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.