Music Review: PONY & the Ok Ok’s

‘Small Things’ by PONY:

A page torn from a dusty Lisa Frank binder tucked away on a shelf in your childhood home. It is at once scandalous and self-aware. Oh, the feels this song will give you. FYI: PONY is a garage rock trio from the 6ix. The single is catchy, the vocals are clear, the drums are too cool for school, and the guitar breathtaking. What’s not to love? Well, aside from the guy or gal you don’t actually ‘love, love.’ Skip the line: “You look so cute, pretending not to care. I don’t want you — I just want somebody there.”

‘British Columbia’ by The Ok-Ok’s:

Have you ever kicked yourself, or attempted to, while thinking, “Man, I wish I discovered so and so before everyone claimed to know them on a first name basis?” Well, ladies and gents — here is your chance. FYI: The Ok-Ok’s is an indie rock band from Pennsylvania. The single, immediately transports the listener to the storied realm of first-listen utopia. I’m almost speechless, in terms of how stunning the vocals are — controlled, soulful, and legit bankable. Skip the line: “But you’ve got, what you want; but you’ve got, what you want. Inside of me. In your face. And screwed me right. You robbed me twice and fooled me once.”

Text: Toni Styles

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Album Review: Leikeli 47 and LCD Soundsystem

Leikeli 47

Text: Toni Styles

Leikeli 47 is a rapper from New York City and quite possibly the heir to the throne of sassy, biting rhymey-rap. If Missy Elliott and the Ol’ Dirty Bastard, aka the ODB, had a child, it would likely be Leikeli 47. Like Missy, she is sufficiently other worldly with her signature attire that consists of various ski-masks, and, like ODB, she has no censor when it comes to her content. I’ll be the first to admit, the popular often stilted lyrics coming out of the studios of many of today’s female rappers just don’t do it for me. Having listened to several of her vanity themed tracks, I must admit there are some catchy lyrics. On repeat from her recent album “Wash & Go” is the single “Braids tuh’da flo(w)” — a song that puts you in the middle of a club huddle with the artist and her “girls” as she sings line after line of girl power: “Lit. Brand new outfit. Braids down to the flo. Y’all already know. My girls don’t trip, my girls keep winning, my girls don’t lose, my girls just keep on, getting braids to the flo.”

I like discovering a brand-new sound, something that knocks you out with originality — music that is confusing, ridiculous, even scary. Yes, I’m one of those annoying ’90s kids who swears by the artistic superiority of the musicians who haunted the charts during the last decade of the 20th century. Over the course of that period, everything was fresh; primarily because the music industry and labels were unafraid of taking a chance on, and ultimately courting both variety and quality. But, while Leikeli 47’s sound is not the 9th world wonder, she is a sort of wonder “kid” — from my understanding, a part of her mystique is that nobody knows her age. What really makes her stand out is her content more than her sound; she has mastered the ability to genuinely tell a story for an individual listener that remains consistent throughout her tracks. In other words, she, like the best talent, knows who her target audience is and what they want — she does not fail to deliver the goods. Perhaps, in that sense, the ski mask is a necessity, one that not only sets her apart, but also keeps the focus where it should be: on her ability to leave an impression on the listener. If Leikeli 47 can break away from the one-size fits all sound that is festering among  female rappers of the day, she may very well have something great to bring to the industry, something that can even last as long as “braids tuh’ da flo(w).”

LCD Soundsystem is a rock band from Brooklyn, who made their debut in 2002. Their sound is an ’80s-esque cooler than you, their lyrics are ’90s-esque moody distortions, and their overall delivery is an ’00s-esque startling awakening that refuses to bow to the status-quo. Think emo-pop, if you so desire. Simply put, this is music that must grow on you. Yes, that was quite blunt, but nevertheless, in most cases, quite true. LCD Soundsystem is not for a quick listen, it has too much depth to be handled so carelessly. This music is for tea time, a time when you can relax and detach yourself from yourself. On repeat from their recent album ‘American Dream‘ is the title track with lyrics “You took acid and looked in the mirror. Watched the beard crawl around on your face. Oh, the revolution was here — that would set you free from those bourgeoisie. In the moment, everything’s clearer, when the sun line exposes your age. But that’s okay.” The album does not come with many surprises, the music is thoughtful and the tracks transition well. Admittedly, the genius of LCD Soundsystem has yet to make itself fully known to me, but it does exist. I would say, give them a try if you like music that makes you think and maybe, just maybe, get up and dance.

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Novel Ideas: Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

When I first started The Burning Girl, Claire Messud’s sixth novel, I felt this sense of anticipation that continued through the whole book, as though every part of the story was only there to serve as an explanation or background for the real, important part.

I guess that makes sense in a way. The bulk of the story takes place while the main characters (including Julia, the narrator) are in grades 7-9. Is there any other time in life that just feels like a transition? Kids already too old to be kids, not quite old enough to feel like full-fledged adolescents. It’s a painful transition, one that Messud tackles gracefully. Julia and her best friend Cassie begin to grow apart only at the outset of puberty, as they develop into their own personalities and mature at different rates, toward different courses of action.

One Halloween, when both girls are in the seventh grade, crystalizes their differences. While Julia assumes the two will go trick-or-treating, Cassie informs her she’s been invited to spend the night watching horror movies at another girl’s house, which turns out to be “a boy-girl party, complete with Truth or Dare and Spin the Bottle”, where Cassie also begins a relationship with a boy Julia has a crush on. Julia spends the night handing out candy and seeing her own classmates trick-or-treat at her door. It’s such a stark difference, and Messud takes care to show us Julia’s dual perspectives, answering the door with an air of not caring, while of course caring deeply on the inside.

Cover of Claire Messud’s ‘The Burning Girl’

Most authors tend not to see any emotional complexity in pre-teen girls or young teenage girls. I was worried at first that Messud would fall into the common trap with young girls whose friendship falls apart. One girl becomes the cool, popular, already grown-up while the other stays innocent and kind. And we, the ready, are always meant to sympathize more with the latter, to see her as the sweet Madonna to the former Whore. The latter always wants to stay friends, and the evil ex-best friend can’t wait to pull away.

But things are rarely so simple, and Messud doesn’t want us to think they are either. Julia is initially hurt by Cassie pulling away, but never really makes the effort to really come back together. Instead, she tries to forge her own identity, getting into her own life and new friends, and watching from afar as Cassie does the same. Julia half-heartedly tries to defend Cassie every now and then from various accusations from her friends (Cassie’s a slut, Cassie parties too much), while still privately harboring the same thoughts.

And rather than leave us to wonder about Cassie, Messud instead takes the time to dive into Cassie’s home life, and its many stark differences from Julia’s. Julia is solidly upper-middle class. College is an expectation, not a fantasy. She has a supportive relationship with her parents. She tells her mother everything. Julia has no need to rebel, as she has nothing so terrible to rebel against.

Author Claire Messud

On the other hand, Cassie has a strict, religious mother, whose strictness becomes even more pronounced when she begins a relationship with a man called Anders Shute. Messud never levels any explicit accusations at Shute, but he remains the most shadowy character in the book. By Cassie’s word he never does anything specific. But he seems all too interested in how short Cassie’s skirts are, how late she it out, if she is in a relationship with a boy.

Anders, like a few of the adult men in the book, straddle the line just so, between creepy and concerning. In one scene, Cassie is picked up while walking down a highway late at night by a concerned neighbor. While we never know Cassie’s thoughts at the time, Julia wonders how Cassie must have felt. She had no reason to fear him, but every reason to fear him. Both Julia and Cassie, despite their differences, feel the keen awareness of their own vulnerability, of being a young girl out in the world.

If the Burning Girl, for all the brilliance of Messud’s writing, has any faults, it’s that she occasionally writes heavy-handedly about the dangers lurking for young girls, which feels more like exposition from an adult pretending to write as an adolescent than the actual thoughts of the said adolescent. And yet, perhaps we can overlook this. If Messud discussing how terrifying the world is for young girls is meant to feel like some new revelation, it’s because it is for Julia.

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Where Toronto Eats: Electric Mud BBQ

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

At Electric Mud BBQ on 5 Brock Avenue, there is a poster of ‘California Girls,’ three women (or girls) scantily clad in ’80s high-cut leotards either in the process of getting dressed or undressed — it seems to be a choose-your-own-adventure type of a fantasy — in a steamy locker room. Similar looking women, similarly dressed, in various stages of summer-induced (di)stress, hold beers and stare at you in a procession of equally inane posters throughout the establishment that’s also home to crosses and metal insignias of various sizes. Blues and rock play off a vinyl on a turntable at the back of the bar that merges with a semi-open kitchen. The chairs are metal — humble, if you’re feeling that way, or uncomfortable, if you’re sitting down. The combination of the kitsch and purposefully ‘backcountry’ décor attempts authenticity — not an accumulation of Americana but a slice of America itself. The owner(s) understands that dining out is more than the sum of the foods; that the contemporary dining crowd is looking for an experience, the ethereal, the affirmation.

It is as if the so much time and effort were spent on the mounting of the vintage neon beer signs around the main dining area that they had none left for the barbecue.

The ribs are available by 1/2 racks and are sticky and sweet, on the right side of fall-off-the-bone. But there is no depth of flavor, a quality expected in good barbecue by the mere fact of its process. Instead of the flavorful fattiness, the ribs retain no other flavor than grease after the initial sweetness. Considering how even less time-consuming methods of cooking meat, such as braising or quick searing as in yakitori, retain a touch of the fire and smoke, perhaps barbecue without it is a kind of an achievement in itself. The only thing that distinguishes Electric Mud’s ribs from those of a corporate steakhouse’s is their price, $17.99.

Not much can redeem a barbecue joint from bad ribs, save the redemption by the plentitude and greatness of fixings. No such luck here — the mac and cheese, made with cheddar and served with bacon and breadcrumbs, is runny and bland; the coleslaw and pickles are unmemorable. The spicy pork rinds with pimento cheese, as satisfying as they are, fall short of saving grace. The ribs’ mediocrity haunts the rest of the dinner.

To make sure that this poor state of affairs is not an anomaly, I went back three times at different times and on different days. What surprised me more than Electric Mud’s ability to hide any trace of the ribs having ever been inside a smoker were the lines. All three times people waited on line to get a seat. With its neon cross outside and a graffitied wall, Electric is very much at home in Parkdale, a block away from an angry vegan fast food chain (its sign reads, ‘BE AN ADULT. BE VEGAN’) and next door to a would-be-middling neighborhood microbrewery-pub. Much like its neighbors, all due accolades to the establishment seem due to the fact of its existence: that it remains open is both a curiosity and an indication of how much the fastidiously acquired veneer of a barbecue joint can withstand the reality of objectively bad ribs. From the outside, the place is ostensibly a locus of barbecue and barbecue culture. Yet it’s clear from the food that there’s little love in it.

Manufactured identity requires the presence and affirmation of others. The customers and reviewers of Electric provide those services to the establishment — you can tell by the way the male staff addresses male customers as ‘brother’ and the hostess’s frustration at a visibly frustrated couple waiting on line: They are certain of their status as purveyors of fine barbecue. I wonder if the existence of Electric does the same for the customers and reviewers of the city. As to what affirmation one may find at Electric other than that even good, simple things can so easily be ruined, I’m not sure.

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Where Toronto Eats: Sid’s Deli

Art work by Michelle Cheung for Novella Magazine

The key to a simple dish lies in the details: the quality of the ingredients and the precision in preparation and presentation. If the demands of these details are met, even the most simple and humble dish can be downright thrilling. But when such dishes are prepared halfheartedly, with no rich sauce or pretty decorations to hide behind, their flaws become glaringly apparent; the balance is thrown off and the humble and simple dish becomes, at its best, noxious fuel for the road. Sushi is a great example: it can either be of Jiro’s dreams or of his nightmares. Though certainly not as highly prized as sushi, the same principle applies to even a deli sandwich. To those who love the pleasures brought on by such dishes’ simplicity, the nightmares are not merely disappointments but causes for moral outrage. For those, and for those looking for a great deli sandwich, Toronto’s Sid’s Deli gives cause for outrage in every bite of its pastrami sandwich. Stuff of Willy Katz’s and Reuben Schwartz’s collective worst fears.

Let’s not get too much into the establishment itself; suffice it to say that the alley next to its patio was riddled with oozing garbage and a red table just in front of the front counter was sticky with whatever combination of substances left undisturbed for god knows how long. The more unforgivable of Sid’s Deli’s deficiencies greeted me in the form of a supposedly 6oz pastrami on rye. The first bad sign: the absolute pinkness of the pastrami without the dark, smoky edges that should have, in the very least, been visible. The second: the visibly, and soon, to my dismay, to touch, cold pastrami — pastrami should sit in a steamer until it’s warm before it’s sliced and served. The third: the unbalanced distribution of the meat: each bite should offer a balance of lean and fat meats to bread ratio. These are, so far, only signs of the kitchen’s carelessness and lack of know-how that are telling me that this sandwich is not likely to satisfy. However, still at this point, the actual sandwich itself, against all odds, might very well have been a pleasant surprise. Not the case. The pastrami was flavorless, dry, and somehow devoid of any fat. The only noticeable flavor came from chunks of peppercorns lodged somewhere in the mound of dry pink. I should also note that Sid’s Deli charges 85 cents to have the pastrami hand-cut, an essential part of eating pastrami I’ve apparently been taking for granted all these years.

Hoping to find some solace, I looked to the rest of the plate, but it offered none. Though I saw the kitchen staff put the cold latke from the fridge into a microwave, I was hoping that it would still be good: it’s difficult to mess up such a simple and perfect classic. But the latke had, by the time I turned to it, oozed yellow oil onto the plate. Cutting into it, I found that the potato was neither grated nor shredded in the food processor but rather pulped in something or other. It was soggy and bland. Not an ounce of soul could be found in this infinitely forgiving and nourishing Jewish soul food. The cabbage in the cabbage slaw was unevenly cut, a paper-thin piece swimming in the same tasteless juice as a piece as thick as a finger. The matzo ball soup with a cold matzo ball was reminiscent of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup in its briny broth. In the end, the only solace came from a bottle of water that tried to wash everything down.

Some may think that I’m overanalyzing a sandwich platter. Would I, for instance, look at a Subways sandwich with the same level of scrutiny? Isn’t a sandwich, after all, just a sandwich? But a pastrami sandwich, especially one from a place that calls itself a deli, is not just a sandwich. Like many everyday foods, pastrami has a long cultural history and carries with it the stories of people who make and eat it. It is nothing short of an embodiment of that history and those stories. As such, it should be treated with respect and when it isn’t, one should scrutinize and call out. With a dash of exaggeration, I might even posit that mediocrity in food — and people’s acceptance of the mediocrity as normal — is both symptom and outcome of a blindingly materialistic culture. That the only thing  BlogTO had to “kvetch” was Sid’s Deli’s high price and that BlogTO is a common reference point for Torontonians are, therefore, sufficient causes for further moral outrage.

After all the moral outrage at this emotionally hazardous establishment, what bugs me still is the fact that it had the audacity to charge 85 cents to have pastrami hand-cut. Was it an attempt to make that extra near-dollar per sandwich and thereby lower food costs? Or were those 85 cents going to the master cutter who otherwise sits solemnly in the back room, sharpening his tools? That the establishment even considered thinly machine-cutting pastrami was a good idea is a testimony to the fact that those running it have neither love nor respect for the food they sell. It should be obvious by now that Sid’s Deli is not Katz or Schwartz, but that’s not really the point. The point is that Sid’s Deli’s values and principles are antithetical to those of respected institutions of deli sandwiches; by extension, it’s antithetical to those of anyone who loves what he/she cooks.

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