Cultureguru's Weblog

Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy


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Garbage election day

Monday, October 22 was the municipal election day in Ontario. Much as I rely on electronic calendars like anyone else, I still like to rock it old-school with the paper calendar,  on which I note items such when garbage day (that is, the biweekly date on which the region picks up trash along with the recycling and compost they pick up weekly) and municipal elections occur. Those fell on the same day this year, so the calendar read: Garbage Election day.

Only it wasn’t.

Nor was the historic US midterm election that took place on November 6. It wasn’t immediately apparent how historic it was, because the counting and recounting, it turns out, goes on long past that date—it just finished last week or so. And the Democrats got the largest margin of victory in history, thanks in large part to that election having had the largest turnout for a non-Presidential election in a century.

midterm-turnout.png

Way to go, Americans.

Our municipal elections, of course, were far less consequential, and featured the usual poor voter turnout: 34% for the City of Waterloo (though 48% in the uptown Waterloo ward, so kudos to them). I don’t see this ever changing much unless we bring political parties into municipal politics, allowing people to forget about the individuals running and just focus on party platforms. Which I don’t want, as the partisanship would be a terrible side effect that we get enough of at every other level of government.

Municipalities try to increase voter turnout. This year, several cities and townships in Waterloo Region—not including the City of Waterloo—offered electronic voting from home. Though this greatly increased the days on which you could vote, a lot of people left it til election day. And then the system crashed under the load. Forcing extensions to the voting time, in some cases by an extra day.

Hence we didn’t get all the results—including who the new Regional Chair would be—until a full day later. Whereas cities who used the old paper ballots had results counted in a few hours.

Also, it didn’t really increase voter turnout.

Apart from the potential computer snafus, the most compelling argument against electronic voting is that some dominant person in the household could do the voting for everyone else. I’m sure that would be a very small problem, but there’s no way to eliminate it. Whereas when you have to go vote in person, everybody gets a chance to mark their own x’s in private.

Obviously, compared to the US wait, one day longer wasn’t a big deal, but it was odd and I was curious about the results. If you are going to vote in these local elections semi-responsibly, you do have to do a fair amount of reading and research. And at least in these parts, there’s no polling to give you any idea who might win!

There were some pleasing and somewhat surprising results.

In the absence of parties, incumbents always have a big advantage, with many getting re-elected for years. But in Cambridge, long-time mayor Doug Craig lost out to Kathryn McGarry (who had her own name recognition due to having recently been the city’s MPP). To me, Doug Craig’s political philosophy could be summed up as Cambridge First, characterized as an unwillingness to compromise and a large propensity to complain. I was happy that the people of Cambridge were also getting tired of that approach. (And now Craig is planning to run for the federal Conservatives.)

And Michael Harris, who had been unfairly (in my opinion) cast out of provincial politics by Doug Ford shenanigans, won a seat on regional council. He always seemed one of the brighter lights in the Progressive Conservative party, so I was glad to see him get another chance to serve (in a less partisan environment).

In general (and as in the US), a lot more women got elected. The new regional chair is Karen Redman; Kitchener City Council and two of the townships achieved gender parity. On both Waterloo and Kitchener City Councils, women candidates managed to defeat incumbents.

regional-chair.png

She defeated these three guys

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She defeated this guy (the incumbent)

On the other hand, the two women I voted for (there are two seats) as Waterloo regional councilors both lost to men. But, at least the two men in question weren’t unqualified, boorish, populists, so one can take some comfort in that.

In my city ward, the incumbent chose not to run again. One candidate captured the support of most of my immediate neighbours by expressing dismay about the planned residential high-rise building nearby. I considered joining that bandwagon, but ultimately voted for Royce Bodaly, who seemed to have a really good grasp of the local issues and a real online presence, and who made an effort to visit every household in the ward during the campaign. I must have talked to him for 20 minutes myself! He ended up winning the seat… By a margin of 11 votes. (And yet, there was no recount.)

By the way, I am not critiquing how long the US results take—or that they have recounts. Those are elections on a much bigger scale, of course, and conducted very differently (in ways I won’t pretend to understand). Giving people various ways to vote and taking the time to count all the votes is good, even though that means you can’t trust the narrative on voting day. It’s not a blue wave! Unless, wait for it, wait for it, yes it is…

One of the challenges raised in the US midterms (in Maine) was over the use of ranked ballots, as the leader after the first round of ranked ballot voting lost his lead in the second. (The results were upheld.) Ranked ballots were also tried in one Ontario city this year: London. They had to do something like 14 rounds of counting, but in the end, the same person who was in the lead after the first round became mayor. People said that demonstrated that ranked ballots are pointless, but I’m not so sure. There were a lot of people running (hence the number of rounds of counting), and at least the winner now knows he’s not a polarizing figure, and that the majority who voted are basically OK with him being their mayor.

I think it might be worth trying elsewhere. (Cambridge and Kingston voted to do so in the next election, though the results aren’t binding in Cambridge.) When you do this local election research, you do generally end up with not only your #1 choice, but an idea of the other people you think would also be OK, and those you really don’t want elected under any circumstances. So marking your ballot accordingly wouldn’t really be so much more work.

Finally, municipally there was a period after the election where the previous council continued to sit and govern, til the new crew were oriented and took over about a month. There was no drama or scandal surrounding this that I know of—except perhaps Cambridge council voting themselves a raise without accepting the offsetting reduction in benefits. But they did that for selfish reasons that they wanted their cake and eat it too (many were re-elected), and not to hamstrung the newbies.

The US has a longer “lame duck” period during which some states, like Wisconsin, well:

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Details: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/in-stunning-power-grab-wisconsin-republicans-pass-bill-weakening-new-governor_us_5c06e268e4b0680a7ec9a289

Democracy, man. It’s fragile. But worth fighting for.


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Loloan-ing for a dining experience

More on this later, but we’re back from a vacation that was a success, particularly from a culinary perspective. From tiny Picton (population 5000) to romantic Québec City to Canada’s capital of Ottawa, we had no bad dinners and at least four outstanding ones.

Back at home, I’m feeling a little deprived on that front. Now, I can feel my friends from Northern Ontario rolling their eyes at that comment, and will admit that we do have places where you can get a well-prepared meal (like Solé, Janet Lynn’s Bistro, Gilt, Belmont Bistro, TWH Social, and so on. And if you’re willing to drop the big bucks, Langdon Hall.)

But ever since Verses closed, it’s just been a challenge finding that One Wonderful Place where the food is always amazing and everybody knows your name. Marisol came closest for a while, but then that closed. And The Berlin’s been closest of late, but guess what? They’re closing May 15, and reopening two weeks later under a new name and new menu: a tavern replacing the fine dining. Sigh.

(And again, Picton, population 5000, has two excellent restaurants. I guess KW just doesn’t get enough tourists?)

Anyway. This is all to explain why were so excited to hear about the new Loloan Lobby Bar restaurant. This is a second venture by the owner of Bhima’s Warung, another of Waterloo’s better restaurants. Since we heard about it, me and my friends have been anticipating it: When will it open? How will it be?

Earlier in April, after it had been open about a month, we went to find out.

Situated in the lobby of a condo building, it’s a lovely room, half of it devoted to bar space, the other to a sit-down restaurant. Service was attentive and eager to explain the menu, which featured some unusual ingredients. Food was served with a certain amount of ceremony:

It's Pouring Soup!

Pouring out the lobster bisque

Seafood Terrine

Seafood terrine with accompaniments

That was all very nice. And the food? Well, it was fine. Nothing really special, but fine. The only problem with that being, it was priced at a level that you’d expect something more than just fine. It should have been special.

I don’t think we’ve found The Place.

Altbough… Dinner did end on a high note. We ordered the petit fours assortment for dessert, and those were actually… Really amazing. Along with the delicious (decaf) French press coffee, served with timer to ensure I didn’t drink it too soon.

Dessert

All these little desserts were excellent

So, you can at least count on a lovely coffee and dessert experience here. It will have to do as I continue my quest.


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Lowest of the Low live at Maxwell’s

I went to see Lowest of the Low in concert again on January 20. That ties  them with The Who, Bob Geldof, U2, and Sting as the artists I’ve seen live most often: three times each.

If I keep going back to see Lowest of the Low, it’s partly that it’s so easy to do: All the shows I’ve seen have been at small-ish venues in my hometown. But it’s also that, 26 years after their first album’s release, the music still holds up.

Now, the challenge of finding someone to join me at a Lowest of the Low concert is that most people have never heard of them. (The challenge of finding someone to join me at a concert by a more famous artist is that most people won’t like them enough to want to pay the ticket prices. So concert company is always a challenge.) But, I didn’t give Jean much choice in the matter, and then he suggested I invite Tim and Jess, and they were willing to give it a go.

First we had a rather enjoyable dinner at Solé.  Lots of laughs during the conversation. (Turns out we could make a double-entendre out of anything, even snowshoes.) We also enjoyed the food.

Winterliscious

A rather arty photo by Jean of our Sole dinner

And we arrived in a good time at Maxwell’s, my first time at this relatively new venue. I knew there wasn’t assigned seating, but wasn’t aware there basically wouldn’t be any seating. Jean suggested we go right up to the front of the stage, so we could lean on the barriers. This led to Tim to singing a bit of Alanis’ “Front row” (not one of her more famous songs—but I know it).

And speaking of famous songs, Tim wondered if there would be any Lowest of the Low songs he’d recognize. I had to suggest that, perhaps, he would not know any. Jean, who lives with me, and therefore by osmosis knows many Lowest of the Low songs, was a bit incredulous. What about “Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes?” he said. Or “Rosy and Grey”?

But the thing is, although Lowest of the Low have the one semi-famous album, Shakespeare My Butt (routinely selected among the “Best Canadian albums of all time”), from which various songs were indeed played on some Canadian radio stations, no one particular song from that album became a big hit. So seems people either know all 17 songs from that album, or they know 0.

Now, we were all the 0 group for opening act Jane’s Party Band—but they weren’t bad at all. They are Toronto-based, and get some support from various members of Blue Rodeo. And their guitar player, who was standing right in front of us, was a real babe. So it wasn’t hard to pay attention.

Then around 9:20, Lowest of the Low started their set. By this time, the place looked really full! They apparently have not lost their ability to draw a crowd in KW.

Lowest_of_the_Low (16 of 48)

I’m in the front row
The front row with popcorn [beer, really]
I get to see you
See you, close up

I knew I’d have no hope of remembering the setlist, but thank you Internet, here it is. Mostly from Shakespeare My Butt, still, starting with “Kinda the Lonely One” and ending with “Rosy and Grey”, with seven others in between. Next most represented was the new album, Do the Right Now, with five songs. Then two each from album three Sordid Fiction and the under-rated (in my opinion) second album Hallucigenia (and that did not include “Black Monday”, much to the dismay of the dude requesting it from the opening chords).

Lowest_of_the_Low (35 of 48)

It was a fun show. Lead singer and songwriter Ron Hawkins is very charismatic and entertaining. And while I like all their music, it is true that the Shakespeare My Butt songs that still make up the bulk of the set have a certain poppy “bounce” to them that it somewhat lost in their later work. The lyrics take on some big issues, so it’s a little weird (when you think about it) to be happily singing and dancing to songs about homelessness, serial killers, mental illness, and the Spanish civil war. Best not to think about it!

“Hey Waterloo. What a perky bunch! Pace yourselves; we have a lot of songs to play.” — Ron Hawkins

New Low ... for the Low :)

The crowd were a perky bunch. When Ron decided to take a lay-down mid-song, the girls behind us requested front-row access to get photos. Which was fine. They also occasionally joined Jean and I in dancing. Also fine. But then another girl decided she was getting the front row, and staying there, and flaying her arms around, putting Jess at considerable risk until Tim made himself a human shield. Less fine.

[Like, if you’re that big a fan, get to the show earlier, man.]

Still, we overall had a good time. I liked this venue better than the last one I’d seen them in, The Starlight. It just seemed cleaner (at least at the start of the show) and was bigger, and better suited to loud, lively band. And since Lowest of the Low fans are few and far between in the world, it really is fun to have the rare occasion of being in a room full of people who also know all the words.

Set list:

  1. Kinda the Lonely One
  2. Powerlines
  3. Saint Spurious
  4. Salesmen, Cheats, and Liars
  5. So Long Bernie
  6. Infinite
  7. California Gothic
  8. For the Hand of Magdelena
  9. Concave
  10. Gerona Train
  11. Gossip Talkin’ Blues
  12. Life Imitates Art
  13. Darkhorse
  14. Henry Needs a New Pair of Shoes (snipping of Bankrobber by The Clash)
  15. Eternal Fatalist

Encore

  1. Subversives
  2. Confetti (The Lemonheads cover)
  3. Bleed a Little While Tonight (with a bit of Walk on the Wild Side by Lou Reed)
  4. Rosy and Grey

 


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Holidays

The Timmins evacuees arrived and departed in waves: first to get there were Jean and I, the evening of December 22; then my older sister, Joanne, followed shortly by my younger sister Michelle and her family, on December 24. Boxing Day was the first departure, by Jo; then Jean and I drove back on December 27; then Michelle’s family flew back the following day. Some small departure delays due to weather and a bit of a close call getting through the very crowded luggage drop-off at Pearson were the extent of the travel issues.

The influx of people made gave my Dad some stress in keeping us all fed and finding everyone a place to sleep, but it all worked out. It helps that Dad’s a very good cook, and yes, we all pitched in with grocery shopping, baking, food prepping, and cleaning up. Michelle and Jackson kindly volunteered to sleep on couches the two busiest nights, so no one had to check into a hotel.

Big Guy!

Even Santa was helping with the food

The 23rd we had a great visit with our Timmins friends (all two!) and Christmas Eve offered a succession of family Réveillons.

Only the Kid's can get this exited about Christmas

Lefebvre great-nieces excited for Santa

Santa!

Père Noël appreciates the adulation

The little gift exchange theme this year was “ornaments”. Jean’s made the biggest splash: He Etsy’d his own ornaments starting with old photos of his siblings, converted into luggage tags then ribbon’ed by hand. My contribution of ornaments made by Peruvian artisans landed well with Jean’s sister, who had just returned from a trip there. Jean ended up with these rather cool bird ones.

The facets' of Christmas!

New ornaments for our tree

Christmas morning at McNair’s we did the stealing game again. This was after much email discussion, during which we’d decided that each person would get an age-appropriate gift. Of course, the kids don’t really do their own shopping for this.

My brother, for whom there is time like the last minute, was copied on all emails but didn’t really dig into them until about Christmas Eve, when he was off to do his shopping. He checked with Michelle: “I have to buy gifts for my own kids?” he asked. “Really?”

Yes, really.

This didn’t really work out with Sarah-Simone, though, who—even after “her” present was available—simply couldn’t resist going to the pile of presents to try again after some adult  kindly “stole” the present she had. Even though, as she pointed out, most of the presents “sucked” for a 10-year-old.

Her package :)

Another gift not entirely suitable to its recipient…

Things eventually got sorted through final trades.

The Stealing Game :)

Or in my case, earlier, by stealing this fine wine collection from my brother

Jean ended up with the item I had contributed, a coffee infuser. It’s not fast, but it does make a nice smooth brew!

We also got out for some snow shoeing on this gorgeous winter day.

Winter Wonderland!

Jean and my brother-in-law went again on the less-pleasant Boxing Day, coming back with a harvest of chaga tea (which looks like dirt mounds, but you clean it and brew it and it’s apparently full of anti-oxidants. Pretty mild-tasting.)

Slaying the dragon and making off with the Chaga!

Slaying the dragon

The days between Christmas and New Year’s, Jean worked while I sat around and ate bonbons.

Not really. (Well, maybe a few bonbons.)

New Year’s Eve, we returned to The Berlin, one year after first going, for their four-course dinner. City buses are free that night, so we decided to travel that way. We did the whole route-planning thing on the transit website, and found the perfect trip. As long as all buses were exactly on time.

However, the first one was three minutes late, meaning we missed our transfer by about two minutes. And faced a 28-minute wait, 30 minutes before our reservation.

Fortunately, seeing our expression, the bus driver asked where we wanted to go, then helped us get there. Her route had another stop with a downtown connection. We had very little wait for that bus, and we were arrived at the restaurant just five minutes late, so all good.

New Year's Eve Menu

We sat in view of the kitchen for the first time, which was pretty interesting. (And not only because chef Jonathan Gushu is kind of a babe.)

The Kitchen Crew

It was busy night there, of course, but everything we had was just delicious, and the wine pairings were creative and uniformly excellent. Service was a bit scattered at times—running off with menus before actually finding out what we wanted each course, for example (“I can’t believe I did that”, he said)—but generally they have their timing down now. (We just have to accept it’s not as luxuriously paced as Verses used to be.)

Eying my Roe!

Amazing starter

As appetizers, I had the lobster ravioli and Jean the terrine.

Terrine - Pulled Pork and Foie Gras mmmmmmmmm!

To cleanse the palate, they gave us a pineapple sorbet in sparking wine.

Pinnaple Granite in some bubbly :)

Then it was duck all around, with a really interesting Italian wine, that not everyone got (we’re special 🙂 ).

Duck Breast and Ragout, with Honey Mushrooms and Heart Nuts served with a great pairing wine from the Canary Islands

And Jean concluded with the pear dessert, I the hazelnut nougatine (with a vermouth). We also received a touch more dessert for the road.

Hazelnut Nougatine!

We took a taxi home. 🙂


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Chefs in Bloom

Not for the first time, our waiter asked, “How is the food, ma’am?” while looking at my husband, which was confusing to both of us. He also inquired as to whether it was OK to remove plates we were clearly done with, given that they were entirely bereft of food. Offered us more bread only after we were pretty much done our entrees. Kept trying to refill our sparkling water glasses with regular water. Initially forgot to bring us the dessert course.

And somehow, we didn’t mind at all.

The waiter was good-natured, and was definitely trying to do a good job.

And the food—which was very good—was $20 for three courses. That’s $20 Canadian for the whole meal. Despite including items such as beef tenderloin, lamb, foie gras, and fancy French cheeses.

Foie Gras ... my achilles heel!

The controversial but delicious foie gras

When foie gras alone is typically over $20 at a “regular” restaurant, that kind of a deal can buy you a lot of good will.

Yes, last Wednesday, for the first time in some time, we returned to Bloom restaurant at Conestoga College, where students’ training for a possible career in the hospitality industry includes running this restaurant open to the public—under the watchful eye of people who know what they’re doing. This week’s theme was foods of Southern France.

They went all out in trying to give us a French restaurant-like experience, starting us with an amuse bouche of mushroom and cheese. As appetizers, while Jean enjoyed his foie gras, I had a very nice wild mushroom crepe.

Crepes to Start

Wild mushroom crepe

We then received a palate cleanser of pear and brandy sorbet. Couldn’t taste the brandy much, but it was nice and refreshing. And pretty.

Pear and Brandy Ice!

For mains, Jean won the coin toss to get the lamb three ways, which was really great. I very unusually opted to go with beef tenderloin, as it was accompanied by an interesting mix of Brussels sprouts and turnips. (Other possibilities on offer were salmon and a bean cassoulet.)

Rack of Lamb .... hm hm hm!

Lamb in the foreground, beef in the background

The managing chef made the rounds of tables as we were waiting on our dessert (which they scrambled to deliver once they realized it was missed). They had no decaf espresso, so they made us a latte of decaf roobois tea, which was pretty good.

Jean had wanted the apple dessert, but they were out, so he managed with the cheese plate. I had a deconstructed blueberry tart that was light and delicious.

Benedictine Blue!

Benedictine Blue among the offerings

Dining at Bloom is an experience worth having. The service hiccups are just part of the charm.


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 Some good news (non-political)

My very talented husband has won first place in the Recreation category of the Grand River photography contest. It even came with a cash prize! This was the winning photo:

He walks on water!

Refer to the Grand River Conservation authority’s website, Facebook, Twitter, or Flicker accounts in the coming days for more information.

Earlier in the year another photo of his was selected for inclusion in an advertisement about Waterloo Region that ran in Moneysense magazine. That would be this one:

Milling about the Park

Cork restaurant in Elora also asked to use one of his photos on their website, a few years ago.

(And sometimes he just finds his photos used on websites, by people who didn’t bother to ask.)

He’s won so many photo prizes from his canoe club that they had to change the rules to spread the wealth around more. I can’t include all those here, but I personally liked this one so much I added it to my collection of desktop photos on my work laptop, even though I wasn’t on this trip with him.


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Live and on the CBC

I did watch The Tragically Hip show on CBC television last night. It seemed the thing to do, and I was interested enough. I’m of the age where their music formed the soundtrack of my life, whether I realized it or not. I own only two Tragically Hip albums (Up to Here and Road Apples), yet I knew the chorus of almost every song they played last night.

For any non-Canadians who stumble on this: The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and songwriter Gord Downie has incurable brain cancer. He’s in remission, and the band has done a cross-country tour, ending in their hometown of Kingston last night. National broadcaster CBC interrupted their Olympic coverage to bring the concert to everyone, commercial-free.

There’s been a lot of great writing about this band, and this tour, in Maclean’s, the Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The New Yorker. I can’t compete. It’s not only that I’m not as good a music writer—though that is true—but also that, familiarity with choruses notwithstanding, I’m not a big enough fan. I could observe that the band were quite good, that they mostly pumped through the songs without a lot banter with the audience (hard to know what to say, one thinks), that Gord Downie restricted his talking to thank you’s and a comment on First Nations people up north, that they did three encores, that the show was about three hours long.

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Gord Downie from an earlier Toronto show as, in a very strange decision, the promoter would not allow official photographers at the Kingston show

But I couldn’t truly get into the emotion of it. I’m not sure why, in all these years, their songs have never really touched my soul. They’re catchy, they’re in a genre I like, the lyrics are smart and highly original.

Maybe it’s simply that, until last night, I had never seen this band live.


Friday night Jean and I went to our first-ever CD release party. No, not our CD (heavens!); Alysha Brilla’s. Alysha Brilla is a local artist with some (not Tragically Hip level) national fame.

She once lived in LA, and was signed to a big recording contract. But she couldn’t fit into that little commercial box they wanted to put her in.

“They wanted me to write songs about going to the club. And picking up guys.” she commented on Friday. “And I’m like, but I don’t go to clubs. I don’t pick up guys.”

So she scampered away from that contract, and set up as an independent artist in Canada. And the only reason most of us have heard of her is the CBC Radio often plays her songs. (See her public love letter to CBC Radio.)

Her music has always been a kind of fusion of jazz / world sounds with a touch of pop, but the latest album, Human, has more Indian influences than her past work. I listened to it on Google Music (and yes, heard a couple tracks on CBC Radio) before picking it up on Friday, but I wasn’t sure about it. It has a lot of spiritual themes (one song is actually called “Spiritual”), it’s all peace and love and changing the world (another song is literally called “Changing the World”).

It’s very granola, you know?

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Music, singer, songwriter, producer, artist Alysha Brilla

But after having seen her perform several tracks live, I’m kind of digging it. For one thing, she’s just such a charmer live—gets you in her corner right from the opening, and keeps you there. She was playing the Jazz Room, which has an unfortunate rectangular shape that is not ideal for live music, and was very full, and pretty hot, and during the 1.5 hour or so wait before she started, we actually pondered leaving.

But I’m glad we didn’t; the show was interactive and so fun. We got the stories behind some of the new songs: “Gender Rollz” was inspired by her time in LA, and the strict modes of behaviour expected of both men and women in the big music industry. “Ahimsa” (which means peace) came to her while on vacation in Kenya. The “Bigger Than That” singalong has great lyrics. And her cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” was awesome.(“Until Amy Winehouse came along”, she said, “I thought, ‘What hope is there for an olive-skinned weirdo like me?’”) It’s not on the album, but it is on YouTube.

And here’s some more:

Introducing Alysha Brilla (Soundcloud)