Monday, April 29, 2013

Snake Days of Spring

The P90s had dinner with some friends on Saturday. And while, playing in the backyard, the kids came across this little guy (or girl) hanging out in the basement window well. Apparently, they were looking for frogs/toads and found this garter snake instead. S/he's the fattest garter snake I have ever seen. Wondering if maybe that explains the absence of the toads...

Either way, it seems that my four year-old daughter and I were the only people present who like snakes. So I slowly removed him from the window well and we spent a few minutes just observing him/her. My daughter asked if she could touch/hold him, and I explained that it's generally not a good idea to handle wild snakes. We then let him go in the nearby woods.

Why is it not a good idea to handle wild snakes? Sure, the only venomous snake we're likely to find in HoCo is the copperhead. But that ignores the possibility of an idiot/crazy neighbor who might own non-native snakes and let them go (see South Florida) on purpose or accident.

But even the non-venomous snakes can bite. When I was a kid, I briefly had a pet garter snake (feel free to question the judgement of my parents). His name was squeaky and we fed him night crawlers. As a six year-old, it was really cool to A. have a pet snake, and B. watch him eat worms.

Over the weeks, I came to the realization that he was my best friend and that I should pet him. So one Saturday morning, I reached into the cage, and proceeded to pick him up. At this point, he decided to bite onto my arm and not let go. Doing the only logical thing in a situation like this, I raised my arm, and swung the snake over my head until he let go. Squeaky flew across the room and landed in the corner. My older brother then levitated onto the couch and began to scream like a small child. And since my father was terrified of snakes, my mother was left to put on her yellow dish-washing gloves and go about finding squeaky and returning him to his cage.

Needless to say, we soon returned Squeaky to his rightful place in the wild. And I got a hamster named Squeaky 2, who I'm pretty sure bit me on more than one occasion. But that's a story for another day.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Spring Songs 2013

Spring should be about “happy” music. The first warm and sunny days always have me running to grab the Best of the Allman Brothers, REM Green, and Matthew Sweet 100% Fun and Girlfriend. Of course, buried deep under the jangling (or sliding) guitars and the sugar-sweetened melodies lie some melancholy lyrics.

So today, while listening to Dawes, Stories Don’t End and The Music is You:  A Tribute to John Denver, the combination of sweet melodies and melancholy lyrics felt perfect.

A Little Bit of Everything from the previous Dawes album, brought tears to my eyes the first time I heard it. And as long as I’m paying attention, it still brings on the water works pretty much anytime I listen to it. The only other things that can guarantee this are The Luckiest and Magic (by Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five respectively) and pretty much anything written by John Denver or Jackson Browne (at least up through The Pretender).

The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver
For Denver, it’s the melodies and chord changes as much as the lyrics. The songs remind me of being a kid and riding with my dad in our first cassette-player equipped car. This morning, while listening to Evan Dando singing Looking for Space, my mind was pretty much blown. Worlds collided as a voice from my high school years, sang a song from my childhood with lyrics about struggling to find your place in the world as a young adult.

And then a few minutes later, I looked into the back seat as my eldest had tears in her eyes listening to Sunshine on My Shoulders. And it was Train singing it! Train! Clearly there is no greater testament to a well-written song than when a band as craptastic as *Train can turn in a compelling performance.

Clearly, I have a vested interest in this album. John Denver holds a special place in my heart and the album features contributions from some of my favorite artists. But it’s worth a listen. My stand-out tracks are Evan Dando - Looking for Space, My Morning Jacket - Leaving on a Jet Plane, and Emylou Harris and Brandi Carlise doing Take Me Home, Country Roads. My youngest daughter has been requesting that we listen to Country Roads over, and over, and over again. I can't blame her.

Dawes, Stories Don’t End
Let me be clear. Stories Don’t End was my most highly anticipated release of 2013. Sure, I was also looking forward to Iron & Wine’s Ghost on Ghost and a few other releases. But the previous Dawes album, Nothing is Wrong, is easily my favorite album of the last few years. And Taylor Goldsmith may be the best songwriter of his generation.

At first listen, I was a little let down. The album didn't have as many songs that immediately hooked as Nothing is Wrong. But the more I listen, the more I love it. I read recently that Taylor had been digging into the Willie Nelson catalog as he wrote these songs. And I think I can hear the influence. I wonder if he was also digging into Elvis Costello. There's something about Just My Luck and Side Effects that reminds of King of America and Blood & Chocolate-era Elvis Costello. It's in the phrasing, the melodies, and the chord changes. Either way, I love it. But even with hearing these influences, I hear a songwriter finding his own voice. And if he can maintain this trajectory of writing, the next few albums are going to be amazing.

But seriously, go buy this album now! If you want just a taste, check out Bear Witness, Someone Will (my favorite song of the year), and Just Beneath the Surface.

*Train, for when Nickelback is too rocking but you need to find the worst possible music out there.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Earthquaker Devices Tone Reaper

The Earthquaker Devices Tone Reaper is a silicon/germanium hybrid based on the three-knob Tone Bender. If you are looking for Jimmy Page tones, you can find them in the Tone Bender. You can also nail many of the Black Keys thickfreakness tones.

I’ve played a ton of Tonebenders over the last few years. Some have been outstanding, others have been horrible. The Tone Reaper is the best of the three knobbers. Like every Earthquaker Devices pedal I have encountered, it’s amazingly low-noise considering the amount of gain on tap. I don’t know how they make such dynamic (and ragged and raging if you want) fuzz pedals and yet keep them hum/hiss/squeal-free. Whatever they do, it’s working.

I tried the Tone Reaper with a few different guitars. I liked it with humbuckers and especially with a tele bridge pickup. But I LOVED it with P90s. Running my Reverend Ron Asheton into the Reaper and then into my Reverend Goblin (modified to a 1x12 with a Cannabis Rex) was thick and nasty, with borderline endless sustain. The Tone Reaper seems to just love P90s. It latches on to those snarling mids and wraps them in gritty fuzz that’s bright but not piercing. Low notes compress and bloom and high notes ring out. The subtleties of neck, middle, and bridge pickups shine through the fuzz and provide a broad range of tones. Most Tone Benders won’t clean up like a Fuzz Face, and the Tone Reaper is no exception. But backing off the volume slightly provides a few more shades of dirt.

Like the Dirt Transmitter, the Tone Reaper is another fuzz that can do cool things with an overdrive (TS and Klone in my case) preceding it. Setting the fuzz at about 1 o'clock makes for a pretty thick fuzz that's still touch sensitive. Hitting the Tone Reaper with a Cusack Screamer set for minimal drive, tone at noon, and output just above unity adds some extra mids to the Tone Reaper without drastically changing the overall tone. It's great for making leads jump out of the mix.

All said, the Tone Reaper is great. If you're looking for one pedal that can span the range of Tonebenders, or just looking for a new flavor of fuzz, you need to check out the Tone Reaper.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

First Taste: Xitomate

My mom is in town for a few days, so that means Mrs. P90 and I got to have a kid-free dinner date. When discussing where to go, we decided we should branch out from the old favorites and try something new. Luckily, Mrs. P90 had just heard good things about Xitomate from a friend. We looked at the menu and based on cocktails alone, we decided to give them a shot. Luckily, both the food and drinks were outstanding.

We arrived at Xitomate around 7:30 last night, had our choice of tables, and were seated immediately. I was surprised by how un-crowded they were. Maybe it’s because they are new or just because it was a Sunday night? Either way, they are having their grand opening this week, so hopefully that will change things.

I started off with the Tepache con Pique and the Mrs. had a Paloma. I frequently make a “fancy Paloma” with fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice (based on a recipe from the Post’s Jason Wilson). However, a real Paloma is made with grapefruit soda – and the one at Xitomate is made with Squirt. My understanding of Tepache is that it’s made by boiling Mexican brown sugar and cinnamon, steeping pineapple (including the rind), and then allowing it to ferment naturally over a few days. However Xitomate is making it, when paired with tequila, lime juice, and agave nectar it’s tart, just a little spicy, and near perfect. Both drinks were delicious and a nice change of pace from the standard margarita. But don’t worry, if you want a margarita, Xitomate has plenty of options and one of the best Tequila lists I’ve seen since Blue Agave in Baltimore. They also have some LA Cetto wines (yes, Mexican wines) that I’ve always really enjoyed (I’ve had them on trips to Mexico).

For entrees, we had the Tacos al Pastor and the Enchiladas Suizas. And because I can’t say no to fried plantains, we shared an order of Maduros. The Tacos al Pastor were filled with succulent spicy chunks of pork, tangy salsa, and just enough sweet pineapple to offset the heat. The enchiladas were great and the poblano cream sauce had that perfect blend of heat and earthy pungency that can only come from roasted pablano peppers. Oh, and about those Maduros – they were fried up perfectly with good caramelization on the outside and all sweet and gooey on the inside.

Oddly though, the highlight of my meal was the Coconut Agua Fresca I ordered mid-way through my meal. It was just that good. I should point out that I’m crazy for coconut and that agua frescas make me think of strolling through the Puerta Vallarta Malecon on my honeymoon. But wow – this thing is good. So good that I could be ok with skipping wine/beer/margaritas in place of it. Based on how fresh it tasted, I asked our server if it was made with fresh coconut, and she confirmed that it is (so much for making one at home).

The atmosphere is great, with Dia de los Muertos-inspired murals and hammered/punched tin light fixtures. Noise wasn’t too bad and we could talk quietly and easily hear each other and not the diners around us. I’ll reserve judgment on the couple that rolled in at 8:30 with a one year-old until I write my treatise on dining with kids...

I’m looking forward to a return visit. I already have my eye (tastebuds) on the Conchinita y Pibil for my entree, and I’m going to need that Coconut Agua Fresca again pronto. Hocofood@@@

Friday, April 5, 2013

Cusack Screamer Fuzz V2

Thanks to the Cusack Screamer Fuzz, I can get Satisfaction even while I Hate it Here. I can also get a Cold Shot and a whole slew of other classic and new tones! This pedal serves up a ridiculous amount of versatility for a small yellow box with three knobs and a three-way switch.

Level: Controls the overall output of the pedal
Fuzz: All the way counter-clockwise is no fuzz. All the way clockwise is a gated and ripping sound that cuts out as the note fades.
Scream: Controls the gain of the “Screamer” circuit. All the way cranked is double the gain of your typical TS.
Clip Mode: Left is standard TS clipping, all the way right is “crushed,” and in the middle is asymmetrical LED clipping (that’s right asymmetrical like the good old Boss SD-1).

I tested the Screamer Fuzz mostly through my Reverend Goblin (quite the coincidence since Cusack now owns the rights to the Reverend amps) with a bunch of guitars. Even with the lack of a tone knob, the Cusack sounded great with single coils, P90s, humbuckers. I was worried about the lack of a tone control at first, but the Cusack is voiced perfectly. It cuts through a dense mix without ever getting shrill and somehow manages to leave each guitar sounding like itself.

We’ll start off with the fuzz all of the way down. With the switch to the left, you have a classic TS circuit. The gain range is huge and it responds well to playing dynamics and adjustments to the guitars volume control. In fact, all of the clipping options are dynamic. Running my Strat into the Screamer at these settings coaxed all of those SRV riffs I learned back in high school to my fingers and brought a big smile to my face. I don’t usually like the combination of humbuckers and TS pedals. It seems like they both accentuate the same midrange and the sound ends up kind “honky.” And while I still didn’t love a bridge humbucker paired with the Screamer Fuzz, the neck and middle position were rich with a nice vocal quality.

Switching to the middle position on the clipping selector is where I fell in love with the Screamer Fuzz. The output rises significantly over the other clipping positions and the harmonics it adds/emphasizes are just beautiful. With the gain about between 1/3 and 2/3 up, you get a break-up that responds (and sounds ) like a great tube amp. It adds the kind of compression that makes it easier to play without killing your dynamics. You pick lightly for bright cleans and dig in for some grind.

And then you start adding the fuzz to taste. Leave the selector in the middle position, put the “Scream” at noon, and the “Fuzz” at 9 o’clock. This sound alone is worth the price of admission. With my Jazzmaster, this had me rocking out to Hate in Here by Wilco. And it sounded amazing. Switching over to my Reverend Roundhouse (with humbuckers) and rolling down the volume on the guitar gave me a tone that remind me of the great edge of breakup tones on the Alabama Shakes record. I have no idea what the Shakes used for that album, but I was having a blast playing their songs at this setting. In fact, this is where I’ve left the Screamer Fuzz. And I can’t stop using it. My band is used to me having new dirt pedals frequently - to the extent that they barely pat attention to my “little habit” these days. But last week, when I stepped on the Screamer Fuzz for some lead work, they took notice.

And I know a lot of folks are “weirded out” with the LED always being on with the Cusack pedals (green in bypass and red when engaged). I’m fine with it, but if you don’t like it you can set the pedal for “legacy mode” which has the LED on only when the pedal is on. Just hold the switch down for a few seconds (until the LED blinks once), this puts the pedal into "Legacy mode.” The LED will be OFF in bypass, and RED while on. Just hold it again to put back in "Cusack" mode.

In short, the Cusack Screamer Fuzz is a blast. You can dial back the fuzz and rock some classic TS tones, crank the fuzz for gnarly fuzz tones, and/or rock a hundred shades of tone in between. Try it. You'll like it.