Thursday, January 28, 2010

January Mailbag

What do coffee beans, Wes Anderson, meta-blogging, scarves, and "sad bastard music" have in common? January's Mailbag!

Turns out all of you had plenty on your mind this month. So, as we reach winter's halfway point, I figured now's as good a time as ever to take some spring cleaning to Ye Ole Mailbag.

Let's get after these issues and more in the January's Mailbag.

(As always, these are questions from actual readers. If you'd like to send one in, just drop me a line!

Hey Chris, you travel a bit. What are some of your favorite spots across the country? --Mark, Brooklyn
Great question. The good news is that I do get to travel to a lot of places. The bad news is that I usually don't get to spend much time in those places. So, while I'm there, I usually stay close to "home" and don't get as experimental as I'd like. If you ask me my favorite coffee houses, diners, and music venues, that's easy. If you want to know what Texas town has the rowdiest rodeo, or where to find great laser tag in the Midwest, I'm woefully unprepared.


Favorite Coffee Shops/Cafes
Mudspot, New York
It's very near my place, it's cozy, the coffee's excellent, it's quiet enough during the week that you can read/work, it's loud enough (with their music playing and typical clientele) that you can socialize and not worry about people hearing your conversation. The real tipping point, however, is the music. They've seemingly hacked into my iTunes. Last time I went, I was there for 2 hours, and heard the entirety of Help, Rubber Soul, and Exile On Main Street. In terms of playing what I like/want to hear, they're batting an impossible 0.979 average. They've officially surpassed the previous mark held by the Greenhouse in Nashville, which played My Morning Jacket's Z and Pearl Jam's Yield back-to-back the first time I was there. Props to Greenhouse for picking slightly more obscure/rewarding albums; points deducted because both have one decidedly "awkward-to-hear-in-a-bar" song ("Into the Woods" and "Push Me/Pull Me").

Novel Cafe, Los Angeles
The whole Larchmont strip gets a nod here, but my single favorite spot in LA is the Novel Cafe. Just a great place to kill five hours--low-key, great menu, good people-watching, excellent service. If you're in no rush, they're in no rush. Very fond memories here from my last trip to LA.

Uncommon Ground, Chicago
UG also doubles as one of Chicago's coolest music venues, and one I hope to revisit soon. It's one of those places that just keeps going--room after room of local art, intimate tables, great service. Last time I was there, I had to park nearly a mile away and fought the Chicago winter winds all the way to the front door, hauling a guitar and box of merchandise. I kid you not: three waitresses immediately grabbed me, seated me by a fire, brought me multiple hot beverages, and offered me (somehow) extra scarves. It's one of the warmest places on earth.

Greyfriar's, Chattanooga
Centrally-located, good coffee, a mixed and decidedly weird crowd, and laissez-faire service. Sometimes, that's all you need in the Noog.

Best Steak
Mastro's, LA. My friend Jay ordered everything like he'd been a million times. I said, "you're not even looking at a menu, you've never been here before...what gives?" He just shook his head and plowed through a seafood tower. Later, in his car, I found a Frommers guide to Los Angeles under the passenger seat. I flipped to Mastro's entry, curious to see what Frommer had to say about the meal I'd just enjoyed. Turns out Frommer recommends literally every item Jay ordered. In other words, he ordered exclusively off the Frommers guide.

Also, the steak's awesome.

Best Mexican
El Palenque, Nashville. I can't vouch for anything on the menu except their chicken mole, because that's all I order, all I will order, and all I ever dream about.

Best BBQ
Central BBQ, Memphis. It really depends on what item you're craving, but if you told me I could only have one type of BBQ in the world right now, I'd get a full rack of wet ribs from Central and not think twice. Ask me again in an hour, though--I'm fickle.

Best Wings
DBo's, Memphis (the original on Kirby). Runner-up: Wing Stop in Ft. Payne, Alabama. Wing Stop is semi-franchised, but the Ft. Payne location is special: their cajun wings are totally different than the ones I've found elsewhere. Also, they're endorsed by Troy Aikman.

Irish Pubs: I can't narrow this down, but I will say that an Irish pub owned and operated by actual Irish people is automatically 3000% better. In my experience, these are easier to find in NYC, Chicago, and (oddly) small towns in the South.

Happy Hour: Again, this is impossible to pick. Quick tangent: the best places to have a cheap drink with a friend are always--always, always--college towns in cold climates. I don't say this because I'm a college kid, or because I'm spending happy hour with college kids. I say this as an outside observer: there is no place on earth that sells cheaper beverages than a college bar in a quiet and primarily cold locale. Arizona State, Florida, and other warm-weather huge colleges top the "Party School" rankings every year, but from what I've seen, nobody is "partying" harder than a kid at, say, Virginia Tech. Why? Because February's brutal in Blacksburg, and you can buy a cask of moonshine for ten cents and a ball of yarn.

These are the things I feel you need to know.

(What am I missing? What are some of your favorite spots across the country? Hit up the comments and let me know!)

Hi Chris! Which is your absolute favourite movie, ever? --Helena, Sweden
Awesome question, and bonus points for the European spelling of "favorite." I've always preferred that spelling. In honor of Helena, Sweden, and worldly phonics, I'm using alternate spellings for words like "favourite" and "colour" for the duration of this answer.

I'll break this question down into sub-categories, then give a gun-to-my-head answer for all-time favourite.

Category 1: Best Movies I've Ever Seen
These are movies I love, own, watch often, recognize their influence, and admire greatly. For whatever reason, they don't resonate as deeply as another movie of their genre might.

Sometimes there's a gap between the "best" thing and your favourite thing: Michael Jordan was the best basketball player, but Magic Johnson was always my favourite; Sgt. Pepper or Revolver are likely the "better" Beatles records, but my favourite is Help. And so on...

The three best movies I've ever seen, in no particular order:
The Godfather
The Godfather II


These are also on the short list for all-time favourite. For the AFI snobs out there, I've never seen Citizen Kane, and have maybe seen 40 of the "Top 100." I do, however, OWN a copy of Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding.

Favorite Dramas Since 1990:
American Beauty

Quiz Show

Pulp Fiction


Good Will Hunting
The Dark Knight
The Departed

The Usual Suspects

Favorite Comedies (or, "Non-Dramas" if that's easier) Since 1990:
High Fidelity

Royal Tenenbaums
Love Actually
Almost Famous

Oceans 11 (remake)
Jerry Maguire

(my favorite of the silly comedies like Old School, Superbad, etc.)

Favorite Dramas Pre-1990:
The Godfather
The Godfather II


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Cool Hand Luke

Favorite Comedies (or, "Non-Dramas" if that's easier) Pre-1990:
The Apartment
The Graduate

Now, I'm 99% certain I have some unforgivable omissions. Still, glancing at my library, and off the top of my head, that's the list of semi-finalists. Now, the Finalists!

The Graduate
High Fidelity

Royal Tenenbaums

American Beauty

The Apartment

Unsurprisingly, my favourites lean toward the less dramatic movies, and those with (relatively) happy endings. These are also the movies I find myself re-watching the most. I always find a new favourite line, a new favourite moment (now I'm just piling on the "favourites"), or identify with a new character in unexpected ways. They continue to surprise me, amaze me, and deeply resonate, no matter how many times I've seen them.

But there can only winner.

So, my gun-t0-the-head pick for All-Time Favourite is the same after heavy deliberation as it was when I first read the question:

The Pick:
Royal Tenenbaums

Everything--from its conception, writing, acting, directing, and execution--is so effortlessly brilliant that, ten years later, I still can't quite believe how good it is. In its easy perfection I can only compare it to a modern-day Shakespeare comedy. For me, it's operating at that level. Almost every moment is inspired, heartening, and vital. It's been hugely influential in terms of its directorial style and comic voice. It's always engaging, fresh, immediate, and occasionally breath-taking. I've written many times about Royal Tenenbaums, so I'll leave it at this: it's the closest thing to a perfect movie I've ever seen, and no movie resonates more with me personally.

(What's your all-time favourite movie? Or, "favorite," if you prefer.)

Chris, I'm about to flip the script on you! I'm about to give you a dose of your own medicine! You ready??? "You are going out tonight. You are going out to do whatever it is you would like to do for a fun night of festivity and frivolity. This can include anything from vandalizing mailboxes to playing lacrosse to finishing a jigsaw puzzle. You get to assemble your posse for the night. You can pick ANY FOUR MEN OR ANY FOUR WOMEN on the planet, friends, celebrities, athletes, etc. Who is in your entourage and why?" One of your own Fan of the Month questions turned against you! Boom! How does it feel?!? --Jason, Atlanta
I have tasted my own medicine, and it is bitter. Bitter indeed. Well-played, Jason.

In fact, I've gotten a few emails to this affect, asking me the same questions I ask each Fan of the Month. I picked Jason's, however, because it's my personal favorite.

Many Fan of the Month fans have selected friends, spouses, and family members. I understand their reasoning: they're nice people, they appreciate their loved ones, and want to have fun with the people they know best. On paper, this makes sense. On paper, I totally agree.

On paper, though, you wouldn't have the option of hanging out with Pele, or Queen Elizabeth, or Carrot Top. And that's why I'm not picking anyone I know for my posse: I can do that anyway. I can hang out with my family or friends in real life. Why would I do this in a fantasy-world answer?

This is me, taking the people I love the most totally for granted for the purposes of a ridiculous question.

A few ground rules for the selection:
1) I'm not picking any women for the posse. Here's why: if there are three guys and one girl at a table, what happens? Those three guys talk to that one girl. She's the topic of conversation, and she's the center of attention; she is, essentially, the party. This happens every time; it's normal behavior, and is frequently fun. But the goal here is to have the best possible time, right? So why not pick four guys that will attract all kinds of people (women, men, celebrities, athletes, politicians, despots, etc.) to us. It's an issue of keeping the focus outward rather than inward.

2) No other musicians of my general age and type. Again, the goal is to bring people into our party. I want to have limitless options; if I know what I bring to the table, why double up? Also, who likes hanging out with twenty-something musicians? Not me--they're the worst.

3) Again, diversity is key. If you pick three older famous actors, and one of them is George Clooney, you're signing up for trouble. Previously towering egos will be bruised as Clooney out-Clooneys them all night, and you'll end up with a sad posse and drowned sorrows.

4) Chemistry is key. You want different types of guys in the posse, but you also need to keep in mind how they would fictitiously get along. I bet Bill Russell is cool, and I bet Prince Harry is cool, but I doubt they'd have much to say to each other. These things matter.

5) Finally, "crazy" is fine, but "insane" is not. We want to have the best possible time; this means outlandish, unconventional behavior can be appropriate. Crimes against humanity, jail sentences, and life-altering trauma are buzzkills. If you can't bet your own life on this person's behavior, don't pick him. In other words, Lamar Odom is fine; Ron Artest is not.

(Also, can you tell by now that my posse's going to Vegas?)

With that in mind, here's my 4 (in no particular order):
1) Chad OchoCinco. For 8 million reasons, but here are a few:
a) If Twitter is any indication (and he's on it 24/7, so it would have to be), he never stops having fun. Ever.
b) If there was a Nobel prize for "talking trash," he would win it every year, then demand its name be changed to OchoCinco.
c) He brings the sports-world into our party (athlete friends, fans, etc.)
d) He never drinks, so we can travel safely.
e) He's hilarious.

2) John Slattery. Better known as "Roger Sterling" in Mad Men, I'm really basing this pick off the reputations of his characters (middle-aged booze-hounds and womanizers), and his episode commentaries with Jon Hamm, in which they're off-the-cuff, smart, incisively funny, and (possibly) drunk. He's automatically the posse's elder statesman, its unspoken leader, its most experienced member, and maybe its biggest cad. In my mind, he brings "Clooney-things" to the table without any of the Clooney-fuss.

3) Andre 3000. Because he's the coolest human alive today, period. I do worry that he's a bit of an X-factor (he might disappear an hour into the night, only to resurface in Norway), but whatever. He's Andre 3000. If he's in the room, there is no ceiling.

4) Jimmy Kimmel. Hear me out. I rarely watch Kimmel's show, and I can't call myself a Kimmel super-fan. But every great posse needs a mediator: someone who blends personalities, keeps everyone together, keeps conversation flowing, facilitates jokes, is up for anything, never takes things off the table, brings some things to the table, is funny but not showy, is likable but not "the star," and (above all) relishes that role. That, combined with Kimmel's reputation as one of Hollywood's nicest--and, subsequently, most popular and well-connected--stars makes him a natural choice. He is, essentially, the host of the evening.

What we're lacking: muscle. We don't have the obligatory "guy who can take absolutely anyone in a fight in case there's trouble." Hopefully, we don't run into the cast of Jersey Shore.

Almost made the cut: Will Ferrell, Aziz Ansari, Rece Davis, Charles Barkley, Jon Hamm, Bill Simmons, Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt, Paul Rudd, Shaq, Alton from the Real World Las Vegas.

And, finally...

You posted Songs for February last year and said that you were ending with Songs for January this year. I call shenanigans--you can't quit the playlist! Give us at least a few NEW Songs for February this year, please. --Michelle, Austin

In lieu of a full-fledged Monthly Playlist, here are ten good songs for February 2010, the darkest, deepest, dreariest 28 days of the year:

Wilco, "Sunken Treasure"

Every moment of this song feels weighed down by some intangible, immovable force. It's not the sound of someone giving up; it's the sound that comes next.

Bruce Springsteen, "Streets of Philadelphia"
Philadelphia connection aside, this is truly one of Bruce's best songs. Of all The Boss's songs that grapple with desperation, loneliness, heartache, and "night-time-wanderings," this one resonates the most with me.

Elliot Smith, "Everything Means Nothing To Me" By itself, one of Smith's prettiest melodies and most honest lyrics. Heard alongside "Everything Reminds Me of Her," it's heart-breaking.

Bob Dylan, "Make You Feel My Love"
The closest Old Bob gets to crooning. Some of Dylan's finest songs come from a place of ill-fated determination. Like in "Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window," "Lay, Lady, Lay," "Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance," "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and so many others, you can hear a broken heart underneath the bravado.

R.E.M., "Tongue"
One of the weirdest on an album full of bizarre love-songs (Monster), it's also sweet, winning, gorgeous, and a sliver of sunlight in the grayest month.

Josh Ritter, "Best For the Best"
A remarkable, tight little lyric, but most fitting for its calm exterior hiding a well of bitterness. Noticing a trend?

Uncle Tupelo, "Black Eye"
Jeff Tweedy makes his second appearance as Uncle Tupelo's finger-picked ballad just feels like winter. Something about that dark, spare guitar tone feels inherently wintry to me.

Lucero, "Fistful of Tears"
Reverb-soaked keyboards can sound like February, too. Arguably their most bathetic song (and never a favorite of mine), it's still gorgeous, and season-appropriate.

Foo Fighters, "February Stars"
What's more amazing: this song itself, or the fact that I left it off last year's list?

The Killers, "Goodnight, Travel Well"
I remember reading a Radiohead interview where one of the members said he wished they could've re-done "Climbing Up the Walls." He felt, of everything on OK Computer, it was the one moment where they took the song to an extreme; they "over-did it." If "Climbing Up the Walls" overdoes "dark, scary, haunting, atmospheric tidal waves," then "Goodnight, Travel Well" re-defines "it." A powerful, frightening, and desperate monster of a song that you don't want to revisit. Just like February.

And there you have it! At least a Songs for February snack to enjoy. What are your Songs for February?

Until next time, Mailbaggers!

Goodnight, and travel well.


ross k. said...

I've never heard of this Central BBQ. I've only been told Rendezvous. I guess there's no problem fitting in one more tasty BBQ joint if I ever get to Memphis...

Is there anything approaching good BBQ in Nashville, now that I'm here? I see it around sometimes and scoff, figuring it non-triumphant. Your thoughts?

Chris Milam said...

RK, the short answer is "nope." Given, I haven't tried 100% of BBQ joints in Nashville, but I have tried 100% of the "big name" places, and some random holes in the wall. It's just not a great place for BBQ. Sorry.

On the bright side, you can eat queso any time you like. I might import some soon...

ross k. said...

Good call on Andre 3000 being pretty much the coolest living human...

...but calling The Graduate a comedy? Yes, it ends in a marriage (which it then deflates slightly), and that is one of the requirements, but other than that, it's like saying that the sun turning into a red giant star, baking the earth, then shrinking, burning out and freezing is comic. Trading Places it's not. The Graduate is stunning, but it always made me sit in a chair pensively in the dark alone, despairing of going out or contacting anyone that day. Comedy? I challenge you to a duel with my bought-in-Tennessee-with-no-permit firearm that I have every right to take into a bar and aim at those SEC fans whose loyalties I do not share.

Post a Comment