Spin the Wheel: Indie Music Wine Pairings, Large Bodies of Water Edition

I’ve had a thing for unnecessarily long titles lately. You’ll have to forgive me on that front. This week, and I promise I had no hand in this, the two indie songs that came up on shuffle were Sparta’s “While Oceana Sleeps” and Jeniferever’s “From Across the Sea.” Hmm, Ocean… Sea… sounds like a parallel to me. Rest assured, however, that what I plan on pairing with these will be at least a bit more palatable than a glass full of brackish ocean water.

Sparta – While Oceana Sleeps

Sparta is a band with an interesting history. Way back in the day (read:: late 1990s) there was a band called At the Drive-In. They played ridiculously complex music, adding weirdly metaphoric and abstract vocals to off-rhythm drumming and an odd combination of punk and progressive guitar-work. However, there were two members, Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, the vocalist and guitarist, who were unsatisfied with their mainstream recognition as simply a punk band. They decided to start their own project, The Mars Volta, to pursue some ridiculously outlandish progressive orchestrations. The remainder of the band, Jim Ward, Paul Hinojos and Tony Hajjar, took their sound in an entirely different direction, towards a classic indie rock sound. Thus, Sparta was born. The band has split once again, with Jim Ward forming an alt-country band called Sleepercar with some guest musicians from previous Sparta releases as well as his father on bass. Go figure.

Sparta’s sound began with that dark passion leftover from At The Drive-In. Ward would play furious guitar riffs and shout-sing his vocals, employing direct lyrics that actively engaged the audience (“How can you sleep at night?”) on matters both personal and political. By the time they released the album Porcelain, however, their sound had seriously softened, employing a slower tempo and more melodic guitarwork. Ward began really exercising his vocal chops, returning to a more poetic, metaphorical lyric style.

If I were to match this band, both in history and content, I would pair them with a Pinot Blanc. Pinot Blanc, an on-vine mutation from the genetically unstable Pinot Noir, produces brilliantly-colored white grapes side-by-side with Pinot Noir’s dark berries. The flavors are suitable for either a dry, acidic style or a sweeter, tamer one, though that largely depends on terroir. As Sparta suddenly split from a darker, more intense parent, so does Pinot Blanc.

As far as the substance? You’re not going to get a world-class cellar-worthy wine from Pinot Blanc, but you will get a fairly safe, palatable wine just about every time. Sparta? Sparta may have a large following, but they’ve yet to release a hit single. Their music is pleasant, with a bit of variety, but still, you always know what to expect in a Sparta song. They’ll give you just a hint of stadium rock, a bit of punk, and a slice or two of indie, all delivered with earnest emotion. It’s certainly enjoyable, but by no means is it life-changing.

Jeniferever – From Across The Sea

Jeniferever is a band that I simply cannot hype enough. They’ve taken in a variety of 21st century-style influences: the vast, distorted soundscapes of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros, the staggeringly complex drumbeats of modern progressive bands like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, the saturated, pedal-aided hum of shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine; these are all very mature, orchestrated bands.

However… This band doesn’t reach that same level of maturity. The name, Jeniferever (Jennifer Forever… yes…) sounds like a band that has 15000 friends on Myspace with an average age of 14.77. This can partially be blamed on the fact that they’re from Sweden; English is not their first language. And to be fair to them, they’ve carved out a sizable fanbase in the indie/shoegaze scene. If I had to personify the nature of their style, their vocals and lyrics, it would look something like this:

Jeniferever is childlike in their innocence, endearing in their romanticized notions of life and relationships, attempting to put on the big-boy emotions with a pre-teen’s heart. While many modern bands intone that honesty must be brutal and ugly, Jeniferever approaches hard truth from an almost resigned perspective: if it’s unpleasant, why worry about it? A running theme in their music is the inability to accept loss, and the loss is so vague it could be anything: childhood, love, home, a friend, life. When they do get specific, such as the song “Avlik,” the dedication to youth and inexperience really shines through:

He held his breath to hold your hand,
To hear the words to the picture he’d seen.
Watched how you reached for your things to leave,
To walk a block to the car that would take you home
To where you belong.
These hours just made it worse,
For now you’re far from here.
But oh, it was worth it;
‘Cause you’ll always be close to his heart.
You’ll always be close to his heart.

Sappy, straight-forward, Jenifever calls for a Gewürztraminer. If Jeniferever is the aural equivalent of a candy-smeared child handing you a bouquet of flowers, a Gewürz is that in wine. Some people think it’s the greatest thing ever; others are utterly put off by the experience. If you’re someone who can absorb a mouthful of overwhelmingly saccharine indulgence, you’ll get along fine with either of these offerings.

Cinco De Mayo Wine Pairings

A recent example of wine pairings that went well together is my company’s Cinco de Mayo party this past Wednesday. I’ve reviewed both of these wines before, so I won’t repeat myself in those regards, but I will link to those reviews in case you missed them.

2009 ranga.ranga Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand

2009 ranga.ranga Sauvignon Blanc bottleWe celebrated the victory in battle of the Mexicans over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 by hucking an inflated rubber ball at a metal hoop. Appropriate, I know. We played next to a freshly cut lawn, the sweet, pungent scent of clipped grass still very prominent on a soft spring breeze. The temperature, just over 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a light humidity, was enough to work up a quick sweat without being sweltering or oppressive. I mentioned in my review of the ranga.ranga that it “just smells and tastes like a summer party after a hard day of gardening and yardwork.” In this case, we got the experience without actually putting in the effort, which was doubly enjoyable.

The herbal, citrus-y, and grassy flavors in the Sauvignon Blanc matched perfectly. I’d take time away from the game to have a quick sip, and the brisk acidity and tart flavors were both cooling and refreshing. Though the complexity of the wine was lost, as I didn’t exactly have the focus or time to enjoy the finish, the flavors still functioned very well as a thirst-quencher.

It was almost too easy to just gulp it down instead of having a mere sip, and I might have had to refill my glass once or twice more than I otherwise should have. The high alcohol content also made me a lot more confident in my abilities, which hadn’t been adequately exercised since last April, and I found myself jacking up three-pointers that would even make “Zach Randolph, Point Guard” blush.

2008 Yellow + Blue Torrontes, Cafayate Valley, Salta, Argentina

The other wine that we had for our Cinco De Mayo party was a pairing for the food, which was an old-fashioned shrimp boil. We had yellow and blue torrontes cartontwo pots going on, one with a garlic-seasoned brew and the other with a classic creole-style boil. The scents mingled together immaculately in the air around the picnic area, “forming up like Voltron,” to borrow a phrase from Rick Bakas.

On the review for this wine, I raved about the seafood pairing, creole flounder stuffed with shrimp, crab, and peppers. Obviously, this experience had a lot to do with why I brought this wine for the shrimp boil. The floral notes of the wine accented the spicy scents of the shrimp boil very well. Aside from the food, the Torrontes was still crisp and very cool, well suited to an outdoor spring party. The floral scents worked for the season as well.

While I spent a lot more time with the ranga.ranga than with the Yellow + Blue Torrontes that day, probably because I spent 2/3 of my time at the party playing basketball, I found both to be perfect for the conditions. If you plan on having an outdoor party before it gets too warm, especially one that will involve any kind of athletic activity, you can’t go wrong with a dry Marlborough-style Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re doing any kind of spicy cookout with a seafood or poultry theme, a South-American-style Torrontes will hit the spot.

Chardonnay as a (sort of) Cold Medicine

The Backstory:

This week has been an absolute hell of being not healthy for me. I overworked my body playing in the sun all weekend and developed a stomach bug in the process. Combining an exhausted me with an aggressive microbe leads to decidedly unfortunate consequences. I finally recovered enough last night to uncork and really enjoy a wine again. Since my experience with tasting food and drink was like drinking stale milk and chewing paper for 3 straight days, I needed something with enough oomph to knock my palate around and bring me back to life. Unfortunately, after that one glorious night of getting a taste of wine, I’m back under the weather with yet another ailment. This one’s got the nose and throat on lockdown, so it looks like last night’s affair will have to get me through the week.

What’s the 2009 Gouguenheim Valle Escondido Chardonnay got for me in regards to helping me get back on the wine-tasting horse? It comes from the Mendoza Valley, specifically the colder area that rests above 1000 m.a.s.l. (meters above sea level). This area is particularly kind to the noble grapes and Malbec, leading to a rapid growth of wineries in the area. The propensity for high acidity in this region combined with the proven quality of the plantings here means you can expect a fuller, better developed white wine. Is it enough to suit my convalescent palate? You bet your stemless Bordeaux glass, it is.

The Results:

2009 Gouguenheim Chardonnay bottleThe appearance of the wine is a light gold color with a noticeable depth. It appears to have a medium texture, not syrupy but substantial.

The nose of the wine is rather rustic; it has a very orchard-y smell, consisting primarily of ripe apples, pear cider, and peach for the fruit combined with a light floral scent.

The mouth feel of the wine is actually fairly delicate. It’s medium-bodied, but its texture feels lighter and more airy as it moves about the mouth.

The flavor of the wine is what stands out the most. It is very dry, but it has a very full fruit flavor. The attack is heavy ripe apples and pineapple, and you can easily detect the decent alcohol (13%) and high acidity. The acidity is prominently featured in the flavor, and it would simply overwhelm the wine if the flavors weren’t so expressive and it didn’t have that touch of sweetness. There’s a distinct hint of honeysuckle and buttery cheese, a pleasant diversion from the usual orchard fruits I was expecting, and a medium peach finish. As it stands, the only knock I have against this wine is it’s just a little imbalanced… too much alcohol heat and acidity for the flavor. If it weren’t so robust, it would utterly fall apart.

The Conclusion:

Coming out of a sickness that impacted my ability to taste, this was a fantastic wine to bring be back from the brink. With a lively acidity, full, robust flavor, and enough sweetness to match the aggressiveness, it makes for a great under-$10 white wine. 6/10

Note: this wine was provided by the distributor as a sample.

Bonus wine-pairing:

Coma Therapy by Strata. A normally hard-rock-styled band with a vocalist who has some serious pipes tones it down just enough to make an edgy, ominous ballad. A wine with a serious kick and acidity tempers the aggressiveness with some sweetness and cool flavors. Enjoy!

(Don’t) Spin the Wheel: Nostalgic Music Wine Pairings

This week I overrode the randomizer and chose two songs myself as a way to reacquaint myself (and acquaint you all) with two bands that I’ve spent some time away from. The first, Atom and His Package, I haven’t listened to at all since high school. The second, The Besnard Lakes, I’ve only listened to sporadically since last summer. Shame on me on both counts.

Atom and His Package – I Am Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy with Just a Hammer

This song is one that you listen to and just grin the whole time. The lyrics are absurd, chronicling a trio of college-age kids who buy a fixer-upper and realize only one of them knows how to repair things while another is marginally useful. The other one, bored with the process and with being utterly unhelpful, roams about the house indulging in destructive fantasies with his trusty hammer.

The instrumentation for this song is all provided by Atom (Adam Goren), who plays a guitar and a synthesizer, and his “Package,” a sequencer, a hardware music device that allows him to play multiple recorded or generated instrument sequences simultaneously while focusing on his live guitar-work and keyboarding. He snaps back and forth between chorus and verse with nary a pause in some sort of ADD stream-of-consciousness flood, the synthesizer barely keeping up with the manic output. The synth drums maintain a ridiculously quick 4/4 time signature, sounding more like an overexcited metronome than an actual instrument.

This song is giddy, simple, and short. It seems to me like it would pair very well with a late harvest Riesling. A late harvest Riesling stands well on its own, is enjoyable by even casual drinkers, and works when you don’t want a wine that commands focus and attention. The flavors are generally safe, harmonious flavors that match the higher sweetness and acidity levels: floral, light fruits, minerals. It’s almost syrupy sweet, though just acidic enough to give the wine some depth. Atom and His Package is assuredly irreverent, but there is enough substance, social and political commentary, there to keep it from being overindulgent nonsense.

Other songs by Atom and His Package include “The Palestinians Are Not The Same Thing As The Rebel Alliance, Jackass,” “(Lord It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using the Metric System,” and “People In This Computer Lab Should Shut the Hell Up.” If you need a good dose of angry, harmless, funny, nerdy punk, well, I think you’ve pigeon-holed yourself very nicely. Enjoy!

The Besnard Lakes – And You Lied to Me

Wine first. Considering I’ve only had dry Tokaji before, it would be dishonest of me to pair this with an Aszu. That’s fine, because I think a dry Tokaji goes very nicely with this music. Its acidity and residual sugar, though both generally fairly standard at around 6.5 g/l, are paired with a higher alcohol level (typically 14% and up). Higher alcohol, within reason, tends to enhance the flavors inherent in a wine, so long as the acidity and sugar aren’t overwhelmed.

Everything about a good Tokaji would be described as sumptuous. The acidity is very active, providing a nuanced mouth feel that I would liken to the feeling of ball bearings rolling across skin. The sugar and alcohol balances with the acidity well, giving the wine a very full, sensual flavor. The complexities in this wine persist through a long finish, many different aspects of fruits, minerals, and herbs constantly jostling for attention. The wine is simply chill-inducing.

Chill-inducing describes this song perfectly. There are few bands that warrant headphones, closed eyes, and focused listening. For me, The Besnard Lakes always command that dedication of my time. This song in particular makes me stop and listen no matter what I’m doing at the time.

The ominous vocals, sung both solo by Jace Lasek (also the guitarist and keyboardist) and in chants with his wife Olga Goreas (also the bassist), cast a surreal pall over the ornate instrumentation, pumping wave after wave of distraught emotion into the rising, triumphant guitar riffs to maintain a continual dissonance, a sense of unease. They fill empty spaces between verses with subdued distortion and wavering vocal harmonies, barely holding the song together and making the anticipation for each resurgence palpable. Like a dry Tokaji, the sweetness is tempered by a subtle mordancy; the song embraces dichotomy.

And, like any good wine, the complexity persists through a long finish. Generally, after the final verse of a song, a repetition of the verse or chorus riff or a guitar solo ends abruptly or fades out. The Besnard Lakes instead begin a second guitarist’s distorted guitar interlude before the final repetition of the chorus, replacing the chorus riff. As the chorus ends, another guitar solo begins, with a third guitarist and guitar bringing in a cleaner, slower sound. The original guitarist, Lasek, playing a subdued version of the chorus riff underneath of the solos, suddenly comes forward with a hammer-on solo as the third guitarist fades away, providing the most complex guitar-work seen thus far before one final choral riff finishes the song.

I would have a hard time finding a more appropriate metaphor for the progression of the flavors of wine from the attack to the mid-palate to the finish than this song.

Spin the Wheel: Rock Music Wine Pairings

We’re back with another one of our patented music-wine pairings. Our two selections today ended up being some variation of the punk genre, though they’re departed enough that I would simply classify them as rock. These were especially a lot of fun, and I’m pretty happy with the pairings that resulted. What do you guys think? Give them a listen and toss up your own pairing. I know we have some music geeks in the audience!

Letter Kills – Carry You

The first band to come up was Letter Kills. I’ve been hyping these guys up a lot on Twitter, and with good reason. They engage in a brilliant combination of modern-day punk rock and 80s metal, producing a style that lifts them up out of the cesspool of scene kid bands clogging the airwaves.  Because they stood out from the pack, of course, they never developed a following, and their first album was their last. And no, I’m not just being bitter.

The drummer jumps in and out of syncopation with incredible ease, and he absolutely loves moving around the drumkit in 16th-note fills. He’s also a huge fan of big snare hits and playing the bell of his crash cymbals, an homage to 80s metal. The vocalist has his own manic style, complete with raw, whooping calls to energy (What I say? HA-HA! Aww-Right!), but he’s got the pipes to pay homage to his flamboyant hair-metal influence. The lead guitar moves between punk and metal picking during the verses, usually sticking with standard quarter-note punk chords for the bridge and chorus and embracing full on metal guitar solos when necessary. The rhythm guitar and bass are relatively simple, though they provide the dirty, churning backdrops appropriate for either style.

To pair with this band, I’m looking for a blend. What kind of blend? I’m thinking a red blend, not a big red, probably something medium-bodied. These guys are punk-metal-lite, after all. You won’t catch them breaking bottles over their heads mid-show, and I think I even saw a little bit of make-up on the lead singer once. Because they combine an old metal style with contemporary punk, I’m thinking an old-vine, young-vine blend, something that brings the strength of a bigger, more tannic grape representative of more entrenched wine culture but combines those qualities with a younger, more common upstart. Maybe a Mourvedre or Carignan, two localized, rich and complex varietals, blended with Grenache, a wide-spread, softer grape that needs a little help to stand out. Hell, why not toss them both in there? This is my blog, and I want a three-grape blend to match my broken-up punk-metal-pop-scene band, and that’s what I’ll have.

Vampire Weekend – A-Punk

I’m glad Vampire Weekend came up, because I’ve been looking for an excuse to post a Frizzante. Vampire Weekend embraces the indie trend of slightly off-the-wall takes on popular music style. The best way for me to describe them would be something cobbled together from a few successful bands: The Clash, with their world-beat-inspired guitar-work, intricate but subdued drumming, and a vocalist who manages to sound both whimsical and passionate; The Decemberists, with their out-there lyricism, head-tossing rhythms, and anachronistic conceits; and Pavement, a band that managed to not crumble under its popularity, instead maintaining some sort of stubborn obliviousness to the outside world as they continued to produce music that defied the close scrutiny warranted by Pitchfork-styled music critics.

Sweet, condensed, effervescent, I would compare Vampire Weekend to a Moscato d’Asti. They’re subdued enough to not strike me as resembling a full-on Spumante, and they sound so innocent even as they address societal concerns. They’re simple, basic, but just a little bit outlandish. If you were trying to introduce someone to Italian wine, especially a sparkler, and you knew they had no palate for wine, a Moscato d’Asti would be a good place to start. If you wanted to introduce someone to indie rock, and you knew they weren’t ready for the absurdity of Xiu Xiu or The Unicorns, the lo-fi meanderings of No Age or The Moldy Peaches, or the overwhelming vastness of Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene, someone like Vampire Weekend is a good bet.

Also, I really, really wanted to post that video. Those guys are so fun.

Spin the Wheel: Indie Music Wine Pairings

The cool thing about wine is that the experience pairs well with not only food, but with any number of activities. You can sip a fine, complex wine while listening to an orchestral serenade, a light, fruit-forward dessert wine during a comedy, or a jug of Two-Buck Chuck during a tailgate (though I hope you at least use a glass). One guy I know likes to pair Chardonnay with his hunting trips. Whatever you’re into, I’m positive there’s a wine out there that’s perfectly suited to it. Because one of my passions is music, specifically independent music, I put a lot of thought into pairing different wines with music. I figured today I would share a couple of my musings on the subject with the randomizer on my music player as an inspiration.

Hercules & Love Affair – Blind

Hercules & Love Affair is a remarkable band that has taken musical anachronism in a different direction. While most independent bands that look to the past for their inspiration usually settle on emulating the new wave style of music pioneered by Devo, Duran Duran, The Cure, and all the other awesome bands that get mocked in pop culture nowadays, Hercules & Love Affair look to ignite a disco revival. Their music wraps European-style modern electronica and male/female vocals around the four-on-the-floor funk beats of classic disco, making them one of the few bands left that can call themselves “unique” and not sound like they’re in denial.

To match this unusual band, I’m looking for an unusual wine that might not be characteristic of its varietal. To match the flamboyance of an electronic disco artist without going with a traditionally sweet or exotic varietal, I think I’d have to go with a Vouvray. Made from Chenin Blanc, which usually produces drier, very aggressive and fruity white wines in its traditional environments, produces incredibly complex and harmonious wines when allowed to fully ripen in warm seasons in cooler climates. When Vouvray has a good growing season (which is happening more and more often due to global warming), the wines develop additional notes, a floral, honeyed character and a crisp sweetness that, well, is a reason why these wines are becoming a quick favorite of mine. The wine ages very well, too, which reflects the classic music influences of Hercules & Love Affair. Let’s face it, Vouvray is a very active wine, both in its high acidity and complex flavors, and like disco, it just makes you wanna dance, whether you want to admit it or not!

Bishop Allen – Calendar

A carefree band that revels in its minimal instrumentation, Bishop Allen has long been one of my favorite bands. I discovered them while I lived in Lynchburg, VA, not knowing that they were at the same time stationed in Lynchburg as a temporary reprieve from life in New York City. They have an honest affection for folk music, surprising complexity in their instrumentation, and a positive outlook that tempers even the most somber of subject matter. Justin Rice, the lead singer and guitarist, is a perpetually awkward 20-something, and in fact plays the lead as a perpetually awkward 20-something in Mutual Appreciation, one of my favorite movies. He chronicles this attitude, though, with maturity and a good sense of humor.

What to pair with Bishop Allen? I want a young wine that’s fresh and fruity, fairly light-bodied, but with a mature enough structure to be taken seriously. I’m leaning towards a New World Sangiovese. These tend to be brighter, less bitter, and more floral than the traditional Italian style, yet still retaining the red wine’s inherent acidity and tannic character. After the initial burst of playful red fruits, there’s potential for darker fruits, spices, even tobacco, the hallmarks of richer red wines. Once you get past the youthful enthusiasm of Bishop Allen, you’ll realize that, in their upbeat way, they like to tackle some pretty heavy topics.

Any music enthusiasts out there? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. This was a lot of fun, and I definitely plan on doing this again. I might even make it a weekly feature.

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