THE NEWS: June 28, 2018

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This past week, Representative Maxine Waters called for citizens and other politicians to not back down in their opposition and was castigated by conservative lawmakers, and troublingly, the media at large. Meanwhile, Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to a restaurant and they comped a meal for her and politely asked her to leave because of her role in an unjust administration. This is also known as free speech. However, it was painted by her contemporaries as a controversy, despite her using a Federal platform to attack a small business and stirring up criminal protest there resulting in arrests.

            The media needs to stop being cowardly and taking an un-American stance in their coverage of these topics. Boycotting and attacking people because of who they are isn’t the same as doing it because of what they do and the actions they take, which they have responsibility for. On the part of the administration, the hypocrisy is staggering given that the dictator has point blank endorsed and called for violence toward private American citizens and Federal employees alike. With all the hubbub over “civility”, the most powerful, rich and vindictive people in the country are painting themselves as victims after the smallest nonviolent pushback, despite their attempts to destroy minorities, women and the poor for decades.

            Civility didn’t abolish apartheid. It didn’t stop fascism. It didn’t propagate civil rights or give women the vote. Civility has never gotten any marginalized group freedom. Civility is a tactical move by those who have privilege and power trying to further disenfranchise those below them with social niceties.

            Joe Biden was refused service by a bakery in 2012, and Paul Ryan was among the throngs of right-wing politicians who applauded and cheered this denial. In other words, this is purely a power play on their part to keep dissent down, and has nothing whatsoever to do with ethics. We need to match their ruthlessness to get anywhere, which we can do while still following the law.

            The right of protest is fundamental and constitutional. When Republican lawmakers exercise their right to be in public and use whatever means they have to slander and target anyone who displeases or criticizes them, that is a tenet of fascism. They are fascists, and they have been this entire time.

            Here’s what happens when we give those fascists power…

            This week, the Supreme Court upheld the dictator’s Muslim ban 5-4, despite it being clearly unconstitutional and xenophobic (not to mention the fact that it was struck down SEVERAL TIMES in previous court cases). Justice Sotomayor directly said in her dissent that it’s as bad as when the government allowed Japanese internment during WWII. Elsewhere, Justice Gorsuch is starting the precedent with his rulings in Abbot v. Perez that racist or otherwise discriminatory legislative boundaries can be upheld in court, even though in 2017 a Federal District court proved that this practice was diluting its votes. Justice Breyer thinks that the majority decision could inspire government disclosure regulations like in consumer protection or securities law.

            This wasn’t even the biggest story of the week, however, as “swing vote” Justice Kennedy announced his retirement at the most opportunistic moment for the GOP, a foolish and needless move for someone supposedly dedicated to bipartisanship. This sets the groundwork for the dictator getting yet another lifetime Supreme Court appointment. Luckily, Chuck Schumer demanded that Mitch McConnell follow his own precedent and not hold a vote on the new Justice until after the election. As American citizens, to preserve our own rights we must demand that swing Senators Collins and Flake vote no on any prospective GOP nominee in this illegitimate, amoral administration. The very first thing on the docket is to completely undermine women’s reproductive rights by overturning Roe v. Wade.

            Democratic leaders being cowardly and thinking civility matters is the reason the tie-breaking vote of Justice Gorsuch was filled in the immediate political context. But in the longer term it was because voter turnout in 2014 was dismal and Republicans got the seats needed to uphold that decision. Voting matters, and we need to do better this year. Register yourself to vote in November. The GOP has no ethical concern for their evil actions, and will continue to break the law to mold the court and our government to their own ends, which directly defy the will of the public majority.

            Checking back in on last week’s topic: as predicted, despite blaming Congressional logjams and their own hands being tied, the current administration just reversed some of their own despicable actions. However, the actual law of what they did isn’t much better. They are henceforth keeping families together, but still detaining them in cages indefinitely.

            The HHS secretary announced on the 26ththat children would not be reunited with parents in detention, effectively holding them hostage unless someone in the family volunteers to be legally punished. Despite this, a District Court Judge based in San Diego ordered the administration to reunite families. This is how important even one judgeship can be in this horrific times.

            In other good news, the Williamson County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 to end its contract with ICE and the Hutto Detention Center at the end of January. That’s a very small but significant victory, and the direct result of outrage. Not civility. Anger, visibility, demonstration.

            Lastly, Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez became the first openly Socialist Representative in the race for New York’s 14thcongressional district, and her victory was a huge and welcome upset. The establishment candidate she beat was completely polite and friendly about his loss. That is an example of good, harmless, useful civility, between human beings with compassion and ideals. No civility for the GOP or those who would defend them, from the high courts to American citizens. They get war.

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Death Grips Is Online

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Thoughts while listening to Death Grips’ Year Of the Snitch: This is the sound of living in fear, rage, and depression, even in places of privilege and moments of comfort. It’s also about nonstop resistance, whether that be for social equality or creative expression.

But there’s also this cognitive dissonance of mood and intent which I always appreciate – this record is an intense blur. It could be angry or horny or introspective, preferably all of the above plus more. That’s a quality the best music has. You can see it from so many angles, and it ultimately becomes a symbol of something beyond its own quality in context.

When it’s on, I feel like I’m three different kinds of chemically compromised at once… or maybe like being a hopeful energetic kid again, with imagination to burn. That’s the feeling I chase in art. I could just be in my feelings and overrating things. But then again, a fleeting social-media-borne cerebellum blast is the last kind of iconic record that a musician can make at this point. Plus, regardless of how “important” it is, this just sounds cool as fuck.

Is this album revolutionary? Who even knows anymore? Is it boldly and joyfully unlike anything else I’ve ever heard and even a distinct departure from the band’s previous sound? Yes. It’s not all blunt trauma from beginning to end; there are grace notes and lulls to reflect, some melody and some agony. Most importantly, it moves at a million BPM.

Don’t go in expecting byzantine, loquacious verses. Everything these guys do is inscrutable and undeniably theirs, it’s just a matter of how many layers and neat hooks they dress it up in. I’m shocked there’s no guitar on YOTS, because it sure sounds like there is, as much as it rocks and shimmers. It’s in keeping with Death Grips’ degraded DIY aesthetic to write this raw and unedited while I listen, for maximum insanity (or truth). I’m giving it my highest rating, and every such record deserves a blog post. So I humbly submit this release as a milestone in music history, even though music history is dead. I’m enjoying it right now. Maybe I’ll forget it tomorrow. There’s always more to worry about.

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THE NEWS: June 18, 2018

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            There are human rights abuses going on in the U.S. right now that should be examined by the UN. Attorney General Jeff Sessions tried to justify it in a press conference by invoking the Bible and the rule of law. Even though Ordained top officials in several sects of Christian faith have condemned him and this line of reasoning entirely on Twitter (one even saying “Fuck you.”), and even though a literalist reading of the Bible is hopelessly out of date and prohibits lots of beliefs and actions that the public has grown accustomed to with no fault. This is clearly a contradiction, so that has no basis as a real justification. Not to mention the constitutional dictum that one’s personal faith and spiritual beliefs must not interfere with public governance and law. That’s the separation of church and state.

            As for that legal angle, the rule of law should stand in all cases. However, was it upheld when Republicans were stripping down the ACA as a backdoor clause in a totally unrelated bill even after two unsuccessful votes to dismantle it? With no time allotted for counterargument? With a sudden and unplanned vote? Because that’s what they did to an established law they were elected to uphold. They have no respect for due process either, and so that’s not a justification.

            So what’s the imperative here? Are these families really that inherently bad for America? Per capita – just looking at Latinx folks coming to the U.S. – they undeniably help and underpin local economies and working-class trades. The vast majority of them are either trying to support their families or reconnect with legal and established family. This suspicious prejudice has been the case with every persecuted minority in our nation’s history, and we always look back decades later aghast at the abuse they endured, from Japanese to Irish to Middle Eastern (not to mention the First Nations tribes, who pretty much deserve to exterminate all white people at this point). Not to mention the fact that this country’s makeup is entirely immigrant, barring the aforementioned tribes, so nationalistic dialogue about who does and does not belong here is fascism. Our overly militaristic immigration policy treats every instance of border crossing as the nail to its hammer, when police have presumably cracked down on drug trafficking to an effective extent and yet they use that extremely small fraction of petty criminal behavior as justification for inhumanity across the board.

            Here’s what’s happening. 2000 children were separated from their families just within the last month or so. One father separated from his children hung himself in a holding cell. ICE separated siblings from one another and took their shoelaces so they wouldn’t do the same. They are essentially being kept in chicken coops in warehouses with no real facilities or amenities to speak of. That’s not counting the several thousand children on the rosters who the US government has entirely lost track of, and who may end up in similarly decrepit situations being impoverished and alone in the US. (However some are likely staying with relatives and benefactors, which is a far better status to have than if ICE got ahold of them again.) There is already evidence surfacing of sexual and physical abuse toward these children, which is only the tip of an underreported iceberg as these sorts of scandals go. The atrocities continue beyond that.

            Bereft of the reasoning he’s lying about, the supposed inherent badness of immigrants is the only real justification Sessions has. And that’s racism. It’s untrue, and it’s monstrous. He is pure evil. In fact, citizens and reporters have been drawing the apt connection that this debacle is horrifyingly similar to the Nazi regime, separating mothers from children and keeping both in cages. As I said, it’s a human rights abuse, and even beyond this particular case, crimes like this have been happening with ICE for a long time and it needs to be disbanded. That’s something that no lawmaker has been brave enough to take a stand on as of yet, unfortunately.

            But wait! Perhaps this is all a fluke on Sessions’ part? No. He has a long history of discriminatory policy in his political career, some of which has been brought to light later on. In particular, jailing citizens inordinately on minor drug offenses, which even in today’s environment, is looking more and more prejudiced by the day. Once he was appointed as to his current office by a dictator it just emboldened him to do terrible things on a larger scale.

            Now, obviously every average citizen is against this sort of conduct on principle. But understanding what perpetuates it is key to stopping it and making sure it never happens again. Also, folks can be forgiven for not wanting to dwell on the negative in life, especially in an abstract sense. But being aware of the world around you is a citizen’s duty, and the mechanism by which we make our voices heard and change things. It’s okay to take some time away from the depressing, combative news of the day for one’s mental health, but only up to a point. Forgetting about this; lacking context and empathy for it; even rationalizing it, in some small way, makes the average American complicit in allowing these events to continue. If there was ever a time for righteous fury, independent of party or political affiliation, it is now. If this doesn’t outrage you and drive you away from blind partisanship, what will? The answer is nothing. You will overlook every past and future evil for no reason, instead of becoming a better person and striving for better for your country and its disadvantaged citizens.

            Republicans control every branch of our government. And here is what the top leaders of the GOP have done about this grave situation: nothing. In fact, their messaging on the issue is in contradiction among different officials: the dictator says it’s the Democrats’ fault, which is ludicrous since his party has a total majority and could stop this with a single bill. Some say these measures are a deterrent; one person even denied categorically that it was happening! And then there’s the bullshit of Jeff Sessions. So this mendacity goes deep.

            But surely this couldn’t be the fault of an entire network of elected officials? Nope, it certainly is! Just to give two examples, Paul Ryan dodging questions by saying that he, the Speaker of the House, hasn’t read enough about topics to be informed, and Giuliani defending the messaging on TV when he’s been a proven liar on television several times, including once when he had to retract something on a program that he had only just said about a criminal case. On this particular issue of the early stages of genocide, all five living First Ladies have condemned the government’s actions. The people of America are not on the side of the GOP. They’re sending hate mail and doing nonviolent protests outside these monsters’ offices and booing them by the thousands at a sports event.

            Now, even if this specific atrocity gets halted, the Visa and citizenship process for the country is, indeed, still badly in need of reform. It’s far too strenuous and exclusionary, and has admittedly resulted in ongoing tragedy for the past few presidential administrations. In the unlikely event that the current disorganized and amoral administration turns this situation around, even to a surprising extent, this instance should never be forgotten. The name of every politician who didn’t speak up will be tainted forever as someone who abetted or performed genocide. Keep all this in mind the next time you vote.

 

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MM, FOOD: In Which I Remember Eating Things

I went ahead and tried my hand at Yelp-style restaurant capsule reviews for every city I’ve spent significant time in. The absolute greatest spot in that city leads off and is bolded; the next five greatest are underlined, and further honorable mentions are italicized. There are plenty of skippable decent-to-bad places covered here as well. I reserve the right to not mention an eatery I’ve been to if it was unmemorable or redundant, but I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts and remarks of what I got right or wrong, or what I missed. The best overall region for density of good dining experiences is specified at the bottom. I tried as best I could to organize these in a cuisine-specific and logical way. I tried to include only independent standalone places as opposed to chains, so for all I know, some of these joints might have closed or changed their address. Happy eating!

PITTSBURGH

You may die of heart disease

3It’s likely that I’ve tried more restaurants in Pittsburgh than any other place I’ve lived. Because of this, I’ll try to organize them in a roughly best-to-worst manner, by the type of fare offered. I’ll forewarn you that the closest thing PGH has to a signature style is artery-clogging diner food, so make sure you enjoy it sparingly.

BEST:

The food at Burgatory isn’t anything Pittsburgh-unique, and it is a chain that’s local to the region. But it is utterly satisfactory and insanely indulgent, even to jaded locals. Outstanding burgers, phenomenal shakes, great appetizers, solid drink selection and really fun atmosphere – I can’t find much to complain about. Middlebrow caloric overkill in the best possible way.

GREAT:

I felt compelled to write something in memory of the recently closed Sonoma Grille, a California-style bistro with lots of wine and fancy cheese and stuff. Top-notch preparation and service; I went here for my birthday after being blown away on my first visit, and returned a few subsequent times. The steak medallions were heavenly. I wrote this list before the place shut down, so just take my word for it.

Aladdin’s is another limited chain with some of the best Mediterranean food I’ve ever had. Shawarma, kebab chicken and beef, hummus, baba ganoush, that kind of thing. Extremely delicious and consistent, with a large selection and decent price. Disclaimer: I worked here.

Mad Mex serves respectable Mexican fusion in a city that wouldn’t appear to offer much in that regard, but there’s some good stuff if you know where to look. Huge menu, above-average quality. Price and service are decent. Veggie quesadilla recommended.

Coriander is an awesome authentic Indian place right by my old apartment in Squirrel Hill. Very good deal for what you get.

D’s Six Pak and Dogz is quintessential Pittsburgh food. Fantastic meat and veggie hot dogs/sausages with super creative toppings, great drink selection, and the BEST french fries on this planet. Get the veggie pub fries. I’m not messing around.

Benjamin’s Burger Bar is a very tasty, slightly upscale burger bar by my old workplace. High quality, with some good toppings, and the owner/staff are friendly. Tell the super nice lesbian bartenders that Andrew says hello! And get the candied jalapeño cream cheese on your burger, for the love of God.

I haven’t been to Point Brugges Café for lunch, but their brunch is absolutely terrific. Definitely the best brunch in the city. Come prepared for very pretentious accoutrement, high prices and high calories. It’s worth it once in your life, though.

Gaby Et Jules Patisserie & Vanilla Pastry Studio can share a spot since they’re dessert places. They’re both the sort of cookie-cutter type of artisan cupcakery/macaron confectionery that’s experiencing a bubble right now, only they excel at the business. The former has tremendous macarons and the latter, quite tasty cupcakes.

The Porch is a cool, classy student hangout on campus that doubles as a fancy restaurant. Their pizza and brunch are excellent, albeit pricey, for what’s essentially a well-furnished money pit for parent weekends.

Mercurio’s and Union Pig and Chicken are probably too frou-frou for their clientele and their own good, but they have authentic, tasty and overpriced pizza and gelato and BBQ, respectively.

GOOD:

Franktuary, renowned from mentions on special interest network TV shows and chef recommendations, was slightly underwhelming, but still definitely worth a visit for the novelty and adequate meals. Nice compromise between the blue collar Pittsburgh street style and gentrified farm-to-table artsiness.

Fathead’s is a purveyor of more Pittsburgh-style, greasy pub food, located on the street with the most bars per capita in the world. This place has all kinds of indulgent, inventive sandwich and burger ideas which all sound slightly better on paper than they taste, but they sound really good. It’s home to a great brewery based out of Ohio, too. I like the blueberry beer because I am a fancy boy.

Mineo’s and Peppi’s (the former in Squirrel Hill, the latter in Allegheny West on the North Shore) both also exemplify the fattening foodstuffs of local ‘Burgh culture, in hospitable and generous fashion. No frills, delicious pizza/sandwiches that will give you a heart attack. Worth it. I probably gained fifteen net pounds from the Italian hero and white pizza at these joints.

Nu is a fascinating spot: a totally Kosher deli and barbeque place in the middle of Pittsburgh, with some Hasidic fare as well. Very solid hot sandwiches, as I recall.

Double Wide is a cool concept for a restaurant, with a kitchen-sink vegan/omnivore/globalized menu of such breadth it kind of hampers the quality. But everything is basically good.

Sheetz is cheap, greasy, preservative-stuffed gas station grub but HOLD ON. The quality, cleanliness, variety and consistency of the stuff you can order in this 7/11-esque atmosphere, adjacent to fuel pumps, is unlike anything else in America. Get the iced hot chocolate. I am grateful that I have tried it in my lifetime.

Crepes Parisiennes is a completely adequate bougie campus crepes place. Get there early; it fills up.

Potomac Bakery boasts out of this world donuts, with a singular crumbly texture that sounds weird, but reminds you how they’re supposed to taste from scratch.

Waffalonia is so niche and low-effort I’m wary of raving about it, but they do make the hell out of some delicious Belgian waffles and toppings. If you ran into one while peckish one morning I would totally suggest checking it out.

OTHERS:

Conflict Kitchen is pretty limited, but its concept is notable: it’s a university operated food stand whose pacifist mission is to serve the cuisine of a nation the US is currently at war with. It’s interesting, and raises awareness through food!

I got way too excited and over-ordered at the cult-worshipped Everyday Noodles. But the potstickers I managed to finish were indeed quality.

Hello Bistro is an offshoot of a local management group that operates a few different branches of family restaurant (including the perversely named Eat ‘n’ Park, which is like a slightly more adventurous IHOP). Convenient and sometimes healthy, but unremarkable. Their fries are delicious, albeit Five Guys-esque.

I thought Milky Way and Italian Village Pizza were fine establishments, particularly the latter. Others I ate with did not.

Crazy Mocha is a wacky local coffee chain with a lot of personality and decent enough java.

Coffee Tree is like the refined, upper-class yacht club rival to Crazy Mocha’s nerdy, awkward summer camp underdog.

The Independent Brewing Company is a fun hipster speakeasy-esque haunt in Squirrel Hill that’s a nice place for a drink if you’re around the area.

Special mention to Uncle Sam’s Subs. Understand: I am easy to please with most American food and will tolerate a lot in the name of gluttony. I also have a soft spot for sandwich fare, and when I learned of this nearby joint upon moving to Pittsburgh, I was eager to try it out, and even opted for the crowd favorite special, the steak and egg sandwich with fixings. This food that I paid good money for during a stressful time in my life was probably the most offensive, disgusting thing I’ve ever attempted to eat. I couldn’t even get past a few bites, and their veggie sub is somehow WORSE. How this could happen, I still don’t understand.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

The Cultural District and the Pitt downtown area have a lot of promising places, but those aren’t real Pittsburgh. Its good and bad, its hearty and even heartier foodstuffs can all be found in Squirrel Hill, although I am biased.

KANSAS CITY

BBQ, etc. 

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Of all the cities I’ve lived in or near, Kansas City has arguably the hottest culinary scene. Here are some of its treasures, along with spots it’s okay to skip. By all means, you must eat barbeque of some kind there (vegetarians can’t wiggle their way out of this one, because the portobello sandwich at my top choice is still great!), but don’t forget the wealth of other options in this up and coming city.

BEST:

Kansas City Joe’s needs no introduction. But then again, Anthony Bourdain would tell you the same thing, along with cadres of cookout championship judges across the country. Its humble gas-station-adjacent façade at one of only a few locations belies the most elegantly simple, perfected, world-class barbeque you will ever enjoy (in the KC style, at least). Lines of hyped tourists and hungry locals wrap around the building at all hours of the day. The Z-Man will not let you down. I have a T-shirt of the damn thing. Eat it and believe.

BBQ:

You want more barbeque? Good, you’re in the right place. It doesn’t get better than KC Joe’s; however, there’s stuff that’s just as amazing with a different spin on the same materials. Fiorello’s Jack Stack is much higher-end and pricier, but sublime. The Big Pig is worth subtracting a year of your life for.

Q39 represents a new vanguard of hipsters making the city’s signature cuisine their own in an appropriately gentrified area of town, and they don’t screw it up. Their beef/pork/chicken slider sampler was an unforgettable meal, and I want to have it again soon.

That just scratches the surface of KC’s barbeque riches: Smokin’ Guns is yet another of the endless well-executed, satisfying examples of the town’s signature dish. Arthur Bryant’s is the salt of the earth-type traditional BBQ spot that Obama visited when he was in town. It’s totally pleasant, but pretty undistinguished and overrated among the smokehouse titans you can find elsewhere. Same with Gates, although that place at least has novel offerings and setup. Maybe I ordered the wrong thing there, I’ll give it another shot someday. I probably should have gotten Tech N9ne’s usual.

WORLD CUISINE:

Swagat is a bizarre outlier: a fantastic Indian buffet in the middle of what’s essentially a rural white middle class strip mall. Nice décor and a selection that really impresses with its authenticity.

Jerusalem Café is a talked-about hot spot for Millennials in perhaps the most Millennial district of any Midwestern city. Terrific Mediterranean food for sure. Check out the Flaming Cheese – admit it, you’re here for the spectacle anyway. And then get absolutely lit in Westport, it’s THE place for that.

Café Gratitude is a fascinating novelty consisting of the most grassroots, frou-frou vegan fare you could imagine. Now I’m all about ethical consumption, ingenious healthy options and trying new things – all of which it delivered on – but the flavor profiles were a bit much for a novice like me. It’s cool to visit though!

As far as Mexican fare goes, Manny’s is a delightful meat-and-potatoes (so to speak) Mexican family restaurant. Then there’s La Bodega, an ultra-bougie, but also quite inventive and tasty, tapas place. Probably more authentic than Meson Sabika in Naperville, for what that’s worth. Mi Ranchito has Mexican cuisine even more homogenized and American than Manny’s, but that sort of thing is hard to screw up.

Longboards is so weird and I love it. It’s on North Oak, and they serve Polynesian and tropical-themed wrap sandwiches. Huh? I adore the Cabo Chicken, although I did have to Google to remember what was actually on it.

DOWN HOME:

I’m most familiar with restaurants in the Northland, where I lived for a while. One staple is Cascone’s, a fascinating and well-run old world Italian restaurant, with apparent historic mob connections that used to have hands in the city government. Is it okay to mention this now? If I turn up floating face down in the Missouri river, you know what’s up.

I had a catered meal at Trezo Mare once which was fairly good, but that’s a pretty easy bar to clear for free food so I wouldn’t consider that definitive.

Minsky’s is a blue-collar, family-style, low-expectation gem in the vein of so many Midwestern eateries. It’s a respectable chain that does nothing more than make awesome pizza. The Five Star is a favorite among white pizza fanatics, and it is a standout. But I like the Thai pie a whole bunch too.

Pizza Shoppe is pretty standard suburban pizza, but they’re semi-famous for an outrageously strong, salty salad/pizza/appetizer dressing (apparently there’s no distinction for topping things there).

Further afield to the west, Waldo Pizza is more exclusive and artisan than Minsky’s and indeed, tips the scales more to personality and customization. Still a lovely spot worth visiting if you’re out in the ritzy suburbs for some reason.

Beer Kitchen and McCoy’s are modern American bistro eateries at their most adequate. Being in the young, hip part of town, they put more of a focus on their alcohol.

Winstead’s is like the Hydrox to Steak ‘n’ Shake’s Oreo. They likely pioneered the formula, only to see a corporate behemoth steal and mainstream it from under their noses. Virtually the same thing as that burger titan, only more limited, small-scale and homey. But that means a marginal increase in quality. Outstanding shakes and a killer 50/50 basket for midnight snacking. Its friendly, charming KC atmosphere is the perfect antidote to chain diner boredom.

I had heard legends of a greasy spoon downtown where shameless eaters drowned their sorrows, and at long last I eventually got to Town-Topic. This old-school rathole makes Winstead’s look like the height of refinement. But that aesthetic has its own dirt-kicking charms, and something in the grease here makes for a memorable regrettable 4 A.M. burger, a la White Castle.

Jersey Boyz and Kelso’s are old fashioned mainstays in the Northland and hallmarks of KC heritage. Very comparable and competitive with the similar comfort food hangouts of Peppi’s and Mineo’s in Pittsburgh, they also dish up classic subs and pizza, respectively.

Grinders is more mass-market meat overkill in the vein of Pittsburgh’s Burgatory. Tasty stuff, dangerously large and unhealthy portions. I mean that in a positive way, just in case it was unclear.

I never really figured out the ideal sandwich for myself at Planet Sub, which is alarming for a sub fiend such as myself. But it’s generally fine, I guess.

I liked D’Bronx’s sandwich a good deal at the time but don’t remember much about it in retrospect.

Green Acres is a spotless, admirable Whole Foods knockoff in the commercial section of a rich residential neighborhood. That compound also houses a Philly Time, another probable chain but I’m too lazy to check. They make a good enough Philly, as per their name.

SWEETS/OTHER:

Glacé made me rediscover ice cream. Amidst all the specialty dessert places popping up in America, it holds a distinct place in my heart. Crazy but not ridiculous flavors, gastronomically proven to make you skeptically go “hmm…” and then discover a new favorite.

Donut King has possibly the best donut I’ve ever eaten, and they even spell it the same lazy way I do! Highly recommended.

Roasterie is a well-regarded and award-winning local brand of coffee, sold at a few brick and mortar, er, roasteries. They don’t pervert and tart up their blends with flavorings and sugar the way I like though, so my verdict is out.

Boulevard is another KC institution that’s quickly going global in popularity, although I only rarely sampled their brews since I was just barely getting into beer at the time and didn’t care for the hoppier, earthier range they dabble in. I’ve since found a few moderately enjoyable lines of theirs I can’t remember offhand. Try them, though! They make the city proud.

First Watch has since evolved to the status of a corporate chain, but it was in KC that I first encountered it and its unerringly pleasant, appetizing breakfast diner ways. Very modern and accommodating, too! Never had a disappointing thing there.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Per capita, I suppose it’d be Westport, which I haven’t explored nearly enough. But even on its lonesome, in worn-down industrial districts just now being gentrified, KC Joe’s is worth the freaking trip to the city. (Besides those, probably the Country Club Plaza.)

COLUMBIA

Lower your expectations

columbia

Columbia is much more recommendable for its school than for its fine dining. Nevertheless, I have found some decent places there, if you consider that they operate in a relatively isolated and cheap area of the country. Generally, the nicer spots are better, but there’s stuff to love for every price range. I like sticking up for this city despite its drawbacks.

BEST:

Bleu is the place to be in Columbia, food-wise. It may be a faint echo of actual quality faux-French fare, but in CoMo even a serviceable knockoff shines in comparison. It really is a surprisingly nice spot though. I JUST NOW saw that it rebranded/closed the restaurant part to become a catering business. Way to go, CoMo. 

FANCY:

Sophia’s is only a half step below that, and even ditches a bit of Bleu’s gastronomic pretension.

Babbo’s is overpriced Americanized Italian food, but it is successfully fussed-over and higher-end, in a market that lacks such things.

Flat Branch is home to more cuisine that sounds better in theory than in practice, but points for trying. It’s still solid enough. This also gets the handicap for being in a college town in the middle of nowhere.

Upper Crust must hold a record for non-chain restaurant I have frequented the most, seeing as I went once a week for at least the last semester of college and almost always got the same sandwich and pasta salad combination. It was super tasty, fresh and a great deal on Tuesdays! This message paid for by Upper Crust. Not really.

Teller’s has the sizzle of being an urbane, food-forward bistro without much of the steak, so to speak. It took me a while going there to realize that. Once again, sympathy points for trying anything in Columbia more advanced than deep-frying a prize hog in Snickers goo.

MIDDLEBROW:

Shakespeare’s has been voted the top college town grub hangout in the country, and it’s hard to argue with that. The legend and atmosphere are arguably what you visit for, although the pizza is very well made. For my money, though, just a bit farther afield, Gumby’s has the superior slice. I love that place.

Sparky’s is really cool, being the aesthetic ideal of offbeat college-type vibes without getting too annoying or precious (dig the hilarious outsider art everywhere). More importantly, their ice cream is so good!

Pickleman’s makes a mean sub sandwich, and I would know from those, although I’m pretty sure it’s nationwide.

McAlister’s has struck it big with franchising and expansion lately, but I first encountered it in college. Perfectly agreeable deli-type place. I used to get some good meaty subs, but I now enjoy their subtler and healthier veggie sandwich.

Fazoli’s is a fairly broad chain, but it feels particularly at home in CoMo, seeing as it serves low-quality unfussy oily Italian fast food, which is a consummately American thing. I ate it and didn’t complain, so there you go.

Hotbox Cookies is a famous college student favorite, and I feel like every university town has a sweets shop that’s open late where you can make insane dining choices while drunk. Their unsoundly large cookies don’t disappoint. Actually, maybe just get a small one, you’ll still feel sick afterwards (in a good way).

Las Margaritas serves decent Mexican fare (insert refrain of Columbia being generally underwhelming).

JUNKY:

Ranking the processed, stale, trashy student union eateries in the Mizzou Student Center:

  1. The Brazilian churrascaria (Actually pretty good, if you have no real Brazilian steak experience to compare it to.)
  2. Pomodoro (Entirely enjoyable pizza!)
  3. The coffee place (It exists! And that’s about it.)
  4. The sandwich place (Very unsatisfying. And it only gets worse from here.)
  5. The burger joint (Surprisingly bad.)
  6. The sushi place (Fucking yuck, dude.)

Related: I completely missed out on any and all chances to visit the Heidelberg, supposedly the college dive to end all dives. Pity.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

I mean, it’s essentially one big area, but there never was and never will be a valid reason to go north of I-70. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Stick to downtown.

NAPERVILLE

Center of the WASP universe

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The tough thing with writing about Naperville’s cuisine is there are a lot of semi-exclusive and high-end chains that I love dearly, but they are still, after all, chains. So I tried to weed out the places that seemed like standalone establishments. Plus, besides two legends discussed below, there’s not really a regional style or specialty. Nevertheless, you can count on specialty overpriced eateries to be good every now and then!

BEST:

Meson Sabika is probably my favorite restaurant. This Naperville tapas eatery combines so many things I value – it’s no Michelin starred place, but it does successfully convey Iberian cuisine with its fattening soul food recipes. And yet that doesn’t go to its head, as it’s relatively practical and unfussy, being focused on shepherding the dinner rush through the evening with economy and tact. It’s always consistent, with good service and a surprisingly broad and delightful menu. I have shared lots of memories and valuable time there with loved ones. The essentials for any visit with a group of people who want to split some delicious plates would be the stuffed goat cheese crepe – holy moly, get two, you’re gonna want ‘em – but also the bacon-wrapped dates, chicken and/or beef tenderloin skewers, stuffed mushrooms, pork tenderloin medallions, and the Iberian ham appetizer (plus the sautéed banana and profiteroles for dessert). See? Pretty standard, hearty, quasi-Spanish fare, prepared and served with just enough care and detail to be memorable. Exquisite.

BROWSING AROUND TOWN:

As with the other major cities I’ve written about, there are the two archetypal “pizza and sandwich places you’ve gotta try”. Only in Chicagoland, ours are world-renowned for their deep dish and Italian beef/hot dogs. I am speaking, of course, about Lou Malnati’s and Portillo’s, two chains that I nevertheless included. Because you HAVE to eat at both before you die (Shout-out to Giordano’s, but it can’t compete with the classic Lou extra-cheese deep dish and sausage pie). At Portillo’s, either the Chicago-style dog or sweet-pepper Italian beef and cheese will do you just fine, with some cheese fries and chocolate cake, of course (although their menu is surprisingly deep).

Chicago isn’t really known as a BBQ hot spot, but if you find yourself hankering for smoked meat, there are two places I’d suggest. The award-winning Sharko’s has outstanding sauces mimicking the styles of different regions, along with tenderly smoked brisket that’s delicious (not to mention a boatload of quality sides). On the other hand, obscure family-operated eatery Gemato’s is a favorite in my family. They have very friendly service, the option for Gyros (which are authentic, since the owners are Greek) and generous, above-average beef and chicken barbeque. Their beans are great but I’m always too full after gorging on everything else to finish them.

Speaking of styles that would seem to be fish out of water, how about fish fresh out of the water? I have acquainted myself with two outstanding sushi restaurants in the area. The first I found was Wild Tuna, which is a very utilitarian and traditional Japanese place. They have wonderful veggie sushi, which admittedly isn’t as hard to come by, but their seafood offerings are also of decent quality. And the price isn’t too bad – sushi is deceptively filling. But the second one blows their fish out of the water (hah, I love my stupid metaphors) in some regards. Blue Sake Sushi Grill is more of a high-end fusion place, but everything is of slightly higher quality and price. Their vegan Cowgirl roll in particular is astonishing.

Board and Barrel is a newer Naperville bar with a fun country atmosphere and impressive live music that has rapidly risen in my estimation because of their Nashville spicy chicken sandwich, which gets my unabashed recommendation. A slow-simmering, but gradually fierce spice on a nicely breaded breast with some mild, unobtrusive slaw and fried pickles, I was instantly impressed with it.

Empire and Craftsman are two hip, bougie hangouts that are far more about their top-notch drink selections than anything else, but probably as an obligation, they serve food as well. Craftsman has a very Napa Valley-esque sampling menu of hors d’ouevres that was expensive but generally fine. I like Empire’s grub a bit more, maybe because I’m a sucker for burgers (I enjoyed the southwestern chorizo one).

Shout out to the Naperville Cooper’s Hawk, a delightful, impressive dining and wining experience that I hesitated to include because it’s most definitely a high-end chain. Still, another of my favorite places to eat. Dat free bread tho. And Gewürztraminer! Yum!

Le Chocolat might be overrated or overpriced or overcrowded, but dang it, I go there a lot and I enjoy it! It’s nice to feel pampered and indulgent sometimes, and that’s precisely what they cater to. Their menu is primarily different varieties of hot cocoa, and all the ones I have tried are excellent. Plus some good desserts.

Smallcakes is the same type of cookie-cutter cupcakery (mixed metaphors now!) that has gained traction in the Midwest, but it’s a very enjoyable one I found on my own.

Pomegranate is like Chicagoland’s attempt to do First Watch, and it’s mostly pretty good!

Then there’s Everdine’s, a fancy-pants grilled cheese vendor that makes, well, fancy grilled cheese. It’s definitely okay. It’s hard to screw up grilled cheese.

Solemn Oath and 2 Fools breweries might have different ownership (I can’t remember) but they’re right across the parking lot from one another, tucked away in a business complex. And both are excellent for newer suburban establishments, although the sweet cider drafts of 2 Fools are much more my speed.

Pitaville is a humble, likable place with outstanding falafel. Which reminds me, I really should get around to visiting more of the plentiful Indian and Middle Eastern places in the area.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Ummm…. Naperville?

MAINE/PORTLAND

Uh… I don’t like seafood

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So that’s a big obstacle to enjoying what the seaside has to offer for food options. That, plus the relative dearth of civilized and metropolitan areas along the coast. Besides Portland, which is really cool. Nevertheless, I’ll try to give a tour of where I’ve eaten, because some of it really is great! And the scenery is incredible.

BEST:

King Eider’s in Damariscotta is the best thing the midcoast region has going for it as far as the turf half of surf ‘n’ turf, and it’s really pretty good pub fare! Especially if you avoid ocean bugs in your mouth like I do, it’s a tasty haven in the middle of nowhere.

ELSEWHERE ALONG THE COAST:

Of course, when I say King Eider’s is the best, I secretly mean that Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro wins everything food-related in Maine, because I am a proud member of its cult. From the converted die-hard locals chomping daily on the homiest of homestyle diner food to the evangelists featured on its wall photos traveling around the world with the store’s T-shirts, this place has grown through persistence and consistency into a grassroots sensation featured on TV shows and industry rags alike. It’s nothing you haven’t had before, just better than you’ve ever had it. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but saying you went, having a pleasant meal in the middle of nowhere, and hyping it up for the next friend in line is all part of the deal. I always get the hamburger with their delectable mashed potatoes, and so it shall be. Lastly, their holiest-of-holy triple berry pie is not to be fucked with.

I practically have an ownership stake in The Cupboard. It’s charming how businesses in these small coastal towns can get so personable and symbiotically successful with their clientele. My family first palled around with cheerful owner and head baker, Mary, when she started out on her own in a much more limited space in New Harbor, peddling her world-class cinnamon rolls. Now she’s achieved as much growth as is possible on this peninsula, running a group operation out of a large log cabin ten minutes down the road and selling out her expanded breakfast menu to loyal locals every morning. It doesn’t count as going to the Pemaquid region unless you’ve tried one of those rolls.

Yet another example of this friendly generosity between owner and clientele, the rickety old penny candy and knick-knack shop Granite Hall has achieved a similar sort of notoriety in coastal Americana. The Round Pond staple is a memorable, friendly place, and pretty much what it says on the storefront: besides knit goods and housewares, they sell very cheap, very basic candy. I’m not sure whether to qualify it as a place where you eat things, but it’s certainly worth seeking out for the experience.

The Seagull Shop at Pemaquid Point is as big of a tourist trap as the midcoast has, yet it still can’t help but be charming and scenic. You can even skip out on the (overpriced but serviceable) gift shop restaurant if you feel the need, and survey the peerlessly rugged and gorgeous coast instead. In fact, this particular lighthouse and rocky shore was featured on nothing less than the state quarter. It’s a must-visit, but if you don’t eat there, just remember to get something with Maine blueberries and real maple syrup on it at some point.

Sea Dog is a surprisingly broad and accomplished limited chain of common Americana fare. Everything I’ve had there has been above average, but I may have been desperate for land-lubber food.

Portland’s The Great Lost Bear is a winningly rustic and irreverent spot that has a ton of lovingly prepared, unhealthy pub food. I personally got the BBQ Hot Mess, which is pretty much what it sounds like and served in a mason jar. Good eats.

You wouldn’t expect to find quality artisan pizza in Maine, but then, the state’s biggest city is a wonderfully surprising mini-metropolis these days. Portland Flatbread Company is a tasty restaurant right on the shore.

DiMillo’s is in a boat. That’s pretty much their whole thing. Fresh-caught seafood in a converted docked cruiser. Not wanting to be a total party pooper, I tried a bacon-wrapped scallop there once and once I got to the scallop part, I spit it into a cloth napkin. I should have gotten the fish.

The Cookie Jar is a delicious treat in a city I otherwise haven’t dined in nearly enough. They make an insanely decadent Bismarck (AKA jelly donut).

Shaw’s Wharf is a beautiful cove fishery in New Harbor that still makes acceptable burgers and chicken fingers for heathens such as I. Mostly check it out if you enjoy lobsters, clams and such. Plus they have sightseeing cruises and lovely views.

They’re really trying to be bougie at the Newcastle Publick House, and not quite succeeding. Props for trying to pull that off in the small, small town of Damariscotta, but the one time I went there with family I believe everyone was unsatisfied.

In any other region, Sarah’s would be a dime-a-dozen, vaguely Irish-themed eatery with reasonable but not great food. But on the coast in Wiscasset, it’s an oasis and a safe bet, at the very least. Just don’t expect greatness.

Besides my shameful dislike of seafood, I must admit here that I have never frequented the single most famous and busy Maine eatery, Red’s in Wiscasset. Even on the rare occasions when there’s not an outrageous line, what would I get there, a lobster roll? I think not!

BEST PLACE TO BE:

My carnivore self can’t really be trusted on this one, especially due to limited experience, but Portland would have to take it for lack of options elsewhere. Visit it if you can!

MINNEAPOLIS

A work in progress

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I have thus far only been to Minneapolis for one short trip, but crammed in a lot of good eats while I was there (I don’t think I actually ventured into St. Paul). So here’s my tentative best and worst, which I hope to augment someday with another visit.

BEST:

Perhaps Minneapolis’ biggest claim to culinary fame is just shoving melted cheese in the middle of a burger, with various nicknames and branding. Hey, I’ll take it! The storied, apocryphal legends of which warring eatery actually came up with this idea first are interesting to behold, but I tried one at The Blue Door, with their spin on it being bleu cheese in a BBQ burger. Reader, it was WAY better than that sounds. Great stuff. I also found a mild MN-based lager here that I really enjoyed and can’t remember the name of!

OTHER THINGS I HAD IN THE SPAN OF A THREE-DAY VISIT:

Dinkytown is the campus-adjacent downtown area that I explored more than anywhere else. My arbitrary first stop was Kafe 421, a perfectly pleasant, modest Mediterranean bistro. I had a nice sandwich and soup.

Black Coffee and Waffle Bar was a real standout considering its oft-repeated, marketable formula of serving fattening brunch fare to college students. All the stuff my sister and I ordered was delicious.

Psycho Suzy’s Motor Lodge is a river-adjacent complex of an eatery that is hippie/Tiki themed and primarily serves pizza, because why the hell not?? Their tacky attitude is a lot of fun and they make a great idiosyncratic slice. Plus, strong and sweet tropical cocktails!

Much like Hotbox, Insomnia Cookies is another University cookie place for stoned twentysomethings at midnight. A great, great s’mores cookie.

I had a simple, average chai at Bordertown Coffee, but I really admire their style and ethics. It’s a cute tucked-away student hangout spot.

Surly is a brewery that’s gradually growing in notoriety, further off campus. Lots of darker beers, plenty of IPAs and spicy brews, and that’s really not my thing, but they’re very solid if you’re into that. As far as their ancillary food menu, the loaded tots weren’t anything life-changing and were a bit overridden by spice, but the grub is good for brewery standards. Their campus is also immaculate, with lots of scenic party space inside and outside.

BEST PLACE TO BE:

Dinkytown, since it was the one I was closest to. To be continued!

 

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This Was A Triumph

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Portal doesn’t have as much plot as some other games, but is all the better for it since the focus on puzzles means that their setup and pacing is perfect. Its ambiguous, cynically funny tone and sleight-of-hand twist means the narrative integrates well in the spaces between gameplay. Unlike the “data log” approach that has run rampant in video game storytelling for years, much of the plot in Portal is dictated to you point blank by a mysterious computerized voice. Chell’s primary arc is her increasing awareness of what’s going on, in tandem with GlaDOS’ gradual dissolution into madness. The latter is achieved through Ellen McLain’s excellently nuanced performance, with equal parts dry menace, non sequitur and dark humor.

Unlike many similar rogue AI sci-fi stories, it’s not overwritten – each level has a few lines and (even better) visual context clues that flesh out the situation with economy and wit. Crucially, these intercom speeches almost never interrupt gameplay, unless the design dictates that the player sit still and notice something. It’s yet another smart move that Portal uses the same engine and player avatar as Half Life 2 – which is to say, the protagonist is silent and first person, leaving some mystery behind their reason for being and a chance for the player to imprint themselves on the character. (You can see from looping portals that you’re a jumpsuit-clad woman, but if I remember right, her actual name is never mentioned in the game itself.)

But discussing the dialogue leaves out Portal’s amazing achievements in mood and suggestion through elegant design. The environments tell the story, particularly the eerie and inexplicable walled-up living quarters that you first encounter at the perfect time, far enough along to notice something is amiss. Empty observation rooms peer down on you, silent cameras scan your every movement, the ambient music is at once calming and ominous, and the gradual stir craziness of being holed up in such pristine, sanitized chambers eventually starts to impact the player. (This tense mood is exacerbated by having to euthanize your “friend” in test chamber 17 and sneaking through an abrupt gauntlet of deadly turrets in chamber 16.) Furthermore, there is no context given about the world outside of Aperture until the coda. This experience is so slick and pared down, every thought counts, and the absences do some of the work too. Portal’s somewhat short runtime leaves the player wanting more, although the game has achieved everything it sets out to do by the finale.

Being a music fanatic, I have to gush about perhaps the game’s most famous moment: Jonathan Coulton’s ending song. Besides being a novel concept for a dénouement which perfectly complements the prevailing tone, “Still Alive” is a marvelous tune. It functions as an overview of the plot, filling in a last few holes. It’s an emotional peak of the game experience, especially with the shock of the cake reveal and the player being re-imprisoned immediately afterwards. It’s a clever way to display the credits and give you a reason to stick around, what with the coding language aesthetic and cute graphics. It’s a bonus epilogue that rewards the player for getting to the end with a suitably quirky payoff. It’s a beautiful melody being sung by an impersonal computerized voice – a metaphor for the whole experience, in a way. But more than anything, the lyrics are so wonderfully in character: at once a gallows humor take on the villain’s moral deterioration, a declaration of derision, and a strange plea of love (a hint at some rich subtext). There are even meta jokes in there, and a sequel stinger at the very end.

Speaking of which, Portal 2 doubles up on pretty much everything that made the first game successful (length, number of characters, game mechanics, plot twists, etc.), and is a complete success. This goes for the ending song as well, which is a worthy successor to “Still Alive”. There are technically two of them in concurrence, both very effective. I don’t want to go too much into the sequel’s many strengths, when it’s very similar to the original (in a good, harmless way that expands meaningfully on its predecessor). But both are essential experiences for anyone who cares about pop culture.

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“We Are You, Freeman.”

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Half-Life 2 flows. Its narrative takes place over three consecutive days. The pace of exploration, puzzles, combat and atmosphere is flawless and the four are inextricably woven together. There is unobtrusive, but unmistakable world-building beyond the heroic “escape, progress and retaliate” arc. There are sparing breaks in the action: some exposition delivered in close quarters here, a tone-setting televised monologue there. But the player herding in these instances is handled seamlessly, allowing time to explore its iconic environments and admire the still-capable graphics rendering it all.

Half-Life 2 sings. As with any Valve property, the physics engine and control layout have been designed with a PC in mind, and they are both extremely intuitive and responsive for what the game asks you to do. There is only one set path through the world, but the design disguises that linearity with a bold, universe-in-peril plotline and a convincing illusion of breadth and choice. The scripting (in the sense of AI and NPC dialogue) is top-notch, which keeps the fighting interesting and the interactions memorable. Speaking of singing, the score is equally accomplished, trading in tasteful ambient techno patterns and melodies at appropriate junctures, with lovely sound design to boot.

Half-Life 2 wows. From the moment it boots up, the introduction of new mechanics and concepts never winds down. The amazing thing is how brilliantly the game serves as its own tutorial, while never seeming anything less than an organic thrill ride. Again, while of its time in some ways, it is still a towering achievement of storytelling and immersion. This is thanks to its stunning technical and art design, creating an entire post-apocalyptic city through dynamic objects, textures and lighting. City 17’s maps are detailed and easy to differentiate, no matter how many corridors you walk or abandoned structures you explore. With such wrinkles as vehicular segments, cooperative levels and stealth objectives, the gameplay never flags.

Half-Life 2 endures. All its component parts, both artistic and mechanical, serve the narrative perfectly. Its aesthetic holds up thirteen years on, through careful programming and tasteful design. Besides some mild continuity, it is entirely possible to jump in and enjoy without having played its predecessor. Crucially, its themes never impede on the proceedings; they’re expressed along the way, on the fly. This culminates in a controversial, yet meaningful, open ending. After that, the two episodic sequels are outstanding continuations in their own way and get my highest recommendation. These days, all three are cheap on Steam and I would urge any adventure game fan or FPS dabbler to buy them and marvel at City 17, and Gordon Freeman’s daring one-man mission against time and fate.

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“I hope I […] get old”: The Five Year Gap

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By my count, at least 30 90s/2000s indie bands and rappers have reunited recently after a recording hiatus of five years or longer, a noticeable lull in a once-breakneck industry. It’s a strange period in the image and commerce of non-top 40 music. These groups, which had destructive and ironic stances on artistic and financial success, eventually found themselves in a niche climate where it was fashionable and reasonable to return, bolstered by the demand of their fan base. Of course numerous bands before the 90s endured this awkward pull back into the spotlight for endless reunion tours and whatnot, but it’s a strange situation when it starts happening to younger and younger artists. In any event, I have made efforts to familiarize myself with the earlier work and the new stuff by these musicians, and will categorize, based on their own standards, how well they did once they came back.

Sleater-Kinney’s new album is better than their supposed “classic” period, and my favorite since their last record, The Woods. In my opinion, they had just built up steam and figured out what worked in their songwriting with that album, and the new one picks up where they left off. Guided By Voices came out of the woodwork with a characteristic explosion of solid new material, which was silenced by their abrupt second breakup (and subsequent recent regrouping). Another band that improbably improved on their old output is Superchunk, who slowed down and polished their sound a bit, but made it more resonant and coherent in the process. Similarly, I far prefer Swans’ modern output to their old phase one stuff. It’s still psychotic, painful, impenetrable high-art chaos, but a sort that coheres into memorable musical experiences after enough exposure. It’s unlike anything else out there; the only close relatives I could describe would be stuff like Nick Cave, Captain Beefheart and Liars.

Demonstrating their usual disregard for decorum and lackadaisical unpredictability, Pavement had the stubbornness (and perhaps tastefulness) to not release any new music upon their much-heralded return, instead just touring to promote a greatest hits compilation. On the other end of the spectrum, the perennially damaged and embattled Replacements didn’t even have a chance to record before they imploded once again, out of bitterness and apathy. Dinosaur Jr., in their humble way, simply felt like making music again, and did so to general acclaim. Massive Attack does this on-again, off-again thing so often it’s more like an artistic roundtable that meets up every decade to fine-tune some collaborative work and then disappear. They’re currently in a fallow period.

Queens Of the Stone Age, like a few other groups, barely qualified for this criteria, seeing as their frontman and mastermind Josh Homme was busy with a big side project and went on a brief sabbatical between albums. But …Like Clockwork is a very good effort from them, and Villains is compulsively listenable as well. Younger upstart Vampire Weekend is also about to reach that five year gap length in 2018.

Also in this category were artists who operate slowly, and put out new stuff without losing a step. Built To Spill’s new record was fine, if unremarkable, and Beck’s five years in the making Morning Phase wasn’t very good at all, but that’s just because it’s moody acoustic Beck. In my book, moody acoustic Beck is rarely good. The pop-pandering, mainstream-slick Colors is at least a moderately enjoyable diversion, which also took a while to make.

Radiohead took an extra-long break after The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke started a couple new side projects, which were increasingly bad and didn’t bode well for the new record. Jonny Greenwood continued with his soundtracks, and Phil Selway even released a solo record. The eventual album, A Moon Shaped Pool, was definitely good, if not a revelation. The Magnetic Fields were prolific in their five-year sabbatical, crafting a behemoth five-disc vanity project I have yet to undertake listening to. LCD Soundsystem even went so far as to break up, causing their five-year split, and yet the inertia of fandom and boredom brought James Murphy back into the fold with the adequate and intriguing American Dream, justifying the return and almost making up for his foolish finality.

Elsewhere, Fleet Foxes became redundant and restless in the folksy revival they spawned, and dropped off the radar after Helplessness Blues. The Crack-Up passed by with modestly positive reviews but didn’t stay in the public eye. Grizzly Bear similarly took a sabbatical during their peak of cultural relevance, and maybe because of that, Painted Ruins is muddled and inconsistent, as though they’ve lost a step. There are still a few bangers on there amidst goofy experiments, however.

Past that category are three bands in particular who had run their course, peacefully split apart, and didn’t need to reconvene. But they did, to varying degrees of success. I’m talking about the Shins, the Strokes and Ben Folds Five. The middle band was already showing signs of wear and tear when they hung it up in 2007, and while their comeback records haven’t been bad, they haven’t really justified the regrouping beyond a few decent singles. The Shins, however, had a deceptively likable slow grower of an LP with Port Of Morrow. Not as good as their first three, but Mercer’s songwriting hasn’t lost too much luster. What’s more, it also contains perhaps the band’s best ever track, “Simple Song”. The current Heartworms is something I’ll check out at some point. I like the first single well enough. Meanwhile, Ben Folds Five misjudged the tone and cultural environment around The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind, which was quite uninspired and unremarkable by Folds’ impish standards.

Some groups had been speculated to resurface for some time after personnel changes and time for one-offs, like Modest Mouse and Blur. On both counts, these artists disappointed somewhat with their new efforts that weren’t worth the wait. Both of them split the difference between recapitulating old tricks and half-heartedly experimenting with new styles, while lacking the succinctness and energy of prior work. But by the same token, their previous legacies have secured their reputations and they could do very little at this point to ruin them. Furthermore, Damon Albarn took some time to tend to his excellent secondary endeavor, Gorillaz. Almost five years passed between their second and third albums too, due to other obligations. And it took another six-odd years for the newest one to be released. I haven’t heard many encouraging things about Humanz, but I’ll still check it out.

During this renaissance for reemerging musicians, a few long-gone bands picked up right where they left off. Faith No More’s new record is leaner and more sensible than some of their past classics, despite being no great shakes. Jane’s Addiction and Alice In Chains were also early proponents of this sort of cash grab (or revisitation, if you’re generous), but their new stuff was universally panned and I have no interest in listening to it. Longest of all these was the 21-year hiatus of 90s shoegazers My Bloody Valentine, which had become the stuff of legend. The shocking thing was that 2013’s m b v was a worthy followup to their massive cult classic Loveless.

Indie rappers got in on the action too, with A Tribe Called Quest reuniting before the unfortunate passing of Phife Dawg. De La Soul also popped up to release a couple post-breakup albums in the 2010s. It’s been more than five years since MF DOOM’s last proper solo work, or even since his most recent high-profile collaboration. Missy Elliott has been teasing new material for a while now, post-retirement. Janelle Monae is rapidly approaching this status with the follow-up to The Electric Lady, despite spreading her talents to other media in the meantime.

And then there’s the first indie/alternative outfit (at least within the parameters of this piece) to get back together after a breakup: the Pixies. They put aside their differences and went touring in 2004, even turning it into a concert film. Then, after another period of silence and solo work, they recorded two LPs of new material (without Kim Deal, which is a notable loss). Fittingly, their second act is sort of an average of all these cases. They didn’t put out any material for a while, then they did and it was regarded as awful or lackluster, whereas I find it solid with some faint hints of what once made them great. So at the end of the day, these two records may not add a ton to their legacy, but they don’t detract from it either.

Finally, an unusual instance: Chuck Berry quit the music making business in the late 70s, focusing instead on intermittent tours. When his health began failing in the last couple years, he mustered the strength to make one conclusive self-titled comeback album, before passing away earlier in 2017. The king of all things rock and roll took the longest break of all and went out on a high note.

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