The Art of the Coffee Shop

DSCF0985There have been two coffee shops that I have called home in my life. They could not be more different, both in layout, personnel, location and style and they are both near and dear to my heart. In fact, at least once a week, I drink out of a cup emblazoned with the name of one or the other. Consider this my ode to Kofenya and Bar Agostini and the art of the coffeeshop/bar.

The woman I affectionately still call boss was still in college when she started Kofenya in Oxford, Ohio. I guess she and her friend and partner were young and naive enough to think that they could start a coffee shop, so they did and I am forever grateful. I hated coffee when I started going to Kofenya. I was dragged there at 7 a.m. (the crack of dawn by college student standards, sleeping in by current standards) by a friend 4 times a week to read, talk and pray. It became a drug I couldn’t refuse… not the coffee, the place.

Walk in the door of Kofenya and you will likely be greeted by a friendly face, perhaps even a stereotypical barista. Those early days, you would almost always be greeted by the boss, because she lived there (practically) but there was the odd cast of characters. An opera singer, a bearded jokester before beards were hip, tattoos and piercings were common, and everyone in between. Even me, a straight laced kid from Columbus, somehow weaseled my way into the Kofenya family. And it was family. Heck, if you were a regular, you were adopted into the family. Original art hung on the walls, pictures plastered columns behind the counter, chalk menu’s were creatively scrawled and music, oh the music. Boss and her partner and the team were savants at choosing the right music. Mellow morning mixes, pick me punk, and even the midnight dance party (goals for graduation? dance on the counter. Check).

Kofenya was and is a lot of stereotypical college coffee shop. And that is what made it beautiful. Because it became the place to go to study, hang out, have deep conversation or just belly laugh. The originality was that it wasn’t copying anything. No, it simply because the things that the boss loved and if you walk in the doors, you felt that love too. And damn, they made a good cappuccino.

My second love affair could not have been more different. Agostini dal 1968 (alternately called Bar Agostini, Panificio Agostini, Forno Gastronomia Agostini) was located a literal stones throw from my apartment in Roma, Italia. One walk around my block was all it took to discover, hey, there is this place that has delicious cornetto (Italian breakfast pastry) and cappuccino that takes 2 minutes to walk to in the morning. Even when I moved the second year, I would walk the five minutes to Bar Agostini, ignoring the three bar’s I passed along the way. The vibrant colors, wonderful smells, and organized chaos was a place I could call home.

You have to understand that in Italy, a bar (coffeeshop) with seating is a rarity. Most often, you walk into a little shop, order your drink at the register, hand the receipt to the barista as you call out your drink, stand at the marble countertop and drink your your drink and then leave. It’s a beautiful thing. Just not a sit down, stay a while thing. So when I discover Bar Agostini and it’s seating (because it is a bakery, tavola calda and bar), I am sure they thought I was one strange American who didn’t speak much Italian, sat down and read and wrote in my journal while drinking my cappuccino and eating my pastries.  But they didn’t tell me to leave.

Instead, they asked me questions and welcomed me each morning with a smile. No one spoke much English, so it was slow going at first. My Italian was pretty bad but they excused it. Signore Lorenzo, the original owner was a perfect Italian gentlemen, fitting the stereotype you see on TV. His seemingly dour face would crinkle into a smile as he welcomed me each morning, seated on his throne of a stool behind the register. His daughter Maria Antonietta, who took his place when his health went downhill, always beamed with a smile, asking me how my day was.

The barista’s were the image of Italian barista perfection. Caught up in their frenetic dance of serving the crowds that would ebb and flow like waves, they still managed a smile, a laugh, a private joke in the midst of the crowd. Andrea (guy, Andrew in English), Roberto, Anna Maria… they became the friends I knew I would see every day. If it slowed down enough, they would ask about my day, my work, ask to learn a new word in english. My favorite? “Cornetto con frutti di bosco” became a beautifully pronounced “Cornetto with frrrruits of the forrrrrest” by Andrea. Maurizio, Maria Antonietta brother, would always emerge from the ovens in the back, covered in flour, to laugh, tell a joke, and tease me about my Italian.

Everything about Bar Agostini brings me back to the way things should be. That the food was delicious was an understatement. The fresh bread, the amazing cornetti, the gelato or fresh fruit juice; there is a reason that I literally spent every morning there. I called it my private chapel; the things I needed were provided and it was where I could get away, put in headphones if I wanted to drown out the clamor and be still in the midst of Roman chaos. And they welcomed me like family. I had a tab if I needed it. Didn’t have money on me? They would give it to me anyway and tell me to pay them later. When I went back two years after leaving Italy, I was welcomed with hugs and kisses and Maurizio joking that when I went back to America, I needed to tell them about “my bar”.

Two places, two completely different atmospheres. One American, low key, sit and stay awhile in peace; the other Italian, chaotic, constant motion. Yet they both have perfected the art of the coffee shop. And I am proud to have called them both home, at one time or another.

PW Gopal – Big Blue Life – a review

*I supported this album in its Kickstarter early days. I am biased. This review is biased. But is true.

There are some voices that are forever recognizable once you hear them. Not only in their tone, but in their uniqueness. Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Hootie and the Blowfish, Louie Armstrong; the genre doesn’t matter, the voice is just, well, the voice. PW Gopal is one of those voices for me. At his concerts he always stood a couple feet away from the mic; heck, he doesn’t really need the mic. His clear tenor booms and begs you to listen. Come closer, it says, I have a story to tell you. Big Blue Life is an album of those stories.

PW released Big Blue Life at the beginning of September, a product of 11 years of travels, stories and people. He describes himself as a “Singer, Songwriter, Abolitionist” and it is in that context that you need to listen to his music. The stories aren’t cranked out from some imaginary life; they come from a life rich in experience.  The album feels more country than anything he has released before with fiddle and slide guitar cropping up often but without any twang in his voice, it defies the typical genre. His voice is too strong, too clear for it to feel the rusty Neu-Folk of the stomp-clap variety. But it is that voice that beckons.

One of the beautiful things about Big Blue Life is that often lighter music disguises heavier lyrics and when the music allows itself to sit in the melancholy, the melancholy is tinged with hope. The opening two, “A Hard Life” and “Change My Stars”, are great examples of this, singing “its a hard life to be along for our sins” and “you found the liars, you found the thieves, in my skin and my bones, it looks like me.” “Change My Stars” touches on the continual theme throughout the album of redemption. “In love you came, in love you are, Hallelujah you changed my stars.” Often the album plays like a love letter to God, to his wife, and to life. Rather than coming across as sappy and disingenuous, it feels as if it comes out of experience.

The stories that crop up deal with heavy topics like infidelity, doubt, loss and pain. “Fall to Pieces” was reminscent of an earlier song by PW, “Still Voices”, and the need for redemption in it feels universal. It seemed to say that we often need to break before we can begin healing. Much like an Over the Rhine lyric that says “you have to hit the bottom before you get set free,” Gopals songs encourage that when we are at the bottom, “sometimes you will feel like you are alone in the dark places, don’t cry…I will sing for you in the dark places.”  One of the strongest songs on the album is “Fifteen.” Ambiguous in  subject matter, it is a song that I can feel in my soul. When he sings “God bless my freedom, God bless my wife, God bless my family and those who stand the line,” I feel the pain in those words and the honesty. Again, rather than a country song that feels commercial about ‘Merica, it feels as if I am talking to a friend who came to those conclusions, Job-like, after loss.

From that place Gopal moves to joy. The title track seemed like a benediction of sorts to go and live and move. It stems from Gopals own words “a reflection of God’s grace and glory. What He offers me, and those around me is a life, big and blue as the sky, unlimited and boasting of His presence.” Rather than feeling like being preached at, it feels like being shared with. The following tracks felt joyful, probably also influenced by his wife as “she came out of nowhere and whispered love.” The result is that “I am stuck on you my life, the good life shines from you, my sweet love. You keep me breathing…til the dawn.” It is a beautiful ode to both his wife and to the life that he has been given. Fittingly, he ties the album with stripped down version of the hymn “It Is Well” that speaks of peace in the midst of storms.

PW Gopal is a storyteller and his stories are worth hearing. Check out his music at pwgopal.com or find him on Facebook at PW Gopal Music. You can also download a sample on NoiseTrade by clicking HERE.

 

*I first met PW Gopal a little over a decade ago. I knew who he was because vaguely we had some family connection and he was friends with siblings of mine. I, being the music nerd that I am, stuck around after a coffee shop concert to congratulate him on a great show. After 10 minutes of talking, he got my address and said he had a sermon that he thought I really might like. A week later I got a CD in the mail of this sermon. He is that kind of guy, caring enough to send a CD to a kid he just met at a concert. His songs speak from that place of love, listening and telling stories. 12 years later, I am glad I am still having his voice speak to me.

 

Taelor Gray – The Mocker and the Monarch – a review


*disclaimer: I have no business writing a review of a hip-hop album. I have no expertise other than my own taste. Read the review at your own risk.

Buy at BandcampBuy on iTunes

All of life is a story. The question is whether the story is well told or not. To dive into Taelor Gray’s new album The Mocker and the Monarch, my thoroughly biased opinion needs to tell the story of why this album is worth your time and money (spoiler: it is). You see, I don’t harbor the myth that music artists live a “charmed life” and that making music isn’t work. I have read enough interviews to know that hours go into the craft (at least for the good ones), that perfecting things in the studio takes the same concentration as preparing financial reports. All of us are judged on our product, not on the effort, so perfection is something that we strive for. So I know that being a musician is work. The lucky ones get paid to do this work. Taelor? Taelor’s Bruce Wayne alter ego works in the corporate world. Throw in his work in the church, being a father, and I don’t know how, but somehow he emerges, Batman with lyrical guns flexed, to drop an album that challenges and inspires.

The Mocker and the Monarch is a cohesive journey that takes go from the opening track “Hollow Man” to the killer closer “Hallow Man.” It is no mistake to see the journey even in the track names. There are no throw away tracks on the album; rather, the thematic journey is about innocence, the loss and redemption. It isn’t a concept album in the sense that there is a overarching story that weaves from track to track but it is thematically consistent. From the confessional opener where he is “just me, working through the wreckage,” you get then sense of where the album will go. Not one to shy from controversy, the tracks address the work-party taboo subjects; politics, abortion, race, sexuality, church, hypocrisy and nowhere does the spotlight shine as bright as when he looks at himself. And by spotlight shining bright, I don’t mean in the “look at me” sense, but in the “exposing my flaws” sense.

#MOCXMON (as he has dubbed it) is leaps and bounds ahead of anything Taelor has released, production wise. Simple and effective on songs like “Famous”, the simplicity allows Gray’s swag to hook the listener without the braggadocio that gets in the way; the music video captures the delivery and touches on the fact that up to this point, he was always better live than on record. This album brings the record up to the live. Other songs explore the creativity of meandering jazz piano riffs, old gospel songs, autotune, and even some old school guitar riffs that took me back to some 90’s hip hop on “Powdered Toast Man.” The album is enhanced by features from a B.Reith hook on “Gorgeous” and multiple guest spots, especially by brother Christon Gray on the closer. The only song that didn’t work for me was “Vogue”; the stilted delivery and dreamy synth didn’t do it for me and lyrical content wasn’t enough to pull me back.

Any production work without true content would be lipstick on a pig. Thankfully Gray doesn’t lack in depth. “Famous”, the second track, starts out the party by calling out hypocritical artists and the gullibility of consumers who buy the image presented. The theme of brokenness and struggle to recapture at times feels hopeless as Tragic Hero laments “I’d teach you to let go but I don’t know how to” on “Gorgeous” and B.Reith croons that “we let strangers destroy us.” When Gray says “this is me moving on, I did it myself,” on “In.Secure,” it feels like he is trying to convince himself that he can be the Monarch.

The album takes off after the aforementioned “Vogue” with the furious “Cold.” Talk about a song that doesn’t hold back. FEMA, racism, politics, sexual assault on campus, transgender issues, abortion. All the issues covered in one song and somehow it remains one of the more upbeat songs on the album, thanks to the feel in the production. It felt like the transition song on the album, as Gray posits himself as the “Black Bruce Lee with bullets in my mouth” and lives up to the billing. It seemed like with this song the journey takes the turn from Mocker and striving to be Monarch to a hands-in-the-air freedom. It is as if the mask drops off and honesty rises to the surface.

That honesty comes in “Powdered Toast Man”, with its 90’s vibe, as he makes no bones when he says “I serve the right king, more servant than right wing.” And yet the next track, he and ArmondWakeUp bare their soul with confessions about lust, Armond saying “these are the fights I face while I work out my soul” and Gray offering “I hope you don’t expect the shallow man to be more than this.” The final two tracks are highlights; “Scapegoats” musically is ambitious and lyrically comes across like a diary entry. Honesty about church and music politics, hypocrisy and his failures, and even about miscarriage doesn’t come across preachy but authentic. The closer continues the heart on the page theme, starting almost as spoken word over meandering piano. It is a sprawling song exploring personal and spiritual life with imagery, wondering “Whats living when death can’t hurt you?” As he seems to wind down, almost broken, brother Christon Gray jumps in, almost conversational, and the song explodes into a climax, “No more metaphors, it’s not just for the conscious rhymes, it’s for my conscience, I swore I wouldn’t compromise.” Forget the Mocker, forget being the Monarch; “a strip search of my motives, broken cisterns in the ground…the King wields the weapon, it’s the spear or it’s the scepter, we ain’t never left Him, we’re holding up the lighters.”

Every once in a while, I come across something in hip-hop that draws me back in. Usually I end up being disappointed, because I want to like it and honestly, it’s not my scene. Digesting The Mocker and the Monarch is like finding a new restaurant; I am glad I was early on the scene but I hope everyone else finds out what they were missing and soon. It is an album that deserves to be heard.

1. Hollow Man // prod. by Wit
2. Famous // prod. by Wes Pendleton
3. Gorgeous (feat. B.Reith and Tragic Hero) // prod. by Wit and 42North
4. In.Secure // prod. by Swoope
5. Vogue // prod. by Wit
6. Cold // prod. by Peace 586
7. Enemies // prod. by Wes Pendleton
8. Powdered Toast Man (feat. Beleaf, Jurny Big, and DJ Efechto) // prod. by Daniel Steele
9. Mike Lowry X Marcus Graham (feat. ArmondWakeUp) // prod. by Daniel Steele
10. Scapegoats // produced by Wit and 42North
11. Hallow Man (feat. Christon Gray) // prod. by Wit and 42North