Friday, May 27, 2011

TIMES NEW VIKING’s “DANCER EQUIRED”

Getting to a fifth album requires a level of perseverance and intra-band harmony that’s pretty rare in the world of distorted & semi-experimental independent rock. TIMES NEW VIKING, who I first wrote about in 2005, were pretty unlikely candidates to still be around and putting out their best record six years later. “DANCER EQUIRED”, on Merge Records, a label I can’t say I’ve heard anything from in a good ten years despite what I know has been a long and very successful run, is at least as strong as the band’s 2007 “Presents The Paisley Reich”. Yet it’s definitely a different beast. In fact, unlike their previous four albums, it’s not really a beast at all.

Frankly I’m glad to see Times New Viking mellowing out their attack a little. “Dancer Equired”, while very raw and very much their own thing, owes a little to classic-period Guided By Voices and to 80s New Zealand pop as well. Songs are generally short, to the point, and end when the band wants them to, which is not necessarily when you expect. Their dual female/male vocals are higher in the mix this time, while still deliberately muddied by mixing and lack of fidelity. Keyboardist Beth Murphy’s vocals are even nice for the first time, and you might even be able to pick an English phrase or two out. It’s not so radical a departure as my description might suggest so far, and it’s still probably the wildest thing on the Merge roster. Yet it’s song-structured, and for 13 tracks, those songs are all consistently good to great. I can’t say that about any of their other ones, even my beloved “Paisley Reich”.

It’s probably because melody and structure is the end game, rather than dissonance and ripped-up texture. Maybe those great songs were there all along. I’m just glad they’ve decided to stick it out, and I’m happy to call them one of my “favorite bands” once again. Take a listen and see what you think.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

1991 OLDSMOBILE COMMERCIAL TRYOUTS

Sometimes at work we’ve had the opportunity to go through a “team-building exercise” where everyone’s asked to provide one obscure, but true, fact about themselves. I’ve got a few, but the one I usually toss out there is the fact that I am Noah Webster’s great-great-great-great-great grandson. Oh yes. This is no idle boast. My last name may be Hinman, but through marriage and breeding, the Webster lineage passed down through fertile & fecund Durham, Connecticut unto the Field lineage, whereupon my Grandma Kay Hinman (née Field) married my Grandpa John Hinman, and passed the blessed genes down two generations to me, my sister and our cousins. Sometimes I like to think that I’m done the memory of my antecedent Noah Webster well by penning this very blog, which comprises a great many words found in his Webster’s Dictionary 

In 1991, OLDSMOBILE trotted out a tagline for their new 1991 cars: “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile”. Their marketing group decided to put fathers & sons and/or fathers & daughters on camera together to help flog the new line of declining, boat-like American cars. I remember seeing TV commercials featuring Leonard Nimoy and his spawn and Ringo Starr and his spawn long before the call to our family arrived. Our family? The Hinmans? No, the Websters. Oldsmobile wanted to stretch the concept a bit, and because someone had the tagline “A new definition of luxury” already on the shelf for a new set of commercials, who better to call for a “definitional” tie-in than Noah Webster’s kids? Or great-great-great-etc grandkids, as the case may be. They had undergone a nationwide search for his relatives, and conducted tryouts for a TV commercial in multiple locations across the US, including in Webster’s native Connecticut and somewhere in the Midwest. They hadn’t found what they were looking for. Only one family remained – my family.

I was living in San Francisco, and my sister was still at home in San Jose with my parents. We were asked to convene at a San Francisco hotel early one Sunday morning for tryouts. I didn’t quite grasp the actual feasibility and likelihood that one of us might actually be chosen to be the spokesmodel for this campaign, so I proceeded to do what I so often did in my early 20s, and stayed out exceptionally late the night before. I even remember the venue, the band, and the drink that brought me down and ultimately kept me out of the proverbial limelight: The Hotel Utah Saloon (still with us!); Barbara Manning & The Tablespoons (short-lived, post-WORLD OF POOH band who later morphed into Manning’s SF SEALS); and several gin & tonics. That plus a 3am bedtime made for a less-than-sharp tryout the morning after. I read some lines, but I was awful and way off my game. I knew it, the director knew it, and my shot at the big time was over before it started.

Turns out these guys had their eyes on my dad the whole time. He was the right age – only slightly older than I am now – good looking, well-spoken and dignified enough to fit the “new definition of luxury” tagline. My mom, sister and I didn’t have a chance. He won the 1991 Oldsmobile Tryout Sweepstakes, and was flown to Washington DC to film the commercial directly below this text at the Library of Congress. It lives on YouTube to this day. He even hired an agent after this, and that led to some minor local TV commercial work in the years following his big score. I believe there was even a corporate video that his agent snagged for him as well in which he played a robber, a homeless person or both. Not on YouTube, I’m afraid.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "THE FATHER OF US ALL: WAR AND HISTORY, ANCIENT & MODERN" by Victor Davis Hanson

I've never had an easy time crafting a coherent, ideologically consistent set of foreign policy positions. As a mostly small-l libertarian, or "classic liberal" (something like that), I'm supposed to be inherently suspicious of the State in all its forms and therefore devoted to small government in all its forms - including that devourer of enormous portions of our GNP, the military. My liberal tendencies have me sometimes making common cause on matters of war & peace with those on the Left whom I otherwise disdain for their utter cluelessness on economic matters, where my own ideology is what I'd like to call "rigidly informed", and in which my mind was made up a long, long time ago. Yet my devotion to the American ideal and for Western Civilization's values in general have led me to realize, on occasion, that war truly is the answer sometimes.

I remember reading Brian Doherty's excellent history of libertarianism "RADICALS FOR CAPITALISM" a few years ago and coming across a strong and very vocal subsection of American libertarians during World War II who were fully and totally against it. Our war was one of imperialism, in their eyes. I tried to come to grips with this view on many levels, rather than look at Hitler's rampage through Europe and Japan's through Asia with the benefit of hindsight. Couldn't do it. Try as I might, I kept coming back to the question, "If that war wasn't worth fighting to the bloody end, then what was?". Hence my suspicion at the reflexively anti-war position. Not because a few ideological Puritans were against fighting Hitler seventy years ago, but because the anti-war left has always had that naive view of humanity, and believes in imagined utopias that will never exist - the ones in which we don't fight, don't compete for resources nor have base, all-too-human instincts for power and dominion.

I'm also the confused and sometimes weak-kneed guy who was gung-ho for the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq upon their commencement, and who, when the going got tough in both, argued for them to be wound down. I still want them wound down - though I'll admit, after reading "THE FATHER OF US ALL: WAR AND HISTORY, ANCIENT AND MODERN" by Victor Davis Hanson, I haven't had my thinking cap turned so backwards by a book in a great while. I can't recommend it highly enough. I came into it with an idea that I might need a stiffening of my ideological spine, because even I was confused by my schizophrenic positions on how to confront "terror" and what particular battles might be worth investing American blood & treasure in to win. I came away from this fairly determined to look at war differently than I had before. Please allow me to explain.

Pure conservatives, like pure liberals, have the luxury of looking at these matters through an all-or-nothing lens. "Might makes right" - "Peace through strength" - "Project power across the globe" etc. It's easy to caricature, isn't it? Particularly when us "elites" see these words mouthed by toxic Republican politicians with Christianity in their foregrounds. Step away from that for a second. If anything, Hanson's book lays out for me, in a series of essays on man's inherently warlike nature and the importance of taking the "long view" in matters of war & security, why it's important to listen to the simplistic conservative approach to military matters.

There's a reason why every liberal Democrat president we've elected, even successful or would-be economic radicals like Roosevelt and Obama, ends up taking the same philosophically consistent approach as Republican presidents do on matters of security. These men are truly defending Western Civilization, and the values we hold dear. This becomes crystal clear once in office and off the campaign trail. They recognize that war is rarely the first option, and is often simply the least-worst of many bad options. This last point is hammered home repeatedly throughout this book.

Hanson argues with much success that the best war, with the best long-term outcome, is the one that is waged decisively and ends with the enemy's humiliation. This is not to say that he is not and cannot be critical of American military and political blunders - he takes the Bush administration to task for many costly errors in the war in Iraq, all the while arguing that comfortable Americans (like me) are so squeamish and short-sighted that they lose their stomachs at setbacks that previous generations would have taken as a reason to redouble efforts.

This book is not about the 20th and 21st century - Hanson reaches well back to Athens vs. Sparta, Rome vs. Carthage and to Crusaders and Ottomans to underscore his points. He's a university professor of history, and his opening essay in this book, "Why Study War?" is one of the best. It makes me think that instead of taking multiple sociology courses from avowed Marxists at my school in the 80s, I'd have done well to add to true open-minded learning and take in a perspective that intelligently looked at war over the continuum of history and as part of our collective DNA, not as simple-minded excuses for "resistance" by pampered American college kids.

I think every war needs to be picked apart and argued before it begins. I am still quite sympathetic to reasonable views about a more "isolationist" America. I'd rather we hadn't started our wars in Iraq and Libya - though I'm open to taking in a longer view on their success or failure once we see what it does to the Arab world and to the longer-term defense of the West, which I support (there are values very much worth fighting for, I'm sure you'd agree). Yet this excellent book is the most intelligent and convincing voice I've ever heard for what we'd probably call the "conservative" approach to foreign policy. My personal politics just became that much muddier, and I have to admit that it might have to be a lifelong project to figure it all out.

CONQUERING THE MORT SUBITE BLANCHE LAMBIC

As a young beer dork - let's say about five years ago - I heard much chatter from more educated quarters of the beer world about a gaggle of Belgian beers called "MORT SUBITE". They were spoken about in hushed and reverant tones, and until last night at LA TRAPPE in San Francisco, I'd never come across a one of 'em. I'm here to report that at least one does indeed exist, and that it is off-the-charts fantastic, as advertised.

It's called MORT SUBITE BLANCHE LAMBIC, and the "brouwerij" that makes it is Brouwerij De Keersmaeker from Asse-Kobegem, Belgium. You know, just down the road from Brussels and all. It's a fairly simply dry and fruit-packed 5% ABV ale that nonetheless knocked me for a total loop. Incredibly smooth and pouring a deep hazy yellow/orange, this Mort Subite doesn't remind one of a lambic so much as it does a witbier (white ale) pumped up with mega yeasts. The powdery, dry taste of the grains and yeasts is complemented in perfect balance by the richness of the fruits. I was so taken aback to be awarding amother 10/10 so soon after the TELEGRAPH GYPSY ALE that I ordered a second one - just to, you know, check my head. That one was a 10/10 as well. Look for it! Now!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

TELEGRAPH BREWING's RIDICULOUSLY RAD "GYPSY ALE"

When I discovered the beers of Santa Barbara, CA's TELEGRAPH BREWING several years ago on a trip down South, lo, it was good. Real good. Real, real good. I gave them a good amount of hype on my olde Hedonist Beer Jive beer-centric blog, and made a point of going after pretty much anything of theirs that ever might have a chance to cross my lips. Then they nailed Northern California distribution in 2010, and wow - it was all here, available for the drinking. And yet, the new ones I tried just didn't quite measure up to those first few bottles of CALIFORNIA ALE and GOLDEN WHEAT. I did a little inventory of the Telegraph Beers I've had - which is most of 'em - and here are the scores I threw down at the time:

CALIFORNIA ALE - 9/10
GOLDEN WHEAT - 9/10
WHITE ALE - 7.5/10
WINTER ALE - 7.5/10
ROBUST ALE - 6/10
RESERVE WHEAT - Unrateable (because I flat-out can't stand the Berliner Weiss style)

Really, really solid - check that, beyond solid, with a couple of beers that rate in the near-stratosphere. Yet those were the very first two I'd had, and I was wondering what that one big trick was that they were holding up their proverbial sleeve. That trick, ladies and gentlemen, is called GYPSY ALE. Here's what they have to say about this magnificent creation:

Inspired by the exuberance of the Romani Gypsy culture, Telegraph Gypsy Ale celebrates the restless and adventurous spirit in all of us. We brew it with rye, unmalted wheat, and locally grown plums. Then we ferment it with Brettanomyces while listening to traditional Gypsy tunes. It's wild, it's unique, it's delicious. So go ahead, stray from that well-trodden ground you are following, grab a bottle, and dance along a crooked path. Opa!

Here's what I say - this is the beer of the year, 2011. Absolutely amazing in every way. It is a buttery, tangy, plum-dominated ale that may have Belgium written all over it, but also speaks to a Central Coast fermentation ethic that's totally and uniquely their area's own (Firestone Walker know what I'm talking about). This plum, it's understated, but it's there in every gulp. GYPSY ALE has this dry, tart but fruited-up deliciousness that's like nothing I've ever had before, not by a mile. They've outdone themselves, and created a beer to take up arms for. 10/10.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE OF RADIO, AND IT IS CALLED 8TRACKS

There’s this blog I follow called THE INFINITE DIAL that periodically takes the radio industry to task for their inability to keep up with the sweeping changes wrought by technology. A former radio exec himself, the blog’s main writer sees the death of traditional radio of something to be mourned, but even worse than nostalgia is radio’s failure to evolve, and become a part of the conversation of how music is listened to in the 21st century. We are of course totally spoiled by choice in 2011, and there are dozens of options for music discovery that supersede the need to plop yourself near a car or home radio for hours at a time. Here are a few that I use to find music that negates the need to listen to college radio or any DJ chatter whatsoever:
  • Music blogs, delivering curated choices to my Google Reader feed
  • The Hype Machine – search for a band’s songs posted on various blogs
  • Slacker
  • Pandora
  •  iTunes previews – read about a song/band, preview their music on an iPhone
  • Soulseek (technically not legal, but theoretically a great way to “try” something you’ve read about)
When the big KUSF flap was going on a couple of months ago – this low-wattage, San Francisco-based old school college radio station was abruptly taken back by its university parent, USF, to become a student broadcasting training center – I had a hard time getting as worked up about it as some of my peers did. That sort of terrestrial, gotta-be-available from 3-6pm or-you-can’t-hear-it-radio, was relevant to me personally around 1987, when I was a college radio DJ myself. Or in other words – 24 years ago. Also known as the “pre-fax machine era”. Granted, some examples of regular radio have morphed with the times as well, none more so than WFMU, who’ve done just about everything they can to stay relevant in the face of new technologies, and who’ve developed a killer iPhone application to that end.

Yet, as mentioned on Friday, I think the future of radio will rely on a curated solution, and I think the curators of choice will more likely than not be other human beings, rather than the algorithms and machines that run Pandora and Slacker. That brings us to 8TRACKS, my current music discovery application/website of choice. I really think they’re onto something. By making it incredibly easy to create a mix, name a mix, and upload it – and then to have users “follow”, a la Twitter, those mixologists they most admire – they’ve hit upon something so easy and simple that I can’t see it not blowing up this year. Once you’ve chosen 5-10 people whose mixes and tastes you “trust” (easy to find them, too, because you can search mixes by artist name or by genre tags), you’ve got enough listening to last you for a good month or two.

8TRACKS reminds me nothing so much as it does ANTENNA RADIO, which I was an “online DJ” for around 2000-2001. That, alas, was on 2000-2001 technology, so prepping my DJ-less, voiceless show (a weekly 50s-60s garage punk and R&B barnstormer I did called “No Count Dance Party”) involved recording LPs and 45s onto cassette, then feeding the resulting mix into the computer, then chopping it up into Real Audio files. This process took about 3 hours per week, including the “liner notes” I’d write using Adobe Page Mill. A similar mix on 8TRACKS is a drag-and-drop affair, ten minutes at most to create a killer multi-song radio station that users can play repeatedly and forever.

There are still many gaps in the 8TRACKS product, and the fact that it’s only on iPhone and the web will limit its appeal in the near term. Adding an Android app, which they say is on the way, and some good roadmap features will help. Premium or roadmap features I’d vote for are:
- Ability for curators to write extensive “mix notes”
- Unlimited skips through mixes – rather than just a handful before you’re locked from doing more
- More elegant ways to follow curators from the iPhone app, and learn more about them
- Less reliance on the web, more catering to mobile

And so on. It’s coming. And when it does, your car radio might as well be a Smithsonian showpiece from the analog age.

Friday, May 13, 2011

LISTEN TO MY CRAZY MUSIC MIXTAPES

I have another post I’ll try to finish next week about a fantastic new curated music app called 8TRACKS and how it rings the death knell for radio as we know it…..but that’s for another time. I discovered this thing on my iPhone, but there is a web version as well, with an Android app in the works. Essentially, the user creates a mix of songs from their libraries, gives it a name and – boom. Done. Then the world at large can stream it on their phones or PCs whenever they want, wherever they need to. It’s integrated well with social media, and it’s easy to tag favorite mixes or curators and follow them, a la a Twitter feed.

In any event – I’ve made 3 mixes so far that you might enjoy shaking your proverbial rump to:

LE CRÈME DE LE CRÈME DE 60s FRENCH POP – twenty loud, brassy female-sung 1960s French Pop songs

ZIPPERHEADS – the first mix I made in about 5 minutes, comprised of random genius from the 2x4s, Electric Eels, Urinals, Hampton Grease Band & more

EAT HAPPY – fourteen recent noisy but melodic bursts of low-fidelity sound from today’s young hitmakers like Thee Oh Sees, Liminanas, Sic Alps, Proper Ornaments and more

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

“ANIMAL KINGDOM”

I was listening to these film critics on the Marc Maron podcast around Oscar time – “The Comedy Film Nerds”, I believe they were – and one of them expressed the opinion that the little-seen Australian crime drama “ANIMAL KINGDOM” was his very best film of the year. This was around the time that millions upon millions of Americans were scratching their heads over the “Best Supporting Actress” nomination of one Jackie Weaver from “Animal Kingdom”. Who the…? Now what the….? Hunh…? As a fan of the underdog, and as one who likes to look in the dark corners of filmdom whenever I can for raw, gritty ore, I made plans to see the film posthaste. Of course, it was long gone from theaters, and it took a Netflix rental and a free Monday night to finally sit down and ingest it. And lo, it was very good.

“ANIMAL KINGDOM” is a Grade-A crime family flick in the offbeat, independent mold. Tension abounds from the very first moments of the film, in which the 17-year-old protagonist (J, played by stupendous newcomer James Frecheville)’s mother lies dead of a heroin overdose on the couch next to him, as he blankly stares at a game show on TV. J, with nowhere to go, falls in with his grandmother (Weaver), whom he hasn’t seen for years, and her four bank-robbing, hideously criminal sons – his uncles. They are all at varying stages of psychopathy, with Ben Mendelsohn’s “Pope” being the most convincingly evil and liable to do something horrific at any point. No spoiler alert here, but – he does. They get into some big trouble early, and J is unwittingly at the center of it. The police strike at the family hard – the family’s been under watch for years, and finally they do something so awful that the full weight of the Melbourne police force falls upon them. The movie turns on J and where he’s going to slot into this mess – as an accomplice? As the one who rats them out? He’s just a kid, truly and in so many ways, and Frecheville is absolutely stunning in his ability to wordlessly bring out this guy’s confusion, utter desperation, and ultimate awakening.

Jackie Weaver, the mother hen of this ridiculous brood, is fantastic as advertised, as she orders murders and counsels her doomed boys in singsong voice and with crooked smiles. In fact, the three masterful performances in this one are the three actors I’ve mentioned – and Guy Pearce is in it too! (Always a soft spot for Mr. Pearce, star of “MEMENTO”, one of my all-time favorite films). I liken “Animal Kingdom” in spirit and tone to two other well-done 2010 films I watched recently, “THE FIGHTER” and “THE TOWN”, this time substituting Australian accents for Southie ones. I’ll definitely agree with those Comedy Film Nerd fellas and award this one a solid A.

Monday, May 9, 2011

LEE HAZLEWOODISM REVISITED

I’m in the midst of a big LEE HAZLEWOOD bender. I get this way with musicians I favor sometime; after a couple of years of ignoring them, I’ll play (or acquire) their entire catalog repeatedly over the course of week, before flaming out completely for another few years. Hazlewood’s like that right now. I have a good five or six CDs of his, and they all got some in-car or in-home airplay this past week, none more than “THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKIN’ – THE COMPLETE MGM RECORDINGS”, a 2-disc set put out by UK label ACE a few years back that I’d really turned my back on since it came out. And I’m a huge Hazlewood fan, but he’s certainly a guy where you need to be open, waiting and very ready for his decidedly idiosyncratic take on pop music.

I love his stuff because, frankly, I’m a total sucker for soaring strings, brassy horns and ethereal backing vocals, and this guy was not only at the epicenter of the 1960s studio wizardry scene but was actively defining it. Obviously much 60s pop and country music featured these items as mere devices to draw out tears, help you crack a smile and whatnot. Hazlewood, he seems to want bring you in on some huge in-joke that’s totally cracking him up on at least 75% of his songs. He’s mirthfully entertaining himself, knowing that you’ll embrace it or flee, and he’ll never be something that everyone “gets”. I’ve never even bothered to try and convert others to the Hazlewood cause, outside of blog posts like this one. Many folks I know might love a weirdo who lived at the intersection of lounge music, cheeseball pop and country; had a voice like a weary, middle-aged lech (which he undoubtedly was); and wrote some of the more amazingly simple lyrical couplets of our time. But why take the chance that you’ll lose a friend forever if you’re wrong?

“THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKIN’ – THE COMPLETE MGM RECORDINGS” covers the years 1966-1968, when Hazlewood was presumably the property of MGM and put out some 45s plus several albums for them like “The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood”, “Lee Hazlewoodism – Its Cause & Cure” and “Something Special’. In fact, the latter takes up the majority of Disc 2 on this set, and had never been on CD before this reissue. Disc 1 is where most of the action is, though; classic slices of bent Hazlewoodism come at you repeatedly – songs like “Home (I’m Home)”, “Bugels in the Afternoon”, “I Move Around” and a series of collaborations with the Swedish Suzi Jane Hokom. Some of these can be found on other discs, but probably not this readily. In other words, this one’s in print, and some of the CDs I have where these repeat are pseudo-bootlegs. If you want a snapshot into this mad genius’ inner world, the 22 songs on Disc 1 are about as good as it gets.

“Something Special”, from 1968, is actually incredibly forgettable and not special in the least. Outside of the great opening track “Shades”, it’s a blues album of sorts. It features some of the most regrettable “scat” singing ever, thankfully not by Hazlewood – though that would have been great to hear – but a rough-edged backing vocalist who barges in on instrumental breaks and ruins what were mediocre numbers to begin with. Certainly can see why this stayed out of print and unavailable for a while, but hey, I’m a completist. I even just ordered one I missed, the 55-track “Rhino Handmade” double disc “Strung Out On Something New”, just this week. We’ll get back to you on that one; meanwhile, this MGM stuff is certainly worth some exploration if you’re so inclined.

Friday, May 6, 2011

THE MOTHER OF ALL BEER REVIEW POSTS

This is what happens when I continue to enjoy (and rate) beer, but fall way behind on reviewing it here. I have to make you suffer through short, stuttered, pounded-out reviews that barely give you the context nor the subtleties of all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful ales I’ve tried the past few months. Well, skim them if you can, try to pick out some super-descriptive keywords to help your shopping list, words like “hoppy” or “delicious”, and hopefully you’ll give some thought to a few new beers you hadn’t previously considered. And please enjoy the savaging of some of the lamer beers I’ve recently had toward the bottom. Here we go!

The Outstanding

URTHEL – “SAISONNIERE” – Remember when Belgium’s URTHEL (De Leyerth Browerijen) shocked the world with the first “Belgian IPA” several years back, the excellent HOP-IT? Whoda thunk that they’d come up with something even better, and it would be in the form of the pedestrian farmhouse/saison ale? This is a true worldbeater. Yeasty like you wouldn’t believe. Crisp, light and fruity with slight bitterness and barnyard. Unflitered, bottle-conditioned mastery of the art of beer making, kids. 10/10.

EMILISSE – “DUBBEL” – One of the very best of its ilk. Absolutely delicious toasty dubbel, with smooth body, medium carbonation and the taste of chestnuts and sugars. Easy to drink and a little sweeter than most dubbels, and something that needs to get on your want list by the time you finish this post. 9.5/10.

THREE FLOYDS – “ALPHA KING” – Had my third pint of this ever on draft in Chicago last month. I’d drink it at least once a month if I could. The pale ale winner and still near-champion; only putative “pale ale” that I think beats it is the whopping “Bitter End” from their neighbors at Two Brothers Brewing. 9/10.

GREEN FLASH BREWING – “SUMMER SAISON” – Could this be the legendary saison I had on draft three years ago and also rated 9/10? Well, assuming that it’s so, they’ve now got it in bottles and it’s fantastic. Beautiful earthy smell and taste, just a near spot-on saison that’s winning in summer, spring or whenever. 9/10.

The Very Good

BEAR REPUBLIC – “MONKEY HIGH FIVE” – Oh yes. This is a smoky, hoppy, toasty beer that reminds me of nothing so much as what an “oatmeal IPA” might taste like. Leave it to these Healdsburg heroes to come up with something this great, albeit on draft only. 8.5/10.

DRAKE’S BREWING – “NYACK” – Took awful notes on this barleywine that I enjoyed at Beer Revolution in Oakland, CA, but figured you should know I scored it an 8.5/10.

RUSSIAN RIVER – “SALVATION” – An old “strong dark ale” friend has returned to the shelves, this time in smaller bottles. Hello yeah, it’s been a while. Chocolate and licorice, thick foam, high high carbonation. A degree of quality control and taste that you always expect and get from Russian River. 8/10.

MIDNIGHT SUN BREWING – “OAK-AGED BLACK XXX DOUBLE IPA” – My exact notes, typed like a dork into my phone: “Not expecting the dark caramel taste. Very toasty. Burnt toast. Oak. Heavy hops. 8.5%abv. Toward the end - wow. I like this”. 8/10.

DRAKE’S BREWING – “DENOGGINIZER” – First time having this old favorite in a bottle for me, and yes, it’s a guns-blazing “hop assault” but not in the manner of some other tongue-destroyers from this brewer like the legendary “Hop Salad”. They do a great job balancing them with malts and a general creamy, warm mouthfeel. Glad to have this one on the shelves for the first time. 8/10.

BALLAST POINT- “TONGUE BUCKLER” – Been wanting to try this forever – a ridiculously hopped-up red ale with all the bittering and malty sensations that conjures. 10% alcohol too. Not for the frail, nor those given to fainting easily. Like it a lot, but maybe once every six months or so. 7.5/10.

THREE FLOYDS – “ARCTIC PANZER WOLF” – Say what? A very strong, 9% ABV imperial ipa, tipping the scales at 100IBU. Not truly "balanced" at the end of the day. Strong hop attack, and very bitter with pine and grapefruit bitterness. For super, super, super hopheads.. 7.5/10.

BRAUEREI GEBRUDER MAISEL – “MAISEL’S WEISS” – What a delicious hefeweizen, pictured here in the glass from which I drank it. A fetching combination of banana bread and nutmeg – totally buttery and clean. 7.5/10.

NEW BELGIUM/ALLAGASH – “VRIENDEN” – A collaborative bottled beer made from hibiscus and endive (for real!). Sweet and flowery, with Belgian bacteria overtones. Really tangy combo of Belgian Brett and fruity hibiscus. Thick mouthfeel that lingers on tongue. 7.5/10.

NEW OLD LOMPOC BREWING – “C-NOTE IPA” – Slightly nutty and really fresh tasting; had this on draft at The Collins Pub in Seattle. Yum. Strong hops but totally manageable. 7.5/10.

BROOKLYN BREWING – “MAIN ENGINE START” – Had this on tap in NYC, which is the only place one can find it. It’s an abbey “singel” ale like Rochefort 6. Tasty, with some frothy zest and light sugars. Truly a “lite” Belgian ale as a “singel” might imply. 7/10.

CLOWN SHOES – “EAGLE CLAW FIST” – A dry hoppy amber ale with the fruit way, way in the back. Murky and deep and dark. Very enjoyable and even a little boozy at 8%. 7/10.

GOOSE ISLAND BREWING – “PEPE NERO” – A new dark farmhouse ale with 4 malts and 2 hops. Fairly nondescript but in the best sense of the word – smooth and simple and good. I can see how farmers could have glugged this by the bucketful after slopping the hogs all day – and perhaps still do, in the Chicago stockyards. 7/10.

MIKKELLER/BREWDOG – “I HARDCORE YOU” – Check it, this is an exceptionally malty imperial IPA from two showboating overseas brewers. Creamy! Easy to drink fast when thirsty. Whoa there homey – this is a 9.5% alcohol by volume ale. Less strange than I expected, perhaps less outstanding too, but such a cool curveball I have to award it a 7/10.

MARITIME PACIFIC BREWING – “NIGHTWATCH” – A very solid dark amber ale that I enjoyed with dinner one eve. Light-bodied and a great food compliment. Not much one can say about non-imperial reds; they just are, and this one definitely is. 7/10.

TWO BEERS – “EVOLUTION IPA” – Another one from the Northwest, enjoyed at Collins Pub, that defies much description. That’s right – the hoppy IPA. “Bitter”. “Hoppy”. “Not malty”. “Very Good”. 7/10.

PRETTY THINGS BEER & ALE PROJECT – “BABAYAGA SYLVAN STOUT” – A very solid American stout, black as night and easy to digest and carry conversation over. Strong coffee notes, and a dry, bitter finish. 7/10.

The Middling

SIERRA NEVADA - “OVILA DUBBEL” – I drank this the night after my dubbel post, totally excited and ready to roar…..and then, hmm. A sweet, low-carbonated brown ale; sugars, malts and a little far-out spice. Not classically Belgian, if that’s what you’re asking. At least that’s what The Jive says. 6.5/10.

BROUWERIJ GAVERHOPKE – “KOERSEKLAKSE” – Spicy, hoppy, zesty unfiltered Belgian blonde with some strong saison action going on. But truly middle of the road. Look up the list for better examples. 6.5/10.

CLOWN SHOES – “BROWN ANGEL” – The English might blanche at this “double brown ale”. 7% alcohol. Super frothy head that formed foam sculptures in my glass. Malty all the way. Not an insignificant hop bite; yes, a middling hoppy brown beer. OK then. 6.5/10.

MIKKELLER “EAST KENT GOLDINGS IPA” – An English single-hop IPA, part of their series of the same. Hops are strong. Piney, no citrus. Foamy, with high carbonation. Serviceable. 6.5/10.

UNCOMMON BREWERS – “BALTIC PORTER” – Enough. My third beer from this off-kilter Santa Cruz brewer, and while they promise wild experimental brewing & exotic tastes, the truth is, they’re all fairly middling to my palate. Star anise and licorice – and yes, I taste them in this hearty and strong imperial porter. But I don’t taste anything that’s going to make me want to grab this again. 6/10.

STONE/GREEN FLASH/PIZZA PORT CARLSBAD - “HIGHWAY 78 SCOTCH ALE” – Collaboration beer, nothing too exciting, and surprisingly even a notch below many of the better malty scotch ales on the market. Syrupy but strong at 8.8% alcohol. We call it a 6/10.

MIKKELLER – “IT’S ALIVE” – Stand back everyone, it’s a “wild ale”!!! And not a very good one at that. I’d call it a sugary fruit beer rather than anything wild per se, and I love Mikkeller as you know. This one actively annoyed me. 5.5/10.

PRETTY THINGS BEER & ALE PROJECT – “OUR FINEST REGARDS” – A barleywine-style ale that I found entirely unremarkable. Strong, with deep caramel taste – but so what? I rarely drink something so middling that I’ve forgotten it completely even before I’m finished. (And I love Pretty Things, but everyone gets a mulligan). 5.5/10.

NEW BELGIUM - “RANGER IPA” – Aggressively average IPA, light and piddling in terms of hops vs. most big boy IPAs. An easy drinker for times when you’re not really thinking about beer nuances all that much. 5/10.

BIFFICIO GRADO PLATO – “STRADA S FELICE” – Hope I got that name right – this is an Italian brewer who’ve experimented with an amber ale brewed with chestnuts. Deep brown ale with weirdo aftertaste. Completely still, with zero head at all. Thick and chewy, tastes of walnuts, chestnuts and nuts of all kinds. Didn’t like it. Totally bizarre. 5/10.

The Lame

CHERRY VOODOO BREWING – “TRIPEL” – This new San Francisco brewer tried to make a desperate splash at SF Beer Week by shuttling around some tarty pseudo-models in short skirts as “The Cherry Voodoo girls”. If you’re going to be that obnoxiously retro, you’d better have the beer to back it up. They don’t. A chalky, fruity, yeast-deficient tripel that tastes as if it wasn’t done fermenting yet, and was rushed to market because the Cherry Voodoo girls’ legs were getting cold. 4.5/10.

CHERRY VOODOO BREWING – “FILTH PIG IPA” – Oh but it gets worse. This imperial IPA was completely still with no head, tasted medicinal and was just an abomination. 2.5/10.

FULL CIRCLE BREWING – “BARLEYWINE” – Simply awful. Tastes like varnish that could peel the lacquer off your hardwood floors. Barely drinkable. 2/10.

BOOK REVIEW: “LAST CALL” by Daniel Okrent

If one looks up “misguided law” in the figurative dictionary of clichéd, hackneyed metaphors, they’ll find America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition from 1920-1933 to be Exhibit A in laws that subverted human behavior, and were therefore doomed to failure. Prohibition has been a national joke as long as I’ve been alive, but as Daniel Okrent’s entertaining and wide-ranging “LAST CALL” tells us, it was no laughing matter at all for post-WWI US teetotalers and their friends. There was a huge human groundswell of support for banning alcohol that had built up for nearly fifty years, led not just in churches but in women’s’ groups (the suffragettes were absolutely central to prohibition’s implementation) and across large swaths of the country – including, even, the KKK. A mile wide and an inch deep, perhaps, because once the Volstead Act was enacted by Congress in 1919, the law started to unravel almost from day one, and the real fun began.

Okrent writes the history of Prohibition with his tongue firmly planted in cheek. He knows it was a full-on fraud, and he sides with individual freedom and adult choice at every turn. Yet there’s still an even-handedness at work in “LAST CALL”. He reveres nearly-forgotten men like Wayne B. Wheeler, a man famous in his day as a leader of the “dry” cause, and tells tales of Wheeler and similar men and women with historical respect. What really comes to light in this book is just how much crime and hypocrisy came to rule the United States in the 1920s. Prohibition gave us organized crime, no doubt. Men like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, whose opportunistic stories are told well here, came into being through their smuggling of cheap alcohol into Chicago, New York, Boston’s Back Bay etc. There are also many funny stories of American governmental leaders who were “dry” in their voting, and “wet” in their homes (of course). There’s fairly strong evidence presented that the alcohol prohibition movement also gave us the income tax (curses!). When prohibition started looking like a soon-to-be sure thing, the drys, realizing the the revenue stream from taxes on alcohol would likely be coming to and end, helped push through the income tax on American paychecks to compensate, and were able to get a sympathetic Congress to agree to it – thereby advancing their cause by leaps and bounds.

“LAST CALL” posits that basically everything had to go right for the drys in order for the 18th Amendment to pass: the end of WW1, PR miscalculations by immigrant German brewers, anti-black sentiment, the rise of suffrage, and so on. Once it did, America spent the 1920s slowly figuring out how and where they could drink again. Yes, alcohol consumption did drop during the 20s. But there’s a reason our images from the 20s contain so many fast-moving dancers in fancy clothes sipping from highballs. The banning of alcohol made the rise of the speakeasies both inevitable and extremely attractive to most Americans. They were hugely profitable. Americans found dozens of ways to skirt the law in order to get to their hooch. My favorite story is the one of the Jewish rabbis who somehow got a carve-out in the law to order & stock sacramental wine for their temples. This led to the rise of multiple “rabbinical orders” for sacramental wine from “rabbis” with last names like O’Brien and McGoohan.

America was and would always be a drinking nation, it became obvious, one ever more so as immigrants with rich European drinking traditions flooded the country. This change in immigration patterns is actually one of the chief reasons that Prohibition was finally repealed with the 21st Amendment. Prohibition was wildly unpopular in the cities, and the cities were where the new immigrants, with their love of beer and vodka and red wine, were congregated in great numbers.

I’ll be honest and admit that this book made me think long and hard about the legalization of other intoxicants as well, something that I’ve been reluctant to take a definitive pro-or-con position on for many years. Okrent doesn’t really touch anything after 1933, and confines the book to the period at hand without too many sweeping “what it all meant” summaries at the end. It’s not difficult to draw one’s own conclusions, though; I’ve subsequently heard no mainstream politician or organized group call for making alcohol illegal once again, and I doubt you or I will. Bonus recommendation: get this book as an audiobook, as I did, and you’ll get to hear Okrent’s snarky, nasally read through his own book - a real treat. At times it sounds like he’s cracking himself up and barely repressing his own laughter. Hedonist Jive says check it out.