Monday, June 13, 2016

Platform Ticket, Restless Diesels, Goodbye Windows

I received something in my Christmas stocking this past holiday that threw me for a bit of a loop. It's this train pull-back toy.

The reason I did a double-take when I saw it was its uncanny - and as we will see, surprisingly accurate - resemblance to an EMD SDP35. For a cheap kids' toy, it's a most irregular choice of subject. I say this chiefly because the SDP35 was not widely produced; intended to replace older passenger locomotives and still run as a freight unit if necessary, it only sold 35 units during 1964 and '65. Meanwhile, the standard SD35 sold 360 units in a similar timeframe. (The successive SDP40 and SDP45 models only sold 20 and 18 each, respectively; the 34 'SDP45s' sold to Erie Lackawanna were without steam generators, in order to equip a larger fuel tank than the standard SD45.) Union Pacific ordered ten; finding them inadequate for passenger train service, they used them for freight until their retirement and kept their fleet of EMD E8 passenger locomotives in use until all passenger services were assumed by Amtrak in 1971.

George Elwood

I mention UP's locomotives because this toy is painted reminiscent of UP's color scheme. While logos, lettering and numbering are all a work of fiction, the gray top portion and yellow body are correct, even to the red stripe that separates them (it should, however, be a single stripe, not the paired one on the toy). And 'Power Pacific'? They got it three-quarters right, actually! I count 'Power' for partial credit since Union Pacific was once the buyer of many imposingly massive and powerful locomotives, both steam and diesel.

But better yet is how closely this toy actually matches the real SDP35. Starting with the wheels, it has the early Flexicoil 'C' trucks, and heavy braking option (with one cylinder for each axle on each side - correct for the UP units); while the nose and cab aren't perfect, they are identifiably EMD designs; the traction motor blower duct and hood bulge, as well as the bulge in the steam generator compartment at rear are all present on the fireman's side; and the air intakes, dynamic brake blister at the top center of the hood, radiator shutters and vents for the steam generator at the top rear are all correct as well. The only real glaring error I can see is the radiator fans. The prototype had two larger fans with one smaller fan between them; this has three large fans like the SD40 was built with. The two dynamic brake fans are correct.

Of course, only a complete nerd like me would even notice, but I do find it very interesting that such an obscure prototype was picked for such a relatively unimportant-seeming kid's toy. I know I've seen more than a few based on EMD's much more widely produced F-unit locomotives, which makes more sense - with over 7000 of all F-unit models built, they were a much more common sight on the American railroad scene well into the 1980's. The SDP35 is all but extinct by comparison.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Am I The Only One In The Only World?

The grass is always greener on the other side of the DMZ.

Does The Karate Kid count as a kung-fu movie?

There was that time Jesus told a dumb joke, and it was soter-rible. (It's ok. The Buddah got it.)

A pickpocket's worst fear is a ticklish person. 

You're so lazy you don't even make sense!

Where's that sandbar? I could go for a dry martini.

Cable network WGN should change its callsign to WTR. I mean, all they ever show is Walker, Texas Ranger.*

Ask a question, get a stupid answer.

Why doesn't Sheetz sell schwarma? It would fit in just fine!

I'm unable to decide whether I deserve to be exiled to a monastery or a nude beach.

* That is, when they're not showing the Jason Bourne movies. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

And If You Complain Once More, You'll Meet An Army Of Me

Ok, so sometime last year, I started getting into Björk. And even though I haven't yet picked up a copy of her 1997 album Homogenic, I did read George Starostin's review. What he thinks the album sounds like isn't important right now. No, I'm more concerned with the art. 


Yeah, I have no idea. According to Wikipedia, the cover was designed by one Alexander McQueen, and he obviously was on some very 90's drugs. Björk describes the look she was going for as "a warrior who had to fight not with weapons, but with love." I will take that statement at face value (ba-dum-tish), thank you very much. 

But there was something else that I had gnawing at me when I saw the cover. It seemed (oh no) familiar somehow. And then it hit me like a 110-lb. lightsaber. 

These aren't the Star Wars movies you're looking for. Try 1977.

No less than two years later, the bodacious Natalie Portman would dress Björk-style for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The similarities are very interesting; one wonders if this was all a late-90's thing. It wasn't something I'd picked up on. The obvious question here is, was Queen Amidala's getup inspired, at least in part, by the Homogenic album cover? Google doesn't seem to have an answer for me, but I do kind of wonder. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Am A Scientist, I Seek To Understand Me, All Of My Impurities And Evils Yet Unknown

GBV! GBV! GBV! Dayton, OH's own indie and lo-fi rock demigods Guided By Voices have racked up quite an impressive tally of albums thanks to lead singer Robert Pollard's inability not to write songs; and the two albums that put them on the map in a big way were the '94 Bee Thousand and '95 Alien Lanes. I really don't think they had any finer documents of their sound besides these two albums - at least until the vaunted original lineup reunited in 2011.

This is where it began for so many music fans and for me as well. Bee Thousand got the band noticed, by an order of magnitude greater than the previous albums Propeller (1991) and Vampire On Titus (1993) had. The lineup isn't quite represented in a solidified form, as some of the tracks are home recordings made years earlier. Really, the group largely worked like a collective before this album, with informal meets to rock out in various members' basements and garages; whoever showed up to play got a chance. The usual suspects are all here: Robert Pollard on vocals and some guitar; Tobin Sprout on vocals, guitar, bass guitar, and piano; Mitch Mitchell on guitar; Greg Demos on bass guitar; and Kevin Fennel on drums. Others, who came and went on the early recordings are Robert's brother Jim Pollard, and also Dan Toohey on bass guitar; Don Thrasher on drums, and Randy Campbell on backing vocals. Funny thing - this album almost didn't get made since Pollard considered breaking up the band after Propeller's middling success; and the disc had several proposed track listings which variously included about 30 additional tracks that largely didn't see the light of day until the 10th anniversary 'Director's Cut' version of the album. The version I own is the recent Scat Records re-pressing of the original track listing, in a very nice gatefold. So how should I try to explain one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time to my readers? Dunno, but I'll attempt to anyway!

What I Liked:
First of all, you have to understand what the lo-fi aesthetic means to certain people. For those making records this way, often it means that the record gets made at all. Others have found that the sound has a certain, unique character. One of the early GBV records (Sandbox, I think) was in fact done clean and polished in a proper studio, and Pollard found the sound far too sterile for his tastes. By comparison, Bee Thousand has a sort of earthy, pleasantly janky honesty to it's weird echoes, unavoidable bits of feedback and distortion, and occasional glitches (e.g. the guitar dropping out on 'Hardcore UFOs'). But all by itself, this vintage home-movie aesthetic wouldn't be enough to lift this record to the prominent position it holds in my collection. Robert Pollard has such a knack for penning wildly out-there lyrics that seem to be an enigma yet to be comprehended or layers to be peeled away (as opposed to a Dylan-esque word salad). He doubles down by pairing that with truly fine power pop (often like The Who or possibly The Rolling Stones; but with a fair amount of post-British Invasion garage and psychedelia blended in) melodies and killer power riffs - e.g. 'Hardcore UFOs', 'Gold Star For Robot Boy'. This is balanced with Tobin Sprout's contributions of more gentle, intimate acoustic-driven tracks with hints of Lennon/McCartney-esque lyrics ('Awful Bliss', Ester's Day). While it's a very garage-rock sounding record, in the end it's the emotional resonance that makes this record work. It's a difficult mood to describe, but the feeling of a complete flight of fancy takes root in a lot of the tracks. It's somehow a very daydreamy, or uplifting record at times! Some of the tracks paint vivid pictures ('Peep-Hole', 'Hot Freaks') while others just beg to be given a meaning or be deciphered (the majority, but especially 'Tractor Rape Chain' and 'The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory'). Even so, king on this record is possibly Pollard's greatest achievement, 'I Am A Scientist'. With echoey guitars, a riff that exudes memorability and coolness, and a delightfully enigmatic set of lyrics that I've always felt to be the definitive statement on the complexity of the human condition. A glowing description, I know; but seriously, just listen to it already and tell me I'm not on to something. When so much of this album is so intriguing and nothing short of a treat for the ears, singling out best songs seems rather unnecessary. 

What I Didn't Like:
There's so little, but in a few spots, anarchy seems a bit dominant; see 'A Big Fan Of The Pigpen', 'Her Psychology Today', and the slide whistle (or something) that disrupts 'Demons Are Real'. Besides that, things that would detract from the sound for almost any other band manage to add to the charm of this disc, as I described above. It's very counterintuitive.

In Conclusion:
Look, it's high on lists of great albums for a reason. The title of this post uses lyrics from 'I Am A Scientist' because I couldn't think of anything more fitting. It's a fantastic listen, and unless you end up with more than one GBV album in your possession, you'll never hear anything like it. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should hear this once. 

One year later, GBV found themselves in a contract with Matador Records for the follow-up to Bee Thousand. With the lineup consisting primarily of Pollard, Sprout, and Fennel, and partially of Demos, Mitchell, Toohey, Jim Pollard, Larry Keller, Gary Phillips and (future rock critic) Jim Greer, the band (such as it was!) delivered Alien Lanes, a more consistent record with a little bit more to chew on - both in length and depth of ideas. Greer would report in his GBV biography that the advance Matador gave the band was close to the six-figure mark, while the cost to actually record Alien Lanes was about ten bucks (beer doesn't count). So how does $99,990 worth of PBR sound What do I think of it? Read on! For reference, this is the Matador 20th anniversary release, and I suspect it may now be out of print.

What I Liked:
Still utilizing the same weatherbeaten sound, GBV puts out a record with more consistency, and Robert Pollard brings his songwriting to a more mature and complex level with this album - as far as iI know, none of these recordings are rescued from ten-year-old tapes; Alien Lanes was the first major GBV album to be recorded in one go. And I mean that literally - most of GBV's tracks are first or second takes. One of the advantages of this approach is that earnest undercurrent that much of their best material possesses. Moving from Bee Thousand to Alien Lanes, the boys bring out a blend of harder rock and far more jangly power pop that's unmistakable. It's probably best exemplified by 'Motor Away', the hard-rocking super-upbeat linchpin of the album; immediately preceding is 'Auditorium', which presents a nice lead-in and the change between the two is delightful mood whiplash. 'Blimps Go 90', 'Closer You Are', 'A Good Flying Bird' and probably 'Little Whirl' are some of the most pleasant pop gems I've ever heard - perhaps a bit fluffy, but decidedly nice. The epic 'King And Caroline' and loomingly martial 'Striped White Jets' provide some depth and danger. Meanwhile, 'Game Of Pricks' and 'My Valuable Hunting Knife' hits some of the relatability and vulnerability of 'I Am A Scientist' on the last disc. Pollard begins to assemble a real collection of mature and insightful lyrics. Opener 'A Salty Salute' and closing quasi-instrumental 'Alright' make nice bookends for the experience with very similar sounds (and the former being a legit tribute to the drunks of the world!). It's certainly the equal of Bee Thousand, and taking the two together is probably the best introduction to GBV possible.

What I Didn't Like:
'They're Not Witches' and "Chicken Blows' don't sound finished (always a danger with GBV) and 'The Ugly Vision' (how apt) sounds too slow for this disc. And the two real shorties, 'Hit' and 'Gold Hick' are both rather bizarre, even thought they're listenable. Oh, and whoever slept through 'Ex-Supermodel' should drink more coffee.

In Conclusion:
A second fantastic album from the Dayton boys and a most worthy follow-up to Bee Thousand. If you're going to listen to one, there's no reason not to hear the other. What more can I say about Alien Lanes that I haven't already said about Bee Thousand?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Turns People Into Clay, Radiation Minds Decay

So I've been looking for an apartment lately. Not with much seriousness, as I'm not exactly well-employed enough to merit finally moving out, but I'm trying to keep my eye on the field and see what's available for what price. To that end, I picked up one of those rental guide magazines they give away for free at the grocery store. Naturally, most of them turned out to be amenity-laden high-end properties that I will not likely afford anytime soon. Even so, one of them stood out to me. Can you spot the reason?

Note: I've removed their contact info being that this is not a commercial blog, it's just for my own fun. It shouldn't be hard to Google them if you're really interested in living there. Except Cranberry is kinda lame, to be honest.

So didja find it yet?


Hint: look under the amenities section.

Yep, you read that right. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

I Felt The Pressure In A TV Way

I have what I consider to be a major quirk. I have this irritating craving to hear the ending of every story I run across on television. And I don't like it.

Eat your heart out, Ned's Atomic Dustbin

Here's why: most of what I bumble into, on the sliding scale of depressing to clever, tends to sit on the depressing side (e.g. Law & Order SVU, the various CSIs, Blue Bloods and NCIS are interesting but occasionally go there) and I just can't take much of that without it affecting me. It's really best if I avoid it altogether. It's like vodka in a plastic bottle. You know there's nothing good there, it's not going to leave you feeling any better; but, y'know, it sure is an EXPERIENCE. Yeah. (Spoiler Alert: it's not gluten free either.)

Somehow I've noticed that television is a bigger culprit than movies. Something about the neat one-hour format is both somewhat predictable and simply too neat and tidy for me. Movies (if not edited for time, content and formatted to fit your TV) tend to leave such things more flexible. It might be due to this fact that the scraps of the Jason Bourne movies I've seen seem comparatively more interesting despite only seeing bits on WGN here and there. With a TV show, I can tell if Grissom or Gibbs or 21st-Century-Holmes-And-Watson-Played-By-The-Always-Attractive-Lucy-Liu really have the suspect cornered by looking at the clock. Movie? Fuck me, I lose track of time when I don't have commercials at regular intervals. And that's a good thing.

I wonder if the fact that there's more freedom to choose precisely what you want to watch when selecting a movie over plopping down for a TV episode that's effectively been selected for you makes any difference in how I feel about it. (I mean, for years we've all been told - yes, you too - abut what junk TV beams into our homes, and I tend to agree in general. The cadmium age of reality television pretty much codified that for me.) And that's actually another thing: I get tired of murder for after dinner every night. Murder in a movie doesn't bother me near so much. A good murder mystery movie - like one of my personal favorites, the 1974 Murder On The Orient Express - is a complete experience, something to set aside a serious chunk of time to enjoy, experience, and savor. What use is a meal without SOMETHING to chew on? There's always a loose thread, something that just gnaws at you. And sometimes that thread turns out to be a descending whip - a plot twist that breaks everything you thought you knew to be reliable and solid. Hitchcock knew. Every movie of his has something to make you want to see the next scene. Commercial breaks utterly spoil the flow of a theatrical movie; TV shows are made with them in mind. They are in effect pre-spoiled for your convenience (I love this turn of phrase. Sorry if I overuse it in real life).* I've always felt that having to work around commercials somehow makes the work compromised; kills the flow, forces shortcuts, makes it easy to slouch into routines defined by those very breaks and just become the dreaded phone-in that everyone loses interest in.

I think another thing that contributes is the need for closure. Since the beginning of time, humans have yearned to have their questions answered. How many people went off to war, or to find work, or whatever, and simply disappeared from the lives of their families, never to return? Not even with the grim uncertainty of being recorded as missing in action? No grave, not so much as a sliver of evidence they were there besides fallible memory? Sure, that may not have been the same relationship as it is today; but even so, any emotional connection would lead one to wonder just what happened. If a TV show can get just one hook into your reserve of emotional interest, of course it's going to drive you to find out. If a writer and an actor and a production team can distill an emotional connection with a face on a TV screen to a strength addictive enough that just ten seconds of NTSB-delivered presence can drag you in front of the screen by the feels and keep you there; there's obviously something inside you that's been prepared, over the course of human history, to respond, to follow along. It's a part of you, if you're not a sociopath (y'know, like the villains-of-the-weeks on Criminal Minds, especially).

Another thing is that with SO MUCH screen time devoted to finding the murderer within an hour(ish); you know, you just know that somewhere along the line, plots are going to be reused. Maybe not by the same shows, or even on the same network, but eventually, some writer is going to stumble on a used idea. A good writer should be able to use it in a unique way, or at least put their own unique stamp on it; but some core element is going to turn out to be suspiciously similar to one previously aired. At least South Park once pointed out that The Simpsons already did it all. Which, ironically, was kind of original, actually.

I think if less time were devoted to murder and ugly street crime (something many of us tune in to fiction for an escape from [and not counting alleged 'reality' TV, either, which is pretty ugly too]) I'd be more inclined to tune in; I actually miss Letterman, Leno, and Ferguson, for one thing (who'd a'thunk?). Sitcoms don't usually do much for me; Britcoms are preferable, actually. Original and interesting stand-up comedy may have died with Mitch Hedberg, unfortunately. And British sketch comedy is far better than what passes for the American variety these days - even old British sketch comedy. Canadian isn't too shabby, though. At least even Lost managed to contain enough of an element of mystery to keep people talking about it. Game Of Thrones? The Shanarra series now on (really?) MTV? I'll just take the original novels, thanks.

I know I've written some bite-size diatribes against television before; but that was typically in offense against some specific piece of televised waste. Not this time. I'm finally declaring to the world that I am officially done with broadcast and cable television. I just can't fucking tolerate it anymore. Paul Graham recently wrote that anything you find yourself saying that life is too short to contain, you should fucking jettison (paraphrased).

TV, consider yourself by-and-large jettisoned from my life. It was already too short for you once I stopped watching Shining Time Station and Walker, Texas Ranger. Politely fuck off.

* I should clarify that my dislike of commercials is not part of some diatribe against consumerism; rather it's because I find them personally irritating. Imagine if your TV suddenly got zits one day. I'm certainly no anti-capitalist; I just exult in the fact that the Information Age makes it possible to seek out the products one wants with far more... interactive interaction. Or maybe with more agency on the part of the customer. Something like that.

Sunday, March 6, 2016