Wednesday, July 07, 2004

We're s-h-o-pp-i-ng... [SF report #2: consume-o-rama]

I can't imagine a visit to San Francisco without at least one trip to Amoeba Music or Rasputin Records. Don, whose shopping drug of choice is Home Depot rather than used and indie book and record stores, already knows what to expect on these adventures and patiently heads to the nearest coffeeshop after about 20 minutes in one of these joints. At that point, I'm just getting started. Two hours per store is cutting it short. And between the Berkeley and Haight locations of Amoeba—plus the Berkeley Rasputin and several Telegraph Ave. bookstores—we're talking major immersion, the kind you need strength training to endure.

Now, I'm not talking your average walk-in/walk-out shop here. According to a gushing 1998 profile in Rolling Stone, Amoeba stocks over 100,000 new and used CDs and LPs, which doesn't count other media—and in recent years they've added DVDs, just to push people like me over the edge. Factor in in-store concerts, live DJs, and rows and rows of cut-outs, and we're looking at major sensory overload.

Everyone I know who shops at either store employs a strategy similar to mine: pick a single category or genre or artist, pace yourself, and don't try to cover the entire store in one day. (It would be physically impossible, I think.) This time, no surprise, the target areas were the Brazilian and electronic sections, focusing almost exclusively on used stuff, with plenty of time in DVDland as well. Even so, I left each store feeling exhausted, depleted, and hungry for a walk outdoors. (Fortunately, between Golden Gate Park and the UC Berkeley campus, both locations offer ideal opportunities to recharge with sunshine and something resembling fresh air.)

About an hour and a half into my Haight Amoeba experience, I overheard a fellow shopper ask the employee in the World section (each section of the store has its own panel of experts) something about Brazilian music, so naturally I pricked up my ears and eavesdropped. Turns out that in addition to his record store job he "spins" (sorry, I've never been able to employ that term without the quotation marks) Latin sounds of various vintages, including samba, batucada, and "bossa beats," every Saturday at the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd St @ Mission) as DJ Vanka.

Listening in to their conversation didn't really lead me to any hot tips, so later I talked to him myself. Too fried to think of asking for useful buying suggestions, I mainly learned that he shared my mixed feelings about the father of samba soul, Tim Maia (i.e., a few nice tunes and a whole lot of appalling cheese, at least on the compilation I picked up used & cheap before the trip). From that somewhat limited vantage point, I asked for his opinions on three finds from the Used Brazilian section (yes, there really was such a thing, and it was larger than the new Brazilian holdings at most chain stores in Buffalo):

•Vinicius Cantuária, TUCUMÃ (Verve)--he knew the artist, but not that particular disc. [Now that I've heard it several times, I'd recommend it to anybody who wants a taste of recent singer/songwriters in the Veloso mold. The guest appearances by Laurie Anderson, Bill Frisell, Sean Lennon, and Arto Lindsay are an obvious bid to attract hipster Americanos, and the strategy works just fine as far as I'm concerned.]

•Rica Amabis, SAMBADELIC (YBrazil?)--he didn't know the album but recognized a few of the artists; it's unclear whether it's intended as a solo album or a compilation. [Turns out to be a pretty diverse collection of sampled beats, vintage samba soul, and found sounds with electronic dance music and a little hiphop; I really enjoy most of it.]

•BossaCucaNova, REVISITED CLASSICS (Six Degrees)--said he knew and didn't care for this one, which is basically the Slipcue take, too. "But," he added, "for five bucks, you can't go wrong." So I bought it anyway, and didn't go wrong at all. Normally I'm opposed to this sort of thing--take some old bossa nova tunes (or any raw material, for that matter) and spruce it up with some currently trendy electronic beats. (As Slipcue points out, it completely defeats the sublime subtlety of bossa to force a really obvious dance beat on top of it.) But I still enjoy it, partly because the source material is by some 50s vocalists (the Four-Freshmen-style Os Cariocas, for instance) I'd read about in Castro's book but never actually heard. At the end of the disc there are two tracks in their unembellished state so you can compare the originals to the remixes, and six minutes worth of "DJ beats" for your own sampling enjoyment. Plus, in the right mood, the dance mixes are perfectly enjoyable.

One final note from the trip: one of the few actual restaurants anywhere near our hotel happened to be Cafe do Brasil, which, thanks to its $7.95 lunch buffet, seemed a perfect place to sample the cuisine of the country whose culture I've been consuming so voraciously lately. (FYI, in searching for the restaurant's URL to post, I came across this somewhat skimpy list of Brazilian restaurants in SF, LA, Boston, NYC, and Miami, in case you're interested.)

Since we had no ground of comparison for the CDB, it's hard to say whether this was "good" Brazilian food or not, but frankly, neither of us was particularly impressed. (The coffee was excellent, but it's not a good sign when that's your favorite part of a meal.) Here's a thread from the Brazzil site on the search for Brazilian cuisine outside Brazil (and the political implications thereof) in which one writer describes CDB's food as "horrible." I wouldn't go that far by any means, but I also don't think I'd hurry back.

If nothing else, I learned one crucial culinary lesson: seeing a white-ish grain in a container the same size as that of the other entrees and sides, I took a decent sized helping, only to discover it had the texture and flavor of teeny tiny uncooked grits. My introduction to farofa, which (I learned from a restaurant review posted near the door on my way out) Brazilians evidently use as a garnish the way some people sprinke wheat germ on everything. Yum! Just the taste sensation I needed to fuel another long day in the CD bins...

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