Friday, September 30, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Phantom Planet

"You know, Captain, every year of my life I grow more and more convinced that the wisest and best is to fix our attention on the good and the beautiful. If you just take the time to look at it."

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Stupid Criminals

One common failing of criminals is that, being so focused on instant gratification, they omit to think things through. The disappearance of Angel Ricardo Mendoza, a trucker hauling 3.6 million nickels - $180,000, but weighing 22.5 tons and packed into 900 fifty-pound bags - to the Federal Reserve in New Orleans is a case in point. The unfortunate Mendoza himself is not a suspect, and there are concerns for his well-being. But the question must be raised: Who in his right mind would steal 3.6 million nickels? Surely there are easier ways to heist $180K? How are they to be exchanged for bills, considering that each bag, worth a measly $200, contains 4,000 nickels? No bank accepts loose change, so that’s a lot of rolling to do. An appropriate punishment, perhaps.

Last week, police in South Miami-Dade County searching a farm for marijuana found not only 88 plants, but a stash of 900 fifty-pound bags buried a few feet underground. The whole treasure has been recovered. Perhaps, given the circumstances under which they were found, the felons might not have been in their “right mind” at the time. Perhaps they thought they were stealing a different kind of nickel-bag?

Posted on the old blog 2/23/2005.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sports in Western PA

This is a slightly modified version of a post that appeared on the old blog on 3/17/2005.

Over Thanksgiving [2004], I went to Pittsburgh to visit with family. While we were there, we decided to go into the city itself to check out the newly opened Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center. I had been to the Heinz Center before to check out a different exhibit and thought it was a pretty cool place. While my Penguins were a little under-represented (what do you expect in a football town), the sports museum is very well done. Along with large rooms filled with history and memorabilia of the Pirates and the Steelers, there were also items pertaining to other sports that were and are popular in the region. There is an interesting exhibit and video on the Negro League baseball teams from Pittsburgh (the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords - two of the league’s biggest franchises), sections on the famous golf courses, auto racing, and the various non-professional sports popular among the various ethnic groups in the city. There’s even a small bocce court that you can use to celebrate the Italian community of Pittsburgh.

After returning from the trip, my brother wrote an article about the museum for the American Historical Association's magazine. As with all of his articles, it’s very well written and thoroughly researched. He asked our cousin, a photographer originally from the Pittsburgh area, to take a few pictures to supplement the article (the first one on the page is his). So, check it out. And if you're ever in Pittsburgh, check out the museum, too.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Song of the Week: Photograph

The first time I remember hearing about singer/songwriter/pianist Jamie Cullum was a couple years ago on CBS's Sunday Morning show. They interviewed Cullum and played clips from several recent concerts. The song that made me sit up and listen was his cover of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" (Cullum's version can be heard here). If I have to say one thing about him, it's he's talented. If I can say two things, it's that he's hard to classify. His music is sort of a fusion of jazz, pop, soul, and occasionally mixes in hip hop beats.

This week, the song was a toss up between "London Skies" (which was in my head for a couple days) and "Photograph". Both are off Cullum's 2005 album Catching Tales.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How I Go - The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band

It’s been seven years since the release of Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s last studio album, 2004’s disappointing The Place You’re In. In the interim, he’s released a documentary-type album featuring him meeting living blues legends (2007’s 10 Days Out) and a live album (2010’s Live! in Chicago). How I Go is a welcome return to the studio for the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band and well worth the wait.

How I Go gets back to the band’s blues roots while displaying yet another new sound. The band sounds bigger and richer, most likely thanks to additional keyboards on most songs, a horn section, and even backup singers on a track or two. Sticking with the vocals, Noah Hunt returns as the lead singer, but there’s more singing from KWS himself. He backs up Hunt on the refrains of most songs and takes the lead in two tracks (while Hunt backs him up). In one of the bonus tracks, “Butterfly”, the two of them sing the entire song in harmony.

The album starts out with the radio-friendly “Never Lookin’ Back”, a rocking upbeat tune that is a great lead single. Noah Hunt’s seductive singing of “Come On Over” makes the second track another keeper. At this point, the album starts to bog down a little. “Yer Blues” is fine (love The Beatles, love KWS, don’t love the combo), but it’s more of a grind-style blues that KWS isn’t known for. And it sticks out like a sore thumb against the polished tunes of the rest of the album. The next two tracks are fine, but not memorable (“Cold” is the first of the two tracks Shepherd sings himself). Things get back on track with the Albert King standard “Oh Pretty Woman”, but really take off with the Shepherd-penned “Anywhere the Wind Blows”. From then on, things are golden.

“Oh Pretty Woman” isn’t the only callback to earlier blues legends. As with his other releases, there’s an instrumental tune on this one. Fans of the great Freddy King will no doubt enjoy “Strut”. And his arrangement of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” is outstanding.

In addition to the richer sound, Shepherd’s songwriting has taken a big step up. His subject matter is a bit more mature including talking about a love he knows is wrong, but can’t help himself (“Dark Side of Love”) and becoming a father (“Who’s Gonna Catch You Now” – the other track he sings). Song lyrics are best when they are like poetry and capture the exact mood the musician is trying to convey. There are a lot of great lines, but some of my favorites are from “Anywhere the Wind Blows” (“I wasn’t lost at all / I just wasn’t where I thought I’d be”). There are still some clunkers, but they work within the context of the song. In “Round and Round”, he uses the phrase “The wheels on the bus go round and round”. Fits with the tune, but it jars you out of the moment, thinking of the kid’s song.

I highly recommend getting this album, but make sure you get the Special Edition. The last of the three bonus tracks might just be my favorite song on the entire album: “Baby The Rain Must Fall”.  I have to say that I played this CD a second time as soon as I finished the first listen.  It could already be in my top 2 KWS albums.

Favorite songs: “Baby The Rain Must Fall”, “Anywhere the Wind Blows”, “Come On Over”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Song of the Week: I've Got a Crush on You

In any given week if you ask me who the greatest female singer of all time is, I will invariably answer Dinah, Sarah, or Ella. This is a Dinah week. She is virtually unmatched in terms of voice, diction, and emotion.

Dinah Washington's rendition of Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" is undoubtedly my favorite.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" is not a very well known song, but it's worth rediscovering. Her smoky voice is a perfect complement to the lyrics of a heartbroken lover. Heard this on WBGO the other week.

Friday, September 16, 2011

MST3K Friday: Tormented

This week, we have another classic from MST3K fave Bert I. Gordon. You may remember him from such films as "The Amazing Colossal Man", "Earth vs The Spider", and "Beginning of the End". "Tormented - I have a feeling this is aptly named." "Somebody kelp me." (ugh) "There's a cold draft all of a sudden." "I could go for a cold draft right now."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

There has been a lot of ink (and words, and bytes) spilled on The Great Gatsby since it was first published in 1925. I’m not going to add much to it, just give some random thoughts/impressions.

Like many people, I first read the novel in high school. I remember it being one of the few we read that I liked, but I didn’t remember much about it (other than the car accident). It’s showed up on so many best of lists and listed by so many authors as their favorite book that I figured now would be a good time to revisit it.

One thing I didn’t remember was the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy. They once were madly in love with each other, but Daisy married Tom Buchanan while Gatsby was off fighting in World War I. Upon meeting again five years later, their passion for each other was still there. Gatsby’s longing to be with someone he obviously couldn’t struck a chord with me this time around.

I also had to feel sorry for Gatsby. For all his money and success and well-attended parties, Nick couldn’t find anyone to attend the funeral.

As a prime example of a Jazz Age novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a simple, declarative style that should be accessible to any reader. Unlike his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, however, Fitzgerald took multiple opportunities to weave lyrical sentences at appropriate parts of the book. The last page is sheer poetry. And I think his introduction to Daisy (through Nick’s eyes) is one of my favorite sentences ever:

Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.

The Great Gatsby is an American classic, and well worth the revisit.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Song of the Week: Miami 2017

On October 20, 2001, a concert was held in New York City to benefit victims of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Many of the biggest names in music performed, including Billy Joel. Obviously, most people wanted him to perform his mega hit "New York State of Mind" (which he did), but he felt compelled to sing this song as well. He wrote this song in the 1970's as the city of New York was nearing bankruptcy and default. It took on extra significance after the attacks as it talked about the apparent destruction of New York. But as Billy said at the concert, "We ain't going anywhere."

Friday, September 9, 2011

MST3K Friday: Jack Frost

"How not to be seen." "You are a Queen!" "In that you look like Freddy Mercury."

Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Life as a Book: 2011

The other day, Jen posted a fun little game. It is a meme to describe your life through the books you read so far this year.  OK, so I used one from 2010, but that's only because it worked so well.  Here we go:

One time at band/summer camp, I: (was a) Witness to Death (Dave White)

Weekends at my house are: Fun and Games (Duane Swierczynski)

My neighbor is: Good People (Marcus Sakey)

My boss is: Spade and Archer (Joe Gores)

My ex was: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Steig Larson) HA!

My superhero secret identity is: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because: (I have a) Gun (Ray Banks)

I’d win a gold medal in: Economic Facts and Fallacies (Thomas Sowell)

I’d pay good money for: A Drink Before the War (Dennis Lehane)

If I were president, I would: (have) The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene)

When I don’t have good books, I: (feel) More Sinned Against (Dave White)

Loud talkers at the movies should be: The Black Echo (Michael Connelly)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson

Investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by aging businessman Henrik Vanger to discover what happened to his niece, Harriet, over 40 years ago. Aided by hacker Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist uncovers more family secrets than he bargained for.

Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy has been both praised and pilloried ever since the books were published.  I tend to agree with both camps (how's that for taking a stand?).  Salander is an interesting character and the book is written at a breakneck pace.  The central mystery of the disappearance of Harriet Vanger is compelling and I couldn't wait to find out more.  But the book was in need of a good editor.

The Vanger story is bookended by Blomqvist's attempt to bring down a corrupt financier named Wennerström. The first 100 pages set up how Blomqvist is put in a position to accept Vanger's generous offer to investigate the mystery. This section could have easily been shortened or revealed later on as it is solely backstory. The final 100 pages deal with Blomqvist getting his revenge on Wennerström, but after the harrowing climax and resolution of Harriet's disappearance, this felt a bit of a let down.

I didn't notice many clunky sentences like I've seen quoted in reviews of the other two Millennium books. There were some jarring POV shifts (which I tuned out after a while) and parts where Larsson tipped his hand too early. Chapter 16 starts with "In the first week of June, Blomqvist uncovered three totally new pieces of hte puzzle.  Two of them he found himself.  The third he had help with."  This is an example of something that could be excised because telling the reader "something Big is coming" lessens the impact because the reader is expecting it.  The old writing saw applies:  show, don't tell.

Does this mean I didn't like the book? No.  I really enjoyed the middle 300 pages where Blomqvist and Salander piece together the pieces of a 40-year-old puzzle.  It was fascinating to watch their relationship grow and to see Salander mature as a person.  The last chapter of the book (after the Wennerström mess ended) where Salander deals with her emotions toward Blomqvist is heartbreaking and an example of something Larsson got spot on.

Would I recommend it?  That's hard to say.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an entertaining read and the pages kept flying by.  Does it have flaws?  Yes.  Do they ultimately sink the book?  For me, no.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Song of the Week: All We'd Ever Need

A friend of mine introduced me to Lady Antebellum about a year ago. These guys have gotten really big and it's easy to see why. They're country without a lot of twang and their songwriting is excellent. They know how to capture an emotion better than anyone I've heard in a long time. This is the first song I'd heard of theirs, a live version of "All We'd Ever Need".

Friday, September 2, 2011

MST3K Friday: The Dead Talk Back

"This balance of power keeps ice cream in check." "Hey, you got your tongue in my mouth." "You got your mouth in my tongue!"