Arkansas Times Recommends is a weekly series in which Times staff members (or whoever happens to be around at the time) highlight things we’ve been enjoying this week.
Sarah Koenig, a longtime producer on “This American Life,” is hosting a new podcast called “Serial” spun off from that show, the difference being that each episode here is a chapter in a single larger story which they’ll tell over the course of a season — a kind of heavily reported, audio miniseries. Four episodes have been released so far and they’ve been great, really gripping and well-produced. The story is about the murder of a high school senior in 1999, and about her boyfriend, who was arrested for the crime and has been in prison ever since. Fans of mystery and true crime stuff will probably like it, and you can listen while driving or cooking or, I don’t know, working. — Will Stephenson
This is the most important Arkansas Times Recommends I’ve written – probably the most important thing I’ve ever written, period. Do not ever buy a brand of beer called Route 66.
I was standing in line at the Food Giant one evening last week when the Route 66 display caught my eye, a great silver raft of product entirely unmarred by the hand of a customer – and selling for the price of $2.99 a six pack. Of bottles! What a deal. I plucked a block from the display, leaving behind a gap like a missing tooth. I almost grabbed two. I mean, $2.99. God help me if I had.
I am not hung up on quality when it comes to beer. Sure, I like nicer stuff if it’s around, but I almost opt for the cheap end if I’m the one buying. The ultrawatery stuff down at the very bottom of the mainstream ladder — Keystone or Old Milwaukee, say, or the malt liquors — are sorta unpleasant, but also livable. I won’t turn up my nose at a Stag. It’s all just beer, and beer is transient. You drink it and you don’t think too much about it.
Route 66 is another story. You can tell from the weird, not-quite-all-there label design that it’s going to be really bad … but trust me, man, you have no idea how bad a beer can be. You can’t not think about something this patently offensive when you’re drinking it. It assaults your senses. There’s bad, and then there’s entirely defective. It’s like watching a blues-rock band set up on stage at a bar and you’re thinking ugh, this is going to be boring and bland and gross, but then when they start up, you realize to your horror that they’re literally incapable of playing their instruments. The drummer feebly smacks at the high-hat with one hand, whimpering; the bassist curls up into a ball on the floor and moans. That’s the Route 66 experience.
How to describe something that tastes this bad? The Route 66 website describes it as having “a subtle sweetness — thanks to a unique blend of American hops” and a “pleasing bitterness” with “a slight herbal character.” This is complete bullshit. It’s as subtle as being mugged. I guess you could generously call it “complex”, but so are the minds of schizophrenics. It’s sickly sweet, chalky thick, strangely rich and yet somehow still curiously shapeless. It’s an amorphous, flabby, putrid flavor. It’s one of those flavors that spreads through your mouth and lodges in some hinterland of your sinuses, insidious as a militant ethnic supremacist group.
Two friends and I each had one that night, and being the kind of stand-up people we are, we choked them dutifully down. One insisted that it gave him a hangover halfway through the bottle. The other said that “you can taste the rice in it”, which I’m not so sure about, although I know that even the suggested association with the flavor of Route 66 makes me want to avoid eating anything with rice for weeks to come. I still had half of the six pack left, so I drank another last night, thinking that surely it couldn’t be as bad as it seemed at first try. Of course, it absolutely was. I finished it, for some reason, but now I’m done. I’m done. I gave another one to my neighbor, who is a person with actual tastes, and he refused to touch it after taking one sip.
Which leaves me with one Route 66 left in my refrigerator, waiting. Who wants it? Contact me for details. — Benji Hardy
If you love the movie “Children of Men,” you probably already know about some the amazing long uncut scenes such as the ambush on the country road. I recommend checking out this video about the making of some of those scenes and the pretty complex rigging and timing it took to pull it off. — Bryan Moats
Last summer, my wife and I drove from Little Rock to a wedding in eastern Ohio. As all seasoned road trippers know: never underestimate Ohio. It’s a big, wide, hilly, never-ending state that gobbles up driving hours like a friendlier Texas. My advice for driving through Ohio is to listen to songs about Ohio. And here is what you might not know: you can make a damn good playlist of songs featuring Ohio. Something about those three vowels: Oh-Hi-Oh. Rhythmic and strong. So for my recommendation this week, I present to you the Spotify soundtrack for driving through Ohio:
1. Neil Young, “Ohio”
2. Patty Griffin, “Ohio”
This is a perfect late-career Patty Griffin song. She’s still got verve to spare, so calling her wise feels a little bit wrong. She’s fierce and beautiful too, so let’s not slap an NPR label on her just yet. But man, there is something about hearing her sing that feels like received wisdom. Also, “Meet me in the evening when the river is low” is the perfect midwestern line. Patty Griffin has a way about her. Sounds like a love song and a murder ballad all at once.
3. Sun Kil Moon, “Carry Me Ohio”
This was wife’s choice. I find Mark Kozelek’s droning voice grating after several seconds, but she can’t get enough. I will say though: when you are driving in the Ohio hill country and approaching a steel through-arch bridge, small but majestic, running over a creek whose name now escapes me, near a town whose name now escapes me (New Concord? New Philadelphia? New Cumberland?) – in precisely this moment, as you are crossing the bridge after too many hours on the road, with the sun soon to set and the windows open and the evening air unseasonably cool – in this moment Sun Kill Moon’s “Carry Me Ohio” sounds not like heavy-handed indie-melodrama, but instead like a benediction. Like a kind of weary bliss. Like the rising up that can only come from letting go.
4. Dolly Parton, “Banks of the Ohio”
I have a strict playlist rule: all mixes must include Dolly. She doesn’t disappoint here, with one of the best songs on her new album, “Blue Smoke.”
5. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, “Look at Miss Ohio” (the version on the “Man From Plains” soundtrack featuring Gaida Hinnawi)
Oh my God, this song. You know, Gillian Welch lives in Nashville and when she first arrived some of the hillbillier-than-thou snobs said she wasn’t authentic enough because she was from Beverly Hills, not the hills of east Tennessee. Then Welch just so thoroughly dominated that everyone chilled out and sat in awe. This version features the Syrian singer Gaida Hinnawi, singing improvisations on traditional Arabic maqams behind a quivering fiddle. If that’s not a high lonesome sound, what is? Keep in mind, y’all, the whole history of country music is fusion. The cultural history of the world is fusion (imagine authentic Indian food without New World crops). It just so happens that Hinnawi was absolutely born to sing backup on this heartland ballad. Goddamn if it doesn’t sound like someone’s crying in a holler. In Ohio or Kentucky or somewhere very far away. Heartbreak echoing in the hill country.
6. Modest Mouse, “Ohio”
Okay, now this is a song that clearly was inspired by how cool the word “Ohio” sounds, particularly if howled in lonely desperation.
7. Damien Jurado, “Ohio”
You know, sometimes a generally cheesy dude can be transcendent. Like, Rod Stewart wrote “Maggie May,” you heard? Anyways, this is just a gorgeous and undeniable ditty.
8. The National, “Bloodbuzz Ohio”
Good driving music makes you feel like: You are in a movie and there is urgent purpose and there is rain.
9. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony featuring Notorious B.I.G., “Notorious Thugs”
Bone Thugs never really wrote a song that was all that much about Ohio except in the narrowest, perfunctory hometown pride sense, but you CANNOT have an Ohio mix without Cleveland’s finest. Bone Thugs were so singular that some mistook breathtaking originality for cartoonishness, thus making them tragically underrated, despite multiplatinum success. I could pick half a dozen songs but I’m picking this one, because it is both undeniably them and also dominated by the genius Biggie Smalls. Like Bob Dylan’s collaborations with the Band, this song puts a truly sui generis and singular force of nature smack dab in the middle of the truly sui generis vibe and style of a band, with the result that not just the talents but the oddities of both are exaggerated. We immediately recognize Biggie, we immediately recognize Bone (unmistakable, how could we not?), but something fresh is afoot. Imagine Jordan playing with the Pistons Bad Boys. A star shining brighter in a strange new galaxy.
I want you to think long and hard about that entire era of rap music—and how big it got and how eagerly we sucked up the drama—and how many records were sold—and how dramatic and comic all the depictions of things that were of course actually tragic were—and how effective that was—and how beautiful that was—and how destructive and terrible and self-defeating that was—and yet how emotionally forceful and true that was—and everything that happened (including, of course, what happened, to the genius Biggie Smalls)—and how there is a special glory in artists trying to out-do each other—and how competitive everyone was about their own schlock (imagine a hundred Hemmingways, a hundred Mailers, puffing their chests and their cocks and their glocks)—and how we ate that up—and how gangsta rap culture, like “I ain’t no punk” culture in a thousand middle schools and high schools, amounted to a last-gasp macho desperation necessary for survival in some contexts and bound for self-destructive ruin in others—but on the other hand how it wasn’t as serious as all that—how its pulp muscularity was no different in kind than the fiction of Barry Hannah or the films of Rob Zombie (never heard Tipper Gore complain about Scorsese, but I digress)—and how, and here you will have to revert to your teenage self, particularly if, like me, you were a teenager at the time: how badass it all was.
Remember that time.
Did all of the pathos in every gangsta rap lyric ever penned ever – all of it – amount to one tenth of this one Biggie line in “Notorious Thugs”: “Who’s the killer, me or you?”
— David Ramsey
I recommend “New Flame” by Chris Brown, Usher and Rick Ross. This song features two of r&b’s favorite bad boy crooners, on their first song together, alongside the rapper everyone loves to hate. It’s about starting a new relationship or “flame”. This flame can be the beginnings of a lasting love or a destructive fire that burns everything you hold dear to the ground. Forget the destruction part for now, because all they are asking is for you to just take a chance on love in the nightclub. I mean why not? The song is mid-tempo, the chorus and hook are catchy, and the beat is infectious almost to a fault; the makings of a great club-love-song.
Chris leads the song with a slow and seductive verse describing their first encounter, his search for love and his hopes that they share the same plans for the night. Usher follows in astonishment of the beauty he found alone in the club, confident that he can get her to take a chance on him tonight and hopefully start a new relationship. The beat drops and Rick Ross’s verse is almost out of place in such a sweet serenade but it works well as a short relief from the competing seductiveness of both Brown’s and Usher’s vocals. His verse is filled with Yankee references, testaments to his net worth and claims that he can make her fall in love after one night. The song closes out with Brown’s promises of finding love and sparking a new flame. With Chris Brown, Usher and Rick Ross, who said you can’t find love in the club? — Kaya Herron