Instant Ramen


Instant Ramen is like the heat that drips up from a fresh cup of caffeine. Instant Ramen is chicken flavored sodium packets that smell like home. Instant Ramen is my most unhealthy healing potion.

When I was really young I got stomach bugs pretty frequently. They may not have come around much more than for a normal kid, but I feel them heavy on my memory like parental hands on my back; I feel them thick like retches over cold toilet seats. When my stomach was a mad sea we’d send it Ramen because the square noodle packet was like a full empty: nothing but sodium and noodles all laced up in tame flavors. Things would calm enough and fill enough to not have hunger pains churn under nausea like earthquakes inside storms. Older, nursing hangovers, it was the same deal – just much less dramatic.

As I got older I thought Ramen might drop out of my home and head but it kept up with me. Just about two or three years ago I started getting sleep problems and when I’d stay up until I was too hungry to pass out I’d rip the orange packet half open and eat the noodles like a candy bar. Sitting up at 5 AM grinding dry noodles into paste feels a bit weird and desperate at first but after it works a few times it’s all pleasant; it is all pleasant to break up the cool night with the tactile feeling of teeth churning.

The Ramen got older too, grew up with me. When the plainness of it wasn’t enough anymore I’d throw in new spices and learn what I liked on top of the bland noodle base. When noodles and broth stopped filling me up I’d dice up meat and veggies too. It was still a half-assed attempt at a meal – never the best I could make for myself – but it’d keep me running. Sometimes it even felt rejuvenating, breathing the scent in like distant incense, feeling the powder on the tips of fingers like sidewalk chalk, absorbing the odd magic of my ugly instant food. That magic could walk me back through time to when I was feeding friends while parents were out working, to Dad dropping an egg or a cut up hot dog into the soup so that “it would at least have protein,” to Mom putting ice cubes in the soup so my sisters or I wouldn’t burn our tongues.

Instant Ramen was healing in the way returning to wholeness is healing. This food has been there nearly as long as I can remember. When adulthood and identity shifts rattle my mind until I feel scattered I drain the noodles and the broth from the bowl and feel like all the fractals and bits of me fight tight together into one whole.

~Austin R Ryan

American Plain Views


I currently live and work in Minneapolis as an educator in an Americorps program and freelance writer. Sometimes it is peculiarly pretty here. It is pretty in a way that’s as much a sensation as a view. These little snippets will hopefully let you in on some of those American plain views.

View Heading Down Penn from Olson:

Olson Memorial Highway pushes out in both directions like big tar rivers and the grey-black backs of big straight serpents swimming into and out of center city. If the light allows, you can ford it all at once and if it doesn’t you are in an island in the middle watching the rust and the shine of cars sprint like metallic fish up and down stream. It is dirt, mud clot, and trash spotted right by Olson but further on past is the Harrison neighborhood where things get cleaner, greener, squarer and on with lawns and their houses. A little black girl cast in bronze statue welcomes you. Here the hills rise and sink slowly as the gentle undulation of a half-urban half-suburban dragon. The way the road stretches, the way there are no trees to block the skies or the hills as they rise, you can see right down Penn as it weaves up and down and up until it is too high to see past; just from seeing how the sky goes and goes and the earth goes and goes you’d guess there wasn’t any end to it. But then, eventually, you’d hit the highways and the interstates.

View From the Back of the 19:

Metro Transit buses have big windows to soothe you that bit they delayed you when they came late. Metro Transit buses are blood capillaries that pump in and out of the downtown heart where folks are moving but not wanting to be seen. Uptown, Northeast, by lakes and by campuses and by dive bars on rise is where people tell me you want to be seen. Metro Transit buses have big windows where these thoughts float out of sight and mind like clouds in the wide sky.

On the good days it feels like a Venice high in the sky. Your four wheeled gondola shared with a smattering of other people goes sailing down the light blue sky; your four wheeled gondola gliding on heaven to get you to the next earthly mess. The 19 – my four wheeled gondola – goes under the dark arches that connect concrete block buildings stretching out over two streets, making Hennepin Medical Center. Sunlight peaks out from the Hospital’s shadow until the 19 plunges fully into the bright light. It weaves up to the long and grassy green lawn in front of the Government Center. That building splits into two dark pillars wrapped together by a glass midsection and pulled tight by heavy black cross-lines so it looks like the corseted back of a boxy, cartoon-ish dominatrix.

After that the 19 comes through downtown where things look new and glassy and the construction turns everything to congestion and tightness. When it pops out into Hennepin it looks like one of those true downtown stretches full of bars and avante-garde buildings twisted up into modernist shapes. When breezes by the stadium, passes the brown and flat Transit Center, and leaks into Olson, it is just apartments and peaks down long and short residential roads.

On the bus a woman – White or Latina – sits and babbles brightly to her child. Another mom – Black – comes on and her toddler rushes up to the other kid and they seem to just stare before the parents direct them away, smiling and managing awkwardly. People come and people go. The driver lets a man know where to get off. The child leaves and the toddler cries for bit. Another mother and her kid – elementary age – comes on and picks up the transparent green binky the toddler dropped. The two mothers talk about the wide blue sky and the hot sun and the children all wrapped up in it; they talk on and past when my stop comes and I go.

~Austin R Ryan

The Top Screamer


I am the Top Screamer and I scream so loud that the volume can be felt and makes the boundaries of all things porous and thin. All the men and the women and the children shriek furiously for me to stop but I can’t hear them over how loud and victorious I am all the time. I have screamed so loud before. Really, you just won’t even believe how loud I have screamed before.

~Austin R Ryan

Mood and Vision and Ma-Te Lin


This Taiwan band is a singer-DJ combo with a penchant for animal rights and a solid range of sounds that can feel floaty and fun as froth on hot chocolate and heavy and lurching as raw wrath. In practical terms Ma-Te Lin bears similarity to Lana Del Ray and Lorde – and they claim as much – but their range of sound contains much more, including Nujabes style grooves, beats made from animal noises, chip tune rhythms that seem to come from video games, and more. At first listen it might seem that Ma-Te Lin is mostly pleasant and airy atmosphere music, but even their pared down songs pour out so many interesting sounds that the songs become so much more than just decently well composed, soft-sounding chillwave electronica that litters the internet. Ma-Te Lin is impressive in a way that many atmospheric electronic acts aren’t because they maintain laidback moods through an entire track while also constantly developing the backbeat, often in radical ways using sounds that are traditionally jarring and arrhythmic – such as dog barks, fuzzy guitars, mewing, harsh beeps, and whirring video game sounds. So many odd sounds weave into the songs that it is hard to separate out and define all of them, yet each one fits so tightly into the composition that they rarely register as an erratic noise that draws away from the beat.

The band’s ultimate chill song, “Manchi” is a great example. Though the song always feels atmospheric, light, and relaxed, there is still an impressive amount of dynamic noises layered over one another. Manchi does not just sit on one sample or sound that is aesthetically pleasant and ride it to the finish line, but it actively constructs and deconstructs rhythms of noise around the main, snappy drum rhythm. The whole thing culminates at around two and half minutes to three minutes in where the song features very low bass thrums, clapping, a smooth synth line, and a sharper, more robotic one. By the end an array of sampled sounds synthesize into an off-kilter rhythm that dies gently and smoothly into an echoing end. Despite a decent amount of layered complexity, the song still feels stripped, simple, and straightforwardly pleasant due to strong guiding vocals and very smart composition and mixing that emphasizes sounds – like the snappy drum rhythm – that keep the listener moored in a very full and sweet mood.

Ma-Te Lin excel at making mood through unorthodox noise and can maintain their unique sound selection over far more than just the happy and chill too. In “My Place” Ma-Te Lin reveals the dark and haunting end of their sonic grin. Instantly the song opens with the low thrum of a stand-up bass given a bit of dirty twang during the mixing. The singer falls into the rhythm with a smokiness that builds a dark little lounge around the light percussion and the twang of stand up bass. Gradually all sorts of dissonance in form of synthesizers that make a sort of wom-wom-wom sound and guitars that squeal and scratch out notes of half-formed solos erupt like spots of magma until the whole lounge of sound melts into itself. The singer gradually becomes more terrifying as her emotions spike and her words echo and lord dark messages over the listener (buhaoyisi is a light way to say sorry in mandarin and pounds furiously in the background as the song climaxes). Dense and rich with different sonic touches, “My Place” is Ma-Te Lin showing that they can do nasty and heavy without tearing apart their style of layer cake electronica.

Where this duo experiments they do sometimes falter as well as they lean too heard on over-saturated rhythms and downright cheesy phrases. Ma-Te Lin sometimes over-saturates their lyrics and rhythm so that some songs can feel overdone and less striking. “Pet Palace” uses a set of crooning baby animal noises that are inventive and bubby but also indistinct compared to their other more energetic and loaded tracks. The chorus similarly is invenetive and bubbly, “Have you heard of the pet palace? / Do you want to find the pet palace? /  Do you know you are in the pet palace?” but it feels a little saccharine, cheesy, and less intriguing than in some other songs. “Hope Popo” similarly leans on an awkward chorus (“we need a hope popo / no more cry oh oh”) that definitely borders on cheesy, but unlike “Pet Palace” it has a snappier and more interesting composition which keeps the song alive as it enters into verses full of layered vocals and varied sounds ranging from dog barks to distorted guitars to the tings of what sound like triangles or light bells. Even in less interesting songs Ma-Te Lin stays creative with their sound and style.

The creativity in Ma-Te Lin seeps out from the music and into their image to make them a monstrously comprehensive artistic force. They have a clear vision and theme, promoting rights of humane treatment for animals and a generally gentler touch with nature; they have a beautiful, colorful and consistent aesthetic that involves a recurring cartoon character ala Gorillaz; they even collaborate with a talented Taiwanese artist (Little Oil) to make gorgeous music videos which fit perfectly to their dreamy sound. All three of these things bleed into each other so that animal noises enter as samples and beats in songs, the cartoon character is animalistic, colorful, and composed of sharp but clean angles that evoke the sound it embodies, and every collaborator aligns well with their spooky and smooth mood. All of this makes Ma-Te Lin visual material match so tremendously with their audio that it is a struggle to pick which of their music videos to showcase over the others. The calm and melancholy Nujabes vibes captured by the paints in “Circus” are as wonderful as the magical and fantastical puppet show in “The Girl in the Magic Shoes” or the serene sweetness in “Manchi.”

Ma-Te Lin may be too corny or too chill for a few people, but if you like a relaxed sound or strong, rich, and thick vocals Ma-Te Lin is worth a listen because Ma-Te Lin is never lazy; the duo does not lean on the vocals to carry everything; the duo does not rest on a nice central beat; the duo does not mistake soft for simple or complex for difficult. For some, the language and culture barrier that a Taiwanese act presents might seem to much to overcome, but when a band has strong enough a creative mindset they can fashion their own language to speak through – that’s exactly what Ma-Te Lin does. Ma-Te Lin bounces between English and Taiwanese, between audio and visual, but through all that they are always speaking and showing their own stern message and dreamy form. Through all the noise they layer around the rich and thick lead vocals, they are always. Oh, and for what it’s worth, their live show looks pretty damn good too.

~Austin R Ryan

The 5 Up and the 5 Down


I am in a new town so I am on new transit. For job training I have to go to up and up to the north end of Minneapolis so I am riding the 5 up and the 5 down. It is early and chilly and dry here. September is ending and everyone is huddled tight and small into jackets. When I left without one I doubled back so I could slink into it too.

The 5 stop is a few blocks down, on an intersection of two large streets. Where I am couchsurfing there are a lot of Somalian stores just on the near corner, and on the far corner where that street ends there is a hip record store called The Electric Fetus; in between all that there is a Wendy’s. About mid-way through the walk there is an overpass that looks through a rusted iron fence at the Minneapolis skyline. The buildings are tall and wide and glassy, mostly new but for some odd eggs like the Foshay. The sky is very wide and very open. The wide and blue of it is caught and pushed out a second time by the reflective skyscrapers so that looking at the cars all pour seamlessly inward feels like slipping into an undertow. It stops me for a minute and I let myself fall in and get washed around in the noise and the scenery.

It strikes me walking down the sidewalk that everyone here is unfamiliar, but it starts to matter less after each new city. At first it seems strange and indecipherable to be in a new brand of hectic city but after a while the elements bleed together. Nothing is so like Beijing or D.C. but nothing is so unlike them either. That feels very refreshing to me – akin to relapsing into a Jones soda or catching up with a friend from a while ago; familiar and unfamiliar. It scares me to imagine rural living because I don’t even have a frame of reference – wholly unfamiliar.

There are only a few people waiting at the same 5 stop as I am and even fewer that I can remember the look and bearing of. It takes a little while for the bus to get there, but it does and the man in front lets me know, friendly and folksy, where to swipe the bus pass I am borrowing. I am not feeling fine and out enough to reflect that energy well.

The first leg of the trip is through the city proper, us going underneath big buildings and near large malls. People really come and go around here. Once we clear into the north that’s when people quit their coming and going for settling and sitting. North Minneapolis has its troubles from what I am told and I believe all that, but in the daytime it does not matter so much. Walking to a specific destination down a big street during the day isn’t asking for trouble or anything else. It is odd to me that people feel keenly otherwise – imagining maybe rioting streets or lawless gang rule – but my worries over rural areas are as irrational – imagining horror movie sequences and serial killers. It is just difficult to get a frame of reference – planted wholly in the familiar.

As we get out of downtown and more towards the near north a woman gets on and starts to talk on the phone with some kind of legal counsel. It becomes clear she is prosecuting a case against someone as she reads out a list of charges in a perfectly flat and casual voice. It is hard not to eavesdrop because of how her casual and informal flow grinds against the seriousness of the various charges. After a while, overhearing her just becomes hearing her and it starts to feel zen to listen to the manifold charges wind out calmly – almost in procedure. I feel less worried; that might be a backwards response. I figure you could read her words backwards or forwards but what you should do was not read them at all and let them just be hers. It was already too late for me, and now it is too late for you too.

When I get off the 5 I actually missed my stop by a bit and pulled the wire before we had even reached a cross street. The bus driver stops right away anyways and I get back headed the right way. Coincidentally the right way has a cool look and a load of interesting stores – including what I think was a gas station painted entirely over with this somewhat abstract mural that my mind grasps more for the colors and swirls than the shapes and substance. I think there might be a Wendy’s up here too – in between everything else.

 

On the way back down the bus is at first empty of any other passengers. I am feeling fine and out enough to squeeze a small conversation from quiet bus driver while we figure out if my transit card has enough money on it. A really trendy and smartly dressed young woman comes on and graciously waits for me to sort myself out. For a while there is barely anyone on the bus but as we near downtown, it gets more crowded. A pretty drunk or just bizarrely enthusiastic and loud man swaggers on board and instantly tries to befriend the quiet bus driver. After a minimal interaction he declares success, screaming, “This is my man! This is my brother!” about the bus driver to the rest of the bus. He eventually saunters over to the middle of the bus and his thoughts spill audibly out – about half the full portion of his head tumbling out in accidental volume spikes. When another man comes on and is taking his time to pay at the front, the (presumably) drunk man offers to cover the charge. The whole bus, he declares, is family. The man paying upfront, maybe not feeling like family or too much like family, refuses the drunk man’s help once, then twice, and then sternly. The drunk man returns to his seat but he still holds on to the family point for a bit.

In what feels like just an instant we get downtown and people pour the bus back up to full. A girl who sounds about high school age sitting behind me. A bit later another man comes onto the bus and makes some kind of loud noise for some reason – I had stopped paying attention. I had stopped paying attention at a bad time because the girl behind me says, “damn son!” so loudly and resolutely and naturally that a good chunk of the bus chuckles; a middle aged woman even giggles herself into tears. She laughs and laughs, gearing up so much that a second wind sweeps over me and the rest of the bus and we all laugh and chuckle and smile again.

“Oh thank you.” She says to the girl, “I needed that.” Afterwards the laughing woman reassures the man too, “we are laughing with you not at you.” Being a good sport about the whole thing, he agrees that it was pretty funny. I still don’t know if it was pretty funny, or if it was even a comedy at all, but it might have been better that way.

A few stops down the line another girl who knew the first one comes in and they both settle quickly into a conversation. The one tells the other how she got the bus to laugh – seeming as surprised by the whole thing as I was – and the other tells the one how she just got done with a fight.

“Well, you look pretty good for just getting out of a fight.”

“Yeah she didn’t even have time to hit me.”

It all feels very nonchalant, but energetic and excited at the brims and edges.

They both sound pretty young, but I don’t really know how young they are. They go on for a bit back and forth about how some neighborhood folk gave the second girl’s pregnant sister some trouble. The first girl notes how that should be out of line while an old woman in a pink overcoat, with thick black sunglasses sits down next to me. She smells faintly like cigarettes in a surprisingly pleasant way and we both make eye contact and smile at each other for a moment. This woman is the stereotypical picture of the urban old woman – covered in fuzzy pink, clutching a cane and a plastic bag, big hat and big glasses that leave only her little grin showing – but I don’t really know how old she is.

Not long after that the drunk man stumbles off the bus angered and with others around him encouraging him to get gone. In a little bit I’ll leave too and so I get up and stand by the exit door. A man gives me a hello so warm that you’d think we knew each other. He thinks we do; he asks if we had talked to each other earlier and I say no, because we haven’t. When we get off he wraps an arm around my shoulders and tells me that he’s a homeless vet named Lorenzo and ask for three dollars for a bite to eat and I say I used up the last of my cash on the bus fare, because I had. His lips knit into a tight and small frown and his arm falls limply off of me. I apologize and wish him good luck before slipping off, away from the bus stop.

Public transit can be one of the most interesting sights in a city but also one of the most dull. The lottery of it is as much part of the city character as anything. Flitting moments of realities far outside of all my self-obsession drift into orbit for a second. It draws me out like a spectacle but it isn’t one. The moments are not mine and so I don’t have to chase them down for completion or explanation or plainly owe them or have them owe me anything at all. The moments apply like a texture on top of the smooth, simple, scheduled rhythm of city transit and blend in with the other sensory memories on top of other buses and subways and characters of other cities until it is all this familiar and unfamiliar thing I feel like I’ve seen and never seen.

Pee-Paw’s Tater Brain


Heydee-hoo there neighbo! Droppin’ a peep in ta letcha knah you better get yer kickin boots on. Yer Pee-paw’s back at the saloon hooting and hollering at all the hollies and hanks how he seen the legendary outlaws Gosh Darnold and Josh Dammit! Third time this week he’s been tall tale-ing the day away – I think. I ain’t peachy pleased to speak it but his tater brains is really mashin’ up the townsfolk ya know.

~Austin R Ryan

Continue reading “Pee-Paw’s Tater Brain”

Why Smash Mouth?


“Some…” You already know what is about to happen. Subconsciously, your brain can feel beautiful disaster rolling all over it already – though your conscious brain might not be onto it yet. In the next half second your whole self will understand what’s happening. “BODY!” That word punches out from a distant radio mouth and now the bass and guitar are chiming in with super simple, bobbing rhythms. “Once told me the world’s gonna roll me…” The bass sounds like a sweet simpleton and the guitar seems like this small muppet creature that meeps out high pitched orders from on top of the simpleton bass’s arched back. Sweet God yes and oh hell no, it is Smash Mouth again. It is fucking Smash Mouth again.

Smash Mouth is pervasive in a way a lot of bands like it aren’t and surprising in the way that they complete an aesthetic of West Coast surfer buttrock that is at its core surprising for being not at all glorious and actually pretty sincere. Hearing “All Star” come on the radio, you may lump it in with something like Three Doors Down’s “Kryptonite” or even a random one-hit wonder but Smash Mouth has at least a little bit more commercial power than that. Smash Mouth fit for a long time into a niche of movie music that made numerous songs of theirs into odd Hollywood hits. “All Star” was once such a go-to hype up track that I earnestly believe some screenplays were chosen by studios based on how good a vessel they were for the great and terrible dark lord of the late 90’s and early 00’s that we call “All Star.” Smash Mouth is the lord of cinema for the childhoods of many people blooming into adulthood right now.

Like a lot of pop products that you are mandated to absorb into your sinful body, this is one that people either reject or accept on a kneejerk. Every time I interact with Smash Mouth my knees jerk in different reactions. ‘Mixed feelings’ doesn’t quite cover it. God I love Smash Mouth. Oh boy I want to destroy them. Smash Mouth makes me feel like I am either in a sweet nightmare or an ugly dream. In this way, Smash Mouth is like one of these God awful memes that keep happening around me. The meme is my brother and I am happy for it, but the more I stare at it the more it frustrates me. I laugh and I clap but my insides are roiling and my mind is screaming furiously that I am disgusting; every inch of my pleasure is disgusting. Smash Mouth feels like that – like a meme or a b-movie, but an actual, real band with actual, real people. I am not original in this reaction to Smash Mouth. Tremendous meme-god and general humorist Neil Cicierega (also known as Lemon Demon, creator of BrodyquestUltimate Showdown, or some other meme that you decadently love) devoted a good chunk of a remix album to them. John Hendren, an internet funny man from the terrible meme-hive called SomethingAwful.com, started a large internet crusade to get the lead singer of Smash Mouth to eat 24 eggs. “All Star” is also fodder for Tumblr photo caption memes and endless humorous remixes.

Who is Smash Mouth? You didn’t ask that question because you are pretty sure the answer is unimportant, but the answer matters because it is more sincere than you might think. You hopefully still hold the beautiful idea that Smash Mouth is a giant gaping maw that is always screaming. You may even believe that Smash Mouth is actually just one man-thing that breaths sweet ska-pop-rock out of very large pores. Smash Mouth at its core was actually four whole people that all have a seemingly normal amount of flesh with average sized pores: lead singer Steve Harwell, Kevin Coleman on drums, Greg Camp on the mondo surf guitar, and Paul De Lisle on the sweet simpleton bass. This is the lineup that produced the spirit of Smash Mouth – their first two albums, loaded with hits like “Walkin On The Sun,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” and of course, “All Star.” The lineup starts to shift and stir some as Smash Mouth advances forward – seemingly perpetually – as guitarist Greg Camp moves on to some other projects while occasionally making returns to Smash Mouth. If there is a quiet genius to this band, it is Greg Camp. His tenure outside of Smash Mouth is not groundbreaking, but it shows where the band gets its cinematic magic from as Greg Camp has done a lot of solid soundtrack work and wrote most of the band’s bigger hits. Some readers are already sneering because Greg Camp is neither Radiohead nor FKA Twigs, so he’s hardly even a real musician but Greg has most likely wrenched an emotional reaction out of you at least once while you were off guard, watching some movie. Greg has at least once ripped you from your media ivory tower and thrown you down to squirm in the cultural dirt of the layman. Give Greg that credit.

Outside of Greg, the most rotating band member is the drummer. If your dream is to be in Smash Mouth, just pick up those sticks and lay down some crunchy West Coast surfer bro rhythms and bucko you might just make it. The two consistent factors are the bassist Paul and singer Steve, who have been with Smash Mouth for the vast majority of its life. Steve is the man many call Smash Mouth and as much as he is the face of the band, so the band is the face of him. Steve is the man you expect him to be to a terrifying degree. He is a middle aged man who still just really seems to like to play his pretty alright music and lives endlessly in a pocket of 90’s fashion – from clothes to music. This is part of what makes Smash Mouth such a strange and sublime force: Smash Mouth is sincere.

(“Home” off of Smash Mouth’s Astro Lounge album, is an example of a deep track that’s surprising both for not sounding like “All Star” or “Walkin’ The Sun” while also tackling the band’s growing fame in a very sincere way.)

This is a crucial point. Unlike a one-hit wonder or a cash-in band built to ride a wave that crashes into money, Smash Mouth is a project that its band members love enough to actually become. Like how At The Drive In and The Mars Volta absolutely breath through Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s experiences with heroin and Ouija boards, Smash Mouth exists on Steve and Paul and Greg’s San Diego stoner musician lifestyle and their desire to get laid and play music. Where that sincerity makes The Mars Volta and At The Drive In forceful and wildly creative standouts in their genre it also allows Smash Mouth to become great even just through thoroughly alright surfer rock. This sincerity is what makes Smash Mouth enticing, and at times even a genuinely good band. It is what gives the band a sound at once distinct and recognizable enough to become at least big enough to be fodder for endless internet comedians and Hollywood execs.

From the get go, it is hard to take Smash Mouth as a sincere product. This is the band whose half-baked stoner thought lyrics have been burned into the grey of everyone’s brain matter by movies; this is the band whose “Lowrider” inspired beats have been made more memorable to you than your significant other’s first name by radio. There are few other bands in the world as associated to products as Smash Mouth, but if you really listen to their albums – especially the early ones – you can hear how it all came from some San Diego stoners who had stumbled into a perfect poppy distillation of several odd West Coast influences. I all came from an actual band. Even their first album’s name Fush Yu Mang, is just a sincere, personal affect – an inside joke between band mates who loved watching Scarface – and a silly way to say, “Fuck you, man.” The songs within are varied and loaded with both the explosive goofiness of youth on tracks like “Let’s Rock” and the shallowness of it too in “Beer Goggles” (predictably about screwing while drunk). Their other deep tracks surprise by experimenting and incorporating genre and style tweaks – little signs of genuinely curious musicians figuring out which way to grow. “Fallen Horses” uses much smoother and softer guitar more fitting a lounge sound that centers around questioning death. Listening to it, genuine surprise ran through my awful, cynical head when Steve Harwell sang, “would you help me / if I wanted to die.” I was similarly surprised to find they released a song this year – “Love Is A Soldier” – that is a pretty clubby EDM song. Whether what they are deriving is derivative will always be subjective, but listen to even their first two albums and it will be clear that if they are derivative, they are sincerely derivative.

“Walkin’ On The Sun.” is Smash Mouth’s quintessence and their first big hit. It is fit for radio and is an honestly good pop song, but at the same time it is obviously a sincere result born from Smash Mouth’s funky surf influences and experimentation. It sounds like War making a poppy rock jingle and it makes my mouth froth up with rabid rage, but it is also so bouncy and easy to listen to and genuinely very well put together that I cannot stop myself from loving it. Their lead singer always sings in a way that is punchy and overly aggressive such that he is impossible to ignore, yet he is simultaneously fluid and smooth. The lyrics are half-formed statements about drug culture that’s hard to parse but in such a catchy way that they can’t be anything but fake deep – this sets my synapses on fire and makes me so excited and so mad. Their songs are like fake rebellions set to Austin Powers soundtracks but they are so unabashedly that, that I respect them for it. They are like the Guy Fieri of bands but instead of fight that part of Smash Mouth their lead singer literally met and befriended Guy Fieri. They are the band that I absolutely want to see eat around 30 eggs because I love them and I hate them and I respect them. I need to see Steve Harwell’s soft, middle-aged, San Diego stoner body ingest so many eggs and much of the internet wordlessly understands why. I need to see him have a terrifyingly awkward, sexually charged interview afterward where a ropy man with sunglasses plays peanut gallery in the background literally the entire time and the camera man interrupts the interview to ask Steve Harwell if it is okay to zoom in on his mouth. God yes, Smash Mouth! God yes! I am already so on board and I haven’t even touched when Steve Harwell launch into a tirade of profanity at a bread throwing heckler while the intro chords to “All Star” plod away in the background, desperately pleading against the sky itself that this not be Smash Mouth’s cosmic destiny.

Smash Mouth fills my body with shimmering love and burning hate at the same time. On the one hand, “All Star” approaches me with violent staccato vocals that literally never settle down or get even slightly less punchy at any point in the song, but on the other hand, yes! I am an all-star! What’s more, when I really dig deep down into these masterful disaster artists, there are real gems, real kernels of solidly composed ska and funk and surf experimentation that beat the crap out of the cynical asshole in me who just wants to laugh at these kings of surf-buttrock when I am not even duke of Shit Mountain. The sweet and often varied rhythms of this strange surf-buttrock gurgling up endlessly from the vestiges of 1990’s San Diego bleeds a whole West Coast aesthetic that smells like, Shrek, my childhood and also a fire – and that’s great. Smash Mouth is dead. Long live Smash Mouth.

steve-and-guy

~Austin R Ryan

Malka


Malka is Hebrew for queen – some people know that. What most don’t know is that Malka is the best name for fat tabby cats. This is not just because most fat tabby cats look like they have fine black crowns on the top of their heads. In the mind of a fat tabby cat, she is and has always been a great grey queen with a domain of human subjects grateful to witness her royal mouse hunts; so that fat tabby cat is as much a queen as Elizabeth, Victoria, and Golda (Meir, of course).

This is the story of two fat tabby queens and the kitty kingdoms they had. Malka the first, Malka 1, just plain Malka did not accept many of the subjects that came and went through her country. The original empress, she ruled over a small domain – an apartment in Chicago not far from the lake – with just two old folks named Carol and Sheldon as true subjects. During many Hanukkahs and many Passovers all sorts of other big, furless cats would come and go but she did not know or trust them. They would get no dead mice and no affectionate purrs from her. Many of them truly did not deserve it; young and greedy, they grabbed at her with hungry palms that pulled and tugged; she – a proper Malka – deserved nothing less than the best and softest pets and she would come claim them at her own leisure!

Though Malka I was not always a kind queen, she sometimes showed a softer side. Yes, she scratched and she bit and all the vagabonds and trespassers knew to fear her claws; yes, she hissed and howled at clumsy but friendly hands too; but when a child cried on her couches and bedsides she would retract her razors and paw them condolences. Malka I was a strong and mean ruler but she was soft and kind especially to her closest subjects. When she went she was mourned deeply and she left her subjects with a fat tabby cat shaped hole in their hearts.

However a proper queen always has a lineage. Not so long later, another tabby cat – young and without a kingdom – was busy stepping across a dark road. Many other nights she had darted across street and field, deftly dodging coyotes and cars, hawks and Hondas, but this night was different. Small and agile, a natural hunter, she leaped and bounded across that dark road again, but got struck by a passing car and dropped one life of nine. Left along on the road she mewed and cried until some strange set of hands carried her off to a vet before the other eight could slip away. The vet labored on this tabby – hardly even a cat yet – until by the end of the night it was stitched up and saved. However, it was still homeless. The fine folk that saved her could not keep her and instead of a kingdom she found a cage.

Shaved and small, set in a kennel full of bigger cats, she was a queen with no kingdom, an empress in exile. Little did she know, Malka I had come as a spirit to find another tabby cat to grow fat and continue her line. Malka I found the little tabby and told her to keep her shaved side hidden against the kennel wall and mew sweetly for the next old lady that came in. Sure enough, the next visitor to her cage was an old woman named Carol, who had a fat tabby cat shaped hole in her heart.

When the handlers took the kitten to Carol, the kitten she was skeptical at first. Who was this human? Could she be trusted? She shied away but Carol, even seeing her shaved side with all its scars, knew another Malka when she saw one. Carol sat for a while and talked with the little tabby.

“You look so pretty!” She said to give the queen compliment.

“It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.” She said, and kept her distance to give the queen respect.

“We’ll feed you and you’ll have a great big place where you can chase birds and mice.” She said to give the queen a true kingdom.

This little tabby kitten decided to step over and let Carol carefully lift her up and cradle her in palanquin arms. At that moment they both knew she was not just a Malka, but Malka II, Malka the second, Malka two. Carol brought the cat back to Sheldon, who smiled and said,
“Gee well, couldn’t you have got a healthy one?”

All the same they came to love the new Malka. Her fur grew in again, just as lush and beautiful as before she was hurt and before long she was a cat with a kingdom of wetlands out in the country, complete with birdbaths to stalk and gardens to weave through. Malka II had surpassed her predecessor; she had more not just in land, but in kind subjects too. By now the once young subjects had grown and learned how to keep their fingers from tugging and their palms from pulling so Malka II was generous with her affection and let many who came into her kingdom pet her. Perhaps Malka II became kind through being grateful. Her fortunes had turned sharply as she went overnight from losing a life to gaining a kingdom. Whatever the cause was, Malka II became even more beloved and bequeathed than her namesake and in no time at all she had filled fat tabby cat shaped holes in hearts that didn’t even know they had one.

~Austin R Ryan

Mulberries


The walk to the nearest grocery store is about 20 minutes in whatever weather Changzhou has for me – usually rain and wind. I call this local Tesco the fish market and if you went in I think it would be clear why. All along the way up to Tesco there’re a lot of things happening but in Tesco there’s even more going on. There are two floors to it, the first having clothes and shampoos and anything else you shouldn’t eat if you can’t help it. My little fish market isn’t so packed on the first floor but ‘packed’ is relative even past the normal standards for most adjectives and it’d be too crowded for a lot of folks I know back home. Up top where the food is it gets truly hot and hectic.

A kind of low-sloped escalator walkway leads slowly up to the top floor where all the heat has risen and sticks around in glops. Right out front are the bread, fruit, and fish sections where most people crowd around to inspect the fresh food for the freshest food. Kids are clamoring and people are talking up more hot air to feed into the already hot and healthy glops. The glops crowd around with the smell of fish and bread and fruit until eventually things yield into pre-packaged things such as Oreos and other big cookie and snack brands. All of the checkout stations wrap around in an L at the front – the smaller side of the L being quick shop stations that are rarely open. After a normal ten to fifteen minute wait with my red bag bloated up with daily things I step out of the whole place back into the relative cold.

Along the way a friend says she’s nearby so I go looking a little bit and after not catching her come into a chain bakery called Bread Talk. In China most folk don’t have ovens or like to bake so there are bakeries everywhere. In the back of the warm and orange tinted Bread Talk there’s a row of drinks packaged with deep primary colors that stir me. I go to the one with blue so dark it nearly seems like velvet. It’s shaped like a little jug and the top is wrapped off with a cloth on top like homemade jam. It’s mulberry juice.

It feels cold on the edges of my hot fingers just recently roughly wrought by the hard and heavy pull of my red bag full up with food for the week. It’s not competing on price but I am buying on feeling so that doesn’t matter. As soon as it’s sold I peel the cloth wrapping off and twist it open. It is cold and deep and rich.

My best childhood friends live down the block and a little ways away from a mulberry tree whose sweet fruit hangs its branches low. We were lower stooped back then but reached up enough to pull the mulberries down and I remember my friends introducing that kind of taste to me. It was sort of like a blueberry in taste, without the sweet bite of sugary juice. Blueberries are tense capillary fruits with thin skins full to burst with juice and flavor, but mulberries have a more mellow grind – like a less intense raspberry.

It is cold and deep and rich. I am ambling back to my home in Changzhou on muscle memory-based navigation because my head’s back underneath that mulberry tree; I am clinging onto branch like those rich little berries. That day the skies were gray in China but I was looking up and feeling the light blue of humid Indianapolis summers. There were white clouds above me, white clouds as fluffy as my thick sighs after each greedy glug of the deep blue – almost purple – juice. I am home in Indy now and walked the family dog underneath that mulberry tree. I had forgotten how all the berries fall and stain the concrete sidewalks with smatters of purplish blue and bluish purple. I had forgotten how small it really is now. Despite all that the sky is really just as wide and just as blue; the clouds are still fluffed up as Midwestern sighs.

~Austin R Ryan