Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Agent Provocateur: Outside Agitator?

Not too long ago I was reading a conversation on a perfume forum in which a young lady anticipating an interesting date was asking for advice from the fragrance experts therein. She had been receiving mixed signals from said date. What perfume should she wear to turn the tide?
The answers were varied, but the name “Agent Provocateur” kept coming up. I knew the name but had never smelled the scent. It was inexpensive on the online discount sites, so I ordered a small bottle.
I loved it, a dusky rose, aromatic woody drydown but...the most seductive of perfumes? Really? I began to think about that. What is it that makes a scent seductive?
There are a handful of fragrances the initiated call “skank.” This is generally meant to suggest well used ladies’ undergarments, and is done with basenotes like musk and civet, the animalics.  Muscs Koublai Khan, L’Air de Rien and, lately, L’Artisan’s al-Oudh come to mind, particularly the last one. (Does that one ever.) I was talking with a male friend about this subject category: B.O., unwashed clothing, things like that, which he called “human musk.” Well, yeah, I guess so, but I’m American, and in my culture human musk is highly undesirable to most people. We’re famous for being like that.
Anyway. The definition of the phrase “Agent Provocateur” involves someone who is employed by the police or other enforcement agency to entice or provoke another person into committing an illegal act. In other words, entrapment. 
I think this is all a little silly. Given what I know about what’s called “chemistry,” attraction is either there or it isn’t, and it tends to be non-negotiable. Things like BO or jet-fuel garlic breath might interfere with it, fragrance might enhance it, but no perfume is likely to turn indifference into bodice-ripping passion in my opinion, although maybe it can’t hurt. And there you have it; the real basis for a billion-dollar business whose mainstream marketeers believe that nobody’s going to plonk down big bucks on an elixir  that makes them anything less than utterly irresistible!  (Cut to Kate Moss writhing around the back seat of a limo.)
The company that makes this fragrance also makes very expensive hooker-style lingerie. It’s interesting, at least to me, that the fragrance standing alone without all that black lace baggage is, well, pleasant. In the top it’s a rose with saffron and a little spice (coriander, which I usually dislike, but not here); floral mids, and amber, musk and vetiver -- which you really can smell -- later on. Some classify it as a “mossy woods,” others as a spicy oriental. I’d call it a woody oriental with saffron notes. Whatever you want to call it, it’s delightful, but let’s see if we can divest it from all the dirty-knickers hype.
“Only the assured woman need apply.” (this from perfume critic Katie Puckrick.)
“Excellent.” (four stars)  -- New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr
“Boisterous.” “Sheer audacity.” “Deep and rich with a knowingly naughty undercurrent.” (various commentators on Basenotes.)
To me, the difference between skank and not skank comes down to this: Would I feel comfortable wearing it to the grocery store? If the answer is “yes,” then the fragrance isn’t skank. I would happily wear this one just about anywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t say that about al-Oudh.
So I’d say this instead: ignore the silly hype. So the parent company makes some of the world’s hottest underwear. That doesn’t mean you shouldn't wear the fragrance to the grocery store. It’s a beautiful darkish rose with an aromatic woods and vetiver drydown that reminds me of vintage Magie Noire. It’s inexpensive on the online discount sites. And it lasts. 
So...what about you? What do you think about the laws of attraction? Can a perfume really make that happen, or is it just more marketing?
Leave a comment; I’ll do a drawing on Thursday, August 12th and the lucky winner will get a generous sample of “Agent Provocateur.”
Notes for “Agent Provocateur” include saffron, coriander, Moroccan rose, jasmine, magnolia, ylang-ylang, white gardenia, vetiver, amber and musk.
The photo is of Mata Hari, from the fansite Mata-Hari.com.
“Agent Provocateur” was released in 2000. There have been several flankers since then.
The perfumer was Christian Provenzano, of CPL Aromas.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Off Topic - The Drive-By Truckers

To tell you the truth, I’m a little sick of sniffing and evaluating. Since participating in the group-blog event “Mystery of Musk” (11 perfumes) and “Unlocking a Mystery” (one unreleased perfume) my nose is well, tired, and I’m thinking, gawd not another one, which is not a particularly good thing for a perfume blogger to think. But that’s the way it goes, and so today I’m going to talk about music, specifically the music of the Drive-By Truckers.
People from the American South have a bone deep connection with the place that, sooner or later, the more adventurous will try to outrun. When you finally do get out, you’re relieved. You work at losing your accent, pronouncing your “g’s”, forgetting your now-useless Southern manners. The thought of fried squash makes you feel ill. Visits home now seem to reveal a backward, maddeningly slow, impenetrable way of life. As it has always been, those who have gotten out believe themselves to be above all that. For awhile, anyway. 
What about the people who didn’t get out, though? Nobody wants to think about them any more, those who used to work at the car plant and then the steel mill and then there was no car plant and no steel mill and what then?
I like this band because they know all about that. They know it as grown-ups, with empathy and understanding, in lyrics that haven’t blown me away this much since, well, maybe John Hiatt, or maybe never.
The thing is, this isn’t the moonlight ‘n magnolias South, at all.
 On “Decoration Day,” they get the Big Issue over with right away. It is, after all, the pinnacle of all the worst assumptions made about the backwoods hills -- like the old joke:
Q:  “What’s the definition of an Alabama virgin?” 
A :  “A 12 year old girl what kin run faster than her brothers.” 
The song is close to sympathetic. A white trash girl headed nowhere meets her eldest brother for the first time and falls for him. Simple, but not. Same with “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” about a minister’s wife who shoots her husband dead, and why. Or “Birthday Boy,” a look at what a stripper thinks as she’s working the pole. It just goes on and on, song after literate song. 
This is the South I remember from childhood and early adolescence, before hey-we’re-a-big-city-too Atlanta and, especially, before all those years in L.A. Listening to this music now, I can feel the ever-present sweat, see my cuticles bloodied from scratching my bug bites, hear the roar of the tree frogs and cicadas over the screech of hell-bent tires in the distance. I never had a name for it before but these guys came up with one: The Dirty South, one of their records. A rare commodity: good, bad: a sense of place.
Q: What are an Alabama redneck’s last words?
A:  “Hey, y’all, watch this!”
The two guys and the girl at the core of the band -- Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker -- come from Russellville, Alabama, in the northwest corner of the state. (They’re younger than me. These songs couldn’t possibly be autobiographical, or that dark corner is a whole lot further behind the gleaming, hustling, generic Atlanta than I thought.)  Patterson Hood’s father was the bassist for the Swampers, the house band at Muscle Shoals, a backwoods cinder-block recording studio that drew people like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones to...where? Somewhere they probably thought of as East Jesus, Alabama. The place was beyond legendary -- if you don’t know of it, just click this link. So it’s likely that Hood grew up in a sound booth. The others, I don’t really know that much about, other than to say that I can look at them and listen to them and say, “that's real.”
They’ve been playing around for a long time. They do what bands do now, touring and touring and touring, hoping that the 300 people who saw them in Raleigh or Houston liked them enough to buy their records, and might tell their friends. They may have a gotten a little radio play here and there, but not much, because they’re unclassifiable. That’s the kiss of death in what passes for the music industry now. They’re not glitzy enough for Faith Hill’s Nashville. They’re a little too rawbone country for “alternative,” (whatever that means now). They’re too rock and roll for either one. So what? 
 In his song “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about Carl Perkins and Sam Phillips -- the guy who “discovered” Elvis* -- Mike Cooley sings: 
Carl drove his brand new Cadillac to Nashville and he went downtown
This time they promised him a Grammy….he turned his Cadillac around….
Mr. Phillips never blew enough hot air to need a little gold plated paperweight…”
Don’t ever change, guys.

The Drive By Truckers, who live and work in Athens, GA, when not on the road, have released ten studio records so far. They’re scheduled to open for Tom Petty on some of his American dates this summer and then tour Europe.
*Rumor contends that Marion Keisker, Sam Phillips’ secretary, actually “discovered” Elvis. Sam wasn’t in when he came by to see him. She had him record a couple of demo ballads, wrote “good ballad singer” on his card and told him to come back when Mr. Phillips would be there.
The Drive-By Truckers’ records are available for download in the usual places or at indie record stores. Or through their website.

The photo of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood is by Barry Brecheisen, from "Chicago Now."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Unlocking an Unknown - Mr. Webber Parfum 6T

I am an occasional visitor to estate sales, but I never find much perfume. So when Carol of WAFT revealed that she had discovered a treasure chest full at a sale she stumbled across (she was tipped off by a friend, actually -- I should have such friends) I was, I’ll admit it, a little envious. Who wouldn’t be, with these untold riches -- full bottles of vintage classics, stored properly and still good?  But that’s not all. The man whose estate this was was a chemist. He concocted the scent of Pine-Sol (and generations of Tijuana bartenders and clip-joint operators are still thanking him for that). He left behind a series of mysteries; pretty frosted bottles of perfume bearing the logo pictured, which we’re calling “6T.”
Carol came up with this joint blogging project, most interesting because there are no published lists of “notes,” no reviews, no posts. In other words, no cheat-sheets -- not that I would ever resort to such things --  for 6T. 
Well, here goes.
I’ve had my bottle for about a month. It’s perfume strength. As soon as I unstoppered the bottle I thought, “It’s a chypre!” 
I have a few vintage chypres. They were the first stop on this long road for me. They conjure up visions of 40’s movie stars, big dramatic gestures, “don’t mess with me” stares hiding untold passions, and so on.  I wondered how this scent would compare to the originator of the Chypre genre -- Coty Chypre -- and one of its close relatives, vintage Givenchy III (GIII). I tested all three, on blotter and skin. 
First the blotters. 6T opens cool, GIII woody, Chypre with the classic bergamot. The three perfumes differ in trajectory. The 6T morphs rather quickly into a kind of lemony-floral note, while the GIII seems to become harder, more stern, and then takes a swipe at the spice cabinet -- which is over very quickly. The Chypre is still bergamot, meanwhile.
All three eventually arrive at a floral midrange, with differences. The GIII I’d call “Hello, Miss Dior!” -- vintage, that is; there is a gardenia or jasmine bloom. The Chypre is still “chewy” (all real Chypres have that quality to me) with previews of oakmoss. The 6T is coming up with a maddeningly elusive note. It’s a little bitter. A little fruity, maybe even melon-y; I can’t put a name to it. 
On skin, these are similar to the blotter analyses, but faster. The 6T is already leaving the bitter/fruity/melon behind to arrive at its final drydown. The Chypre is still bergamot and oakmoss, with florals beginning to creep in around the edges. The GIII has regained a little spice and is on its way to a woody drydown.
I think that 6T is a lovely fragrance, and I wish it lasted longer on my skin. Perfume strength normally hovers close, but after about half an hour, I can only smell it by pressing nose to wrist while, meanwhile, the Chypre is still lean and mean, just getting started and the GIII continues its descent into the woods. 
I’ve worn 6T several times, night and day. I decanted some to spray onto a shirt. That lasted longer, but remained very "close."  I asked a friend, who has fragrance-retaining skin, to try it. Her report: pretty much the same as mine, except that she could smell it pressing nose to flesh for several hours, longer than I could.  The drydown, on both of us, was a basic chypre ending, with resins and a bit of patchouli and a little echo of that melon-like fruit.
I wonder if Mr. Weber was working on a formula for a modern chypre, one with the general structure intact but a little bit of “modern” added, perhaps a touch of melon  in there somewhere. That’s what I suspect.
I would think 6T would be a perfect fragrance for getting around the office perfume-o-phobes. It would be your secret. “Hey, office nanny! I’m wearing perfume, hahahahahah!” 
So, leave a comment: Why do you want a bottle? 
Photo by Pat Borow, © 2010 all rights reserved.
Check with WAFT  for deadlines and other information about the contest.

“Unlocking an Unknown” is a joint blogging event. The other bloggers are:
Bloggers Links 

Friday, July 9, 2010

Mystery of Musk: Winner!

...and the winner is: Dionne!
(Get in touch with me at olfactarama at att dot net, and we’ll get your bottle of “Verdigris” to you posthaste!)

On beginning this project, I agonized over what I would say. As a perfume blogger, I’d learned to recognize things like aldehyde C-12, Iso-E-Super and Linalool, but not things like Ambrette Seed and African Stone, so I was apprehensive, especially considering the company of bloggers and perfumers I was in.
 A few of these perfumers are well-established businesses. Others, I’m pretty sure, are home-based. All have this in common: they believe in what they’re doing. That spirit shines out of the work. 
I sniffed and learned. The scents themselves are different. At first, they seem a little unfinished compared to mainstream perfumes, and without synthetic molecules to stitch not always predictable natural essences together in an easily controlled way, perhaps they are. But that difference gives them gravitas, a kind of authority. 
Evaluation is a left-brain thing. It was my wish that, through the series of gestural paintings, I could come closer to the mystery, and history, of this art; that I could bypass that analytical thing, be less judge, more participant; that I could, through wordlessness, capture the elusive something else in these essences. At times it went well and at other times I struggled. I’m not sure I always succeeded, but it was an intensely creative few days. And I do feel that it put me in better touch with the intent and essence of these scents.
So enough already. Thanks again to Anya McCoy and Elena Vosnaki for putting this together. And all of you who read and commented. And the perfumers, of course, who are:
Adam Gottschalk – Lord’s Jester 
Alexandra Balahoutis – Strange Invisible Perfumes 
Ambrosia Jones – Perfume by Nature
Charna Ethier – Providence Perfumes
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz – DSH Perfumes
Elise Pearlstine – Belly Flower Perfumes 
JoAnne Bassett – JoAnne Bassett Perfumes
Lisa Fong – Artemisia Perfume 
Nicholas Jennings – Sharini Parfums Naturels

...and the other bloggers, of course:

I Smell Therefore I Am - Abigail Levin
Indie Perfumes - Lucy Raubertas
Bitter Grace Notes - Maria Browning

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mystery of Musk: Dionysus, Temple of Musk, Sensual Embrace and Eau Natural

LAST REMINDER: For a chance at winning a bottle of “Verdigris,” leave a comment (but no later than 10 a.m., Friday June 9, East Coast US Daylight Time.) I will select the winner (using random.org) by 11 a.m.that Friday morning, and post it on Olfactarama that same day. Good luck!


There is a painter here who does nothing but still lifes of wine related subjects -- wine bottles (with wine in them, presumably), glasses, accessories like expensive corkscrews, loaves of bread, wedges of cheese and so on. He does a great business, I hear, with aspirational Atlantans (and, regrettably, there are many) who want their wet bars/wine tasting rooms decorated with original art. Somebody ought to hook these two up.
“Dionysus” is high concept. It opens with a foresty herbal note that manages to be slightly effervescent, and quickly reveals a series of wine-related mids: red wine, of course, but also the lees -- the mash of grape skins, pulp and seed left after pressing, from which fire-waters like eau de vie are made -- the oak-y aging barrels, a slight astringent tannin note which remains all the way through to the dry down and...cheese. Yes, there is a suggestion of cheese in here somewhere, a decent Parmesan maybe? It’s a mellow cheese, not a stinky one.
No list of notes or letter or anything except a business card came with this sample, which arrived after the deadline. There is a fairly informative website, and blog which mentions ambergris and African Stone as two of of the ingredients. The spray sample was generously sized, so I’ve been able to try it a few times, and I like the final drydown best, when it fades into a slightly tannic musk.
Concept, like I said. Dionysus was, after all, the god of wine, theater, frenzied ecstasy and hordes of maddened followers. To wear this as one’s signature scent would take real courage but, as a concept, it’s interesting and different.
Perfumer: Adam Gottschalk, New York. The website is http://lordsjester.com.
For the painting, I thought of wine of course, but also some organic shapes. The painting is a watercolor.
Painting by Pat Borow, © 2010. All rights reserved.

Temple of Musk
“Strange Invisible Perfumes” is a retail store and perfume lab Los Angeles, specializing in botanical fragrances. And, like New York, L.A. is a get-to-the-point kind of place. 

But everything about this presentation seemed rushed and out of focus. The package missed the delivery deadline. The fragrance itself is a tiny sample -- barely enough for one proper wearing. The supporting materials are vague -- what exactly is an “unapologetic musk composition” anyway? And the website isn’t what I’d call packed with information.
I’ve agonized over this one, because I don’t want to trash someone’s labor of love. But, when I opened it and put a bit on my skin, thereby using up half the sample, all I could think of was that this was supposed to be a citrus top note but somehow it morphed into the well-known fragrance descriptive term “cat pee.” Before too long a berry-like fruitiness arose, struggling with the pee note. At some point a truce was declared, but by then the scent had faded to barely perceptible levels.
I decided to try it on a blotter. Same, only the unpleasant note is stronger. And my sample is nearly gone now.
After a time, both paper and skin evidence a descent into a generic sort of muskiness -- not chemical musks at least -- and there is a little bit of vanilla and an unusual myrtle the perfumer says she hydro-distills from trees that grow on her family’s land. I don’t smell the strawberry-resin note she says it has, though, or any myrtle note.
Finally, the fragrance has disappeared my skin within less than an hour, short-lived even for a natural perfume.
In natural perfumery, the skin “notes” count, so I’ll try it one more time before posting my review.  Maybe the vial leaked….maybe the heat of shipping in July changed the perfume’s chemistry….maybe there were more reviewers than the perfumer suspected there would be, hence the minuscule sample.  (Later: unfortunately, it hasn't changed.)
Notes for “Temple of Musk” include hydro-distilled temple mandarin, organic black currant, the aforementioned “unapologetic musk composition,” organic vanilla and the special home-grown myrtle distillation.
The painting was done in watercolor and liquid pigment, using two colors which the scent evoked for me. They are complementary and mix into a pale gray.
Perfumer: Alexandra Balahoutis, Strange Invisible Perfumes. The website is www.siperfumes.com.
Painting by Pat Borow, © 2010. All rights reserved.

Sensual Embrace
This one reminds me of classic vintage perfume. The top notes are listed as citrus, but it doesn’t smell like tart fruit. It has an impression of coolness, like marble, which lasts all the way through. 
There is an ethereal quality to this blend, and it seems somehow more transparent, more water-like, than any of the others I’ve tried. That is not to say it’s not musky, though. The perfumer states in her letter that she wanted to make a perfume to “throw a punch,” and this one does, once it gets to the bottom accords. Prior to that, I’d say it was more luminous than aggressive.
The list of “notes” is not complete, but the ones listed are: green mandarin and clementine (for a playful lift, the perfumer says) ; vintage jasmine sambac, tobacco, vintage Mysore sandalwood, amber accord, rose de mai, violet, orange blossom and tuberose. I think this would be a wonderful summer fragrance. It is an EDP (eau de parfum) in strength.
For the painting, I chose to use a pastel blue-green for the background, because of the cool and luminous quality the fragrance has, with floral colors in the center and all of it descending into a smoky base. The mediums are watercolor and gouache.
Perfumer: Joanne Bassett of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California. The website is www.JoAnneBassett.com  .

Painting by Pat Borow, © 2010. All rights reserved.

Eau Natural
“Eau Natural” is an amazing fragrance. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is a very experienced and established natural perfumer, and it shows in the way she’s handled the ingredients here. The perfume -- and it is perfume strength+ at 30% -- comes at you with black pepper, in the most skillful use of this essence I can remember. And then it’s florals and musk and honey, oh my!*
Any of you who read this blog regularly know that I’m a big fan of what is called “skank.” My very first self-selected, beloved commercial perfume, Bal a Versailles, swam in it. So this one feels just right on my skin. Not strange at all. The black pepper tickles the trigeminal nerve (the one that tells us that something is hot and spicy, usually food). The florals come forward to add to the impression of a down and dirty scent, because they’re so well-incorporated into the base notes. Those are so perfectly blended that no particular one (even the oudh) stands out. And because it is in such high concentration, it lasts and lasts...and lasts.

Here are the notes: Cassis bud absolute (top) BlackPepper EO (essential oil), Carrot Seed EO, Seaweed Absolute (tops); Rose Absolute, Sambac Jasmine Absolute, Beeswax Absolute, Spikenard (heart); Aged East Indian Sandalwood, Ambrette Seed CO2 absolute, Angelica Root EO, Aged Labdanum EO, Aged East Indian Patchouli EO, Oudh EO, Cumin EO, Vanilla Absolute and Vetiver EO.
(Incidentally, spikenard oil is sold as a medium for oil painting. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to do, but I’ve always thought it was much too expensive for mixing into paint. Perfume, on the other hand…)
I transferred a life drawing I’d made to the surface for this painting. Media is flat black gesso, titanium white acrylic and archival ink on sanded paper.
Perfumer: Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, Boulder, Colorado.
 The website is www.DSHperfumes.com.

*forgive me; I watched “The Wizard of Oz” last week.
Painting by Pat Borow, © 2010. All rights reserved.
“Mystery of Musk” is a group blogging project. Other participating bloggers are:

I Smell Therefore I Am - Abigail Levin
Indie Perfumes - Lucy Raubertas
Bitter Grace Notes - Maria Browning
I'll be back Friday with the winner.

Tremendous thanks to Anya McCoy and Elena Vosnaki, who 
pulled all of this together!