Archive | November, 2011
November 30, 2011

Desert Island Discs (Pt. 2)

As I mentioned in Part 1, I compiled a list of albums essential in my collection for their variety, originality, and lasting influence. These are albums that not only take me back to the time I first heard and enjoyed them, but albums that also changed the  way I listen to, enjoy, and share my passion for music today.

They are the audio equivalent of comfort food for me here away from home and the ones I would want with me on any island, peninsula, or archipelago. The albums are listed below in no particular order with the release date and record label noted in parentheses:

16. U2 / The Unforgettable Fire (1985/Island)

Working with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois made this album different and a sign of the greatness yet to come from these brilliant Irish lads. Another favorite album cover, too, from Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn. The title is a reference to “The Unforgettable Fire”—an art exhibit about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and marked the band’s first real desire to experiment with their sound. This album was also the crucial bridge between the heavy politics and anger on the War album before it, and the landmark Americana and stadium rock that would be fully realized as the band became the biggest in the world with the release of The Joshua Tree.

Prime Cuts: Bad / The Unforgettable Fire / Wire / Pride (In the Name of Love)

17. Richard Thompson / Rumor & Sigh (1991/Capitol)

Richard Thompson is a potent triple threat with a career spanning over 40 years. Born in Notting Hill, London, Thompson started with Fairport Convention and later working with his then-wife and singer Linda Thompson throughout the 70′s. Thompson is regularly name-dropped as one of the best and most influential guitarists of all time, still most hardly know his name and of the depth and variety of his long catalog. This release, produced by Mitchell Froom, is a great example of his broad range, trademark Fender sound using a “pick and fingers” technique. Richard is simply one of the finest singer/songwriter/guitarists in the business and should really be seen live to be experienced fully.

Prime Cuts: I Misunderstood / I Feel So Good / 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

18. Fleetwood Mac / Live  (1980/Warner Bros.)

Impossible to pick a best album by one of my favorite bands ever , this one showcases the lineup in their prime, live during the Tusk tour. Although the excesses of their massive worldwide stardom after the release of Rumours were already taking their toll on the band and its individual members, you would never know it to listen to these brilliant performances. All the classic hits are here like “Dreams,” Lindsay’s show-stopping solo on “I’m So Afraid,” and a few amazing new songs from McVie plus Stevie Nicks forgotten treasure, “Fireflies.”

Prime Cuts: Sara / Never Going Back Again / Landslide / Fireflies

19 . Cocteau Twins / Heaven or Las Vegas (1990/4AD)

Absolutely no group anywhere sounds like Cocteau Twins. This album highlights the essence and best of what makes this Scottish trio so special. If I were hard-pressed, I would say this band is in my top three all-time simply because they are so unique, distinctive and downright otherworldly. Combining angelic and dreamy vocals by Liz Fraser with made-up, nonsensical lyrics -plus the highly processed, layered guitars of then-husband Robin Guthrie, Cocteau Twins were the darlings of the influential 4AD label. Early videos and all the album packaging revealed no hints as to their look or image, making them even more mysterious and magical. This album and the follow-up, Four Calendar Cafe, are their most accessible and straightforward, however their entire discography, Eps, and all other random singles (especially “Pearly-Dewdrops Drop”) are essential to any alternative or progressive music catalog.

Prime Cuts: Heaven or Las Vegas / Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires / Iceblink Luck

20. American Music Club / Everclear (1991/Alias Records)

Mark Eitzel is another one of those great, gifted songwriter’s you’ve never heard of. Spending his formative years in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, Eitzel was hailed throughout the 90′s as the best songwriters in the country. Either with this band or out on his own, he is truly one of the most gifted and lovable losers in music history. His sad, drunken stories of rejection, alienation, loss, and disaffection never sounded so beautiful as they did on the three albums from this period in his career. This disc, along with 1988′s California and AMC’s 1993 release Mercury are chock full of his very best songs, plus the restrained and highly complimentary playing of Vudi on guitar and the aching pedal steel glow of Bruce Kaphan. Seeing this band at Stache’s on High Street before it closed is a concert peak for me that will be hard to ever top.

Prime Cuts: Royal Cafe / Jesus’ Hands / Why Won’t You Stay / Sick of Food

21. Jellyfish / Bellybutton (1990/Virgin)

This is my definitive pure power pop, summer fun sing-along album. Seeing them live at The Patio in Columbus is also in my Top 10 best-ever shows. Frontman Andy Sturmer played a stand-up drum set (ala Shiela E.) and with his band was able to duplicate the tight California harmonies of this release live with flawless precision. Jellyfish sadly broke up after only 2 albums (1993′s also brilliant Spilt Milk) and must return to save the earth from music today that can never seem to be this clever, inspired and fun to listen to.

Prime Cuts: The King is Half Undressed / That is Why / Man I Used to Be / I Wanna Stay Home

22. Crowded House / Crowded House (1986/Capitol)

Finn brother Tim and Neil of Split Enz put New Zealand on the map in the 70′s and with their quirky look and fun videos on early MTV. After continuing on his own as a trio with Nick Seymour on bass and Paul Hester on drums, Neil Finn proved incapable of writing or singing a bad song on their self-titled debut. Working with producer Mitchell Froom proved to be a wise choice as he helped flesh out the more atmospheric tracks while preserving the simplicity of the great songs, catchy hooks, and always tight playing. Subsequent discs deliver more of the same, but this one goes with me on road trips everywhere.

Prime Cuts: Tombstone / Hole in the River / I Walk Away / Don’t Dream it’s Over

23. The Decemberists / Castaways and Cutouts (2002/Hush)

My iTunes play counter should have rolled over on this one since I first got it. The opening track “Here I Dreamt I was an Architect” was thankfully a recommended purchase on Amazon based on my previous purchases. Having never seen or heard of frontman Colin Meloy and his band from Portland, I was immediately hooked on first listen to this, their debut album. Cutouts is another heartbreakingly beautiful song cycle that you should purchase at once for its crafty and skilled songwriting, understated and gorgeous arrangements, plus the distinctive artwork of Meloy’s girlfriend, artist Carson Ellis.

Prime Cuts: Here I Dreamt I was an Architect / Leslie Ann Levine / July, July

24. Cannonball Adderley / Somethin’ Else (1958/Blue Note)

This is essential Blue Note Jazz; perfect for beginners or long-time Jazz enthusiasts. With a dream lineup featuring Miles Davis on trumpet and Art Blakey on drums, Adderley’s alto saxophone is in fine form as he emerges from a longtime supporting role to full-fledged band leader. Recent re-releases of this landmark mix of the hard bop and cool jazz styles also features an unreleased track called “Bangoon,” that should not be missed as this album always leaves me wanting more.

  Prime Cuts: Autumn Leaves/ Love for Sale

25. Rolling Stones / Tattoo You (1981/Virgin)

Although the Stones are essential in any Rock-n-Roll fan’s collection, nailing down one album from them is downright impossible. Originally, I was going to add 1971′s Sticky Fingers to this list for the Warhol cover and prime cuts like “Bitch” and “Can’t you Hear me Knocking.” Most would even argue that Exile on Main Street is the definitive Stones release, but I ultimately chose this hodgepodge collection of leftover songs for just that reason. Even the throwaway tracks from this group are better that most band’s best. The addition of a sax solo from jazz legend Sonny Rollins on closer “Waiting on a Friend” only serves to cement this choice to close out my list.

Prime Cuts: Slave / Worried About You / Waiting on a Friend

Honorable mentions you should sample that did not make the list:

26. Led Zeppelin / Houses of the Holy

27.  Rush/ Signals

28. Pretenders / Learning to Crawl

29. Roxy Music / Avalon

30. Depeche Mode / Black Celebration

 Up next, my post on Thanksgiving in Korea will be served piping hot followed by Essential Holiday Music to warm up your cold December nights.




November 28, 2011

Desert Island Discs (Pt. 1)

The original intention of this internet journal was to also include music I encountered as I traveled to help fulfill the “Rock” portion of the site name. After a brief education on Korean Pop (K-Pop) artists like Girls’ Generation and T-ara from some of my students this week, I have decided to for now stick with what I know. My last post, Flashback Album Review proved to be a lot of fun and not necessarily a proper album or artist review really, but instead a chance to inform, enlighten, and share some of the otherwise useless knowledge building up in me over the years on the subject I seem to know best.

As “Recycling” was the topic of much writing and discussion this week for my Middle School students, I decided to do my part and reuse, renew, and recycle an old list I had created for as a part of my Matty Recommends series. Although Korea is not a deserted desert island by any means (it is in fact simply a peninsula in East Asia), it did get me thinking again about the essential music I would always like to have with me for comfort, entertainment, and like Scritti Politti, with some relevance and staying power for years to come.

Lists like this and a recent Rolling Stone list of the 100 Best Guitarists ever, are not meant to be definitive and are generally for discussion, debate, and dissection instead. After putting this one together I realized that my favorite albums and favorite performers are actually two different lists. Most notably missing from this one are Marvin Gaye, Peter Gabriel, The Beatles, The Police, Pretenders, and Bob Marley. So, favorite artists or performers will perhaps need to be an altogether different list with different parameters. Instead, I compiled a list of albums essential in my collection for their variety, originality, and lasting influence. These are albums that not only take me back to the time I first heard and enjoyed them, but albums that also changed the  way I listen to, enjoy, and share my passion for music today. They are the audio equivalent of comfort food for me here away from home and the ones I would want with me on any island, peninsula, or archipelago. The albums are listed below in no particular order with the release date and record label noted in parentheses:

1. New Order / Low Life (1985/Qwest)

Hearing this album on the way to school back in the early 80′s changed what I thought I knew music could be. I have been a fan ever since of New Order’s intelligent synthesis of dance and electronica as a logical progression from their roots as Joy Division. It is always hard to pick a favorite from them, but this album is their most consistent and representative of all they have to offer sonically, lyrically and artistically. Do you homework and go back and listen to Joy Division, too, and you will see why both bands are so important and how well New Order carried on after the tragic loss of Ian Curtis.

Prime Cuts: Love Vigilantes / Sub-Culture / Face Up

2. The Smiths / The Queen is Dead (1986/Rough Trade)

The Smiths put it all together for this one which was another favorite for the short drive to and from school in a Renault Encore.  Johnny Marr’s jangling guitar is the perfect compliment to the most literate, ironic and dark set of lyrics around from Morrissey. This disc was more perfect and polished than its predecessors, but also lacked their raw and immediate feel. Things sadly fell apart after the follow-up album, Strangeways, Here We Come, so this release is the perfect introduction to The Smiths and the one that perhaps bests defines one the most influential and enduring British bands of the last 30 years.

Prime Cuts: I Know It’s Over / Cemetary Gates / Bigmouth Strikes Again

3. Steely Dan / Aja (1977/MCA)

So many stellar albums by Fagen and Becker in the 70′s but this one is timeless. Amazing songs produced and performed to perfection by some of the best session musicians and singers in the business. “Deacon Blues” may go down as my favorite song ever simply for the fact that when I first heard it at age 8, I knew that I was not only hooked on Steely Dan, but music forever. The Classic Albums video series has done an installment on the recording of this release which I also highly recommend, featuring interviews with drummers Rick Marotta and Bernard Purdie, plus guitarist Larry Carlton and backing vocalist Michael McDonald.

Prime Cuts: Home At Last / Aja / Deacon Blues

4. The Cure / The Head on the Door (1985/Fiction)

I never seem to get tired of this mid-80′s classic. This was a purchase through the Columbia Record and Tape Club -sight unseen. I remember a cool photo of the band in New Music Express and heard enough good things from a kid in study hall to know that I might like it. Start with this one and you’ll fall in love with Robert Smith and Company and then can grow with them in both directions, old and new. Their earlier work was terrific but much more primitive and then later discs like Disintegration, more layered and dark. However, this one has a little of everything that makes them unique, important, and fun.

Prime Cuts: In Between Days/ A Night Like This / 6 Different Ways

5. The Waterboys / This is the Sea (1985/Island)

I saw a video for “The Whole of the Moon” after school one day on a grainy black and white set in our kitchen and it has been stuck in my head ever since. The Waterboys combined the beauty and majesty of Van Morrison, the passion of U2, and the folk sensibilities that they would later explore even more on Fisherman’s Blues to create and album that I cannot recommend highly enough. Everyone should get to know the beauty and sweeping imagery of Mike Scott’s “Big Music”.

Prime Cuts: Spirit / Whole of the Moon / This is The Sea / The Pan Within

6. The Blue Nile / Hats (1989/Linn Records)

One of the most beautiful, personal, and romantic albums I’ve ever heard. Scotland’s Blue Nile created this follow up to their debut album, A Walk Across the Rooftops, with patience and care 5 years later. Originally formed to make music to test high-end audio equipment, frontman Paul Buchanan and his bandmates are still Scotland’s (and music’s) best kept secret. I still use this smooth and sophisticated disc to test my own gear and then just let the whole disc play through the night.

Prime Cuts: Downtown Lights / Let’s Go Out Tonight / Headlights on the Parade

7. David Sylvian / Secrets of the Beehive (1987/Virgin)

While fronting the band Japan and on his own, David Sylvian has made some of the most haunting and atmospheric music you have never heard. This album must be heard on whole, and front to back to experience a rich soundscape that gives the listener rewards with each listen. If you are patient and capable of spending time with a disc to uncover its many layers and titular secrets, this music is for you.

Prime Cuts: Orpheus / When Poets Dreamed of Angels

8. Prefab Sprout / Steve McQueen (1985/Kitchenware)

Called Two Wheels Good in the U.S. due to an objection by the late actor’s estate and the song “Faron Young” was shortened to “Faron” for similar reasons. Written and conceived by Paddy McAloon and brilliantly produced by Thomas Dolby, this may be the most perfect pop record ever recorded. I cannot overstate the simple beauty and elegant craftsmanship of the songs on this disc. A 2008 re-release features an entire 2nd disc of acoustic versions of these same great songs re-recorded by McAloon to make it all the more essential to any collection.

Prime Cuts: Appetite / Bonny / When Love Breaks Down

9. Deacon Blue / Raintown (1987/Columbia)

Another treasure from Scotland that never caught on in the States, Deacon Blue’s first is still their best. Having previously mentioned my favorite song, Deacon Blues, I was drawn to the name of this band in a record bin at Singin’ Dog Records in Athens, Ohio, and I have been a huge fan ever since. Working class, thoroughly Scottish, and just a fine collection of songs that tell individual stories and paint pictures through ballads, anthems and a surprising variety of genres with style and grace.

Prime Cuts: Loaded / Dignity /He Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now

10. Whiskeytown / Strangers Almanac (1997/Geffen)

A singer-songwriter masterpiece that Ryan Adams has been trying to top ever since. This album has it all and just gets better with each listen. This is definitely the work of an alt-counrty master who just happened to be working with a great band on the verge of breaking up at any minute. With Caitlin Cary on violin and backing vocals, guest vocals by Alejandro Escovedo on “Excuse Me” and the strong production of Jim Scott, who had previously worked on Tom Petty’s equally beautiful Wildflowers, Strangers Almanac is how I would like to sound if I ever formed a band. Check out the recent re-release with some outtakes and different versions to round out your alt-country collection.

Prime Cuts: Inn Town / Turn Around / 16 Days / Excuse Me While I break my Own Heart

11.  The Tragically Hip / Phantom Power (1998/Universal)

The Hip  - Kingston, Ontario’s favorite sons – have been turning out music this good for almost 30 years. Seeing them live is an almost religious experience for many fans, including me. Like many of the artists on this list, it is impossible to nail down their best or definitive album. And like fellow countrymen, Rush, they have changed, grown, and adapted over the course of their career while never really straying from their strengths; passionate, literate and deeply personal lyrics, flawless musicianship, and simple, straight ahead rock and roll. This album finds them in that fine form and features a tribute to late Material Issue frontman, Jim Ellison, plus a song about of all places, Chagrin Falls, Ohio.

Prime Cuts: Something On / Escape is at Hand for the Travelin’ Man / Bobcaygeon

12. The Sundays / Reading, Writing & Arithmetic (1990/Rough Trade)

This debut album from The Sundays is guaranteed to make you smile and feel happy all over. Formed in England at Bristol University in the late 80′s, The Sundays have only released 3 albums in their career and are technically still on a hiatus that has lasted over 15 years. Combining David Gavurin’s light and wistful guitar playing, similar to the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn or the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, with vocalist/wife Harriet Wheeler’s soaring, angelic voice, there is not a dud anywhere to be found on this release. Everyone is waiting semi-patiently for another disc from The Sundays, but until then – this one and the 2 follow-ups (Blind from 1992 and Static and Silence in 1997) are pure magic.

Prime Cuts: You’re Not the Only One I Know / Can’t Be Sure / Here’s Where the Story Ends

13. Elvis Costello / Get Happy!! (1980/F-Beat Records)

It is hard to pick a favorite from such a diverse and prolific catalog, but this one is chock full of what makes this Elvis king. Linked together by cuts of Elvis jamming in the studio, producer Nick Lowe crammed 20 short R& B influenced gems on to this retro packaged classic, complete with LP wear marks already on the front and back cover. In 1989, it was rated #11 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980′s and is a great way to get into Elvis.

Prime Cuts: Motel Matches / Secondary Modern / I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)

14.Vince Guaraldi Trio / A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969/Fantasy)

This album is perfect anytime and for any occasion; weddings, cocktail parties, holidays and romantic encounters. It is hard to imagine any of the Charlie Brown animated specials without the cool, spartan jazz playing of the late Vince Guaraldi and his trio. This music is simple and stylish while being highly expressive, endlessly cool and just plain fun. The music from the Peanuts holiday special is even more magical and will be found on my upcoming list of Essential Holiday Music.

Prime Cuts: Oh, Good Grief / Happiness Is / Linus and Lucy

15. XTC / Skylarking (1986/Caroline)

This amazing song-cycle is a sonic pop masterpiece that reveals something new with each listen. I pull this one out each summer and it still gives me chills. Working with producer Todd Rundgren, this trio from Swinton, England, have long been critical darlings and have still had very little commercial success. That, coupled with frontman Andy Partridge’s crippling stage fright, makes them the perfect album band, even though he and Rundgren clashed frequently in the studio over this release. Although not initially thrilled with the outcome, Partridge later described Skylarking as “a summer’s day baked into one cake”…so eat up!

Prime Cuts: That’s Really Super, Supergirl / Earn Enough for Us / Dear God


Stay tuned for more in Week 10 – Desert Island Discs(Pt. 2) - as I complete the list and include some honorable mentions. After that, my post on Thanksgiving in Korea will be served piping hot.


November 19, 2011

Flashback Album Reviews-Scritti Politti






I was out last weekend doing a little bit of “Urban Hiking” around Daejeon with my backpack, computer, and my trusty iPod Classic. I was on a mission to find a shopping area north of my dong (or neighborhood) called TechnoWorld. Failing to follow my travel tip from a few posts back, I left my apartment without exact turn-by-turn directions, making my hike in this case much longer and all the more interesting. I thought I really knew where this computer and electronics haven was located – somewhere near the Government Complex area – and near KBS tower by the river. As it turns out, there is a popular Korean proverb for this phenomenon- Aneun gildo muleogara (아는 길도 물어가라). – “Even if you know the way, ask one more time”.

An hour later I gave in and wandered in to a very friendly Hollys Coffee shop (there is apparently no apostrophe in the name) and found an nice, strong, free WiFi signal to get a better idea where I was headed. Urban hiking involves gearing up in my trusty Merrell hikers and good socks to combine exercise with a healthy dose of random exploration. This turns out to be a terrific way to learn more about my new home for the next year at ground zero, and a great way to get some fresh air and beautiful Autumn sunshine. Upon setting off, it should be no surprise that it is always an interesting challenge for me to choose an appropriate soundtrack for the trip. Weekday hikes tend to be shorter and more intense, so Techno, Electronica, and high-BPM selections usually do the trick. Crystal Method, Tycho, OceanLab, and BT have all been in heavy rotation of late, but this hike was on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. For some reason I dialed-in a mildly obscure favorite from the 80′s that turned out to be the “perfect” choice as I wandered from street to street in a neighborhood with a real university-town feel.

Scritti Politti is a band led by Welsh-born singer/songwriter Green Gartside. After relocating to London and releasing a few EPs on Rough Trade, Gartside (born Paul Julian Strohmeyer) met ex-Material drummer Fred Maher and songwriter/keyboardist David Gamson in New York during 1983. The name Scritti Politti is an homage to the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (although the correct spelling in Italian would be “Scritti Politici”). Gartside changed it to “Scritti Politti” as he thought it sounded more rock and roll, like “Tutti Frutti”. The band began recording tracks with Chic guitarist and producer  Nile Rogers at the helm, but soon realized that Rough Trade really didn’t have the budget to afford Rogers’ considerable production talents. After leaving Rough Trade amicably and scrapping the work already completed, Gartside and company signed with Virgin Records and began working in ernest on the tunes that would eventually become Cupid & Psyche 85. Produced by the band instead, with help from Atlantic Records legendary producer Arif Mardin on three songs, the album slowly began to come together. Released in June of that namesake year on Virgin in the U.K. and Warner Brothers in the U.S., the album blew me away as soon as I heard the first single, “Perfect Way”, on my car radio that summer. I drove immediately to the Record & Tape Outlet on Bethel Road to pick up the release – on cassette!

What struck me then about the first single was the crisp production quality and the fact that it really sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before. I was also amazed at how creative and distinct the artwork, graphics, and packaging were, too. I think that today it still stands as some of my very favorite album cover design work because it is as smooth, polished and unique as the music itself. Dating myself even further, I spent the entire summer and fall that year with the tape on an endless loop in my Sony Walkman. When the follow-up album, Provision, arrived in 1988, I was equally impressed with the art direction, songwriting and cool gloss of the production work. While Provision was not as successful or as consistent as its predecessor, it still contained all of the elements that made Cupid & Psyche 85 such a personal treasure to me.

The elements when laid out on paper don’t really make much sense and frankly, the music is really not for everyone. You may even get beat up in some places if you tried to drop some of these tunes on an unsuspecting crowd using a jukebox at your favorite local bar. It was so technologically advanced and precise at the time, it went on to inspire artists across multiple genres, perhaps even without them knowing it. The addition of Maher and Gamson proved to be key, as their use of sampling and sequencing throughout the album would lay the groundwork for much of the music heard throughout the rest of the 80′s and beyond. In the U.K., “Wood Beez”, “Absolute”, and “The Word Girl” became Top 20 hits and the domestic single I first heard, “Perfect Way”, reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The latter song also and had a video that received heavy airplay on the newly booming MTV, back when the “M” stood for “Music”.

The albums touched on pop, funk, rap, soul, blues, and reggae music, while also being alternative and progressive as well. Yet 25 years later, it all still sounds fresh, new, and innovative to those listeners open to the key idea that bands like Depeche Mode and OMD tapped into. Music made with computers, samplers and sequencers does not have to sound robotic and without heart. It can, in fact, sound completely organic, densely layered, and highly danceable to a wide variety of music fans. (Germany’s Kraftwerk is another key exception to this rule and will need their own separate glowing review later). Green Gartside, the only member of Scritti Politti to appear on all the band’s releases, has a sticky-sweet voice and delivery that is commonly described as that of a boy perpetually locked in his prepubescent teens. Gartside’s true secret weapon however, was his sophisticated use of clever word play, deconstruction, and subtle political and social commentary. Perhaps only Manchester’s Morrissey of The Smiths and Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon are more witty and literate in their songwriting prowess.

(Click on the images below to enlarge) 

What all this adds up to is a style, sound, look, and message like no other before or since. Not many albums and bands from the mid 80′s still sound so fresh and new, yet innovative and experimental today. Cupid & Psyche 85 and Provision are definitely worth a spin on your turntable, a rewind on your tape deck, or a download and sync to your favorite music device sometime soon. Any way you choose to hear it will be “perfect”.

Scritti Politti

Cupid & Psyche 85 (Virgin/Warner Bros.) – 1985

Provision (Warner Bros.) – 1988

For further reading on the band check out these links, sources, and fan resources: 


November 17, 2011

A Cast of Characters

While working on ideas for my next post, I realized that the subject matter was actually all around and smiling at me essentially wherever I go. Since I arrived here, I have been fascinated and constantly amused by the endless array of happy logos, mascots, corporate identities and trademark characters seemingly on everything, anything, and in just about every direction you look. Those who know me well are no doubt aware of my strong (and perhaps righteous) objections to giving human characteristics to animals, food or other inanimate objects. I love Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry as much as anyone, but there is nothing more ridiculous and bizarre as a restaurant logo with a jovial chicken or cow encouraging you to “come on in” and “chow down” on delicious chickens and cows! Please don’t delay or make your way immediately to eat a big, cheery and joyful fish like myself – served right here in this fine establishment and cooked to order. I just hope it is not a fish that I care about like my brother or girlfriend…

I guess it all started with the California Raisins singing and dancing to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” when I was younger. Jamming and carrying-on right down the street happily…right into my mouth. The Hoggy’s BBQ laughing pig logo back home in Columbus and the current ads featuring the talking M & Ms mascots are essentially an updated version of this same twisted, infuriating idea. However, here in Korea it seems to not only be fair game, but they have decided to take it to a whole new level. There are happy mascots everywhere and for anything you can imagine. Not only does every other restaurant have some sort of ecstatically happy grinning character inviting you to enter now, but dry cleaners, elevators, parks, and even cities and events all have some sort of mascot reminding you of just how much fun you can and should be having. It is as if it were nationally mandated that it is fun to be here and really whatever you are doing should make you feel at ease and put a huge smile on your face. Civic responsibility can be fun …and here’s “Sparky the Fire Hydrant” to tell you why.

Perhaps it is just their overall love for cute and cuddly characters from all over the world like “Hello Kitty,” but to me it seems to have deeper roots. I recently found out that the suicide rate in Korea is one of the highest in the world and 5 times greater than the previous generation. Suicide numbers have doubled from just a decade ago and it is hitting all levels of society. More than 40 Koreans per day are taking their own lives in an alarming trend that is also a highly taboo subject. The outbreak has not only affected overworked salarymen and forlorn lovers, but athletes, actors and actresses, and especially politicians. Former Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Samsung heiress Lee Yoon-hyung were two recent deaths that have tragically brought the crisis out into the public consciousness. Life here seems to place huge importance on image, honor, and the appearance of success and happiness. For some the pressure is simply too much, leaving doctors and officials struggling to stem the growing tide.

With such an alarming trend permeating every level of Korean society, it is perhaps no wonder there are reminders all around to take things a little more lightly and to just have fun. Why not have a good time here in the park with our friendly mascot leading the way? Why not be joyfully encouraged by Captian Snail-thing when riding the subway in Daejeon?  When I was in Seoul I took a moment to hang with Haechi, the imaginary yellow creature that has become the symbolic icon of the city. According to a recent story in the Korea Times, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon wants Haechi to become like the Big Apple of New York, Merloin in Singapore and Buddy Bear of Berlin. Seoul will be promoted as the “City of Haechi.” Haechi replaced the city’s old symbol of “WangBomi”, a tiger character which was apparently not well known due to the lack of promotion as well as its symbolic meanings. “Despite the scale and reputation of Seoul, we don’t have any representative symbol. We’ve selected Haechi as the symbol and we hope it will promote the city internationally,” he said. Perhaps WangBomi found mirthful work elsewhere?

I have to admit, I do smile and laugh to myself when I see these characters, so perhaps it is working on some level. I am having a blast here in Korea and this merry and joyful cast of characters seems to be right there with me leading the way.

(Click on each image below to enlarge)

The next time you see a happy mascot, take a moment to stop, smile, and be thankful. Future installments of the Rock Traveler will delve into another strange trend, the unabashed trademark and copyright infringement that seems to be equally as pervasive throughout the country. I wonder if there is a patent attorney somewhere in town with a “Bobo the Injunction Lion” logo slapped up over his offices? It is probably right next to the Audi Bar.



November 3, 2011


One of the main attractions about this year-long teaching assignment, was the idea of short trips from Daejeon, on the weekends and days off, to explore South Korea. Although technically I arrived in Seoul and spent the night there back in August, I would hardly say any exploration or sightseeing took place. Now that I am feeling more comfortable here and starting to get curious about the country, I decided to travel to the capital city to explore properly, armed with a bit of a “Wish List” itinerary. I also spent time practicing my pronunciation of the city’s name. Having said it like “soul” for years, as in “Heart and Soul,” I have been informed that there are in fact two syllables, with the accent on the first; like “SUH ool”.

Fortunately for me and for travelers throughout the country, Korea got high speed rail back in 2004. The KTX, largely based on the French rail system, offers regular service between Seoul in the Northwest down across the penninsula to Busan in the Southeast and can reach speeds over 300 km/h (190 MPH). The roughly 165 km trip from my apartment in Daejeon to Seoul Station was a very smooth 1-hour trip for about 32,000 KRW ($29.00 U.S.) in First Class and even cheaper for their Ecomomy seating, which was more than adequate and comfortable on the ride home. Having purchased my tickets online through Korail the night before was a big help, as Daejeon Station and the surrounding markets were busy on Saturday morning and the trains heading north were pretty full.

My wish list of things to see and do in Seoul was a combination of items culled from many sources. I began daydreaming about traveling to Seoul back in February and have poured over dozens of travel books and websites to come up with some can’t miss destinations, as well as some nice areas of interest I could take in without appearing like a complete novice and/or clumsy tourist. After reviewing my list with some teachers from work and Alice at the coffee shop, I decided to take in as much as I could on foot in a few areas and via Subway. I also decided to just relax, enjoy myself and to just see what might happen. Seoul proper has over 10 million inhabitants, with the surrounding metro area adding another 15 million more packed along the Han river. With the same clean and efficient (albeit much larger) subway system, it is easy and cheap to get around this densely populated city with the sameT-Money Metro card I use in Daejeon.

First on my list was a visit to Namdaemun Gate, a historic pagoda-style structure near Seoul Station that was built in the 14th Century. Unfortuantely, it was the victim of a bizarre arson attack recently and reconstruction will not be complete for another year. I then ventured through the historic Namdaemun 24-hour market just behind the gate. This market is Koreas oldest, dating back to 1414 and has just about everything you could want from produce to electronics. After some delicious pineapple from the best dressed fruit guy ever, I grabbed a short Subway ride to Gyeongbok Palace (Palace of Shining Happiness) and the adjacent Gwanghwamun Gate and Plaza. The palace dates back to King Taejong and King Sejong the Great and has also had run-ins with fire over its history. With a large statue of King Sejong (located over a museum dedicated to him) in the heart of the plaza, I took the opportunity to dress in traditional king’s clothing and actually became quite popular in the plaza. This was a vibrant and fun district in downtown Seoul with natives and tourists alike taking in the sights and fountains and enjoying a beautiful day. From there I hiked through the Myeongdong shopping area in search of the Frisbee Store, an authorized Apple reseller. This area was a loud, bustling district featuring stores from every brand name you can imagine and stores like “Sexy Cookie” and “Teenie Weenie” bolstered by lots of terrific street food vendors.

Next, I hiked over to the Cheonggyecheon stream area for more sightseeing. This area was restored recently amid much public debate as the old elevated highway was removed to bring back the original stream. It is now a popular area to check out day or night and adds a needed dose of nature and recreation to the modern architecture of downtown Seoul. There were street performers and live music along the stream, as well as great shops and restaurants in the area. Just about everywhere I went, I caught a glimpse of the great Namsun Park tower looming over the city. Having heard this was a great view of Seoul at sundown, I began to think it was time to make it that way. After a full day of hiking around the capital, I figured I would catch a bus or train to the mountain park and go up in the tower for a full panoramic view Namsan (South) Mountain and the confusingly named N Seoul Tower. After finding no public transportation heading that way and foolishly passing on a ride in the gondolas that go to the top of the 262 meter peak, the view at the end of an an hour long hike again proved to be well worth it. The wait to go to the observation decks at the top of the tower was yet another hour, so I relaxed at the base of the tower, made some new friends and took in all the amazing free views of Seoul in all directions before a smooth, peaceful and relaxing decent.

Seoul Panorama from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

Finally, I ended up in Myeongryun Dong looking for the Golden Pond, a guesthouse/hostel I had found recommended online. With specific turn-by-turn directions in hand I was saddened to find out on arrival that this unique backpackers haven was booked for the night. The owners were very friendly and helped me find lodging for around $20 just around the block at Inside Backpackers, a new guesthouse also in the area. Both cater exclusively to foreign travelers and offer community or dormitory-style accommodations or private rooms on the cheap. It is a great way to meet fellow travelers from around the world and their growing popularity suggests that a call or email in advance for reservations would be a good idea in the future. After a long hot shower and overdue video call to Abby, young Ben and visiting Aunt Terri in Connecticut, I made up my bunkbed and teased the sheets well into the morning hours. As I was exhausted, I’m sure my deep sleep snoring was of particular amusement (or irritation) to the German backpackers I was sharing the dorm-styled room with. Such is the night life at an international hostel.

The best part of the weekend trip turned out to be Insadong the following morning. This tight knit area of clothing stores, gift shops and art galleries reminded me a lot of the Short North District back home in Columbus. The streets are closed off to traffic on Sunday, aside from a regular reenactment of a parade-like visit from the King. The street food lining the roads instead proved to be delicious, too, as I discovered a Korean treat with Chinese origins, Hottoek. This hot, sweet fried pancake is filled with brown sugar and honey and is highly addicting (and very cheap). Satisfied that I had explored most of the items on my list and actually excited like a little kid to ride the fast train again, I made my way back to Seoul Station and boarded the KTX for home. Completely wiped from the previous days hiking, I detoured first to the Yeousong Hotel public spa for some healing treatment from the hot springs. The herbal bath, foot soak, pounding waterfalls, and Finish Sauna were just the ticket to revive my aching legs and feet. I will gladly visit the South Korean capital again, soon, only better prepared with reservations, a healthy appetite and yet anther wish list.
(Click on Each Photo below to Enlarge)