Wednesday, January 23, 2008

COLUMN: Loose Meat

I've never claimed to be a particularly worldly kinda guy, but there's a secret part of me that's convinced I am.

I went to a liberal arts college, and that's supposed to make me well-rounded and stuff. I've travelled to at least a third of these United States. I watch a heck of a lot of TV, because I like to be aware of the issues -- or at least the latest episode of "Lost." As I type this, my web browser is tuned to a streaming video feed of a courthouse that perhaps sometime today Britney Spears may or may not walk into. See, I'm well-rounded and informed.

And as a well-rounded, pseudo-worldly cool dude, I like to stay abreast of national politics -- or at the very least find out who these mildly annoying people are who've been stumping through Davenport for the past month. As a former speech major, I'm intrigued by the campaign process and the tactics used by the candidates to gain support. Let's face it: Many, many people vote solely on a candidate's personality and NOT the issues.

Look at the famous Nixon/Kennedy debate. Polls at the time showed that most radio listeners felt that Nixon easily won the debate, but those who watched the debate on TV found Kennedy to be the clear victor. Why? Because on TV, Kennedy looked confident and unstoppable while Nixon looked like a pale, sweaty mess. To the average voter, the way a candidate comes across on camera is far superior to their message -- just ask Howard Dean, who was one "hooooooooah" away from the White House four years ago.

Anyways, as a fan of the way candidates manipulate the media, I was perusing an article in our paper the other day when something caught my eye. An Associated Press reporter was following the Clinton campaign and wrote this, in a piece we ran on January 3rd:

"Clinton put massive resources into the state over an objection from one of her top advisers who warned early on it would be tough for her. In pursuit of the Iowa prize, the world-famous senator ate locally popular 'loose meat' sandwiches while cameras recorded every bite..."

I was perplexed by this paragraph. Why the big deal about a loose meat sandwich? In fact, why the quotation marks around "loose meat" as though it were some strange Midwest delicacy unbeknownst to the rest of the world?

I mentioned this to a co-worker and was blind-sided by her answer: Loose meat IS a strange Midwest delicacy unbeknownst to the rest of the world. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I knew Maid-Rites were sort of a Midwest phenomenon, but I never had a clue that the entire concept of loose meat sandwiches is lost on the rest of the country.

Surely not. I decided to prove my co-worker wrong. As part of my work week at the paper, I routinely speak with an advertiser who lives in sun-baked Palm Desert, California. I immediately got her on the line and grilled her over the sensitive topic.

"What would you say if I mentioned the phrase 'Loose Meat Sandwich' to you?" asked the naive columnist.

"I dunno," she replied, "For starters, I'd probably go 'Ewwwwww!' What on Earth is loose meat?"

Maybe they just call it something different in California.

"It's like a hamburger but with crumpled ground beef," I tried to explain.

"Ewwwww!" again came the response. "You EAT that?"

All I could do was sigh.

"We kinda have that," she said as I felt a momentary relief. "It's like when you're grilling a hamburger and the meat accidentally breaks in two. Is that when the meat becomes 'loose'? Because I just call it 'Oops, the burger broke.'"

I tried to explain it one final time to her, to no avail.

"So it's like a Sloppy Joe but without the, umm, slop?" she inquired as I affirmed. "It's just, like, a Joe?"

"Kinda," I said with an eye roll.

"Ewwwww!" she said for the millionth time.

My "worldly" self had no idea that loose meat sandwiches are thought of as freaky by most of the continent. My friend in California, in fact, was so fascinated that she insisted I go take a picture of one and e-mail it to her. As all this talk of loose meat set a hankering in my gut for one, so I happily obliged and popped across the river to Ross'.

As I sat there enjoying the sandwich that apparantly the rest of the world considers more of a "Fear Factor" stunt than lunch, I wondered just how many Presidential candidates had choked one down for the cause. I have no idea, but I certainly hope that most of them did it at Ross'. I like to imagine countless Washington bigwhigs smiling their way through a Rossburger while staring at the bizarre mural that appears to show Humphrey Bogart mingling with Ross regulars, while I-74 is drawn as if bearing down on the restaurant itself (and is that Truman Capote sitting alongside a guy with cornrows in his hair?) Between the mural and the Magic Mountains, Ross' is a cherished institution and should be the dominant tourist attraction in town.

Apparantly we're not the only weirdos, though. My Californian friend tells me you can't find a BLT in the Golden State without avacado on it, which totally grosses me out -- though someday I'd love to walk into a restaurant and order something called a "BLAT." All I know is that I'm done pretending to be worldly. If the rest of the world can't get their head around loose meat on a bun, I'd rather stay a Quad Citizen.

Monday, January 14, 2008

COLUMN: Gossip

In Journalism 101, they teach you that the most important part of a newspaper story is the lead. You need to start off with a real bang -- something that'll lure the readers in and keep them glued to the story. Well, after a couple years of trying, I think I've finally come up with a lead worthy of your attention. Let's see if it works:

Word on the street is that I'm a sex addict.

Did it work? Are you hooked? Sadly, I couldn't even type that sentence without laughing -- but it's the truth. Well, kinda.

I work on the third floor up here at the newspaper office, and on our floor, the girls outnumber the guys by about 4 to 1. Not that I'm complaining, mind you -- there are worse fates than being surrounded by lovely ladies for 40 hours a week. But being in daily close quarters with the girl gaggle, I've discovered one stereotype that DOES ring true:

Ladies, you DO love to gossip. You're not happy unless no fewer than five juicy and/or salacious rumors are making their way around the office at any given time. I have a working theory, in fact, that gossip is what gives women their power. (Men, conversely, are powered by video games and ESPN.) If we could only harness the mighty energyof gossip, I'm certain we could cure global warming overnight.

In all fairness, I suppose I like a bit of gossip myself. I'm not immune from the lure of celebrity-skewering websites, and it's not as if I ignore those bawdy workplace rumors when they eventually reach my desk. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the newspaper office would be a hotbed of she-gossip unseen since high school.

Did you hear? So-and-so is mad at So-and-so because of what So-and-so said about So-and-so behind their back! And so-and-so on and so-and-so forth, that's what I hear on almost a daily basis. But this past week, we've entered a new realm, because full-on scandal erupted! (Note: If that last sentence made you excited, congratulations -- you are a girl.)

It turns out that Co-worker X "secretly" went on a few dates with Co-worker Y. This, as you'd expect, is front page gossip. I could care less. For all I know, they're off making baby Co-worker Z's as I type. I dunno. I'm staying out of it.

All I know is that it's made me horribly jealous. Why do I have to be the mousy guy in the corner? Why can't I be the center of attention? Why can't somebody talk in hushed tones about MY exciting life? As I was laughing about this to my immediate desk neighbors, we began to get devious. One of my co-workers suggested planting a rumor that I, too, was secretly dating a colleague.

No, that'd never work. One query to my "lucky" bachelorette would likely be answered with a "Shane? Eww, no!" and that'd be that. I laughed and said it would need to be something juicier. No, if we wanted a proper scandal, it would have to be something like, I dunno, someone saw me at a support group for sex addicts or something.

How brilliant is that? It's completely tawdry, completely unprovable, and best of all, completely ludicrous. I mean, look at my picture. Is that the face of a sex addict? I have a difficult enough time TALKING to girls. Let's just say that if I AM a sex addict, I'm doing a really, really lousy job at it.

We laughed and I went back to work. What I didn't know, however, is that mere moments later, another co-worker was headed my way when she was cut off by my friend Jerri. "I wouldn't talk to Shane," Jerri whispered in hushed tones. "He's having a bad day. Haven't you heard?"

I honestly didn't even hear it happening, but Jerri spent the next few minutes giving an Oscar-worthy performance. She made up a whole story: I had confessed my addiction to only my closest co-workers after their prodding. I entered treatment only after the repeated pleas of my parents. [I liked this one a lot, only to imagine the look on my poor mother's face if I were to waltz in and announce that I was addicted to nookie.] I was in recovery and looking to make a fresh start at life. It was a magical and gifted performance.

"Well, that's that," Jerri said after the co-worker left the room. "Congrats, you're a sex addict."

We laughed, but I didn't think it would really go anywhere. Six hours later, I'm off the clock and gallavanting around town when I bump into one of my co-workers. I begin to tell her about my nefarious day when she stops me. "Oh, I've already heard allllll about it, Mr. Sex-aholic."

"Weren't you on vacation this week?" I ask.

"I got a call at home."

That's right. In less than a day, the gossip had made its way through the building and onwards to off-duty co-workers and lands beyond. Right now, someone in Uzbekistan is learning that I'm one tawdry dude.

So it stops now. I have taunted and disrespected the awesome power of the gossip machine for the last time. For the record, I am not a sex addict, and weird apologies to those of you who are. No more rumor-mongering for me. In case you hear something, I am also NOT the walrus, I did NOT shoot the sheriff, and I did NOT let the dogs out. Oh, and as for the hearsay about me & Britney? I issue a terse "no comment."

Saturday, January 05, 2008

COLUMN: Best 'o 2007

I first got into journalism by reviewing records. In fact, it was a review of Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" that was my first published work in high school. I trashed the album, and my locker and my house got toilet-papered for a week straight as a result. Music remains my first love, and you have to indulge me annually when I spend a column waxing poetically over my favorite records of the year.

Our entertainment editor recently published his year-end picks, and I watched as he took the usual heat from our online commenters over his choices (as I suspect I will for mine.) Many of the comments questioned whether or not the musings of an entertainment writer from the Quad Cities really matter in the grand scheme of things. The real answer: No, they probably don't. We're not handing out Grammies, and our opinions aren't being sought after by record execs.

However, we ARE hardcore music fans blessed with a forum to share our love for pop culture. If you hate my picks, big deal. I probably hate yours, too. But if one person out there reads this list and discovers a band that they like, then hey, mission accomplished. That said, bask in the glow and wonder of my picks for the Best Darn Albums of 2007:

#10 - I'M FROM BARCELONA - Let Me Introduce My Friends (EMI)

Neither a single entity nor from Barcelona, the Swedish collective I'm From Barcelona finally saw their debut record get released in the U.S. this year. If you think a 29-member band from Sweden who sing songs about chicken pox and stamp collecting might be a little silly, you'd be right. But the feel-good silliness of the band is combined with a knack for crafting perfect, sunny-day pop songs that would fit on an Archies record, if Archie were Scandinavian and had 28 friends. What could have been a silly novelty record turns out to be a joyous celebration of the spirit of pop music. You'll be humming it for days.

#9 - ROBIN GUTHRIE AND HAROLD BUDD - Before the Day Breaks (Darla/Bella Union)

(Guthrie & Budd don't make videos, but above is a clip of Guthrie playing live in Peru earlier this year.)

I have to get past the fact that I once interviewed guitarist Robin Guthrie for a music website and found him to be one of the most egotistical, arrogant jerks I've ever come across. He might be a schmuck, but there's no denying the guy's immeasurable talent. This year Guthrie hooked up with ambient neo-classical pianist Harold Budd for two records of blissed-out ethereal soundscapes. It's not their first collaboration, but it may be their best. Despite what I think of the guy, if there's a heaven, Guthrie's guitar is its Muzak.

#8 - APPLES IN STEREO - New Magnetic Wonder (Simian)

The Apples in Stereo have been leading the resurgence of psychedelic pop music for nigh on a decade now, and fans were mortified last year when it was announced that husband-and-wife bandleaders Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney were getting a divorce. Rather than pack it in musically, though, the band persevered through personal strife and completed the album they'd spent two years crafting, and it's a magnum opus of pop cool. Featuring a guest list of some of the greatest indiepop musicians around the world, the Apples may have their best record yet, which softened the blow when Sidney officially departed the band upon the album's completion.

#7 - JUSTICE - Cross (Ed Banger/Vice)

Daft Punk have spent the last decade making France the epicenter of cool when it comes to dance music, but fellow countrymen Justice came on the scene this year and stole their thunder. Where Daft Punk excel at hard driving robotic beats, Justice inject their dancefloor grooves with electronic emotion. Thieving elements of soul, R&B, lounge, funk, and melding them with the relentless deep bass beats that are the calling card of the French scene, Justice have made THE soundtrack for the dancefloor this year.

#6 - M.I.A. - Kala (XL Recordings)

Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. was supposed to record her second record with American uber-producer Timbaland, but visa problems (likely stemming from the rapper's outspoken radical political beliefs) prevented her from recording in the U.S. Instead, she made the album in sporadic bursts while travelling the world, self-producing the record alongside friends. It's still the same beat-heavy, politically-driven hip-hop that made critics fall in love with her debut, but "Kala" absorbs the cultures it was recorded in, adding an irreverant world music flare to an already thrilling record.

#5 - MIKA - Life in Cartoon Motion (Universal/Island)

A record that you want to blare from your car but don't dare due to the questionable looks you'll get from passersby, Lebanese-born Mika has made the year's most flamboyant debut. Unabashedly thieving the best bits of classic Elton John while simultaneously resurrecting the over-the-top grandeur of Freddie Mercury, this record is the year's greatest guilty pleasure, and responsible for many shades-drawn dance sessions at my place.

#4 - PANDA BEAR - Person Pitch (Paw Tracks)

Panda Bear is the nom-de-plume of one Noah Lennox, best known as the keyboard noodler for Animal Collective, a band that music critics drool over but I personally can't stand. Lennox's solo work escapes the weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird prentention of Animal Collective, and instead takes the listener into a simple yet complex world of looped guitars, otherworldly samples, and ghostly vocals. The result is a haunting epic that sounds like Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys trapped on an iceberg.

#3 - ROBYN - Robyn (Konichiwa)

You might remember Robyn as the Swedish chanteuse who reached the American Top 40 with "Show Me Love" in 1997. Modeled by her record label to follow in the shoes of the Britneys and Christinas of the world, Robyn found herself stifled by lame songs and image consultants. Instead of going along for the ride, she bought out her contract, formed her own record label, and put together her own team of producers, shunning mainstream pop for fierce Nordic electro beats and synths. The result is a snapshot of poise and confidence, and the album Gwen Stefani's been trying to make for years now. Right now, it's only available in Europe, but with a stateside release due this spring, she'll be a household name by this time next year.

#2 - BAND OF HORSES - Cease to Begin (Sub Pop)

Sometimes the best records of the year don't have to be overly-indulgent artistic statements. Sometimes all it takes it takes is great rock & roll, and that's what Band of Horses specialize in. When co-founder Mat Brooke left the band last year, most critics thought it would spell the end of the group, but in the hands of frontman Ben Bridwell, the band took on a new vision and came out with a record of mature, uncomplicated beauty.

#1 - OF MONTREAL - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (Polyvinyl)

The brainchild of acclaimed songsmith Kevin Barnes, of Montreal have been crafting eclectic pop gems for over a decade now... but this is no ordinary pop record. Over the past couple years, Barnes married, moved to Norway, had a child, fell into a stifling depression, saw his marriage crumble, and eventually pulled himself together and reconciled with his wife. This album, recorded mostly solo on a laptop computer, chronicles it all - from the lowest moments of clinical depression to the highest peaks of personal redemption. It's an emotional rollercoaster of dance beats and glam funk. The greatest album thus far from the greatest band making music today, period.

Honorable Mentions:

The 1900's, Cold and Kind

Tiger Saw, Tigers on Fire

Shout Out Louds, Our Ill Wills

Architecture in Helsinki, Places Like This

Caribou, Andorra

Airiel, The Battle of Sealand

Miguel Migs, Those Things

The Polyphonic Spree, The Fragile Army

Britney Spears, Blackout

(Seriously tho, for the train wreck that she is, Britney's producers made an amazing top 40 record.)