Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 7 (5-1)

Before I proceed with the top five, I want to report on the progress of the year-end compilation.

I haven't started it yet. But, no worries. It's not that I've been lazy or I'm not motivated to do it. In fact, I'm quite excited that this year's mix may introduce a somewhat revised format. It's just that I've been spending a considerable amount of my downtime writing these blog entries. It takes time to insert the album images, identify and link them to insightful but non-mainstream (e.g. no Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, etc.) and non-pretentious (i.e. no Pitchfork) reviews, make sure it all formats exactly the way I want, and do the write-ups.

So, if you're interested in receiving a copy of my 2008 compilation, and you're not already on my list of regulars, just e-mail me at, or leave a comment here and we'll work out the details--most importantly, obtaining your address.

Oh, and if you're not sure if you're on my list of regulars, then it would be safer to assume that you're not.

And now, as Casey Kasem might say, back to the countdown.

5. Bloc PartyIntimacy

IntimacyThis English band has flirted with the top ten twice in the past three years. It's not necessarily that this is their best album, but possibly an indication of the relative weakness of the year in music, that they finally break into the top ten with Intimacy. Still, it's a tremendous album that's at least worthy of comparison to 2005's breakthrough Silent Alarm, and continues their trend of heavily mining the territory of relationship loss. This time, though, singer Kele Okereke seems to hint at greater loss, particularly on "Signs," which may turn out to be this year's "I Still Remember." That is, the one song that I could never listen to just once. Lyrics such as "I could sleep forever these days, 'cause in my dreams I see you again" and "I believe in anything that brings you back home to me" really struck a chord.

4. Drive-By TruckersBrighter Than Creation's Dark

Brighter Than Creation's DarkThese modern day southern rockers/alt-country heroes had quite the year, in my world. First, they were chiefly responsible for making their double-bill with The Hold Steady my concert of the year, at least based on the music itself. That's saying a lot in a year that I also saw a Neil Young/Wilco show, although other considerations would probably vault the latter to concert of the year status. But, most importantly, they join The Hold Steady as the second artist to extend their top ten streak to three consecutive releases. Brighter Than Creation's Dark plays like the follow up to the album- 2002's Southern Rock Opera--that turned me on to their down-home charm in the first place. With 19 songs divided into four "sides," as described on the CD sleeve (the LP release is actually two records), it clocks in at almost as long as that two-disc magnum opus.

3. Sigur RósMeð suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust

Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaustNot really being a fan of Sigur Rós prior to 2005's Takk..., and not yet spending much time exploring their back catalog, I generally have to take people on their word that this Icelandic band's music has been getting sunnier with each release. I've definitely witnessed their progression from that album to this one. I still can't pronounce the names of any of the songs, nor of this record's title. In fact, I still struggle with the band's name--something like see-gyer-ros--but that doesn't really matter when the music is as powerful and majestic as this. On Takk..., "Hoppípolla" was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. While none of the songs here quite reach that level, there are several that come close, cementing this album's place as better than its predecessor and one of the absolute best of 2008.

2. Wolf ParadeAt Mount Zoomer

At Mount ZoomerI've joked in this blog a few times about the prolificacy of Wolf Parade side projects in comparison to the actual band itself. Since the 2005 release of their full-length debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, co-leaders Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner have put out three albums between them--two by Krug's Sunset Rubdown and one by Boeckner's Handsome Furs. If you're scoring at home, this means that 2008 is the fourth consecutive year that Krug has played a significant role on a record in my top 11. In my Fab 40 series from a couple years ago, I discussed the question of what musicians have maintained the status of my second favorite to Neil Young at one time or another. Unofficially, I'd say that Jay Farrar, Steve Earle and Joe Pernice have held that distinction since the mid-90s, with the position currently being vacant. Does Spencer Krug now emerge as a candidate? He is Canadian, after all. I'm not sure I'm ready to elevate him to that status just yet, but the fact that I'm even bringing it up certainly says something.

1. American Music ClubThe Golden Age

The Golden Age A few years ago, while my 2004 year-end compilation played in the background at a friend's place, a mutual "friend" mocked a track from Love Songs for Patriots that was on that mix by crooning, "Oh, I am so emotional." This, of course, was from a person who wore a homemade shirt which offered that "Bon Jovi can lay me down in a bed of roses" to one of the New Jersey pop-metal icon's concerts. Don't get me wrong here. No one loves cheesy rock from the 80s more than I do--well maybe she does--but I guess I'm also a sucker for a lot of music that packs an emotional punch. As one reviewer said, American Music Club effectively blends rock muscularity with folk wussiness, and they've never done so better than on my album of the year, The Golden Age. Well, I may not be qualified to make that statement--not yet, at least. In 2009, I plan to spend considerable time exploring the AMC back catalog. I hope they prove me wrong, because if their prior albums can match the brilliance of "The Sleeping Beauty," "All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco," "Windows on the World," and "Who You Are"--my 2008 theme song--then I will be quite pleased.

With that, it's goodbye to 2008 and hello to the final year of the 00s, the most awkward-to-phrase decade of my life so far. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 6 (10-6)

10. The Hold SteadyStay Positive

Stay PositiveThis marks the third consecutive album for this band that's landed in my year-end top ten. That's a pretty remarkable achievement, leaving them one short of the record of four held by Steve Earle. Earle's streak of four straight releases, covering the five-year period from 1996 to 2000, occurred entirely in the pre-downloading era, though. For that reason, The Hold Steady's streak is all the more impressive, but they're not alone. In fact, they are one of two artists to reach the distinction in 2008 alone.

9. Sun Kil MoonApril

AprilMark Kozelek puts his reverence of Neil Young on full display here by including five songs that break the seven-minute mark. Actually, despite my love of epic songs, this one may have been in the top five had it been edited down to a little shorter than its 74 minutes. Still, for as long as it is, it captures and holds my attention, with barely an uninteresting moment. Highlights include guest appearances by Will Oldham and Ben Gibbard.

8. Okkervil RiverThe Stand-Ins

The Stand-InsOkkervil River is not the other band to extend their top ten streak to three this year. Of course, they topped 2005's list, but last year's The Stage Names finished at #12. I honestly feel that they have another record that's as good as, if not better than, Black Sheep Boy in them. I suppose those are pretty lofty expectations. In the meantime, I'll continue to settle for excellent albums like this one.

7. The Mountain GoatsHeretic Pride

Heretic PrideLast year, seven of my top ten albums were by artists who had never before achieved that honor--and I use that term loosely, of course. This year, The Mountain Goats are one of only two first-timers in the top ten. Somehow, I have the feeling that this one will be the biggest surprise to those who are quite familiar with my taste. In fact, the top five seem to me as though they're about as predictable as they could be. Still, you'll have to wait until tomorrow evening to find out.

6. Mates of StateRe-Arrange Us

Re-Arrange UsMates of State are husband-and-wife team Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, the latter not being the same guy who was one of six pitchers to save games for the Tampa Bay Rays this year. The album's first track, and my personal favorite, is testimony to the idea that music is about the listener's personal experience. It's more important that "Get Better"--which includes the sing-along lyrics "Everything's gonna get lighter, even if it never gets better"--was my ultimate antidote to a bad mood this year, than is the fact that it's really about household color schemes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 5 (15-11)

15. The WalkmenYou & Me

You & MeOn "In the New Year"—one of this album's standout tracks—lead singer Hamilton Leithauser sounds as if he's trying to convince himself as he proclaims, "I know that it's true/It's gonna be a good year". I don't need any convincing. In the end, it was.

14. Vampire WeekendVampire Weekend

Vampire WeekendVampire Weekend—they of the highest ranking debut album on this year's list—tread very closely to that dangerous territory inhabited by the over-hyped. Regardless, each time I found myself thinking this, I'd listen to the album one more time and realize that it's just a really enjoyable, cohesive collection of pop songs. So, I guess what I'm saying is, believe the hype—at least for now.

13. Bound StemsThe Family Afloat

The Family AfloatI read two separate reviews that reference Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica in describing this one. Neither reviewer made a direct comparison, but I found this odd nonetheless. Many of the songs do take on a somewhat schizophrenic nature, but you'd have to call this a sunnier, friendlier version of that album for the comparison to seem slightly appropriate. Regardless, I suppose it says something about how good this album really is. While not their debut, this is the top spot occupied by a band I had never heard of prior to this year.

12. Cloud CultFeel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)

Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes)Cloud Cult topped my Best of 2007 list, and the follow up to The Meaning of 8--while not as mind-blowing—certainly did not disappoint. While his lyrics can be hokey, even silly at times, and his stuff sometimes a little over-the-top, Craig Minowa's philosophical meanderings always strike me as sincere. His songs also provide me with some of the best material to sing along to—when no one else is around, of course.

11. The StreetsEverything is Borrowed

Everything is BorrowedI'm not a huge hip-hop fan, but every year that I've done an expanded list (i.e. more than a top 10), it's included at least one true hip-hop album. There was Kanye West last year, Ghostface Killah in 2006, and both Kanye and Danger Doom in 2005. Generally not considered hip-hop, The Streets is the closest thing to grace this year's list. However you want to classify it, this is an excellent return to form after the disappointing The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 4 (20-16)

20. Death Cab for CutieNarrow Stairs

Narrow StairsI'm not sure if this is the first album to make my year-end list that topped the Billboard charts, but an album by an "indie" band debuting at #1 is quite the long shot coming in. That's what happened in May of this year, when this album was released, completing the band's ascension from indie darlings to commercial success, a feat accomplished while receiving surprisingly few accusations of selling out.

19. The Rural Alberta AdvantageHometowns

HometownsCracking the list at #19, The RAA's Hometowns is actually only the third highest ranked debut album on my list. That, folks, means there are two more to come. Despite being eMusic's featured artist of the month in November, this excellent band from Toronto is, unbelievably, as yet unsigned.

18. Wild Sweet OrangeWe Have Cause to Be Uneasy

We Have Cause to Be UneasyEarlier this year, The Boston Phoenix did a feature article profiling their picks for the all-time best band and solo artist, and the best new band from each of the 50 states. Wild Sweet Orange was their pick for the "band you need to hear, like, now" from Alabama. For some reason, this was the only one of their recommendations that stuck with me. When I learned of the release of their debut album, I had to check it out, and was not disappointed.

17. Say HiThe Wishes and the Glitch

The Wishes and the GlitchOne of the reviews I read of this album describes Say Hi leader Eric Elbogen's voice as "mumbly". I think that's the first time I've ever heard a singer's voice referred to in such a way, and I find it quite amusing--even somewhat endearing. I also love the hooky synth-pop of this record, as well as Elbogen's mumbly voice, particularly when he sings lines such as "...oboes will bleat and the triangles tink, but we can't stop this thing from what it's gonna be".

16. Of MontrealSkeletal Lamping

Skeletal LampingIn an interview, Of Montreal front-man Kevin Barnes discusses this album by saying, "This record is my attempt to bring all of my puzzling, contradicting, disturbing, humorous... fantasies, ruminations and observations to the surface, so that I can better dissect and understand their reason for being in my head. Hence the title Skeletal Lamping. ‘Lamping’ is the name of a rather dreadful hunting technique where hunters go into the forest at night, flood an area in light, then shoot or capture the animals as they panic and run from their hiding places. This album is my attempt at doing this to my proverbial skeletons. I haven’t yet decided if I should shoot or just capture them though."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 3 (25-21)

I'm switching things up a little here. While I had originally intended to get through the top 40 in six parts, with 6 to 8 albums revealed in each, I'm going to count down the top 25 five at a time. So, in case you're somewhat math-challenged, that means there will be seven installments in total, with the top five appearing on New Year's Eve.

25. M83 - Saturdays = Youth

Saturdays = YouthThis is a little less over-the-top than most of what I've heard from M83 in the past--well, at least there's a little less of the overly dramatic spoken word segments. The result is an album that is intended to be somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Gonzalez's youth, and may have a similiar effect to those of us who grew up in the 80s.

24. Stephen Malkmus & The JicksReal Emotional Trash

Real Emotional TrashThe latest from the former front-man of indie rock legends Pavement is a strong candidate for "grower of the year", as odd as that distinction sounds. I could tell it was worth repeated listens right from the start, but it took quite a few before I really grew to appreciate it as the most cohesive album of Malkmus' career--which might not necessarily be a good thing to all of his fans.

23. Ryan Adams & The CardinalsCardinology

CardinologyUpon first listen, I thought this one might be almost as good as last year's Easy Tiger, which I considered to be a return to form of sorts for Adams. I even raved about it in a text to a friend. Then, I read the less-than-glowing reviews and wondered if I would change my mind over time--but, I didn't. I can't help but be amused by the third track, "Fix It", which if you don't listen closely enough, you'll think is about repairing a broken relationship--that couldn't further from the truth.

22. David Byrne & Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

Everything That Happens Will Happen TodayThe house on the cover of this album looks sort of welcoming and the music on this record backs it up, as it certainly has an inviting feel. It strikes a chord with me as I tread further into my early 40s and find myself desiring that familiar sense of home more and more with each passing day.

21. Centro-MaticDual Hawks

Dual HawksTechnically, this wasn't a Centro-Matic album, but a split release with South San Gabriel, a band that consists of the same lineup as Centro-Matic, but with additional guest performers. The two bands' approaches are quite stylistically different, though, with South San Gabriel being the quieter, more cerebral, counterpoint to Centro-Matic's Crazy Horse-esque punch. I prefer Centro-Matic, of course, and while technically, it's all one album, I chose to consider them as separate efforts.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 2 (33-26)

33. Thao with The Get Down Stay Down - We Brave Bee Stings and All

We Brave Bee Stings and AllI almost eliminated this one from the list because I got frustrated trying to figure out if they're called Thao Nguyen with the Get Down Stay Down, Thao with the Get Down Stay Down, just Thao Nguyen or simply Thao. Her (their?) web site settled my dilemma.

32. Nada SurfLucky

LuckyAnother questionable pick by critical standards, but this one is just pure pop pleasure. "Beautiful Beat" provided the perfect accompaniment to an episode-closing moment of self-realization for Ted Mosby on my favorite television show, How I Met Your Mother. "I Like What You Say" also painfully reminded me that we don't always learn from our mistakes.

31. My Morning JacketEvil Urges

Evil UrgesDespite including possibly the worst ever ode to a librarian--a train wreck of a song that I just had to listen to one more time as I write this--I really enjoyed this band's genre-bending efforts this year. There are moments here where I could swear that MMJ front-man Jim James thinks his first name is Rick.

30. Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

Asking for FlowersI was surprised to learn that Kathleen turned 30 this year. Regardless, she's still the hottest chick in alt-country, in my opinion. I offer no apologies to Neko Case, especially since I like her power-pop oriented part-time band, The New Pornographers, much better than her country inflected solo work.

29. Alejandro EscovedoReal Animal

Real AnimalI mentioned in Frequent Spins that Alejandro was celebrating the fact that George W. Bush was leaving office, but also lamenting that he'll be returning to the state--Texas--that both men call home. This was, of course, prior to the major defining moment of 2008--the election of Barack Obama--a moment that provides an added bonus to the departure of the worst president in our history.

28. Cat PowerJukebox

JukeboxChan Marshall starts off this fine collection of mostly cover tunes with a soulful version of "New York, New York". The album was released two days after the Giants defeated the Green Bay Packers to advance to the Super Bowl. Her version is hardly Sinatra-esque, but it certainly beats Liza Minnelli's.

27. SamAmidonAll is Well

All is WellAn entire album of re-worked Appalachian folk tunes seems like a rather trite concept. But, the subtly orchestrated arrangements of these songs make each of them sound fresh and new. In fact, "O Death" being the only one that was instantly recognizable to me, I didn't even realize this at first. As I said in Frequent Spins, "Saro" is stunningly beautiful and one of my favorite songs of the year.

26. Kate NashMade of Bricks

Made of BricksI seem to discuss this every year, and 2008 is no exception. Six female-fronted acts comprise spots 26 to 40, but it pretty much ends there. One male/female duo and a few with significant female contributions are all that we'll see from the fairer sex in the top 25.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Best Music of 2008: Part 1 (40-34)

40. The Baseball Project - Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

Frozen Ropes and Dying QuailsBecause this list is mostly about the music that defined the year for me, this album earns the final spot over a couple that were equally as worthy musically. I called this the soundtrack to my baseball park trip in August, which was an important part of a year that started and ended well, but wasn't necessarily great in-between.

39. Malcolm Middleton - Sleight of Heart

Sleight of HeartI'm still waiting for another album that measures up to his 2005 release, Into the Woods. In the meantime, there's something about Middleton's Scottish brogue and his attitude that makes even his lesser material move me. This one is no exception.

38. Damien Jurado - Caught in the Trees

Caught in the TreesIn my Frequent Spins post that included this album, I said that it falls far short of the brilliance of 2005's And Now That I'm in Your Shadow. That record was actually released in 2006, and made my top ten that year. So, saying this one falls short is not a slight, as it's still a very satisfying follow up.

37. Jennifer O’ConnorHere With Me

Here With MeIn Frequent Spins, I said this was better than her last one, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars. I'm going to back off of that statement a little by saying it's at least as good. I may have been overly excited about the fact that I found a picture of her wearing a Giants t-shirt. Big Blue's Super Bowl upset of the 18-0 Patriots is certainly one of the highlights of my year.

36. Paul Westerberg - 49:00

49:00Westerberg's first release in four years--other than the 2006 soundtrack to the children's movie Open Season--proves that he's still going strong at age 49. It's just as ramshackle as his Grandpaboy efforts, which more than anything marked his return to form after a couple of mediocre post-Replacements solo albums.

35. Shelby Lynne - Just a Little Lovin'

Just a Little Lovin’I'm probably going to take a little heat from the music snobs for this one, but so what. Shelby's homage to Dusty Springfield made a big impression on me early in 2008 and, although I couldn't listen to it for a while, upon re-visiting it late in the year, I'm finding that I'm still enjoying its pleasingly romantic sounds.

34. DeVotchKa - A Mad & Faithful Telling

A Mad & Faithful TellingListening to indie rock that draws influence from Eastern European music is a strange experience. It kind of makes you wonder if you should be seeking out the real deal. Regardless, this eclectic quartet from Denver is quite impressive in their follow up to the grammy-nominated Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Best Music of 2008

I'm just about ready to begin the countdown of my top 40 albums of 2008. Since I've already written a little about most, if not all, of these albums in my Frequent Spins series throughout the year, it will be a challenge to write something different about each as I count them down. So, don't expect any critical insight--not that you necessarily get that from my Frequent Spins write-ups anyway. I may have a tendency to lean a little more towards what each record actually meant to me--or just something interesting or completely random.

So, stay tuned, as beginning today or tomorrow, I'll be posting an entry every other day or so that will include 6 to 8 of the year's best--in my opinion.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Flight 45

The Houston Astros' all-time leader in games pitched, Dave Smith, died this week at age 53. Smith, a two-time all-star who also is second on the Astros' career saves list, apparently died of a heart attack on Wednesday. He is remembered by those who played with and against him as a fierce competitor, and by teammates and friends for his generosity and zest for life. Giants third base coach and former big leaguer Tim Flannery, who also served on the Padres' coaching staff with Smith from 1999 to 2001, called him "...the most giving, unconditionally compassionate man anyone ever came across..." and fondly remembers him "...reaching into his pocket and pulling out $100 to give to someone selling newspapers for a quarter".

Personally, I remember Smith for the part he played in what I recall as the most exciting baseball post-season I've ever witnessed. During my sophomore year in college, I was part of a group of haters who rooted passionately against the 1986 Mets of Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Lenny Dykstra and Ray Knight, even going so far as to cheer for the Red Sox in the World Series.

Somewhat ironically, I no longer am the typical New Yorker who loves his team and despises their crosstown rivals, but 1986 is still one of the primary reasons I hate the Red Sox to this day. That is, the one time I rooted for them...well, you know what happened. Despite the fact that the '86 Astros were essentially a one-man show, and broke my heart by nearly toppling the vaunted Mets, I still have a soft spot for them, for the valiant effort they put forth against a team they had no business believing they could beat.

Smith didn't pitch very well in that LCS, most notably blowing game three by yielding a 9th inning game-winning two-run home run to Lenny Dykstra, and ruining the Astros' chances of going up 2-1 on the Mets with Mike Scott--the aforementioned one-man show--throwing the next day. However, he was as much a part of that team as Billy Hatcher, Glenn Davis, Charlie Kerfeld and Alan Ashby. Actually, as I peruse the box scores of that series, I realize that he was probably the biggest reason his team lost, but I love the '86 Astros, and Dave Smith was loved by his teammates.

Rest in peace, Flight 45.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Frequent Spins (2008.9)

It's that time of year once again. As 2008 winds down, I present you with the year's final installment of Frequent Spins. More importantly, though, it's time to revisit my favorites for the year and start putting together the list. I shifted to the top 40 format last year, and I think I'm going to stick with it. I feel like the back end of this year's top 40 is a little stronger than last, but it's going to be a little weaker at the top. In fact, 2008 may be the most lacking in truly great albums of any year in a while.

Bound Stems - The Family Afloat
Frequently throughout this album, I have to stop and think of what indie rock band they remind me of, but most of the time, that comparison eludes me. Maybe that's because, while far from completely unique, this band just isn't that easy to pigeon-hole. Catchy throughout, but frequently leaving you wanting just a little bit more, and not necessarily in a bad way, this is a strong set of pretty straight-up indie rock/pop.

French Kicks - Swimming
The French Kicks have always been an enigma to me, curiously so considering this is their first album that I've listened to. They've been an enigma based solely on reputation. Are they over-rated indie rock pretenders akin to the Liars, or truly worthy of comparisons to bands like The Strokes and The Walkmen? Obviously, I never bothered to make my own determination until now, and considering I'm including them here, I'd say they're much closer to the latter than the former.

Los Campesinos! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
This high energy Welch indie-pop seven-piece was one of the busiest acts in the business this year, releasing two full-length albums. Hold on Now, Youngster... was a solid effort, but We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, their second release of 2008, is even better.

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cardinology
The former Whiskeytown frontman's latest hasn't been well received by the critics. Safe, lackadaisical, self-indulgent, uninviting...I'm sure Adams has heard these all before. While it may be a drop-off from last year's Easy Tiger, which I consider to be his second best solo record, it still has all the elements that have always appealed to me about his stuff. Who else could cover ground ranging from the gentle reminder of "Go Easy" to the bitter ill wishes of "Fix It", all by the album's third track?

The Rural Alberta Adantage - Hometowns
I discovered this one on eMusic, as it's been at or near the top of their charts for a little while now. They cleverly refer to this album by the description, "In an aeroplane over Alberta...", but I'd call the Neutral Milk Hotel comparison a bit of a stretch. Quite a bit less quirky, and a little more rootsy, than Jeff Mangum's troupe, The RAA still deliver a fine first record, one that ranks among my favorite debuts of the year.

Also spin-worthy
Jay Bennett - Whatever Happened I Apologize
Pelle Carlberg - The Lilac Time
The Tallest Man on Earth - Shallow Grave
Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak
Neil Young - Sugar Mountain Live At Canterbury House 1968

Oh, and don't forget to stay tuned here for my Best of 2008 countdown, which should kick off about a week from now and run through New Year's Eve.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Neil Young, Wilco @ DCU Center

Saturday night's Neil Young show at the DCU Center quite possibly ranks as the best concert I've ever attended that I didn't know I was going to until a couple hours prior to its start. It also ranks as one of the best Christmas gifts--presentation included--I've ever received.

My new lady friend pulled off quite the feat in getting me to head out towards Worcester with her on a late Saturday afternoon. The plan was that we were heading to dinner at an old favorite of hers, a family chain of restaurants prevalent out west, but of which there are few locations back east, none closer than a 45-minute drive from Boston. After that, we were going to check out some Christmas village to get a taste of the holiday season. Or, so I thought.

While at dinner, she said she had an early gift for me. I opened the box she handed me, and was almost speechless to find an e-mail confirmation of tickets to the show, with the words "WANT TO GO?" written on it. Do I want to go? If you don't know the answer to that question, you only have to read this to find out.

I had originally decided not to go to this show because most of my friends balked at the venue and the ticket prices, and I regretted this decision a little more each time I received an email reminder from Ticketmaster or Live Nation. So, to find out I was going to the show less than two hours prior to its start was pretty incredible.

Wilco's set was solid, as they played mostly material from Sky Blue Sky and A Ghost is Born, but the highlights were "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Jesus, Etc." from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Somehow, it didn't feel quite right not having them close the show with "Misunderstood", and with Jeff Tweedy belting out repeatedly, "I'd like to thank you all for nothing at all", at the end of the song. But, he probably figured that wouldn't be as well received from a crowd that probably wasn't there to see his band.

Neil started out strongly, putting the place on notice that he was there to rock, with show opening renditions of "Love and Only Love" and "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)", before transitioning to one of my personal favorites, "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere". Speaking of which, the set also included my two favorite guitar anthems, "Cortez the Killer" and "Cowgirl in the Sand", the latter being a little less than spectacular with no Danny Whitten or Poncho Sampredo to dual it out with him.

An extended string of a couple songs from last year's Chrome Dreams II and a few from what I could only assume is a forthcoming release lost my interest briefly, but the show ended the way it started, with an audience-rousing version of "Rockin' in the Free World". An encore of "A Day in the Life" wouldn't have been my choice, but overall Neil proved himself to be as vital as ever at age 63.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Big Apple Second Chances, Vegas Style

With the winter meetings in Las Vegas coming to an end this week, there's no question that the Yankees and the Mets stole the show. With each team making two key additions to address their respective areas of greatest need, they virtually assured that there will be a Subway Series in 2009. Alright, let's not get carried away here, but the two teams from New York were clearly the clubs looking for redemption, following disappointing 2008 seasons, in the "Capital of Second Chances".

The Yankees' signings of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, while not necessarily the most economically sound moves, certainly have to make the rest of the league take notice. Despite missing the post-season last year with a payroll of over $2 million per victory, the Yankees still won 89 games while getting significantly less contribution from Chien-Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy than was expected. They will most likely get more out of Wang and Chamberlain this year, and despite the retirement of Mike Mussina, the additions of Sabathia and Burnett should easily put them back in the playoff picture.

Don't expect them to rest just yet, either. By the time they're done maneuvering, the Yankees, whether deserved or not, will be the favorite to win the AL East and, probably, the World Series. That distinction, of course, will be based on how the team looks on paper. Translating that to actual success is the thing the Yanks have had difficulty with in recent years.

Since I brought it up, we all know that making economically sound moves is not the Yankees' modus operandi. In an era where it's believed that championship contenders are built through a balance of developing good young talent and making key acquisitions of proven veteran performers, fans have become increasingly interested in whether or not their teams are spending their money wisely. That is, all except Yankees fans. Milwaukee Brewers loyalists know that, if they had signed Sabathia to a four-year, $100 million contract, and if he ended up contributing significantly less than being the hero he was last year, the team would not be able to overcome this. Even Red Sox, Mets, Angels and Dodgers fans know that their teams can ill afford to make a monumental mistake with a long-term free agent contract.

Yankees fans do not have this concern. They do not need to care whether or not Sabathia will be overpaid in the 5th, 6th and 7th years of this $161 million deal. If he is anything approaching the Sabathia of 2007 and 2008 for two or three years, he gives them a chance to climb back to the top of the heap. The Yankees have had several bad contracts on the books for quite a few years now, yet last year is the first that they fell short of the playoffs, and, even so, were still in contention for most of the year.

With a team payroll of $201 million for 2008, the Yankees spent $2.25 million per victory. Even the Mets, Tigers and Red Sox, all with payrolls in the vicinity of $138 million, would have been as bad as the Seattle Mariners, the worst team in baseball, at that rate. Yet, if the Yankees improve this "efficiency" to $2 million per, that would translate to 100 wins. Only the three aforementioned teams, plus the Chicago White Sox, would have won as many as 60 games by that calculation.

I think you get my point. The Yankees don't have to spend wisely to win. They do have to make better personnel decisions, though, and this is something that has eluded them in recent years. Will the Sabathia and Burnett signings, and whatever they do next, continue that trend, or will they finally hit the nail on the head with their major free agent acquisitions? We'll have to wait and see, but I have to say that A.J. Burnett, who just agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal, somehow reminds me of a cross between Kevin Brown and Kyle Farnsworth. Again, we'll have to wait and see.

The Mets still have some rotation issues to address, including their new #1 priority--the re-signing of Oliver Perez--but they could not have done a better job of shoring up their major area of weakness. The Francisco Rodriguez signing--three years, $37 million--was a no-brainer. With the Angels never making a serious attempt to re-sign him, beyond the contract extension they offered last winter, his move to Queens was a foregone conclusion. The market for closers this off-season was clearly a buyers' market, and the Mets were the club with the most purchasing power.

The Mets have had a closer of Rodriguez's caliber for the past three years, though, so would the K-Rod signing be enough to address the area that, inarguably, was the reason the Phillies were better in 2008? Apparently, they didn't think so. The Mets had setup problems last year, even before Billy Wagner went down with an injury that will keep him out through the 2009 season, so just a day removed from acquiring their new closer, they traded for J.J. Putz in a three-way deal involving the Indians and Mariners.

The Putz acquisition shows that the Mets mean business about not letting last year's downfall repeat itself. Not only does he instantly become the favorite for the best setup man in baseball, but Putz provides them with an insurance policy they wish they had last year. Well on his way to becoming one of the best closers in the American League--in fact, take a look at the 2007 numbers and try to convince me he wasn't the best--until injuries set him back last year, Putz gives the Mets a backup plan that no other team has right now.

So, while the Yankees did the most spending--and, some will say, gambling--in Vegas last week, the Mets come away the biggest winners, by playing the percentages and knowing when to double down.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

My BCS Solution

Year after year, those of us who follow college football are forced to listen to numerous complaints about the lack of a true championship in that sport. The BCS was supposed to have been created to settle this controversy, but it doesn't seem to have solved anything. Some folks say that the endless debate adds a certain element that makes this interesting, but these are probably the same people who enjoy listening to the DH vs. no-DH arguments. Enough already, I say—on both subjects—but let's stick to the college football discussion for now.

I'm a Penn State alum, so if not for an upset loss to Iowa a few weeks ago, my team may have benefited from the lack of a true system, and would already be slated for a title game showdown with one of the powerhouses from the SEC or the Big 12. If this were the case, there would be much clamoring about the fact that 3 or 4 other teams from these conferences are more deserving due to the much tougher schedules they've faced. Of course, that's a moot point, but it doesn't mean there aren't going to be quite a few rightfully unhappy programs that are as deserving of a shot at a national championship as one or both of the teams that are selected for the BCS title game.

I've been working on a mini-BCS playoff system in my mind for over a year now. This is actually the first time I've attempted to write it down and make some sense of it.
  • The BCS ranking system is still used, but in this case for more than just to determine the two teams who get to play in the "national championship".

  • Conferences are free to determine their championship game participants in whatever way they choose, but are encouraged to scrap their division formats and simply pit their top two BCS teams against each other. This would avoid a situation such as in this year's Big 12, in which the top four teams in that conference are in the same division.

  • Four additional teams are awarded at-large bids, also based on their BCS rankings, and are seeded 7 through 10. These four teams are selected from among the remaining conference champions, teams that did not win their conferences, and independents.

  • Obviously, the fact that they would only be eligible for the at-large berths puts the independents at a bit of a disadvantage, but if they're among the top eight teams in the country, they're virtually assured of a bid. There are currently only four FBS independents, and with the Notre Dame program being a bit of a mess, this seems less important right now, but these teams would be encouraged to join a conference.

  • The quarter-finals are played the third weekend in December, with the semi-finals on New Year's Day and the finals a week later.

  • The remaining two quarter-final games and the 7 vs. 10 and 8 vs. 9 games are awarded to the Cotton, Capital One, Outback and Gator Bowls, or whatever four are considered next in the pecking order.
I can't say for certain that this system addresses all of the concerns that seem to have been preventing such a playoff system from happening, but I'll try to cover as many as I can think of. First, the bowls remain as prestigious as ever and, in fact, take on added importance due to the fact that every one of the eight involved in this system are elimination games.

Second, the automatic bids to the top six conference champions virtually assure that a team that didn't win their conference won't make the playoffs over a conference rival that did. Also, the inclusion of the conference championships essentially adds an extra round to the tournament without having to extend the schedule. Additionally, this significantly extends the pool of teams that are playing that game for a chance to make the BCS tournament, essentially making it comparable to a playoff game for them.

There are a couple of minor drawbacks that I'm aware of. First, if all of the top six conference champions are not ranked in the BCS top ten, then there will be top ten teams that don't make the playoffs. Still, no matter what the solution, some team will be disappointed at being left out, but it's much better when that team is at #9 rather than #3. Furthermore, I think it's important to assign a high level of importance to the conference championships.

Another potential drawback is the fact that this will extend some teams' seasons to 15 or 16 games. I'm not really sure how seriously the NCAA would frown upon this, but I do know that my plan only extends the season into the holidays, so I don't think it should be considered a major problem.

Lastly, by using so many of the bowl games for this playoff system, and therefore having several teams play in multiple bowls, it reduces the pool of teams that get to play in one of these games. This is the major downside of this plan, in my opinion. I'm not sure of a way around this. Obviously, it's easy for me to say that a few bowl games could be added, but I have no idea how feasible this is.

The bottom line is that this season's outcome, in which there will be as many as two undefeated and five one-loss teams locked out of the BCS title game, just reinforces that it's about time that major college football instituted some type of playoff system. But, of course, we've all heard that one before.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

When the Pilot Light is Out

Just a month removed from the Philadelphia Phillies' World Series celebration, the burner on the hot stove appears to have cooled off. All of the post-season awards have been announced, the Jake Peavy trade rumors have died down, and none of the major free agents seem to be in a hurry to find new homes. So, unless you're interested in more talk about the Mitchell report, or its spin-off, the Roger Clemens/Brian McNamee saga, then you need to look elsewhere for your winter baseball pick-me-up.

So, to help you with this, I bring you my recommendations for your off-season baseball-related reading. I'm going to break these down into a few categories, and hopefully my selections are far enough out of left field, so to speak, that they'll include a few that you might not have thought about reading otherwise.

Baseball Folk Tales

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W.P. Kinsella
Often imitated but never duplicated, you really can't go wrong with W.P. Kinsella. I'm sure most everyone has heard of Kinsella's first novel and most famous work, Shoeless Joe, the book that inspired the movie Field of Dreams. But, in my opinion, his best work is his second novel. The Iowa Baseball Confederacy tells the story of Gideon Clarke, a man on a quest to prove, as his father had tried unsuccessfully before him, that the Chicago Cubs traveled to Onamata (formerly Big Inning), Iowa in 1908 for an exhibition game against the amateur all-stars from The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. Gideon is determined to set the record straight about a game that no one believes ever happened, one that was expected to be congenial and one-sided, but turned into a titanic struggle of over 2000 innings, played mostly in pouring rain over more than a month's time. Kinsella's knack for weaving fantastical tales that celebrate the spirituality of baseball, as well as life in the American midwest, is on full display here. As far as I'm concerned, there is no story that better captures the concept of baseball as a virtual fountain of youth, and celebrates its timeless nature that has the ability to make time stand still.

The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, by George Plimpton
The product of an April Fools' Day hoax perpetrated by Plimpton and Sports Illustrated, Sidd Finch was a fictional baseball player "discovered" by the New York Mets in the spring of 1985. An eccentric English-born buddhist monk, Finch has the ability to throw a baseball at the astounding rate of 168 mph, and is deciding whether to pursue a career as a major league pitcher or as a french horn player. The story is a humorous and pleasantly rambling narrative that is as wonderful as a baseball fairy tale can be.

Human Interest Autobiographies

Fear Strikes Out: The Jim Piersall Story, by Jim Piersall & Al Hirshberg
Jimmy Piersall was a promising outfielder for the Boston Red Sox in the 1950s, who is best known for his battles with bipolar disorder that resulted in a nervous breakdown during the 1952 season. Following completion of a seven-week program at Westboro State Hospital in Massachusetts, which caused him to miss most of that season, he returned in 1953 to finish 9th in American League MVP voting. This is a dramatic and heart-warming story of his courage and of the unconditional support he received from his manager, teammates, coaches, fans, and most importantly, his wife. The remainder of his career, which stretched from 1950 to 1967, and included stints with the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, New York Mets and Los Angeles/California Angels, was not without incident, but his autobiography provides an in-depth account of his experiences that raised public awareness of the realities of mental illness.

Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, by Dave Pallone with Alan Steinberg
To my knowledge, Dave Pallone is the only confirmed homosexual in major league baseball history. The twist to his story is that he was an umpire. Not just any umpire, though, but an umpire who landed his job in the majors when the union was on strike. He was also at the center of one of the most famous on-field conflicts in modern history, the incident that resulted in Pete Rose's 50-game suspension for shoving him. Coincidentally, Rose and Pallone were both dismissed from the game by A. Bartlett Giamatti. Pallone claims that his firing was the result of his being "outed". His autobiography is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at his closeted life in the homophobic sports world. One caveat to potential readers is that some of his accounts may be a bit more up close and personal than necessary, but they can easily be skipped over, and otherwise, this is well worth the read.

The Business of Baseball

Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball, by Bob Costas
Following the 1999 season, Bob Costas wrote this well-organized, easy to read, but very thorough "plan" for major league baseball as it moved into the 21st century. Subjects covered include logical arguments for a revenue sharing plan, a payroll ceiling and a payroll floor, simple realignment, a revised playoff structure, the elimination of the DH and the use of instant replay. It's almost ten years since it was written, and much has changed in the game since, particularly the fact that eight teams have won the subsequent nine World Series, but concerns about competitive balance are still a sleeping giant. Much of what Costas advocated for still makes sense, although may be in need of a slight revision to be practical. More importantly, though, at less than 200 pages, with typeset that resembles a children's book, it doesn't require much of a time investment, and it remains a very interesting read.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis
Billy Beane certainly wasn't the first baseball executive to incorporate statistical analysis into personnel decisions, but his philosophies regarding under-valued skills are still considered somewhat revolutionary. This is easily the most mainstream of my recommendations here, but all I have to say is if you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Yesterday, I was reading the latest issue of Paste, which happens to be the magazine that decided to assume the subscription list for alt-country bi-monthly No Depression—a publication that I previously had subscribed to from 1997 to 2004—after that magazine folded earlier this year. It was their year-end Best of 2008 issue, so the first thing I did was check out their picks for the year's top music. There were probably at least 7 that their top 25 will have in common with my eventual list, but it was their movie picks that had the most influence on me yesterday.

In reality it was just one movie pick that I'm referring to here. In reviewing Firaaq, their #1 movie of 2008, the reviewer states that "for all the praise showered on Slumdog Millionaire this year, it wasn't even the best film shot in India". That distinction, of course, goes to Firaaq, but for some reason it was the mention of Slumdog that stayed with me.

Later that day, when I was discussing with my new girl what movie we might go to that night, I read her the description and we decided it sounded interesting. I hadn't even heard of the movie prior to yesterday, but when we arrived for the 9:40 showing at the Kendall Square Cinema, a medium-sized theater that shows mostly independent films, we noticed the sign on the door telling us that the 6:45 and 8:15 showtimes had been sold out.

When the film began, we instantly understood why it had become so popular. Riveting from start to finish, Slumdog tells the tale of Jamal Malik, an uneducated 18-year old orphan from the poorest class of Indian society, who advances to the final round of his country's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Under suspicion for cheating—how could a "slumdog" know the answers to all of the show's questions?—the film depicts how Jamal learned the answers to the questions through a series of flashbacks to his unfortunate life experiences.

Once was easily my favorite film of 2007, and Slumdog Millionaire will no doubt earn that honor for 2008, not that I have the same penchant for rating movies as I do music. It alternates between being cute, sad, funny, romantic, suspenseful, dramatic and action-packed, making a statement about personal moral choice in the face of economic adversity in the process. If you see only one independent film the rest of this year, this should be it. Although, if this truly is only the second best movie filmed in India this year, then I really need to see Firaaq.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reason to Smile

Several years ago, the CD player in my car starting acting up. From time to time, it would decide to stop playing and would essentially kidnap (refuse to eject) the CD inside. When this happened, I would press the eject button a few times, then give up until later. Generally, I would start the car up subsequent to this, and the CD would eject on its own. Then, everything would work fine for a while until it pulled this stunt again.

Then it finally decided to stop doing this. That is, it shut down for good, unfortunately with a CD still inside. It really wasn't that big of a deal, as I would soon purchase my first iPod and make it a moot point. The CD was a burned copy anyway, so I got my friend to make me another one. Eventually, I would purchase--or, actually, my sister would give me for Christmas--that particular CD.

This morning, on my way to work, I looked down and noticed the display on the player said "Pause". Since the display had stopped working when the player shut down, I realized this was unusual, so I pressed eject, and out came the CD. I was quite pleasantly surprised by this development. A few minutes later, I decided to take a chance and try to play the CD, but nothing happened when I inserted it. It still ejected though, so I figured that either the CD was no longer any good, or it was just too cold.

I got to work and popped it into my computer's CD player and it worked. Now, I still need to find out if the CD player is working again, but I'm more amused at this development than anything. That particular CD was my #1 album of 2004, and it was Christmas of that year that my sister gave it to me, which was definitely after the player had devoured it. So, it had been stuck in there for over four years.

The CD in question (which I'm listening to right now): Brian Wilson's Smile.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Brush with Greatness I

I graduated from college in 1989, and my first real job brought me to Syracuse, NY in the late summer of that year. I searched for, and successfully found my first apartment, other than the one I shared with four of my college friends during my junior and senior years at Penn State. It was at 306 Polk Street, right near the line between Syracuse and Dewitt, not far from the intersection of Thompson Road and Erie Boulevard, and only a few blocks from the campus of LeMoyne College.

My new landlord was quite tall, but not freakishly so, about 6'6" or 6'7". I was in his office, paying my security deposit, signing the lease, getting the keys, and all that. I recall my monthly rent was $350 for a decent, but not spectacular, one-bedroom apartment. My neighbors turned out to be really nice, particularly the couple that lived downstairs from me with their two kids, and the guy across the hall who regularly beat me in chess. There was an incident in the parking lot with a curmudgeonly old man who accused me of not parking close enough to the car next to me, but that was the only negative.

But, back to the landlord's office. As he was getting the paperwork together, I was admiring the posters on his walls. There were a few of the current NBA greats: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan (maybe, although he had yet to lead the Bulls to an NBA championship at that time). There was also one of a rather unspectacular NBA big man, who I happened to recognize because I was a Syracuse basketball fan from the days of the Bouie 'n' Louie Show through the under-achieving Pearl Washington and Rony Seikaly years.

"Is that Danny Schayes?" I inquired. "That's my boy!" he responded. "You're Dolph Schayes?" I asked, but I already knew the answer. I must have found the apartment through a rental agent, or it simply didn't sink in if he had introduced himself to me prior to that. Regardless, NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes was my landlord for the next 14 months (I got a 2-month extension on a one-year lease because I thought I was moving to Albany, then actually stayed, but decided to find a new apartment).

He was actually kind of impressed that I knew who he was. Despite being named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players of all-time, a list was unveiled to celebrate the league's 50th anniversary seven years after our meeting, it seems to me that he was a little less well-known than his contemporaries George Mikan and Bob Petit. Furthermore, the end of his career was greatly overshadowed by beginning of Wilt Chamberlain's.

I never asked him for his autograph, although I believe I still have a copy of the lease in my box of nostalgia. Hard to believe that actually exists, huh? As far as I know, Dolph Schayes, now 80 years old, still lives and owns rental property in Syracuse. I'm also pretty certain that he was the first major sports Hall of Famer whom I ever met.

Parting Ways

Three somewhat surprising baseball breakups occurred over the past two days. One has a slight chance for reconciliation, so we'll call that a separation. The other two, however, are clearly divorces, although one is clearly more amicable than the other.

Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks failed to reach a contract agreement, so Johnson filed for free agency on Thursday. While it's possible the two sides could work things out, it doesn't look likely. Diamondbacks General Manager Josh Byrnes said he would not rule out signing Johnson, but added "something would fundamentally have to change in our position or their position or both."

The Chicago Cubs traded minor league pitcher Jose Ceda, to the Florida Marlins, for Kevin Gregg, effectively ending Kerry Wood's tenure with the club. With the emergence of Carlos Marmol, and the acquisition of Gregg, the Cubs decided that they'll spend their resources elsewhere, rather than to try to retain Wood's services. Wood indicated that he was disappointed, and that his departure from his former club is "bittersweet", but seems to harbor no ill-will towards the team for its decision.

Trevor Hoffman, on the other hand, was shown the door in rather unceremonious fashion by the San Diego Padres, with whom he has spent almost the entirety of his record-setting 16-year career. San Diego rescinded their rather modest one-year, $4 million contract offer on Thursday, and Hoffman's agent said the impression the Padres' front office gave them was that it was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. Then, to add insult to injury, they ignored his efforts to try to negotiate and informed him by fax that they were withdrawing their offer.

Hoffman will play elsewhere this year, hopefully for a contender who will give him one more legitimate shot at some post-season glory. The Padres will have a difficult time not finishing in last place for the second straight year. For more on the MLB hot stove, check out my latest post over on Casey's Clipboard.

Friday, November 14, 2008

21st Century Schizoid Ale: 2008-09 Edition

I wasn't quite sure how to identify this second batch of 21st Century Schizoid Ale that AfroDan has brewed in less than six months. This is far from an official classification scheme, but since we'll probably want to brew it more than once a year, I decided that calling it our 2008-09 edition would be fitting.

We've decided that the defining quality of this particular brew is that it will always be somewhat experimental and, therefore, ever-evolving. We stuck with our unconventional practice from the first batch of using both ale and lager yeasts. We are looking for a higher alcohol content than last time, simply by letting it ferment longer, since we believe that our prior effort didn't quite reach its potential. We also thought that the first batch could have been a little hoppier, so we needed to step that effort up a notch further in order to offset the anticipated increase in alcoholic content.

The following is the recipe we used for a 4-gallon batch (brand names are italicized where applicable):

12 lbs. Pale Malt Extract (Alexander's)
8 oz. Crystal Malt (60L)
8 oz. Crystal Malt (20L)
2 oz. Pacific Jade Hops (12.9% alpha acid) - bittering
1 oz. East Kent Goldings Hops (4.8%) - bittering
1.5 oz. Glacier Hops (6.0%) - flavoring
1 oz. Glacier Hops (6.0%) - aroma
1.5 oz. German Ale/Kolsch Yeast (White Labs WLP029)
1.5 oz. San Francisco Lager Yeast (White Labs WLP810)
1 oz. Glacier Hops (6.0%) - dry hopping in fermenter

We heated 2 gallons of water in the brewpot, and steeped the grains (crystal malts) in a mueslin bag at 160-170 degrees for 20 minutes. We then removed the grains from the brewpot, added the pale malt extract and brought the pot to a boil. We added the bittering hops and boiled the wort for a total of 75 minutes, adding the flavoring hops for the final 15 minutes and the aroma hops for the final 5.

After chilling the wort, in a sink filled with ice, to just under 160 degrees, we strained it into the fermenter, which was already filled with almost 2 gallons of cold Poland Spring water, then added more water until it reached the 4-gallon level. We then let the wort cool to just under 80 degrees and added the ale yeast. We took an original specific gravity reading (1.093), and sealed the fermenter. Several hours later, I unsealed the fermenter and added the lager yeast.

The original gravity was a little lower than the first batch, which we measured at 1.098. This would indicate that this batch's potential alcoholic content is lower than the first's was, but as I said earlier, we hope that letting it ferment longer will allow it to reach an ABV of 10% or higher. This might be wishful thinking, as the last batch topped out at 8.5%, but it's certainly possible.

We plan to let this batch ferment almost four weeks before bottling. With about two weeks to go, we'll add the dry hops directly into the fermenter. After a couple weeks in the bottles, we should have a strong ale suitable for holiday consumption with family and friends.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rock and Roll Means Well

I was in a hotel room in Kansas City, on my ballpark trip this past summer, when I received the e-mail notification about Sunday night's double-bill of The Hold Steady and Drive-By Truckers at the Orpheum Theatre. Tickets were to go on sale the following morning, and I was on vacation, so I had no problem being ready to repeatedly click refresh as I waited for seats to become available.

When we arrived at the show, and were making our way to our seats, it quickly became clear that my friend Len, whether I had told him or not, wasn't aware of how good they were. So, he was quite pleasantly surprised when we sat down in the second row of the venue. We talked about how we were no strangers to this good a vantage point at a show, having stood right up front for numerous club shows at the Middle East, TT the Bear's and the Paradise. But, we're a little older these days, and certainly appreciated the fact that we had seats to take advantage of in between sets and didn't have to worry about others invading our space.

The tour pairing these two great American indie bands has been dubbed the Rock and Roll Means Well Tour, and not only did they have good intentions, but they delivered as well. Sharing equal billing on the tour, the two have been trading nights as the show's closing act. On this particular night, the Drive-By Truckers opened, and Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and company began the night on a strong note.

We both agreed that Patterson Hood, who bears a slight resemblance to our friend Anders Parker, was a much more charismatic band leader and performer than the Keith Richards wannabe, Mike Cooley. Living up to their reputations as hard-drinking southerners, Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker traded swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels, while Hood and multi-instrumentalist John Neff shared a fifth of their own.

The highlight of the entire night, and quite possibly one of my all-time favorite concert moments, was the Truckers' set closing ode to their musical roots, "Let There Be Rock" (not an AC/DC cover). From the song's opening line about attending a Blue Oyster Cult concert at fourteen years old, to the eerily reminiscent "One night when I was seventeen, I drank a fifth of vodka, on an empty stomach, then drove over to a friend's house", it felt like the early 80s again. It wasn't just nostalgia that made this a memorable moment, but also the energy with which Hood tells the story of his youth, and the bands he saw and never saw live, while hinting as to the tragic circumstances of why he missed out on the opportunity to see the band his is most often compared to, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Truckers were a tough act to follow, but The Hold Steady held up their end of the bargain. Witnessing Craig Finn's spastic on-stage energy was as entertaining as ever, but our one complaint was the sound mix. For a band led by one of the most literate songwriters in modern rock, the vocals were not quite loud enough, drowned out mostly by Tad Kubler's impressive guitar playing. Still, Finn's energy and the slightly flamboyant showmanship of keyboard player Franz Nicolay were quite entertaining to watch, and the irony of Nicolay downing a bottle of red wine on a stage he shared with a band of whisky-drinking southerners was certainly not lost on us.

There was no "Let There Be Rock" moment during The Hold Steady's set, but an encore version of The Band's "Look Out Cleveland" performed with most of the Drive-By Truckers would have to do. All in all, this was a concert that would have to considered a serious candidate for double-bill of the 00s.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Casey's Clipboard & Wally's World

Yesterday, the first installment of a new series I'm writing appeared on Casey's Clipboard & Wally's World. It's called Cooking with Chas: A Weekly Look at What's on the MLB Hot Stove, and it will be a regular Friday morning feature for the next few months. As the title suggests, I'll be discussing the major topics of the Major League Baseball off-season, what is commonly referred to as the Hot Stove League.

A little explanation as to where the Chas moniker came from is in order. My friend Smitty moved back to his native Rochester a little over a year ago, abandoning our undefeated fall co-ed softball team in the process. We lost in the finals, and continue to come up short in the quest to duplicate our Summer 2005 championship, despite several regular season first-place finishes. But, that has little to do with this story.

Shortly after Smitty returned home, he sent me a link to a blog that his uncle (Casey) had started recently, and encouraged me to check it out. I did, but I laid low for a little while, then decided to start commenting somewhat mysteriously. As you know, Charles Simone is my writing pseudonym. Charles is my middle name, and it's also my father's name. As a child, I recall my dad sometimes abbreviating his name as Chas in cards and notes he had written, so I decided to start leaving comments on the site as Chas.

I succeeded in my quest to be somewhat mysterious, as I learned later that there was some discussion between Smitty and Casey about who I was. Casey, as the site's administrator, was able to determine from his usage statistics that the comments were coming from the Boston area, so they surmised that I was a friend of Smitty's. But, since he had promoted the site to several people, he didn't know specifically who I was. Slowly, I revealed my identity through a series of hints, and have continued to be a regular commenter on the site since.

Casey and I developed a rapport through his blog, and eventually he started reading my blog as well. I now have Casey to thank for diverting some attention to Left Field, as both he and Rey--who writes an excellent weekly column about English football on the Clipboard called On the Pitch with an American Novice--have become fairly regular commenters here.

So, when Casey asked me to write a weekly column on the baseball hot stove league, it only made sense for me to continue to embrace the nickname that I don't particularly like, but for which I have no one but myself to blame. However, when I came up with the cleverly cheesy title Cooking with Chas, I started to appreciate the name a little more.

If you're interested, head on over to Casey's Clipboard and check out my first column. I'm hoping to generate some discussion there by incorporating the interests of the commenters into my future columns, so please feel free to become a part of that.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Frequent Spins (2008.8)

Now that baseball season is over, my focus turns to my other obsession...

Damien Jurado - Caught in the Trees
Damien Jurado has drawn frequent comparisons to fellow alternative singer/songwriter Richard Buckner. There are certainly strong similarities between the two, although I'm fairly sure that Jurado falls well short of Buckner on the "toughest guy in indie rock" scale. His music reflects a slightly less caustic attitude as well. His latest, Caught in the Trees, falls far short of the brilliance of 2005's And Now That I'm in Your Shadow, my personal favorite, but is another strong effort from the Seattle-born punk rocker-turned-folkster.

Lambchop - OH (Ohio)
I'm not sure when this band first appeared on my radar. It was probably in the early part of this decade, although it may have been as far back as the late-90s. Despite their potential as one of the most unique bands to emerge from the alt-country scene, employing a sound that draws from a variety of styles and truly transcends that classification, they've never really produced an album that has completely grabbed my attention. That is, until now. OH (Ohio) has all of the standard elements of a Lambchop record, achieving high marks in the pleasantly melodic and slightly melancholy categories. But, also thrown in are a couple of excellent upbeat tracks, namely "National Talk Like a Pirate Day" and "Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King, Jr.", and these serve as an added bonus that rounds out the album rather nicely.

Okkervil River - The Stand-Ins
It was surprising to me that some of the press I read about Okkervil River's 2007 release, The Stage Names, portrayed it as their breakthrough, with some going so far as to call it a masterpiece. As good as it was, it paled in comparison to the epic Black Sheep Boy, and so does The Stand-Ins. That's far from an insult, though, and I actually feel that this year's effort edges out last year's, if only by a nose. Both are less fractured and urgent as Black Sheep Boy, and in this vein, The Stand-Ins, to me, does a better job of pulling off a more polished feel. Highlights include the duet with Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg, "Lost Coastlines", as well as "Starry Stairs" and "On Tour With Zykos", the latter of which includes my favorite lyrics on the album: "So I wonder who you got your hooks in tonight; was she happy to be hooked, and on your arm did she feel alive, her head all light?" That almost reminds me of their true masterpiece.

Of Montreal - Skeletal Lamping
I don't want to sound like a broken record here, nor do I wish to be the music fan who's never satisfied with anything a band does after the album that carved their niche as one of his favorite artists. It's just that this is the third record in this installment of Frequents Spins that is by an artist who has previously been bestowed yearly top ten honors, with a fourth to follow, all from the years 2004 to 2007. That's four out of 40, or 10%, in case you're a bit math-challenged. In this case, despite lukewarm reviews, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the album that vaults Of Montreal to that next level of success, otherwise known as the territory inhabited by such bands as Modest Mouse, Wilco and The Shins. Singer/guitarist Kevin Barnes is certainly enjoying the glam-rock references and David Bowie comparisons, and--in case anyone was wondering--he repeatedly asserts "you should know that I go both ways", on "For Our Elegant Caste". Again, despite its less than overwhelming critical praise, Skeletal Lamping is so consistently good, but not great, that it's difficult to say what my favorite tracks are, although "Mingusings" is certainly one. But, I'm sorry to say that it's just nowhere near as good as last year's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

The Streets - Everything is Borrowed
The Streets' 2004 release A Grand Don't Come for Free was a concept album that could be described as a slacker version of a lad-lit novel set to hip-hop inspired pop music. Possibly because of the bumbling nature of the protagonist, I always pictured him as a hipper version of Simon Pegg's character in his movie released that same year, Shaun of the Dead. After the success of that album, and its predecessor Original Pirate Material, Mike Skinner pondered the trappings of celebrity on The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living. It was a major disappointment, and a perfect example of one of the true pitfalls of success: a diminishing supply of quality source material. Skinner returns to his prime form by getting a bit philosophical on his latest, particularly as he states, on the refrain of the album's title track, "I came to this world with nothing, and I leave with nothing but love; everything else is just borrowed". Other highlights include the samaritan-esque "On the Edge of a Cliff", the spiritually moralistic "Alleged Legends", and the wonderful album closer "The Escapist".

Also spin-worthy
The Verve - Forth
Crooked Fingers - Forfeit/Fortune
Annuals - Such Fun

Saturday, November 01, 2008

World Series Wrap: No Recantation

The World Series didn't work out quite like I predicted. I was recently reading an article over on Seamheads where one of the comments offered the suggestion that the writer would eventually be given the opportunity to recant his predictions. Huh? Why would someone recant a prediction? The nature of predictions is that they're sometimes, or perhaps often, incorrect. I might admit that I was wrong--like when I said the Rays' starters would pitch more innings than the Phillies', and this didn't even happen in one of the five games--but I'm certainly not going to take back what I said.

The Phillies' starting pitching performed better than the Rays' in the Series, and the Phils proved me wrong when I claimed that they weren't as good as the Red Sox. They were significantly better, as Cole Hamels was everything that Josh Beckett and Jon Lester were not, and Jamie Moyer showed Tim Wakefield a thing or two about being a old, but crafty, soft-tosser. Still, it's difficult to know whether to credit Philadelphia's pitching or blame Tampa Bay's hitting for the fact that B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria combined to go 8-for-57 (.140) with no home runs in the World Series after going 23-for-81 (.284) with 11 HR in the ALCS. Of course, it's probably a combination of those factors.

Regardless, the Phillies are a worthy champion, and their long-suffering fans are certainly deserving of their second celebration in over 100 years of existence.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Post-Season Off Days: A Silver Lining in the Rain Clouds?

I'm sure, if you're a baseball person, you've already heard plenty about rain delays and suspended World Series games. If you read here regularly, you've also heard my rant about so many off days during the post-season. Well, the perfect rationalization for those days is that they make it an easy decision to create an official rule requiring that all playoff games go the full 9 innings, or 8 1/2 if the home team is ahead.

This is pretty simple. Any game during the post-season that is started, but not finished, becomes a suspended game, even if only an inning is played. Although if that's the case, then a serious error was made in beginning the game in the first place. The excessive number of off days make it easy to do this without extending the World Series, unless, of course, the suspended game occurs in Game 7.

Pretty simple, right? Hopefully that's the decision that is eventually made by the MLB front office.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

World Series Game 3 Wrap

There are a couple of recurring themes here, with respect to my series predictions. The first is that the Phillies' starting staff has pitched better than I thought. Last night, Jamie Moyer out-pitched Matt Garza, allowing 3 runs on 5 hits and a walk, with 5 strikeouts, over 6 1/3 innings. With Garza lasting 6 innings, and giving up 4 runs on 3 home runs, it was the third game in a row that the Rays' starter has failed to last as long as his counterpart.

The second is related to the lefty vs. lefty matchups. While Chase Utley hasn't been shut down as badly as Ryan Howard, it has proved beneficial to the Rays that these two bat consecutively in the order. J.P. Howell came on in the 8th and struck out Utley and Howard back-to-back, although his 9th inning HBP of Eric Bruntlett eventually earned him the loss and the Phillies a 2-1 series lead.

Games 1-3 self-evaluation: C+

Saturday, October 25, 2008

World Series Game 2 Wrap

Brett Myers didn't pitch badly Thursday night, recovering after a shaky start to make it through 7 innings. Still, yielding 3 earned runs in the first 4 innings does not qualify as coming up big, so I feel like my vote of no confidence in him was not totally unwarranted. James Shields only lasted 5 2/3 innings, scattering 7 hits and allowing 2 walks, but no earned runs, and that's the bottom line. However, this is the second game in a row that the Phillies' starter went further than the Rays', contrary to my prediction. Actually, I wasn't referring to Cole Hamels vs. Scott Kazmir when I said this, but I certainly expected Shields to last longer than Myers.

Once again, we saw last night why the back-to-back of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard will continue to be a problem for the Phillies. The Rays only used one of their three left-handers out of the bullpen, but it's no coincidence that David Price's 2 1/3 innings of relief began and ended with Utley and Howard. After starting off by walking Utley in the 7th, Price then struck out Howard. In the 9th, Price made Utley look bad in striking him out and induced a groundball from Howard to end the game. Howard is now 0-for-6 with 4 strikeouts and a walk vs. lefties in the series, and 2-for-3 vs. Shields, the only right-hander he's faced.

My Game 2 self-evaluation: B

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voluntary Release III: My Interview with Rick Roder

Before I wrote Voluntary Release II, I had placed a call to Rick Roder, one of the co-authors of the Jaksa/Roder Manual, and operator of the web site Rules of I would certainly have understood if he wanted to steer clear of this recent controversy, but he did return my call last week, and spoke very candidly with me for about 30 minutes. Rick was very cooperative and his insights clarified this issue as much as possible, as far as I'm concerned.

The main point I came away with from this conversation is this play clearly exposed a deficiency in the rule book, and this is an area where there potentially is a disagreement among umpires. Rick clarified that the Jaksa/Roder Manual's interpretation of the rule book is not official, and Welke apparently chose to interpret the rule differently. He also stated, while he believes his own interpretation to be correct, Welke's call was not technically wrong.

It seems to me, from my discussion with Roder, this is a rule interpretation that will be discussed by the Major League Baseball Playing Rules Committee in the off-season and, very likely, clarified. He also raised my awareness to the possibility that, even if the Jaksa/Roder interpretation becomes official, this does not necessarily condemn the ruling Welke made. If this occurs, it most likely will be determined his call was technically correct at the time, but the tag requirement will become more stringent going forward.

The conclusion I draw from this is it reinforces the point I made in the final paragraph of my last article on this subject. That is, the most important thing that needs to come out of this is Major League Baseball's clarification of this rule. I still feel, had Welke not taken his eyes off the ball, he may have seen this one differently, and for that reason, it was a serious mistake for him not to ask for help. More importantly, I think MLB dismissed this too easily and not convincingly, and I'm not sure why. But, at this point, I have nothing more to say on this subject.