Monday, November 30, 2009

Frequent Spins (2009.8)

Built to Spill - There is No Enemy
Although just the third album released this decade by this indie rock band from Idaho, it just might be their best since 1999's Keep it Like a Secret, my personal BTS favorite. While still remaining true to their tendency towards sprawling, extended jams, there are also moments here that feel like a return to the carefree days of 1994's There's Nothing Wrong With Love. The subject matter of these songs is hardly carefree, though, particularly on one of the album's stronger tracks, "Things Fall Apart."

Fanfarlo - Reservoir
El-squared and I used to like to play this game where we'd describe a band by naming three bands that they reminded us of. Honestly, this was harder than you might think. It's pretty easy to say that "x" band reminds me of a cross between "y" band and "z" band, but coming up with the third reference point can often be difficult. Not for this English indie pop band, who bring to my mind a hybrid of Matt Pond PA, The Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Music from Kerouac's Big Sur
This surprising combination of the indie wuss whose career is on the rise (Gibbard) and the rustic voice of the working class who's on the other side of his career apex (Farrar), turns out to be a good one. The album, of course, is a celebration of the prose of Jack Kerouac, the soundtrack to the documentary of the same name. Listening to the writings of Kerouac put to music by Farrar and Gibbard, it's not difficult to imagine Jack's influence on Jay's own lyrics. Case in point are the lines, "We used to dream together, but now I drink alone. From the bottle to the tumbler is the only journey left I know," on the excellent title track. I'm a bigger fan of Farrar, but it's Gibbard's star that shines brighter here.

Sufjan Stevens - The BQE
Sufjan Stevens' ode to the highway that traverses the two suburbs of New York City that are actually on Long Island is one of those albums that I listened to a couple of times and dismissed. Not because I thought it was bad, but because I just didn't have the patience. I was rewarded, however, when I picked it back up to give it another chance. This is an unusual project for an indie musician, in that Sufjan doesn't actually play on the album. Instead, he writes and the Brooklyn Academy of Music performs. Yes, this is a classical album, but with a little bit of electronica and a healthy dose of the woodwind sound that helped make 2005's Illinoise the second best record of that year. This is no Illinoise, but it's an enjoyable outing nonetheless.

This is the final Frequent Spins for 2009. The next time you hear from me about the year in music, it will be to begin the countdown of my top albums of the year. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

What's a Yankees Fan to Do? The Sequel

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post suggesting some ideas for how Yankees fans could fill the void created by a lack of October baseball. A few of my suggestions turned out to be good ones, although I got called out by a fellow Yankees loyalist for hinting that a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series would be a matchup worth pulling for.

This year, fans of the Bronx Bombers didn't have such problems. The Yanks won the World Series and all was right in their world, except for the fact that pretty much everyone has been insinuating—check that, complaining—that they purchased themselves a championship. Of course, no one was suggesting that they bought a third-place team last year, but that's not really my point.

Most of the Yankees fans I know are native New Yorkers, so they're fans of the team because they learned to be at an early age. But, as we've grown older, we've certainly had plenty of opportunities to switch loyalties. After all, most people would consider it more exciting to root for an underdog, a team whose success would create even more of a sense of euphoria.

So, if we're going to continue rooting for "The Evil Empire," we need to embrace all of the reasons why it's great to be a fan of the most hated team in baseball, maybe in the entire sporting world:
  1. The first reason, of course, is that we are the Evil Empire. Seriously, folks, do you really enjoy pulling for the good guys? How much fun is that? If you were going to become a fan of professional wrestling, who would you cheer for? The bad guys, of course. Why? Because all the other idiots are rooting for the good guys, as they try to hang on to that out-dated belief that good always triumphs. It doesn't.

  2. Spinning off #1, isn't it great to listen to everyone else whine that the Yankees are back on top? Could there possibly be any better evidence that, once again, all is right in the baseball world?

  3. Let's not forget to mention that "The Curse of A-Rod" didn't last quite as long as "The Curse of the Bambino."

  4. Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that our team spoiled the Red Sox claim to be the team of the decade. Despite eight AL East titles and four American League championships, it would be hard to argue against the Red Sox two World Series victories. But, two World Series, four AL pennants and eight AL East titles versus two World Series, two pennants and one division title? Maybe next decade, Sox fans.
Now, fellow Yankees fans, feel free to add your own reasons to this list. But, most importantly, I want you to go out and continue to enjoy an offseason—and subsequent 2010 campaign—during which your team is the defending champion. Just don't let me catch you wearing one of those silly "Got Rings?" t-shirts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Oktoberfest: The Finale

It might have been more fitting to title this post "Oktoberfest: The Letdown," because the end result of my quest is the realization that I simply don't like this style. I was disappointed with the offerings from otherwise solid breweries, such as Berkshire Brewing Company, Opa Opa and Geary's, although the latter was actually an Autumn Ale rather than an Oktoberfest. Another disappointment was that I was unsuccessful at tracking down Victory Festbier, the recommendation of one of my faithful readers. In fact, last weekend I went on their web site to try and locate stores in my area that carry their products.

Practically right down the street from me is Ball Square Fine Wines and Liquors, who had what seemed like every brand that I've ever heard of that Victory brews—including HopDevil, Prima Pils, Golden Monkey, Storm King Stout, Hop Wallop and Victory Lager—but no Festbier. In hindsight, I guess mid-November is probably too late for most fall styles, unless they're not big sellers and have been sitting on the shelves all season.

So, despite not getting to taste one of the fall beers that I most highly anticipated, I'm going to summarize. I honestly didn't find a single Oktoberfest that really made a positive impression on me. Even those that I thought were pretty good at first ended up wearing out their welcome before I'd even finished one, generally due to their overbearing sweetness. For that reason, I've come to a conclusion that's the beer-tasting equivalent of "it's not you, it's me." That is, I'm just not the right person to evaluate this style, because it's just not my thing.

That said, there were a few non-Oktoberfest fall brews that I really liked, so I'm going to rate my three favorites here. Unfortunately, you may have to wait until next September to get your hands on these.

Southern Tier Harvest Ale - Southern Tier Brewing Company is located in the village of Lakewood, in the southern part of western New York commonly referred to as the Southern Tier. I've seen their beers on draft around town occasionally, and even tasted their IPA before, but this fall they've become one of my new favorite breweries. This dry-hopped ale has a wonderfully hoppy aroma—unusual, of course, for a fall style—is nicely balanced and goes down smoothly. Grade: B+

Southern Tier Pumking - This one practically knocked me over with its powerful aroma, which is pumpkiny, of course, but also reminds me of gingerbread. At 9% ABV, you would think a brew of this variety would be overly sweet, but it's not. It's only a little hoppy, but that's just enough to offset its pumpkin-spiced sweetness. This is absolutely the best pumpkin ale I've ever tasted. Grade: A

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale - Not nearly as pumpkiny as Southern Tier, Dogfish's attempt at this style is a mildly spiced—with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg, as well as pumpkin—and mildly hoppy brown ale. In my experience, everything that Dogfish brews is excellent, and Punkin Ale is no exception. Grade: A-

Finally, here is the list of all the fall brews I tried this season (Oktoberfests unless otherwise indicated): Hacker Pschorr, Paulaner, Harpoon, Samuel Adams, Blue Hills Okto-brau, Southern Tier Harvest Ale, Gritty's Halloween Ale, BBC, Southern Tier Pumking, Shipyard Pumpkin, Geary's Autumn Ale, Leef Peeper Lager, Dogfish Head Punkin Ale, Opa Opa.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Music in the Key of Life

I recently came across a mix tape I made in 1999, which was aptly named "Welcome to Sorryville." The title was borrowed from the opening lines of Chris Knight's "It Ain't Easy Being Me," which went something like this:

"There oughta be a town somewhere named for how I feel. Yeah, I could be the mayor down there and say 'Welcome to Sorryville.' It wouldn't be on a map nowhere, you might say that it don't exist. But, if you make enough wrong turns, it'd be hard to miss."

In addition to the title track, that mix included songs such as "Everything is Wrong" (Gigolo Aunts), "My Old Friend the Blues" (Steve Earle), "Desperate Ain't Lonely" (Whiskeytown), "There is No Hell Like the Hell on This Earth" (Scud Mountain Boys), "Dying on the Vine" (The Jayhawks), and "Over the Cliff" (Old 97's). You get the theme, right?

Back in those days, when I was still relatively new to the Boston area, el-squared and I were frequenters of the Cambridge music scene. We virtually had the exact same taste, and often talked about the mood of the type of music we listened to. Depressing is the obvious word that comes to mind, particularly back then, when alt-country was our main thing and much of what was on our respective playlists tackled the subject of heartbreak.

After he met, and became happily involved with, the woman who is now his wife of ten years, he seemed to be of the opinion that he could no longer really relate to that sort of music. I didn't necessarily agree that people's life circumstances preclude them from empathizing with sentiments they've felt before. But, I do agree that one's current perspective can have a major impact on the way he or she feels about music. Personally, I know a lot has to do with whether or not I'm "feeling it." In fact, this concept applies more to shows, especially now that I'm a little long in the tooth. If I'm not in the mood, it just isn't happening for me.

But, now that I'm nearing the completion of the rare calendar year during which I've actually been in a relationship for the entire annum, I'm wondering if my year-end review of the albums I've really enjoyed this year will confirm my friend's theory or not. I've already said that 2009 didn't really measure up in comparison to prior years. Could it possibly be because I'm still in the process of making a transition, and that I wasn't really seeking out the right music that properly fit my mood this year?

I'm not sure that I really need to defend myself here, but the aforementioned mix did include a few songs that had a somewhat hopeful tone. Idaho's "Alive Again" and The Byrds' "I Trust" are a couple examples of that, although both of those songs do kind of imply getting beyond more difficult times. Anyway, not really being conscious of this angle during the year means I'm going to have to work my way through my 2009 catalog before passing judgment on whether or not my musical mood has been getting brighter.

Maybe some of you can let me know what you think after comparing this year's compilation to those from the past. I have a feeling there won't be a noticeable difference, but I'll let you decide for yourself if you're so inclined.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Four Yorkshiremen

My comments have been getting spammed a bit lately. The last time this happened, I posted the Monty Python spam sketch. So, since spam now reminds me of Monty Python, I thought I'd share another classic video. Enjoy!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Common Misconceptions, Part 1

A couple of the umpiring controversies from this postseason, as well as last year's, got me to thinking about a post I originally planned to do over a year ago. Unless you're new here, you probably know that I attended Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School in 1994. My "dream" to become a professional baseball umpire died pretty quickly after that, but this and my 10+ years of umpiring experience give me a slightly different perspective than your average fan and/or amateur player.

So, the idea is to write about common baseball rules misconceptions. That is, interpretations of rules that, over the years, have come to be considered common knowledge, despite the fact that they may or may not be correct.

The first of these is possibly the most earth-shattering. Maybe you've heard the phrase "tie goes to the runner" a time or two before. Well, it's not true. First of all, the word "tie" isn't even mentioned in the rule book, except in reference to the score of a game. But, you probably knew that, and you probably could guess that no experienced umpire would ever use that as the reason to rule a runner safe, anyway. What you probably don't know is that, according to the rule book, whether or not a tie goes to the runner or the fielder actually depends on the circumstance.

I'll start with the situation that confirms our long-standing belief. Rule 6.05(j) states, "A batter is out when...after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base." The requirement that he or first base must be tagged before he reaches means that if the two events occur at the same time, the requirement is not satisfied. Therefore, he's not out. So, in this example, he's safe in the case of a tie.

However, rule 7.08(e) states, "Any runner is out when...he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner." The requirement here is that he reaches the base before he or the base is tagged. Therefore, if the two events happen at the same time, the runner has failed to reach base before the tag, and he is out. So, in the case of a force play on a runner other than the batter-runner, according to the rules, the tie goes to the defensive team.

Now that I've covered the force plays, and thoroughly confused the issue, I still need to address tag plays. Well, rule 7.08(c) declares that, "Any runner is out when...he is tagged, when the ball is alive, while off his base." So, if he reaches the base at the same time as he is tagged, then he is not off base. Therefore, he is safe. In this case, once again, tie goes to the runner.

In two of the three relevant circumstances, tie does, in fact, go to the runner. However, this hardly reinforces our accepted understanding. So, does "tie goes to the runner" hold true, or does it really depend on the circumstances? Further muddying the issue is's Ask the Umpire page. When asked about this particular rule, the umpire responds, "There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn't beat the ball, then he is out." This umpire is clearly wrong, unless the wording of the rule has been changed since this Q&A was written. The umpire in question, incidentally, is none other than Tim McClelland.

I do recall, though, being taught that the exception to the "tie goes to the runner" concept—so worded because I would be incorrect to call it a rule—is the play on the batter-runner at first base. That backs up what McClelland says, so maybe I shouldn't be too quick to rush to judgment by saying he's flat-out wrong. But, the phrasing of the rule book does not reinforce my memory.

So, where does this leave us, and what wisdom do I think I'm imparting on my readers? That is, if any of them are still reading at this point. I guess it's that "tie goes to the runner" is a myth, and if anyone uses that phrase in your presence, you're now fully prepared to call them out on it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thrill vs. Agony, Part 2

I didn't intend to write a part two to this post—actually it's probably better described as an addendum—but a reference to it over on a site that I read regularly and contribute to irregularly, Pickin' Splinters, reminded me of another angle. That is, the idea that the success of one of your teams can go a long way towards softening the blow from the failure of another. A prime example of this is summed up by my current facebook status:

"I feel like a kid again...the Yankees are champions and the Giants suck."

Of course, this is not to mention the fact that the Rose Bowl hopes of my alma mater, Penn State, were crushed—as was the team—by Ohio State this past weekend, 24-7. Between that and the Giants' dismal loss to San Diego, which drops them to 5-4 after a 5-0 start, it was a pretty rough weekend for my football teams. But, it still doesn't feel all that bad.

Check back with me in a couple weeks on this one, though. I'll have a better idea by then how long this "honeymoon" will last.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Thrill of Victory vs. The Agony of Defeat

Is it just me, or does every serious sports fan agonize over their teams' losses far more than they celebrate their wins? Only a few days after my team once again became champions of the baseball world, it already seems like old news. On the other hand, I'm still sometimes haunted by the memories of the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series (not to mention the 2004 ALCS). In fact, I still have that game on VHS, and for years I've been curious to go back and see if Scott Brosius really could have turned a double play on Jay Bell's failed sacrifice attempt, but I probably never will. Still, I never taped over it because it was the final game of one of the most exciting World Series in baseball history.

I sometimes wonder if Red Sox fans realized this after the 2004 World Series. A few hours of partying it up, a day of suffering through a terrible hangover, and one parade through the city later, and I'm pretty sure they discovered that their joy paled in comparison to the pain they felt from the previous season's ALCS loss and all the heartbreaks that came before. If anyone feels otherwise, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

The pain of losing, of course, is only half the story. There's also the level of stress that we experience during and between games. As an example, just hours after the Yankees' impressive 9th inning versus Brad Lidge gave them a commanding 3-1 lead in this year's series, I woke up worrying that their plan of pitching Burnett, Pettitte and Sabathia on three days rest for Games 5 through 7 was going to backfire.

So, why is this? Why are we as fans better able to live vicariously through our teams' losses than their wins? Or, is it just me who feels this way? Lastly, if you do feel the same as I do, is it all worth it? I still say it is, although I'm not really sure I could explain why.

That said, I'll close this post with a list of my all-time top five favorite sports championships:
  1. Super Bowl XLII (2008): New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14
  2. 1996 World Series: New York Yankees 4, Atlanta Braves 2
  3. 1987 Fiesta Bowl: Penn State 14, Miami 10
  4. Super Bowl XXV (1991): New York Giants 20, Buffalo Bills 19
  5. 1980 Winter Olympics: USA Hockey Gold Medal

Thursday, November 05, 2009

That Old Familiar Feeling

If you're at least a semi-regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I'm a New York Yankees fan, but that I write more about baseball in general than I do about the Yankees. So, I'm not going to turn into a cheerleader now and talk about how psyched I am that they finished their run to the World Series yesterday, ending a "drought" of eight seasons without winning one. But, the title of this post seems appropriate, this being their 27th championship overall and seventh during my lifetime.

I will say, though, that it didn't really feel all that special, other than the fact that KJ put aside her Red Sox loyalties and watched several of the games with me. It did feel a little more exciting than 1999, when the Yankees completed their second consecutive sweep of the World Series and it seemed they would never lose again. Of course, we know that they did—lose again, that is—and that they are far from achieving the status of dynasty again. But, they were expected to win, and when you're expected to win, it's just not as fun as when you're not. As far as I'm concerned, there probably will never be another 1996.

Then, there's the backlash I'm hearing and reading about, mostly from bitter fans of other teams who just can't seem to put the return of the World Series championship trophy to Yankee Stadium in perspective. I have no problem with Yankee haters. I've said before that I almost always root for the underdog, unless of course, the favorite is my team. So, I expect the rest of the country to root for the Yankees to lose. But, there are a lot of people out there who seem to be mad at the Yankees, as if they consider it their responsibility to make sure the playing field is level. I've got news for you, folks. If the Yankees limitless budget is ruining baseball—which it's not—then it's Major League Baseball's responsibility to do something about it.

Besides, if the past eight years have proven anything, it's that you can't buy a championship. You can buy a contender, and I won't try to dispute that's what the Yankees have been doing, but throwing money at players doesn't guarantee anything beyond that. I've also said this before, but I'm all for a salary cap in baseball. There are a lot of constraints making it difficult to imagine that it will ever happen, though. I'm not going to get into a discussion of the economics of baseball, but there will still be the "haves" and the "have-nots." There's no getting around that fact, and it shouldn't be news to Red Sox and Phillies fans that they're in the haves category, whether they want to cling to their idealized self-images as underdogs or not.

I'm not sure if I have a real point to make here. These are just my thoughts following the completion of a really interesting 2009 baseball season. It's hard to believe this was the outcome of the same season that I was writing things like this about superstitions. Let's also not forget that it was only April of 2008 that I was warning Red Sox loyalists against messing with a good thing. Maybe I was right about that.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Down West

This is the unofficial third part of the brief "Unemployed in Vacationland" series of posts. If you haven't already, please go back and check out Part 1 and Part 2.

I had originally intended to write "Unemployed in Vacationland, Part 3," but since a few weeks have passed since part two, and since I'm no longer unemployed, I didn't think it would be an appropriate title. So, instead I'm going to do a post on a few beers from western Maine I had while there and those I brought home with me.

The first of these is Old Thumper Extra Special Ale. Created by British Brewer, Peter Austin, founder of Ringwood Brewery and mentor to Shipyard Brewing Company's master brewer Alan Pugsley, Old Thumper is a non-traditional English bitter. It has a nice, rich malty aroma. In fact, an under-the-weather KJ commented on this while she sat next to me on the couch playing Bejeweled on my iPod. It has a buttery, creamy mouthfeel and a mildly bitter finish. Grade: B

I'm not a big fan of Shipyard, so the fact that I give a rating that high to a brew even indirectly associated with them comes as a bit of a surprise. When I first came to Boston in 1997, el-squared turned me on to the locally brewed Tremont Ale. It was our beer of choice for quite a few years, and could usually be found on draft at most of our local hangouts. Then, in 2001, Tremont shut down their Charlestown brewery and contracted with Utica, New York's F.X. Matt Brewing Company, but eventually sold the brand name to Shipyard. It hasn't been the same since.

Shipyard's Export Ale and Chamberlain Pale Ale did a fine job of reinforcing my opinion about the brewery. Export Ale is their signature brand, which is hard to believe, as it has almost no redeeming qualities. On their web site, they describe it as a Canadian golden ale, and this is probably enough of an explanation. Why any microbrewery would want to emulate this style is beyond me. If I set out on a quest to discover the best Canadian beer, this would be a much more fruitless endeavor than seeking out really good Oktoberfests. [More on that one at a later date.] I've definitely had Export Ale before, and I don't know exactly how to describe it, but it always seems to have this not fresh taste to it. It finishes smooth—not that that's a raving endorsement—but, to be brutally honest, I'm really not sure if I would choose it over a Molson. Grade: D

Chamberlain Pale Ale is certainly better than Export Ale, but it's nothing to write home about either. So, I hope my dad is not reading this, otherwise that's exactly what I'd be doing. It's really just a mediocre pale ale, mildy hoppy but a little bland tasting. Grade: C

The India Pale Ale style is so named because the British discovered that hops are a natural preservative, so they added more to their standard pale ales so that they would survive long journeys to India, back in their imperialist days. In order to offset the increased bitterness this created, they also brewed them maltier and, therefore, stronger in alcoholic content. So, basically an IPA is a pale ale with extra hops and malt. An Imperial IPA is to an IPA what an IPA is to a pale ale. Geary's Imperial IPA is a good representative of the style. There's not much more to say about it, except that it's exactly what you'd expect. That is, very strong and very bitter, and very difficult to drink more than one or two of. Grade: B

There was also one beer from eastern Maine that I had with my lunch at a little place in Seal Harbor, on the southern end of Mount Desert Island. I never wrote about it, because I'd never heard of it, and was unsuccessful finding any information on the internet. So, for all I knew, the waitress had misidentified it as Black Bear Pale Ale, because all I could find was a British Columbia-brewed beer. Then, I persisted and discovered that Black Bear Brewery in Orono, Maine calls this offering Black Bear Pail Ale. It really is a nice hoppy ale with light citrus notes, so I didn't want to forget about it, but I would have to consider the alternate spelling to be a marketing no-no for an unknown microbrewery. Grade: B