America’s Prettiest Christmas Block

We live on it . . . which probably surprises you as much as it surprises me.

When we made the offer on our house on Ashby Avenue in Des Moines’ Beaverdale neighborhood earlier this fall, our realtor and pretty much everybody else we talked to here made fond, warm, appreciative comments about Christmastime on our street, when the entire neighborhood bands together to create a festival of holiday lights that actually draws long lines of cars, limousines and even tour buses, every night, all night, during the latter part of December.

We liked the house and neighborhood so much that I didn’t really think much about that particular aspect of living here, one way or the other . . . until I arrived the week before Thanksgiving, and noticed that our house was one of the few that didn’t already have a nice display of lights up.

Uh oh . . .

Those who have read my work online for a long time will no doubt recall that I’m not particularly holiday-minded, and cheesy Christmas music tends to make me want to punch people in the head. I am, however, succeptible to peer pressure, so even before I’d finished unpacking our household goods, I made the trek up to our neighborhood Ace Hardware Store and grabbed just enough lights to put up a credible display that wouldn’t win us any “Best in Show” honors, but would hopefully keep us from being branded as “THAT HOUSE” or “THOSE PEOPLE” on the block.

A couple of weeks later, Marcia and I received an invitation to attend a progressive dinner that’s held annually among the Ashby Avenue families who live West of Beaver Avenue (and who engage in friendly internecine Christmas warfare with our aggressively-decorative counterparts East of Beaver). The dinner was lovely, as were (and are) our neighbors, and I must admit that, like my Grinchly inspiration, my heart did indeed grow a few sizes that day, as we walked about our block, fortified with wine and chocolate and cocktail weenies, and admired the tasteful displays and warm conviviality that our new street offers.

It’s nice to move in to a new house and neighborhood and instantly become a part of something that the entire city recognizes as being worthy, and special. There aren’t a lot of places here (or anywhere) where you can do that, so I am glad that we have fortuitously landed in one. This is good.

My camera has been woefully inadequate at capturing the full glory of an Ashby Avenue Christmas, but here are some shots that may give you some small, vague sense of what we see at night when we walk up to our gym and/or neighborhood restaurant/bar. In short, it’s pretty cool to live on a street that lots of folks are driving from miles away to see.

Even for a Grinch.

Looking west from our front yard.

This is East of Beaver: The Christmas Light Competitors.

Another East of Beaver Avenue shot . . .

This is looking east from the corner of Ashby and Beaver: the east side has a circle, which gives them an optical advantage . . .

Back on the (way cooler) West side of Beaver: the deer are directly across from our house.

Again on the West side . . . we were privileged to be issued our own driveway Candy Canes soon after arriving here . . .

Line of cars rolling down Ashby Avenue, smokin’ indo, and sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back . . .

Fuzzy-Cam shot of our house . . . it ain’t much, but I got it up before I had my own bathroom properly unpacked . . .


The Ghost of Christmas Shopping Present

Marcia and I went up to Mason City, Iowa on Monday, about 115 miles north of Des Moines. She had some business meetings, so I puttered around, exploring a city known for its spectacular Prairie School and Craftsman architecture, including the newly-restored, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Park Inn Hotel and another well-restored, highly-regarded Wright work, The Stockman House. Mason City was also the home on Meredith Willson, who based the setting and some of the characters in his most famous creation, The Music Man, on the city where he was raised.

As I normally do, I shot some photos, and toward the end of the day, I found myself catty-corner from an immense and striking Victorian brick building with lovely wrought verdigris-coated metal panels. As I got my camera ready to frame a shot of the building, I was vaguely aware of a small, older woman shuffling (and I mean that literally) toward the corner of the block where the building stood. I snapped a few frames, when cars weren’t passing between the building and my vantage point, and then I realized that the little old lady in tennis shoes had actually stopped walking, had turned to face me, and was standing there, motionless, for a good 30 seconds, staring at me . . . so I raised the camera again and popped off a couple of more frames. Then she slowly turned left and moved on down the road.

The amazing thing about the moment was that it was almost as if she was looking through my viewfinder, because she stopped and stood in the perfect spot for the shot, faced directly into the camera, and was outfitted like some grocery imp or retail sprite, sent by the Gods of Holiday Cheer to brighten up my architectural studies. I could have spent an hour having a professional fluffer outfit and primp her, and then direct her to move this way and that while I fiddled with the lighting, and I never would have gotten her great bright red cap right on the axis where she placed it herself, nor captured the seriocomic expression on her face, nor gotten her scarf to drop just so.

Here’s the shot. Click on it to see it larger, and to better spot the Ghost of Chrismas Shopping Present:

While it certainly doesn’t have the same magic that the photo above does, my other favorite shot of the day was taken in the Skylight Room in the Park Inn Hotel, of the original Frank Lloyd Wright-designed glass skylights, which are truly, madly beautiful.

All in all, a great day trip. I look forward to traveling to the other corners of the state with Marcia as she visits her clients in different cities. Who know what spirits might lurk in Dubuque?

Top 20 Albums of 2011

As I was reviewing all of my new music purchases from 2011, working up my “Best Of” list for the year, it occured to me that 2011 is the 20th consecutive year that I have publicly offered such a year-end list for reader scrutiny, either on commercial websites, or for various print publications, or as a member of a couple of different blog communities. Before I lay out my 2011 list for your perusal, therefore, I thought I would share my “Album of the Year” winners for the past two decades, just for grins and giggles. There are a couple of years where, with 20/20 hindsight, I’m not quite sure exactly what I was thinking when I made these choices, but I own ’em and embrace ’em, for better or worse, occassional lapses in taste be damned. You may look at this list and decide that you don’t really care what I liked most in 2011. I’d understand and respect that.

1992: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry’s Dream
1993: Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
1994: Ween, Chocolate and Cheese
1995: Björk, Post
1996: R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
1997: Geraldine Fibbers, Butch
1998: Jarboe, Anhedoniac
1999: Static-X, Wisconsin Death Trip
2000: Warren Zevon, Life’ll Kill Ya
2001: Björk, Vespertine
2002: The Residents, Demons Dance Alone
2003: Wire, Send
2004: The Fall, The Real New Fall LP (Formerly “Country on the Click”)
2005: Mindless Self Indulgence, You’ll Rebel to Anything
2006: Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere
2007: Max Eider, III: Back in the Bedroom
2008: Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight
2009: Mos Def, The Ecstatic
2010: Snog, Last Of The Great Romantics
2011: To be determined . . . below . . .

Okay, so with that as preamble and teaser, let’s move on to 2011, which was a very, very good year for challenging new music, by any measure. There are some years when picking my Album of the Year is really quite easy, since one disc so dominates the competition that there’s not a lot of thought required come December. This wasn’t one of those years, though, as I found myself looking, on first cut, at a list of six outstanding albums that had seperated themselves from the pack over the course of the past twelve months, and really being challenged to decide which one of those six deserved Album of the Year honors. It took some re-listens, some research, and some reflection, but when all was said and done, I feel good about making the following selection . . .


Planningtorock is the stage name of Janine Rostron, an Englishwoman currently living and working in Berlin. Her music is richly arranged, merging organic and electronic elements, and she heavily processes/treats/masks both her voice and her physical appearance to create a compellingly angrogynous, mysterious musical character. She writes abstract, yet evocative, lyrics, and as weird as much of her music is, you can pretty much tap your feet or shake your hips to all of it. It’s brain music that speaks to your pelvis, if you know what I mean. My first exposure to Planningtorock was the video for her song “Doorway,” which instantly became a playlist staple for every member of my family. The rest of W (the album) is just as exceptional, and it’s a rare day when I don’t find myself turning up the (iPod) stereo to listen to at least one of Rostron’s challenging and exciting songs. Here’s a link to the “Doorway” video that first lured me in, and ultimately led me to honor Rostron as the creator of my 2011 Album of the Year. This album is terrific, and I hope you find it as haunting and engaging as I did on first play . . . and still do today!

So what about those other five albums that were in the woulda-coulda zone, rubbing shoulders with Planningtorock as I culled the list down to the best of the best? Here they are in alphabetical order:


Death Grips, Exmilitary: This is one of the most original, harrowing, bracing, and blistering Hip Hop albums I’ve heard in many, many years. The recording is hot, hot, hot (needles in the red, speakers shred, exploding head), and the rhymes and beats are just absolutely brutal. “I Want It I Need It (Death Heated)” deconstructs Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” in unimaginable, but utterly mesmerizing, fashion, and it stands as the centerpiece of a truly revolutionary and radical album.

Future Islands, On The Water: Had this album come out earlier in the year, so that I could have lived with it longer, I think it would have been Planningtorock’s strongest competition. This Baltimore (by way of East Carolina University) three-piece provide insight into what might have happened had Tom Jones once fronted Cocteau Twins. It’s almost disturbing the first time you hear it, but once the initial shock wears off, it’s one of the most soulful and tasty things you’re likely to experience in this, or any other, year.

Krallice, Diotima: Massive orchestral black metal from New York, with huge, long songs evoking Glenn Branca, Steve Reich and Rhys Chatham just as much as they invoke Burzum, Emperor and Dimmu Borgir. The most amazing thing about this album is how relatively accessible it is: if you can handle a Richard Wagner “Ring Cycle” opera, then you can handle this . . . so long as you are able to adjust your expectations to recognize that now the opera isn’t over until The Cookie Monster sings.

St. Vincent, Strange Mercy: Like Planningtorock, St. Vincent is the nom de rock of an exceptionally talented female solo artist, in this case American Annie Clark. In her third outing under the St. Vincent moniker, Clark offers an utterly riveting collection of super-compelling melodies, all spiced with some truly deranged arrangements. Best of the best: the synth solo in “Northern Lights” is, I kid you not, the most outstanding piece of spazzy electronics since Eno’s seminal solo on Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain.” It must be heard to be believed, which actually describes a lot of this album.

White Denim, D: Austin, Texas’ White Denim are one of those outrageously talented bands (like, say, Ween) who can perform any style of music they chose to perform, as well as it can possibly be performed. Their latest album, D, finds them expanding from a three-piece to a quartet, and there’s some sort of exponential mathematical thing occurring here, since a 33% increase in staffing results in a 333% increase in the depth, breadth, and vision inherent in the music. White Denim’s music evokes that old joke about the weather in flaky climate places like Albany (or Des Moines): if you don’t like it right now, sit tight, and it will change to something else that you will like, soon enough. It’ll be worth the wait, honest. This is a great record that covers a lot of ground.

Alright, so there are six particularly great albums down, and here are the remaining 14 discs (also great) of my 2011 Top 20 . . .


Cheeseburger, Another Big Night Down the Drain: Big AC/DC-styled riffs merged with snotty, Noo Yawk, Ramones-like vocals about drinking, girls, and drinking and girls. Stoopit, in the best possible sense of the word.

F*cked Up, David Comes To Life: I hate this Canadian hardcore band’s name (which I have censored here), but their four-part concept album is incredibly well-written, performed and produced, with a depth of melodic creativity and instrumental arrangement (three guitarists!) that you rarely encounter in the hardcore world. (And I say this as a long-time fan of hardcore). Bonus props to F*cked Up for releasing what I consider to be the music video of the year: “Queen of Hearts.”

Lindsey Buckingham, Seeds We Sow: As always, Buckingham delivers thrilling finger-picked guitar, terrific melodies, and sweetly sung, richly-layered vocals. It’s a shame he has to hang out with Stevie Nicks to get people to pay the attention to him that he should garner on his own.

The Fall, Ersatz GB: For the first time in their three-decade plus career, a single line-up of Mark E. Smith’s morphing Fall group has managed to issue three albums in a row with no personnel changes. The result is a raggedy gem, with Smith’s incomprehensible slurs and snarls mixed front and center, where they belong, atop a stew of tight riffs, wonky synths, and wildly processed guitars.

Hooray for Earth, True Loves: Big synth-based fun, with killer hooks atop phat pads, sort of a Human League for the digital era, minus the distracting female singers.

I’m From Barcelona, Forever Today: I’m not normally a fan of collective groups that list everybody who picks up a triangle or makes some toast as a member of the band, but this 29-member Swedish ensemble deliver some heavenly sweet music, including some instant singalong classics, so I will forgive them for having a member whose credited contributions are “heart and soul.” But just this once . . .

Pete and the Pirates, One Thousand Pictures: Fantastic Brit-Pop that sounds nothing like Oasis, or Blur, or Pulp, except for the thick accent in which these catchy gems are delivered. And that would be a British accent, and these are, for the most part, pop songs. Hence Brit-Pop. Shutup, pedants. This is a great album from a really promising young band, regardless of what you label it, and it’s a big step up from their already outstanding debut album, so I predict ever greater things for these guys.

Primordial, Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand: Ronnie James Dio is fighting dragons in heaven now, but if any band is poised to step into his place in the histrionic, over-the-top metal lyrical department, then it is Ireland’s Primordial. The group offers killer metal riffage, with cool Celtic filagree, and some of the most metal lyrics imaginable in a post-Dio world. Like here, check this, from “Death of the Gods:” “We stood on the shoulders of giants, like Atlas with the burden of faith / We clasped our hands in praise of a conqueror’s right to tyranny /This is a language that has not passed our lips in one thousand years.” And the whole album is filled with stuff like that. Can you get any more metal?

Real Estate, Days: A sweet and sunny sophomore disc from the New Jersey quintet, washed in reverb, drenched in dub-space, perfect for an afternoon on the beach with your Sugar Doodle, or for snuggling up in front of the fire, wishing that it was beach weather. Mmmm . . . smooth . . .

Red Hot Chili Peppers, I’m With You: Yeah, they’re one of those bands that everybody loves to hate on (especially singer Anthony Kiedis), but this disc finds the Chili Peppers tossing aside the overwrought over-reaching of the unlikable and unlistenable (to me) Stadium Arcadium, cutting things back to the groove-based rock and pop that’s always defined their best work. While I generally like John Frusciante, I think all parties benefited from him leaving the Peppers and letting his associate, Josh Klinghoffer, take the six-string reigns. Klinghoffer doesn’t try to turn them into the Beatles (as Frusciante seemed intent on doing), but rather lets the ace Chad Smith and Flea rhythm section do its thing, then adds tasty decorations atop their potent sonic substrates. “Brendan’s Death Song” is the best thing they’ve done since BloodSugarSexMagic days.

Shabazz Palaces, Black Up: In a year without Deaths Grips’ Exmilitary in it (see above), this weird and woozy underground hip hop disc could have been a contender for rap-related album of the year, but missing that high mark doesn’t make it any less rewarding or enjoyable. If the flow sounds familiar, it’s probably because MC/Producer Palaceer Lazaro was once known as Butterfly of Digable Planets, who once achieved a level of commercial success that this record’s not likely to match, though it most certainly should based on the quality of the music offered here.

Sin Fang, Summer Echoes: Another engaging, endearing side project disc from Sindri Már Sigfússon of Iceland’s Seabear. A nice bookend companion piece to Real Estate, perfect for snuggling with your Sugar Doodle in front of the fireplace, or for spending an afternoon on the beach, wishing it was fireplace season. Mmmmm . . . smooth . . .

Wire, Red Barked Tree: The second full-length from the three-piece incarnation of Wire retains the group’s signature blend of monophonic, monorhythmic dugga-beats and fractured melodies that somehow often manage to coalesce into instantly memorable ear-worms. Graham Lewis outdoes himself on this album with fantastic vocal performances on “Please Take” and “Bad Worn Thing”), while Colin Newman’s featured numbers offer all the bite and snap that you usually expect from him, supplemented by a few surprisingly sweet and wistful moments as well. It’s a good year when both The Fall and Wire are on the Top Album chart, both of them carrying the torch for post-punk in ways that none of their peers or successors will ever be able.

Yes, Fly From Here: A reunion, of sorts, of the Yes lineup that recorded Drama in 1980, only with vocalist Trevor Horn moving to the producer-songwriter-backing vocals chair, and newcomer (and former Yes tribute band member) Benoît David taking over lead vocal duties. The first side of the album is a long-scrapped suite by Horn and former-Buggle mate Geoff Downes from Drama days, while the second side includes a collection of unrelated songs from guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, and Horn/Downes. This should have been a trainwreck, but it actually turns out to be the best Yes album since, well, Drama. If you’re an unreformed ’70s prog junkie, then you owe it to yourself to give this one a chance. Even if your friends make fun of you for doing so. Which they will. And then they will steal your lunch money. But it will be worth it. Honest.

On The Great Western Trail (Again)

A couple of weeks ago, I walked the first four miles or so (round trip) of the Great Western Trail, and posted some sepia prints of that adventure. Earlier this week, insprired by the sunshine, relatively low winds (12 mph) and relatively high temperature (38 degrees), I decided to don my cold weather cycling gear (or is it my Ninja Suit?!?) and ride the full 35 miles (round trip) of the Great Western to Martensdale and back. Click the photo below to see some shots of the ride (once it had warmed up enough for me to remove my gloves so I could work the camera), including perhaps the best billboard and water-tower I have ever seen. I will apologize up front about the quality of some of the photos; I used my DROID Pro instead of my camera, and when you use the zoom on the phone, things get grossly grainy, grossly fast. Next time, the real camera goes riding with me. Lesson learned.


Creek on the Great Western Trail. The colors in Iowa are truly different from those in New York.