The Smith Street Band, Existential Dread, Mexican Food | Spring Favourites
Spring has sprung. Hope is in the air. Beautiful changes manifesting slowly, softly, everywhere.
Just joking, obviously. Article 50 was triggered and a snap election is being called. And also it's the end of the tax year and, as such, it’s a natural time to start wondering what you’re still doing at that job you said was merely temporary; and wondering whether you've gotten too invested; that maybe it's all far too late to change; and asking "wasn’t this job supposed to be just a side thing to other, better creative projects?" Yeah, that.
I’ve managed to avoid some of these deep, depressing thoughts for a little while. During March and April I’ve been travelling, recording music, and generally avoiding my responsibilities. But now, reality has hit me smack in the face.
Yet, the weather has been amazing (even in Wales). It’s beer-garden-drinking, comic-book-reading, record-listening sort of weather. But instead you have to continue going to work, arguing with friends and family about stupid fucking politics, and realising you’re still ticking closer to the next birthday and you had told yourself you were going to write more, achieve more, do more this year.
In the spirit of not being totally bummed out, here are some Good Things about spring. This is some stuff that I've either discovered or rediscovered lately that makes me feel optimistic, enjoy living, and is making me actually look forward to summer (even though I’m a winter baby at heart).
More Scared of You Than You Are of Me, The Smith Street Band
The Smith Street Band are one of my all-time favourite bands so having a new album come out in April was a fucking gift. And it's super appropriate, because they’re definitely not winter listening. They kind of just embody that feeling I was just talking about: they channel an urgent, existential dread but at the same time write really upbeat bangers that put you in a proper good mood. They’re the sort of band for long days, jeans-cut-into-shorts, and drinking cider in a field. (Gross, cider—but you get me). They’re also a perfect band to stick on while walking to work. It pumps you up, but it’s also an outlet for expressing some of the deep-seated anxieties and frustrations of your sad twenty-something life. It’s about the oncoming summer but also the transitional period of uncertainty that summer brings: the feeling of being at the end of something without being at the start of something new. It’s about breakups, hangovers, jet lag, and so on. My mum once referred to them as “music to kill yourself to”* But all of this is wrapped up in sing-your-heart-out anthems.
I think that More Scared of You is more good-weather-listening than some of their previous stuff, too. Throw Me in the River is such a consistently great album that’s also so well crafted (the album does a full circle so that the final song ends with the same riffs and lyrics as the first song starts—and it's fucking seamless), but More Scared of You is just flawless from start to finish, made up of songs that are all totally genius in their own right. Wil Wagner, in particular, is at the absolute top of his lyric-writing game. Where Throw Me in the River can actually be pretty damn depressing, More Scared of You cannot fail to put me in a fantastic mood. Here's a taster, if you want to have you heart broken by a fictional robot.
(*perhaps not exact phrasing.)
I've Got This, Austeros
This is a delicious little 5-track EP that arrived just before I left to go on holiday and I couldn’t stop listening to it when I was going round China and Tibet. In particular, “Cherished” was stuck on repeat pretty much the entire time.
"I've got this.
I am worthy of being happy"
Who knows why this feels relevant and profound?
It’s also one of those records (and songs) that makes you want to go home and write something just like it.
Brief aside: their artwork is really, really awesome. And it’s also extra awesome because it’s straight-up screen-printed on the back of the record and in a clear sleeve, so there is no artwork on the sleeve. Pretty neat eh? Take a listen here.
Blisters in the Pit of My Heart, Martha
Not a new record, but another album that's a perfect mixture of feel-good, upbeat, catchy music for summer listening, and anxiety-ridden lyrics about depression and puberty.
There’s some really great songs in every Martha record that are reminiscent of the fear and anticipation of being a teenager in secondary school, and they managed to really get that aesthetic across in their songs, too.
Other tracks are singalong and, somehow, profound, songs about starting your own detective agency, going to the supermarket to ask the cashier on a date, and so on. I want to describe them as pop-punky, but what I mean is that they’re a punk band that play proper capital-P Pop Songs.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong
I know I’m pretty late to the game with this one, but it actually wasn’t published in the UK until March of this year. When I started working at the bookshop, it was one of the first books I tried to order in, before realising I’d have to wait almost a whole year, or order from independent sellers on Amazon. Unfortunately for my love of poetry, I’m addicted to my staff discount.
It was worth the wait. I was only three poems in when I realised it was probably the best collection I was going to read all year. It was so good that I was compelled to write a review for the spring issue of The Cardiff Review. You should go buy that and read it, obviously, but for the TL;DR: he has an unbelievable gift for imagery, and the sort of weight he gives to history and the way that he makes the body a product of the past is incredibly profound. The sort of detail he pays to the senses and the world make you wonder if you've been living under some sort of anaesthesia, because the way he writes is so vivid. You have to read him to believe it, but I genuinely believe he’s going to be one of the greatest American poets of our generation. If you read one poetry collection in the next year, read this one.
Now here's some other random shit that is Good:
This is not a new love, but spring is the best time of the year to start making way, way more Mexican food, and drinking far, far more cocktails and beer. It’s also really great food to eat as a vegetarian. Avocados for days.
There’s lots of great vegetarian alternatives to Mexican recipes, and a lot of Mexican food is about making staples that combine in different ways. So once you've made one thing, you can use the leftovers to make something else. If you can make a quesadilla, you can make a burrito.
And also you can be pretty inventive with it, which is fun. Lots of recipes will involve “a salsa”, for example, and you can just go crazy with different kind of salsas (there’s a really great salsa that has beer in, that I love doing, from this cookbook). But like, it can be an uncooked, fresh, mild sweet salsa, or you can make one that's roasted and really spicy. It just doesn't really matter that much, and it also means you don't always have to be going for more ingredients. Same with guacamole.
A spring favourite is also, just, cooking. I find it really relaxing and it makes me feel very myself and very content. It gives me a sense that I've achieved something with my day, even if it's a very small victory. And it’s delicious, so there’s that.
Here’s Ottolenghi’s quesadillas, which is basically where I got started with Mexican food. I would recommend not just having these as a snack, as he suggests, but getting way larger tortillas, and eating it just as a whole fucking meal.
Here's a good basic guacamole recipe. But I would honestly avoid the pestle and mortar, if you can’t be arsed. I often can’t. It’ll be more flavoursome if you do, but if you just really finely chop a red onion and some tomatoes and even peppers, it’ll be super crunchy and fresh, which is also, you know, desirable. But whatever’s good. I would also add a little paprika or cayenne pepper, but that’s just me. Again, Mexican food is super adaptable. I’ve done this with lemon juice before instead of lime, and barely mashed the avocados, and it was still awesome.
And here's some more variations on guacamole.
The Food Lab on Serious Eats (the two recipes above) is another favourite. I only discovered them fairly recently, but it's a pretty invaluable resource. They have lots of great vegetarian food and they also are a really great blog to either learn to cook from scratch or learn to cook better. Pretty much every cookbook sucks in the fact that it doesn’t actually tell you how to cook things. They all assume a lot of base-level knowledge. I just made a recipe last night that refers to a "bunch of spinach" and to cook the sweet potatoes "until they are cooked". Bullshit! They give you a blueprint that you don’t understand, and so you're liable to fuck up and get frustrated unless you really know what you're doing. So, they’re a useful resource in general, but especially for Mexican food. I tend to find the scene for Mexican food is pretty shit in the UK, so The Food Lab is a good place to start getting your recipes, rather than ordering mediocre takeaways. Here's their archive.
This is one of the highlights of my year, every year. When I was at university my deadlines all fell exactly either side of the all-day punk festival in Bristol. Every single time. Yet, it’s completely necessary to be drinking one pint an hour from midday until midnight. The lineup is always brilliant and the vibe is way too good to miss out on. And it actually turned out to be a great motivator for getting my work done. Didn’t seem to affect my grades. Can recommend.
One year it fell the day after I’d done an all-nighter to finish up an essay, while the 2015 General Election was being called. That was a general low point in my life: finishing up an essay at 5 in the A.M. as the country turns blue. And then the next day I watched ONSIND for the first time, who sang Pokemon City Limits (“Never trust a Tory, they’ll betray you when it matters”). So it healed some wounds, you could say. Deadpunk was the first time I saw The Front Bottoms live. It was the first time I saw Shit Present play. Countless memories.
RIP. This is the all-dayer’s final year in its current format. It’s got a fantastic line-up (including my band, Toodles & the Hectic Pity, doing an acoustic set first thing). Aforementioned Martha and Austeros, as well as Caves, the Tuts, and so on.
Ever since The Toast closed their metaphorical doors (RIP), I’ve been on the hunt for new websites that write about art and literature with a pop culture twist, and with the same great sense of humour that more middle-class publications about books seem to lack...
Electric Literature is beginning to heal my broken heart. They have pretty great personal essays and arguments about books and poetry and whatever, but they also recommend really good stuff to be reading.
Just look at how great it is.
I will probably be moving to a different flat at the end of September, but I’ll really regret leaving this desk. Not the desk itself (that will come with) but the Desk. Particularly in Spring, the sun shines right through the windows. It’s a few floors up from the road, which allows me to people-watch while I’m writing, but also makes it nice and quiet and gives me a delicious leafy view. Very good for reading and feeling peaceful on a day off, I can tell you that. It's like the best place in the whole of Cardiff to drink a cup of coffee. This isn’t something I can recommend, obviously, but I just want you to know about it, because it makes me happy, even though so many things in the world are shit.