Friday Fave: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

This is one of those albums for which I’ve started avoiding looking at the year it was released, because it makes me feel old. (It turns 22 this year. Probably gets played on those oldies stations that I also avoid listening to because a friend told me a few years ago that Blind Melon’s “No Rain” is officially an oldie now and how can that be &*%^$ possible?)

I discovered the single “Possession” on a flight from Atlanta to Miami when I was 15: It was on a list of maybe eight tracks the airline had compiled of rock and pop music on the in-flight “radio” station. I listened to that channel for the entire flight, sitting through the other entirely forgettable songs just to hear “Possession” maybe three times. I got the album as soon as it came out, and I have never stopped listening.

I still listen to a lot of the music I loved when I was a teenager, but most of it is still dear to me out of a sense of nostalgia: I am not the person I was when I fell in love with those songs, and in a lot of cases my taste has changed to the extent that some of it now sounds shallow and hackneyed–the lyrics capture a glimmer of how I felt at the time, but the songs aren’t strikingly inventive in any way. Fumbling towards Ecstasy is one of the exceptions. Every song on it is still as compelling to me as they were the day I brought the album home, particularly “Possession,” “Ice,” and the titular “Fumbling toward Ecstasy.”

While there’s plenty to be said about originality and inventiveness in popular music, a large part of what I’ve always valued in rock and other short-form songs is the use of lyrics–without the imagery and expression, the greater part of the artistry in rock stems from using existing melodies and rhythms in new ways. She captures something of Romanticism in its original literary sense, and a lot of the imagery she uses in her songs subverts and questions the representations of women ingrained in our culture, particularly those of Christian iconography. Most of the songs on her first four albums aren’t about love at all, and those that are are not about winning the guy but about struggling to keep one’s sense of personal identity from being subsumed by obsession, about questioning whether love and passion are the same thing, about whether overwhelming physical passion is ever a truly healthy thing.

A lot of television and film reviews these days discuss the idea of the male gaze, and how more and more directors are creating love scenes and other interactions on screen to present such exchanges from the woman’s perspective, and to appeal to the tastes of female viewers. This is something that McLachlan does in her music that few other musicians were doing at the time–she uses the female perspective in ways that weren’t often heard on popular radio stations back in 1994. Most pop love songs sung from the woman’s perspective even now are limited to celebrating a particular ideal man, questioning what a man wants from a woman, or occasionally rejecting that in favour of another man (or preferring being alone). Before Sarah McLachlan and her support of women artists via the Lilith Fair, there wasn’t a lot of pop music making it onto the charts that asked not just was this man or that man worth it, would he treat you well, but what do you really want in a lover and a partner? (Regardless of that partner’s gender.) She also cast the woman in a relationship in the role of the protector and the provider–and, in “Possession”, as the stalker. (Everyone always brings up “Every Breath You Take” as the quintessential example of a really creepy song being misunderstood as a glorious love song, but when you look at the lyrics of “Possession”, which were in fact inspired by things that two stalkers wrote to McLachlan in the early years of her career. It isn’t as airily romantic as her voice implies; the words are more evocative of paranoid delusion than they are of sane, if melodramatic, love.)

She wasn’t alone–there was Aimee Mann, the Indigo Girls, P. J. Harvey, Melissa Etheridge, Salt n’ Pepa, and a few others active at the same time–but she was a rarity, and she has used her fame to promote other women in music and music education in general. This album is still the best of McLachlan’s work and, together with its bookends Solace and Surfacing, still sounds vital and a little different from anything else around.


Of time and the river

Time tends to pass me by. I’m late to things. I respond to an email and am surprised to see I received it weeks before, when it feels like days. I put off picking up the phone to call friends because I don’t particularly like talking on the phone and then somehow it’s been five years.

And yet this past month, during a roadtrip through the Ohio Valley, I was astonished all over again at the way time eddies around me. It had been four, fifteen, twenty-two years since I had seen some of the folks my husband and I visited–some of them close family. I’d like to think this was a big enough shock that it would initiate a system reboot, or something, and suddenly I’ll be the sort of person who just calls you when she’s thinking about you. But people aren’t computers. (If we were, I would totally go for a memory upgrade. Mine is super slow and frequently returns errors.)

The paradox of connection is that it might take years for me to reach out to someone, but it’s largely because the moments that make them meaningful to me feel ever present. Here are some of the ones from this trip, as a somewhat impressionist chronological recap.

  • Being handed a brimming mugful of hot toddy, iconic of the care and gentleness with which these friends treat even a sickly house guest;
  • Eating dinner around a family table that at one point felt like home to me, and finding that it still did–and that there was really no adjustment necessary for new faces, it just happened, it just was;
  • Everyone being tired, or sick, or distracted by spur of the moment real estate decisions, and it being totally fine and comfortable and somehow perfect to get takeout Thai and talk about nothing;
  • Hugging family for the first time in two decades and tearing up;
  • My five year old cousin hiding jingle bells inside my much-beloved late grandmother’s treasure box, so that when I picked it up to take it home the box rang out and instead of being sad in that moment we all laughed;
  • The tour of the chocolate factory and the tour of the house, everywhere present the work of hands lovingly crafting;
  • Nibbling on spicy arugula while picking kale and beets in the sun and drinking the coldest beer;
  • Toasting marshmallows while the sun set over the lake and the full moon rose orange over the marina;
  • Making total singing fools out of ourselves, for love;
  • That steely-eyed, coldly-reasoned, absolutely cutthroat game of Jenga;
  • Proving that yes, Steve, this family can eat that much Chinese food;
  • And a brilliant double rainbow after the storm.

During this trip we saw Genius, the sort-of biopic of Thomas Wolfe. While the book of his that I love is Look Homeward, Angel and not his second epic volume Of Time and the River, they share themes of the circularity of time and of the insatiable human need for connection. Though I didn’t like much about the movie I was impressed at the extent to which both themes were folded into the narrative itself. It resonated particularly because this trip, for me, was like stepping back into the river at a point I thought I’d left behind and finding it unchanged. You’ve heard this analogy before, of course, and I know as well as you do that it’s never truly the same river twice. Often I think I write as a way to try to dam it. That never works. Time is slack sometimes and then it floods; all I can do is sketch a moment to remember the feel of it.


Friday Fave: Allie Brosh and Hyperbole and a Half

I discovered the blog Hyperbole and a Half quite by chance about three years ago when someone I was once in contact with on Facebook at the time happened to post a comment that Allie Brosh had updated her site for the first time in a long time. I was curious, so I clicked on the link.

I think I spent the next two hours laughing until I cried and my stomach hurt.

Brosh’s blog is like many other blogs, mostly about herself and her relatively uneventful, non-celebrity life with her boyfriend and her two dogs, but she has a genius for relating the most trivial–and sometimes the most awful–experiences in a way that is both honest and incredibly funny. (Dooce’s writing has a similar quality, but lacks the fantastic illustrations.) Brosh captures this tone even in explaining and confronting her struggle with depression, which I return to every so often, particularly when I’m having a difficult week myself. The episode I find the funniest, however, is This Is Why I’ll Never Be An Adult.  If you read nothing else on the site, read that episode. Cleaning *all the things* in a single go is an ambition I continue to nurse–I used to be able to manage it when I lived in a flat in Edinburgh, but the house in Atlanta is proving a different beast. (How do closets and cabinets get so dirty? They stay closed 95% of the time. It isn’t fair.)

There’s actually not a great deal I can say that wouldn’t be better captured by just going and reading the blog itself, so have at it. I know some of you reading this will already be familiar with it, but like Black Books, I find it bears many, many repeated viewings. It is safe for work in the sense of no nudity or much swearing, as far as I recall, but laughing may be a problem. She has one book out, containing the best of the blog and some new material; a second book, Solutions and Other Problems, is due out sometime soon, in which we are promised much new material. If the publisher can just settle on a release date.

Black Forest Gateau

A few months ago I asked my friends for suggestions about what cakes to make in the future. Most of the requests I got I tried to act on quickly, depending on the availability of ingredients and whether I possessed all the tools needed to accomplish the dish in question, but one I put off. My friend Zoe asked for a Black Forest gateau, and in Googling recipes I came across this:

Black Forest Gateau

And just stared at it for a wee while, in awe. I know this woman has a good photographer–or is herself a good photographer–to produce images of her creations, but that cake is amazing. And she apparently created it in her own kitchen, no exceptional tools or training needed. I looked at a few other recipes, and decided that nothing was going to equal that cake. I wanted to attempt it, but lacked the courage. After a few weeks’ thought, I decided to give it a try as my birthday cake, in lieu of buying one this year. (Choosing a birthday cake has always been something of a ritual for me, and something I’ve been known to spend a disproportionate amount of money on. If you’re in Atlanta, give one of Metrotainment Bakery‘s creations a try some time. Their Georgia peach pound cake with bourbon caramel sauce is insanely good.)

Some adaptation of the recipe proved necessary, as thickened cream is something that apparently exists only in Australia, and I didn’t have cake tins of the specified size. (I found a nearly brand-new set of the requisite three tins at an estate sale about 24 hours after I finished the cake. As you do.) I also did something wrong with the ganache–at first the butter wouldn’t blend properly, or I didn’t have enough chocolate; it looked greasy and unpleasant. I added a bit more chocolate and cream, which improved it greatly, but it still lacked the consistency I wanted. I haven’t had much trouble with ganache in the past, so next time I’ll use a different recipe for that element.

Ganache mishaps aside, it was actually far less difficult than I’d feared. The cakes themselves are very easy, and turned out perfectly. They didn’t seem dry to me when they came out of the oven, but after being soaked with probably more than half a cup of syrup and kirsch each, they did not turn into a soggy mess. The other steps were almost as easy as the cake, but there was a fair bit of waiting for everything to come to room temperature before assembly, so I ended up running a bit low on counter space.

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Once everything had reached the requisite temperatures, the fun part began: dousing everything in kirsch. Because the alcohol evaporated out of the syrup in cooking the cherries, I added a few tablespoons of fresh kirsch to the cakes as well; the cherry flavour certainly came through in the finished cake, but I couldn’t taste the alcohol, as you would in a rum or a whiskey cake. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to your discretion. (Side note–I bought a variety of preserved cherries for the project, thinking I would need all of them–tinned cherries, frozen cherries, cherry jam. I may in the future add a swirl of cherry jam to the cake before baking, but on this occasion I used only the frozen cherries, boiled in kirsh. They were Trader Joe’s dark sweet frozen cherries, and they held up beautifully after a ten-minute boil, so I recommend them.)

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My finished cake didn’t look like Thalia’s, but I don’t think I did too badly. The cream looks like it overwhelms the cake, but it actually deflated a bit when the cake was chilled and I ended up adding a bit of the excess filling when serving slices once the cake was a couple of days old. It was also huge–I couldn’t get the top of the server on until a few slices had been cut and some of the fruit eaten. Next time I am determined to get the ganache to drip prettily down the sides–I am in the process of thinking up a recipe of my own for my next attempt.