Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 5

No pictures this week, kiddies, as I spent the weekend in a foreign country, Cincinnati. However the very day that we left USPS delivered our berry plants from Indiana Berry, leaving the box on our south-facing front porch. Fortunately it was overcast for most of the time so I didn't find a box of baked roots on our return. I was very impressed with how everything was packed. Heck, they might have even survived under full sun.

In addition to a variety of raspberry twigs and some hopeful blackberry roots wrapped in wet newspaper I purchased a strawberry pyramid, also made in Indiana. This came with 50 "free" everbearing strawberry plants. This whole shebang added $107 to our cost, making the total so far $299. While I'm at it I'll include the seeds I purchased this past winter from Heirloom Seeds which I think was $20, making the sum $319. GULP.

But we ain't done yet, kids! While I can stick the raspberries and blackberries into some nicely amended soil that strawberry pyramid isn't going to fill itself with dirt! Where oh where is my dad with that load of dirt? In the mean time it's off to the garden center. The Indiana Berry web site says that said pyramid holds ten bushels of dirt. The instructions of said pyramid say it needs about one cubic yard. As the base of the unit is six feet across and five inches high and pie are square... yep, it needs a cubic yard. That's a whole lotta dirt! As your average pickup truck can hold just over one cubic yard my 1995 Ford Taurus had to take this load in two bites. That's right... my car can hold half as much as a pickup! I should have taken a picture of my car riding real low and the trunk full of bad of compost and dirt. Oh well, your loss. Now we get to add in 16 bags of dirt (.75 cubic feet each) and 12 bags of compost! 21 cubit feet of... wait a minute! A cubic yard is 27 feet. So maybe I only fill the first tier. Anyway, the total for this spree is $42. I think I need to sit down because my running total is now $361 and I still don't have any food to show for it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Muscle of Love

Muscle of Love was released at the end of 1973. That makes a whopping five albums in three years plus a slew of classic hits. The years of constant touring and international success had taken a toll on the boys and they were burned out and egoed up. Glen Buxton was so wasted that he didn't play on this album* and Vince was drinking so much that he was throwing up blood every morning. Their last two albums, School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies were studio projects so for this album they intended to get back to their roots with a stripped down, raw sound. Let It Be anyone? To accompany this raw sound many of the songs are about sex. Even before I became a Christian sex in songs repelled me. As a final blow, longtime producer Bob Ezrin dropped out over disagreements with band members concerning songwriting. How can a band go from "We're the most dangerous, creepy band in the world, selling out stadiums, getting banned in countries" to "Hey, let's have Liza Minelli sing on our album!" and not have jumped the shark?

Unpolished sound + No Bob Ezrin + songs about sex + burned out band = my least favorite Alice Cooper Band album

When it came time to re-review this album it was no surprise to find that I no longer owned it. Once upon a time I had the vinyl version complete with the grease-stained cardboard pizza box packaging but that got damaged in a flood and I never replaced it. I considered buying the download version for $9 from Amazon but opted instead to listen via YouTube. After all, why waste nine bucks on something I'll likely only listen to once or twice in my life? Why not instead spend nine bucks on a Chinese buffet? Mmmmm.... super delicious...

"Big Apple Dreaming" starts the album and, in my brain, is definitely a highlight. Grinding organ, accenting strings, an offbeat melody and a natty guitar riff all combine to make one superb song! This is followed by "Never Been Sold Before," a song about prostitution. Whatever. But this is followed by "Hard Hearted Alice," a song that I remembered enjoying. Hearing it again 10+ years later and I'm quite impressed. The first two minutes is a dreamy organ and acoustic guitar excusion, capturing the snoozy feel of waking up and laying in bed. Then electric guitars, bass and drums enter, driving the same melody toward the catchy chorus and a retro-sounding (well, late sixties) instrumental. After this is "Crazy Little Child," a jazzy story song about gangsters packed with some serious piano playing, horns and even a clarinet solo. Ya know, this album isn't nearly as bad as I remember it. It's not stellar but so far it's not sucky.

Side Two. "Working Up A Sweat." Harmonica, simple song structure, sex theme. Things are getting sucky. Pass. Ditto for "Muscle of Love" sans harmonica asans awesome bass line. "Man With The Golden Gun" was written as theme music for the latest James Bond movie of the same name but it was completed too late for inclusion. It's a fine song, kinda average. "Teenage Lament '74" is another nice but not especially unique song, possibly due to having Liza Minelli as a background singer. Thanks to YouTube I see they have a video. Enjoy! Notice that Glen Buxton isn't seen. My guess is that the barely-shown fifth member is a stand-in. 'Tis sad. And finally, "Woman Machine." I thought I liked this song musically but my opinion now is that there's nothing to it.

And so ends the album and so ends the Alice Cooper band, going out with a relative whimper. For more details on the end of the band, check out Bob Greene's book Billion Dollar Baby.

Rank: Quality but not classic

* And possibly on the last two either.

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

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.

Music Review - Buckethead - Somewhere Over the Slaughterhouse

I remember enjoying Giant Robot but not as for Somewhere Over The Slaughterhouse, er, not so much.

I really enjoyed last years re-release of Buckethead's Giant Robot which took eighties instrumental metal guitar and mixed it with a bizarre bucket of disjointed parts to create a bewildering theme park ride. I later read where Buckethead, this shadowy figure who plays his sizzling guitar with an expressionless white mask and a chicken bucket on his head, had become the newest guitarist for Gun's N Roses. This is sure to confuse longtime GNR fans as this virtuoso misfit is no "sweet child" in any conformist's dictionary. For instance, Buckethead once auditioned for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When he arrived he admitted that he had never heard any of their albums and only knew a few songs... by title only.

This latest solo release, Some Where Over the Slaughterhouse is a mix of dark and white meat. A few of the songs (well, compositions actually as there are no lyrics) are very good, churning metal guitar with drum loops and unearthly keyboard sounds. For instance, "Help Me" finds this same vocal loop repeated at various points in the song while a rave-induced drum track duels with a particularly nasty rhythm guitar through a variety of cat and mouse scenarios. Likewise, "Pin Bones and Poultry" is an actual composition with a variety of themes in a thought-out arrangement of guitars and wigged-out keyboards. The second half of the album, however, is more similar to the experimental music of Sonic Youth or repetitive video game music. "You Like Headcheese?" begins with an organ and flute intro before becoming what sounds like three minutes of Buckethead playing with a drum machine. In "Wires and Clips" it's almost as if someone plugged Buckethead into a guitar synth, hit record and later decided to overdub some drum machine loops decided by rolling dice. Have you ever wanted to listen in as a guitarist works on writing a song? Check out "Conveyer Belt Blues", a celtic-derived acoustic based heavily on a single simple theme. Maybe playing in such as "accepted" band as GNR has driven Buckethead to become more experimental on his solo albums... maybe he's finally cracked. The good tracks on this album remind me why I love this guy's music... he teeters on the edge of sanity, the electric guitar buzzing away making unnatural noises, and you wonder if he'll fall off the edge. With this album, it looks like he finally has.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2001.

Music Review - Buckethead - Giant Robot

Buckethead is one weird dude. I should give this one another listen!

Available for the first time in the U.S. is the 1994 sci-fi rock classic Giant Robot by the anonymous shredder known as Buckethead (who paints his face white and wears a chicken bucket on his head). Buckethead has played with Iggy Pop, Bootsy Collins (both of whom appear on this album), Primus, John Zorn, George Clinton, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just to name a very few. A past reviewer for WhatzUp panned a Buckethead album, claiming that it was all flash (he is a guitarist so I suspect he's a bit jealous) but I found quite a bit of substance in Giant Robot, albeit very bizarre substance not known to humankind. Stylistically, expect everything from raw Sabbath power riffs to Zappa meets Malmsteen metal licks that suddenly swoop into heartrending symphonic passages complete with a real string section. Each infectiously wacky track is a melodic instrumental, soundtracks for extreme rides at his imaginary theme park Bucketheadland, though strange cinematic episodes appear between and within many of the pieces. A small example: "Of course we have wax horse teeth, what kind of operation do you think we're running here?"

There is a sci-fi/comic book theme of battling giant robots (this was originally released in Japan) and the associated unique noises, not to mention the robot voice singing "Pure Imagination" from the movie Willie Wonka. Fans of Randy Rhodes-style guitar will find a lot to enjoy of this album with the dazzling "Welcome to BucketheadLand" and the Cheap Trick pop feel of "Binge and Grab." Then there's the grinding guitar riffs of "I Come In Peace" where a giant Buckethead Robot riffs through the city, destroying chicken restaurants with his giant guitar. "I Love My Parents" lends a soft moment to this "film" with a beautiful, touching melody carried by acoustic guitar and string section, but this doesn't last long because the ride soon plummets into the Primus-tinged bass mania of "Robot Transmission." The album ends with the melancholy "Last Train to BucketheadLand" with a conductor pointing out the various rides while he slowly loses touch with reality. Buckethead is seriously cracked, which is why I heartily recommend this album to fans of Primus, Mr. Bungle, Zappa, and general seekers of unique musical experiences.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2000.

Music Review - Phil Keaggy - Lights of Madrid

A decade+ later, this album remains one of Keaggy's career highlights.

In my mind, Phil Keaggy is one of the most inconsistent artists around. His albums range from timeless classics (Beyond Nature, Sunday's Child) to albums so bland they only received a few spins (True Believer comes quickly to mind and just as quickly is forgotten). His latest album, Lights of Madrid, happily falls into the former group with over an hour of compelling, well-crafted acoustic guitar instrumentals that span genres, techniques, and moods. As you may have guessed from the album title, many, but not all, of the pieces show a Spanish influence. Those familiar with Spanish classical guitar will not be disappointed as Phil very capably tackles the legato scales and technical playing required for this genre. Those familiar with Keaggy himself already know that he is a guitar player's guitar player with amazing technical skills, virtuoso skills which often take backstage to the melody and the structure of the song. His best work marries the two, as is evidenced here.

The title track is, of course, very Spanish with an upbeat, catchy rhythm, excellent backing percussion, and a memorable melody that is worked into the amazing guitar playing. In stark contrast is the peaceful "A Field of Flowers" which is simply two acoustic guitars, a cello, and a beautifully emotive melody that would have fit perfectly on the phenomenal Beyond Nature. "Allgeria" consists of many layers of guitars, orchestral strings, and keyboards as a single melody is pursued by each. By combining contemporary songwriting with Hayden-era classical, Keaggy wrote the nine-minute "Overture" for acoustic guitar and chamber orchestra. Here the guitarist has created an amazingly mature classical composition with solid pacing and development of ideas, definitely on par or better than any classical piece written by his hero, Sir Paul McCartney. I could listen to music like this all day... and frequently have since this CD came into my possession. The album closes, aptly, with the return of the Spanish-themed "Caliente", energetic dance music with some ripping xylophone!

The huge variety of tone colors, instrumentation, and melody makes this album so much more than an hour of naked acoustic guitar. If you order now, you'll get an enhanced CD that actually makes sense! Embedded in this CD are detailed tablature transcriptions of twelve of the fifteen tracks, complete with lead and rhythm parts with the solos painstakingly written out. Even without this bonus, however, this album is the best thing Phil Keaggy has written in nearly a decade: an instant classic for guitar freaks and lovers of quality music alike.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2001.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables Part 2

Was there gardening done this weekend? Oh yeah!

For starters, I needed raised beds. Well, more like wanted due to the advantages, per my dad, such as it's easier to work in them, the soil warms up faster so you get better and faster yields, and the height keeps the critters at bay. I've seen three different flavors of critters 'round my house and all need to keep away from my vittles! The question then becomes how long? How tall? Made out of what? Cinder blocks last forever but look ugly. There's all kinds of fear mongering concerning treated lumber and chemicals leaching into the food. And that's when I stumbled upon roofing sheet metal.

Menards has the stuff and it would cost me about $55 for the metal, plus the cost of treated 2X4s for the frame and wood for a ledge to sit on 'cause no one wants to put their keister on a razor thin (well, 22 gauge) slice of metal. But there's a problem. Having worked with the stuff for twenty-five years I'm completely comfortable with wood. But stone? Tile? Linoleum? Carpet? I'm a newbie. The same goes double for metal and it's sharp edges. Just thinking about making the necessary cuts gave me mental images of sliced fingers and palms.

So I called a few local metal working places to see what they would charge to make these very few cuts. I figured that someone with the right equipment could slice right through in about five minutes, probably less based on the metal cutting videos on YouTube. I'm cheap but would gladly pay $20 for such a convenience. No one was interested... too small of a job. I then turned my attention to Craigslist and got a quick reply! The guy wanted $140 to make two length-wise cuts on each of three pieces of metal. I decided that I'd buy the $10 metal cutting blade for my circular saw and try it myself, politely telling the guy thanks but no thanks. He responded with something along the lines of "When you screw it up, let me know and I'll come out and fix it for you." Even if I mess it up I won't be contacting a jerk like that.

So with my fear and trepidation I changed out the blade in the circular saw and began cutting, remembering to wear eye and ear protection but forgetting to wear long sleeves. There was smoking, there were sizzling red hot edges, the saw blade warped and had to cool until in unwarped but in the end I was able to make all the necessary cuts in about one hour and with no bodily injuries. Take THAT Craigslist jerk!

Attaching the 2X4 legs wasn't too difficult. I used a combination of galvanized roofing nails and exterior screws. The legs themselves only extend two inches into the ground as I figure once these are filled with dirt they aren't going anywhere. In putting them together I took great pains to make sure that they were lined up with the existing onion bed. I wasn't really thinking about making sure the sides were straight up and down. Oops. Because the side legs aren't exactly plumb the 4" wide topper boards aren't quite up to the task so I'll be replacing these with 6" boards soon and no one will know of the err in my ways. Unless they read this and look closely at the pictures.

The urgent item to get in, three weeks before LFD (Last Frost Date) is the first planting of romaine lettuce and the spinach. Because half of this planter will house carrots that need the full depth of the planter and because my soil provider is still AWOL I had to once again go buy dirt. But it's lettuce so I didn't need to fill the bed, hence the cobbled together mid-section wall made of pieces left over from the construction of a bed for my daughter. Cardboard on the bottom topped with a mixture of garden dirt, peat moss, and bagged composted manure and I'm in business!

So what am I out for this week's adventures?

$55 - sheet metal (for three 10' X 4' raised beds)
$20 - 9 treated 2X4s (makes three)
$12 - 3 10' X 4' boards (makes one) $10 - 2 10' X 6' boards to cover up my mistake
$1 - .75 cu ft manure
$7 - 6 plastic bags o' dirt
$2 - seeds
$10 - metal cutting blade

That makes a whopping total of $117! However each raised bed, sans dirt, will cost around $42 and should last until I'm too arthritic to garden.

Lesson Learned: Don't be a jerk if you offer services on Craigslist.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Love It To Death

There are some who remark on the drastic change between the sloppy psychedelic album Easy Action and the sharp pop-rock of Love It To Death but there really is no mystery. For Love It To Death a young newbie producer with a love for the dramatic by the name of Bob Ezrin was brought in to work with the band. I consider this to be a brilliant move equal to matching The Beatles with George Martin. Ezrin not only helped the band reign in their songwriting style but also helped them infuse a more theatrical style into their work. He also made them practice. A lot. Those who never really learn a skill just think that it happens, that some people "have it." What these people "have" is a discipline to practice. So while the members of the Alice Cooper Band had formerly practiced enough to be competent on their instruments, they likely not had the focused, intentional kind of practice necessary to get to that next level. The same goes for songwriting, where you go from "good enough" to "killer." To that end, Ezrin made this already pretty good band practice like it was a 40-hour work week, much like The Beatles slogged it out at The Cavern.

Was the result worth it? Oh yeah!

"Caught in a Dream" is the autobiographical story of the band reaching for fame, "trying to catch a ride in a Cadillac." A severely overlooked and underrated song, coming as it does right before "I'm Eighteen", it's got a great guitar hook. "I'm Eighteen" continues the slightly western vibe, adding in harmonica. I've heard this song hundreds of times and it's still solid, even if it isn't one of my favorites. "Long Way To Go" has a loopy bass line and dueling lead guitars but somehow fails to fully connect. In "Black Juju" the band feeds its prog-rock desires, slowly building the song for nine minutes, layering organs and dark guitar chords. However where on the first two albums the longer tracks often seem to lose their way, "Black Juju" stays on track, growing and teasing instead of filling time*. As an added bonus there are definitely hints (or theft) of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" and a serious nod to The Doors. I’ve never been a fan of “Is It My Body.” Musically and lyrically it just seems off plus it just seems weird to have Alice trying to find out if the listener just wanting his body, like he’s some kind of beefcake, or if they want to get to know the real him. Silly stuff.

Now onto the classic song cycle! “Hallowed By My Name” belies Furniers “religious” upbringing. Organs, gritty guitars, Furnier’s vocal snarl and a non-traditional rock beat make for an enjoyable yet angst-inducing listen, making a great appetizer for the courses to follow. Following a guitar lead in, the “Second Coming” is initially somber with sparse piano and confusing lyrics of hell, the devil and angels. Is the song about Christ? A black magic zombie from Black Juju? Has Alice ever weighed in on this? The song grows to an expectant militant instrumental passage, the piano slowly growing in volume until the main course, “Ballad of Dwight Frye” where a child’s voice asks, “Mommy? Where’s daddy?” I’m sure my wife would say this song is cheesy but to me it is pure mood as the question is answered “I was gone for fourteen days / I could have been gone for more / Held up in an intensive care ward / Lying on the floor.” At six and a half minutes, the song tells an eerie story of a man barely keeping his sanity, dramatically feeding you bits and pieces at a time. A highlight is the creepy piano figure played while Furnier frantically screams “I GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE!” The tension is palpable. Then comes a brief instrumental passage of moaning guitars followed by lyrics that indicate he’s been released and when he sees “a man that was choking there / I’m glad it wasn’t me” it’s fairly obvious who’s to blame, especially as the song ends with him screaming “DON’T TOUCH ME” as he is being taken back. After the dark it’s only fitting that the album ends with the cover song* “Sun Arise”, a dessert to clear the palate. It serves a purpose but otherwise it’s the weakest song on the album, even if they do manage to make it their own with an exciting instrumental passage.

Rank: Essential Cooper

* As a side note, years ago when I purchased an alarm clock that also played CDs I swore that I would make a CD-R of the part where Alice screams out "WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!" and use it to start my day. Fortunately better judgment prevailed.

** Alice Cooper, the man and the band, has properly recorded*** only five covers during their/his career. These are: "Hello, Hooray" by Judy Collins, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Benny Goodman and his orchestra, “Pretty Ballerina" by The Left Banke, "Seven & Seven Is" by Love and "Talk, Talk" by The Music Machine.

*** That is, songs released on an official album. Bonus tracks do not count.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Worlds Most Expensive Vegetables - Part 1

One of the best things about living in the country and having an acre of land is no long being confined to a twelve by twelve plot of land (plus feeble attempts to extend this via container gardening.) Nope, I get to spread out and REAAAALLY spend some bucks! In preparation I've spent hours planning and scheming via, reading up on various techniques, and doing my best to heed the many warnings not to go too big too soon. As there are hundreds of children who call this plot of land their home, all of whom will likely want to eat, that's going to be difficult.

For openers I'd like to buy some $28 onions. Well, that's not exactly fair. For $28 I'll hopefully get 180 red, white and yellow onions plus a smattering of green onions. How so?

$10 - 2 boards
$5 - 2.5 onion sets
$1 - .75 cu ft manure
$12 - 10 plastic bags of garden dirt

I had to buy dirt because my soil connection said that his stock is currently either frozen or heavily invested in mud. I'm leaving out the cost of a handful of screws and the cardboard lining the bottom. Cardboard? Oh yeah... it's the secret ingredient! Because onions can go in early (2-4 weeks before Last Frost Date, according to my research) it will be the first to go in. I've been itching to get this expense, er, garden started but it's been cold. One day in very late March it actually flurried and had snow layered on the ground. Fortunately it all melted by the afternoon and the next day I had a frame built and filled and I was pushing wee onions into the dirt. Now all I have to do is sit back and wait for eye watering goodness.

LESSON LEARNED: You can buy those bags of tiny onions at Walmart or Meijers, $1.99 for 80, but they're small and tend to rot if not planted within a week or so. However if you go to Rural King they have open bins where you can pick and choose the size and exact number of tiny onions that you need for about half the price. Now if only there was a Rural King close enough where I didn't have to spend $5 in gas to save $3 in onions.