Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Neil Young: The Geffen Years

I'm a little more than halfway through my project of evaluating and ranking the entire Neil Young discography. Since I'm working through the albums roughly chronologically, that means I'm just reaching 1990 right now. That also means I've made it through the Geffen years, not an easy task if you're familiar with Young's entire body of work.

In case you're not, Neil Young's Geffen years were the period from 1982 to 1987 during which he produced five somewhat experimental and highly controversial albums for Geffen Records. There's much more to the story, of course, but I'm not going to get into it. Suffice it to say, Geffen was not pleased with Neil and was happy to let him return to his old label, Reprise Records, upon the completion of his contract.

5. "Sample and Hold" (Trans)
Young's experimentation with electronic music, including the use of a vocoder to synthesize his voice, seems much less questionable when you realize his motivations for doing so. Years after its release, Young revealed some of the songs on Trans are intended to represent the difficulty his youngest son, Ben, disabled due to severe cerebral palsy, has with communication. While there are a few misses on that album, this is one of the songs that hits the mark.

4. "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" (Old Ways)
I first heard this song during Neil's 1993 Farm Aid performance, which I still have on VHS somewhere. Neil was in rare form that night, drinking a beer on stage and spewing some particularly vitriolic criticisms at Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Willie Nelson guests on the album version, and also joins him onstage for the Farm Aid performance.

Although it has nothing to do with Young's Geffen years, you can get a taste of that Farm Aid 1993 performance, as Young and Nelson perform "Farmer's Song," a tune that only appears on album as "Last of His Kind (The Farm Aid Song)" on the 1999 Farm Aid Volume One compilation.

3. "Old Ways" (Old Ways)
Old Ways was the only album during the Geffen years that wasn't out of character for Young. Unfortunately, it was a mostly unsuccessful attempt at straight-up country. In fact, he and his band, the International Harvesters, do a much better job of channeling their country energy on the long lost but recently released live album, A Treasure. Still, Old Ways had its moments, and the title track was the best one of all, in my opinion.

2. "Transformer Man" (Trans)
It should be obvious, at this point, that Trans and Old Ways were my two favorite Neil Young albums from this period. I'll admit I like the version of this song that appears on 1993's Unplugged even  better, but the original recording was the high point of Young's first Geffen release.

1. "Mideast Vacation" (Life)
Although it might seem like a questionable choice for #1 on this list, "Mideast Vacation" has been my favorite song from this era ever since I first picked up a copy of the compilation Lucky Thirteen. Since it's a difficult song to describe, I'll leave you with this live version—which is basically a video, except without the video—from the 1986 "3rd Best Garage Band in the World" tour:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Garcia and Colon to Vie for #4 Spot in Yankees' Playoff Rotation?

Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have already battled for a job once this year—in spring training, when Garcia beat out Colon for the #5 spot in the Yankees' rotation—and they may very well be on their way to competing for a role once again.

It's probably a little too early to be speculating about the makeup of the Yankees' postseason rotation, but it's still a fun exercise, so I'm not going to shy away from it.

At the start of the year, it was expected that A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes would be the stalwarts of the rotation behind staff ace C.C. Sabathia. But, an early season injury to Hughes and Burnett's inability to rebound from last year's disaster, combined with surprisingly effective performances from Garcia, Colon and rookie Ivan Nova have left that notion in doubt.

It has been apparent for quite some time that the Yankees' playoff rotation would come down to Sabathia and the best three of the remaining five guys. In recent weeks, just who those top three are has started to come into perspective for me.

Following Burnett's horrible outing on Saturday night, he has now given up 21 earned runs on 35 hits in 17 2/3 August innings—for a 10.70 ERA—while allowing a .432 batting average against. Although his first-half performance was solid if not spectacular, his second half has proven that he's not someone who can be relied on. Given the fact the Yankees have options, something they didn't have heading into previous Octobers, I have to believe he's pitched his way out of the team's postseason plans.

While Garcia and Colon were the hot hands early in the season, of late the performances of Nova and Hughes have been promising. Nova has made five starts since returning from AAA in late July, and has won them all. The 5-0 record does overstate a little how well he's pitched, but he's posted a 3.55 ERA, a 23-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has allowed a respectable 31 hits and three home runs in 33 IP.

Over the same time frame, Hughes has started four games and made one relief appearance, allowing six earned runs—for a 2.08 ERA—on 20 hits and six walks in 26 IP. He's only struck out 15, which is a bit of a concern, but it's otherwise hard to argue with the results. He appears to be well on his way to righting a season that looked to be way off-track early on.

Until recently, it seemed Colon would be a lock to secure a postseason rotation spot, as long as his body held up over the course of a long season. I even went so far as to proclaim him the Yankees' #2 starter before an injury derailed him in June. While his overall stats are good, he's been more of a mixed bag since returning from said injury, including 18 hits, five walks, four home runs allowed, and a 5.17 ERA in 15 2/3 August innings.

Whether hitters have finally figured him out, his body has worn down after throwing his highest number of major league innings since 2005, or his carriage has finally turned back into a pumpkin, Colon's ability to contribute in October is starting to come into question.

Garcia has only recently been slowed by injury, a mysterious cut right index finger that has landed him on the disabled list. There's no questioning his performance on the field this season, although he's another pitcher who doesn't blow you away with his ability to strike hitters out. He's just simply gotten the job done, to the tune of a 3.16 ERA over 122 1/3 innings, which ranks him second among the team's starters behind Sabathia.

Still, I can't help but feel Garcia needs to continue to prove the first three-quarters of this season have not been a fluke. Simultaneously, Colon will try to prove the flame has not burned out on his early-season success. The two of them will battle it out for the right to follow Sabathia, Hughes and Nova—not necessarily in that order—in the Yankees' postseason equation.

At least, that's how I see it...for now.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Maple Bacon Voodoo

On our recent trip to Oregon, KJ and I finally visited the world famous Voodoo Doughnut in downtown Portland. I'd been wanting to try their maple-bacon bar for a while, even more so after AfroDan's latest home brewing endeavor.

Well, I was not disappointed. One of Voodoo Doughnut's most popular creations is a delectable raised yeast doughnut with maple frosting and bacon on top. Maple bars don't seem to be as common on the east coast as they are out west—unless I just haven't visited the right bakeries in Vermont—so it was kind of a new treat for me. The bacon on top might sound a little weird to some, but it was absolutely fantastic.

The second time a photo of bacon
has appeared on this site.

I actually thought it was called the Maple Bacon Bar, but, in fact, it's the Bacon Maple Bar. I guess that makes sense from their perspective. But, I'm going on the record to say if Voodoo Doughnut is interested in calling our home brew the official beer of their Bacon Maple Bar, we'll gladly change its name to Maple Bacon Voodoo Porter, but not Bacon Maple Voodoo Porter.

Update (8/25/11): I meant to add to this that I'm not holding my breath, especially so after seeing this.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Solar-Powered Beer

There's no shortage of subjects to write about from my recent trip to Oregon, but I'll start by profiling one of my favorite new (to me) Portland brew pubs.

Two years ago, Lucky Labrador Brewing Company was one of the places KJ had wanted to introduce me to, but we didn't make it there until this past week. It was worth the wait.

I actually only had time for one beer, but I was quite impressed with their Super Dog IPA. This aggressive-but-not-overpoweringly hopped brew quickly moved to the top of a list I'll probably share in another post. That is, I placed every beer I drank over my nine days in Oregon into one of three categories: "One and done," "I'll drink it again," and "More please." Obviously, Super Dog—which features a grapefruit and piney hop profile—made it onto the "More please" list, but I'll explain the lists later, if their meanings are not super obvious.

But, it wasn't just Lucky Lab's beer I was impressed with. I was also pretty fascinated with their claim that they use solar-heated water in their brewing process. Since they're able to heat the water using solar power to 185 degrees, they use this water for several of the facility's non-brewing functions, but also for the part of the process that is analogous to the steeping of the grains in home brewing.

Click to enlarge for a more readable version

185 degrees is not quite boiling, so they're not able to use solar energy for the entire brewing process, but, as the sign above explains, they use the solar-heated water for the all-important step in which fermentable sugars are extracted from barley malt.

The atmosphere at Lucky Lab is also top notch. One of my observations on this trip was the more rustic brew pubs tend to be superior to those that have a more corporate feel. This, of course, is a gross generalization, but this particular establishment helps to maintain the stereotype.

Lucky Lab features a sort of cafeteria-style atmosphere, in which you order food and ales at the bar and then just take your selections to your seats. No table service, just no-nonsense self-service in a warm, comfortable setting.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Oregon Brewers Festival

When KJ and I were discussing our summer trip to Portland, the idea of going the last week in July so I could attend the 2011 Oregon Brewers Festival was floated out there. But, when our plans changed to the first week in August, I immediately wrote off the idea. Then, a couple weeks ago, she got an email from one of her friends saying her husband was planning on going to the festival on Sunday and wanted to invite me to join him.

It hadn't occurred to me we were still going to make it in time for the final day of the brew fest, so—needless to say—I was pretty psyched at this development. This past Sunday was that day.

I went into the event—which is a great deal compared to the brew fests back east—with the intention of sampling as many beers as I could handle. For $20, I purchased an official mug—which is basically the admission price—and 14 tokens. The tokens, obviously, are used toward the purchase of beer samples: one token for a 4-oz. pour, and four for a full mug, about 12 oz.

I used up all 14 tokens on the smaller samples, and as this amounted to about 3 1/2 pints in total—several of them Imperial IPAs—this was about all I could handle. By contrast, the American Craft Beer Fest, sponsored by BeerAdvocate in Boston each year costs $45, and BeerAdvocates's Belgian Beer Fest is now up to $50.

You would think the higher prices would discourage these eastern events from turning into frat-boy drunk fests, but my experience was that the crowd at the Oregon event was much more well-behaved.

Sampling and truly evaluating 14 beers in an afternoon is easier said than done, but I was determined to give it my best shot. My strategy was to start with the lighter, less hoppy beers and work my way up to the Imperial IPAs, of course. Anyone who's tried to taste a Belgian white after something that was brewed with an extreme hophead in mind knows what I'm talking about.

What this strategy essentially means is I drank many of the afternoon's strongest offerings after I had already consumed quite a few. Let's just say at that point conditions were far from ideal, so samples 11 through 14 probably didn't really get a fair shake.

Regardless, there were two brews that really stood out to me. The first was Mt. Emily Wildfire Red Ale, brewed by Mt. Emily Ale House in La Grande, Oregon. The name threw me, so it wasn't on my original list of beers I wanted to try, but after suggesting my beer-challenged companion give it a try, I was drawn to it based on his feedback. It's a hoppy, American-style Imperial red ale brewed with three different types of hops, including Cascades for finishing, giving it the citrusy aroma that I'm partial to. At 7.6% ABV, it's pretty strong, but very well-balanced.

My other favorite was Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema, brewed by Boonville, California's Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Interestingly enough, I had already started down the IPA road when I veered back in the direction of this one. Because of this, it didn't make an instant impression, but as I tasted my final sips, some really great qualities revealed themselves. Summer Solstice is a smooth, creamy, malty-sweet but nicely balanced ale that makes for a perfect complement to a hot summer day.

A complete list of the beers I sampled follows:

Alaskan White Ale - Alaskan Brewing Co. (Juneau, AK)
Ale Industries Orange Kush - Ale Industries (Concord, CA)
Alpha Centauri - Hop Valley Brewing Co. (Springfield, OR)
Anderson Valley Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema - Anderson Valley Brewing Co. (Boonville, CA)
Dopacetic Imperial IPA - Amnesia Brewing Co. (Portland, OR)
Elysian Idiot Sauvin - Elysian Brewing Co. (Seattle, WA)
Hale's Supergoose IPA - Hale's Ales (Seattle, WA)
Hopworks IPA - Hopworks Urban Brewery (Portland, OR)
Klamath Basin Crystal Springs IPA - Klamath Basin Brewing Co. (Klamath Falls, OR)
Lompoc Kick Axe Pale Ale - Lompoc Brewing (Portland, OR)
Longboard Island Lager - Kona Brewing Co. (Kailua Kona, HI)
Mt. Emily Wildfire Red Ale - Mt. Emily Ale House (La Grande, OR)
Terminal Gravity Pale - Terminal Gravity Brewing (Enterprise, OR)
Yellow Wolf Imperial IPA - Alameda Brewhouse (Portland, OR)