Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A view from Dizzy Heights

Neil Finn stands on the precipice, peering through sun-drenched clouds with a mix of fear and curiosity at the view of ominous waters below. Serving as both a metaphor and a description of the cover on Finn’s 3rd solo release, Dizzy Heights, this surreal scene captures the essence of high risk: actions that push us to the brink of what we know and beckon us to leap into the unknown. This is a risk that this New Zealand master songwriter chooses willingly, and the risk pays off here with an album that delivers on multiple levels. ‘Dive Bomber’, the first official release from Finn’s new album, reminds us that when poised on the precipice “there’s only one way down”, yet in this song and throughout the record, Finn hovers gracefully between a dreamlike realm and all that is real and tangible.

On Dizzy Heights, Finn pushes the bounds of expression on his most personal album to date. His inspiring and beautifully crafted lyrics reveal the full spectrum of intimacy by exploring a range of feelings, including lust (‘Dizzy Heights’), euphoria mixed with apprehension (‘Dive Bomber’), giddiness (‘Pony Ride’), loss (‘In my Blood’), longing (‘White Lies and Alibis’), admiration (‘Strange Friends’), compassion (‘Recluse’), and nostalgia (‘Lights of New York’).  With a voice that resonates with sincerity, Finn moves us from heady romance through deep commitment. Throughout Dizzy Heights, Finn muses on love while making songs that seem to be written with only you in mind.

Sonic risks abound in this collaborative production between Finn and producer Dave Fridmann of Tarbox Studios. Fridmann, known for his work with Flaming Lips, OK Go, Tame Impala, and Mercury Rev creates detailed sonic layers enhanced by analog alchemy. The Finn/Fridmann collaboration on Dizzy Heights is unique for creating surreal aural soundscapes built upon beautifully crafted songs replete with soaring melodies, dynamic chord changes and solid rhythm. As a result, these songs are as danceable as they are listenable. And like all great psychedelic pop, the cinematic scope of Dizzy Heights promises to take you down the rabbit hole for wondrous years to come.

Have a listen for free here:
Visit Neil Finn's website: for up-to-date tour info. and more

... and my track-by-track first impressions:

Love the samba feel of Better Than TV

Pony Ride is so fresh! Funky, sweet, danceable, and it ROCKS, too!

I love the long intro to White Lies... chorus is dark (a bit scary). Layers upon layers of sonic imprint - like subconscious made audible

Neil sounds like early Bowie in Your Next Move

Recluse. Oh, yes, this is well done! This has a sense of levity that I didn't expect. Backing vocals are perfect (like a Greek chorus)...... love the cacophonous outro... Sounds like Abbey Road

Strangest Friends has a lot going on (wispy background vocals, rock god guitar, driving beat). I get a bit lost in it all

In My Blood has a faster tempo than live versions. This one and Pony Ride are my bets for top US hits

The ambient sound in Lights of NY takes this "song without a beat" to another realm. Endearing and melancholy. A lullaby.

... and an earlier review of Dive Bomber: Melancholy melody. Mesmerizing delivery. Mythical storyline about a life-threatening encounter between two beings leaves lots of room for interpretation. All set against a backdrop of lush soundscape of cinematic proportions. This (and more) from a man known for his skill in crafting poetic verse and breathtaking melodies in songs that seem like they were written with you in mind.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A taste of love

A few things that I learned from the lovely Camille about wine tasting:

*Most tasting should be done early in the day, preferably before lunch because your sense of taste is more active then (and it’s a great excuse for a relaxing and well-deserved lunch after all that hard work).

* Most of our ability to taste actually comes from our sense of smell, so get your nose in that glass and smell the aromas!

* Oh, and speaking of glasses: Camille wasn’t even aware of the “glass shape” hubbub that certain glass manufacturers are spouting off about. Just make sure that the opening is narrow so that it confines the wine aromas in the glass as you’re about to sense them.

*Do not eat before tasting a series of wines or all will be lost.

*If your palette gets tired, have something familiar to bring it back to neutral. In other words, if you are a coffee drinker, have a sip of coffee. If you smoke, have a cigarette (yes, it’s true. One vintner noted that he had to begin his tasting education all over again once he quit smoking).

*Don’t change your toothpaste just before a wine tasting (really).

*Do not swallow (ahem). Getting wasted will not aid in your quest to find the most delicious aged grape.

*Spit with flair. Try not to spit so hard into the spittoon that your expelled wine splatters all over that carefully tended countertop.

*Wines have many different flavors that can be attributed to things we know and love to smell and eat like fruit, flowers, chocolate, etc. Therefore, when you are learning to identify and categorize tastes in wines, you can practice using a smelling box that consists of plant/flower essences, spices, and essential oils. Camille noted that it can be expensive to establish a smelling box, but is well worth it.

*When tasting, one of the first things to establish is whether the wine contains a dark or black fruit. Dark fruits are obvious things like black plums, cherries, black currants, etc. A wine might also contain a red fruit note like cherries, raspberries, strawberries, etc. Light fruits are things like pears, grapefruit, citrus, etc. These single fruit notes are not always present or so easy to identify, but can be a good starting point.

*Pay attention to all aspects of the wine: the way it looks, the way it smells before tasting, the way it tastes when it first makes contact with your tongue, the way it tastes when you aerate it, the way that it tastes after you expel it.

*There’s so much to all of this, and I can’t wait to learn more. Camille spent two years of intensified tasting and is still learning. Wine tasting is a true labor of love.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Encountering Camille

The wine bubbled on his tongue, aerating to reveal black fruit, dark chocolate, and a hint of tomato vine. Camille knew wine, having spent two years prior to this one in France, studying to be an Oenologist - a scientist of wine. I first met Camille while suiting up for a kayak trip around Tasman Bay, his quiet determination to walk a 6 hour track in this popular national park enhanced by the flimsy yellow backpack strings pinned decidedly to his shoulders.

We met again at trails end, his gaze following applications of lotion and light makeup after a hot shower returned sensation to my kayak-weary limbs. Camille looked much the same as our morning meeting, unfazed by a day of winter tramping, his quiet demeanor contrasting youthful visage. He may have been 22, but judging by the softness of his skin, he couldn’t have been more than 25.

With a 5-minute warning from the driver for our return to Nelson, I piled my bags into the van and stumbled into the first available seat. Camille arrived last, inviting his blonde tramping partner to choose her seat, he took the last, sitting beside me. We spoke of hostels and NZ travels, comparing notes with others in the van. My bare-bones YHA hostelling experience paling in comparison to various BBH hostels described by many, including the gold status given to The Paradiso in Nelson for it’s sauna, hot tub, tasty breakfasts and, most notably, chocolate pudding for dessert. And as it turns out, Camille was spending another night at The Paradiso, while I was booked at the more central, and austere YHA Nelson. By the end of the 1-hour drive we spoke long enough to cement a bond and I was saddened to part with my new friends from Paradiso.

Arriving in Nelson after dark, I quickly realized that there was little to do on this winter’s night when all but the most enterprising restaurants had closed their doors at 5pm. As I walked the silent streets scouting for food and the bus depot, a colorful van whipped past and dropped a dark-haired man off at a nearby bank. On closer inspection, the side of the van was tagged in bubble letters spelling out P-a-r-a-d-i-s-o. Camille? I couldn’t tell for sure in this darkness, but this person before me had an uncanny resemblance to my French bus mate. I quickly crossed the street to avoid an awkward encounter at the ATM, and thought nothing more of it.

Half a day later, as I sat on the top deck of the Inter-islander Ferry, Camille re-appeared offering a double take as he made his way to the rail for an unobstructed view. A long gaze confirmed his presence, not surprising considering that he had told me of his plans to head north. Recognizing me, he changed course and sat down beside me. After a polite greeting, he proceeded to tell me of the morning’s hitchhiking adventure that brought him to the ferry in record time (he had left Nelson at least an hour later than I had). He seemed both pleased and amazed at his luck. I don’t remember much more of our conversation during the 4-hour ferry ride except for the fact that he would be flying out of Auckland to France the day before I would leave for the States. That, and he was planning a wine tour of Waiheki Island with his friend who would be meeting him in Wellington. I desperately wanted to ask if I could tag along, but soon realized that I would be travelling from Bulls on the day that he planned to go.

As the ferry turned toward Wellington Harbour, Camille left the deck with his belongings, muttering something about strong winds. After a few attempts to find him in the cabins below, I returned to the top deck assuming that I would not see him again. Yet there he was, easily spotted in his red parka, standing by the baggage claim belt. We chatted for a few minutes, and then got separated when loading onto the shuttle bus. Looking away when he stepped on the bus so that he would not feel obliged to sit near me, Camille walked past without a word and sat a few seats behind. A man close to my age sat beside me and we immediately struck up a conversation about things to do and see in Wellington. I saw Camille again briefly, passing him on the bus platform, his profile hinting at a sadness that I could not be sure of. Knowing that we would be parting within minutes, I thought it best not to disturb him. Only in retrospect did I realize that it is far better to endure the awkwardness of a goodbye than the part indifferently, as if we had never met.

Once again, I was saddened by the thought that we might never meet again, and a bit annoyed with myself for failing to ask if I might join him on his trip to Waiheke, yet half-hoping that I might find him again in Auckland. In spite of the distractions of cosmopolitan Wellington and two days on a farm in Bulls, the cadence of his words echoed in my head for days, much like Luciano’s had, only this time with the poetry of English pronounced by a Frenchman allied with our shared love of wine and stunning landscapes viewed from high vantage points.

So it was with a great deal of amazement that I spotted a black-haired man with a familiar playful lope across the street from the Auckland International Hostel just as I arrived on Saturday night. This time, my double take was met with Camille’s bright smile and a cheerful greeting. I immediately asked how his trip to Waiheke had been and he replied that he was planning to go on Sunday, asking if I would like to join him. “Yes,” my over-enthusiastic reply giving away a bit too much eagerness, qualified by, “ if that’s o.k.” revealing a bit too much vulnerability. He hesitated to respond, but did not retract his offer and said that he would go over details in the common area of the hostel once I had settled in.

Minutes turned to at least an hour when I was delayed by laundry, conversations with new roommates and who knows what else. When I finally made it to the common area, Camille was busy setting up a game of beer pong with a couple of German men, and either he didn’t see me, or chose not to acknowledge me in front of this younger crowd. At any rate, we did not discuss plans that night because I failed to see him again in spite of perching myself in an obvious spot in the lounge with a book for hours. The next morning just as I was heading upstairs to pack for a day of yet undecided adventure (having given up on the Waiheke trip), whom did I run into but Camille. “We’ll need to leave by 9:15.” He spoke casually, as if he had expected to meet. I went along with it even though it would only give me 15 minutes to finish breakfast and get ready. I left him to eat his ginger cookies and tea while I hurriedly cleaned up my dishes.

Although I plan to tell more of our adventure on Waiheke, I tell this tale because of the un-canniness of our encounters. It is not so uncommon to run into the same people throughout a common course of travel in New Zealand. There are only so many roads, and in winter, not too many places to eat or to rest one’s head. I ran into several other people who I recognized periodically from place to place, thinking little of it. My encounters with Camille were exceptional because of their timing. Each time, just as I was about to leave, or in at least one case, as I was about to arrive, Camille would be there, present and happy to see me. Perhaps I’m reading too much into these encounters, or being too mystical about it all, but this is not the first experience that I’ve had with repeated crossings, and usually there is an obvious exchange that takes place to confirm the reason for our meetings.

With this said, I’m still not sure what the reason is for this set of chance meetings except to say that when with Camille I felt a fondness, a sense of closeness, and a lightness of being that only comes to the surface for me when I’m most relaxed and happy. If nothing else, he was a reminder for me of a way of being that requires nothing but the time and space to breathe into each moment and settle in. I will miss Camille, and in the missing I will remember him with love for the moments made magic by our time together.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

When next in Auckland

Here's what I'll do when next in Auckland:

* Get oriented at the top of Mt. Eden (this helpful dial points in all directions, near and far)

*Take a plunge in the salt water Tepid Baths

*Exchange a book at the Viaduct Harbor book exchange

*Feed a red-eyed gull (even though I know I shouldn't)

*Forget the time at Albert Park

*Peer through a tiny window to the world outside

*Visit the giant, fiberglass squid

*Witness industrial ingenuity in action like this rolling bridge at Viaduct Harbor

*Drive one of those funny little cars on the left.

*Take a ferry ride to Waiheke and Tiritiri Matangi Islands

*Bungee jump off a stone tower in Albert Park (just kidding!)

Tonight the stars are out, the moon illuminates my keys and there's a sweet Summer breeze at my back. Yes, I've returned home, and I'm no longer sure where home is.

That I miss New Zealand is an understatement. This means that I will return. For many reasons.
I'll list a few here:

Where else but New Zealand do you find a polite reminder to curb pollution, set in stone?

Where else does garbage look so appealing? New Zealander's take their waste very seriously with common reminders on waste bins such as, "can that be recycled?"

Public art is playful and found everywhere!

A book exchange in the midst of one of the most highly touristed sections of Auckland, located in a shipping container, no less!

I could go on (and I will). 

I plan to fill in more than a few open gaps in this blog over the next few weeks. Stay posted if you want to see and hear more on my travels in the Land of the Great White Cloud (aka Clack Central).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Blinded by stubborness

Yesterday was the day I had planned to go to Piha. 2 weeks ago I shuffled hostel and bus bookings so that I might have an extra day to take a few short day trips like this from Auckland.

That was the plan.

However, at the last minute I decided to leave today open to chance, as I know from past experience that really interesting things can happen when plans are left open. In other words, I threw my original plans out the window.

Well, all but one.

I had one fixed agenda for the day that was non-negotiable: I had a small gift to deliver to an artist who I admire deeply. This gift was made by hand, fired by wood, and carefully packaged to survive baggage handlers of all kinds. It survived an 18 hour international flight as well as 4 weeks of New Zealand travel. With just over one travel day left, I was bound and determined to give this gift a New Zealand home.

In the morning my roommate asked what I had planned for the day, and I could tell by the way that she asked that she was looking for company. So instead of being open to possibilities, I told her that I had a delivery to make and left it at that.

I made my delivery and wandered to Mt. Eden for a great view of the surrounding area. Then off the Mt. Eden Village for some browsing, chatting and lunch. When I returned to the hostel after sunset, my roommate asked what I had done during the day and I related the above, stating that it was a much-needed relaxed day (hard to believe that I needed to relax while on vacation, I know). Then I asked her what she had done, and she told me that she climbed Mt. Eden and then took a winding road trip to Piha and KareKare beaches.

"Really," I replied (a bit stunned by the news), "how was it? I was hoping to go there myself."

Sometimes we create our own obstacles.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Gems are often found in the tiniest spaces. Near the end of a day biking up and down Waiheke Island hills for gruelling hours* of wine research with my friend Camille, I found a tidal pool with tiny, irridescent sea stars. This one is about the size of my thumbnail. Camille and I counted five stars in this pool - the only pool with such a wonderous constellation.

*more on this later