Cruel Country

I know I said this about the last one, but I really think this might be the best Wilco album since Sky Blue Sky.

Ode to Joy

If Wilco The Album and The Whole Love and Star Wars and Schmilco never happened, and Ode to Joy was the follow up to Sky Blue Sky, I'd probably be confused and disappointed by it. But it would at least make sense. But those other albums did of course happen, and they've all left me in varying states of frustration and ambivalence, be it from Album and Love's lack of new ideas and general dispassion, or Star Wars and Schmilco's stubborn dryness. But Ode to Joy finally feels right. None of its individual songs—"Love Is Everywhere (Beware)" perhaps excluded—are nearly to the level of their catalog leading up to this 'frustration and ambivalence' era, but the album as a whole is refreshingly engaging. It contains little mysteries which I don't even know are there until they've hooked me, and it keeps inviting me back, and I'm happy to oblige. But most refreshing of all is that like every great Wilco album (which, again, is basically all of them up until those other ones), this feels like its own world. It has its own palette and speaks its own language. Yeah it kinda borrows some sounds from Star Wars and Schmilco, but it actually does something with them. Even the album cover works.


First: I love that this album is called Wilco Schmilco. If you know me and you know anything, you know why.

Second: I'm sad that this album is kind of a bore. It's interesting, and kind of like Star Wars it has a very consistent palette, and feels unfussy and natural. But the songs just aren't working for me, and something about Tweedy's delivery is very sleepy; he never raises his voice higher than 'man trying to be quiet while recording bedroom demo as not to wake his neighbors.' It becomes a little grating after a while. It's a choice, sure, but he does it on every song and it doesn't hold up.

Third, and most importantly: Wilco has clearly and obviously entered a new phase of their recording career. Their albums are no longer events. They're no longer Statements. They're just collections of songs, some good, some not good, all basically less than their previous output. In fact, I believe the last truly great song they've recorded was "Wilco (the song)", which was the lead track on Wilco (the album), and simultaneously acted as the end of phase 1 and the beginning of phase 2. They just as easily could've ended their recording career by releasing the song as a single and saying "goodbye," and it would've been the perfect ending. Which in a way it did, because the rest of that album was mostly a snooze—albeit a competent one—as was The Whole Love and Star Wars and now Schmilco. Also interesting that they've now released almost as many albums in this new phase, four, as the five they released in their Important Classic Album phase. Or depending on your feelings about Sky Blue Sky those numbers are flipped (I of course believe Sky Blue Sky to be a masterpiece and disregard any arguments to the contrary, and in fact my defense of Sky Blue Sky is written into the very mission of this blog). In fact, I'd actually take my 2-phase theory farther and say that this second phase is now into 2b, starting with Star Wars, the point where Wilco themselves have realized that they no longer share their younger selves' ambitions, and aren't even trying to record Important Statements, which they were perhaps attempting and failing on Wilco (the album) and The Whole Love. Now they're just hanging in a studio and recording tunes and not worrying too much about it, which is probably why these last two are certainly more enjoyable than the former two. Which is to say: Schmilco isn't bad at all. But it's absolutely not Summerteeth.

Fourth: You know, actually, the fact that it's called Wilco Schmilco is actually the most important thing here. That is amazing. I love this band.

Star Wars

Jeff Tweedy: Hey guys, I totally forgot we have to do the Pitchfork Festival next weekend! Here, I scrounged up some demos from Loose Fur and the record I made with my son so we can release a secret free album and get some buzz first. Can you guys help me record it tonight?

Nels Cline: Seriously? Ugh. I don't know. I have to go across town to record a jazz album in two hours. Can I just make a bunch of noise with my guitar and set the mics really close to the amp?

Jeff Tweedy: Sure, I guess, yeah.

Glenn Kotche: Can I offset his impenetrable guitar fuzz with tastefully humanistic percussion?

Jeff Tweedy: That's the spirit, Glenn!

John Stirratt & Pat Sansone (in unison): Can we—

Jeff Tweedy: Who are you?

And... scene!

Sky Blue Sky

Can't sleep. Dwelling on the fact that music critics continue to belittle Sky Blue Sky as being one of Wilco's 'lesser works.' No, no, no, no, no. I just read some review that half-bashed the new My Morning Jacket record (while still liking it), and comparing it unfavorably to Sky in this joking, sort of snotty manner. I mean, geez, if you're going to compare the new MMJ record to Wilco records, the obvious choice should be Wilco The Album. Sky is way more in line with It Still Moves, people. And Z is Summerteeth and At Dawn is Being There and they have no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Get it right, you nincompoops!

Wilco (the album)

This, more than Animal Collective, more than The Decemberists, and more than whoever else, was my most anticipated album of this year. Sky Blue Sky, in my mind, was their best album, and the couple times I saw them live made me a firm believer that Wilco is currently the Best Band In America (TM). Hands down. Not only was that last album great, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the band to take its sound (although, really, they've done that on every album they've released). But, as everyone could've guessed, I'm a little let down by it. It's not a bad album at all. It just doesn't have enough of any one thing going for it to make it a great album. The songs are okay--"Wilco (the song)" is already a classic--but the compositions are often slighted by unnecessarily fussy arrangements. Nels Cline, their new secret weapon, has some cool guitar parts, but they never really get off the ground, or completely explode before liftoff. Really, they're existing in an awkward middle ground between Untouchable Singles Band (Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and Experimental Jam Band (Sky Blue Sky, A Ghost Is Born), and not really excelling at either. But to be fair, I didn't like Sky Blue Sky after the first couple listens either, so we'll see where this goes.

Mariscos El SubmarinoQueens

Who knew that I loved ceviche? Raw fish dowsed in citrus and seasoning, I don't know, doesn't sound like my thing. But after an eye opening experience at Caleta 111 a while back, and now my local NYT-approved "hidden gem" of a Mexican ceviche place Mariscos El Submarino, I think I'm on board with this whole endeavor. And when I say NYT-approved, I really mean that Submarino has been appearing on every Best Of list in a bunch of different publications this year. You'd usually assume that means it's some sort of cool new hotspot, but there's truly nothing cool about this place. And not even in a "cruddy little hole in the wall" way. Their logo is a clip art cartoon of a yellow submarine with a (probably offensive but not really?) stereotypical Mexican mustache on it. I mean I guess there is a certain string of Bushwickian thinking that would lead that to be cool, but just trust me that it is not that. The walls are covered in other fish cartoons, and the entire place is inhumanely lit with bright white fluorescent lights.

But the ceviche! Wow! I mean, I guess wow, because I thought it was delicious, and seemingly does every food writer in New York. But like I said, I truly have only had ceviche like 3 times in my life now, so hell if I have any idea what makes it good or bad. But just on pure enjoyment alone, hell yeah, I'd say this is some excellent damn ceviche.

98k HamburgerQueens
Chicken sandwich

So I'm trying this new burger-slash-chicken place in my neighborhood (well rather, the adjacent and heavily Chinese and Taiwanese neighborhood of Elmhurst), 98k Hamburger. It's fairly new, I'd seen it before and thought that I'd give it a shot some day. It's mostly unremarkable from the outside, other than they have an odd logo that almost looks something like a gun scope? Who knows.

But as I'm waiting for my order inside, I see that there's some sort of crossed-rifle military or paramilitary crossed-gun insignia stenciled on all of their seats. Very odd, definitely not an accident, but suddenly their gun scope logo makes some sort of sense. I don't really understand the design decision, maybe they just got the chairs from some surplus outlet that made them for a different client?

But then I go around the corner from the register after ordering, and in the hall leading to the bathroom there are these giant vinyl wall graphics, both high contrast, like comic-book style black and white. One is a woman in a military hat holding a small machine gun. One is a guy with a stocking cap pointing a handgun towards the camera. WTF? So aggressive! But weirdly familiar?

Then I look further down the hall into the open door of the bathroom, and when I see the vinyl design on the bathroom wall suddenly it all makes sense; my god, this is a PUBG themed restaurant.

A quick google of "98k PUBG" showed me that the Kar 98, aka the 98k, is a very popular sniper rifle in the game. And that the crossed rifles of the military insignia on the seats were indeed the silhouette of the 98k. I further noticed the phrase "Winner winner chicken dinner" vinyled on another wall, which initially made sense for it being a chicken restaurant, but suddenly made way more sense in the context of a fucking PUBG themed burger and chicken place randomly on the streets of Queens.

It's so weird! The oddest part being how they don't like really go for it, y'know? If you don't notice the rifle insignias, or go back to the bathroom and see the PUBG logo behind the toilet, you wouldn't really guess what's happening. Because otherwise the restaurant is a very average, plain, independent fast food counter, playing some adult-contemporary Chinese pop music on the radio and the weather channel looping on a TV in the corner.

And yes the chicken sandwich was a winner.

Chun YangQueens
Toffee cheese foam cocoa latte

Best toffee cheese foam cocoa latte I've ever had.

Taiwanese pork chop sandwich

This place Partea (formerly Play Date, I don't know if the rebranding is a step up or down), is right in the heart of Flushing, and is basically an arcade that only contains claw machine games. I'm sure if you're into that thing it's probably pretty fun. But up front, they also serve bubble tea, and an assortment of fried chickeny things, and fries, and maybe some simple dumplings. I never thought much of this place walking by it, until one day they were advertising this new Taiwanese pork chop sandwich. Now, I'm sucker for a fried pork loin sandwich, which basically are impossible to find here, and I did once have a Tawainese pork chop (also in Flushing), and thought it was delicious. So yes, I was immediately interested. A few weeks later I was finally in the right place at the right time, so here we go!

You might notice above that I posted a picture of the advertisement, rather than the actual sandwich. This is because the actual sandwich I was served looked perfect. Exactly like the professional photo. It was remarkable really. And it tasted nearly as ideal. Subtle, not some extreme taste explosion, but just a really nicely marinated and seasoned pork, some five-spice flavor vibes, fried just about perfectly, topped with some cole slaw and that was it. Honestly, it was good enough that a restaurant could basically use it as the cornerstone product of the entire menu. Like "Omg you have to go to this new Taiwanese pork chop sandwich place!" The fact that it was just a new menu item at this place that sells boba tea and hosts claw machine parties is pretty wild.

Arepas CafeQueens
Arepas de pernil

I don't have a lot to say about Arepas Cafe, other than that it was excellent, and I want it on the record here for when the day comes 6 months from now that I'm putting together my best of the year list.

Although it's funny that, considering that my neighborhood is deeply and thoroughly Colombian, with 200 different places to get arepas, but it was this cafe in Astoria that really knocked my socks off.

Umami BurgerManhattan

I think people don't like Umami Burger. I don't know what the whole deal is, but I know that the place, or places, started opening something like 7 or 8 or 9 years ago, one of the first like "fuck you we make expensive fast food under the guise of culture" sort of places that are now a little more commonplace. I remember seeing one or two Umami Burgers in random spots around town, but truly never thought much about them or heard anything.

Then earlier this month I started seeing sponsored Instagram posts and ads raving about Umami Burger's new recipes from our new chef! Seems like a bad sign when your entire chain has a new chef and you're seemingly starting from scratch. The problem was: those burgers looked real good in the photos.

So after a while, I discarded my shame, gave into social media advertising, and looked up the nearest Umami Burger. There's not many left. I also could not help to notice that its Google star rating was dire. Like 3 or 3.5 stars, which sounds okay until you realize that almost everything of even decent quality gets an easy 4 stars practically by default. Geez. But like, how bad could it be? So I ventured to some new glitzy food hall, not in the uber-glitzy Hudson Yards mall, but across from it, and got me a damn Umami Burger.

How bad could it be? Guess what? That was a sneaky red herring on my part! Because this burger was fantastic! Like, nearly perfect. I can't think of a thing to critique with it, and it truly was an umami burger, rich and savory and clearly had something beyond just beef going on in the patty. MSG? I don't care, it worked. It automatically jumped into the top, let's say 5, maybe even 3, burgers that I've had in this city. I also got some Japanese-pepper spiced fries, which were tasty, but more importantly came with this side of black garlic aioli, which was even better than the burger. Just absolutely mouth watering and addictive.

So I don't know what the deal with Umami Burger was. Maybe it sucked? Maybe it got too big for its britches? Maybe they started cheaping out on ingredients after a while? Maybe it got bad reviews because people didn't like paying $20 for a burger and fries? I can understand that. All I know, is I went to this "new" Umami Burger, sure I payed a little more than I would've at Wendy's (but not that much more than Five Guys), but I got one of the best burgers I've had in years.