Monday, June 27, 2016

Gardem Post 2016.2

It's been one month and things are taking off. But not the budget, thankfully. I've spent maybe another $15 (including a bag of what must be gold-flaked compost that wasn't priced but by the time I got to the checkout and it rang up at over $5 I just didn't care). That brings the total to $40.

Let's start off with the pretty flowers planted by the kiddies. Moving on...

Here's the $5+ bag of compost, growing things nicely. But not appreciably better than the melon growing in the $1.00 bag (not shown for legal reasons).

Carrots and beets.

Tomatoes of all sizes. If you're still reading, congratulations. Even I'm bored right now.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Music Review - Dave Kerzner - New World

Yet another fine album that I need to listen to again.

Recently I was in my car listening to “Comfortably Numb” on the radio and I started to wonder how many times I’ve heard this song in my life. Two hundred? A thousand? Sure, it’s a great song but wouldn’t it be great if Pink Floyd put out some new music? Fat chance. It’s a good thing, then, that there’s someone like Dave Kerzner to fill the gap. Kerzner is a man who loves Pink Floyd more than most fish love water but fortunately he’s also such an amazing songwriter and gifted musician that the music on New World is no flat Floyd imitation. Instead it breathes and excites with a life and character of its own, though Floyd fans will appreciate that it sounds like it is a long-lost recording made between Momentary Lapse of Reason and Division Bell. The friends joining Kernzer speaks to his standing in the music community. Not only do classic rock prog-legends Steve Hackett and Keith Emerson lend their talents but former bandmate (and adopted Fort Wayne son/Sweetwater alum) Nick D’Virgilio plays most of the drums.

The fun starts with the ten minute “Stranded (Part 1-5)”, an expansive, mysterious adventure that, above all others, sounds like a missing piece of Darkside of the Moon, owing greatly to the wailing female vocals. The song ends with an invigorating chanting-vocal part that is surely a tribute to the song “Shadow Self” by former bandmate, the late, great Kevin Gilbert. Stepping out of the “progressive epic” mode is “The Lie”, an achingly beautiful song that could easily be a single on rock radio, especially with its heartfelt and perfectly restrained guitar solos. Another amazingly catchy rock song is “Nothing,” which sounds like a cross between E.L.O. and early Asia and culminates in a snide chorus of “All I need from you is nothing.” “Under Control” begins as a shadowy whisper but erupts into an insistent, pounding and creepy chorus of “I… am… under control,” though it sounds as if it’s more of a last desperate hope than a confident statement. Immediately following is the instrumental “Crossing of Fates” featuring a Keith Emerson moog solo. Mournful horns predict dark skies while stabs of guitars put one off balance in this cinematic masterpiece that is enthralling throughout. The album ends with the second half of “Stranded”, packing in many changes in mood and tempo into its seventeen minute length, at times driving yet restrained (as exemplified by Pink Floyd) and other times chilling, somber, plaintiff, and hopeful.

If you can’t tell, this reviewer thinks that New World is an astounding album, possibly the best I’ve heard in the last six months, and I’m not even a huge Pink Floyd fan! New World incorporates a breath-taking kaleidoscope of sounds and textures, wrapping them around skillfully written songs that catch in the brain while at the same time rousing the heart.

Music Review - Brandi Carlile - Firewatcher's Daughter

It turns out that these songs didn't grow on me. When they came up on shuffle play on my MP3 player I kept finding myself hitting the skip button. Better luck next time, Ms. Carlile.

At first blush I didn’t care much for The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Brandi Carlile’s first album after leaving a major label deal and going indie. I found the choruses to be repetitive and the lyrics a bit thin. It’s one thing when an artist is exorcising their demons and you’re allowed along for the ride and another when the artist has made it through the woods and intentionally writes songs to help others. Which is to say that on her first few albums the lyrics seemed more genuine and now they seem to be full of sincere yet flat encouragements. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it’s not a great thing.

But that was “first blush.” It was this past weekend, as I found the melodies in my head of Firewatcher songs I previously thought were tepid, that I wondered if perhaps this album was a grower. You know, one of those albums that takes more listens than normal to get into but once you “get it” it stays gotten for a long time.

So what’s on Daughter? The first song, “Wherever Is Your Heart” has exactly the faults I mentioned above, a very poor first impression, so much so that I initially failed to notice the amazingly tight vocal harmonies of “The Eye”, a Fleetwood Mac with old-school country song centered around the line "You can dance in the hurricane / But only if you're standing in the eye." Another memorable ballad is the beautifully melancholy “Beginning to Feel the Years” which focuses on the bond of parent and child (“Maybe I was meant to be under your lock and key”.) None of the other slower songs did much for me, sounding like pretty standard Carlile ballads.

Three of the four rockers, though, provide a solid backbone. The reckless “Mainstream Kid” is about as good as it gets, three parts ballsy rock and one part country with Brandi belting out lyrics like “I need someone to tell me who I am” before a scorching guitar solo burns down the barn. The nostalgic “Blood Muscle Skin & Bones” has hints of 80s pop and cowbell in the chorus. Serious amounts of cowbell that toe the line of acceptable cow bellage. Fun and raucous, “Alibi” is one of the strongest on the album, pummeling along with rockabilly roots and wry lyrics like “If you’re good at telling lies / You could be my alibi / And I won’t take the fall for where I’ve been.” Show of hands: who else wants a Carlile album of just rock songs? While not as consistent as her earlier albums, The Firewatcher’s Daughter has more than its fair share of good songs. Time will tell if these “good” songs are just that or if they are exceptionally humble “great” songs that only flower over a period of months.

Music Review - Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

I've grown to love this album even more as time has gone on. It has been a great encouragement to me.

Neal Morse is back with another album, though this time it falls under the moniker of “The Neal Morse Band,” indicating a shift from him being the man in full control to more of a collaborative effort. I’m sure it’s not easy to relinquish control, hence the title The Grand Experiment. Or maybe the “experiment” is to see how much they can sound like classic Styx in the chorus of the self-titled track.

Ah, but I jest. But not about the Styx, because they do and it sounds totally amaze-balls, though the rest of the song is an effective yet straight-forward gutsy rocker with a hint of blues. One thing I noticed in this song, and indeed the rest of the album, is that Neal shares lead vocal duties with bandmates. Sure, he’s got a nice voice on his own but imagine if Paul sang every song on every Beatles album. So the variety is a nice surprise. As are the copious amounts of vocal harmonies which, juxtaposed against the heavier rock setting, are quite reminiscent of early King’s X. “The Call” opens with three part vocal harmonies that bash into aggressive, stuttering guitar rhythms offset by classic rock organ sounds before jumping into a kind of musical overture. Its ten minutes of fairly typical Neal Morse songwriting, which is to say that the ten minutes fly by in a furry of catchy melodies and killer guitar riffs. “Waterfall” contrasts the driving rock of the first two songs, itself being comprised of acoustic guitars and a downright beautiful melody softly presented via three part vocal harmony. If they were trying to emulate Crosby Stills and Nash they nailed it. One thing I like about the music of Morse (and pals) is that he’s not afraid to use unusual sound choices but always tempers any weirdness with solid melodies. “Agenda” is no exception, nimbly hopping from spacy quirkiness to driving hard rock. The homemade video is kinda hokey, though.

At twenty-six minutes, “Alive Again” gets its own paragraph. Few alive can write an expansive prog-rock epic like Neal Morse (and his band), spending the first three minutes building a sweeping orchestral-like overture before switching to a tumbling and forceful rhythm. Still no words for another minute when the bottom drops out, leaving Neal singing over a thin ray of nearly inaudible sunshine that brightens into more lush vocal harmonies singing the chorus. A few minutes of more typical song structures follow before things get crazy in an extended instrumental passage where talk box guitars combat gritty saxophones before the second “song within a song” begins. When this section finishes the album turns classical with piano and string section. Yeah, lots of prog bands include these instruments but this band knows their classical music arranging well enough to make it sound, well, real. This is immediately followed by a pleasant return to the early eighties, complete with an orchestral Deep Purple passage of frogged violins that turns things over to an amazing guitar solo which sounds like a perfect combination of Malmsteen, Vai, and Blackmore. Killer? Oh yeah. A calm “song #3” begins next, eventually flowing into a reprise of the original chorus but seriously, after the heart pumping instrumental section, what’s the point? Oh yeah, song integrity.

If The Grand Experiment is just that, The Neal Morse Band needs to spend time in their musical laboratory on a regular basis.

Friday, June 3, 2016

AngelKiss - a short story

Call me old fashioned, I mean, people have been marrying their pets since 2019, but I didn’t want to be presumptuous. Yes, Sheila was affectionate and loving, as collies usually are, but some unprogressed genetic leftover from my ancestors made me want to pop the question without an interpreter. I’ll admit that I may have been hasty to give Sheila the Sevengevity upgrade but my calculations showed we were close to the same age and so perhaps impulsively I emptied my savings chip and made the plunge. I mean, who wouldn’t want their pet to have a human lifespan so they could grow old together? Pet. Again my unprogressed upbringing is showing.

That was before I knew I was in love. Otherwise I might have saved a little to instead transmogrify her with human DNA, although again I wouldn’t have wanted to do this without her permission. Time was of the essence and it would have taken me six months to afford the combo package of Sevengevity and Humanfuze, which meant that my Shiela (“my” being a term of endearment, not ownership, in case the Living Organism Rights League reads this) would be four years older than me. Again, not a huge difference but what if I was off in my calculations and she ended up being a full ten years older? Love wouldn’t have cared. If only I hadn’t chosen to re-up my private automobile contract, with the accompanying exorbitant carbon fees, I would have had the money. Sure, most everyone uses public transport or bikes but I like being able to come and go as I please. Plus driving yourself is a huge ego trip! Didn’t some French philosopher say “To live is to regret”? Or did I just coin a phrase?

Speaking of regrets, always read the fine print. I thought that a DNA-splice was a DNA-splice but apparently some companies, like the one I used at the local strip mall, cut some corners so that one cannot resplice with assurance of no side effects. Cutting costs and going for the cheapest upgrade is yet another regret, although I must say that the Sevengevity job they did is top notch. Since the splice Sheila is as spunky as ever and there were no problems. Even if she was comfortable with the risk of stacking splices I don’t know what I would do if she were one of the thirty-percent who have a bad reaction. And I’ve seen some really freaky bad reactions, not to mention the possibility that the Sevengevity would be nullified.

That was a couple of years ago, before our relationship blossomed, and before splicing for humans was financially within the reach of the average citizen. Sure, the politicians and the bankers and the celebrities could get any upgrade they wanted, that is after Caitlyn Jenner went to the President and he issued an Executive Order changing the laws on human splicing. It was about time, too. Imagine the horror of being a woman and yet every cell of your body cries out against you with their Y chromosomes. In those early days it required a painful spinal fluid sample and bone-marrow transplant. Now all it takes is blood and tissue samples and a few injections and one month later you are officially, and genetically female. Or male. Or whatever. The sex-change manipulations were first but it didn’t take long until athletes were getting spliced with spiders or bulls or just about anything under the sun. Since this came from an executive order these changes had to be allowed by the professional leagues, which means that if even one person on the opposing team had an upgrade you were smoked unless you too had someone with an upgrade on your team. At first it was interesting, watching someone with a cheetah upgrade zip down the basketball court like that superhero Flash but eventually things got so out of hand each game is almost like a train wreck, what with arm extensions and quadropeds and whatever crazy designer genes they come up with. The other sports are no better. I hope they come up with guidelines because it’s almost not fun to watch anymore.

Of course those people can afford the best and can switch back, which is more expensive and makes me think of that retro cartoon about Sneetches and how the price kept going up with each change. Of course, kids these days won’t watch any show that’s not immersive… their loss. Listen to me… “Kids these days.” I sound like my great-grandpa! Sports weren’t the only areas affected. When I was a kid red carpet events were about the fancy clothing that the celebrities would wear but once they started modifying it was also about who had the most outlandish upgrades. The first one I recall seeing was some movie star wearing zebra skin. Not a jacket or dress or anything. She had her skin changed into actual zebra fur! I think I saw her later on a talk show with human skin again but with three massive horns sprouting from the top of each shoulder. Man, she looked fierce! You can always count on Baby Gaga for some crazy attention-getter, like the time she “grew” boobs all over her body. Talk about weird. While celebrities were wary of messing with their faces, which is their bread and butter, it wasn’t uncommon to see a bank VP with a bird head and a human body, looking very much like a mythological Egyptian god. I speak from experience when I say that when you’re sitting across the desk from a centaur, even one in a sports coat and tie, one doesn’t exactly feel empowered to negotiate a lower interest rate. It’s still expensive but recently the price has been coming down so that it’s not unusual these days to bump into a minotaur while picking up a six pack or finding out that the person who beat you out of a new job had two extra arms which made them twice as productive.

But I’ve gotten off track. So Sheila was going to live a human lifespan but we wanted more. A second upgrade for her would have been risky. I considered becoming half-collie but what would I change? My head, probably, and I’d definitely get a tail. However even with all the government-mandated changes in businesses my productivity would surely suffer if I had paws and I can’t afford a cut in pay. Plus there’s the whole aesthetics of what I would look like and, yes, my old school side is showing, I kind of like just being human. Besides I didn’t have enough on my chip to become half-collie so I decided that I would show my commitment to our relationship by the next best thing: a spinal implant. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone back to the place in the strip mall but I couldn’t afford one of the higher-priced luxury splicers on a data-cleaners salary. Plus I had a coupon.

The technician at DNA Café, which I think used to be a tattoo and piercing place when I was a kid, was very thorough and explained that it would likely take three months for the CanineWize graft to fully take. Nerves, it appears, are slow to mend. However for a bit extra I could buy an ointment that would speed up the healing to about two weeks and I made the splurge. And yes, I’ll admit that I also opted for the additional GuitarWizard package. The entire process took about thirty minutes with me laying face-down on a kind of massage-bed that had a hole for my face and clamps and straps to keep my head and body from moving while a massive robotic arm numbed the back of my neck and, well, without going into too much detail, grafted the implants into my spinal column.

After thirty minutes in their waiting room to make sure everything was okay I went back to my one-bedroom apartment, gave Sheila a hug and filled her water and food bowls and took the small red pill that would knock me out for a while and allow for faster healing of the implant. I was out for twenty hours and probably would have been out longer if Sheila hadn’t woken me up by licking my face. I reached up and had stubble on my chin and thought at first “I’m changing into half collie!” but it was just from not shaving. I let Sheila out and she was gone a long time, which I can’t really blame her with being cooped up while I was recovering. She came back and wolfed down a fresh bowl of food (beef bits and country vegetables, her favorite) and surprised me by saying, “Thanks for the swally, Dylan.” Clear as day! I tried to respond in dog but was only able to make a small yip that made Sheila look at me funny. They’ve come a long way with programming implants so even though I’ll have the knowledge of dog (and guitar playing) I will still need to practice a bit so the muscles of my throat (and hands) are in sync with the chip in my brain.

I tried again, this time concentrating on saying her glorious name, “Sheila.” Another funny look in reply and then “Are you trying to talk to me, Dylan?” I nodded, slightly confused because I never expected her to have a Scottish accent. “So the implant works? You can understand me?” Another nod and I ventured another try at speaking dog with “Yes, Sheila.”

“About that name. I’m Bonnie. Scottish. Not Australian. And look, now that we can, we need to talk.” There was a long pause as she collected her words, my heart suddenly pounding at the dreaded phrase “we need to talk.” “Thanks for taking care of me the past few years and for combing my fur and all that. It’s not like I don’t appreciate it. And I know you love me and Dylan, I wish I could return your affections. I really do care for you but just not in that way.” Another pause as she gathered courage. “Dylan, I’m leaving you for Igor, the Great Dane three buildings down. In fact, I’m probably carrying his pups. I never wanted to hurt you… Can’t we just be friends?” We looked at each other in painful silence for a few moments before Sheila, er, Bonnie went to the door and scratched sorrowfully at it. I let her out and she never returned.

I already had scheduled vacation time for recovery so I spent the next couple of weeks in my apartment watching intervision, generally not eating or sleeping much, and feeling like a fool. Every talk show was talking about a new human splice called AngelKiss which makes it so you can’t die. Right now it has not been approved by the FDA but that hasn’t stopped the ultra-rich from flying to other countries to become immortal. Apparently they’ve been doing this for years and word just leaked out. Of course a few fuddy-duddies are denouncing AngelKiss, saying that if no one dies then our already over-burdened planet will collapse but that won’t happen. If something like AngelKiss really works then the underclass will never be allowed, or allow to afford, such a modification.

After about a week I finally left my apartment. It was weird and depressing to be out on the streets without Sheila with me. I walked by the park, hoping she might be there, but she wasn’t. Now that I can understand dog, though, I may have to avoid the park. Mostly they just talked about squirrels and food and joked about “their servants” scooping up their poop. On the way back there was some preacher guy shouting on a corner, obviously well outside of any free speech zone, but I didn’t feel like reporting him. He was kinda interesting, raving about how some day people will want to die but death will elude them and how we should all repent. Leave it for the religious nuts to fear the latest technological advances.

Speaking of fear, I think it’s time to face my own. It’s been two months since Sheila left me and my co-workers tell me that I need to get back in the saddle. I’ve been practicing speaking dog so tonight, after work, I plan to swing by the Non-Human Shelter and try to strike up a conversation or two. Hopefully they have a collie. Hey, a man likes what he likes, okay?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Garden Post 2016

I guess it's time to admit that I'm back into gardening. On a small scale. After The World's Most Expensive Garden in 2014 I scaled it way back in 2015, partly because of moving back into the city and partly because I was likely in some kind of gardening funk. I did carrots and beets and half-heartedly threw in a few plants but mostly my heart just wasn't in it.

It's about the same this year. After seeing the sun that our yard gets, plus the clay soil and general lack of drainage, I've got a better idea of what goes where. But there's not a lot of compulsion. I've found that I'm a pretty sucky gardener so if the U.S. economy blew up and my family needed to depend on me to feed them we'd starve in fairly short order. And I can accept that. But when the sun finally starts to shine one tends to forget the failed experiments of the past and you try some new experiments that will surely end in an entirely new kind of failure.


Experiment #1:
Yes, those are melon seeds sprouting in the back window of my car. Instant greenhouse! And since I drive a 1995 Ford Taurus that I also use to haul bags of play sand and compost, well, the little bit of dirt that might get spilled if I take a turn too fast is only going to blend in. Should they survive these seeds will be added to my collection of Experiments #2, started mainly due to the bad drainage and poor soil, although I'm hoping that the bag will lower watering expectations, increase plant warmth and reduce weeds.


Experiment #2:
Yes, I've now gone full hillbilly and am planting things directly into bags of compost. I poke holes in the bottom and cut out a big square on top and hope for the best. So far I've got some sunflower seeds going and three of my kids each got their own bag o' compost (yep, we're livin' large) and choice of dollar-store flower seed packet.

My dad had some extra tomato plants so these went into the raised bed. In addition to the holes poked in the bottom I also cut out a six-inch square and planted 'em deep, topping the whole thang with super-strength cages.

There are also some onions that are growing from last year. For now I'm leaving them alone to see what will happen, although I expect they'll soon get yanked for a plot of green beans.

The kids also planted some nice flowers. They were asking to have their own vegetable garden and although my oath as a homeschool dad practically binds me to follow through with such a project, I just don't have the yard space.
In fact, this is all I have for a garden and the sides have standing water after it rains. Note the forty-year-old railroad timbers that disintegrate if you look too hard at 'em. I'll have to replace them in a year or two and I'm kind of regretting giving my dad the other two metal raised beds that I made, which means that I'll be needing to be making another set for myself. Such is life.

The raspberry plants were moved from the country last spring and it didn't take long until I realized that I had placed them in a very soggy location so I moved them again. I don't know if this is their final destination, hence the many weeds.

And finally the Ye Olde Carrot & Beet patch, covered in chicken wire to prevent squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks from disturbing them before they grow. This spring I was loosening the soil to get it ready, digging deep, and pulled up a handful of dead leaves. I picked up said dead leaves and yelled out "UGHWUWWUGH!" as I realized there was something moving and wriggling in the leaves, throwing them into the yard. A closer look revealed four baby moles. IN MY CARROT PATCH! They are gone now and I've taken steps to encourage their mother to relocate and haven't seen any sign of her presence in about a month. The whole thing scarred me for life.

Cost so far: About 25 bucks.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review - Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group by Dennis Dunaway

While there have been other Alice Cooper Band biographies (including Alice’s own Me, Alice and No More Mr. Nice Guy by guitarist/songwriter Michael Bruce) I would state that Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group is the definitive biography. It is, after all, written by the bassist of the group, Dennis Dunaway (with Chris Hodenfield) and we all know that bassists are often methodical beasts. Plus he had a journal and many letters written during this time period. In a friendly way, Dennis points out that Alice the man is prone to exaggeration and embellishment and during their heyday if a rumor sprouted up somewhere it was encouraged. For instance the chicken incident. Dennis notes that the band itself brought the chicken and you can see in some film of the event where Alice pulls the chicken from the bag. However it was never the bands intent that the chicken be killed by the audience, though when it happened the controversy was free press.

Dennis also clarifies the origin of many of the concepts and themes that made the band famous, usually attributing them to himself or his wife, who made the bands outlandish clothing on no budget overnight. Being the quiet fellow and thinking that it was a band effort, he usually did not speak up to defend his intellectual property, thinking that in the end it was all part of being in a band. Bass players are often like that. But he also gives mountains of credit where it is due, not only to the individual members of the band but also to their innovative lighting guru, management and roadies. There’s also the matter of how to divide writing credits when one is in a band kicking around ideas. As an example he quoted the original poetry that was morphed by the band into the song “Desperado.” No writing credit for Dennis on that one but there would be no “Desperado” without his initial page of inspiration. It’s refreshing that there’s no bitterness or “I told you so” in his tone, just a telling of how things happened. There are other clarifications throughout the book, though I’ll leave those for the reader to discover*.

Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! is highly recommended. Even though I had heard most of these stories before, from multiple sources, it was nice to hear them again from a more objective viewpoint. As a music junkie it would have been nice to read more stories behind the creation of every album. Yes, I understand that the albums were cranked out about every six months under a dizzying whirlwind of touring and drugs and partying but still... I mean, the School’s Out album has some amazing bass lines on it (amazing songs, too) but the only song Dennis wrote about is the title track. I suppose you can’t always get what you want. Oh wait, that’s another band.

* But I have to say that Dennis puts to rest the idea that Bob Ezrin taught the band to play their instruments. Bob helped tighten their songwriting arrangements but they band was already very adept, as the two Zappa-label albums will attest.