Intrigant Patchouli (Parfumerie Générale)

Joining L'Air de Rien, Muscs Koublaï Khän, and Ambre 114 in the hippie-pong party aisle, Intrigant Patchouli stands out as the brightest beacon shining through the purple haze.  It bears a resemblance to any number of other hookah-den fragrances, but its raunch is arguably the most cheerful of the lot.   All the gravity inherent in its animalic notes is offset by some amazingly buoyant naughty bits which boost those mood-altering effects through the stratosphere.   So while MKK smoulders silently in a bean-bag chair and L'Air de Rien dreamily twirls her hair around a henna-daubed pinky, Intrigant keeps the records spinning, the dance floor grooving, and fingers snapping all over the joint.

With a wink and a wiggle, this hostess knows how to heat up a happening! 

Scent Elements: Ginger, lemon, citron, mandarin, patchouli, Mysore sandalwood, civet, castoreum, benzoin, amber, musk, honey, vanilla

Century (Odin New York)

If Luca Turin's proposal is true -- that a multi-perfume collection released by a single house can only contain one standout -- perhaps there's an equal and opposite corollary for really good collections that contain one dud. Of Odin New York's original trio of fragrances, Sunda and Owari were extremely pleasant. Extending the luck, Petrana (Odin's fourth) is a marvel.  I haven't tried number five (or is that 06?) Amanu yet, but maybe the law of averages has already been satisfied by Century. I sincerely hope so.

As far as wobbles go, Century's not an utter disaster. I mean, it doesn't cause screaming fits, facial tics, or uncontrollable impulses to scrub. It's too vague for any of that-- a weak smell like scented hand soap, leaving no definite impression behind. In a word, it's forgettable-- which (all things considered) is not so bad a status. To be so terrible that no one can scour you from their memory is, I imagine, a fate worse than forgettability.

Scent Elements: Birch, cypress, mint, vetiver, myrrh, patchouli, musk, oakmoss, amber

Vanilla with a vengeance.

Vanilia (L'Artisan) and VanillaVille Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

Here we have two smooth motherfuckers, one mellow and one manic. When they arrive on your doorstep, you might think you're in for a round of Good Cop/Bad Cop... but appearances mislead, and the law is nowhere in sight.

Don't let his bad black suit decieve you: the first gentleman has the beachy-clean soul of a California surfer, all Sex Wax, cocoa butter, and soap-on-a-rope. Sure, he carries a MAC-10 with a silencer, but in terms of Five Dollar Milkshakes, he's one hundred percent Rowan & Martin. You wonder how on earth he could ever have been mistaken for a heavy. This sweet guy? Surely it's all a misunderstanding.

But then you meet his partner. Ten seconds with him and you're sure of one thing only: unless you stay calm and cooperate, there is no way you're getting out of this alive. He starts off bold and hearty, with back-slapping pleasantries all around. Little by little, you notice that his friendliness is just a touch aggressive. Seconds after you ask yourself, Why doesn't he ever blink? you shiver to recognize the glint of apocalypse in his eye. By the time he starts shouting, "And you will KNOW my name is the LORD when I LAY MY VANILLA UPON YOU--" you may wish you had Mr. Mellow on your side again.

But there ain't no Mr. Mellow here, Jack. Both of your visitors are equally armed and dangerous, and they are here to do serious business. You want to get off easy, civilian? Get thee to the drugstore and buy some Vanilla Fields. That's one gun guaranteed not to be loaded.

Scent Elements: Vanilla and ylang-ylang absolutes (Vanilia)/ Leather, tobacco, sweet fennel, pink pepper, spices, birch tar, sandalwood, amyris, tarragon, orange flower, rose, jasmine, benzoin Siam, toasted almonds, vanilla absolute, vanilla tincture (VanillaVille)

Amber Pour Homme and Amber Pour Homme Intense (Prada)

Fougère, amber, cologne, leather.  Four accords, all rock-solid institutions within the world of fragrance. Prada's Amber Pour Homme (2006) welds them into one. On paper it seems a most improbable algebraic equation, inspiring little confidence that it could reckon true. But relax. Amber Pour Homme isn't exactly Fermat's Theorem. It's more of a little play on words-- but its punchline rewrites the whole language.

How so? Well, Amber Pour Homme includes notes symbolically representing each of its four flagship accords -- fougère, amber, cologne, leather.  By substituting a less prominent note for the one most associated with each genre, perfumer Daniela Roche-Andrier has knowingly altered its parlance-- played with its "language", so to speak. For her fougère accord, she uses patchouli rather than lavender: fair enough, and hardly controversial. For leather, a soft, chamois-like saffron note appears instead of birch tar:  again, well within bounds.  But the happiest surprise is found in the cologne accord, where Roche-Andrier employs South American cardamom in place of the more conventional hesperides as shorthand for 'fresh' and 'cool'. (Two hundred years of spice-laden Caribbean colognes can't be wrong.)  Together, these three notes achieve a hushed elegance, neither masculine nor feminine, simply handsome.

As for the eponymous amber, it's just that-- labdanum served up the no-frills way, unsweetened and unpretentious, drying down to a nice muted woody accord which sticks well to the background.  And really, the background is where it's at, for Amber Pour Homme is no extrovert. None of its component notes scream for attention. Imagine a choral group devoid of soloists, an assemblage of modest team players who subordinate themselves to the project and combine their quiet voices in glorious mass harmony. So cooperatively do they mesh that the sum of their efforts almost appears separate from its own parts-- a phantom tone, perfectly legible until you concentrate too hard on its origin. The challenge is to resist doing so-- and then you hear it in all its loveliness, unbroken.

This is why the notion of kicking it up a notch -- ostensibly the purpose of APH Intense (2011) -- seems redundant. It's the same fragrance, only sweeter and more custardy, as if someone convinced one or two of the choir members that they really could go solo if they wanted it bad enough. All they had to do was to burst out with some hot Beyoncé-like vocal folderol right smack in the middle of "Simple Gifts" just to show everyone how it's done.  Is it a disaster?  No.  Is it really necessary? Again, no.

Just give me the original any day.  Its quiet speaks volumes to me.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, mandarin, neroli, pelargonium, patchouli, cardamom, myrrh, amber, vanilla, labdanum, tonka bean, saffron, sandalwood, leather

Winter Star Eau de Parfum (Michael Storer)

Seasonal depression, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, is "the total animal soup of time". When you are really in it, how desperately you wish for the justification of a hibernatory period, a recognized biological phenomenon on which to pin your surliness and sleepiness and therefore be released from the penalty box with no demerits.

Today the world is foggy and dark and feels to me like the bottom of a cellar. I need the smells of warmth, home, butter, wool, hot candle wax, bed, blankets, skin, breath, secrecy, safety. A retreat back into prehistory, a time before language, a time before time.

I wish I didn't have to take it to go. But I must, and I can, so I do. Here sits a full and seemingly unused bottle of Winter Star which I purchased at local thrift store. I sense it may have been consigned there in atavistic terror because it out-musks Muscs Koublaï Khän. MKK at least pitches a ger for you and lays down some hospitable felted rugs; Winter Star hands you some ochre-in-bear-grease for self-decoration and shoves you closer to the communal fire.

Which, as it happens this very minute, is where I long to be.

Scent Elements: Bergamot, lavender, carnation, oakmoss, balsam Peru, balsam tolu, labdanum, benzoin, musk, civetone, helvetolide

Owari (Odin New York)

Today, simplicity and silence are my only objects; therefore, Odin New York's Owari is my flavor du jour. Its low-key citrus and cubeb harmony surrounds me like a protective presence, an impermeable zone of influence. Yet despite its strong arm, it's also wholly unobtrusive; it will never distract me or tax my patience with unnecessary noise while it escorts me around town. The professional silence it maintains while on the clock is profound and admirable. Give that man a raise!

When so much intrudes upon our daily quiet, clamoring for our attention, to say of a thing that you "think nothing of it" is the greatest praise. By that definition, Owari is the best bodyguard money can buy. I can count on it to get my back when things heat up... and to keep its mouth shut afterwards.

Scent Elements: Mandarin, bergamot, grapefruit leaf, cubeb pepper, amyris, neroli, cedarwood, amber, musk

Honey Coconut and Gin Blossom (Love & Toast)

This past week my husband and I celebrated his birthday with a road trip to Princeton. We'd both been hankering to revisit this favorite destination since our last jaunt in June. His mission: to prowl and pounce on amazing DVD finds at the Record Exchange, the best damn independent new/used audiovisual store in the state (indeed anywhere, in our opinion). My mission: to return to Mandalay Trading Company, the site of my first fateful encounter with Love & Toast's Honey Coconut, and just maybe a likely source for a full bottle of Tokyo Milk Arsenic.

As I wrote back in June, I'd passed up on Honey Coconut for some extremely stupid and superficial reasons, now deeply and bitterly regretted. My decision haunted me all summer; now it would be set to rights. First order of business: snag a "Little Luxe" mini-bottle of Honey Coconut right away, with no hesitation and no excuses. While I was at it, I tossed a mini of Gin Blossom into my basket. I'd learned my lesson -- if you like something, just get it already and quit dithering.

While the Love & Toast and Lollia collections were well-represented in Mandalay, I saw none of the hoped-for Tokyo Milk perfumes. At checkout, I summoned the courage to inquire about their absence. My questions evoked a glance of panic from the college-aged clerk. I could almost hear her thinking, I'm only part-time, am I expected to know this? I instantly felt a rush of retail sympathy for her and joked my way to a less challenging stance, at which point she relaxed a bit and began to joke back ("Wow, those Dark perfumes sound edgy! We're pretty family-friendly around here, so I don't know..."). She pledged to look into adding Tokyo Milk to the store order list, and I left Mandalay a happy lady.

Laden with a shopping bag full of choice cinema, the Birthday King met up with his delish-smelling Queen and decreed the next stops on the itinerary: early dinner at our favorite restaurant followed by a movie (Paranormal Activity 3: shriektastic!) and a bakery-fresh chocolate cream pie with candles at our own cozy kitchen table.

The perfect conclusion to a perfect day.

Honey Coconut
The morning I first met Honey Coconut, I'd just been released from a grueling three-day medical test during which I'd been forbidden to bathe. The moment I was free, I naturally flung myself into the longest hot soapy shower in recorded history and doused myself with all the fragrance I'd been denied. This left me unable to skin-test Honey Coconut properly. Still, I fell ass-over-teakettle in love with it from a mere bottle sniff-- a testament, I thought, to its worth. On skin, it's just what I remembered... but it is also more, a burnt bitter complexity of sugar and heat so much more profound than the pretty little thing I thought I apprehended as I leaned over the open mouth of the bottle that day so long ago. I've been wearing it for three days straight now and have no desire not to. Nor does my husband wish me to switch. We both notice new things about it (rum, immortelle, pineapple, coffee) with every wearing. It's become our favorite guessing game, the cipher lighting up our married-couple motherboard even as the clock turns back and the day goes dark an hour earlier. No exaggeration: the contents of this tiny bottle make us feel like we're engaged to be wed all over again, future full steam ahead.

Scent Elements: Honey, vanilla, violet, sandalwood

Gin Blossom
Seeing as how Honey Coconut magically jumped from three stars up to five, this may not be the last I'll have to say about Gin Blossom-- or any other Margot Elena creation, for that matter. They are all so CONTENT-RICH -- packed with goodies, puzzles, entertainment, images, learning -- that it seems impossible to opine about them in any truly final way. About Gin Blossom, I'll say this: it metamorphoses from a sweet honeydew-melon-juice scent to a herbal lemonade scent to a clean, soapy white musk scent to an unexpected flower-butter scent, all so nonchalantly that I feel as though I'm watching a really skillful juggler ply his art. Right now he's juggling three stars. I bet you anything he'll be juggling four before too long-- and maybe even a flaming torch or a chainsaw or two.

Scent Elements: Citrus zest, "spring dew", mandarin blossom, verbena leaves

Someday (Justin Bieber)

What it is: A fragrance designed for a twelve-year-old girl, fronted by a seventeen-year-old boy she will never meet but whom she wants so bad it causes her to emit siren-like wails of heartbreak, prompting her parents to spend any amount ($18-$55) to stem the flood of pubescent caterwauling that issues nightly from behind her glitter-glue-bedecked bedroom door.

Where it is: Macy's, Nordstroms, Ulta, etc. I sniffed it in Sephora, which has an exclusive purse-sized rollerball wand version of the EdP for under $20-- a mercy, considering that Bieber's target audience is dependent upon parents' largesse and the odd babysitting gig for its expendable cash.

What it contains: "Juicy" pear, "wild" berries, "creamy" florals, "warm" vanilla, and "soft" musk. Undoubtedly all of these qualifiers were supplied by the focus group who answered the question, "What five words best describe your dream date and/or Justin Bieber?" It's probably a good thing they didn't ask my age cohort, or they would've ended up with "emotionally stable" pear, "steadily employed" berries, "responsible" florals, "no criminal record" vanilla and "not a total asshole" musk.

What it smells like: Not all that horrible, to be honest.  So many prestige fragrances mirror the piercingly shrill vocal stylings of the celebrity divas who promote them, I suppose you could do worse than the dulcet tones of El Bieber, here rendered in a PopTart palette of pearberry and vanilla frosting. But we have so many of these already, my brain weeps. So, not all that great, either.

What it looks like: I know I'm not the first to notice that the perfume bottle proper bears an uncanny resemblance to Marc Jacobs' Lola and Oh Lola.  Still, every time I see it, I think to myself, Ohjeezus that bottle designer is gonna be in SO much hot water.  Five points to Bieber for not attempting a facsimile of Bang.

What the ad copy says: "(Someday) is a personal gift straight from (Bieber's) heart, a scent that drives him wild and makes the girls who wear it totally irresistible. So go beyond the music and journey deep into a world of possibilities... be close to Justin, everywhere you go." Holy mo. Imagine that being read through a Vocoder. Wouldn't you file for a restraining order?

What my inner critic says:  To paraphrase the old Creedence song, someday never comes... because in this case, it's already been and gone.  Everything about this fragrance seems borrowed and recycled from prior sources, right down to the bottle.  There's nothing especially "new" or "now" to be found in its play of aromas.  The nascent hope encapsulated by its name is cancelled out by the depressing déjà-vu-like sense of overuse that haunts everything else about it.  That a fragrance could so proudly claim to be "anything but ordinary" while never being anything but ordinary is a masterpiece of marketing cynicism.  It makes me sad to think of kids falling for it-- heck, even Bieber himself.  In several years, there will be too much testosterone rumbling around in his lower registers for any of this candy-sweetness to seem even remotely comfortable-- what then?  At that point, maybe he'll borrow a tip from his remix pal Usher and start issuing stylish colognes for smooth young gentlemen like himself.  Or maybe he'll do something even more daring, risky, and artistically liberating.  We'll see.  Someday. 

The thought that lingers:  After one's insecure adolescent years pass, it becomes less important what others want you to be and more important what you ARE, or could become. As kids' identities develop, their tastes become more highly individuated.  Bieber's fans may not mind being told how to look/act/buy/smell now, but eventually they (and he) may resent it.   He and his fans will mature together.  But Someday is the sort of fragrance that begs an impossibility of both wearer and spokesperson:  stay sweet and harmless forever.

Scent Elements: Pear, mandarin, red berries, jasmine, musk, vanilla

Blood Cedar Demi-Absolute (Soivohle)

What's in a name? Billed as a woody oriental, Blood Cedar had me envisioning the gothic backwoods of my childhood, where creeks tinged a hue halfway between rust and rooibos tea flowed in eternal silence under shadowy canopies of evergreen. From my own extrapolations, I expected Blood Cedar to smell powerfully woody and feral; hence my surprise when confronted with the feather-light aroma of vanilla meringue.

The scent of raw cedarwood is warm and intensely balsamic, but imagine it at a more muted level, carried to you via a linen dinner napkin. Kept tissue-wrapped with its mates in a hand-carved hope chest, it now lines the serving basket in which a batch of freshly-baked macaroons awaits its ride to the table. The spun-sugar-and-egg-white aroma of the macaroons mingles with the light, dry scent of the cedar-stored linen, carrying with it a promise of plenty-for-everyone.

Nominally, Blood Cedar may sound like a prime Grand Guignol experience, but you may be surprised by how shyly and softly it speaks once you get past those first introductions. It unfolds itself with minimal fanfare but maximum generosity, revealing sweet hidden treats designed for the pleasure of all.

Scent Elements: Virginia cedar, citrus, tonka, sandalwood, labdanum, vanilla