Thursday, November 17, 2016

Dollar Tree - Jamaican Style Vegetable Patty

When my wife overheard me saying to the kids that I was going to start eating things from the freezer section of The Dollar Tree she yelped out "NOOOOO!" and then started to question my sanity. "Why are you doing this?" For the same reason a man climbs a mountain, my dear. Because it's there.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Music Review - Steve Taylor - Wow to the Deadness

Steve Taylor is ON FIRE!
Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foils Goliath is the best album I’ve heard in the last eighteen-odd months. It rocks hard, in a rootsy way, but with enough wit, creativity and soul that I’ve yet to grow tired of it. The album was crowd-funded and fans waited patiently for over a year after the funding goal was obliterated. On top of this it took twenty years for Steve to get around to making this album so I wasn’t expecting anything new this decade. Always expect the unexpected. Apparently Steve and his Foil met with the legendary Steve Albini to lay down six new songs. And to up the “unexpected” ante they added a new member, the bewildering Daniel Smith, a.k.a. Danielson, a.k.a. the guy who discovered Sufjan Stevens.

If you’ve ever heard the plucky music of Danielson then imagine that with an inventive “always in the pocket” hard rock band instead of his usual approximately-played quasi-acoustic backing. This holds true for half the songs. “Wait Up Downstep” starts with a quirky Danielson-rhythm played on acoustic guitar before power chords occasionally punctuate the bridge with Taylor singing. The low key “Nonchalant” seethes with rumbling distorted guitars and Taylor handling lead vocals with Mr. Smith throwing in a squeaky “HEY!” at the most perfect of times before John Mark Painter adds even more grit compliments of a baritone saxophone. “Drats” begins with Danielson singing in his trademark muppet-like voice (seriously, it’s like if Beaker could sing, but in a good way) against acoustic guitar before the band once again hijacks the song with a surging wave of thundering guitars and pounding drums. More bari sax is found on the title track, which is more of a traditional rock song, although one with hand claps and some un-tuned glockenspiel thing that magically fits perfectly in the mix. “Dust Patrol” is pure punk energy and features some of the most ragged and ratty guitars put to analog tape, at least until the bridge when everyone has a seat while Danielson is accompanied by Mexican horns and possibly a mandolin. “A Muse” quietly opens with the lyrics “I wasn’t out late / I barely had anything / Why do you act like you even care?” before lashing out into a soulful, powerful and angry chorus, backing down in the next verse with “That came out harsher / Than when I rehearsed it.” Blistering.

Wow To The Deadness completely blew away my expectations, which wasn’t difficult because I wasn’t expecting anything. However it is a worthy successor to Goliath with its peculiar, punchy melodic rock that leaves a pleasant yet puzzled smile on your face.

Music Review - Jerry Gaskill - Love and Scars

An excellent album that deserves more of my time. Kudos, Jerry!

For the past few decades Jerry Gaskill has beat the skins for King’s X, a relatively unknown but highly influential power trio. While the other two members have added a string of side projects and solo albums to their work as a band, Jerry has released only a single solo album. Until now.

While Gaskill’s first album, Come Somewhere, sounded like it had been written on an acoustic guitar and later rocked up, Love and Scars is a full-on melodic hard rock onslaught. The modern sound is largely due to guitarist/songwriter/producer DA Karkos, plus friends like Andee Blacksugar, Billy Sheehan and Phil Keaggy. But as they say back on the farm, if you slap lipstick on pig and put it in a fancy sequined dress, you might have a date for Saturday but it’s still a pig. To that end, all the deluxe sonic treatments won’t do anything to make a poorly written song enjoyable. Thankfully as a co-writer for many classic King’s X tunes, Jerry excels at creating great songs and this time it’s obvious that his guitar was plugged in when he wrote them.

And thankfully for King’s X fans, Jerry solo sounds a lot like King’s X. Surprise! I’m sure it helps that the guitarists “borrow” Ty Tabor’s signature guitar sound and style but since it’s been awhile since a proper King’s X album, I’m not complaining. I mean, can you really rip off your own band? As a confirmed Beatles fan, Jerry also uses vocal harmonies to flesh out his rich melodies. Instead of going through song by song I’ll just say that there are grinding mid-tempo rockers, lighter songs filled with dreamy guitars and even a playful “live” song at the end. In short, it’s got everything a rocker could want.

Always one to write some way-out lyrics that leave the listener scratching their head (“Six Broken Soldiers” and “American Cheese” come to mind) Jerry combines poetic mystery with humor and enjoyment out of everyday activities. Just a few examples: “You’re only pretty when your heart beats / Or your lungs breath / After that I just don’t know” (concerning his heart attack), “So Patty cut my hair / We talked about the air” and “You’re so lovely when you’re far away.”

With Love and Scars Jerry Gaskill proves that he’s much more than just an excellent drummer and songwriter. He’s survived two heart attacks plus losing everything to Hurricane Sandy and is still able to kick back, laugh, and enjoy life. Thankfully the songs on this album invite us to sit down and enjoy the humor of life by his side.

Music Review - Mutemath - Vitals

In truth this album kinda sucks. I've have it on my MP3 player and every time a song comes on via Shuffle I hit the skip button. Sorry, guys, but I think you missed the boat on this experiment.
It’s been four years since Mutemath released an album, although this isn’t exactly unusual as the band has only released four albums in ten years. What’s different this time is that the band has left their label and gone the crowd-funding route which gave them the freedom to do anything they wanted. Why they went the way they did befuddles me.

While Mutemath is known for following their muse and having a different sound on each album, for Vitals they went for an indie-Euro-pop sound. After listening to the first three songs I thought that my fifteen year old daughter might like them. She didn’t. So now I’m listening to Vitals over and over, wondering if it’s just that I’m not overly keen on the sound or if, for the first time in their career, Mutemath has dropped the ball. But back to those first three songs. All are upbeat and fun, sometimes bordering on disco, and all incorporate a lot of synth and electronic sounds. There’s not a lot of guitars and drummer Darren King, one of the best drummers playing today, isn’t able to do much within the pop framework. Still, the songs are catchy and would make great workout music for those inclined to abuse their bodies that way. “Stratosphere” sounds a bit more like the Mutemath of bygone days with a pulsing, urgent rhythm under dreamy vocals bathed in reverb, but “Used To” is anything but, incorporating low bass synths and a solid wall of keyboards in the huge chorus. The opening line of “Best of Intentions” shows the bands sly humor: “I’d like to help you get those hangups under control / But I’ve got far too many of my own.” The chorus of this song harkens back the seventies and totally knocks it out of the park.

While listening to the closing track, “Remain” it hit me that Mutemath might have been ingesting quite a bit of Phoenix. While Mutemath is certainly less twitchy than the French band, this new album definitely shares their synthy-pop vibe. This is driven home in the two instrumentals, “Vitals” and “Bulletproof”, which are both thoroughly engaging but completely different than anything the band has recorded previously although somehow still distinctly Mutemath.

This past weekend I had many songs from Vitals in my head, which is always a good indicator of quality tune-smithing. Indeed the songs are great fun to listen to and there are solid melodic hooks underneath all those keyboards, so it’s likely that my problem with the album, if I have a problem and I’m not sure I do, is that I expected indie-rock guitars and got Euro-pop synths. Perhaps I should have expected that Mutemath, a band who always defies expectations, would deliver the unexpected and just get over my hangups.

Music Review - Catbox - We Need 2B Changed

Catbox is a couple of good guys with chops as good as their sense of humor.
Hold your noses ‘cause the boys from Columbia City are back with yet another aromatic love offering. That’s right, Catbox is back with another fifteen glorious examples of why their band has banned from playing the Three Rivers Co-Op for being too raucous. It’s kind of difficult to believe that just two guys can be responsible for so much chaos, but then again Keith Roman plays a rather large drum kit (plus a rather small mandolin) and Doug Roush’s bass has more than its fair share of strings and, er, that’s it. There’s no need, and no sonic space, for guitars, horns, cellos, or ukuleles.

No sir, kids, this is some of the finest post rock that this area can provide, with a smidge of art rock thrown in for good measure. The bass is thick and textured while the drums are crystal clear and inventively panned across the stereo spectrum forming a sound unique to this planet. The songs themselves form a perfect skeleton upon which to hang these sounds, that being a melting pot of jazz, rock and experimental although the nucleus is always a memorable melodic hook. A perfect example of Catbox is “City of Light”, a song so out there and yet catchy that I find myself humming it days after hearing it once. The song starts with Doug showing why he’s the kind of slap and pop bass playing, laying down a funky a groove in the verse before sliding into a smooth section where he feels compelled to strum chords on the bass. “Skeletonz in the Desert” is 70s light rock meets strummed expensive jazz chords meets an aggressive instrumental bass riff, all playfully tossed around a few times to keep your head spinning. “Iced Chocolate” seems to be channeling the entire band of Iron Maiden, plus a Viking chorus and cowbell, while “Fading Beauty” mixes a very pleasing fingerpicked bass melody with mandolin and soothingly sung vocals before throwing the listener down a mountain full of sharp rocks via a few hardcore instrumental passages. As if this cake needed any icing there’s “I Am The Eyes and Ears,” a compelling song based on a character in the movie The Breakfast Club, and a three-song finale whose meaning I’ve yet to unravel. Indeed, each of the fifteen songs on We Need 2B Changed sport intelligent yet often humorous lyrics that invite multiple listens to fully decipher. A brief example from “Get In, Hang On”: “Little by little / Day by day / You suck the joy of living / In every way.”

With this most recent release Catbox proves once again that they are the region’s most unique band. Each song is an adventure so after you pick up your copy at your favorite Wooden Nickel store be sure to “get in” and “hang on” because it’s going to be an adventurous ride!

Music Review - WASP - Golgotha

I guess I'm not a WASP guy, Christian or not. I haven't felt compelled to listen to this album since I wrote the review.
Back in the mid-eighties I admit to having a couple of W.A.S.P. albums (on cassette) and specifically remember rocking out in my room to “I Wanna Be Somebody” and “Blind In Texas.” Great catchy metal, those songs. I didn’t keep up with this band whose singer wore circular sawblades on the arms of his black leather glam-rock outfit but while I was busy going to college and raising a family Blackie Lawless soldiered on, oblivious to my own obliviousness, releasing over a dozen albums and converting to Christianity. First Alice, then Blackie… can Marilyn be that far off?

And so it was with much fear and trepidation that I approached Golgotha, ther fifteenth album. W.A.S.P. was never known for introspective lyrics and I’ve heard more than my share of Christian cheese so I braced for the worst. Add to this that Blackie is pushing sixty and I’ve also heard more than my share of aging rockers who just aren’t up to the task of melting your face off. One listen to the single, “Scream,” and I am happy to admit that all my fears were for naught. This is classic W.A.S.P. with in-your-face guitars pulsing with energy backing Blackie’s distinctive raspy buzz-saw vocals that are in excellent form. Lyrically I’m impressed. Sure he’s still no Shakespeare but he’s fortunately also not Stryper. Instead Mr. Lawless continues his string of invigorating rock anthems with lyrics that are pro-God but are handled in such a way that they aren’t heavy handed. Exhibit one: The chorus from “Eyes of My Maker”: “Take me inside / Can you bring me alive? / How can I kneel / When my soul’s a liar?” Read into it what you want. I suppose a Cannibal Corpse fan might be offended by the lyrics but only if they’re a mamby-pamby girly man.

As you would expect from W.A.S.P. Golgotha is loaded with faster songs such as the Bon Jovi-esque “Last Runaway” or “Shotgun”, which reminds me a bit of “Blind in Texas” especially in the way Blackie belts out the vocals with the strength of a twenty-year old. “Slaves of the New World Order” takes advantage of its eight-minute length to explore a number of different moods and rhythms, such as “Let me kick you in the kidneys with my steel toed boots” in the guitar solo section. On the other end of the spectrum, but also nearly eight minutes long, is the fervent power ballad “Miss You” that goes down nice and easy until the chorus when it steamrolls you with a wall of sound, paving the way to one of many melodic and dazzling guitar solos on the album. The whole shebang closes with the title track, a powerful epic if ever there was one, where Lawless cries out “Jesus I need you now” in the chorus with such honest passion that you’ll get goose bumps regardless of your chosen deity.

What started out as curiosity has led me to an all new level of respect for Blackie Lawless. Somehow he was able to make a rock solid melodic power metal album that remains true to his faith and yet doesn’t alienate those fans who have differing beliefs.

Powerade Review - White Cherry

So many flavors, so little time.

Powerade Review - Lemonade

The correct pronunciation is LEE-mon-Ahd.

Powerade Review - Orange

These are very thirsty kids.

Powerade Review - Melon

Here's some more kids drinking stuff.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Music Review - Hollywood Vampires

Cover albums are like live albums to me... one or two listens and I'm good. Still these are pretty interesting covers, as far as covers go.

When I heard that Alice Cooper’s new album was going to be classic rock covers I had no interest, especially after these same covers being the low-light of his most recent concert at the Embassy. But my mind was changed when I read that instead of his current band Mr. Cooper would be flanked by a revolving supergroup, anchored curiously by actor Johnny Depp who incidentally always considered acting a side-gig that allowed him to follow his true love of music. Add in a couple of originals and legendary producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Destroyer by Kiss) at the helm and I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.

Called The Hollywood Vampires after the heavy drinking group Cooper was a part of the late seventies, the criteria for playing on the album seems to be having had lost a band member to drugs or alcohol. Many of the original Vampires who have gone early to the grave are honored on the album including singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson. The band opens a creepy version of “One”, a Nilsson song made famous by Three Dog Night, that drop-kicks into a seriously heavy groove compliments of Dave Grohl (Nirvana) on drums, quickly sidestepping into a rousing version of “Jump Into The Fire.” “Whole Lotta Love” likewise starts in a manner that is completely different than the original before a proper rendition launches and Cooper hands the microphone off to Brian Johnson (AC/DC) while Joe Walsh (Eagles) joins Depp, Orinathi, Tommy Henriksen, and Bruce Witkin is a six string battle. That’s a whole lotta guitars! At this juncture I’d like to point out how just about every band ever formed since 1970 has tackled this and many of the songs on this album. You’ve heard ‘em yourself. Every now and then it’s been great but more often than not you wish you hadn’t turned down that last beer. Not so with this troop. These seasoned pros have more often than not shared the stage with the bands being honored and are more than capable of rendering fitting tribute. In the case of “Five to One/Break on Through” Robby Krieger plays guitars on the very song he once recorded with Morrison, surpassing the explosive energy of the original, if that’s possible. Not every song is a blistering revision, though. “Come and Get It” is fairly true, with Joe Perry (Aerosmith) on guitars joining Paul McCartney on vocals, Paul McCartney on bass and Paul McCartney on piano. Oh yeah, Paul McCartney was once in band named The Beatles with John Lennon, an original Hollywood Vampire whose song “Cold Turkey” is given a right good sendup on this platter.

Limited space restricts a full exploration of each song so instead peruse this list: “My Generation”, Slash, “Jeepster”, “Manic Depression”, Kip Winger, “Itchycoo Park”, “I Got A Line On You”, Perry Farrell, Zak Starkey. And of course why not throw in a cover of “School’s Out”, but is it a cover if 3/5 of the original band plays on it? Yessir, Neal Smith and Dennis Dunaway form the powerhouse rhythm section on this one, taking a sudden and delightful detour by mixing in bits of “Another Brick In The Wall” into the “School’s Out” rhythm.

The two original songs are good but standing sonically next to these foundations of rock reveals their limitations. Consider them freebies. While Cooper and many of his pals are well into their sixth decade of life there is no sign of letting up. The energy on these loving renditions is astounding, the sound is modern, and the Hollywood Vampires show no signs of giving up the ghost.

Music Review - Black Violin - Stereotypes

My wife liked this enough to ask me to make a copy for the van. However the kids weren't very tolerant of it.

Wil B and Kev appear to be two men who enjoy playing with peoples’ perceptions. In their early thirties, Kev still looks like he might be a linebacker, dwarfing the violin he so skillfully plays. Both men got started on violin in their early teens and met each other in high school, finding a common bond in their love of reggae, hip-hop and classical music. Their “ah-ha” moment occurred when they taught their high school orchestra how to play “Gimme Some More” by Busta Rhymes and realized that combining classical instruments with popular music was a great way to get some female attention. Naming themselves Black Violin, it wasn’t long before the two were writing original material and crafting their own sound, ultimately leading to an album and gigs for NFL Superbowl celebrations and the White House.

Stereotypes is their second album, devised in part by produced Eli Wolf who has worked with Norah Jones, The Roots and Elvis Costello. The twelve tracks comprise three distinct types of songs. The first type is traditional R&B pop song about love, albeit with a heavy emphasis on strings. “Stay Clear” is upbeat and soulful, featuring Kandace Springs on vocals and Robert Glasper on Rhodes, and is sure to get your body moving. The slow simmering “Losing Control” could easily be heard on a number of local stations and includes a deliciously squishy bass synth tone and honest lyrics like “I’ve been lonely before / But never this lonely before.” Featuring thick drums and pizzicato strings, “Send Me A Sign” is another outstanding song of romantic longing.

The second type is musically similar but features more socially conscious lyrics. Pulsing violins form the hip-hop rhythmic bed of “Invisible”, a track featuring Pharoahe Monch who delivers encouraging rapid spoken-word rhymes about how you don’t have to be ignored and “invisible” before a sizzling violin solo slams the message home. The relaxed “Another Chance” is another inspirational gem with a chorus of “I can’t change the past / But I control the future” and the kind of strong melody that sticks in your head for days.

The third type is the more classically influenced instrumental. Bridging the gap between the last two types is the title track, “Stereotypes”, a dramatic showcase of the immense talents of these two men as they trade chops back and forth over a jazzed up hip-hop beat, pausing occasionally for audio clips of people discussing stereotypes and their experience with such. A smoky organ and hints of the seventies pervade “Walk on By” while “Day 2” is soaked in a crusty low-toned synth that opens to a shimmering, dancing piano figure that allows Kev and Wil B to explore a heart-tugging melody to its fullest. “Shaker” is the most classical of the bunch, sounding like a Mozart string quartet set to a rock beat where the duo duke it out while exploring a number of themes. The album closes with the cinematic “Runnin’”, a slow build that crescendos in a fiery exposition of melody and technical prowess that simultaneously showcases their ability to compose heart-pounding music.

Stereotypes has just enough “classical” to lift the brow slightly but not so much that it alienates those who can’t tell Bartok from Bach.

Music Review - Anekdoten - Until All The Ghosts Are Gone

I haven't felt the need to go back to this one in the last year... it kinds creeps me out.

So there I was, minding my own business, when a knock came upon my chamber door. "Who are you?" I asked. "Anekdoten. We've been around since 1993, though our last album was in 2007," was the reply. "Never heard of ya. Show me what ya got." Ever compliant, the nice Swedes set up their gear and launched into “Shooting Star,” the first track off their new album Until All The Ghosts Are Gone. Ten minutes long, this nearly instrumental track was propelled by hard-edged psychedelic rock organs, at times drawing from the well of King Crimson’s Red album and other times throwing a bone to fellow Swedes Opeth, now and then throwing a loving glance at Machine Head-era Deep Purple. It was some good stuff, feeding the brain and the soul, I tells ya, and I instantly wanted to shop at Ikea. As that was a road trip I couldn’t afford to take, I set up a folding chair to get comfortable and asked them to play me another song.

They obliged. “Get Out Alive” has a stoner rock feel but with a psychedelic twist, kind of like 70s Black Sabbath meets Black Moth Super Rainbow. Maybe there’s a little Super Furry Animals in there also. The combination of gutsy, distorted guitars and clear cinematic strings pulsing through a well-conceived song development cycle was absolutely hypnotic, beautiful even, in a bleak kind of way. “If It All Comes Down To You” cranks up the mellotron flute sound, as much as a flute can be cranked, layering in billows of clean electric guitars and vibraphone, creating an expansive, airy cloud of a song that made me think more than once of the subtle yet epic compositions of Oceansize, lots of tension and very little release. I applauded and this encouraged the band to continue, launching in “Writing on the Wall,” a more aggressive song starting with gritty bass guitar, orchestral strings, very few vocals, and a powerful, insistent finale. Like their other songs, despite there being a lot going on the overall feel was soothing and I had the feeling that if I listened to their music with headphones and a black light there would be no need for any chemical enhancements to achieve a satisfying head trip. As no one in the band had brought their black lights they instead played “Our Days Are Numbered”, starting with vibraphone and flute to set a comforting tone before dropping the floor out via a creepy section that morphed directly into a dense, heavy rock feel with a tumble of drums and a twisty bass line. Five minutes of adventurous, intense rock later the band dips into a dreamy section and before I know it I realize that they’ve snuck saxophones into the mix. This builds to a passage that would please any Syd-era Pink Floyd fans, adding in a twitchy rhythm in the drums that only adds to dark, brooding feel of the piece. As the song ends I sit there, stunned, on my lawn chair, impressed that they were able to suck me in so thoroughly on the very first listen. Therein is their genius as the music of Anekdoten is fully grounded in the psychedelic/English progressive music of very early seventies and yet is modern and fresh, both novel and nostalgic. Kudos, melancholy Swedes! You’ve won me over.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Powerade Review - Mountainberry Blast

Those zany kids are at it again!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Powerade Review - Tropical Mango

If you haven't inferred from my lack of posts, I've lost the excitement of trying all the alcoholic root beers in the world. I still haven't covered Coney Island or the brand that I found at Aldi or the bottom shelf Dekuyper and Hiram Walker root beer Schnapps (Schnappses?). Maybe when another hard Indiana winter hits I'll be feeling the need to warm my blood but right now it's toasty and warm which makes me want something that isn't syrupy sweet.

Which is why I'm tackling a new challange of trying every flavor* of Poweraid!
It's also a lot more affordable. I bought all of these, plus two more to complete the set, for about the cost of a single six-pack of that pseudo-micro-brew stuff. Look at all them purdy unnatural colors!

I originally was going to steal a page from The Olde Man and do a video review, showing my reaction upon tasting each flavor. I would solomnly swish the drink around my mouth, ponder my sensations, and then announce that it tasted like chicken. Funny, no? But upon reviewing my first foray into the world of vlogs I remembered why God made faces like mine to be behind the camera. However three of my kids were nearby so I hastily had them give the stuff to try and found their reactions to be similar to mine, though far superior in terms of entertainment value. Pay no attention to their lack of proper attire... that's just how us homeschoolers roll***.

So without any further ado, here's their reaction to Tropical Mango Poweraid!

* Every regular flavor. That non-calorie Zero stuff just has a wicked aftertaste.

** I actually tried to use the < BLINK > code to make this line blink but I guess it's not supported. I am so uncool I'm cool!

*** However I will make sure that in the future they will at least wear more than undergarments.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Music Review - The Choir - Wide-Eyed Wonder

For some reason it has taken me an immensely long time to write this review. Yes, life has been busy but also so much of my early Christian walk is woven with the melodies of this album that attempting to do it justice would be a tall order. Or maybe I don’t know where to start. Or maybe I don’t know what to leave out. Upon further reflection perhaps the reason I don’t want to do my usual review of this album is because to dissect the music might just kill the magic that it had and frankly still has. So I’ll meander about instead.

The Choir’s Wide Eyed Wonder was my introduction to the band (and one of my first Christian albums). As such, I had no clue about Chase The Kangaroo or their former name or that Robin had replaced Tim Chandler* as the band’s bassist. All I knew was that a friend (who seemed to find all the great music three minutes before I did) talked highly about this band so I picked up the album when I saw it on the shelf at my local purveyor of fine** Christian music. It was a purchase I’ve never regretted.

Having been immersed in the world of The Swirling Eddies at that time, I incorrectly took some of Steve’s lyrics as humorous, when in fact he intended them to be poetic. And they are poetic, so I mean no disrespect. But lines like “No, not the spider-shed” and “Were you talking to the snow man? Did you take his cruel advice?” are also a bit random and appealed to my off-kilter sense of humor.

Wide-Eyed Wonder was very different from the music I had been listening to since I began my teen years, which was mostly heavy metal and hard rock. Compared to what I had been listening to this stuff was almost pop, but with a little bit of edge and a little bit of weirdness. I liked all three. The most upbeat of all The Choir albums, there’s a childlike wonder about the songs which captures Steve’s joy over the birth of his daughter and also mirrored my wondrous joy in my newfound relationship with Christ. Of course I knew none of this in my youthful ignorance. All I knew is that there were some unusual sounding songs that were also very singable, very easy to like. There was also a longer, more atonal song called “Car etc.” that I kind of liked but it wasn’t my favorite. There was also a horribly out of place cover of a George Harrison song***. Its fine by itself but it’s a dour acoustic folk song in the middle of a joyous and adventurous celebration. Also tied to this album was the first time I saw the band live. It was the spring of 1990 and I was at Anderson University. I had a girlfriend but no other friends and was so lonely that it ached. I kept seeing this guy around campus who wore a trench coat upon which he had written poetry or lyrics or something all over it. He was a bit on the odd side but friendly so I started talking to him. Surprisingly he also liked The Choir and Adam Again and a few other bands I liked so when I learned that The Choir was playing in my hometown, a mere ninety minutes away, I invited him to ride to the concert with me. It would be great to say that this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship but we didn’t keep in touch after I transferred out at the end of the semester.**** I realize I haven’t said much about the actual album but hey, it’s my blog and I can write like an old man about my ancient memories if’n I want to. You probably already have this album anyway but if you don’t, well, you can’t buy it even from the bands website. YouTube probably has it so treat yourself to some fine tunes that have held up amazingly well for over twenty-five years.

* Looking back at this point in my history I was musically drawn to bass parts but didn’t realize it. I knew there was an instrument called the “bass guitar” but had no clue as to its seductive power or purpose.

** And not so fine. I’m talking to you, Carman and Petra!

*** Really, Choir? Can you tell me, with a straight face, that you listened to the final cut of the album and didn’t think to yourself, “Well, maybe that Harrison cover breaks the spell.”?

**** He’s on Facebook. I sent a friend request though I have no idea why.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Sins of the Fathers - a short story

Earlier this summer I threw out a challenge to fans of Daniel Amos to write a short story based on one or many of their songs. So far I haven't received any back but the summer isn't over yet. I hope you have as much fun reading this story as I did writing it.

Sins of the Fathers

There’s that counter kid with the insufficient moustache and wiry frame, wiping down a table by the restrooms. He’s one of those bright and funny young know-it-alls, just like his grandpa William who was an old acquaintance of mine, though this kid doesn’t know it and probably wouldn’t care if he did. I stand in the doorway of Johnny’s Café and look around for Dotty but don’t see her, meaning she probably had to take time off from work again with a sick kid, one of the many struggles of being a single mom.

I usually sit at the counter and talk to Bob, the owner and cook of this roadside greasy spoon, but I’m feeling kind of anti-social so I take a booth on the east side where the mid-morning sun can come in. A moment later the kid comes over and I’m thankful for his name tag, my mind momentarily not able to remember that his name is Blake.

“Howya doin today, Mr. Akendorf?”

Life is God's gift but the years have weight and I'm logy, a little sluggish. My back's bothering me again and my bones are rigid and I’m wondering how difficult it’s going to be getting out of this booth, but these are things young Blake won’t understand and doesn’t want to hear. “Better than I deserve,” I reply. Like most of us old codgers, I feel like I’ve lived too many years but then again, not long enough.

“Seen any flying saucers lately?” He humors me and like always, I just let it slide.

“Not today, Blake.” I leave it at that. It’s an old story back from when I was about Blake’s age, a story that kind of got me labelled as an eccentric in this small town. I don’t mind, I suppose. One is what one is. “How’s your music career going?”

“Our drummer quit last week but we’ve got two guys trying out this weekend. Hopefully we’ll have someone by the time we have enough money saved to get into the studio. After that it’s just a matter of time. So what can I get ya? The usual?” He has his pad and pen poised and ready in front of him.

“No, I’m feeling a bit hungrier than usual. I’ll take a Mighty Grunion with extra gravy, to grow my derrière. And java jive. Black.”

“Okay, Bud. One Mighty Grunion coming right up.” The kid turns and leaves, putting my ticket in the order slider by the kitchen. He comes back in a moment and wordlessly places a white mug and saucer in front of me, filling it with steaming bean squeezins. Even this simple action reveals his limitless reserve of optimistic, youthful energy, his bright porcelain blue eyes brimming over with the fire of the immortal soul, making me feel even older, as if he’s siphoning off what little vigor I stored up overnight.

I cup the hot mug in my hands and enjoy the warmth that seeps into my bones, half-squinting with the bright sun on my face as I look out into the parking lot. In the kitchen Bob has the radio on to an oldies station and when “Last Kiss” comes on it’s too much to resist. So I let myself go, fading back to the summer of 1964.

• • • • • •

That song, “Last Kiss,” was all over the radio that summer. It seems you couldn’t step out of your door without hearing a thin rendition squawking out of some kid’s transistor radio. This was back before F.M. so everything was thin, including myself. My best friend Theo and I spent a lot of time that year hanging out with Bill, Blake’s grandpa, though he was a long way from being a grandpa. Bill was okay but I would be lying if I said the fact that Bill had a car and access to his dad’s beer didn’t play into our decision to hang out with an underclassman. Plus Theo had the hot’s for Bills girlfriend, Connie, who was constantly by his side in the front passenger seat of his 1959 Ford Galaxie. Maybe Theo just liked being close to her, even if all he usually saw was the back of her head. I don’t blame him. I mean, she was beautiful enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised to one day hear John Charles Daly pronounce her Miss Universe, but I’ve never been one to fight dirty in the game of love and try to take another guy’s girl. Besides I had my eye on a pretty young sophomore with the magical name of Irma.

One of those endless summer nights Theo and I walked over to Bill’s house to see if he was home. Bill’s dad was bowling and he and Connie had already helped themselves to a couple cans each of Lucky Lager. Bill’s dad was a big shot local businessman who could afford to buy his son a car as well as alimony for an ex-wife. More importantly he was a heavy drinker who didn’t keep very good tabs on his stash so it was easy for Bill to be generous. We sat around for an hour or so before Bill had the idea to drive out to the Los Padres National Forest. It was still early, just barely dark, so we all jumped at the chance to howl. I wasn’t much of a drinker, still aren’t, but I’d had enough so that I didn’t realize that Bill had had too many. Now I’m not saying that Bill’s drinking affected his driving, or that our collective consumption played into the events of that evening, but its human nature to dig through the past and play “What if?”

We piled into the big, warm, sweet interior of Bill’s Galaxie and headed out into that strange and desperate night that would alter all our destinies. We assumed our regular positions of Bill at the wheel with Connie right up next to him on that massive bench seat. I was behind Bill and Theo was beside me, nowhere near as close as Connie was to Bill.

It only too about ten minutes before we made it out of Bakersfield, the stores and warehouses in our dust.

“One day I’m gonna leave Bakersfield and won’t go back,” said Theo. “I’m gonna hop on a train and explore Europe, maybe even Asia.”

“You can’t take a train to Europe, Theo,” replied Bill as he cracked another beer.

“You know what I mean, wise-acre.”

Bill took a gulp of his warm beer. “Ya know what, I’m bored with Los Padres. Let’s go to Tehachapi Mountain Park instead. The views are incredible!”

“Views of what? Its night time?” quipped Theo.

Without waiting for a vote Bill turned left onto the next country road.

Because of his late decision we weren’t on the main road to Tehachapi and had to nose around a few dead ends before we found a narrow gravel side road that led up into the mountains. Once found Bill seemed eager to make up for his lost time and pressed down on the gas to speed up the treacherous curves, smiling as Connie clung to his arm in fear.

“Slow down, baby. I’m in no hurry.” Bill let off the gas a little which seemed to satisfy Connie.

As we traveled upward we hit a section without trees on the driver’s side and we were able to catch of view of the moon-bathed mountainside. “What’s that?” asked Theo, pointing past my head out the open car window. We all looked and saw a green disc of light with a red pulsing center zipping over the trees and knew that we were seeing a U.F.O., just like in the movies but this one was right there before us in real life.

Theo said, “That is not theologically correct.”

Bill said, “SHIT!” and yanked the wheel hard to the right to avoid driving right off the narrow mountain road. The car slid sideways and the driver side slammed into a short wooden fence that ran along the edge of the road, a gift from the parks department for buffoons like us. Silence accompanied our sudden stop as we all tried to absorb what we just saw coupled with the hair-raising accident. The silence was broken by the radio, playing a few bars of some Beach Boys song before the car engine died. Theo started to laugh in relief. The rest of us sat there, our minds fumbling for words, when suddenly the car was bathed in red light. I leaned out my window and, looking up, my brain turned to sand. The saucer was hovering right above us, maybe fifty feet or so, as if investigating our accident. The horrendous disc was spinning like a record while the red light pulsed twice before the thing shot straight up like a bottle rocket, disappearing into the night.

Theo pulled me back into the car by my shirt. “Where’d it go?”

“Straight up. I can’t see it anywhere.”

Bill cranked the engine and it roared to life. “Well, we’re getting out of here, fast!” He popped the Galaxie into gear and gunned the engine. The rear wheels spun out on the gravel road and the rear of the car slid towards the center of the road, causing the front of the car to push against the fence. A thick, wooden crack could be heard over the engine and the car lurched forward, along with our stomachs, and we dropped off the edge.

My mother must have prayed for me that day because the drop was only twelve feet or so. The car landed nose down, at an angle, with its back wheels leaning against the mountainside, the cabin of the car a confusing Mystery Spot where forward was now down and no direction seemed up. I was banged up with my upper body hanging over the driver’s seat. Seat belts were an option that this particular Galaxie did not have, not that we would have used them. “Let’s get out of here,” I yelled, looking around the car. Theo had a gash on his forehead but was also otherwise okay. “Bill? Are you okay?”

Bill’s head had cracked the windshield. There was a smear of blood but he was coming to. “What? Crap. My dad’s gonna kill me. Connie?” We all looked over at where Connie should have been. My blood turned cold at the sight of the open passenger door leading into a black night. “CONNIE!?” We all scrambled from the car as fast as we could. Fortunately the nose of the car was pretty well buried into the dirt so it didn’t shift or fall over as we made our exits.

“What I wouldn’t give right now for my old man’s flashlight!” We all scrambled around in the dim moonlight, yelling out Connie’s name. I found her, a few yards away, lying way too still. She had been thrown from the car when it hit. “Over here!”

Bill and Theo raced over, Bill kneeling beside her, his face next to hers. “Connie? Are you okay?” Even in the dim light I could see that Connie’s face was turning purple on one side but she opened her eyes, tried to smile through the stiffness and lifted a hand that I noticed was covered in blood, from where I couldn’t tell. “Connie! You’re okay!” Bill kissed her and turned to us, “Guys, she’s okay!” He turned back to Connie who had closed her eyes again. “Connie! Try to stay awake! Connie? Connie!” But there was nothing we could do. She was gone.

Bill stayed with her while Theo and I climbed up onto the road, walking back to the highway where we eventually flagged down help. Days later we learned that Connie had suffered a massive brain injury and there wasn’t anything medicine in those days could have done to save her. Bill spent two weeks in the hospital for his head injury and wasn’t able to attend her funeral. Theo and I both had some bruises but not much else, unless you count the severe sunburn I received from leaning out the window to get a better look at the saucer. I made the mistake of telling a few people about what we saw that caused us to have the accident, mostly because my sunburn made me a walking target for questions. Even though I shut up about it quickly enough the damage was done and I had earned myself a reputation as “that saucer guy.” Fortunately I graduated the next year and was able to move away to school. By the time I moved back four years later most people were over ribbing me about it, though I’m sure the notion was still in their minds. Bill and Theo were smart enough to keep their mouths shut. Not that I blamed them but it sure would have been nice to have someone back me up.

Theo and I went to the same college, kinda lost touch in the eighties when his marriage was in rough spot but got back in touch during the Clinton years. Irma and I used to get together with them each month for bridge but Theo’s wife has had some health issues lately so that’s on hold for now.

Things weren’t so easy for Bill. Even though there were no charges brought against him I think he blamed himself for the death of Connie, which caused him to start drinking more. A lot more. Once he showed up at my college and asked if I knew where he could get some acid. I didn’t and wouldn’t have told him if I did. Believe it or not, not everyone in the sixties did drugs. In the early seventies he ended up moving to Vegas and marrying some dancer named Terri Roy Al, and you can guess how long that lasted. He eventually went back home to work for his dad but a few years later the Vegas dancer showed up just long enough to drop off a young boy, counter-kid’s dad, surprising Bill, his pregnant second wife and their two year old daughter. In the early 80s Bill quit drinking after getting saved at some tent revival service a lady preacher held on the edge of town and basically got his act together, becoming the stereotypical pillar of the community just like his dad. It was obvious from the start that Scott, his Vegas-born son, had a wild side, or maybe he just didn’t feel like he fit in. A couple of car wrecks, a string of bad jobs, even six months in prison for dealing weed failed to turn him around. Bill did his best to help him along, finding him work when Scott was in the mood for it, but Bill couldn’t shelter him from three bad marriages. Blake here was the result, I think, of the second marriage. Some local girl named Anna, a good kid who got mixed up with Scott and ended up raising Blake alone. Well, not exactly alone. She was close to her family and they helped her out, as did Bill and his wife. Bill and I were never all that close so we didn’t reconnect after he got cleaned up but I’ve had my eye on Blake, him being Bill’s grandson and all. I guess I have a tender spot for him, and from the looks of things he turned out alright.

• • • • • •

My trip down memory lane is broken when Blake slides the white porcelain plate across my table. “One SAUCER of food, Mr. Akendorf.” I look up at his grin and am tempted to offer the boy some kind of words of wisdom, clichés about life being tough, tell him about unrealized expectations, maybe pass on a couple of tips. But I’ve learned after all this time that you can’t teach these young dogs new tricks.

“Thanks, Blake.”

My breakfast is hot, delicious and plentiful, meaning Bob is in his element. As I sit and enjoy the morning sun Blake stops by to pour me another cup of thick, bitter coffee. “Are ya finally gonna have some pie, Mr. Akendorf?” Despite my full belly I eye the glass carousel display of pie slices by the register, think about my sugar level and like always, I decline. “Just the check today.”

While he’s away getting my ticket I use the time to struggle out of the bench seat so I don’t give the boy something else to laugh about. Once up I head over to the restrooms, labeled Pointers and Setters, and by the time I return my check is waiting for me on the table. I look around but don’t see Blake so I leave the tip on the table and offer another prayer for the boy, for God’s mercy and His grace, for salvation and love and that maybe, just maybe, he can avoid the sins of his fathers and have the courage to make the world a better place. Good luck walking on water, kid. But when those mistakes come, learn from them. That’s what I would say if I felt it was my place.

Blake appears out of nowhere and beats me to the register, his usual cocky grin on his face, and I talk myself out of saying anything more than, “Have a good day.”

“You too, Mr. Akendorf. Hang in there!”

I shuffle out and leave him to his hopes and dreams as I hang onto my memories. Well… you hang on too, son.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Garden Post 2016.3

I guess it's time to post more green pictures. Trust me... you'll come back to this page in the middle of winter and bask in their glow.

First up, my prize so far. This melon is slightly larger than a ping pong ball and I place a small metal critter cage next to it in the hopes that it will scare away chipmunks. There's still at least one of those buggers left even though I've relocated five of them this year.

This little guy is about the size of Andre the Giant's thumb and I'm pretty sure it's a Green Machine variety, one that's supposed to churn out oodles of melons. Because I was lazy I didn't even label or write down where I put each melon plant, and I barely remember what I planted. I'm fairly certain the one above is a personal size melon and that I also planted a Black Ozark and a white fleshed melon but there's one more that I can't remember. I suppose a trip to my seed tub to thumb through packets would solve the mystery but where's the fun in that?

A single melon plant, thriving nicely in my unusual planting manner.

A long view of more plants including some stunted sunflowers. One neighbor already has flowers on their sunflowers but they are the smaller- headed kind. I'm not jealous.

Here are the beans. I kept forgetting to plant them so they're behind schedule. Plus I really need to do some more weeding.

There are at least two beets ready to pick and eat but the kids have VBS (again) this week so it will have to wait until the weekend, at which time they'll be bigger than our house.

The Giant Marconi peppers are not so giant. Yet. Beside this one is a rogue tomato that kinda just started growing and I decided to wait and see what it is because I'm just that kinda guy.

And speaking of tomatoes, here they are. I've already had some of these super sweet little treats so it looks like the bag-o-compost method isn't affecting them in a negative way.

And speaking of negative, look at this mess! The house came with two mature pear trees but last year we didn't get to eat a single one because the tree rodents (a.k.a. squirrels) ate them all. I'm willing to share but when they take a bit or two and toss it to the grown to rot, well, that's just wasting. So I'm taking some precautions this year.

That's right, buddy. You're on notice to stay away from my trees!

Another surprise that came with the house is a blackberry bush. It didn't make much last year but this spring I fertilized it and have been watering it and VA-VA-VOOM! The raspberry plants I transplanted aren't doing very well this year but I'm not holding it against them.

Saving the best for last is my little helper. I had a bucket filled with water while I was watering the garden and my daughter decided to help herself.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Garden 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.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Music Review - Deadweight - Half-wit Anthems

Deadweight is yet another band that found out about after they had disbanded and thus missed out on the opportunity to spread the good word via ”Whatzup*. This band is, as far as I know, unique to the world of rockdom, being formed of a drummer (Paulo Baldi), a violinist (Ben Barnes) and a cellist (the curiously named Sam Bass), the last two running their instruments through distortion and other effects. Whereas many bands with traditionally classical instruments attempt to bridge the world between classical and non-classical music Deadweight ditched all that and went straight for the rock jugular. Except that rock music played on fretless instruments sounds a bit rubbery and off, which suits Deadweight just fine because it allowed their sense of humor and fondness for quirky and funky rhythms to expose themselves.

Any power trio has the challenge of filling the sonic space and the songs off their second** album, Half-Wit Anthems, shows that Deadweight takes the challenge personally. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of multi-tracking so what you get is pretty much how they would sound in concert, which is a massive fuzzy wall of hard alterna-rock sound. Most of the songs, including the exciting opening track, “The Grind”, showcase a crazy-high level of spastic energy. I mean, you almost work up a sweat just listening! Also most of the songs, including the second song, “Sweet Depression”, work in some serious groove into the rhythms so you’re swaying while you sweat. On “Ba Ba Wa Wa” they plug the distorted violin into a wah pedal and things get way out of hand, but wonderfully so. A particular favorite of mine is the frenzied instrumental “Barstool” which douses your ears in gasoline and sets everything aflame while dancing cheerily on the aforementioned barstool. Every now and then, like in the verses of “Josh Song” and “Black and Grey”, they go really nuts and turn off the distortion devices, which only adds to the contrast in the chorus when the effects are kicked back on.

All in all Deadweight write crazily-inventive and yet melodic stuff! The overall feel is untamed and a bit dangerous, like a wild party. One big hindrance for me, though, was that the songs are packed with drug use references. Even if used in a humorous fashion (“I need a toke ‘cause I can’t cope”) it’s not really my thing and it gets tired after a bit.

* Plus make a few bucks.

** It pays to check a Wiki page. I thought this band only had two albums but I didn’t know*** about their first, Opus One, which has now been ordered.

*** I have this tickle in the back of my brain that I DID know about this album but never got around to ordering it.****

**** I got around to ordering it. In fact it’s on the desk right next to me but I haven’t gotten around to listening to it.