Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 4

It was a busy three-day weekend and I've got the sunburn and the toned muscles to show for it.

On Friday I drove out to my dad's to borrow his truck and trailer so that I could drive way out east of New Haven to buy a go-cart and then all the way across town to buy a riding lawnmower from the parents of a daughters friend. The kids had a blast on the go-cart for an hour before the chain broke. While the lawnmower started just fine when I first saw it, the battery is now dead and refuses to take even a trickle charge. So yeah, just two days later and neither expensive (for me) purchase runs. Add 'em to my "To-Do" list!

But what about that garden? Because it was getting a bit late in April and my dad's mud had yet to turn into black gold I ended up buying $47 of peat moss and dirt to fill up six tenths of the second raised bed, seen under construction to the left. I let the kids help me hand mix the soft soil, resulting in all of us having dirty peat-moss faces of which I failed to capture, especially Jubilee's unibrow. Oh yeah, the battery in the camera died last week (another $42) and the Power Wheels vehicle also suffered a battery death some time over the winter, cost as yet unknown. Did we move to some kind of battery Bermuda Triangle?

In any case, eventually the carrot seeds got planted, or scattered. White ones, yellow ones, red ones, orange ones but no purple ones... I plum forgot about purple. In the pot there are these stubby parisian carrots and the "step down" bed has red and yellow beets. It's going to be a colorful fall!

That was Friday (I think). Before I could do much Saturday I had to make a sandbox out of landscape timbers that the previous owner left behind. Four by Four feet seems huge when figuring out how many bags of sand it will take but once the kids get in it doesn't seem so large, not that the kids are complaining. Maybe I'll expand it one day... my brain is already working on how. I started construction with those big nails made just for these but I gotta tell ya, I'm not much for upper body strength. After whomping four of those spikes into place I just didn't have it in me to finish and switched to three inch screws.

When I picked up the pickup from my dad he gave me some chives and something he calls lazy onions because you plant them once and they just spread. They're some asian thing that's like an underground leek. Because of his generous gift I spent the next two hours driving around in his truck choking on onion fumes.

And of course when I got his truck I forgot to retrieve plants from the old house. Yes, I'm that kind of person. Not many, just a few raspberry plants and a walking stick bush that I've tended to for years, waiting for it to take off in it's former semi-shady location, hence it's lopsided condition as year after year it arduously reached out for sunlight. It turns out that the new owners of the house just bulldozed where I had the raspberry plants so I should have taken them all and I full expect they will rip out every plant where the walking stick bush was as well. But since I forgot to put them in the truck I had to shoehorn them into my car. There was barely enough room for me but at least now I've got my beloved walking stick back and it will surely grow like gangbusters in it's new home.

What else? Well, I planted some cauliflower, seen here as circles of dirt. I also bought six cabbage plants and put those in. No pictures so you'll have to trust me on this.

The peas are just starting to poke through and the onions are showing off. I wish everything grew as easily and as quickly as onions.

And finally... Make Your Own Sod!
There are a number of dead spots in the yard so I'm taking the grass from the garden and plopping it down, adding water, and giving it a "here's hoping" try. Worse case scenario is that I'll have even more dead spots in the yard. Best case scenario is that these sod clumps will magically turn into leprechaun gold.

The running total so far is $192 and I ain't got a single bean to show for it.

Lesson learned this week: Sunscreen is good if you're pale from the winter and plan to spend two days outside. If you forget, take vitamins C and E.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 3

Where to put the green beans? Where to put the sweet potatoes? Is planting cauliflower worth it? Decisions, decisions...

This past weekend I had hoped to put in the carrots, beets, cabbage and cauliflower but there was an event where my daughters could get free prom dresses (not that they are of prom age) and so most of my Saturday was spent outside with my three youngest. Watching. Yeah, I was watching the little ones, making sure none died, but mostly I was watching shadows on the ground, wondering. Is there enough sun on the spot where I intend to put the sweet taters? It's likely to get shade in the morning but will have at least eight hours of full sunlight. Or would it be better to put them where they'll have sun in the morning but shade in the evening? Am I over thinking this? Probably.

So while not much was done in the garden this past weekend, this past week was eventful. For instance I sank two exterior 2X4s into the dirt to serve as support for the jute twine trellis that will support the sugar snap and regular peas (visible in the back, right in front of the burn barrel). My two elder daughters (they probably like the label now but will hate it later) did the planting. Since I live on old farm land the dirt in the side yard is surprisingly rich so all I did was dig up a shovel depth and mix in some peat moss and, I think, a single bag of top soil along an eight foot length. I've not had much luck with peas in the past but then again, I was growing them in a window box with only a two foot trellis. Here's to hoping! In the foreground you can see the three ten foot sections I've dug to accept the sweet potato slips when they arrive in May. Well, two and a half. I must have been taking a break when I took the photo. I've not done anything yet to amend or warm the soil but I plan to put in those pocket hand warmers every six inches. Just kidding!

Here you see the beginning, and the ending, of the Hoffman Sugarbush. There was a branch in the way of the tire swing so I lopped it off with my trusty shears and then realized that the swingee was getting doused in sap. Up went a bucket on the ubiquitous jute twine! We collected about two cups over the next twenty-four hours and even though it was slightly sweet we decided against boiling it down to syrup as I don't know if the tree is even a maple, let alone a sugar maple.

The wee ones had the excitement of seeing the onions starting to sprout, even though they don't like onions. It's probably a good thing I didn't get any seeds in the ground this weekend because it snowed last night. Not a ton but enough that it is sticking, though I expect it to melt away soon. So now these onion sprouts are under a tarp, no doubt playing hide and seek.

And in final news, I'm continually surprised in my attempts to start things from seed. In the past it's been hit or miss, with the emphasis on miss. I get 'em started and grown okay but then they rot off at the soil. "Okay, I can figure this out," I decided and rolled up my sleeves and started researching. It turns out my cheapness was the problem so this year instead of reusing soil I purchased those little peat discs. I planted a variety of items a few weeks back in a store-bought lidded seed starting tray, making notes of what was where on a chart that I promptly misplaced, put the tray on a heating pad and covered the whole she-bang with an overturned plastic storage tote and waited. Some things sprouted within days so I moved these out from under the lidded tray but still under the tote, adding a light to give their chlorophyll a workout. Based on my past failures, I wasn't really expecting to be able to plant these so after two weeks I took the ones that sprouted and moved them to a plastic laundry basket which went right into the bedroom closet with yet another light on it. These have been watered and lighted and generally babied.

The unlidded tray with the failed peat plugs stayed in the dark basement, unwatered, unheated and neglected. I wasn't surprised at how many failed to ignite because, since I wasn't expecting much, I used some very old (2007) heritage tomato and pepper seeds, along with brand new celery and cabbage. However this past weekend I took a look and was shocked to see that a number of seeds have sprouted in the dark. At least one is an ancient pepper and the final tomato has sprouted as well, meaning every single seven year old tomato seed has taken root! Plus there are two mystery ones with itty bitty seeds. I'll have to find the chart to see what these are. But in the meantime, these are going straight up to the laundry basket to see if I can kill them.

No money spent this past week but I expect that to change soon. I think I'll shake things up and instead of making the first raised bed half lettuces and half carrots, with the hillbilly divider, I think I'll make that entire bed into lettuces and put the carrots in a second, yet to be constructed, bed. Which means that I'll need to buy twenty cubic feet of very loose soil.

Lesson Learned This Week: Never count an old seed out. They may surprise you with their resilience!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Killer

Killer is a mixed bag. The fact that it was written, recorded and released only nine months after Love It To Death can excuse the paltry listing of a mere eight songs. Of those eight, the ones that are my least favorite are the ones that were released as singles which means that I’m the polar opposite of this guy. Go figure.

“Under My Wheels” has a peppy horn section to back up the driving hard rock beat and dark yet humorously delivered lyrics about driving over someone. The entire album is supposed to be a loose concept album concerning killers, though I’m lost as to the manner of death in the next song/single, “Be My Lover,” a simple story song about hooking up whose redeeming feature is when drummer Neal Smith dropped his sticks at the end and they intentionally kept it on tape. The simplicity is counteracted by “Halo of Flies,” an attempt to write a prog-rock song in the vein of King Crimson. Back in the day, I had no idea of what “prog rock” was but I seriously liked this song! At 8:22, there are many different styles and sounds and changes to accompany the espionage-themed lyrics. And because they can, they even threw in a mini drum solo. Side one ends with “Desperado”, a somber song about a gun slinger for hire that culminates in a stunning inclusion of strings that brings a level of beauty and sophistication to the dusty west. It’s one of the best singles from the Alice Cooper band catalog.

Side two is half meh, have genius. The rocking “You Drive Me Nervous” is two and a half minutes of attitude with no focus while the raunchy “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is just as repetitive as its name. Hey, they can’t all be golden. Interestingly*, the final two songs, the best on the album, do not list Bob Ezrin as a co-writer, possibly blowing my theory out of the water that Ezrin is the bands muse. Possibly. I’m not willing to throw out that theory yet. “Dead Babies” begins with a simple yet ingenious bass line**, one that I’ve played many times and sometimes even when warming up at church. Then the guitars enter with a slinky, shimmering pattern and it’s creepy all over even before the singing begins. But these, too, add to the tone, with a faint whisper of “Little Betty ate a pound of aspirin / She got them off the shelf up on the wall.” It’s eerie, morbid stuff and the band handles the subject with all the tact of a Doberman, launching gleefully into a bombastic chorus of “Dead babies / Can’t take care of themselves/ Dead babies / Can’t take things off the shelves.” It’s almost Doctor Demento except for the knives in the guitars and the snarl in the vocals. Nearly six minutes long, the song stretches out, nicely exploring an instrumental passage, adding a perfectly timed horn melody, writhing and contorting to a boiling point of an anthem of “Goodbye, little Betty!” This leads directly to “Killer”, another lengthy prog-pop song, this time about someone who finds themselves on death row, a rather seedy someone who “saw just what I liked / And took what I found.” The band jumps into a tasty instrumental battle after this brief verse, eventually winding down the dueling lead guitars to a chilling and dramatic passage where the protagonist repeats the verse in spoken form, almost in a kind of shock to find himself caught. Then begins a quiet, unnerving organ melody, apparently music for walking to the electric chair, and then the switch is thrown, treating the listening to loud, dissonant electronic sounds as the convict fries. Years and years and years ago, while in high school, I fell asleep to this cassette while doing homework but was jolted straight up at the jarring noises of this “execution,” my heart in my throat until the sleep fog cleared and my confused brain remembered what was making all that racket. Good times…

Rank: Essential Cooper

* To a music dork like me.

** Speaking of bass lines, Dennis Dunaway really starts stepping up his game on this album, adding yet another layer of melodic interest and complexity to the songs. But this album is just an appetizer for the next album, School’s Out, where he transforms into an absolute BASS MONSTER!

Penguin Point - Chilidog

It's not a very good picture, is it? And the chili dog doesn't look all the appetizing either. But following my standard protocol, I took what they gave me. If they had asked what I wanted on said dog I would have loaded it up but they didn't and so I assume this is the Penguin Point version of the famous food item.

Overall, it wasn't bad. With a coupon I received two doggies for three bucks, plus little white trays at no extra charge! The hot dog itself was the highlight. Beefy, tasty, average sized, well cooked but not overcooked. Like the time I had a regular hot dog, the bun seemed on the verge of stale, being slightly tough and not softened by steam so again, I'll conclude that this it is a corporate decision to serve all their hotdog related products in such buns. As you can (almost) see, they were pretty skimpy on the chili sauce. Five or six beans, maybe? Average value with a coupon but I'd be ticked if I had paid the published rate of $2.29!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Music Review - Danny Elfman - Music For A Darkened Theatre Vol. 2

Good ol' Danny Elfman! For me he was a wonderful stepping stone into better classical music. Not that his music isn't enjoyable, especially his earlier works. But unfortunately, for me he seems to have perhaps three distinct styles and sticks rather rigidly to those. What he does in those styles is good but once your hear "wondrous Edward Scissorhands fairytale sound with gushing chorus" once there's no need to hear it again.

Fans of Elfman have had to wait a long time to get a compilation of Mr. Elfman's works, but the wait has been worth it. Music for A Darkened Theatre - Film & Television Music Volume 2 is a two CD set containing almost two and a half hours of music. While musicologists debate whether Elfman is more steak or sizzle, it is difficult to deny that in a world where most tv/film composers sound alike, he has a distinct sound and many imitators.

For those who are not familiar with the music of Elfman, consider the music to the Pee Wee Herman films, Beetlejuice, and The Simpsons theme. Of course, those are not on this CD (I'm so cruel). However, there is plenty of excellent music from such movies as Dolores Claiborne, Batman Returns, Mission Impossible, and Nightmare Before Christmas. As an added bonus, you will find a number of tracks that have never been released including the theme music to Pee Wee's Playhouse and television music he created for Spielburg's Amazing Stories series. The "best" of each film score is contained in a 15-minute suite for each title, showcasing the maturation of Elfman's style during the 1990s and his mastery of many genres. The suite from Sommersby is horrendously sad, giving the movie much of its emotional impact while the music from Dead Presidents is dark and unrelenting, dominated by ethnic percussion, synthesizer, and an eerie, hollow-sounding wind instrument. My personal favorite on this collection is the suite from Edward Scissorhands where Elfman creates a haunting, magical mood, capturing perfectly the nostalgic, sad-warm memories of a love lost. For the Elfman completist, this collection contains close to an hour of music that can not be found anywhere else. For the rest of the world, it is an excellent sampling into music of one of today's most dynamic film composers.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, December 1998.

Music Review - Synergy - Reconstructed Artifacts

I'll forever be indebted to Synergy for the enjoyed they, well, Larry Fast, gave me in my adolescent years. I wish he'd write and record some new music but in the same vein, I wish I would write and record some new music as well.

My first experience with Synergy was compliments of a Sunday midnight headphone show on WXKE (LONG LIVE THE INDEPENDENT RADIO STATIONS!). It was the mid 80s and keyboards were all the rage but presented before my ears were sounds that definitely were not organic in origin. Instead of the squeaky, poppy sounds of popular music these sounds were lush, textured, and arranged into exciting combinations and cinematic forms derived from classical music.

The mind behind these exciting sounds belongs to Larry Fast, a man who has lent his sound to well-known recording artists such as Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates, Freedy Johnston, Better Midler, and Blue Oyster Cult. When Fast started recording synthesized music in 1974 about all that existed in the genre was Walter/Wendy Carlos' Switched on Bach. Roland, E-mu, Kurzweil… all were mere babies or perhaps not ever yet a twinkle in some engineer's eye. Thus Fast constructed much of his own analog synthesizers and music processing equipment (plus writing his own software for the Apple IIe), ultimately creating a unique and personalized sound. From 1975 to 1986 he sporadically unleashed magical albums upon a largely ignoring world and then, like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, one day the music stopped. Until now…

Reconstructed Artifacts is Fast's first album in over fifteen years. Instead of new material he has chosen to revisit classics from his earlier works, rerecording them with today's digital synthesizers and digital recording equipment. While in their day they were cutting edge, compared to the expanded audio width of this release, the earlier recordings sound as if they were recorded in a tin can. The familiar timbres of Fast's signature sound is full and fat, filling the aural spectrum and exposing nuances that long lay hidden under the hiss of analog recording technology.

Selections include "Relay Breakdown" and "Warriors" from the ground-breaking 1975 Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra, "S-Scape" from Sequencer (1976), "Orbit 5", "Ancestors", and "Flight of the Looking Glass" from 1981's Audion and an abridged collection of tracks from the 1986 release, Metropolitan Suite, one of my favorite instrumental albums of all time. Compared to the primitive digital synths of 1986 (a whopping 8 bits!) the sound of this new recording is simply mind numbing although without the complete suite the emotional impact is not completely realized.

If you like instrumental electronic music, this is a great album to experience Larry Fast's Synergy. Unlike most synthesizer-only music which is often dreary new age drivel, the pieces on the album range from contemplative to driving with complex rhythms and never leave you in a catatonic state of boredom. This high-recommended album is available from www.synergy-emusic.com.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2002.

Music Review - David T. Chastain - Rock Solid Guitar

I have absolutely no memory of this album. I don't remember if I bought it or if it was provided by a record company. It's not even listed in my CD database. How much coffee did I drink during the period of my life where I was writing two or three reviews a week just to make ends meet?

Like most adolescent boys growing up in the mid-eighties, I was drawn to superstar guitar players like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, technically astounding musicians that could make the guitar burst into flames with a mere touch. There always seemed to be a steady stream of "the next greatest", some hotshot kid on a poorly distributed independent label that Tim at the Wooden Nickel Collectors store would tenaciously track down if you had the money and the patience. One name that often surfaced in these lists of guitar greats, and one that never presented itself when I had available funds or patience, is David Chastain. Now that the testostertone no longer courses through my veins at levels high enough to grow facial hair on a smurf, I finally have a chance to hear this guitar legend. While it is my understanding that many of his past releases are intense, hyper-fast experiences in shredding, Rock Solid Guitar is nine tracks of good old-fashioned mid-tempo, kick-back-with-a-beer blues based rock and roll. Presented in a bare bones bass (Steven Taylor), drums (Mike Haid) and lone, non-overdubbed guitar (Kramer… as played by Chastain), the nine tracks allow Chastain to showcase his improvisational skills. For the most part, these instrumentals were recorded with little planning, allowing the power-trio to perform as the music came to them. While sticking to the blues-based rock sound, there is still quite a bit of variety. For instance, "Keeper Of Tomorrow" integrates Haids jazz fusion background with the blues guitar, creating some great opportunities for soloing. "Hats Off to Angus and Malcom" is, of course, a tribute to the music of AC/DC and appropriately is full of bad boy boogie. Sporting some really great guitar tones, "Riding In Style" is a straight-ahead blues rocker in the manner of Stevie Ray Vaughn. Speaking of Steve's, Steve Vai also gets the nod on "Sounds Cool To Me", a slower track that allows Chastain to explore some hard rock territory. And what rock album would be complete without a rousing song about the weekend? "Getting A Little Crazy", with its "Saturday night in a small club" feel, definitely fits the bill. All told, this sizzling release showcases the talents of one of rock's most talented guitarists with nine hot instrumentals guaranteed to satisfy your rock blues cravings.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.