Thursday, February 29, 2024

RIP Golden Richards and more

For me, Golden Richards was the epitome of the pretty-boy Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s. I also think Richards, the talented wide receiver who passed away in Utah this week at the age of 73, played a role in helping my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers become the team of that decade.

Seems like a funny thing to say, right, about someone who caught a total of zero catches in the four Super Bowls the Steelers won, and the Cowboys were the victims in two of those championships? 

Let me explain. Richards' best years were 1974 through 1976, when he consistently averaged about 450 yards and four touchdowns per season. Not bad for the pre-fantasy, pre-pass-happy NFL. But even though the Cowboys made the playoffs all four seasons from 1974 to 1977, he didn't catch any passes in two of those four playoff runs. 

Richards had a good playoff stretch in the 1975 season, but didn't have any catches in the loss to the Steelers in Super Bowl X. His Cowboys won Super Bowl XII against Denver, and Richards had his career highlight in that game, catching a fourth-quarter, 29-yard touchdown pass from fullback Robert Newhouse. 

Early the next season, Tony Hill essentially took Richards' job and the golden one was traded to the Chicago Bears. A few months later, the Cowboys lost Super Bowl XIII to the Steelers.

Hence, Golden Richards played a bit of a role in helping the Steelers become so dominant. For that, I will always be grateful.

It's been a tough week in the obituary department:

Comedian Richard Lewis, who has been a valuable contributor to Curb Your Enthusiasm, died at age 76 of a heart attack.

Jose DeLeón was one of my favorite St. Louis Cardinals for a while, especially in 1999 when he led the National League with 201 strikeouts. He finished with a career record of 86-119, but he was an electric and entertaining performer much of the time. He passed away from cancer at age 63 in his native Dominican Republic.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A short and fascinating history of the Caribbean through the eyes of the tremendously wordy James Michener

James Michener’s novels are of a time before the Internet, when people could still absorb themselves in 1,000-page tales with hundreds of characters. His typical format was to start from the very beginning of existence and travel chronologically through until the present. (Memorably, his novel Hawaii begins with a bird pooping on the land, which gives rise to life there.) 

I’ve always been in awe of the writer - who I’m distantly related to through my mom’s dad’s sister’s husband Guy Michener - and the legendary amount of words he wrote. Without summing up the massive novel Caribbean, here are 10 really interesting things we should all know from the book, which was written in 1989. (Michener died on October 16, 1997). It should be noted that Michener mostly used historical facts to color the background of his stories of people, who he fictionalized.

  • Technically, Florida and the Bahamas are not part of the Caribbean, but all the countries that border the sea in South and Central America are.
  • Warriors from South America arrived on the islands in the 1300s and ended the long peace that had flourished with the Arawak people, who were skilled farmers and fishermen with an advanced social structure.
  • These warriors were cannibals and often ate the men they captured and would steal the women for procreation. This goal of exterminating other types of people was happening all over the world at this time. 
  • These “Caribs” were not unlike the Spartans in Greece, and they believed eating the most powerful male enemies gave them particular skills and bravery in battle, while mating with the most beautiful women enhanced their own race for the future.
  • Christopher Columbus accidentally landed in the Caribbean in 1492 and began a long campaign of European colonization and exploitation of gold and many other resources. Columbus and Spain introduced slaves from Africa there.
  • James Michener
    England's Sir Francis Drake became legendary for raiding Spanish ships and settlements and essentially entering the region into the golden age of pirates.
  • Barbados and other countries became major sources of sugar, which became a heavyweight economic driver, making many European colonists exceptionally wealthy through their morally and ethically corrupt explotation of slave labor.
  • Later, the French would also swoop in and their colonization style contrasted in significant ways from the Spanish colonizers. Generally, while the Spanish were interested in wealth and power, the French - and also the British - wanted to build settlements and create trading networks.
  • The Haitian Revolution was the first successful slave revolt and became the first Black-led country in the Western Hemisphere.
  • During World War II, the islands would again become strategic spots for both the Allies and the Axis nations as locations where they all wanted to place their military warships and subs. Leading into modern times, the Caribbean countries continue to evolve their cultural identities as they all still struggle for freedom and self-determination. They are fascinating places far beyond their basic island sand-filled beauty.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Pop Culture Presidents: #3 Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was elected in 1801 as the third U.S. president, and this marked the first time the press played a major role in persuading the public, transforming what had been a polite affair during the elections of George Washington and John Adams into a bitter partisan fight. Much like today's Republicans, Jefferson believed executive powers were excessive and promised to dismantle the federal government he would be leading.

He would be the first president in the new capital city, Washington, D.C. - a "mosquito-infested swamp with ... stumps still protruding" all down the main street, Pennsylvania Avenue.


This would probably be considered the "doozy" section when it comes to Jefferson. His wife, Martha Jefferson, had died way back in 1782, which means Thomas had been widowed for a long time before he took office. Being taller than even George Washington might have made him attractive to suiters; however, Jefferson negated some of that handsomeness by his often slouched way of sitting and his tendency to greet ambassadors in his "slippers and shirtsleeves." His wife had been described as pretty before dying from childbirth complications. The daughter they had would also die at the age of three. 

It gets, believe it or not, far rougher here. Jefferson would take up with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves, who happened to be a half-sister of Martha's. Sally was the child a Martha's father and one of his own slaves. Back to Thomas, he had six children with Sally and maintained their relationship for decades. There is some debate as to whether this was a consensual relationship. But that's ridiculous because Jefferson owned her, which qualifies him as one of the few U.S. presidents who can qualify for the title rapist. Despite his own complicated relationship with slavery, Jefferson succeeded in getting Congress to ban the importation of slaves in 1807.


Throughout his adult life, Jefferson spent lavishly on wine and beer, and even attempted to cultivate wine grapes at Monticello. But it doesn't appear he did drugs very much, at least until very late in his life when he acquired chronic diarrhea. Although those poops may have been the cause of his ultimate demise, he used laudanum to ease the pain. He noted in his letters that the drug had become a habit, and he appears to have had more success growing opium at Monticello than he had earlier with wine grapes.

Rock n' Roll

Jefferson loved playing music and listening to it, he liked to draw, and he was also a huge Shakespeare fan, but there isn't much other evidence that he was a true rock n' roll president. Unless you consider that he had one of his slaves apprentice with a top French chef, which resulted in Jefferson being able to claim that he introduced macaroni and cheese and french fries to the U.S.


Jefferson followed through as a governmental minimalist by writing, rather than presenting in person, his legislative proposals to Congress. He rarely appeared publicly - making only two speeches (his inaugurations) over eight years - other than on his horseback rides in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park.

His main goal was to eliminate the national debt, which he calculated he could do in seven years if the federal government operated on a budget of $2 million annually over that span. He even cut the city’s 130 federal employees by nearly half, partly as a way to "drain the swamp" of holdovers from opposition parties. His dream to eliminate the rest was stymied when Napoleon, in 1803, busy focusing on the Anglo-French War, sold the Louisiana Territory to the Union for $12 million. Jefferson recognized the possibilities of nearly doubling the country’s land mass. When his advisors told him it would take a constitutional amendment to proceed with such a large land deal, Jefferson decided to skip that process and cut the deal before Napoleon could withdraw the sale offer. This also meant that Jefferson's planned debt elimination would not happen, but the big blue skies of the west were calling. He got Lewis and Clark to begin their exploration even before the deal was done, which, even under the pretense of science and as "a literary pursuit," was illegal according to international law.

In other land-use news and accomplishments, in 1806, during the 8-year Jefferson presidency, Congress authorized the building of the first public road, from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia.

His second term was marred by the ongoing Anglo-French War, which caused troubles in the Caribbean and forced Jefferson to halt trade, giving the federal government a huge role in enforcing his Embargo Act - like the Louisiana Purchase, a contradiction to his limited-government principles - and severely crippling the economy.

See the rest of this series on Pop Culture Presidents.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Exploring our Hawaii obsession with comedian Sarah Vowell

I've written quite a bit on my obsession with getting to Hawaii someday. And I've started (but never finished) many times reading James Michener's epic Hawaii. Well, I finally found a better option than spending three months on that tome: hilarious comedian Sarah Vowell's 2011 book Unfamiliar Fishes. Along with being funny, she is a true history scholar with an impressive collection of books authored, including this one on how Hawaii came to be a mishmashed U.S. state. Along with the "lunch plates" that contain a little bit of many cultures, there are plenty of other things imported to Hawaii that make Hawaii Hawaii, such as their famous Banyan trees, which came from India.

It’s only two pages in before Vowell mentions the Brady Bunch, which I firmly believe gives the place a good bit of its allure, after the classic multipart series when the TV family visits Hawaii. What a tourism initiative that was! Vowell says the concrete high rises that starting springing up after 1959 give downtown Honolulu a “Very Brady brutalism.”

Hawaii really became what it is now when the 25th U.S. President William McKinley invaded Spanish-speaking colonies Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and acquired Hawaii, mainly so they could all become bases for attacking other parts of the world when deemed necessary.

Hawaii, after having been annexed to the U.S. in 1898 became a state in 1959, even though there are still many native Hawaiians who think it’s ridiculous to call them Americans, as it kind of is.

Going back to 1776, Vowell details how Hawaiians killed British explorer Captain Cook, who had tried to kidnap the high chief, but not before Cook’s sailors spread venereal diseases left and right to the islanders.

From all this at the promising start of the book, Vowell veers down some arguably uninteresting and sidewinding paths on the early colonizing missionaries. That said, to the credit of and with the help of the missionaries, between 1822 and the end of their operations in 1863, the Hawaiian people … went from having no written language to 75 percent of all Hawaiians learning to read and write in the native language.” It had become one of the most literate places in the world.

Another element of this time had to do with the whale ships based out of New England and elsewhere that were killing thousands of whales for the many resources, including ship oil, that could be harbored from them. Luckily for the whales, they were able to not go completely extinct because “the whole world was about to go ape for fossil fuels” and the “Pennsylvania petroleum boom of the 1860s slowed down sperm whales’ extinction.” This wouldn’t hurt Hawaii’s economy much because sugar cane was filling the gaps.

I’ve only made it through the first half of Unfamiliar Fishes, but I’ll likely return to it because I’m intrigued to see what Vowell finds in Hawaii’s more modern history.

So far, I give the book 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Liberty offers a nice semi-local ski option

Yesterday, I enjoyed my first trip this season to Liberty Mountain Resort for a day of skiing with my son and two of his friends. Despite temperatures in the mid-40s, the snow was slushy in the morning but pretty nice and powdery (by East Coast standards) all afternoon. 

It feels like a small miracle to get any skiing in nowadays with such noticeably short winters, but at least I’ve been to Copper Mountain in Colorado for five days, Whitetail also in Pennsylvania for one, now Liberty, and have another Copper trip planned in the coming weeks.

Liberty is just past the northern Maryland border in Pennsylvania and is typically packed on the front side with little tots learning to ski and all kinds of other people seemingly risking life and limb. I stay away from there but the kids like to ride the rails in the terrain park. There used to be a half pipe but it was difficult to cover it with main-made snow and wasn't open much, so it was removed. 

On the back side, there are two fun double black diamonds and a good handful of moguls. It’s amazing to see the amount of people taking brutal falls on those. No wonder there was an army of ski patrol lining some of the runs. There seems to be far more crashes than out west, with people falling left and right. One girl took a total face plant into the snow next to me. That might be ok in Colorado, where the powder could even feel refreshing to the face, but not at Liberty with this harder snow.

The East Coast resorts are definitely don't offer the same workout as ones in the Rockies. By comparison, the longest run is about a mile downhill at Liberty, with the longest one at Copper being three miles.

Also, Liberty's history is interesting. Itb was developed in the 1960s with big hopes to become a pretty massive destination. But it was bankrupt in the 1970s, purchased by a new owner and renamed Ski Liberty, which it remained until taking its current name in the 1990s. It has a 100+-room lodge and is a popular golfing spot in the summer, and it's now owned by Vail Resorts. The way the weather looks - warming up over the next couple of weeks - people may be golfing soon and not skiing much more at all this season. 

It's a very close call, but I like Whitetail just a little more than Liberty. Either way, it's nice to have ski options within a couple hours from home.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Learning some keytar songs for my local music collective

Hopefully nobody in my regular "Songs from a Hat" music collective sees this because we're supposed to arrive each time with a musical surprise, playing a song or a few songs from a category that we have previously selected. Tonight's category is "keytar," meaning songs that were played with a guitar-looking keyboard around someone in the band's neck. It's looking like "Don't You Want Me" from The Human League will be my spotlight number. I remember loving the boy-girl vocals and super-80s electro vibe all the way back to when it spent three weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the summer of 1982.

I think I'll also play: 
  • "Sister Christian" by Night Ranger. It's unbearably long at 4 minutes so maybe I'll find a way to do a three-minute version. 
  • "Sunglasses at Night" by Corey Hart. The toughest thing to learn about this song is getting Corey Hart's Night at the Roxbury head-pumping right. Watch the video for this one; it's hilarious. The song surprisingly climbed all the way to #7 in 1984. It's at the same time oddly surprising it didn't go to #1.
  • A mellow version of "Jump" by Van Halen would be a good choice if it were more original, but what I've worked up sounds a lot like the Aztec Camera cover version. We'll see how the night goes. If it gets late and we've been drinking too much, this could be a good sing-along candidate.
Other songs I worked on a little but will probably save for another day:
  • "Tempted" by Squeeze
  • "Angie" by The Rolling Stones
  • "Just What I Needed" by The Cars
  • "Home Sweet Home" by Motley Crue

Thursday, February 22, 2024

MAD Magazine takes a look at classic TV sitcoms of the 1970s

MAD About TV is a top-notch 1999 collection of TV spoofs from MAD Magazine. Here I’m reviewing the takeoffs on All in the Family, Columbo (side note: I just re-watched an episode and it very much stands the test of time, tons of suspense and great 1970s acting), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and M*A*S*H.

“Gall in the Family Fare” riffs on how offensive and vulgar Starchie Bunkerhill is, and MAD pushes the envelope in terms of racist, offensive words used in the bit to portray the lead character in this, from the magazine’s “Little Bigot Man Dept.” Starchie’s old war buddy, Dolf, visits and it goes so well that network executives show up to offer him his own spinoff show. Instead of Edith, her name is Meathead. And she offers the same zany dingbat observations as usual, blind to Starchie's bigotry, and simply wanting to go out for a movie date. Gloriosky and Meek are the liberal kids who wonder why they live with such a racist. The Brady Bunch kids also stop by briefly, asking if anyone is up for a pillow fight before realizing they’re at the wrong house. 5 out of 5 stars (like the offensive and important show itself).

“Clodumbo” focuses on the 1970s TV detective’s knack for wearing his tan coat no matter how hot it may be and also his rambling lack of focus. He badgers an innocent doctor so relentlessly that the doc finally admits to the murder in order to get locked up, get some peace and quiet, and get away from the badgering Clodumbo. Like with all these stories, the artwork is nothing short of amazing and the story is pretty hilarious too. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

“The Mary Tailor-Made Show” riffs on the fact that, despite the program being about the workings at a TV news organization, there never seemed to be any reporters (other than anchor Ted Baxter, played by Ted Knight) reporting the news. Mr. Grunt bosses Mary around to do lots of important jobs like dusting off his bottle so he can start drinking in between her frequent wardrobe changes that might be a little unrealistic for a “$92-per-week office flunky.” The men of the newsroom gawk at Mary’s looks in super creepy ways that make me want to go back and rewatch some episodes to see if it was really that perverted. 5 out of 5 stars.

“M*A*S*H*UGA” is what it might mean in Yiddish to think something so foolish as “war is a heck of a lot of fun.” Spoofing this classic sitcom is tough to do and this is the weakest of these four. Cockeye and Crapper joke their way through operating on their patients and act even more reprehensible to women than in the actual show. They are both miserable and want out of their TV contract even more than out of the Korean War itself. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Things Fall Apart details the agonizing road to being colonized in Nigeria

I have always wanted to read the classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian Chinua Achebe. While there have been many other authors who have since told the story of colonization from the colonized perspective, this is one of the originals if not the original. Also, it is a very enjoyable story.

And it goes like this: Okonkwo was once a great wrestler, a tribal war hero, had three wives, and a barn full of yams, and could not tolerate lazy and debt-ridden men like his father, Unoka, who had died 10 years previously. 

It is announced that a daughter from his town of Umuofia has been murdered in a nearby town. His town proclaims that the other town would have to either go to war or offer a young man and a virgin. They choose the latter: the young man's name is Ikemefuna and the virgin goes to the man who lost his murdered wife. 

Ikemefuna joins Okonkwo's family of three wives and eight children. The father is mean to his new son, as he is to everyone, but he does love him. During the week of peace, he beats one of his wives for not being home to make his lunch one day. When the festive New Yam Festival arrives, he beats one of his wives for destroying a tree that was actually still very much alive.

After three years, Ikemefuna has integrated well into Okonkwo’s family, and his once-beaten and defeated younger brother Nwoye has been re-enlivened by his presence. But then an elder visits and tells the father that Ikemefuna will be taken into the woods the next day and sacrificed, as part of the deal that brought him to town in the first place. Okonkwo is the one assigned to kill him with a machete.

Meanwhile, in other vignettes (which this book consists of a lot of) Okonkwo serves on a panel of judges who make up rules about wives and kidnappings and also, a wedding ceremony takes place that includes lots of jostling for gifts of farm animals, one of which escapes from a gated area.

Okonkwo is later found to have caused the deaths of his adopted son (obviously) and one of his wives. Because of this, it is ruled that he must leave the village with his remaining family for seven years. Before they leave, members of his village - even his best friend - proceed to destroy his home and cows as an order from the gods to cleanse that area.

He arrives in his new village and is informed that he is not suffering as badly as he could. He could have been exiled for life, but instead he was exiled from the village where his father lived to the one where his mother was from.

A couple of years after he arrives at his new village, missionaries, including a white man on an iron horse (what we would call a "bicycle") visit and, although Okonkwo thinks they are insane, his first (and who he considers lazy) son Nwoye becomes hooked. The missionaries are given land in the Evil Forest and, when nothing bad happens to them, more villagers begin to go with them.

Before heading back to his former village, Okonkwo has friends rebuild his houses. As the missionaries secure more of his villagers, Okonkwo ends up killing a white man and subsequently hangs himself from a tree, an act considered to disgrace him further in the end. The lead colonizer ends the book by noting that Okonkwo’s story would make for a good paragraph in the how-to colonize book he is writing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

My 94 favorite albums of 2023

Taylor Swift
I may not have as many albums as usual on my "favorites" list of 2023, but that doesn't mean it was a down year. When I see how low some of my consistent favorites rank on the list (Bully, Belle and Sebastian, Yo La Tengo, for some examples), it's testament to how strong the quality of all this music was in 2023. 

94. Smashing Pumpkins: ATUM Act 1 and 2 (this never-ending double album sees the Pumpkins back in fine form for just enough of the time to make my list. A single album would have been pretty good, but it makes some sense that this is a sprawling electro pop prog Billy Corgan whatever)
93. The Hold Steady: The Price of Progress (there is a lot to admire in this fine Minneapolis band; this is another in a long line of albums that all sound kind of the same and don't have standouts - I dare you to put together a greatest-hits collection - but are fun to listen to in small doses)
92. Low Cut Connie: Art Dealers (the Philly rockers offer a lesser album, but there are still enough Steve Perry, A Star is Born, and lower-class Bruce to ensure that it belongs in the record collection)
91. Little Dragon: Slugs of Love (this might be my least favorite album by these prolific Swedish wackos, but it's still enjoyable all the way through)
90. Duff McKagan: Lighthouse (go with this rocker's last release if you want to truly dig into Duff; it was great and this one too is pretty good, especially if you need a shot of Guns N' Roses that the entire band doesn't seem to be cooperating with)
89. The Salt Collective: Life (this is a well-played and very profficient album by a crack band of players, but in the end I really only love a few songs that are collaborations with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, Juliana Hatfield, Richard Lloyd, and Matthew Sweet)
88. Kurt Vile: Back to Moon Beach (not anywhere near his best, but it’s still a laid-back grower that picks up considerably after a lagging middle)
87. The Sticker Club: Destination Rock and Roll Station (this would be higher on the list if it's taken in small doses, since it's a children's album. That said, it's kid music from Nic Dalton and Alison Galloway of Lemonheads-connection fame)
86. Scott Zosel: Saturday's Child (Minneapolis songwriter takes a sound and style from The Jayhawks, with a pinch of Westerberg/Stinson and Dave Pirner, and creates a short and pleasurable listen)
Lil Yachty
85. A. Savage
: Several Songs About Fire (the Parquet Courts leader makes a pleasant mid-tempo album that never fully takes off, but I like his soothing Evan Dando voice)
84. Katie von Schleicher: A Little Touch of Schleicher in the Night (this Brooklyn artist has created a real grower of a mellow, symphonic, and poppy debut)
83. Janelle Monáe: The Age of Pleasure (this is a really upbeat listen all the way through with reggae and Caribbean sounds sprinkled liberally throughout)
82. Alaska Reid: Disenchanter (good late-night vibe music somewhere like if Olivia Rodrigo mashed up with Karen O of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs)
81. Blur: The Ballad of Darren (I've never been a big member of the Blur cult, but this album is really good, especially my favorite song from the band ever, "Barbaric")
80. Fucked Up: One Day (when I'm in the mood to get screamed at, which admittedly isn't as often as when I was younger, this has become my go-to band, and they may be equally at their most melodic here as well)
79. Willie Nelson: I Don't Know a Thing About Love: The Songs of Harlan Howard (one can never forget a Willie album - or two - in the annual list; man is still on a tear)
78. Royel Otis: Sofa Kings (these Aussie indie popsters had a mess of singles as well as this EP/LP or something in between; check out the single "Fried Rice" - an ode to bad habits - to instantly fall in love)
77. R. Ring: War Poems, We Rested (Kelley Deal's latest project works as Breeders-like and as well as one would guess)
76. White Reaper: Asking for a Ride (Louisville band brings a lot of fun back into the long-missing genre of emo punk-pop; it's a grower)
75. Bennett Wilson Poole: I Saw a Star Behind Your Eyes, Don't Let It Die Away (this catchy pop collection borrows heavily from the sounds of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, with even some Beatles, Byrds, and Who sprinkled in; clearly a lot for rock fans to like here)
74. Kris Ulrich: Big in the USA (this somewhat mysterious Canadian has a handful of beautiful storytelling songs kicking off an album that tails off quite a bit in the second half)
73. Dengue Fever: Ting Mong (Cambodian psych pop via Los Angeles and world weary, wonderful, and weird)
72. The Nude Party: Rides On (these North Carolina post-poppers descend from the likes of Lou Reed, Violent Femmes, and Luna, which pretty much guarantees their likability)
71. Fust: Genevieve (Southern Californians who are making some fine psych folk)
70. Wednesday: Rat Saw God (an Asheville band whose album starts slow but then rounds into fine Kinks-like form; bonus points for putting on a fine show opening for Guided by Voices in Dayton over Labor Day weekend)
69. Video Age: Away from the Castle (said to be influenced by the likes of Paul McCartney and Janet Jackson - an odd combo - these New Orleans poppers lean more Phoenix for me. "Better Than Ever" is one of my favorite tracks of the year)
68. Generationals: Heatherhead (another New Orleans band, this Phoenix-like dance pop is produced by a band that I've liked quite a bit for a long while; you might too) 
67. Albert Hammond, Jr.: Melodies on Hiatus (this is one of the Strokes' lead guitarist's lesser releases, but it's still pretty darn catchy and, hey, Strokes-tangent is still Strokes-tangent)
66. Deer Tick: Emotional Contracts (great rowdy alt-country, from Rhode Island's finest, to throw on and dance and drink to; another release in the group's growing excellent discography)
65. Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World (this is a good release to throw on in the background because of its cinematic-prioritized-over-pop vibe; no greatest-hits material but still solid)
64. 21 Savage: american dream (it might be the first time someone ever uttered the words "smells like gas in here, I think somebody pooped" in music, but the cinematic landscape across this rap release is super groovy)
Lydia Loveless
63. The Bad Ends
: The Power and the Glory (Bill Berry's first music since his days with R.E.M. might kind of sound what a new R.E.M. album would sound like)
62. The No Ones: My Best Evil Friend (speaking of ex-R.E.M. members, Peter Buck teams up with friends for an often Teenage Fanclubesque batch of great pop nuggets)
61. Deeper: Careful! (this angular Chicago post-punk release grooves with a new-wave-sounding Echo-type singer layered over Stephen Malkmus-y guitar hooks)
60. Willie J Healey: Bunny (this British singer-songwriter lands somewhere between All Things Must Pass-era George Harrison and early Lenny Kravitz; really chill and enjoyable)
59. Flyying Colours: You Never Know (a wild American supergroup that combines shoegaze musicality and catchy songwriting, featuring members of Deep Purple, Joe Satriani, Dream Theater, and a singer from the Disney Billboard Top 40 universe!)
58. boygenius: the record (everyone has been losing their minds over this album and I've been a fan of Lucy Dacus albums in the past, but I don't see why it's so special other than a few great tunes)
57. Bully: Lucky for You (one of my favorite bands of the past decade returns with its weakest effort, with sometimes questionable production, but Bully is still the best 90s grunge and power-pop revisionist act around)
56. Belle & Sebastian: Late Developers (these Scots continue to lean heavy into their legendary sense of twee/fey-pop, with typically top-notch results on a quick release following 2022's A Bit of Previous)
55. Ron Sexsmith: The Vivian Line (the first half of this release is absolutely gorgeous, and the rest ain't bad either)
54. Califone: villagers (this Chicago band captures a real Chicago sound, like a quieter and slower swinging The Sea and Cake; leader Tim Rutili has been making great, understated folk pop since way back in his 1990s days with Red Red Meat)
53. Gramercy Arms: Deleted Scenes (the first three songs are candidates for songs of the year, and the rest is pretty enjoyable too from this New York-based collective of musicians that include members of Guided by Voices, The Dambuilders, Lloyd Cole himself, and many others)
52. Louise Post: Sleepwalker (one of Veruca Salt's co-leaders is back after all these years with a catchy album; if you liked them in the 90s, you're going to really like this one)
51. Foo Fighters: But Here We Are (in its first post-Taylor Hawkins release, the FFs are clearly still experiencing agony; and while it's slim on classics, overall it will probably be a grower over time) 
50. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Council Skies (this might be the most Oasis-like of any recent releases and all the songs are big and hit-worthy)
49. Megan Maroney: Lucky (this Georgia singer's debut is a little too country and little too polished for my tastes, but after repeat listens, I couldn't help but to just simply sit back and enjoy it)
48. Cut Worms: Cut Worms (this Brooklyn project is gorgeous and sounds like Double Fantasy-era John Lennon with backing from the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys)
47. Guided by Voices: Nowhere to Go But Up (the final of three GBV releases this year, it starts and ends strong, but Pollard and Company are starting to follow this pattern a little too frequently. Why not just release albums with all killer material like most of the band's releases? Combining the three albums into one may have propelled GBV into the #1 overall slot on this list)
46. Smut: How the Light Felt (there are several bands with this name, but this is the one from Chicago that has beautiful sparkling, bordering-on-shoegaze pop guitars and female vocals, with a bit of a Mazzy Star '90s indie feel)
45. Heyrocco: Teenage Movie Soundtrack (these Charleston, S.C. indie rockers are lots of fun and when they are hitting on all cylanders, they are new versions of sometimes Nirvana and sometimes The Cure)
The Lemon Twigs
44. Bethany Cosentino
: Natural Disaster (the Best Coast leader ventures out solo on a record that sounds very similar to latter-day Liz Phair and is loaded with catchy, moving, and topical numbers)
43. The New Pornographers: Continue as a Guest (the latest from these indie nomads misses Dan Bejar's usual few songs but has plenty of sophisticated pop to offer from A.C. Newman and Neko Case)
42. Slaughter Beach, Dog: Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling (this Philadelphia band sounds more out of the Desert West, somewhere between Meat Puppets and Leo Sayer; a catchy pop-folk grower)
41. Those Pretty Wrongs: Holiday Camp (Jody Stephens of Big Star basically adds to the amazing Big Star collection with this often stunningly beautiful release. A great surprise)
40. PONY: Velveteen (these ultra-poppy Torontonians reach for the fun heights that early Juliana Hatfield and The Blake Babies did)
39. Willie Nelson: Bluegrass (Willie's touch is just what the bluegrass genre needs; his loose style makes these tunes, many of them already classics, even more perfect)
38. Slow Pulp: Yard (while the second half tails off a bit, the first half of this release is everything you could want from Midwestern lo-fi shoegaze grunge)
37. Steven Adams: Drops (this British songwriter's album really kept growing on me this year; it's kind of like Pavement mixed with classic-rock bands like Golden Earring)
36. Son Volt: Day of the Doug (Jay Farrar and company are back with music from Doug Sahm that harkens back to classic Uncle Tupelo, which is really saying something about how great this collection is)
35. Marchica: Ped Xing (this Spanish-American band certainly wears its influences on its sleeves, having even previously covered Pavement's classic "Frontwards;" this album is very catchy)
34. Jen Cloher: I Am the River, The River is Me (Courtney Barnett's Australian ex has really gone into the wilds for this release, which provides a powerful deep self reflection)
33. Jenny Lewis: Joy’all (the former child actor and Rilo Kiley leader continues her great string of Stevie Nicks-inspired California sunshine pop)
32. Kara Jackson: Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love? (I don't frequently include renowned poets in this year-end list, but this true artiste from Illinois puts together a stunning collection of lyrical songs; it's slow paced but I slowly came to understand and love what she's doing, especially throughout the first half of this album)
31. King Tuff: Smalltown Stardust (this Sub Pop band had my #8 best album of the year in both 2012 and 2014 but has been pretty quiet since; this oddly swerves into Fleetwood Mac territory and is less freaky than earlier releases)
30. Juliana Hatfield: Sings ELO (her guitar playing, singing, and composing really shines on this collection of gorgeous covers of Jeff Lynne songs)
29. Guided by Voices: Welshpool Frillies (so many albums; this one is great as usual and has the benefit of being the one the legends were publicizing for their 40th anniversary weekend that I got to celebrate with them in Dayton over Labor Day)
28. Hurry: Don't Look Back (gorgeous pop from Philly in the vein of The Lemonheads, Teenage Fanclub, and other 90s heroes)
27. Cowboys in the Campsite featuring Tommy Stinson: Wronger (even a minor Stinson release is major cause to celebrate; the Replacement continues to somehow get even better and better as a master singer/songwriter, with this side project leaning on countrified mellow stuff)
26. Daisy Jones & The Six: AURORA (talk about Fleetwood Mac, this is absolutely no different than what a great followup to Rumours could have been. I loved this TV show, and the songs took me a while to come around to, but the first half of this score is as good as anything released this year)
25. Ben Folds: What Matters Most (the next great hope to keep Elton John and Billy Joel's pianoman legacy afloat is back with his first album of new material in eight years, and it does at times veer into classic Joel teamed with beautiful flourishes and references to themes from Folds' impressive back catalog)
24. Pardoner: Peace Loving People (Bay Area slacker rockers provide one of the most rauceous and plain-fun punk rock releases of the year, with melodies for days throughout; headphones loud please)
23. Blondshell: Blondshell (this is a great and demented pop debut, and she was great when I saw her open for Liz Phair)
22. Arlo Parks: My Soft Machine (I loved this British singer's first album and her followup may be an even better helping of smooth, pop goodness)
21. Militarie Gun: Life Under the Gun (this record brings me great happiness whenever I hear it; Fugazi-like screamo over the most joyously big melodies; definite banger of the year)
20. Guided by Voices: La La Land (this release starts and ends very strong with some less-great material in the middle; yet another album in which those new to GBV could start out with before getting sucked into their Who-like vortex of thousands of classic "hits")
19. Island of Love: Island of Love (like the male version of Bully, these Londoners came out of nowhere for a debut that blasts out of the speakers as descendants of Dinosaur Jr., Archers of Loaf, and a little Guns n' Roses)
18. Teenage Fanclub: Nothing Lasts Forever (this is not an album that stands out amongst all the band's classics, but it calmly chugs along with great song after inexplicably great song)
17. Bonny Doon: Let There Be Music (this Detroit trio is descended from the slacker-rock likes of Pavement and Silver Jews, and pulls off being both mellow and rocking at the same time)
16. Alex Lahey: The Answer is Always Yes (this is the best non-Courtney Barnett Courtney Barnett album of the year. Lahey is a rock 'n' roll songwriter who is thoroughly modern but could also fit in any era, such as the ones with The Strokes or Blondie)
15. Chappell Roan: The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess (this Missouri-bred synth-popper is sassy and dirty-mouthed just like you would expect from one of Olivia Rodrigo's tour openers; a lot of party bangers)
14. The Rolling Stones: Hackney Diamonds (nobody saw this one coming, but the new album is more listenable all the way through than anything the band has done since the 1980s and these 80-year-olds sound timeless)
13. Geese: 3D Country (Brooklynites blast onto the scene with a freak-party jam that mashes up country and blues and soul with a heaping helping that lands somewhere between Ween and Radiohead)
12. The Lemon Twigs: Everything Harmony (the band's fourth album is its best and most consistant, with pop and yacht and a lot of mellow at the end. Not a snoozer in the bunch)
11. Dexys: The Feminine Divine (you will get nowhere near a stranger release on this year's list than this one, which is even weirder since a version of this band had one of the 1980s biggest smashes with "Come On Eileen," as Dexys Midnight Runners. This one gets weirder, more beautiful, and simply divine the more I hear it)
10. John P. Strohm: Something to Look Forward To (it’s great to hear from the former Blake Baby and Lemonhead all these years later; still perceptive - and poppy - as ever on the political and social aura of the day)
09. Wilco: Cousin (a subtle release from the band making the most consistently exceptional rock albums, with this one starting weird and beautiful to progressing through quiet numbers and then back to weird and beautiful) 
08. The Bug Club: Rare Birds: Hour of Song (many of these 47 songs - as promised, in an hour - are "burds words" snippet interludes, but the songs bring the finest lo-fi boy-girl mystery group you'll find in 2023; weird and joyous)
07. Ryan Davis & the Roadhouse Band: Dancing on the Edge (appearently this guy has some great albums with his old band State Champion, but this is my intro to him and it's a beautiful mix of Silver Jews and the Grateful Dead; best lyricist of the year)
06. Lydia Loveless: Nothing's Gonna Stand in My Way Again (I love this alt-country rocker so much; she really doesn't release anything but greatness and this could easily be my favorite album of the year on any given day right alongside the five releases in front of it here)
05. Lil Yachty: Let's Start Here. (this starts out sounding like a cross of Pink Floyd and the best Funkadelic and never releases its sonic grip. The Atlanta mumble rapper graduates from his old style into a super slick batch of jazzy, dancey, and weird pop greatness. I don't want to stop listening)
04. Olivia Rodrigo: GUTS (what can I say? My 10-year-old daughter got this embedded into my head all year long and, try as I might, I can't find a single misstep anywhere; a beautiful collision of rock meets pop, with The Breeders fittingly opening some of her shows)
03. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Weathervanes (this is the former Drive-by Trucker's magnum opus. He has had great albums before but this is his most perfect alt-country display)
02. Taylor Swift: Speak Now (Taylor's Version) (I know a lot of people will groan with this near the top spot, but I defy anyone to say this isn't an amazing collection of 22 (!!!) songs. They are all great, and many are stunningly great)
01. Taylor Swift: 1989 (Taylor's Version) (just when we thought Tay couldn't get any better than Speak Now, 1989 tops it with pop genius pretty much from top to bottom; there is so much to explore here that it will take a lifetime, and it arguably shoudn't even qualify in the list because it's mostly not a new album. But it's my list, so ...)

Enjoy all that music coming your way in 2024!

Monday, February 19, 2024

Looking back at Curb Your Enthusiasm's Season 7 Seinfeld reunion

I gobbled up the first six seasons of Curb Your Enthusiam, which ran from 2000 to 2007 on HBO. For some reason, I never returned to the show, which is now up to a whopping 12 seasons. So I binged season 7 - highlighted by its storyline of a Seinfeld reunion - over the past couple of weeks. I'm happy to find that Larry David's character Larry is just as obnoxious as ever, bordering on a modern-day Archie Bunker. Here's my recap of the season, which has at least three episodes (1, 3, and 10) that could be part of the Curb greatest-hits collection.

In Episode 1, Larry confronts the possibility of having to take care of his girlfriend who is diagnosed with cancer. The doctor says there won’t even be any time for golf in his schedule, which leads Larry to brainstorm ways to get out of the relationship. When Larry bumps into the doctor and his boyfriend at a party, Larry is taken aback by the doctor being gay and tells the boyfriend, “You seem slightly gay." Then there’s guest star Catherine O’Hara playing Bam Bam, his friend Funkhouser’s sister, who has just been released from an asylum, has sex with Larry's best friend Jeff, and then goes around singing “I love the fat boy” around Jeff’s wife. This episode really sets the scene for the season when Larry bumps into his ex-wife Cheryl, sparks rekindle a bit, and she says she misses him and could maybe handle “three hours of Larry” per day like back when he was working on Seinfeld and wasn’t home with her all day. 5 out of 5 stars

In Episode 2, it takes a running gag about blow jobs in cars to finally end Larry’s relationship with his cancer-stricken girlfriend, played likeably by Vivica A. Fox. The fact that she is so likeable makes Larry’s game to end the relationship over her cancer all the more despicable. 4 out of 5 stars.

In Episode 3, “tippers are solo” is one of the classic lines as Larry proposes a Seinfeld reunion for all the wrong reasons - mainly so he can offer the role of George's ex-wife to Cheryl in order to win her back. It seems very unclear whether the reunion will happen after Larry tells off the head of NBC for giving him cruddy Lakers’ tickets. Along with the Seinfeld gang, Meg Ryan guest stars as - uh oh - George’s potential TV ex-wife. 5 out of 5 stars.

Episode 4 sees Larry going to Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen’s anniversary party. He tells Christian Slater that he's taking too much caviar then interrupts Jeff’s daughter’s gift to Ted and Mary of a serenade of “You’re Just Too Good to Be True." His bad karma builds up - including for criticizing a man on a plane for wearing shorts - and he gets beaten up for dating a woman with a boyfriend. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

In Episode 5, Larry stumbled into dating a woman in a wheelchair named Denise, gets in fights with Rosie O’Donnell, and ends up having Denise and another woman in a wheelchair chasing him around a friend’s sophisticated party. Not as many laughs as usual but the depths Larry goes to are spellbinding. 4 out of 5 stars

Episode 6 sees Larry deciding to fire Jerry Seinfeld’s assistant because the midriff shirts she wears show too much of her flabby belly. But Julia Louis-Dreyfus says he has to hire her back because the woman’s mom is suicidal. That mom is the hilariously wacky highlight of this episode, which almost sees the mom/daughter duo heading out for a cross-country tour to spread the Jesus gospel. Instead, Larry is the one they save, with the help of the woman’s afore-mentioned love handles. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Episode 7 is my least favorite of the season. Larry kills a black swan that is possibly attacking him on the golf course, which leads to his gang being nearly kicked out of the club. As usual, there are a handful of belly laughs, but this one is inessential. 3 out of 5 stars.

Episode 8 brings Larry to Banana Republic, where a fire drill sends him outside without his own pants, instead he's wearing unpurchased ones he was trying on and still have the security tags. This is mixed with a storyline in which Jeff’s wife finds women’s panties in Jeff’s glovebox. So Jeff convinces Larry to tell her that they’re his and he likes to wear women’s panties. It’s a funny episode and even includes Larry yelling at kids selling lemonade that he doesn’t like. 4.5 out of 5 stars

Episode 9 features the classic line “how’s her p—sy?" Cheryl by now has won the part of George’s ex-wife and the Seinfeld reunion table read happens. George’s pen troubles with Larry and Larry’s troubles with a nine-year-old daughter of one of his crew lead the funny storylines, with Kramer’s disease and his play off Michael Richards’ real-life race troubles don’t work as well. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Episode 10 More memorable lines cascade out of this episode, including “busy with your beans” and “do you respect wood?” While Larry gets very close to possibly getting Cheryl back, the Seinfeld reunion ends magically (unlike the end of the original show, which many people didn't like). This one is a must-watch as a landmark in both Curb and Seinfeld’s histories, at the very least. 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

“Rat” leads the batch of evil tales from Stephen King’s If It Bleeds

Back in the early days of the Covid pandemic, it was a respite to read Stephen King’s freshly released (at the time, in Summer 2020) collection of four novellas called If It Bleeds. It wasn’t exactly the kind of uplifting thing I may have needed, since this batch of stories deals mostly with various aspects of evil, but one of the stories that has stuck with me as a typical King page-turner is “Rat.”

In it, writer Drew Larson hasn’t had many great ideas for short stories. He had one published in The New Yorker. One contributed to his house burning down. But then he gets an idea for a Western novel and asks his wife Lucy if he can go away for three weeks to get it started. He also goes to tell his old university department head Al Stamper. 

When Drew reaches his destination, a podunk Maine town, and stops to get gas at the general store. The old cashier tells him the caretaker of Drew’s cabin had shot himself in the head there. When he arrives at the cabin, he has a scary run-in with a momma moose as he exits his car. When he talks to Lucy on the phone, he doesn’t mention the moose or that Old Bill blew his head off at the cabin. Before turning in for his first night, he reacquaints himself with the items in the cabin, like a Stretch Armstrong doll and several other toys that must have been left by renters over the years.

Drew tears through lots of writing in the first three days, so much so that he doesn’t even realize he’s begun sneezing a lot and isn’t eating anything fresh or healthy. He learns that the old cashier’s daughter has taken over the store with her dad in the hospital for pneumonia. And she says a major snow storm is coming in that will barricade Drew in his cabin. Lucy calls him later and tries to talk him into coming home. 

The storm and his sickness get bad and Drew begins to write fewer and fewer pages per day. Limbs start to fall off trees and he starts to realize he could actually die. A big one falls on the shed where he had just been gathering tools from should he need to cut his way through the exit road. Later that night, a rat crawls to his door, probably having been wounded in the shed tree fall, and Drew brings it in to die while he falls asleep.

But when he awakes, the rat is not dead. In fact, the rat is speaking, using Jonathan Franzen’s words to explain why Drew is a failed novelist, like so many other “wannabe novelists.” The rat then says he’ll make his wish of writing the book come true in exchange for one person Drew loves dying. This reminds him of his recent call with Lucy in which she said he was choosing his novel over his family. But the rat says he was thinking Al Stamper would be a good choice, since his university colleague had recently told Drew ha had early-stage pancreatic cancer. Drew agreed.

He goes back to work and does a good job on the book. The weather breaks and Jackie Colson is chainsawing trees that have fallen on the road back to town, called Shithouse Road, thanks to Lucy calling him to do so. Drew is able to get out and make it home, but he feels like the rat has followed him.

Lucy and Al think the book is great and sellable. And, oddly, Al’s cancer has seemingly gone away. Drew figures his rat episode was just a dream. The day the novel goes to auction and sells for $350,000, Al dies, and so does Nadine Stamper, both of them wiped out by a semi on the highway in the snow on the way to a cancer test. Drew vomits into the sink.

The next fall, he returns to the cabin so he can prepare to sell the pace. He has no plans to start writing in it again, or writing anywhere again, although he has not shared this information. Drew wakes in the middle of the night with the rat on his chest. The rat told him he didn’t break their deal in any way by having Nadine die too and that he, not Drew, had finished the novel. Drew jumps to try to kill him but the rat gets away into the walls. He returns home and tells himself he will gladly join the ranks of one-book writers and that at least his family will be alright.

As noted, it’s a page turner but, as also happens a lot with King’s tales, it has a relatively unsatisfying ending. Because of that I only give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Jon Stewart proved he could play in the same league as Steve Martin and Woody Allen

Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People has been sitting on my bookshelf unread for many years, alongside some of my favorite comedy essay collections by the likes of Woody Allen and Steve Martin. It was time to finally read the 1998 book. Here are my brief thoughts on each piece; most of which you could read while taking a bathroom break.

Breakfast at Kennedys imagines what would happen if the Jewish narrator went to the Kennedy compound, which ends up being a strange mishmash of the Kennedy compound, a concentration camp, and a carnival.  Seems Stewart is just getting warmed up on this wacky tale. 4 out of 5 stars.

A Very Hanson Christmas, 1996-1999 details the letters of the Hanson band's mom, who shifts radically from being a loving Christian into an anti-abortion mama to a schizophrenic with a fear of all things in the world. The glimpse into 1990s superstardom in Oklahoma is a highlight of the collection. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

While many of the tapes were "recorded over with Grateful Dead bootlegs," Lack of Power: The Ford Tapes presents a look into the bumbling Gerald Ford presidency. 4 out of 5 stars.

Martha Stewart’s Vagina starts out really funny as a take on keeping care of one’s private parts. But the second half goes a little too far as the essay suggest setting up an office in one’s vagina as a real possibility. 3 out of 5 stars.

The New Judaism is a great light-hearted review of the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism and the direction the the religion should go if it has learned from history. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Pen Pals is the best story in the collection, offering the correspondence between Mother Theresa and a very obnoxious Princess Diana. 5 out of 5 stars.

Local News is a brief report on the Taco Bell chihuahua being killed in a bar fight. Minor at best. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Last Supper is a reimagining of Jesus and his frat pals getting a last meal in at a place called Jerry’s, except the employees aren't too keen on helping them very quickly. Pretty hilarious stuff. Jesus in this story, he’s, well, alright. Hilarious stuff. 5 out of 5 stars.

Things get a little forgettable in the middle of the collection. Da Vinci: The Lost Notebook and The Cult are filler.

Five Under Five is an amusing take on the increasingly silly lists of people - whether they are 40 under 40 senior aides or 60 over 60 parking attendants - that nearly every magazine and website seem to regularly feature, especially back when magazines were still a thing. 4 out of 5 stars.

The Recipe: Inside joke? I don't really get it, but just in case I someday might, I rank it "Incomplete." 

The Devil and William Gates is a sci-fi tale told from many generations in the future, in a look back at an incident in 1975 that happened to the future and now former World CEO. At that time, Gates sold his soul to the devil, but when he comes to collect 25 years later, Gates defeats the Devil with a small loophole and the world carries on. 2.5 out of 5 stars. 

Vincent and Theo on AOL proves that we were already dumb in 1998, as Van Gogh steps into a handful of chat rooms, pontificating on various intellectual matters of importance, only to be inundated with misspelled comments about Viagra, old creepy men pretending to be horny young women, and the Hanson brothers. By the end, Vincent decides to give up painting and attend DeVry. Inane but poignant. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold: A man has been planning bad things to unleash on his former classmates at his 30-year reunion. But when he arrives, most attendees are doing revengeful things and only a few are there for good-time reuniting. A strange tale that doesn’t quite work. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Adolph Hitler: The Larry King Interview is every bit as entertaining as it sounds. Another classic from this book. Hitler says he did it because he was bullied and only had one testical. He said he wanted to stop at Czechoslovakia but then Poland was right up the road and he couldn’t stop. He says he killed Eva Braun in the bunker and escaped wearing her clothes. He chalks up his killing of many of his best scientists - in his aim to perfect the races - as his own classic fear of success and sabotage of himself. Great idea for a short story and funny stuff. 5 out of 5 stars.

Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Sitcom offers an hilarious string of letters from ABC executives to comedian Lenny Bruce in 1961 as they attempt to iron out the plot of a sitcom starring the highly controversial comic. It’s as if Seinfeld were the demon while getting his show launched. Needless to say, the ideas from both camps diverge greatly, until ABC eventually rejects Bruce altogether shortly before CBS picks up the script and calls it The Dick Van Dyke Show. 4 out of 5 stars.

The book ends with Microsoft Word ‘98 Suggested Spelling and Usage, which is a bit of a relic of the early internet age. That said, think of how easy it can be to misspell or for spellcheck to mess up your words while texting, and this essay still resonates. Stewart spellchecks words he has used earlier in the book and it seems he has outsmarted the computers. 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

RIP William "Pop-Tarts" Post

"Two thin layers of dry, rectangular pastry with a sweet filling and frosting" doesn't necessarily sound like something that would become a taste sensation. But William Post, who died from heart failure this week in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the age of 96, was able to sell the idea and turn it into the now-ubiquitous Pop-Tarts breakfast (or anytime) snack.

I have to admit these are one of my favorite things in the world to eat. They have 60 flavors now, after starting out with just four: strawberry, blueberry, brown sugar cinnamon, and apple-currant. Heat them up in the toaster oven and spread a little butter on top to make it even more disgustingly delicious. That said, I almost never eat them these days because, whenever I do, I get a brief and minor case of the queasies.

According to the New York Times, Post "led the bakery plant that developed the first Pop-Tarts for Kellogg’s in 1964." He developed the product in just two weeks, with the help of his own kids as taste testers. When they gave the experiment the thumb's up, Post ignored the advice of many others who said it was not a good idea.

Pop-Tarts were going to be called fruit scones but a Kellogg’s executive riffed off the Pop Art movement of the time to coin the related name. Post also had the idea later in the 1960s to brilliantly add frosting on top. There's nothing worse than a frosting-less Pop-Tart. Those should never be on store shelves! That said, there was some concern that the frosting would melt in the toaster. I've always wondered why that doesn't happen. Perhaps best not to know!

Pop-Tarts continues to sell in massive amounts and the product stays very relevant on the pop-culture landscape. Look out later this year for the movie called Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, and this Saturday Night Live skit shows just how darn distracting it can be to have a box of Pop-Tarts in front of you:

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

How Alfred Hitchcock's childhood and murderous interests shaped his movies

Psycho remains my favorite movie and so it makes sense that I am likewise fascinated with its creator Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve read a lot about the master, and I’m particularly enjoying the 2022 book The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock. Author Edward White (pictured) places Hitchcock into 12 categories: the boy who could not grow up, the murderer, the auteur, the womanizer, the fat man, the dandy, the family man, the voyeur, the entertainer, the pioneer, the Londoner, and the man of god.

Early on, in the Introduction, White doesn’t really reveal anything fans don’t know about the man who made an impressive 54 films. Hitch obviously had many contradictions, so the argument is presented that at least 12 of his personas are needed to explore in order to understand the full person. The parts I probably know the least about are the first two: about his childhood and why White refers to him as “the murderer.” Here’s what I learned in those two sections:

  • Hitchcock himself articulated most of what is known about his childhood, mainly that he was a mostly solitary but not unhappy child. One oft-told story about the origin of his anxiety was how his father sent him to a police station with a note when Alfred was about five years old and they locked him in jail for a while. 
  • His films were heavily influenced by the long-forgotten authors he loved as a boy, and also Edgar Allan Poe.
  • Hitch didn’t treat children as children, both in his movies and at home. But both adults and children loved him, especially with his TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
  • Psycho, The Birds, and Marnie, in particular, deal with repressed childhood memories and may have become more interesting stories to him after a series of health scares possibly led him to think more about his own immortality.
  • Hitch never much talked about his own childhood traumas. But his father died of emphysema when he was 15 and the war soon began with about six years of trouble, as German bombs rained down on London., often very close to his home. The Spanish flu showed up for the last year of the war.
  • Moving from childhood, the next “life” of the director is as the murderer. 
  • Many critics initially trashed Psycho, dismissing it as gratuitous violence. But it was an immediate smash hit with audiences, making tons of money at the box office despite its small budget (the studio didn’t have any faith in it either).
  • Hitch didn’t want to actually be a 9-to5-type serial killer, but “violence and cruelty spurred his creativity.” His fascination with famous serial killers led him to often give books and materials about them to his writers and actors.
  • His stories of murder weren’t about the victims but rather about male destructiveness, lashing out at women, other men, the government, or civilization as a whole. He said the best murderers regard their actions as a fine art, and he zoned in on that idea.
  • Capturing evil at its utmost came in the form of his hiring to lead a film documenting Holocaust concentration camp atrocities. Night Will Fall (5 out of 5 stars) was not released until 2014, but it truly captures those unimaginable days in Europe, often with long shots, not panning away, from images like the piles of clothes of the dead and the "shower heads" in the gas chambers that were much like the notorious one in Psycho.
Up to this point, 12 Lives is a winner and I'm looking forward to the rest of it. The analysis of Hitchcock the man as well as his films is told in both an academic and engaging way. Zeroing in on the subject from 12 different directions allows White to dig deeper than some other Hitchcock bios have done with their straight, chronological formats.

5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Paradise comes in waves as beach resorts come in and out of style

Prototypical gorgeous beach resort
In the first part of my look into author Sarah Stodola's The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach, I covered her history of beach and resort culture. But how did all these places become our idea of "paradise?"

Take Nicaragua, Nobody ever visited there as a tourist because, from 1937 to 1979, it was led by a series of dictators. Daniel Ortega became the leader in the 1980s but those dictators didn’t just go away. They became the U.S.-backed Contras and civil war unfolded. So it took many more years before the Central America's gorgeous beaches gave way to opening as the locale of hotels and resorts. Then it stook still more years for Nicaraguans to understand the ways of customer service. Ortega recently came back into office and proceeded to raise taxes, sparking protests and deadly crackdowns followed by a bad bungling of the Covid crisis. It appears Nicaragua’s tourism surge may have unfortunately been short-lived.

The beautiful beaches and great surfing of Senegal, on Africa’s western-most side, have a different story. People don’t think to go there because they figure it’s so far away. But really, the country is a seven-hour direct flight from New York City. So an even bigger factor in Senegal's struggle to become a tourism destination may be the cost of the flight, which is typically about double the cost of flights from the U.S. to Europe.

Actually, Senegal was the top tourism country in sub-Saharan Africa alongside Kenya up until the 1980s, but a separatist movement and then a president who deprioritized tourism has left a once-glowing Club Med and other properties to pretty much crumble. Another need that’s been identified is for Senegal to become knowledgeable about marketing itself as a tourist destination. Not only does a potential workforce not yet have the fundamentals of customer service once the crowd would arrive, but the country’s tourism marketing infrastructure (including a pretty inactive government agency of tourism promotion) has yet to be established. Other problems with going to Senegal include the costly and unreliable forms of traveling once in the country, the lack of online services for things like travel booking, and the high costs of good things like cheese that have to be imported from places like France. 

In Stodola's section about Tulum, Ibiza, and Cancun, she laments the places that have lost their paradise status. Starting in the 1980s, a flood of travelers began descending on Tulum, south of Cancun on the east side of Mexico, for its fine white sand beaches and “water of a color that writers have long strained to describe fittingly.” Tourism there began as lodging in grass huts with a hammock for sleeping at the low rate of $10 per night. Daytrippers would visit the nearby Mayan ruins. In 2003, an Argentinian model opened Coqui Coqui - no longer in business - and the New York fashion industry made Tulum a major destination. Now you might spend $50 for some nachos and guacamole. 

One of the many consequences of massive growth and development is that wastewater is taken from the resorts and dumped in the jungle, creating a groundwater that spreads disease far and wide through the vast river system in the area. Instead of relying on the latest advances, 1950s technology is being recreated there, the engineers are not learning from history and even much of the marketing hails Tulum as super eco-friendly. Waste could be turned into a sellable commodity, such as energy, if it was concentrated and contained, but instead it is being dumped into the ocean and other waterways.

At party beach resorts, like most of the ones in Ibiza, people are looking for ecstasy over paradise, and much of the action takes place indoors in the clubs rather than out on the beaches, which are mainly relegated to daytime-hangover spots. These Ibiza nightclubs were launched in the 1970s as a direct reaction to Club Meds heading the family route. Debauchery continues apace in infamous foam, paint, and suds parties. 

While Ibiza and other scenes were first forming for Europe’s youthful parties, “middle-class teens with disposable income came of age” in the U.S. in the 1960s and headed to Fort Lauderdale. In the 1980s that changed to Daytona Beach, with help from MTV. Once the U.S. coasts filled up, inspired by that new cable station's airing of the debauchery happening down in Florida, kids started looking further afield to places like Cancun. 

Club Med
In Cancun, absolutely nothing more than coconuts existed before 1970. It was entirely a planned resort. There was no Cancun before the Mexican government invented this plan for a place with ideal climate and fewer hurricanes than other places. Now there are much more frequent hurricanes, there are daily truckloads of beach sargassum that is undoubtedly mistaken for seaweed rather than the sea life-killing wastewater mutant weed that it is, there is the dying reef hidden offshore, and there is the scary beach erosion being caused by the aggressive development of high rises. 

Club Med, which I admittedly had a blast at in Puna Canta, Dominican Republic in April 2023 (in my first-ever all-inclusive adventure), was launched in Salerno, Italy in 1954. That had ballooned to 64 Club Meds across the globe by 1972. The company changed, as I've noted, from its more partying early image to being family friendly at beaches and ski mountains. All-inclusive resorts have Club Med leading the way but many other companies have gotten aboard that train and the concept is found just about everywhere.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

My 13 favorite recent bourbon cocktail recommendations

Betty Carter
As my amateur mixology hobby continues apace, I want to share my top 13 recent bourbon cocktails that I've worked to near perfection. If you're a bourbon drinker, I hope you can enjoy making these yourself or invite me over to make them for you! With each of them, you may start with whichever bourbon you like, but I've found that Bulliet is a brand that is tasty, affordable, and versatile. It works well with each of these recipes (in alphabetical order):

The 19th Century was actually not invented until 2016 but is a new take on the New York sour family of cocktails.

  • 1 and 1/2 parts bourbon
  • 3/4 parts white Creme de cacao liqueur
  • 3/4 parts sweet vermouth (or Lillet Rouge)
  • 3/4 parts lemon juice
  • Garnish with lemon twist

I already wrote about a batch of yummy banana cocktails, but I didn't mention the Banana Bread Old Fashioned, which - assuming you like bananas - might be the MVP of this family.

  • 4 dashes of black walnut bitters and a little simple syrup at the bottom of shaker
  • 2 and 1/2 parts bourbon
  • 3/4 parts banana liqueur

The Last Word
The Betty Carter is a whiskey sour created in 2015 by a New York City bartender inspired by the famous jazz singer who lived down the street. I was mostly inspired to try it because I excitedly bought a bottle of Pedro Ximenez sherry, wanting to experiment for the first time with sherry drinks.

  • 1 and 1/2 parts bourbon
  • 3/4 parts sherry
  • 1/2 parts lucano amaro (gor subs are Campari 0 if you prefer bitter - or Aperol - if you prefer sweeter)
  • 3/4 parts lemon juice
  • 3 drops of saline solution (which is typically 4 parts water and 1 part sea salt)
  • Garnish with a lemon twist

The Bourbon Gold Smash is a honeyed take on the more fruity Bourbon Smash.

  • 2 parts bourbon
  • 1 part honey syrup
  • 1 part fresh lime juice

I really love the Chocolate Boulevardier. Some people don't like vermouth, but I've begun to find it essential in many, many great cocktails. That's saying quite a bit because I'm not much of a wine drinker and vermouth is basically a sweeter version of crushed grapes. 

  • 1 1/4 parts bourbon
  • 3/4 parts sweet vermouth
  • 3/4 parts campari
  • 3-4 dashes of chocolate bitters
  • Garnish with an orange peel

UInbelievably not created until 2006, the Elderflower Manhattan basically subs sweet versouth in a Manhattan with elderflower liquer, which is a great replacement in a bunch of classic drinks.  

  • 2 parts bourbon
  • 1 part elderflower
  • 1/2 parts dry vermouth
  • 2 dashes angostura bitters
  • Garnish with a cherry

The Expat is one of my favorite drinks to make if needed quickly! 

  • 2 parts bourbon
  • 2 dashes of angostura bitters
  • 3/4 parts fresh lime juice\
  • 3/4 parts simple syrup

The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush is among the most flavorful on this list, with its gold-yellow hue alive with ginger, spice, and sweet flavors. Delicious.

  • 1 part bourbon
  • 2/3 parts ginger liqueur
  • 1/4 parts fresh lemon juice
  • 1/5 parts fresh lime juice
  • 1/5 parts honey syrup (3 part honey, 1 part water)
  • 3 drops of saline solution
  • Garnish with a cherry

It's not so easy to get chartreuse these days, as the monks who make it have scaled back on production as the drink becomes more popular. The last bottle of yellow chartreuse I bought (luckily a bottle goes a long way) was $70 but that last I checked it had gone up to $100. But once you try chartreuse, it it tough to ever go back to not having it in your collection. The Last Word Variation is what I call my own twist because The Last Word uses green chartreuse and I have been using yellow. This is a cult cocktail that people long for a very good, tangy reason.

  • 1 part bourbon
  • 3/4 parts of fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 parts yellow chartreuse
  • Garnish with a cherry (sometimes I pour a tiny bit of cherry concentrate in)
  • Garnish with a lime

La Valencia is another flavorful one that I've made for various groups with resounding thumbs-ups. Yellow chartreuse makes another appearance.

  • 1 part whiskey
  • 1 and 1/2 parts manzanilla sherry (can substitute with dry vermouth)
  • 1/2 parts yellow chartreuse
  • 3/4 parts fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 parts simple syrup
  • 1 dash of angostura bitters

The Oleo Sacrament leans on a plum and floral feel. I've also made this for groups that loved it.

  • 1 and 2/3 parts bourbon
  • 1/2 parts lime oleo saccharum (which is essentially simple syrup with lime)
  • 1/3 parts Benedictine DOM (or Braulio is a great substitute)
  • 2 dashes of Peychauds bitters
  • 2 dashes of plum bitters
  • Garnish with a lemon zest twist

The Paper Plane is a famous pink drink that is also a variation of The Last Word. It's lemony and zesty and was created in 2007.

  • 3/4 parts bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Aperol
  • 3/4 parts Amaro Nonino Quintessentia (or Angostura bitters and sweet vermouth)
  • 3/4 parts fresh lemon juice

And finally, for peach lovers, it's tough to beat The Royalist.

  • 1 and 1/2 parts dry vermouth
  • 1 part bourbon
  • 3/4 parts Benedictine DOM
  • 1 dash of peach bitters
  • Garnish with a peach slice