12/20/14

Cathedral In Flames (Garner James)



In a perfect world all the cathedrals would burn, would go down, and stay down. I'm agnostic, formerly Catholic, not a believer in Jesus or any "nameable" god. Organized religion is a bad thing in my opinion, as it is little more than an unnecessarily complicated way of oppressing minorities and women, and driving patriarchal power into the heads of children so they can grow up to be servants of invisible men. There is nothing inherently bad about believing in god, any god, or trying to live after divinity with charitable acts and goodwill toward others, but to foist any belief system on the masses is an act of willful paralysis and ignorance.

My central issue with religion, particularly Catholicism, is its insistence on an afterlife. Think for thirty seconds - just thirty measly seconds - and come up with one good reason to want to go to Heaven. What could possibly be so great about spending an eternity in some fluffy incorporeal dimension full of sexless angels and "love" without reason? I don't care how much beauty and love there is, eventually I'd get awfully bored. Eternity is a long time. My soul is human. I am and always will be the essence of an Earth-bound mammal, and as such need variable tactile stimuli, pleasure and pain, love and hate, peace and bloodshed, corporeal contact with others, the physical touch.

When I was four, one of my first intellectual thoughts was that I was inexplicably relieved to be alive in the 1980s, a time of advanced medicine and rapidly advancing technology. This relief was profound, and guided me into my teenage years as a confused Catholic with a truly religious mindset - I was a believer. It took cancer and two surgeries to bring me back around to my sense of childhood relief, where I realized that I could not possibly be relieved to be born into a specific time unless I had an innate sense of a different and more difficult time to compare it to. Why would a child be relieved to have electrical appliances and synthetic fabrics to keep him warm, unless some part of his psyche was distantly attuned to not having those things at all?

Ten years later, I began to sense that there was an answer to the question, if no god, then what? Religious people are often taken with all that supposedly comes after death, but rarely seem to think that there are mundane clues about this outcome to be found in life. Religious clues are all sophisticated, moral, based on what sort of character you are. It's boring to suppose that the answers to the eternal questions of what happens after death are found in basic patterns of biological life. Yet that's exactly what I believe holds these answers: life itself.

Let's look for a moment at what we do as living beings. We eat, breathe, socialize, reproduce, shit and piss, combat diseases, love each other, kill each other, sleep, dream, age, and die. The patterns? We eat for energy to tide us over until we're hungry, and then we eat again. An endless cycle. We breathe in and out, another endless cycle. We make friends, lose touch with them, sometimes fight with and hate them, sometimes fall in love with them, this goes on and on. We'd perish quickly if we didn't shit and piss on a regular basis, making room for new food by getting rid of the old. We get sick, get better, get sick again, get better again. But most importantly, we sleep. We wake up. We get tired, and sleep again. Wake up, feel energized, live another day, then back to sleep.

Poe once said, "Sleep, those little slices of death," referring to the physically helpless, intellectually inert state of sleep our bodies require. In sleep, all is dark. Our minds flicker through their garbage, excreting excess psychic stimuli via dreams and nightmares. Sometimes this activity is so minimal that there is literally no cognitive record of the hours at rest. We simply close our eyes, and open them again seven or eight hours later, ready to face another day. We take for granted that sleep is available to us, or that we would die without it. But is sleep truly living? Why must all signs of life cyclically reduce down to their barest minimum to ensure survival?

I believe that sleep is a biological representation of the natural order of life, death, birth, and rebirth. In life, we sleep between days. In death, we sleep between lives. Not all of us, mind you - as in life, our outcomes after death are varied, with some simply vanishing into nothingness (feeling, caring, and regretting nothing as a result), while others are reborn as animals. Yes, the little critters in your backyard are alive, after all, and are sub-intellectual entities that sustain the ecosystem with pre-programmed instinctive behaviors. Still others are reborn as new people, but here is where my belief sticks to the basics. Instead of being reborn as new people, body and soul, we are simply reborn as new bodies, with the same essence of whatever carried us through previous lives. I believe this because I believe our "souls" are not unique to ourselves, but are rather the same common essence, pressed into different genetic structures.

Doubters of my philosophy should consider that we are composed of dead matter. Every microgram of ourselves is part of a complex structure of inanimate objects that neither think, feel, or perish. Human cells are composed of individual elements, all of them dead units animated by electrical impulse (itself a dead drive). Roughly sixty percent of our bodies are water. Simple water, dead as dirt, non-intellectual H20. Tissues, brain matter, the chemicals that comprise our vital systems, all technically dead. Ever taste your own blood? It tastes like metal, its high iron and mineral content. Liquid Earth flows through our veins. Taken individually, our biological parts are lifeless. Together they make us who we are, but that doesn't change the fact that we are essentially comprised of lifeless carbons. The only thing that animates us are our energies, intense electrical currents that interact with various chemical systems to produce movement, and behavior. When we die, our electrical systems shut down, and our already dead parts disperse, melting into the rest of this carbon-based planet.

Cathedral in Flames is the final perfume in the small lineup of fragrances gifted to me by Jim Gehr of Garner James, and it is a luxurious experience, something any thinking person should wear at least once in their lifetime. It smells of brisk citrus, silvery incense, something akin to chili pepper, and rich spices, with cinnamon the main player. As with all of Gehr's work, Cathedral is perfectly balanced, its woody incense lending sturdiness to the shimmer and shine of fleeting fruit rind and piercing herbal notes. It's perfect on an autumn or winter day, feeling both warm and solid, yet never wearing too heavily. The "hot" incense accord is likely the reason for the fragrance's name, and it's one of the few oriental accords I've encountered that I can wear several days in a row without losing interest.

This is what Copper Skies by Kerosene should smell like. That fragrance conjures images of acid chemical cleaners and cloying, chaotic eugenol, and is in no way evocative of golden autumnal days, but Cathedral in Flames is smoldering Earth in a bottle, crisp, natural, complex, and elegant. It's also designed to smell both masculine and feminine, its subtle floral notes lifting the fresh incense in a way that anyone can enjoy. Go forth into 2015 with courage to accept all that it means to be human, and enjoy this olfactory ode to mankind without missing what you'll never have.



12/17/14

Knot (Bottega Veneta)




Some scents manage somehow to get corners of our souls to themselves, their characteristics immediately recognizable and capable of instantaneous associative memory, very often steeped in nostalgia. Driving home from work today I caught a few whiffs of burning kerosene, probably from a trailer park I was passing, and it was 1987 again. I'm in my parents' basement playing with toys near a protective wooden gate my father used to plop between me and his kerosene heater. He'd fire that thing up whenever he and mom watched TV (they have since converted the "den" portion of the basement into an apartment for my grandmother, which I never really cared for).

The smell of freshly-opened peanut butter sends me to the same time period, even a few years beyond, and I'm sitting in the backseat of my father's Chevelle, a monster of steel and Naugahyde with felted strips, held together by a substance that years of baking summer sunshine and musty garages had imbued with the inexplicable odor of peanuts, or at least that's how my five year-old nose interpreted it. To this day I love peanut butter, not because it's delicious, but because its smell transports me back to that ridiculously sexy junker, an obscenity on wheels that dad occasionally cleaned with a rag while smoking Newports.

Knot is a fine little fresh fragrance by Daniela Andrier of Luna Rossa and Candy fame, and a bit of a surprise. I knew Bottega Veneta had released it, I didn't expect to smell it anytime soon, but did anyway. Now that I'm a Neiman Marcus customer I'm allowed to cast eyes on their products, and even smell them. I guess it's more memory than perfume, because it takes me back to a woman's apartment, someone I loved dearly, and reconnects me fondly to the memory of her. She was very much a "girly girl" when it came to soaps and perfumes and lotions, a bit funny in light of her otherwise dark and sometimes downright anarchistic personality.

Nowadays it reminds me of a coworker who is the epitome of the phrase "girly girl," a young woman with enough estrogen for twenty of her kind, and whose sweat glands literally produce pink droplets. Laugh if you must, but she's my type, the sort of woman I gravitate to, the femme in knee-high boots who ceaselessly ponders her fingernails, and constantly paints them, pontificating on how delicious Chili's ranch dressing is and how awful boys are. She appeals to me because there is no mystery as to who she is. This type of woman is a heterosexual woman of the highest order, wearing her heart on her sleeve, emotive to the nth power, dedicated to the decimation of manhood while simultaneously loving men to their bones, and occasionally equating their beauty to food, which I admit is sometimes weird.

Knot smells like this woman, a fresh floral neroli and gardenia breeze on a light woody musk, a smell entirely without contrast or conflict, yet thoroughly pleasant, feminine without resorting to sugar-shock, of classic origins, and destined for a place among the best in years to come. It smells like someone I once knew, a brilliant woman who worked sixty hour weeks and drank even harder than me, but whose beauty was unmatched, and whose heart was once pressed against mine. Ladies and gentlemen, wear this perfume without trying to be anything other than happy, because even the hardest mercenary can find time for something as fresh and clean as this, Bottega Veneta's little twist on the contemporary mall-rat feminine.



12/9/14

Alpha Ionone At Little More Than 1% Concentration Responsible For Natural Sandalwood Effect In Grey Flannel



One of the many things I love about vintage Grey Flannel is its beautiful, smooth, natural-smelling sandalwood note, an effect one might surmise is attributable to high quality ingredients not found in today's iteration of the scent. I was fortunate enough to acquire from perfumer Jim Gehr a sample of Ionone Alpha at 1% concentration, something I requested, and I'm surprised to find after several days of scrutiny that this aroma chemical is in fact responsible for that velvety precious wood effect in the older vintage, although perhaps at a higher concentration.

What does this mean? Let's face it, ionones are not super expensive materials, and I doubt any perfumer would classify them as being exotic in any way. They're common to floral notes, with A and B ionones combining to make violet (B alone smells of roses). If it's a cheap material with a memorable aroma, why scale back on it in the newer version of Beene's perfume? In its pure form, Ionone Alpha smells of slightly spicy, violet-tinged sandalwood, albeit a rather soapy, creamy-smelling incarnation of it. Rich, buttery, and quite smooth, this element is obscured in Arden's Grey Flannel, which seems to contain a more textured and anisic cloud of galbanum.

Maybe the intense woodiness of Ionone Alpha was considered by the suits at EA to be dated. My suspicion with most reformulations of old masculines is that times change the scents more than executives, with new waves of young men favoring cleaner, sweeter concoctions than their fathers and grandfathers ever wore. Look at Green Irish Tweed and Cool Water - the former, while certainly classic and still sought after, smells rather loud in an eighties way, overly rich for today's blood, while the latter remains a throwback, but much crisper and cleaner. "Sheer" is the word I'd use to describe a key difference between them, because CW smells transparent compared to GIT.

Galbanum and spiced anise notes are lighter, and a touch closer to being "au courant" than dense, unremitting bergamot and violetty sandalwood, so unnecessary tweaks were made, and today's Grey Flannel is different and arguably more wearable for today's young men. Naturally most youngsters favor newer scents, but hey, they tried. The supposition that oakmoss is a factor here is something I've entertained in the past also, but to be honest the oakmoss concentration in this scent is better at a low dose for me, as I seem to be just a little sensitive to it. IFRA is on to something.

The moral of the story: ingredient quality in vintages is not necessarily better. Just the same at a higher concentration, or marginally different. No expensive sandalwood oils were used to make Jacqueline Cochran Grey Flannel the beauty it is. It was merely infused with a heady slog of Ionone Alpha, and of course the perfumer's talent in integrating other notes to yield a masterpiece of modern design.



12/7/14

What Is The Smell of Social Unrest?




"This is something essential to art: reception is never its goal. What counts for me is that my work provides material to reflect upon. Reflection is an activity."
- Thomas Hirschhorn


Michael Brown and Eric Garner are household names in 2014, with headlines about racial inequality and police brutality continuing to ripple across front pages of newspapers and the very fabric of American society, yet the fragrance world remains unmoved. Despite all the unrest and injustice, the protests, the riots, the commentaries on television by people like Bill O'Reilly, Joan Walsh, Jon Stewart, and even athletes like Derrick Rose, who recently wore an "I Can't Breathe" T-shirt to a game, headlines in the perfume community remain quietly mundane and oblivious. I do not say this as an indictment of perfumistas, because I do not think it is appropriate for our culture to attempt a politically-motivated olfactory response to racial injustice in American cities. This blog post is simply meant to further illustrate and reinforce my position that perfume is not art. To see and think about art is to reflect on ourselves, our pleasures and our pains, yet perfume does not initiate reflections on pain and suffering.

If perfume were art, we would not be reading blog posts like Persolaise's December 3rd interview with Kelly Kovack of Odin, in which the most socially aware question asked of her was, "Are you worried about the opportunistic proliferation of niche?" I actually enjoyed this interview, because Ms. Kovack reinforced one of my staunchest opinions regarding the importance of fragrance blogs to the perfume industry when she said, "Online press has been huge. I think that blogs are hugely important for us." Of course they are! Without online press for perfumes, there is no press for perfumes. Our words as bloggers are what motivate and disenfranchise the industry, in equal measure, often making or breaking fragrances (so be careful what you say). But Persolaise's interview is understandably tone deaf about what's actually taking place in New York, despite being titled, "Something Very New York." Right now, something "Very New York" would have excerpts of people's grief over the Eric Garner killing smattered across its page. We would be reading about anger, confusion, resentment, and not Ms. Kelly and Odin.

I could list a few other blog headlines, but you get the drift - Persolaise is not alone in prioritizing perfume stories over political events. He and others who type blithely on about new niche brands are not wrong in doing so. They are merely examples of how far removed from artistic discourse perfume writers actually are. It would be tedious of me to expound on how art contributes to our definitions of time periods, with movements like "Socialist Realism," and "Dadaism" being obvious, well known examples, but one example of art reflecting pain is Thomas Hirschhorn's famous 2002 installation "Non-Lieux," or "Non Site." In this work, we see the disintegration of American ideals in a semi-abstract representation of Ground Zero in NYC, with social and political progress heaped in the rubble, symbols of religious and secular worlds reaching for our attention, and for dominance in the newly-destroyed landscape. Flags labeled "Democracy," pornographic images of women, and an electric train celebrate the contradiction of America's patriotism and its need to "connect" imagery to its physically and morally ruined landscapes. The nation's pain in the months following that colossal tragedy cannot be channeled in its entirety through a work like Mr. Hirschhorn's, but facets of it resonate years after the healing has begun.

Certainly perfume can be viewed retroactively as stylistic prose on the cultural mood of an era, and Guerlain's L'Heure Bleue and Mitsouko are prime examples. The first perfume was released two years before the start of World War I, and stands as a delectable pre-war ode to Impressionism's last gasp before the rise of the great twentieth century industrial war complex. The second was issued at the end of the war, a peach-infused chypre that smelled wistful and vain in ways only the French can conjure. I suppose the argument can be made that this is as close to political discourse as perfume can come, to trace changes in the human condition at historical divides, but there is hardly enough content in a smell to decipher what has changed, and why. There is only a vague thematic shift, something that either retains clarity through continuity, or loses it when other products enter the fray. How much iconic truth can be gleaned from two perfumes released by the same house?

And how does perfume ever expressively resonate on a political level? This is a question for people like Chandler Burr, who continue to propagate the relatively unchallenged notion that perfume is fine art. All forms of fine art can be modulated to fit a political narrative, be it painting, sculpture, performance art, Earth art, etc. Take for example an early "body work" by artist Ana Mendieta, in which she responded to a rape on her college campus by inviting people to her apartment, where they found her stripped, tied, and smeared in blood. Or consider Ilya Kabakov's The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, an absurdist emblem of Soviet inefficiency, and part of his "Ten Characters" series, showing how nationalistic aspirations like winning the "space race" can go awry. Not only are talking points addressed, but emotionally-charged intellectual musings, humor, and naked despair are all tangible elements in the visual languages spoken by these artists.

Design, on the other hand, simply functions, and the mathematics of aerodynamics, architectural geometry, chemistry, and three-point perspective are the main schematics for success. Political and social discourse are at most marginally involved. Perfume is design, a very functional, superficial form of design, and as such serves the purpose of helping us smell like something other than our natural selves. Expression is limited to fragrance choice, a fashion statement by proxy.

In 2014, a year where social, political, and financial inequality are at an all-time high, we face some inconvenient truths: the rich are responsible for a negative, damaging dichotomy; the poor will not escape their terrible class bracket; the only thing that creates wealth is wealth itself; those wealthy enough to afford the entire Creed range can not possibly understand the family that relies on food stamps and charities to put meals on their table. Chandler Burr fashions himself as being some kind of "zeitgeist shaper" who invents coded terminologies and maps out cultural territories of thought, but look at who he is - a wealthy guy who hobnobs with wealthy people. He probably flies first class, eats fifty dollar meals, wears $150 shirts, lives on an 1800 sq ft floorplan in the city. He's a "New Yorker," as in he represents the One Percent.

Is it any surprise that he believes perfume is fine art? He considers all art "artificial" by definition. If a great swath of art deals with pain, suffering, disenfranchisement, moral failure, the irony of poverty in developed nations, then labeling it "artifice" is very convenient to his upper-crust worldview, isn't it? Maybe that sort of art does not speak to him, so he turns to perfume, products of luxury and sometimes exploitative greed, and calls it art also. To posit that the beauty of a great perfume is fine art is a clever way to bypass the social realities being dissected by real fine artists, and ride into culture-ville on the Ivory Tower Express. Most people won't know what that $600 Guerlain or Dior smells like, because they can't even afford a sample of it, but Burr calls it art. In fairness, he also considers $30 perfumes like The Dreamer to be art, but even that price-point is a luxury that the super poor, who number in the millions, can never afford.

A common misconception among middle class people is that the wealthy pay a lot for luxuries because they can afford them. In truth, the wealthy often pay nothing at all for ultra-expensive things. These things are given to them, because they're part of "the club," that tiny class of people who consider it an insult, bordering on obscene to be asked for money in exchange for a service. Burr's power to announce that perfume is fine art, and then have a New York art museum grant him a show to prove it, is an incredible luxury. Did he pay for it? If so, how?

Does anyone really subscribe to his school of thought anyway? It doesn't matter. What disturbs me is that people in Burr's class have become so detached from those in every other class that they aren't even asked these kinds of questions anymore. Historically, fine art represents the sacred and profane, the basest human needs, most sophisticated desires, cross-cultural tribulations, elevating human devastation with the power of raw beauty via refined intellect. We are facing a replay of the 1960s with poor black Americans being murdered in broad daylight by well-off white policemen, and it is incumbent on fine artists to filter this aspect of their lives and exposit meaningful, self-expressive works. Their creations are important in shaping our nation's dialogue on race, prejudice, and social injustice.

If perfume is fine art, then perfumers should create fragrances that express the rage, the oppression, the injustices of racially-motivated slayings. Perfumers will not do this, of course, because they can't bottle such things, and people can't wear them. You can't smell like social unrest, because no one wants to smell like tear gas.

If you believe that perfume is fine art, I challenge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself how you came to that conclusion - how you, personally, came to it. In what way are perfumers currently contributing to the social upheaval going on in the world, in America, in 2014? How will these contributions shape 2015? I'm willing to bet that you can't name a single perfume that deals with murder, or rape, or poverty. Perfume is a luxury, an unnecessary appurtenance to our daily lives, and only the most comfortable among us consider it to be anything else.






12/1/14

Victory League (Adidas)



In sports, victory is usually attainable by putting the other side on the defensive and watching them squirm while you play through. Adidas appears to enjoy releasing cheaper variants of designer successes in the hopes that their competition will come from frags in higher price brackets. In this case the target is Allure Homme, a variant of Cool Water that has itself spawned numerous imitators, many from its own brand. Allure's market share is generally unshakeable; the scent has secured the admiration of millions of consumers in the last sixteen years, and woe be it to those who think a lowly twelve dollar cologne could distract from its beauty.

I think Adidas punted well in releasing Victory League, because it strikes me as a competent shot at Chanel's lofty goal post. While not exactly the same, and clearly a different structure in terms of specific notes used, VL aims to generate a lighter, sweeter version of Allure's profile, using distinct vanilla and spiced fruit notes. Some reviewers have said it resembles Boss Bottled, and that may be, but I get a definite Allure vibe when I smell the cinnamon-dusted citrus and apple notes in VL, and the drydown brings a pleasantly smooth and warm vanillic amber with hints of wood, mainly cedar. The requisite white musk plays against the amber, lending transparency and freshness to an otherwise sturdy gourmandish fougère. I find the lavender in this is light and transient, with its own soapy sweetness, rather similar in effect to stuff like Skin Bracer and Cotton Club. I'd classify this frag as being "Allure Lite."

I doubt VL was ever popular enough to make the suits at Chanel worry, or even take notice, but at least the boys in Adidas' back room tried. One might argue that it is a touch too sweet, and at times it does feel that way, perhaps due to the preponderance of vanilla, but as in Sport Field, the material quality seems decent enough to give VL some texture and prevent it from becoming "blobby." I find it's no sweeter than Avon's Mesmerize for Men, another underrated scent with edible notes. Victory League's longevity clocks in at eight hours, making it a viable option for an office scent. Why not drop ten dollars or so on this the next time you see it? At the very least it's something fun to wear while shopping with the family on the weekend.



11/27/14

Animale Animale For Men, and The Helpfulness and Helplessness Of Reviews




I have contacted Jeffrey Dame about this fragrance, as he was in charge of its marketing and commercial production in the early nineties prior to and during its international release. I have some questions for him about its conception in the backroom meetings, as Animale Animale for Men is markedly similar to both the feminine and masculine versions of Angel by Thierry Mugler. My interest stems from the fact that it does mildly mimic Angel, yet lends the boozy patchouli gourmand a distinctly masculine aura, thanks to judicious florals and an almost garrulous pineapple and honey top note. Put simply, my perception of AAfM is that it's a sort of "fougeriental," with a bold lavender note, and a woody tonka bean effect framing a vanillic sandalwood reconstruction in its heart and base. I understand that Dame wanted to call this fragrance "Animalaso," but was apparently forced to give up that idea. Why, exactly? Was it a play on words, giving "Animal" an "e" at the end to suggest the scent is primarily for males? That is the name of the fashion house, though, so I really don't know what the thinking was. It would be fun to find out more.

If you're wondering how this perfume smells, the best I can do is convey the brief description above, and add that it's essentially a fresher, brighter, and woodier reinterpretation of Angel (feminine). This is not in any way a clone of A*Men, for the simple reason that it was released prior to Mugler's infamous scent. One can speculate about whether or not Mugler cloned the clone in creating A*Men a full two years after AAfM hit stores, but without a direct line to the man himself, it's tough to say. I smell a rather loose but nonetheless lucid resemblance to Yohji Homme in AAfM as well, so perhaps that fragrance, with its interesting mixture of toffee-flavored coffee and anisic lavender, was also an inspiration. AAfM is a remarkably smooth masculine for its price (roughly $20 for 100 ml), and an entirely coherent olfactory experience that is a pleasure to own and wear. I also have A*Men and a generous decant of B*Men, and find the former more interesting, and the latter less compelling than AAfM. A*Men's mintier, more chocolatey structure contrasts beautifully against its burnt rubber note, making its drydown a bit more memorable than Animale's, but then again I love the sandalwood effect in the cheaper scent, so I guess it's nearly a draw between the two. B*Men is very nice also, but not nearly as memorable as the others.

AAfM is perhaps more notable than A*Men in that it seems to compel writers to over-analyze what they're smelling. Well, okay, maybe "over-analyze" is a bit unfair. Let's say that people "overthink" things when discussing it. I have yet to read a review that wasn't at least a little informative about the writer's perspective on this one, but I realized that AAfM has provided an unusual bonus, a special service to anyone aspiring to be a good fragrance reviewer: it generates both very useful, and completely useless opinions. When viewed together, these impressions create a roadmap to success in writing expressively and coherently. The following are three examples of useful, informative reviews that can serve as templates for budding writers (each review is edited for length):
"I found that the notes listed on Basenotes differ from the ones listed here on Fragrantica. What I picked up in the top seems like a combination of honey and pineapple to me. Underneath I find some chocolate, though it isn't mentioned in the notes here in Fragrantica. Also some tabacco. And something that reminds me of amber, though I am not sure that is really in there. Could be the mixture of notes? It reminds me a bit of Ralph Lauren's Polo Explorer, which also has amber in it. Vanilla is lingering softly in the background."

"A good cologne that is made all the better by it's comparatively low price. This is not a poor man's version of A*Men, it's another option that is comparable which happens to carry a more affordable price tag. It is a safe buy if you enjoy a sweet, chocolate, powdery cologne that is a very nice middle of the road scent between A*Men/Pure Malt/Pure Havane. If you aren't sure which of those you prefer or on a tight budget, I highly recommend getting this."

"I love this stuff. It is comforting, sweet but not too sweet, modest but just complex enough to hold your attention, and dirt cheap. Even the goofy bottle, with its cheap plastic clip-on front, has come to please me from its association with such a nice fragrance. I got it almost on a whim and it has come to win my affections over a number of expensive sweet gourmands, including A*men. If you gave it a classy bottle and called it "Vanille Orientale" there would probably be some market for it at 10 times the price. (Though this may say more about the wildly inflated price of niche perfumes than it says about Animale Animale.)"

The first review is very succinct in describing the notes being perceived by its writer, and this is merely an opinion of an opinion, but I feel that describing notes goes a long way in helping people to form a mental "scent profile," or a general idea of how something smells, without actually smelling it. It's true, you have to be knowledgeable enough to actually know what specific materials smell like to put this to use, but in AAfM's case, the notes are relatively ordinary and shouldn't pose any major challenges to newcomers. Most of us have a good idea of what pineapple, tobacco, and chocolate smell like. For slightly more experienced readers, the mention of amber helps to cement the general impression of the scent. This review also compares the scent to Polo Explorer, which at least gives experienced readers a new vantage point from which to consider AAfM. It's good stuff. I read reviews to get a sense of what something smells like, and this one answers more questions than it raises.

The second reviewer parries comparisons with more deftness, stating what AAfM does and does not smell like to him, and contextualizing the comparisons by mentioning price. Saying, "This is not a poor man's version of A*Men, it's another option that is comparable," answers pretty much any question a newcomer might have about whether or not AAfM smells like a "cheaper" version of A*Men. In one sentence the writer made clear that these two scents are comparable at different price-points, with equal (or near-equal) quality. Fears about the "safeness" of plunging in blind on AAfM are cleverly assuaged by adding that fans of a rather expansive category - sweet, chocolate, and powdery - should like this.

The third review does something that I always love to read - it diminishes any doubt regarding AAfM's quality, with one simple trick, the "label-swap," as I call it. It's something I've read now and again in reviews of cheap fragrances. Grey Flannel is a good example. A writer on PierredePierre once said something to the effect that certain cheapies are just as good as expensive niche frags, yet unjustly suffer in reputation by having low prices, and Grey Flannel was cited as one that would garner just as many positive compliments as something twenty times as expensive. This sort of idea isn't ironclad (I've occasionally seen guys on a certain wetshaver site compare some rather stuffy "man's man" cheapies to niche scents, which doesn't always wash), but in this review the writer states that he got AAfM "almost on a whim," yet was moved enough to consider it worth just as much as something in a much more expensive league. Reading this tells me that AAfM is, at the very least, a memorable fragrance, something that makes a strong positive impression.

Despite their best intentions, there are also reviewers who neuter their effectiveness by doing hackneyed work. Here are three examples:
"Don't think twice about buying it. It's around $20 a bottle and is great juice. One of if not the best bargain fragrance you can buy."

"It took me 2 long months to find a way to like this fragrance. Initially, I was turned way off by the oak moss and tobacco in this fragrance - it smelled very dated. But after awhile (maybe the notes finally settled after the treatment it received during shipment) I kinda like this fragrance with no more than 2 sprays (1 neck and 1 chest). You cannot overspray this one and you cannot spray the same area twice, this gets too cloying and too sweet - a real headache inducer. With two sprays, I get the honey, pineapple, vanilla, 'chocolate', and oak moss mixing to form a real relaxing gourmand fragrance, meant to be worn on a cold night with a thick sweater."

"I've changed my mind about this one to some degree. I now view it as an irritating 'blob' type of fragrance. Notes are not separated enough and so you get this nasty lavender/patchouli/gourmand that seems to pierce the nose. According to fragrantica.com, the notes are: '...nutmeg, honey, pineapple, lime, sandalwood, amber, patchouli, lavender, musk, galbanum, vanilla, jasmine, ylang-ylang, lily-of-the-valley, cedar, tobacco, rose and lemon.' I do not even get a hint of several of these. My guess is that this is made with cheaper ingredients than it should have been. Even Enrico Sebastiano Fine Cologne, which is selling now very cheaply, it considerably better that this one (ESFC is a lavender/patchouli/gourmand with a strong spice note). In short, I see AAfM as a real 'drug store' kind of fragrance, lacking seriously in basic components necessary for something worth considering by an aficionado . . . My old review: This is solid, and I'd say Foetidus' review is right on the money. However, AA is not only linear, but it stays at the same level of intensity for hours, which some may like and some may not. I like A*Men better, because it is more intense at the start, then in about two hours you get nice, gentle wafts (assuming you only use one or two sprays, as I do). This is important for me because the chocolate smell can become irritating after a while if it's too strong. It may be that AA gets a bit weaker too with the chocolate after a while, but because you don't get the A*Men blast at the beginning, you don't notice the drop off in strength as much as you do with A*Men. Still, AA can usually be found at about half the price (if not better), so if you don't mind this difference that I described (or prefer the smoother ride of AA), I'd say go for AA instead."

The first review is short and enthusiastic, but it just doesn't say anything. The writer feels it's one of the "best bargain fragrances you can buy," but no comparisons are made, and there's no clear reason for this opinion, other than that it's just "great juice," whatever that means. If I'm looking for information, I'm not going to find it here. Lots of "why" questions are raised. Why is it great? Why is it a "bargain?" Why shouldn't I think twice about buying a scent that I've never smelled before? Ultimately this review is not a review at all, and is therefore not helpful to me.

The second review is what I call the "Hedge." People sometimes (or often) start out by saying something like, "I didn't like this before, but now I kind of like it, although . . . " You get the idea. This is thin ice, and by the end of the thought, the logic has inevitably fallen through. This writer starts by saying, "It took 2 long months to find a way to like this fragrance - it smelled very dated." This guy had to "find a way" to like it? If you have to find a way to like something, then you're obviously not comfortable thinking for yourself. Why shouldn't your dislike be worth talking about? Why go on an unnecessary quest to do what you think other people want you to do, and modify your opinion to please them? This reviewer follows his initial admission, where he says he found the fragrance dated, with, "But after a while, I kind of like this fragrance." So you don't like something. You don't like it because it's dated. You give it additional time, dating it further. And now you like it. Right.

This review is troublesome because it then devolves into an "application manual." We've all read them before, those pesky reviews that attempt to dictate the exact terms on which a fragrance is acceptable, by describing exactly how many sprays you should use. "You cannot overspray this one and you cannot spray the same area twice . . ." To this I say, really? I used ten sprays this morning, with five of them layered on top of themselves. See what I did there? Funny. Got a problem with using more than one or two sprays of a perfume - any perfume? Get the fuck out of the fragrance world. It's like saying you want to be a restaurant reviewer, but you'll only try one bite of everything on the menu. Your opinion is based on unnecessarily attenuated experience, and is therefore pointless and useless to me and everyone else.

The last review is relatively rare to encounter, but when I do happen across it, it makes my head spin faster than Linda Blair's. The "I Changed My Mind Review" is possibly the worst kind of amateur writing on the internet, because it literally gives the reader two completely different reviews, all bundled into one, and it's up to you to decide which of them you should go by. Remember, you probably haven't smelled the fragrance in question. What good does it do you to read that someone thought highly of a fragrance at one point in time, and then completely fell out of love later on? Why not just clip out the old review and qualify your new impression with an admission that you (a) rushed the first review after the briefest of samplings, or (b) you now have an ulterior motive for supposedly changing your mind, which means your words should be avoided by readers at all costs?

In this case, the reviewer initially claimed that "This is solid . . . I like A*Men better, but it is more intense at the start, then in about two hours you get nice, gentle wafts (assuming you only use one or two sprays, as I do). This is important for me because the chocolate smell can become irritating after a while if it's too strong. It may be that AA gets a bit weaker too with the chocolate after a while, but because you don't get the A*Men blast at the beginning, you don't notice the drop off in strength as much as you do with A*Men. Still, AA can usually be found at about half the price (if not better), so if you don't mind this difference that I described (or prefer the smoother ride of AA), I'd say go for AA instead." So A*Men is initially more intense than AAfM. Then it gets softer with "gentle wafts." That same decrease in strength is harder to detect in Animale, because it's weaker to begin with. Animale is cheaper, but still a "smoother ride," so it is recommended. Being softer, smoother, and cheaper is a win in this comparison.

These claims are then followed up by entirely contradictory opinions. The "new" review turns all of the previous logic on its head and fails to make any specific comparisons, yet somehow expects the reader to understand. "I've changed my mind about this one, to some degree. I now view it as an irritating 'blob' type of fragrance. Notes are not separated enough, and so you get this nasty lavender/patchouli/gourmand that seems to pierce the nose." So what happened to the comparison to the "more intense" A*Men? Interesting how AA went from being a "smoother ride" to being a "blob." Reading this, I should now believe that Animale is TOO blended (usually the hallmark of "smooth" fragrances), yet also "nose piercing" in its strength. Something smells here, and it ain't the perfume being described.

This suspicion is reinforced as I read further. I find that despite the author's prior contention that AAfM's low price is a reason to choose it over the pricier A*Men, now he feels that "this is made with cheaper ingredients than it should have been . . . I see AAfM as a real 'drug store' kind of fragrance, lacking seriously in basic components necessary for something worth considering by an aficionado." These "basic components" are so important to mention that they are not elaborated upon at all by the reviewer. Taken together and translated, these two divergent reviews say, "AAfM is a good buy because it's a lighter, smoother scent that is similar to but cheaper than A*Men, but I dislike it because it's an irritating, nose-piercing drugstore-quality blob that 'aficionados' shouldn't bother with."

With the "I Changed My Mind Review," it's helpful to figure out who the writer is - it can establish an ulterior motive for the supposed change of heart. In this case, it doesn't take long to discover that the author is someone who does not like Jeffrey Dame, and seems a bit threatened by him. This is made clear when you read the reviewer's blog, in which he spends plenty of time attempting to refute Mr. Dame's experience by comparing it to his own. Upon discovering that Jeffrey Dame had an influential hand in the creation of AAfM (Dame posted a comment on Fragrantica), the reviewer's opinion changed quite suddenly, and AAfM went from being desirable to being forgettable crap. Of course, the writer overplayed his hand by a long shot, and I doubt anyone could read the review(s) without scratching their head in confusion. All of it taken together suggests that the reviewer is not only incompetent as a writer, but not a credible voice even if the language in his reviews made sense.

Bear in mind that when it comes to the praise and criticism that I've heaped on these examples, I can take credit for some of the good points, and am also guilty of making the same mistakes. I'm not writing this as an attempt to elevate myself into the stratosphere of "wise sage" who can dictate what is and is not acceptable. I'm just observing reviews that are and are not helpful to me, and elaborating on why I read them as I do. There is no chiseled-in-stone rule of law for how to write reviews, no absolute right or wrong. But opinions are like assholes - everyone has them - and some shit smells better than others.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! See you in December.




11/19/14

Shooting From The Hip, Hitting Empty Bottles


Expended Art?

"All art must lie by definition, but in the best possible sense." - Chandler Burr, "A Fragrance Critic on the Problem With Perfume," by Kathleen Hou, nymag.com, October 22, 2014

My boss recently said, "It amazes me how often people come to me with problems that they have not thought all the way through." He is an intellectual person, a doctorate with a few decades of experience in his field, and his message was multi-faceted. In one sense, people do not think their arguments through, and when they approach him with something that they perceive to be a problem, they are usually not prepared to answer his questions as to why they feel it is a problem. That sounds stupid, but I believe him when he says it happens all the time. Usually people don't think things from their cranium to their corns - they're content to stop at their gut and just spout off from there. Feelings, not ideas, reign supreme.

The other sense of his statement is where its genius rests: people must consider an issue very carefully before they can declare it a problem. Usually our perceived problems bite us in the nose, and there is little need to stand around rubbing our chins about them, because their deleterious qualities are readily identifiable. However, we should ask ourselves if we've considered the issues at hand thoroughly enough to actually define them as "problems." With enough careful thought, solutions are generated. The birth of a solution marks the death of a problem. A person who stops to ask himself if he or she really has a problem is likely to weigh its importance against other factors, and consider strategies for dealing with the issue at hand before it can ever actually manifest in the outside world as a definite "problem."

Reading some of the press for Chandler Burr's new book about Dior's perfumes has me believing that Mr. Burr is continuing to behave in a way motivated by gut instincts more than the whole self (mind, body, spirit, etc), and it's troubling, because he is one of a paltry few people who tries, again and again, to generate honest dialogues about perfume, and its place in our post-postmodern world. The problem here, as I have carefully considered it, is that Burr continues to insist that perfume is art, when it is in fact design. That one of the few contemporary voices to define perfume could be so wrong is almost as distressing as the fact that there are hardly any other voices to counter his opinions. The man's logic exists in a vacuum, not entirely of its own making.

The quote that precedes this blog post establishes that Burr believes perfume is art, and thus he also believes that perfumers are artists, their works are "lies in the best possible sense." Does this idea have any intrinsic value, any sturdy basis in fact?

I detected a hint of incredulity in Ms. Hou's tone when she asked Burr about his opinion on perfume as a part of fashion, "You don't think there is a link between fashion and perfume? That is a bold statement coming from the author of a book about Dior."

Burr answers this in the predictable manner, one that supports his Perfume As Art philosophy, which is only remotely tenable if we establish that Perfume Is Not Design, which he attempts to do, rather brusquely, when he answers, "there is no link between fashion and perfume."

It only takes one sentence to destroy Burr's logic: Christian Dior's fashion designs, when presented to the twentieth century fashion world, grew in popularity, which led to his branching into the perfume industry, producing works like Diorling, Diorella, Poison, Fahrenheit, and Dune, all of which irrevocably strengthened our appreciation for modern perfumes with their beauty, in turn creating another way in which people could appreciate the Dior brand.

There. In one run-on sentence, I have established a clear link between perfume and fashion. It is a link any thinking person can make. Except Chandler Burr, apparently.

But Burr's opinion on fashion is not what irks me. I get annoyed whenever I read his canned candy-cane answer, a seemingly stock answer, to the implied question, "What is art?" He constantly spews the same nonsense. Art, according to him, is "artifice." Art is artificial, a sort of intellectual white lie people tell each other to enrich their minds, if that could possibly make any sense. "All art must lie by definition."

First question - where exactly did he get this definition from?

Second question, why doesn't Burr mention specific artists who corroborate his view with their own? Contrast Burr's view of art with Jonathan Fineberg's definition of both art and artists, from the second edition of his book, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being. Fineberg writes,
"For all sincere artists, their art is an evolving perspective on events, and it is who they are. 'I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught,' Georgia O'Keefe wrote to her friend Anita Pollitzer, 'not like what I had seen - shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn't occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say the things that were my own.'"

Can an "evolving perspective on events" be a lie? Can it be packaged in a lie? Are all messages inherently lies? Even good lies?

By including the quote from Georgia O'Keefe, Fineberg gets to the heart of the matter very succinctly. Some art is a lie. The lies are those that fail to express the self. They are academic still lives, illustrations for children's books, attempts to mimic style and content using similar styles and subject matter. Even great artists like Georgia O'Keefe go through periods of their lives where they literally live a lie, drawing, painting, sculpting things that are in no way attached to the hand that makes them.

A true intellectual sees past these works, to the very different works that express the self of the artist. This is the "A-Ha!" moment O'Keefe refers to in her own artistic development. It is at this tier of artistic comprehension that the fallacy in Burr's logic is exposed, for if art is a lie, then those telling the lie and perceiving it must be susceptible to something other than the truth, a state which no thinking person finds himself in when he confronts artworks. We do not approach paintings and sculptures and installation pieces with blank slate, filterless minds, absorbing their content through a literal lens, and walking away believing untruths, nor do artists seek to manipulate viewers with their work. Art is an extension of being, and to simply be is profoundly at odds with even the most well-intentioned deception. Art is an expression of self that is also an extension of self, taking the inside and placing it in an outer context, "to say the things that are one's own."

What does perfume say? Perfume says nothing. How do we know? Because perfume, unlike the self, is finite. Great works of art exist on a spectrum of historical space that extends indefinitely into a potentially unending future (several thousand years from now, man will leave Earth, colonize other worlds, and take art and creative impulses with him). Perfume, on the other hand, can be used up, and there must be a conscious and usually commercially-driven decision to replenish it, if we are to continue experiencing it. Words and images about ourselves, once expressed, can not be taken back. Perfume, once made, can be used up. Recalled. Spilled. Forgotten under a medicine cabinet somewhere. Discovered under a medicine cabinet, tested for freshness, and thrown out.

Burr's account of art and artists is very pedestrian, very piecemeal and one dimensional, and what irritates me is that he attempts to elevate perfume to the status of fine art without actually understanding what fine art is in the first place. A rudimentary art history course, conducted by a decent professor with the guidance of a good textbook, is enough to shatter Burr's entire philosophy like an empty perfume bottle. I fear that unless someone speaks up and argues against his nonsense, we'll be subjected to more of it in the years to come. And that, my friends, is a problem.