A World of Difference

Night Falls Over KortedalaLast night, I saw Jens Lekman perform at the Arts at the Armory complex in Somerville, just a 20 minute walk from my house. The last time I saw Lekman perform was in 2005, at a tiny club across town, PA’s Lounge. (It was also then that I interviewed him for a profile in Splendid E-Zine). In the interim, Lekman has gathered lots of acclaim for his honest, emotional, clever and at times charmingly awkward songwriting.

When I saw him in ’05 at PA’s, he was very fresh and young. He shyly clung to the microphone, eyes shut, crooning away. But at the Armory, I was stunned by how Lekman has matured as a performer in the past nearly seven years. At a sold-out venue packed with nearly 400 fans, Lekman commanded the stage with ease and comfort, dancing around, responding to the crowd and obviously enjoying the night.

It made me think about the act of creation. When you create something — a song, an essay, a painting, a website — you create a world. You can either invite people into it, or not.

Back in 2005, we got to observe the worlds of Lekman’s creation, and the audience derived some enjoyment from that. But we were not a part of them. Those worlds were his own. Last night, however, we were invited into them. We became an integral part of them.

After the show, my friend Chris remarked, “He was just completely engaged.” And that was it. Yes, the concept of engagement is one of the most overused in marketing. But now, after this concert, I feel like I have a better understanding of it than ever before. To engage someone is to invite them into the world of your creation, and to make it a shared experience. They become as much a part of it as you are, sharing in the honesty, the emotion, the cleverness and, yes, even the charming awkwardness.

Sometimes, your world needs to remain your own, and that’s okay. It could be something very personal, or you’re just trying to work something out or conduct an experiment.

But a world gains power when you bring people into it, because they make it better than you could have done on your own. They shape your creation, enhance it, amplify it.

It makes me think of one of the coolest phenomena I’ve learned about from the Occupy Wall Street movement — the people’s mic, where the crowd makes up for the lack of amplification by having an individual’s message shouted in echo by the people standing nearby. This not only enables everyone to hear the message, but actively involves the crowd in its communication.

It may have taken Lekman a few years to figure out how to let people into his world. But last night at the Armory, the power of his engagement was on full display. And his creations, his songs, buzzed with the life we fed into them.

Our New House

Yesterday, Rick and I closed on our new house in Somerville, just a 10-minute walk from where we live currently. Woohoo!

Video tour:

Photo tour:

From what I’ve heard about the homebuying process, I think we had it fairly easy. We bought a house within our budget, in our desired neighborhood, that was for sale by owner (friends of friends, actually, which means the house remains in the local geek family), and we did not encounter any nightmarish issues in the process.  Sounds pretty ideal to me. There’s a lot of work to be done, of course, but nothing we can’t handle.

Throughout this whole process, one of the things that has gotten me the most excited is the knowledge that we are putting down roots in a city that, in the nearly eight years we’ve lived here, has come to mean a lot to us.

The idea of “home” means a lot to me, in a broad sense. I can find home in people, and I can find home in special places (like the Consecration Dell at Mount Auburn Cemetery). Now, we get to create a home, in the city that we love, in a neighborhood that we know.

Somerville is a special place – artsy, nerdy, diverse, culturally vibrant, evolving, fun, multifaceted, urban. It’s kind of perfect. To know that we are locking ourselves in as members of this community fills me with a great sense of both pride and privilege.

Welcome home.

A Very Puffy Pancake Tweetup

This morning brought the monthly Pancake Tweetup, and Rick made pancake puffs, which elicited a lot of drooling from my friends on Twitter. So I asked him to explain what they were and how to make them.

First, thanks to Georgy for letting me guest post. Always fun to talk about food online.

First, a bit of background, for those who aren’t totally in the know. Georgy and several of her friends from higher education on Twitter have a regular virtual get-together called Pancake Tweet-Up. The idea is that everyone takes pictures of their breakfast and shares them over Twitter, like everyone is sharing breakfast together despite the disparate locations. I’m all for this, as I love breakfast, the idea of Internet communities doing things to come closer together, and it involves me cooking. The first couple that she participated in involved us going to one of our favorite breakfast places, Ball Square Café, but then I started cooking for them. As it happens, the most recent was earlier today, and our specific breakfast for today was pancake puffs with a wild Maine blueberry compote, oven-baked bacon, and French press coffee. As usual, she posted pics of this when it was ready, we ate it up, and then I went about my day.

So I’m working on a project I have about to be announced (sorry, not food-related), when Georgy calls me from her office. “Twitter is going nuts about the pancake puffs.” I was a bit surprised – in large part because this was the second time I had made pancakepuffs for Pancake Tweet-Up, and they didn’t get nearly as wild a response the first time. She even called me in to see the responses, which blew me away a bit. That said, I also was a bit proud; what cook doesn’t like see people raving in amazement about their food? Anyhow, Georgy asked me to write a bit about them, and what makes them so awesome.

The Puffy Particulars

First off, for those who may be wondering their connection to aebleskivers or poffertjes, yes, they are pretty much the same thing. Now, the Danish and the Dutch will certainly come up with minor recipe variations that assert as to why their dish is completely different (one distinction you’ll frequently see besides exact shape is that poffertjes are frequently sweeter before any topping is added), but it’s hair-splitting, truth be told.

As for those new to pancake puffs, they are basically a spherical pancake, which requires a specialty pan to produce. Pretty much any pancake batter recipe (or anything similar to pancake batter, really) can be used to make them; I like a sweeter batter that has a hint of vanilla extract in it. The secret to them is actually in the pan itself.

In order to make the puffs, you need a specialty pan for them. Now, you can get pans specifically for aebelskivers from many retailers – Williams-Sonoma has a pan for them, although you can get cheaper results from Amazon. That said, I actually go a slightly different route: I use a takoyaki pan (available from many Japanese markets andAmazon). Takoyaki is a savory Japanese dumpling made from a batter very similar to pancake batter, and the pan results in a much rounder appearance in the puffs, as opposed to the more oblong puffs that aebelskiver and poffertjes pans produce. That said, due to the smaller wells, there is always a catch in using a takoyaki plate – the puffs cook much faster, so you have to both be more careful about the heat you cook on (I use a low-medium to medium heat for them) as well as be quicker with the cooking time (though who doesn’t want to be quicker in the kitchen?).

One thing you’ll also need is something to roll/flip your puffs with. Now, you’ll see some (ahem, Williams-Sonoma) who will charge through the nose for specialty flippers to use in the process. Personally, I think it’s a rip-off. Honestly, I actually use a toothpick to first run down the sides of each well to loosen the puff, then quickly but gently roll the puff over to finish the cooking. A fork also works well, and those who use an aebelskiver pan may want to go traditional and use a knitting needle (wood obviously). Those going for the takoyaki plate method do not want to use the latter; the wells are too small to fit it in without making a mess or ruining the puff – or, more likely, both at the same time.

Now, for the technique I use. First, I lightly grease each well of my takoyaki plate (fourteen in mine) with butter. Then I set it on the stove’s range and put it at a medium heat. Once I start hearing a little bit of crackle from the butter, I know it’s warm enoughto get started.

Here’s the big trick to make sure things come out beautiful – only fill the wells about halfway, maybe a hair more. They do puff up quite well. Now, you can recover from overfilling; I’ll go into that below. That said, the less you spend on recovery, the quicker you get them done. Fill all of the wells halfway, then set the batter to the side. Do note the order you fill in your wells mentally – you’ll be flipping them in the same order.

The lovely part of using a takoyaki plate is that, due to the size, you can immediately get to flipping them. Using my trusty toothpick, I run along the side of the first well,until the puff comes loose. Gently roll it 180 degrees, so that the beautiful golden-brown bottom becomes the top and everything has a chance to run back into the well. Proceed with each well in order. If you have one that puffed up a bit too much (including the dreaded spilling onto the main part of the plate), don’t worry – use the toothpick to break off the excess, throw that into the well, then roll the puff back into place as before.You’ll have a slightly ragged edge, but it’ll still come out pretty much a nice sphere as the other ones, and it’ll taste just as good.

Just as before, due to how quickly they cook, once you’ve finished rolling the last one, they’re ready to come out. Once again, in the order they were put in and rolled, you can just pluck them out – I usually just lightly stab with my trusty toothpick and slide them onto a ready plate. In my takoyaki plate, the entire process probably takes less than two minutes, as I become an assembly line of pour, roll, plate. The process is remarkably smooth – just enough time to cook without burning, so I never have to watch the clock or figure out what else to do.
Now, you may be wondering about what this does to pancake batter that makes it different from a regular pancake. Basically, it makes it absurdly fluffy. All pancakes work by puffing a little on the baked side, then having the air pockets increase in size when flipped and the batter that isn’t already cooked running away from the parts thathave. Since the batter in the puffs has further to go in the wells of the pan, it produces larger air pockets for extra fluffiness. Oh, but that’s not all – because there are larger pockets of air between the cooked pancake batter, it can absorb more liquid – if you love pancakes that have soaked up syrup or fruit juice, you really can’t beat a pancake puff for its absorbing properties (this is evident in the Danish name for them – aebelskiver actually means “apple slices;” they were meant to soak up preserved apples and their juices).

One other fun part about pancake puffs is they’re much more ready to be a finger food than regular pancakes. The outside tends to be a bit more solid than regular pancakes; it’s perfectly fine to just hold one in the hand and use it to mop up syrup, powdered sugar, fruit compote, or whatever else you want to serve with them. I haven’t actually tried serving it to a child yet, but I can imagine that those mature enough to not use them in food fights would enjoy eating them like this.

So when you get down to it, they really are just pancakes you know and love cooked in a different fashion. That said, all you need is a slight variation in cooking to produce something that tastes very similar but comes out much differently.

Real-Time Rap

Some of you may have heard my story of how I won an iPad last summer while attending the Read Write Web Real-Time Web Summit. But many of you have not. It came up at dinner last night, and I thought it was finally deserving of a blog post of its own.

Man, that was quite a week. First, I won tickets to the one-day conference, hosted in New York City. (The conference was outstanding; you can read a recap on my professional blog.) While there, they announced they would be giving away six iPads over the course of the day. At lunch, they gave away four by random drawing. The last two, they said, would be given out at the closing session to whomever created the best rap or poem. Yes, rap or poem.

So, for the rest of the afternoon, I scribbled verses on a scrap of paper, muttering rhymes and rhythms under my breath. By the time the closing session began, I was as ready as I would ever be. Luckily, I was sitting next to my higher ed partner in crime, J.D. Ross, whom I was happy to have around for reassurance.

Soon, my time arrived:

And I WON! Can you believe it? (The other winner, though, probably deserved them both, as I think he is an Actual Rapper.)

Since the audio wasn’t so good on the video, here is a transcription of the lyrics:

I came down from Boston to learn about real-time

Didn’t know that I’d have to bust a rhyme

But even if I don’t win a 3G iPad

I know I won’t be going home feeling mad

I learned about trust and content curation

Speed-geeked with geeks from ’round the nation

Reputation management

I know what McManus meant

When he said the Real-Time Summit

was a great event

Had a lot of fun thanks to Read Write Web

They said it wouldn’t be great and they really didn’t fib

I like meeting experts in the world of social media

It’s more fun than editing Wikipedia

Now I gotta go catch the 7 o’clock train

Real-time web, you know we make it rain!

I’ll catch up with you all a little bit later

I’m @radiofreegeorgy on Twitter.

A Charlestown Adventure

On New Year’s Eve, I decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and go on a walking adventure around Charlestown. No, I was not inspired by “The Town” (though I did see and enjoy that movie). I was actually inspired by the loading docks I’ve often spied from the eastward vantage point of the 93 bus. I wanted to see the periphery of Charlestown beyond the tidy brownstones and monuments.

I took the bus to the top of the hill and walked (or nearly slid, given the poorly treated sidewalks) down toward what I now know is called the Medford Street Terminal, where I found the abandoned Revere Sugar Refinery. (I am fairly certain, thanks to this court finding, that it is the same Revere Sugar owned by Antonio Floriendo, who had connections to former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos. Here are some photos of the recently demolished Brooklyn factory.) Charlestown used to be a hotbed of sugar refining, it seems. Here’s how Revere Sugar looked back in the day (thanks to the BPL on Flickr):

Revere Sugar Factory

It turns out that I visited the site on the 24th anniversary of its purchase by Massport. The signage on the fenced off area read: “Revere Sugar Site Demolition / Project Start Date: Jan. 19, 1995 / Projected Completion Date: July 22, 1996.” Uh-huh. Adjacent to the Revere Sugar site was an abandoned rail way that local residents have appropriated as a rail trail of sorts. Lots of people were out walking their dogs. Nearby, I also saw some interesting graffiti scrawlings, like “C-Town” and “Townie 4 Lyfe,” as well as a flag for the Northern Ireland Ulster Volunteer Force painted on a back fence next to the Irish flag.

I made my way back toward the tidy brownstones, procuring the most amazing breakfast sandwich ever at Zume’s Coffee House (homemade English muffins, mmm) before heading over to Paul Revere Park, a new park (opened in 2007 as a byproduct of the Big Dig) which offers great views of the Charles River and a stunning from-below perspective of the Zakim Bridge.

Check out all of the photos from my Charlestown excursion:

Best Albums of 2010

Here we go, another look back at the music that made 2010 more bearable and more awesome. Admittedly, the past couple of months have been made more difficult by my laptop video card being on the fritz (and thus removing me from my iTunes lifeline), so this list is compiled with a slight handicap and without some of the extras I’ve included in years past.

Also, this year, I tethered my effort closely to the second annual Higher Ed Music Critics collaboration, where 10 higher ed web marketing professionals and music nerds came together to collectively determine the best 50 albums of the year. Here’s the rundown: 51-21926-501-25

Listed below are my own top 50 of the year. As usual, feel free to agree/disagree/debate/recommend in the comments! (For historical reference, here’s where I was mid-year.)

  1. David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love - I was drawn to this album by the amazing and diverse list of contributors (Florence Welch, Steve Earle, Cyndi Lauper, Kate Pierson, Sharon Jones and Allison Moorer, to name a few) and was held rapt by the stories they told about the life of Imelda Marcos and the disco-infused beats and melodies that swirled around them. A fascinating project and an incredible collection of music, this is currently my favorite album of the year.
  2. Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More - From the moment I first heard the driving tour de force that is “Little Lion Man” on WERS, I was sold. The edgy amalgam of Americana-meets-UK folk rock is a galloping, emotional headrush. Their songs pulse with life and urgency and won’t be denied. This album feels essential, in part because the members of the band play and sing as if their lives depended on it.
  3. Tracey Thorn – Love and its Opposite - My friend Tim was raving about this album by the lead woman from Everything But the Girl, so I had to check it out. After listening through once streaming online, I had to buy it at the next available opportunity. Her voice is hypnotic, and these powerful songs are full of elegance and verve.
  4. The Love Language – Libraries - The Love Language‘s “Libraries” recalls what I fell in love with about bands like The Kissaway Trail and Wild Light: earnest, melodic, and rich tracks, which founder Stuart McLamb calls “emotional fight songs.” One of my happiest surprises of the year.
  5. John Shade – All You Love is Need - Shade, a Boston-area artist, approaches acoustic pop perfection. His songs ring true, seemingly coming from a genuine place without guile or malice.  (Bonus: You can download his album for free, or name your own price.)
  6. The National – High Violet - Is it boring to say that The National have created yet another masterpiece, and that there is little one can offer in the way of critique for their fifth full-length album? Matt Berninger continues to confound and mesmerize, and he and his bandmates continue to expertly weave their layers of lush and compelling songcraft. No, something this captivating can’t be boring.
  7. New Pornographers – Together - This album took a while to grow on me, as I wrote about previously, since I was blinded by my love for “Challengers.” But, like I said, this may be the fullest realization of the band to date. Neko Case really steps out and shines (not that we needed to know she was a gem), and Dan Bejar is at his most accessible. And A.C. Newman continues to steer his pop ship in enlightening directions.
  8. Yeasayer – Odd Blood - I liked their debut, but this album really catapulted Yeasayer onto a new level. A delightful blizzard of beeps and blips swirls around a strong crop of songs. And I won’t lie and say that “Ambling Alp” didn’t guide me through a few personally frustrating moments: “Now, the world can be an unfair place at times / But your lows will have their complement of highs … You must stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done.”
  9. Cloud Cult – Light Chasers – One of the most unabashedly sincere and true-hearted bands in indie rock offers up another winner, facing complex issues of love and grief and longing head-on, armed only with lush melodies and dynamic songcraft.
  10. School of Seven Bells – Disconnect From Desire - A huge leap forward from their debut, which in itself was a stellar album. Captivating and transcendent.
  11. Stars – The Five Ghosts
  12. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
  13. Jenny and Johnny -  I’m Having Fun Now
  14. The Acorn – No Ghost
  15. LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening
  16. Vampire Weekend – Contra
  17. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
  18. The Kissaway Trail – Sleep Mountain
  19. Marching Band – Pop Cycle
  20. Versus – On the Ones and Threes
  21. Weakerthans and Jim Bryson – The Falcon Lake Incident
  22. Magnetic Fields – Realism
  23. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists – The Brutalist Bricks
  24. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  25. Girl Talk – All Day
  26. Sleigh Bells – Treats
  27. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Up From Below
  28. Local Natives – Gorilla Manor
  29. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes
  30. Freedy Johnston – Rain on the City
  31. The Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
  32. Spoon  – Transference
  33. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross – The Social Network score
  34. Laura Veirs – July Flame
  35. Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer
  36. We Are Scientists – Barbara
  37. Peter Wolf – Midnight Souvenirs
  38. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
  39. Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?
  40. Nada Surf – If I Had a Hi-Fi
  41. The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
  42. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  43. Eels – End Times
  44. Broken Bells – Broken Bells
  45. Mates of State – Crushes
  46. John Hiatt – The Open Road
  47. Kingsley Flood – Dust Windows
  48. Static of the Gods – Knowledge Machine
  49. The Morning Benders – Big Echo
  50. The Futureheads – Chaos

Take Five: The Soul-Searching Edition

New Releases

Finds of the Week

  • Jens Lekman performed some new songs at a recent live gig in Los Angeles, including his ode to Kirsten Dunst. 
  • The Cars are teasing some new songs on their Facebook page. Seems like the formula still works.
  • Fountains of Wayne, uncrowned kings of power pop, are still at it,releasing songs about New Jersey rivers and sitting on a finished album waiting for a label to come around and realize how awesome they are. FoW’s Adam Schlesinger is also playing shows in California with Mike Viola on Dec. 15 and 16. (So… jealous…)
  • Check out the absolutely perfect little love song that one blogger calls “the next ‘Anyone Else But You’” – Penny and the Quarters’ “You and Me.”
  • Wednesday, Dec. 8, was the 30 year anniversary of John Lennon’s death. On the way back from Norwood in the Zipcar, I was listening to the replay of Lennon’s last interview (which will be published in its entirely in the next issue of Rolling Stone), conducted just hours before his death in New York City. It was stirring, haunting but also inspiring. Bill Janovitz, aptly, marked the occasion with a song — a cover of “Beautiful Boy” — and some choice words:”It brings me a lot of comfort to believe in John Lennon the artist, as a demi-god, the life he presented to us as maybe part of the art, but no less real. He was showing a version of how to age and become a father to a generation. It brings me great comfort to think of John as a softening man and a nurturing father to a baby and then young boy. And it therefore brings me great pain to think of his murder and the loss of a father who can write a song such as this for his son.”

Around the Web

In the News

Second Thoughts

Things are changing around here. Again.

For a while, as you might have been able to tell, I fancied turning “Take Five” into a real column, interviewing interesting people involved in some way with music in addition to regular link/commentary digests such as this one. At the same time, my blogging at GeorgyCohen.com has really ramped up. The problem is, I only have so much time.

In addition, I missed the blogging I did here back in the day, way back in 2009 — it was more reflective, more personal. To me, that is an enticing complement to my more professional banter elsewhere.

So, what does this mean? It means I am relieving myself of the burdens of a schedule and expectations around “Take Five” and my music blogging aspirations. Right now, I only want to deal with one blog with an editorial calendar, and I want a space where I can write about a neat walk I took, my latest realizations about family and, yes, music — but when I want to, and how I want to. I think the expectations and structure I was placing around “Take Five” choked the life out of the rest of what this blog had become (and, most importantly, meant to me).

I still remember the feeling of euphoria I felt after my first “Take Five” post. I hadn’t written about music in a long while, and starting this feature was a way of recommitting to music writing. And it rejuvenated me. So, maybe it’s dangerous to ease up on the structure that “Take Five” imposes during a time in my life when I have been somewhat removed from music, thanks to the balky laptop monitor. But I’m also at a point where I need to pick and choose the structures in my life, in order to keep things manageable. So don’t worry, music writing won’t disappear. But like all things, this is a work in progress, so expect to see some changes. Hopefully all for the better.