Saturday, September 13, 2014

(Hum Beethoven's Fifth Symphony While You Read This)

Who else has seen The Longest Day? Possibly my favorite movie set in the Second World War, it tells the improbable tale of the Allied landings on the Normandy beaches, beginning the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.

One of the plot elements of the movie, and which was a real operation by the Allies through the BBC, was the broadcasting of secret messages to French Resistance groups behind the lines. The messages were nonsense in and of themselves, but to the Resistance fighters, they were the go signal for prearranged operations against the German occupiers.

Even today, it is suspected that the so-called 'numbers stations' heard around the world on odd frequencies and seemingly broadcasting nonsense or otherwise incomprehensible content are actually a way for governments to broadcast instructions to spies and other operatives around the world.

Last week's City Paper (you know, the one they can't give away) featured a cover story on Dock Ellis, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who, reputedly and infamously, threw a no-hitter against San Diego while under the influence of LSD. But it also contained a regular horoscope feature, and this is a selection from the Leo entry (my sign, of course, he said in a leonine fashion... and nobody was amused).
"...I surmise that you are now in a position to launch a project that could follow a similar arc. It would be more modest, of course. I don't foresee you ultimately becoming an international corporation worth billions of dollars. But the success would be bigger than I think you can imagine."
First off, no (stereotypical) Leo would have much of an ear for being told that the chance to be kinda-sorta neato, in a small way is not to be passed up - the sign is named for the traditional king of beasts, after all. But also, who, me? Maybe it's just me not paying attention, but nothing's coming to me as far as project ideas. And even though the past few weeks has seen readership on the blog mysteriously explode, this would be a project already started. I don't understand what this is telling me. Surely there's someone else who could capitalize on this surely timely advice.

Maybe, though, that's the key. Maybe the arcane advice of a daily horoscope is somehow akin to the signals broadcast to alert the patriots of France that their liberation was about to begin; there are messages being sent to everyone, but only the right people will react to them - in the right time, and in the right way.

It makes sense to me.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Thousand Miles Away From Home, Waiting For A Train

Something for my railfan readers.

This video is a wonderful color record of some impressive steam-era scenes. The list of roadnames is pretty impressive, actually. There's a couple of rare shots of streamlined steam on New Haven and Southern Pacific, a great look into what the freight cars of the 1940's looked like, and more than a few streamlined passenger cars behind non-streamlined steam. Possibly the best treat is the decidedly rare footage (I have heard of none aside from this film) of a Bessemer & Lake Erie 2-10-4 working on the north end of the railroad. I'm certain one scene takes place on the Hogback - the steep grade away from the Lake Erie shores.

Also, just for the hell of it, is the Delaware & Hudson's ALCo PA's on a passenger train. Thanks to Russ Monroe Jr. for this footage. 

Okay, what the heck. Here's a compilation of early Conrail scenes shot on Horseshoe Curve. 

All right, one more. Here's an audial guide to the whistles of the East Broad Top's locomotives. Watch out for #17! 

(Also, when I get my smartphone, #17 will be my unique ringtone for Ray.)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

I'm Packing My Bags For The Misty Mountains

As of late I've been obsessively re-reading The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion. While beginning The Fellowship Of The Ring, I noticed a line that seemed out of place for Tolkien. It occurs during Bilbo's birthday party, in describing one of Gandalf's fireworks:
"Out flew a red-golden dragon - not life-size, but terribly life-like: fire came from his jaws, his eyes glared down; there was a roar, and he whizzed three times over the heads of the crowd. They all ducked, and many fell flat on their faces. The dragon passed like an express train, turned a somersault, and burst over Bywater with a deafening explosion."
As far as I can recall, this is the only simile Tolkien uses of an anachronistic nature. Whenever I read the line, it draws me out of the story ever so slightly, but it's not that big a quibble.

However, I'm not so excited about seeing the final installment of the Hobbit movies as the above may indicate. I was by and large pleased with An Unexpected Journey. At the time, my opinion on the changes made to the story were largely favorable.

One change in the overall story made this chapter for me: the flashback to the battle with Azog before the gates of Moria and the origin of Thorin's surname of Oakenshield. It's not in The Hobbit; rather, it's additional material included in the appendices to Lord Of The Rings, which are included after the conclusion in Return Of The King. Scenes of Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel debating their courses of action against The Necromancer - they make up the 'White Council' mentioned in Rings - helped give some sense of the epic scope of Tolkien's legendarium and linked the two trilogies. Bilbo's riddle game with Gollum was well and truly done. There was one pair of riddles exchanged that wasn't in the movie, but the omission seems to have harmed the movie little if at all.

I'll admit that the appearance of Radagast in both movies was a little bit on the goofy side, even though his introduction is also a setup for The Necromancer and the perils of Mirkwood. I guess I was also mostly comfortable with the addition of Azog as an additional antagonist pursuing Thorin and his companions, and I had figured that The Desolation Of Smaug would treat the story just as well. I wasn't as impressed.

One of the things that I missed was the introduction of the dwarves (as well as the wizard and hobbit) to Beorn. I liked how, in the original novel, Gandalf uses a clever tactic to open Beorn up to aiding the party. Instead of introducing everyone at once, Gandalf and Bilbo begin the introductions; and they continue with the dwarves coming two at a time, intentionally interrupting Gandalf's tale of their journey so far. This effectively keeps Beorn on the edge of his seat, and gradually opens up the idea of helping out so many of them. It also demonstrates Gandalf's wits to complement his wizardry, and that's why it's one of my own favorite events in the tale. That said, I was impressed with Gandalf's investigation into the return of Sauron, right until the reveal - and the somewhat cheesy Eye manifestation. Cutting that down to just a foreboding flash would have been less annoying and a bit more startling.

Also, one of my obsessive re-readings of Return Of The King took me into the appendices again. I was reminded that at the end of the battle before Moria, when Azog was defeated, he was beheaded by Dain Ironfoot - the same character that leads the dwarves in the Battle Of Five Armies - and his head placed on a pike before the gates. To a purist fan, the addition of Azog to the story involves an act of narrative necromancy (ironically enough) and would likely end up grating. I'm kind of unhappy with it myself. Since Bolg, alleged son of Azog, is the orc captain in the climactic battle, the writers could have used him instead. Revenge would not be an unreasonable motive for the crooked goblins of Middle-Earth.

I was interested by the glimpse we get of Bard - a well-rounded family man - and I was intrigued by the reinterpretation of the 'black arrow' as a bow-fired artillery dart instead of a typical arrow. That said, one of the most important parts of the climax, ostensibly to be seen in The Battle Of The Five Armies, is Bard's downing of Smaug. The plot thread of the hole in Smaug's gold-encrusted underbelly,  Bilbo's discovery of this fatal weakness, and the eavesdropping thrush passing the information to Bard at his last stand is supposed to be a key part of it. I guess this isn't necessary, with the apparent change to one loose scale in his hide as Smaug's weak point. The idea of a dragon who is wise to his one weakness - his soft underbelly - and does something about it - lying on the hoard so that the treasure embeds itself into his skin - is such a fantastical element and a treat for the imagination. I cannot fathom why nothing was made of it at all.

The two gripes I have that stick the hardest are the subplots concerning the elves and the social unrest in Esgaroth, and the overblown 'battle' between the dwarves and Smaug. To me, the subplots are unnecessary and therefore distracting. While I had expected a likely appearance by Legolas to visually connect the two trilogies, I wasn't enthralled by the Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle. It simply felt like it didn't belong. Just a glimpse into Thranduil's realm would have been enough. That's all we get in the book. And we didn't need to see the spectre of class envy dragged into Esgaroth. It was all unnecessary talk, and added nothing to the core story, the one I paid nine bucks to see. The 'battle' was too implausible, even for a fantasy story; and it dragged on, no pun intended.

None of these additions came from Tolkien-authored source material, as far as I know. And Tolkien's story is what I'm missing. Somehow, Peter Jackson forgot how he made The Lord Of The Rings, and it shows in the prequel trilogy. I would have been happy with two movies, with truer additions and interpretations, and less fanfiction. So, yeah, maybe when this winter comes and the last movie comes out, I'll stay home and read the book instead. I'm sorely tempted to do so.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Song I Sing For You, Is My Message Getting Through?

A couple of my vinyl finds, bought sight-unseen, as it were, were the self-titled LP British Lions and the No One Sleeps When I'm Awake 7" from The Sounds. I also got off my butt and got ahold of Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside's The Untamed Beast LP after a year of listening to 'Party Kids'. We'll take a look at each of these today.

A brief word on our 7": 'No One Sleeps When I'm Awake' is an interesting, and very polished pop-punk track with a Blondie-like sound, albeit harder edged. The B-side is a live track, and shows that the group has the same chops onstage. I think they'd be a worthy listen. Must do research. 

Apparently this is the remainder of Mott The Hoople after the departure of Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson! Morgan Fisher, Pete Watts and Dale Griffin remained, adding Ray Major (of Opal Butterfly) and John Fiddler (of Medicine Head). They put together this self-titled debut and a sophomore effort titled Trouble With Women and split up after neither album performed at all. The 1978 self-titled release came into my possession thanks to the bargain basement at Jerry's Records (no, seriously). 

What I Liked:
They have energy and fair chops, rock-wise; there are riffs and solos, and it doesn't offend through ineptness, but it settles for competence when it should push for more. John Fiddler has a good voice for hard rock, and it's a shame he didn't seem to go further as a hard rock vocalist. Some songs show flashes of prog rock, but there are still pop hooks in between - sometimes too many in one song though. At best, you could call them generic rock. Best songs: 'One More Chance To Run'; the mostly restrained 'Break This Fool'; debatably, 'Fork Talking Man' and 'Booster'. 

What I Didn't Like:
One of their core problems (and I'm not the only one who has said this) is that they couldn't decide whether to be glam rock (after the subgenre's demise), or go all out on the current hard rock sound. Their sound is in the middle; it's half-hearted in both directions, it can't tell what it really wants to be, it's an average instead of a synergy. As such, it's powerful, but not enough; but it's also showy, and still not enough. The songwriting, though not truly terrible has some awkward or lackluster moments. 'Wild In The Streets' is probably the best example of this dichotomy; a solid verse, but a cheesy chorus, and a disco beat beneath it all. The songs 'International Heroes' and 'My Life's In Your Hands' begin to sound overwrought and perhaps a bit hammy, the latter featuring an obnoxious repeating fill near the end of the song. The saddest example is the album closer 'Eat The Rich', a leaden-riffed social commentary that just sounds preachy and trite. It's Neil Young's 'Welfare Mothers' all over again, without Neil's star power. 

In Conclusion:
If I didn't have such a soft spot for anything rock, this would have ended up in front of Dave's for free. But it's not a total washout, and for those who might feel the same way, you might want to see if any of it's on YouTube and see if you like it before tracking it down. In a word, I would call them listenable, but not very interesting

Now sadly split at the time of this review, Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside present a brash but well-crafted slice of solidly 60's-sounding rock and roll and pop. The single 'Party Kids' seems to have done well, and even made it to Pittsburgh's 91.3 WYEP. It's kind of strange, and somewhat sad to me, that they've called it quits. Ford herself has since found a new backing band, although it remains to be seen whether bassist Tyler Tornfelt, guitarist Jeff Munger, and drummer Ford Tennis will continue to perform after the split.

What I Liked:
A bluesy, twangy first single? Everything about their song 'Party Kids' is everything they do right. Ford's sweetly brassy voice has both swagger and sex appeal here; either Ford or Munger is responsible for that meat-hook of a riff and I want to hug them for it; the 'big beat' behind everything ties it all together nicely; and it's a truly classic song in every sense. The group shines when following this formula. Outside of this, Ford's voice, while not perfectly versatile, can do sensitive and soulful; see 'Shivers'. Perfect fluency in rockabilly and over-the-top early R&B seem to be the main draw for the band's fans, and I've always liked Best songs: 'They Told Me'; 'Party Kids'; 'Shivers'; and I'll throw in 'Do Me Right' for the perfect 50's popabilly sound.

What I Didn't Like:
Some of the songwriting and arranging gets a bit schmaltzy; see the faux New Orleans jazz outro on 'Addicted'. A few songs, and a few lines in some songs, can feel rushed and don't give Ford's voice the space it needs to do its thing. 'Rockability' is guilty of this (in addition to having Ford howl and yip at times, which I find off-putting). Album closer 'Roll Around' is a clunky and out-of-place acoustic number that should sound soulful and nostalgic, but it's too much Sallie and not enough everyone else.

In Conclusion:
I'm behind this album all the way, despite a few shortcomings. If you want a classy and classic sound, I would eagerly recommend The Untamed Beast.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

One Wound Up Punch Of Intuition

Somehow, I always find myself down here. I don't think I've ever understood why and I'm not sure it's that important.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Smoking An Enormous Long Wooden Pipe

You don't have to listen to the entire ten minutes of the song. It's some really whacked-out, far-out-there doom metal; and as such, probably isn't for everybody. Even so, I like this band. From Electric Wizard's 1995 self-titled debut, and sharing the band's name as well, this track has a very interesting voiceover at the very end. If you skip to the last twenty or so seconds of the video, a deep voice will speak the line 'smoking an enormous long wooden pipe'. 

My friend Sam, who is obsessed with metal music of all kinds, turned me on to this group. His copy of the album seems to have the line as a separate track, simply titled 'Wooden Pipe'; but I couldn't find it by itself for some reason. All the videos available on YouTube have it appended to 'Electric Wizard', as above. When we first played it at the Shed, we actually thought the line was 'smoking an enormous large wooden pipe'. I don't think that's correct. 

It actually seems to be taken, word for word, from a line at the very beginning of The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins is relaxing outside and having a smoke:
"...and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast smoking an enormous long wooden pipe that reached nearly down to his wooly toes (neatly brushed) - Gandalf came by. Gandalf! If you had heard only a quarter of what I had heard about him..."
It never quite sounded like 'large' to me, and after making the connection, I'm certain that Jus Osborn, author of the band's debut, has some soft spot for The Hobbit, at the very least.

As an aside, a number of people I know have told me that what's being smoked in all of Middle-Earth is marijuana. No. Stop. It's not, and by that statement I know that you've never read all of The Lord Of The Rings; in the preface to The Fellowship Of The Ring, it's made quite clear that 'pipe-weed' is a close relative of tobacco. Stop it.

Also, that video is fuckin' weird. Good song though.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Snapshot Image Froze Without A Sound

As an aside, I should explain something about my photography approach in case I end up posting photos focused on people.

I'm used to photographing trains.

There's no way to pose a moving freight train exactly where you want it; it's more of a challenge of geography and timing and initiative. It's what I call the 'shoot what's really there' approach, with the resulting documentary atmosphere. No preparation, no touch-up, not even clearing the weeds, Lance. As soon as an interesting subject is found, I shoot as I find and move on. I also have a preoccupation with taking a good image, regardless of subject.

As a result, I suck at photographing people. I find myself trying to take the same approach as I do in railfan photography, and I top out at the level of candid photographs. I end up freezing their image as they are, rather than when they're ready to present themselves. There's not much preparation that twenty thousand tons of steel and cargo moving at fifty miles per hour can do to 'smile for the camera', in comparison. Taking photos in this manner could be off-putting for some people, I've since realized. It might be that my method presumes a familiarity with the people in the viewfinder that I may not really have, catching them in such casual (perhaps intimate?) moments.

It reminds one of the stories of African tribespeople who thought that a photo taken of them would steal part of their soul. Maybe there's something to that.