's Q300's. They usually gets mentioned very positively in comparison to the B&W's and have very high reviews. They are a bit on the "thin" side which means a warmer, fuller amp like the Outlaw or even the NAD would be the best match. 

Bowers and Wilkins 685. These are just solid, all-around great speakers and around $700.  A perfect match for those of you starting out with serious tastes in jazz, classical and vocals. Very full range-speakers which should leave you happy without a sub. The only thing is these technically are a bit "dark", needing an amp that favors treble a bit. The Yamaha is a passable match, but the Cambridge is perfect. 

A bit of cheaper option, that has been called the "Honda Accord of speakers," is the PSB Image B6 at $500. Most reviews point out they are clear and natural with a light touch. This would pair great with the Outlaw or the Yamaha. 

Another option is the M22v3 from the cool Canadian direct sale audio company, Axiom. These are very transparent but maybe not as refined as the other options, but a good deal at $488.00 shipped, and would pair with almost any amp we mentioned. 

As you can see, the budgets range quite drastically in this third section, and it gets progressively more complicated, so novices beware! Any of these speakers would be an okay match with the Yamaha. Any of these setups would happily take an addition of the Hsu subwoofer too if you just have to have the best!


Speaker Option 3 - "On the Cheap":

So let's say you have a small listen room and not much money. But $350 is so much for speakers you say! Well, I'll call you a wuss. Just kidding (no I'm not). To be totally honest $350 is about the cheapest speakers I could recommend that you'll be happy with going in to the future. Remember, this is an investment that will last you longer than just about anything else you'll buy! You'll go through a half donzen cell phones, 4 TVs and 2 or 4 cars before you have to replace this gear. 

Your best budget option is buying the Axiom M3's or such and skipping the sub. 

But I will say, I've heard (but not listened to them myself) good things about the Cambridge Audio S30 which are around $219. They won't sound nearly as full or dynamic as the Axioms but they'll pair well with the Yamaha amp and lower your total cost for your system by $150. 



Now you have an amp and speakers! We're getting close to listening - up next is a selection of input options to get your music to your system. 



Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to Find New Music Online



You know the old saying, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and feed him for life? Well, aside from the fact that a modern equivalent would probably have to include warnings about mercury poisoning and overfishing and such, my goal today is to explain how I find all the strange and intriguing music that I do AND to show you that it's actually not that hard. In fact, it's actually quite a bit of fun and refreshing if you've had a long day at work and like to play detective and cultural wanderer.  So grab a beer and let's get going.

First off, to use another hackneyed quote, in the realm of being able to find new music today is the best of times and the worst of times. With the internet it has never been easier to find, access and listen to music. But in turn we have never been swamped with such a deluge of crap. The task in trying to find new music isn't to find music, in fact you probably get spammed by crappy bands to check out their MySpace (lulz) page. The task is to sort through the massive pool of music and actually find things you want to listen to. 

So let's start with what you know - the music you already love! This is my #1 tool for finding new music. Pick three of your favorite albums right now. Aside from just plugging that in to Pandora and hoping in vain that it won't make you listen to Radiohead again, which it will, let's look that band up!

Let's start by me asking if you know what subgenre all three of those albums actually fall under? Not just "Rock" or "Pop" - the specific kind, since saying Radiohead is "rock" is like saying early Picasso is "painting" instead of "cubism." If you can pin down what it is you like, you will have a much clearer trailhead to start your search at!

The best way to do this is look up the band [in our case Radiohead] on www.allmusic.com - for instance, on the left side the Genre is "Pop/Rock" but the "Styles" (aka subgenres) have "Britpop," "Expirimental Rock" and "Indie Electronic" listed among others! Click one of those links. Let's say, "Indie Electronic," since that's really trendy at the moment. Now you go to a whole other page which has Related Styles, Album Highlights, Top Artists, and Top Albums which you can click each for more info! Oh snap, that's like 10 albums and 15 artists to check out right there and that's only one of the 6 sub genres/styles that we've briefly looked at!  

To jump away for a second, one way that I keep all my new music organized is that I have a giant-ass playlist in iTunes called "New Music" which serves as an Inbox for every new album I get. I add every new album directly to that list, and then eventually delete it out of that list once I've heard it a couple times and rated it. 

Returning to Allmusic, let's jump back to the Radiohead main page. Scroll down a tiny bit, and you have massive lists of "Similar Artists," "Influenced By" and "Followed" as well as "See Also" (a category for side projects or work they have done in collaboration with different bands.) Well shit, that's like another 30 or 40 bands to scout out that are directly related to the band that you like. 

Now, how will you tell if you actually will like that music? Delving a bit further, let's click one of those bands. You don't have a million years to listen to every album so read the bio quickly. In my case I clicked "The Flaming Lips" - their bio was a rambling mess. I could care less at the moment, so instead click "Discography" - amazingly, I've found Allmusic's assorted paid reviewers to be fairly straight ahead in their ratings and reviews. That is, while they probably don't agree with hardcore fans, they don't have much bias, so they recommend (a check mark represents a "pick") they are very stingy with 4 and 5 star reviews, so in this case, two albums are flagged - "Transmission from Satellite Heart" and "The Soft Bulletin". Additionally they mentioned in the bio that "Toshimi Battles the Pink Robots" was the album that catapulted them to bigger fame. Rad, that's two or three specific albums to check out. You should probably read the reviews, but hey, you don't have to - you could just let your ears do the judging!  

I don't know how you check out albums, but illegal download, iTunes, amazon, whatever… just grab and listen and repeat!

Speaking of Amazon, one other amazing trick is to search user lists in their "Listmania" section (http://www.amazon.com/gp/richpub/listmania/byauthor/A17WPVXRSJO6BK). Here is where users put together lists of things they like, and often if you search for a band or even genre/sub genre you can find a number of people who have already gone out and done research to find albums similar to the ones you are looking for! So I did a search for Sonic Youth, but it just turned up a bunch of fan lists of everything Sonic Youth has done. Not useful. So I did another search for a specific album: "Daydream Nation" and voila! 4 lists full of similar sounding/era/genre albums! The same happens if you search "Noise Rock". The goal is to find people/lists who already have and want to share similar artists to the ones you like! 

Notice how most of these searches end up relying on your own music? Well Pandora and Last.fm are both sites that are supposed to expose you to new music. They each act different, and neither really work very well. Pandora actively tries to outsmart you, to bait you, to dare you. It's basically doing that Allmusic crawl with a few additional criteria, actually, it's using the Allmusic data! But it also has many behind-the-scenes rules, such as paid record labels and songs (ever wonder why no matter what you pick sometimes you always get the same artist?) It's also trying out new, but often tangential genres and styles. It's like, well, this one artist you like uses hip hop beats, so for the next 45 minutes I'm going to play gangsta rap to see if you like or dislike it. Because it is actively trying to push around the edges of what it knows, you have to constantly be up and down voting. (And like a bonsai, one mistake and your station goes to hell - you like one Wilco song and your station turns into the Grand Ol' Oprea for the next week. Just note, if you go in to the preferences for each station, you can remove artists and songs you liked or added.)

Last.fm has the exact opposite problem for the most part. Because it uses literal connections and fan suggestions, it ONLY plays bands and songs almost exactly like the artist you entered. At least for me, when I'm hunting for new music, the last thing I need to hear is 25 bands doing what are basically covers of a song I like. Last.fm has much more underground music, but also more user-submitted crap. It's great to learn the rudiments of a genre though. For instance, I was digging on jazz musician Eric Dolphey super hard, so I ran a Last.fm on his name and damn, I found like 25 classic jazz players in a couple hours I wanted to check out more. 

Both Pandora and Last.fm also suffer from quick depletion - that is, they only have so many artists, so many songs. Especially if you're knowledgeable about music going in, you'll find that you'll get some good stuff for the first couple of weeks, but then very quickly you'll find less and less good new stuff being tossed your way.  

Where to then? Well, you go even further underground - the blogging community! Music blogging is easily one of the most active blogging scenes online. But also the most inscrutable. You can't just go to any random music blog and expect to enjoy what you find — hell, you'll probably end up with 55 trance mix albums and a couple of bad metalcore albums. Yet, the same principles apply as our searching in Allmusic and Amazon. If you run a search for an album you like and want to find more music similar too and "blogger" or "blogspot" or or "wordpress" or "review" you'll be looking at a number of reviews of albums you like. (Note: you can search using "blog" but that is fairly general and tends to turn up less useful links). For instance, I did a search for the massively cool post-rock band And So I Watch You From Afar + "blogspot" and on the first page got a review of their new album and a discography. http://www.thesirenssound.com/2009/02/14/and-so-i-watch-you-from-afar/

Now here's the trick - you want to find a blogger not who you agree with necessarily, but who you understand their review code. One blogger's "heavy as hell" is another blogger's "cheesy power metal" — one reviewer might only like retro-disco, and another might really hate indie-pop. It will take time, but poke around and try to find active blogs that post up reviews or download links that you'll have a good chance of liking! You don't need to like everything, you just need to have some clue if it's even worth your time! It might take a while, but poke around for a bit. You only need to add 4 or 5 solid music/album blogs to your reader to start finding new music without much work. Log in once or twice a week, skim the 10 or 15 reviews, grab what sounds interesting. If you find a great blog, make sure to go through it's archives too! 

Make sure you scope out the right (or left) columns that have their tags, and also a list of affiliated or recommended bloggers! (Often called "Blogroll").

Even wikipedia can be a great link-hopping exercise. I actually found out a lot of the American black metal scene there (great bands like Xasthur and Leviathan, as well as the classic album "Dead as Dreams" by Weakling were all wiki-finds). I also use The Metal Archives to find reviews on bands in the metal genre.


To get you started, here's a couple of my favorite music blogs!


Noizine - http://noiz.wordpress.com - Lots of crazy genre-crossing underground music. From ambient to pure noise to doom this blog is always posting gems that end up as fovorites, even if the music can be a bit challenging. 

Utvaer - http://utvaer.blogspot.com - An art & experimental music blog. Very intellectual and abstract. I can't say I always like what they post, but it's always interesting!

Cosmic Hearse - http://cosmichearse.blogspot.com - Head trip rock, heavy metal, occasional hard bop or blues albums, this blog is always fun to follow. 

Don't Count on It Reviews - http://dontcountonitreviews.blogspot.com/ - Mostly a metal blog with occasional deviations, this very active review site has some prog metal leanings, but also a really legible review system. Unlike Pitchfork, who's reviewers seem to strive to rave about music that would make their 35-year-old unemployed asses seem attractive to 20-year-old emo girls, these guys seem to like music. I don't agree with their reviews, but I find a couple good albums every time I poke around over here. Also great interviews.

Free Jazz - http://freejazz-stef.blogspot.com - This is THE free jazz and improvised music site on the internet. I get more amazing music from this site than almost any other. A 5-star review is rare and meaningful. Even 4-stars is likely to be a gem. Very knowledgable review staff who finds incredible rare contemporary albums and artists.

Free The Music - http://freethemusic-olatunji.blogspot.com/ - Weird, arty, pretentious, groovy music. 

Inconsistant Sol - http://inconstantsol.blogspot.com - Lots of incredibly rare jazz, funk and improvised music. I usually find this place and the next blog have the only reviews and postings of obscure albums that can fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay or Japanese record stores on the rare times they come into public sale. 

Orgy in Rhythm - http://orgyinrhythm.blogspot.com - tons of obscure and brillant avant and free jazz releases. So great solid bop and cool jazz too. 

Requiem of Madness - http://requiem-of-madness.blogspot.com - solid metal blog. 

Soundweave - http://soundweave.blogspot.com - a great mixed site with metal, funk, electronic and vintage music. Really worth it to go back through their archives! 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

100th Post Special! A Cocktail History of Los Angeles


Classic cocktails are all the rage with speakeasies garnering double-page spreads in main stream magazines, newspaper articles posting once-secret recipes with ingredients such as "lavender vanilla simple syrup" and long waits for a rare seat in the upper echelon gin joints. Now most decent restaurants pride themselves on having a cocktail menu! However, it is easy to forget how recent this accessibility and fervor has been. i.e. even though it is an institution, the Varnish only opened in 2009. Herein lies the short, wandering, and possibly informative tale of my personal cocktail history watching from the inside as the scene explodes in Los Angeles.



Prior to moving to Los Angeles (let's say about ten years ago) in the icy nights of the midwestern January winters I threw my first cocktail party. It was ostensibly in honor of an art show I had just finished. It was perhaps to hit on a gal or hook one of my perpetually single friends up with a gal. Either way, I thought it would be funny/classy (that luscious limbo of irony) to make martinis and cosmos the party theme. I wore a suit jacket and mixed the drinks based on a book I found at my parent's storage unit using Gallo vermouth or some-such drivel. They were terrible and I promptly forgot about it once someone brought a bottle of absinthe which we drank neat as we sat out on the snow-clad patio furniture and smoked and complained about art history. 

Jump forward five years and a couple of states and I managed to land a spot in a prestigious art graduate program in California. When moved to go to school I ended up moving in with my then-fashion designer girlfriend. She happened to live on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. The bars surrounding us, swarming around us in fact, were of a level of classy that I had never been privileged to partake of before. Trying desperately to maintain some semblance of cool I took to ordering dirty martinis. 

Though another part of my booze-fogged memory seems to claim that I took to ordering dirty martinis a couple years previous to impress another woman who was a film buff. I even had a preferred top-shelf vodka - Chopin (which, amidst all my cocktail faux pas I realize now to still be a quality vodka!) 

As I acted cool and pretended not to care to fit in at 2AM, increasingly I was exposed to the love of fine dining. I had never known foodies before. Taco Bell was a birthday dinner in my family. But in Los Angeles, food was coming to the fore - dining fine enough to far exceed my meager job as a darkroom Grad TA (which honestly would have been anything above al pastor street tacos if I had had my wits about me). But I was lucky to experience many classy places that started to prompt a love of cooking that, as you can see on this blog, has stuck with me to this day. 

One of those overly classy places that we started to frequent was Pacific Dining Car. A classic business and investment-set steakhouse  that was also the haunt of newly monied computer and entertainment folks. Though meals would exceed $75.00 for a salad and entree, the bar was open late and in true old-school Santa Monica fashion didn't discriminate against any old local in sandals and shorts that might just want to grab a beer and watch a Dodger's game.

Always being a whiskey fan, I had transition to Manhattans at some point around 2006 (bourbon, not rye, being the novice I was) and spent a decent amount of time listening to stories of Ireland from our favorite bartender Carl while sipping. One night we had a chance meeting with a couple, Brendon and Stephanie, who were in the their early 20's, loved fine dining and punk rock and had a taste for pretentious "old man" cocktails. 

Perhaps the best way express the attitude we were cultivating was that even to this day Stephanie describes Brendon and I as 70-year-old Italian men who happen to be in their 20's and live in L.A. Note: we might have been sitting on his balcony smoking cigars and taking about the finer points of grappa and socioeconomic theory when she made this comment. 

At this point in Los Angeles, there weren't many accessible options for what we now call "Classic" cocktails besides old steakhouses and upscale clubs. Anywhere that had any ingredients past the basic grocery store brands was considered exotic. Vermouth was still to be dreaded.

St. Germain was still a new product. In fact, a local bartender by the name of Josh resided at Renee's courtyard cafe (a sprawling divey place made from various rooms from various homes on Wilshire) had developed a penchant for classic cocktails and took to wearing vests and handlebar mustaches. If you could catch him on a slow night he might even have a bag of exotic ingredients like fennel fonds or absinthe rinses that he would pull from behind the sloping red shadows of the bar and experiment. It had never occurred to me that drinks were invented! Josh eventually went on to win second place in a St. Germain mixology contest, then grow disillusioned with his job bar tending in the Santa Monica salt-air nights and off and joined the Army without telling anyone. 

After Josh left our policy of only ordering cocktails at cocktail-specific places set in. A rule that is best expressed as "almost no one can fuck up a gin and tonic or a beer" and is still in effect to this day in that any bar gets one try at a cocktail and then becomes labeled as a "g&t joint" if they fail.

Air Conditioned Supper Club on Lincoln was probably the first "no sign, no web presence" venue we found. I can't even recall why I heard about it, but it might have been that I was invited in to photograph a TV pilot being filmed in the space. They made a decent manhattan and had swanky leather sofas and a dark, chill ambiance on weekdays. Honestly, there wasn't that much else to recommend it, but  it felt very different than the hyper-trendy clubs favored by the D-list actors and party kids where we had started drinking martinis.  

But the the most important place at the time for us was Bar Chloe on 2nd in Santa Monica, and only then for a couple of months. Bar Chloe was an very intimate space with victorian furniture, a dress code for it's bartenders and most importantly a drink list that specialized in classic cocktails such as Pimm's Cup or Vespers. Additionally they had brought two young men with experience mixing in the San Francisco scene (home to the influential Absinthe and Library, which we didn't even know about). 

Even if they sounded more like guys who might have spent more time trying to look handsomely disheveled, these two dudes knew the difference between a rye and bourbon, between quality of vermouths and how to serve a drink in the correct glass. The bar became a hot-spot for media production types, which kept us away except for late weekday nights and early afternoons, but it's Rococo chairs and solid old drinks lit a flame. 

Going back after even a few years of world-class drinks I feel the same embarsement that any band or writer might have on hearing their old demos. I can honestly say that they weren't even close to above average (and a few were quite bad) but they had a focus and a bar menu pulled from the past which was enough to fan the Vesper-fueled flames of cocktail lust.

This was just about the time that the food podcasts and blogs were bubbling with interest about cocktails — maybe 2006 or 2007. Maybe about the same time Brendon and Stephanie moved to Beverly Hills. About the same time that we discovered that Seven Grand's real gems weren't the whiskeys but instead their whiskey cocktails.  This is when David Wonderich's Imbibe was released and became the Rosetta stone to let us understand the mysteries of the cocktail throughout history.    

About the time that Comme Ca was discovered to have trained their first couple rounds of bartenders at Milk & Honey (a fabled place we had only heard about via the preposterously patronizing "Restaurant Guys" and the much more congenial guests of Evan Kleiman's "Good Food" program on KCRW) and even based our short lived cocktail club, called "The Society for the Appreciation of Ice", out of their dining room. 

By 2008 and 2009 we were making giant crystal bowls filled with Philadelphia Fish House Punch for 4th of July, traveling to the Violet Hour in Chicago and Jardiniere in San Francisco to taste their special winter drinks. Judging the Edison to fall short on almost every drink, and the Roger Room to be successful only in their Japanese Maple we had reached the level of true cocktail snob.

This was also the time when you could go the the Varnish on an average night, get a seat without waiting and char for half an hour with Eric about ingredients and techniques. The Varnish was the last great love of our sepia-toned cocktail romance. In comparison, only a very tiny amount of places could reach anywhere near the exalted heights we had found in even the simplest cocktails at the Varnish.  

(So too Brendon and I had found, after one drunken evening, that our love for Tiki Ti's only grew when we laughed our way through a night of ordering classic tiki drinks at the Varnish. It was like watching jazz musicians try to play rock. Embarrassingly refined. But damn I still can't match their cocktails nor can I do anything but thank Eric for introducing me to Picon Punch!)

But with prices starting to top $14 for a daiquiri and the economy imploding the novelty began wearing off. Anyway, it seemed to us that only a few bars were actually worth the steep prices (and by consensus that craft beer remained the best value on the dollar for epicurean drinks). 

Our drift away from the public houses and toward our own parlors was also partially due to our experiments in mixing out of our kitchens (in my case nearly two months of making Manhattans of every stripe and proportion). Once you can best all but the top ten or fifteen bars in the city at your drink of choice, and most of those bars require reservations farther in advance than Animal, it's only natural for people who pride themselves on acquiring knowledge and skill on a topic to hone their own work at the expense of socializing. 

To put it more simply, it's almost impossible to get in to the Varnish these days, but you can drive the 10 minutes to Silverlake and go to Bar Keeper and collect any odd ingredients you might want — As long as your ice is good, you're in business. And you can plop some Eric Dolphy vinyl on the record player rather than be forced to listen to that mediocre ragtime pianist. (Though I do heartily recommend 7 Grand's Monday night jazz session - it regularly features stellar players!) 

Even looking back on the dusty past, the shear creativity of Julian's Rivera cocktail list or a Disco Mariachi at Las Perlas remain transcendent to both novices and experts! Cocktails have their place outside of perfect craft as well — Sometimes I want nothing more than to sit on the patio at Pete's Cafe with a passable but unexceptional Manhattan and watch the city mull over itself in the summer midnight. 

Increasingly now we want to see a drink made with perfect measuring rather than showmanship. But that level of cocktail as performance more than taste - of having the right mustache and pocket watch over a refined palate - is new and with any hope will be fleeting. 

But this was a history that I was telling, and the next time your bro cousin is talking about a new place to get an old fashioned or the next time you order a food-paired lavender gimlet at a trendy snout-to-tail restaurant or get asked if you want Dolin or Antiqua vermouth in your Manhattan at the hotel bar, remember that only 5 or 6 years ago there were just a few dedicated wanderers searching to unearth slim, small treasures the unknown towers and ruins that was the great unknown history of the cocktail in Los Angeles.



Anyway, thanks for letting me take a break from posting recipes, art and audio equipment guides to rant about this.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Audio Guide Part 2

Replace wine with "stereo" and you'll
have the right idea.
If you missed Part 1, please feel free to start here.



Part 2 - Let's start with a plan!

This system guide is tailored for listening to amazing music in an apartment, not for massive multi-channel home theater surround sound madness. I might write a guide on doing home theater, but as I don't even have a TV at the moment, such a guide will have to wait. 

In audio terminology we're going to be building you a "2" or  "2.1"
 channel system. Which means two speakers sitting left and right ("2"), as well as possibly a subwoofer handling the bass (".1" in audio notation). That means we will need a pair of speakers and an amplifier to power them. Then we'll figure out what input options you need (turntable, iTunes, CDs) and other accessories like headphones. The way the guide is set up you can get the core components and then branch out getting more extra stuff as you have money. Basically, you can buy a pair of speakers and an amp and plug your iPod in and already be worlds ahead of any shitty dock or package system. 



First step. Das amplifier!


The first piece of gear we're going to talk about is the receiver/amplifier. The receiver, clever enough, is the the piece that you plug things in to like CD players, and receives the audio signal from them. The amplifier is the thing you plug the receiver in to that sends loud sound to the speakers. Technically these are two pieces, but all the models were going to be looking at come "integrated." (Fancy audio-speak for a box that has both a receiver and an amplifier in it). Other than the speakers, this is the most important piece of gear for how you setup sounds. If you amp sounds like crap, not even the best speakers will be able to do anything but project crappy sounding audio coming from your amp. 


Basically, I went on the search for an integrated amplifier for under $500 for this part of the guide. 
There is one amp that is the clear winner on the market right now. I'll include a few options in the apendix, but they aren't really better, just different (and mostly more expensive!)


Best Overall Choice: Yamaha A-S500 ($400)


So, going down through the options, my personal choice (and what I own and love) is the new Yamaha A-S500. (Note: there is an R-S500, which is no where near as good - do not confuse the two).Everyone in the audio community was pretty shocked to see Yamaha put out a serious contender for budget audiophile 2-channel amps, but was then doubly shocked when it could go mano-a-mano with any of the other options in it's class, even though the competition costs more! Super-clean sound, simple design, plenty of inputs, tons of power (85w per channel ***see footnote) and even three cool options: optional direct iPod dock, totally variable loudness, and a "Pure Direct" button which bypasses all of the processing options for even more pristine sound if you have a good room for listening. 

The only negatives are that: it doesn't have a tuner for radio, which is normal on good integrated amps - you can buy one separate if you need; it's phono pre-amp sucks (not an issue unless you listen to lots of records, but if you do, read the vinyl section, specifically about pre-amps since almost all integrated pre-amps suck); and while the circuitry and case are robust as can be, the knobs etc. are a little weak/cheap feeling. 

The sound is a touch bright, but not harsh. It is a great match with any of my recommended speakers. Price to performance to convenience, this amp is truly amazing and it's becoming a regular class leader at it's price. I can vouch for many hundreds of pleasurable hours listening to it! This is the one to buy right now if you're starting out!


The competition:

Best Retro Looks: Outlaw 2150 ($699)
Solid Performer With Good Bass: NAD C326BEE ($500)
Alternate Proven Performer That Is Bright: Cambridge Audio 650A ($700)

Okay, if you've got money to blow, be my guest to get one of these other amps. They all cost more and offer slight performance upgrades. They're all good gear and will work fine for the rest of the article. 

The Outlaw 2150 has tons of hype, with good reason. It is an extremely serious piece of gear for listening to music. With gloriously warm sound and the most killer retro-Art-Deco looks, it's worth every dime. It even has a built in USB DAC (more on that later) to directly connect a computer. The only negatives are that it has a smaller number of inputs (3 + the DAC + Phono, which is a bit weak again), that it allegedly doesn't have the tightest bass sound and that because the DAC is internal, you can't upgrade it as technology advances without using one of your already scare inputs (and it is already a little out of date). But oh, those cool looks! If you just have to have the eye-candy item, this is perfect for you.    

The NAD C36BEE is a super solid choice too. It particularly shines with it's handling of low/bass frequencies which are traditionally a weak spot in budget audio gear. It has a decent price-point and tons of inputs (7). No phono pre-amp, no tuner and a very plastic build. While this is a warhorse of budget audiophile amps, the Yamaha seems to be a better choice since the NAD is more expensive. I don't really know why you wouldn't buy the Yamaha over this, but it's a good piece of gear. 

From what I hear, the Cambridge amp is a bit more nuanced than the NAD, but it's also by far the most expensive at $700. It, like the Outlaw, probably has a bit more "musicality" (a term that describes the ease with which the amp makes music sound lovely) than the Yamaha, which seems to strive for a more neutral, passive sound, but at almost double the price it's hard to recommend. The one reason you might want to use it is that it is the budget amp that is rather treble-heavy. It's technically a flaw, but if you were to pair it with a darker sounding set of speakers it would make them shine. Particularly Bowers and Wilkenson speakers in our more pricey build might benefit from this amp. 


***Footnote: 

Now that we've presented the options you'll notice most of these amps are something between 35 watts per channel and 85 watts per channel. 

"But wait! That's so little power!, "you howl. "My car stereo/boombox/toaster oven has 20,000 kW of audio power /flex!" 

I respond: Something interesting happened sometime in the 80's and 90's, which is that the way that most mainstream amplifier manufactures measured the strength of their amps changed. The number you see in giant Techno x Street style typefaces on the shiny boxes is the hypothetical peak output number if you are only driving one speaker on the whole system. With the units we're looking at, made by talented designers and engineers, that wattage number is the actual average output under normal home listening conditions. In real terms, that means that a 50W audio-nerd piece of gear is REALLY loud (probably way louder than Best Buy 7 channel, 150W per channel home theater amp from some generic company.)

Now you are worried the other way — that you will destroy your speakers. One major myth of the home stereo mythos is that huge amps wreck speakers. In fact, it's mostly the opposite. What wrecks speakers way more often is bad signal. i.e. unclean/distorted signal that comes from a weak amp being pushed way past it's comfortable working strength and feeding ragged sound to speakers. Most amps do usually sound best in the middle 1/3 of their volume range (33% to 66%). Think of it this way: that you want the system loping along like a mustang enjoying himself out on the open plain. Not cheetah trotting in a tiny zoo cage, nor a pony running in terror from a predator. 

Anyway, up next when I get some time free from making art is the portion where we talk about speakers!