Monday, July 27, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Zygolophodon

The mastadon Zygolophodon is the largest known member of the elephant family (Proboscidea). It had widespread distribution, as fossils of Zygolophodon have been found in North America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. With an estimated height of between 11-12 feet, it was actually only slightly larger than a modern African elephant. Strangely, Zygolophodon had bizarrely over-sized tusks were approximately just as long as their actual body. But, this genus survived for over twenty million years (28 - 2.4 MA), so it doesn't seem to have been a problem. Maybe those comically gigantic tusks were something of an asset.

Zygolophodon tapiroides tusks excavated in Greece (Kadamid, wikipedia)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

How to Build a Primate Tooth I: Reptilian orgins

Primates have highly complex and fascinating teeth. The unique morphology of primate dentition tells a story that began hundreds of millions of years ago and continues to this day. In order to understand what makes a primate tooth so unique we need to begin by looking at the structural platform upon which it evolved. This means turning back the clock all the way to the Paleozoic era and taking a look at the reptilian and reptile-like ancestors of the mammals. We'll see that although the shape of mammal dentition can vary considerably, there are morphological aspects which are unified by their shared common ancestry.

An early pelycosaur, Dimetrodon. Although this species does
exhibit some size variation in its dentition, all of the teeth
have an extremely similar shape. There are no  incisors,
canines, premolars, or molars (Romer and Price, 1940).
All land dwelling vertebrates can be placed into one of three groups: anapsids (turtles), diapsids (birds and reptiles), and synapsids (mammals and closely related animals). The earliest synapsids, known Pelycosaurs, appear in the fossil record approximately 295 million years ago. Although ancestral to mammals, Pelycosaurs looked far more reptile-like than mammalian.

Much like modern reptiles, pelycosaurs had simple peg-like teeth with a single pointy cusp. Both ancient and modern reptiles are homodonts, meaning all their teeth look more or less the same in size and shape. In contrast, nearly all mammals are heterodonts, which means their teeth vary greatly in size and shape and they can be organized into distinct categories (incisors, canines, premolars, and molars).

By 275 million years ago, the pelycosaurs have given way to a new group of reptile-like mammals known as the therapsids. The therapsids were a widespread group which survived alongside the dinosaurs throughout the Mesozoic era. Among the therapsids, one particular clade, theriodonts (which roughly translates to "beast tooth"), evolved large canine teeth that could be easily distinguished from the rest of their dentition. Premolars and molars, however, were still largely undefined. However, by the middle Mesozoic era, one particular group of theriodonts, the Cynodonts, began had to evolve post-canine that were used for shearing and grinding food.

A triassic theriodont, Cynognathus craterodontus, exhibits the beginnings mammalian differentiation
 (photo via The Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution).
By the late Triassic, roughly 210 years ago, we begin to see animals which more closely resemble modern  mammals. These animals, known as Morganucondonta are typically considered to be the common ancestor of the modern mammal groups: Eutheria (placental mammals), Metatheria (marsupials), and Prototheria (monotremes). Morganucondonta had primitive premolars and molars
and gave rise to what are referred to today as the Triconodonts (or Eutriconodonta).

The Tricondonts derive their name from their triangular molar patterns. The upper molars exhibit a triangular shape known as the trigon which consists of three distinct cusps: the paracone, the protocone, and the metacone. Similarly, the lower molars evolved a similar triangular pattern, known as the trigonid, which consists of three matching cusps: paraconid, protoconid, and metaconid. These triangular cusp patterns form the basic underlying structure of all living mammal molars. In the next edition of How to Build a Primate Tooth I'll take a closer look at these structures and their subsequent evolution as it relates to the cusp morphology of primates.

Jeholodens jenkinsi, a triconodont from the late Jurassic/early Cretaceous (Qiang et al., 2009)

An interesting side note is that alongside these changes in dentition we also see dramatic changes in the underlying structure of the cranial bones themselves. Three of the bones that once made up parts of the mandible became very reduced in size and migrated posteriorly. Today, these bones known as the incus, malleus, and stapes make up the inner ear bones of all mammals.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Neil Young - Dead Man (1996)

Producer: Neil Young, John Hanlon
Release date: February 27, 1996
Track listing: Guitar Solo No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and Organ Solo
Musician: Neil Young (guitar, organ)

The soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch's 1995 film Dead Man primarily consists of Neil Young playing guitar solos interspliced with clips of dialog from the movie. It's a good soundtrack and it fits the movie well, but spending a week listening to this album can become a bit tedious to say the least. I wouldn't recommend rushing out and buying this record anytime soon. The soundtrack to Dead Man is best enjoyed within the film itself.

The recording process behind this album was rather simple. Neil Young just sat in a chair and played guitar as he watched the film. Oh yes, and he also played a little bit of organ in one scene too. The producer on this album is John Hanlon, the long time engineer comrade of the late David Briggs.

Alas, perhaps you are asking why I would even cover such an album for a full week. After all I subjugated Journey Through the Past, Decade, El Dorado, Lucky Thirteen, and Arc to confines of the side notes. I'm gonna go with the fact that Dead Man is a full length and contains all previously unreleased material.

It's a short one this week, but I don't have much to say except go watch Dead Man if you've never seen it. Oh yeah, if you're in Toronto, there's a Neil Young film festival happening at the Royal Cinema this weekend. I saw Journey Through the Past last night, I'm heading off to watch Rust Never Sleeps this afternoon, and I think I'll go see Greendale tomorrow.

Next Week:

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Broken Arrow (1996)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Back to the Fossils

Anaptomorphus (illustration by Arnold William Hubrecht)
It's difficult to say exactly when the first primates evolved because it's difficult to determine exactly what constitutes the first primate. Purgatorius was small mammalian creature that lived approximately 66 million years ago in what is now present day Montana. Although, not typically considered a "true primate" (aka euprimate), Purgatorius is thought to represent something akin to the the last common ancestor of primates and an early primate-like order of mammals known as Plesiadapiforms. The first family of mammals which nearly all paleontologists agree are true mammals are the Omomyids, the earliest of which are roughly 55 million years old.

The Omomyidae were a widespread group that existed for nearly 20 million years and lived across North America, Europe, and Asia. Many of the features which have been used to determine the phylogenetic position of these mammals are dental characteristics. Very broadly these charactersitics include a shortened dental arcade, loss of anterior premolars, and molars which are adapted for insectivorous or frugivorous diets.

By looking at the teeth of omomyids as well as other fossil species and extant  primates paleontologists have been able to reconstruct a very detailed history of of the morphological changes which have occurred over the past 50 million odd years of primate evolution. Dentition allow us to tell primate families apart and which species are closely related. Teeth provide insight into past diet, behaviour, environment, and the nature of evolution itself. In addition to this teeth tend to be preserved better in the fossil record as they are made from enamel, which is harder and more durable material the bone.

Over the next few days I plan to take a look at the origins of primate dentition. We'll see what sets primates apart from other mammals, what easily identifiable traits distinguish major groups like strepsirrhines, catarrhines, and platyrrhines.

That's right, it's time for Live Like Dirt to kick back into top gear again and what better way to start another series (How to Build A Primate Tooth). I'm also planning to continue my long running and seemingly never ending spiels about the Origins of New World Monkeys. And I have a lot to say about Miocene apes and pliopithecoids. Oh yeah, there's lots of new exciting news about Australopithecus that I'm currently reading about too. But don't worry, there's still be plenty of Neil Young articles to come, it's just time I started writing about evolution, primates, and fossils again on a more regular basis. I hope all my newly acquired Neil Young fanatics will enjoy these posts too. Yeehaw! Let's go.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Neil Young & Pearl Jam - Mirrorball (1995)

Release date: June 27, 1995
Producer: Brendan O'Brien
Track listing: Song X, Act of Love, I'm the Ocean, Big Green Country, Truth Be Known, Downtown, What Happened Yesterday, Peace and Love, Throw Your Hatred Down, Scenery, Fallen  Angel
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, pump organ), Stone Gossard (electric guitar), Mike McCready (electric guitar), Jeff Ament (bass), Jack Irons (drums), Eddie Vedder (vocals on "Peace and Love", background vocals), Brendan O'Brien (electric guitar, piano, background vocals).

In the spring of 1995 Neil Young headed to Bad Animal studios in Seattle, Washington to record with Pearl Jam. The result was Mirrorball, an eleven song album which was recorded over our days. Prior to arriving in Seattle Neil had only written two songs. The rest of the material was written by Neil and bashed out by Pearl Jam in the studio. All tracks were recorded live and Brendan O'Brien was given full control over production.

At first listen it might seem that "Song X" is an odd choice for an opening song. It's a slow, somewhat dronish song, and lacks the energy of much of the rest of the album. But, as it was one of the only songs Neil had written in advance it's actually the best place to start. You hear the sound of someone putting their patch cable into their guitar over top of another person talking in the background. This is quickly blotted out by Neil's opening guitar riff and the band follows suit. We hear the heavy hitting drums of Jack Irons and the fretless bass of Jeff Ament. As the song builds you can begin to distinguish between the three guitars of Neil, Stone Gossard, and Mike McCready. This is where the album starts because this is where the album started.

Similarly, "Act of Love" comes second, being the only other song Neil had written in advance. Here the three guitar attack of Neil, Stone, and Mike continues to grow and develop, the song is faster, the leads (both in the foreground and background) more pronounced. By the time they reach the third song, "I'm the Ocean" both Neil and Pearl Jam are fully awake and firing on all cylinders.

When I told people that this week's Neil Young record was Mirrorball, nearly everyone said to me something like, "Oh man, 'I'm the Ocean' is such an awesome song." I couldn't agree more. From the opening guitar riff  the pure energy of this song is almost overwhelming. At a length of 7 minutes it's also the second longest song on the album. One might expect to hear Neil play some extended guitar solo, or perhaps trade off solos with Stone and Mike, but it's not the music that makes this song so long. It's the words. And such incredible words. I could comment on them, or you could just go listen to the song again and enjoy them on their own. I suggest you do that right now.

"I'm the Ocean" is such an amazing song it's easy not to notice that following song "Big Green Country" is also a great song. As is the rest of this album. From rockers like "Throw Your Hatred Down" to to mid paced jams like "Scenery" and even the two solo organ tracks "What Happened Yesterday" and "Fallen Angel", Mirrorball captures a raw, immediate moment in both the careers of Neil and Pearl Jam. I'm very glad they took the four days they needed to make this album (no little or no more).

I should probably mention that during the same recording session Pearl Jam also recorded a two song companion EP called Merkinball which featured Neil backing up Pearl Jam on guitar and pump organ. It's definitely worth a listen if you've never checked it out.

The only song I'm not a fan of on this album is "Downtown". It's far too generic for both Neil and Pearl Jam. Over the past twenty years it's grown increasingly annoying to me. I place in the same category as songs like Joan Jett's "I love rock and roll". That is, songs I'm okay with never hearing again before I die because I've heard them too much already and they are completely devoid substance (please do not misconstrue this as an attack against Joan Jett. I love Joan Jett, I just hate that song, and if you're a good person you do too).

Although Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder doesn't appear much on this album, he did co-write the song "Peace and Love" with Neil. Vedder contributes some lead vocals on that track and background vocals on a few others. But, I think the real star of this album is Jack Irons. During the 1990s Pearl Jam shuffled through a number of drummers before settling on ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron in 1998. Mirrorball was recorded during the four year period which featured ex-Red Hot Chilli Pepper Jack Irons on drums. I love Jack Irons drumming, and reportedly Neil did too, saying "[Jack] was unbelievable. He played his ass off on every take at every session. I can't say enough good things about him."

I found myself a lot of different moods and states of mind while listening to this album this week. Some happy, some sad, some nostalgic, some nihilistic, some hopeful. It's great when you find a soundtrack for your brain, even if it only lasts a week.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Dead Man (1996)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Ouranopithecus

Ouranopithecus macedoniensis was a large bodied ape that lived in Greece during the late Miocene. It is believed to be a member of the Dryopithecini tribe, the group of apes that dominated much of Europe during the middle and late Miocene. Some researchers have suggested that Ouranopithecus may even be ancestral to Pliocene hominids from Africa, most notably Australopithecus. If this is correct it means that Ouranopithecus could also be an ancestor of our own species, Homo sapiens.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Sleeps With Angels (1994)

Release date: August 16, 1994
Producers: David Briggs, Neil Young
Songs: My Heart, Prime of Life, Driveby, Sleeps with Angels, Western Hero, Change Your Mind, Blue Eden, Safeway Cart, Train of Love, Trans Am, Piece of Crap, A Dream That Can Last
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, tack piano, accordion, flute, harmonica), Poncho Sampedro (guitar, grand piano, electric piano, keyboards, bass marimba, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vibes, bass marimba, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals).

In April of 1994 Kurt Cobain killed himself at his home in Seattle, Washington. In his suicide note he wrote "I don't have the passion anymore, and so remember, it's better to burn out than to fade away." As Neil fans will know these words are borrowed from Neil's song "Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black)".

When news of Cobain's death reached Neil he was in the studio putting the finishing touches on a new album with long time producer David Briggs. Originally, the album was intended to be a sort of return to After the Goldrush, being largely driven by piano and acoustic guitar. After hearing of the suicide and the note he called Crazy Horse back into the studio to record a batch of new songs They were the type of heavy electrified distorted songs only Crazy Horse could play. Suddenly, the homage to After the Goldrush began to resemble an album more similar to Tonight's the Night; dark, improvisational, and mired in death.

In his 2012 autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, Neil wrote, "When he died and left that note, it struck a chord deep inside of me. It fucked with me." From the opening tack piano notes of "My Heart" you can hear this. There's an uneven, disrupted feeling that permeates this album. It comes through most strongly in Neil's guitar playing, particularly on the songs "Prime of Life", "Change Your Mind", and "Sleeps with Angels". Neil isn't playing the kind of long thoughtful guitar leads we've heard on past songs like "Cortez the Killer" or "Country Home". This time the guitar is more jarred, stopping and starting, building and destroying itself. It captures Neil at a very raw moment, he's working these sounds out second by second, completely playing in the moment.

Contrasting against these sounds are Neil's lyrics. With a few exceptions, perhaps most notably the title track, they aren't negative, pessimistic, or depressing. Instead Neil is singing about the joy of being alive and experiencing the world, stories about old heroes, and hope for the future. It's as though the music is taking Neil in one mental state and the lyrics are used a defense to pull him back out.

Beyond this there are other interesting and unique concepts at play on this record. Two songs, "Western Hero" and "Train of Love" are essentially the same song, just using a slightly different arrangement and different lyrics. Similarly, "Blue Eden" uses similar lyrical phrasing to "Change Your Mind" but with completely different music. It's as though the first half of the album is influencing and bleeding into the second half of album.

I remember first buying this album sometime in the late summer or fall of 1994. At the time it wasn't a particular favourite. Perhaps this was because I was growing increasingly fascinated with punk rock by the end of 1994. It was around the time I was my first Ramones records. This album just wasn't fast enough for me. Listening to Sleeps with Angels this week I've changed my mind completely. I think this album is a subtle masterpiece and the song "Change Your Mind" is one of the best songs Neil has ever written.

On another melancholy note (as if this week's review wasn't soaked in enough sadness) this is the last Neil Young album produced by David Briggs before his death in 1995. Aside from producing many of Neil's records, Briggs also worked with Alice Cooper, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Nils Lofgren, among many others. He is also credited with producing the first record with the word "fuck" on it: a comedy record by stand-up Murray Roman.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young & Pearl Jam - Mirror Ball (1995)