Monday, April 20, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Paleocastor

Paleocastor is the name given to a genus of early beaver that lived in North America during the late Oligocene and Early Miocene. Unlike modern beavers, Paleocastor was not an aquatic mammal. They lacked many of the specialized adaptations (like a large flat tail) that are commonly associated with beavers. Instead, they have a more more generalized rodent skeletal morphology. Additionally, they also lived in corkscrew shaped burrows which have been preserved in some of the most fascinating ichnofossils I've ever seen.

Paleocastor burrows, Harrison Formation (Miocene), Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska (James St. John)
Originally, paleontologists who discovered these burrows in the late nineteenth century believed them to the fossils of sponges, coral-like animals, or perhaps even marine plants. It wasn't until the mid twentieth century that researchers reached a consensus that these fossils were in fact trace fossils left behind by Paleocastor. Perhaps even more interesting is that we now know that Paleocastor used its teeth to create these burrows and not their claws. This suggests that the large oversized incisors of modern beavers (which are used to gnaw lumber and cut down trees) most likely evolved for a different purpose, and were later co-opted for a new purpose of dam construction.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Reactor (1981)

Release date: November 2, 1981
Producers: Neil Young, Tim Mulligan, David Briffs, Jerry Napier
Track listing: Opera Star, Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze, T-Bone, Get Back On It, Southern Pacific, Motor City, Rapid Transit, Shots
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, piano), Poncho Sampedro (guitar, stringman, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, percussion, vocals).

This time around Crazy Horse is in a different place. Having already proven themselves through their reinvention on Zuma (1975), American Stars n' Bars (1977), and two live records, Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Live Rust (1979) it seems as though Crazy Horse was primed to try something new. Reactor forgoes the winding jams and heads down a more fast paced road. This often isn't regarded as a particularly important album in the Neil Young pantheon, and it wasn't critically well received. It's often said to feel rushed or even unfinished. There might be something to these accusations, as Neil was spending more time at home with his children and less time touring and recording in the early 1980's. Still, I don't think it necessarily resulted in a bad record. It's an unbalanced record in many ways, but there are a few really great tunes here.

Reactor gets off to a great start with the rocker "Opera Star" and the follow-up song, "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze" keeps the frantic noise going. Both incorporate noisy guitars, synth, and some of the best post-Whitten background vocals Crazy Horse had supplied to date. Overall, Neil's voice is a bit more nasal, This becomes even more apparent on "T-Bone", a nine minute jam about mashed potatoes and the lack of a steak. Unlike previous (and many future) Crazy Horse jams, this one doesn't really go anywhere. It seems to end up in the same place as it began. As such it grows kinda tiring and doesn't stand up to repeated listening. Something tells me, however, that's kinda what Neil and the boys were going for.

"Get Back On It" sounds like a less enthusiastic song from the Hawks side of Hawks & Doves (1980) (minus the fiddle), although I must again commend Crazy Horse on the tight background vocals. It's like a return to their days as a doo-wop band (Danny and the Memories). There's also a little bit of a On the Beach (1974) sound with this song, given the bluesy nature.

It's really when you flip the record over to start side two that you find Reactor's best song, "Southern Pacific". This track really stands out from the rest of the album. Billy Talbot is pushed up in the mix, so you can hear the bass a lot better than usual, which is nice because Billy is a great bassist when he's allowed to be heard. It also makes Neil's sloppy trudging lead and while Poncho's open ringing chords to stand out more distinctly. Truly an underrated song in the grand repertoire of Neil Young.

The following songs, "Motor City" and "Rapid Transit" are largely forgettable, but  "Shots" is a neat messy noise song. Whereas "T-Bone" leaves the listener shuffling, trapped in a closet, "Shots" takes the listener for a ride. A ride filled with abrasive distortion, the over-use of the synclavier, squealing guitar leads, and bizarre cannibalistic lyrics. A real weird gem.

Reactor is the last time we'll see Neil and Crazy Horse work together until Life (1987). It's also the last Reprise record Neil made before beginning his troublesome partnership with Geffen records. In many ways it is the end of the Rust-era of Crazy Horse.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Trans (1982)

Monday, April 13, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Obdurodon

Obdurodon dicksoni.
So far this year in my attempt to explore the world of Miocene mammals I've stuck to eutherian mammals. In order to remedy that I thought it was high time we looked at Miocene monotreme, so this week I give you a fossil platypus, Obdurodon.

Odurodon tharalkooschild.
Image by Peter Schouten.
One of the interesting things about Obdurodon is that unlike modern platypuses, this creatures retained their molar teeth as adults. As you might expect Obudrodon fossils come exclusively from Australia, however, fossils of the closely related species, Monotrematum sudamericanum, have been found in Patagonia. This is one piece of evidence that provides some insight into the biogeographic distribution of monotremes during the Miocene.

Although monotremes constitute a very small clade today, solely consisting of platypuses and echidnas, this was once a larger and more widespread group. In the case of Obdurodon there were at least three different species whereas today there is only one species of platypus in existence. One of these species, Obdurodon tharalkooschild,
was twice the size of the modern platypus with a length of approximately 3.3 feet.

Neil Young - Hawks and Doves (1980)

Released: November 3, 1980
Producers: Neil Young, Tim Mulligan, Elliot Mazer
Track listing: Little Wing, The Old Homestead, Lost in Space, Captain Kennedy, Stayin' Power, Coastline, Union Man, Comin' Apart at Every Nail, Hawks & Doves
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano), Greg Thomas (drums), Dennis Belfield (bass), Ben Keith (Steel and dobro guitars, vocals), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), Ann Hillary O'Brien (vocals), with Levon Helm (drums), Tim Drummond (bass), and Tom Scribner (saw) on "The Old Homestead".

Clocking in at twenty-nine minutes and forty-seven seconds, Hawks & Doves is one of Neil's shortest albums. But, really this is two albums disguised as one. Side A (Doves) consists of tracks Neil recorded between 1974 and 1977. With the exception of the "The Old Homestead", which comes from the discarded Homegrown recordings, these songs are all Neil with no backing band. Side B (Hawks) are all new songs recorded in 1980. These songs have a backing band-up made up of Ben Keith (Stray Gators) and a host of new faces which have not previously appeared on any Neil Young recordings.

Side A (Doves) begins with a simple two chord, two verse song called "Little Wing". It sounds kinda something from American Stars n' Bars, at least in the lo-fi production. As I listened to this album over the course of the past week, this song grew more and more on me each time I heard it. It's really shows how you can do a lot with very little. The following song, the aforementioned "The Old Homestead" had the opposite effect.  Apparently it's supposed to be a semi-autobiographical song and reply to people like David Crosby who had publicly criticized Neil for playing with  Crazy Horse instead of using professional session musicians. It's not a horrible song, and the story is kinda neat, but's a bit long and in all honesty I did skip it a few times.

The third track, "Lost In Space" is a beautifully little weird song. Lyrically it reminds of something from After the Goldrush, but then there's this strange elements to it that almost make it sound like something that belongs on Raffi or Fred Penner record. Definitely leaves a weird taste behind. And the final track of the Doves side, "Captain Kennedy" really showcases Neil's clawhammer acoustic playing. If your unfamiliar with clawhammer, it's hard to pull off. Well, I think so anyway. I've been trying to teach myself just some basic clawhammer stuff recently and I absolutely stink at it. To hear Neil play clawhammer so fluidly makes me want to try harder and quit at the same time.

Flipping over to the Hawks side of the record, Neil's voice becomes a lot stronger and the overall production of the record sounds completely different. The band, which strongly features the the slide guitar of Ben Keith and the fiddle of Rufus Thibodeaux, is really tight. They begin with the song "Stayin' Power" which has easily become one of my new favourite Neil Young songs. Almost instantly upon hearing it I picked up my guitar and started playing along.

The songs "Union Man" and "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" sound very similar, which is kind of weird as they appear back to back on the record. The former is kind of a funny song about unions. From the way I interpreted it, it's not necessarily pro-union song or an anti-union song. It's more of description of the mundane futility of organized labour (even when it has the best intentions). This is best captured in the lines, "I'm proud to a union man I make those meetings when I can. I pay my dues ahead of time, when the benefits come I'm last in line." Still, I found this mildly comical song a bit tiresome after a few listens. I much prefer "Comin' Apart at Every Nail". It's a more nuanced an interesting song. Let's not forget this is the record where music critics went crazy and accused Neil of becoming right wing. To me, that charge is completely spurious, if anything this album is completely centrist and I think that's what this song is about. That's my interpretation and I could be completely wrong, but if you actually listen to the lyrics I don't know how it could be interpreted any other way.

And finally the album ends with the title track "Hawks and Doves". Again, this is one of the songs that lead aging Rolling Stone writers (who didn't actually like his early work at the time it was originally made) to accuse their leftist hero, author of "Ohio", of becoming a right-wing demagogue. Why? Probably because of these lyrics, "Ain't getting old, ain't getting younger though, just getting used to the lay of the land. I ain't tongue-tied, just don't got nothin' to say. I'm proud to be livin' in the USA" And then this is followed up with chorus that includes a USA chant. Seriously, I don't see how that is right wing. To me Neil is just saying thanks to the land that gave him his career. When Neil left Canada in the 1960s it was really the only way he could have made it as musician. After learning his chops in Winnipeg and Toronto, Neil headed south and the rest is history. Had Neil stayed in Canada it's likely we never would have heard of him. You have to remember this is long before Cancon or the government grant programs that brought us insidious acts like Nickelback and Celine Dion.

Neil leaves us with the lines, "Got people here down on their knees and prayin' Hawks and doves are circlin' in the rain Got rock and roll, got country music playin' If you hate us, you just don't know what you're sayin'". There are many ways you could interpret this song. Here's how I heard it. First, the reference to hawks and doves is really a centrist or apolitical call out to say that there's really not a big difference between the two sides and we should really look more closely at those things which bind us together (i.e. American music). Secondly, Neil is referencing that country music and rock and roll are art forms that are wholly American (which is simply stating a historical fact). Third and finally, Neil thinks if you don't like rock and roll and country music you're probably a bit of an idiot. I couldn't agree more.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Reactor (1981)


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

On the Origins of New World Monkeys: Part V

Squirrel monkey photo by Thomas Marent
In the previous installments in this series I've discussed morphological similarities and possible phylogenetic connections between old world fossil anthropoids and new fossil platyrrhines. Most recently this included the discovery of Perupithecus ucayaliensis, which at an age of 36 million years old, is currently the oldest known new world monkey fossil. Perupithecus gives a reasonably firm date which correlates well with the simultaneous migration of African caviomorphs into the new world. As such it allows us to revisit the central question surrounding anthropoid migration to the new world: How did those monkeys get all the way from Africa to South America?

Basically there are three possible routes which have been suggested by paleontologists who are interested in the question of protoplatyrrhine dispersal. To better evaluate these claims I turn largely to a paper by Alain Houle (1999) titled, "The Origin of Platyrrhines: An Evaluation of the Antarctic Scenario and the Floating Island Model". In this paper Houle includes a map of the world from 40 million years ago (below). Based upon the fossil evidence on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, as well as genetic studies which have looked at the estimated divergence date between platyrrhines from the African anthropoids, 40 million years ago is good rough estimate for the time at which this migration most likely took place.

1. Asia --> Antarctica --> South America

This suggests either an Asian origin for platyrrhines, or it suggests that as protoplatyrrhines dispersed out of Africa they took a route through Asia. There is no fossil evidence to support either scenario. Furthermore, if you look at the map above that just seems like a completely nonsensical route. This makes an already difficult journey even more problematic for no good reason.

 2. African --> Antarctica --> South America.

Even though Antarctica might have been attached to South America 40 million years, this route actually posits a longer oceanic trip from African to Antarctica than the trip from Africa directly to South America. Furthermore, there is no fossil evidence of platyrrhines or caviomorphs in Antarctica.

 3. Africa --> South America

All things being considered this seems to be the most parsimonious route. However, scientists are not suggesting protoplatyrrhines swam over. At one time some researchers believed that there may have been a small island chain between Africa and South America around this time period, but more recent geological data seems to suggest that no such island chain or any other sort of landbridge ever existed. Instead, it appears that protoplatyrrhines likely floated over. As this diagram also shows, both the Paleowinds and Paleocurrents favour a trans-Atlantic dispersal.

But, what did they float over on? Was it driftwood or was it something a little more grandiose? We'll look at that idea a little more closely in the next time. Stay tuned...

Monday, April 6, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Hyaenodon

Hyadenodon by Heinrich Harder Ⓒ 1920
Hyaenodon was a creodont mammal that lived in Africa, Eurasia, and North America from the early Eocene to the middle Miocene. Creodonts were an order of mammals which likely shared a common ancestor with the Carnivora order (cats, wolves, and bears). Creodonts and carnivores shared some dental characteristics, such as carnassial complex (upper fourth premolar and first lower molar) which can be used to shear meat. On the whole, however, creodonts had smaller brains and less agile post-crania. Although they were a dominant group for most of the Paleogene (66-23 MA), creodonts were gradually replaced by their more agile carnivore cousins and eventually went completely extinct before the end of the Miocene.
Hyaenodon cruentus

Hyaenodon is named due its morphological similarity with hyenas. Again, this resemblance is quite strong in regard to the dentition. Fossil evidence has also shown that Hyaedonon was a predator and preyed upon other large mammals, like Dinictis (a false sabre-tooth cat). The body of Hyaedon was thick and robust, the average weight of an adult male was likely about 88 pounds (40 kg).

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Live Rust

Release date: November 19, 1979
Producers: David Briggs, Tim Mulligan
Track listing: Sugar Mountain, I Am a Child, Comes A Time, After the Gold Rush, My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), When You Dance I Can Really Love, The Loner, The Needle and the Damage Done, Lotta Love, Sedan Delivery, Powderfinger, Cortez the Killer, Cinnamon Girl, Like a Hurricane, Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black), Tonight's the Night
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano), Ponch Sampedro (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Billy Talbot (bass, vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals).

The story behind this album is quite simple. Neil and Crazy Horse toured throughout the fall of 1978. Producers David Briggs and Tim Mulligan recorded shows in San Francisco, Boston, St. Paul, Chicago, and Denver and compiled a live album. Live Rust (1978) primarily consists of  live versions of previously material, rather than all new material like Neil's previous live albums, Time Fades Away (1973) and Rust Never Sleeps (1979). This album functions more like a typical live album, which is essentially greatest hits compilation.  Although it should be noted that this is more of Crazy Horse greatest hits live album, and therefore it's more rock and roll focused and less representative of his country-folkie side.

Some of that country-folkie does, however, appear on side one. Much like Rust Never Sleeps, the side is all acoustic songs played without a backing band. A pretty good selection of songs, but I find "I Am a Child" to be rather forgettable. Perhaps this is weakest moment on the record. Not necessarily a bad moment, just one that quickly passes by unnoticed.

The second side of this record is built out of the first decade of Neil's solo career. "The Loner" really comes alive here. Although the Jack Nitzsche orchestration on the original (see Neil Young - 1969) is fun to listen to in contrast, I think the version of this song is the one which appears on Live Rust. That reminds me, at this point in Neil's career Jack Nitzsche seems to have disappeared, having not appeared on any record since Tonight's the Night (1975). I wonder when we'll see him pop up again. By the end of this side, the noisy, rock and roll of Crazy Horse is finally unleashed with "Sedan Delivery".

It is, however, side three, which is only three songs ("Powderfinger", "Cortez the Killer", and "Cinnamon Girl", where Crazy Horse is truly at their best since Zuma (1975). We get to hear them power through two songs which were simply written to be performed live before turning to one of their most classic songs. That is, of course, "Cinnamon Girl", which is also the first time we get to hear what a Danny Whitten era song sounds like with Poncho playing. It does not disappoint.

Neither does the fourth and final side of this album. "Like a Hurricane" is simply brilliant, particularly the part where Neil begins to play lead fills while singing simultaneously. I like this version better than the version from American Stars n' Bars (1977), probably because it's less busy. It allows you to hear the distinctness of Poncho's keyboard and Neil's guitar better. If you're interested you can spend days surfing youtube and listening the myriad of versions of this song Neil has recorded live over the past 30 years. I don't find it ever gets boring because every time this song is played he does something new with it.

I think this album might be one of the best places to start if you're new to Neil Young. It really gives you feel of what Neil and Crazy Horse are about when they are at their best. If you can, get the original version on vinyl. Some of the songs are edited slightly on CD release, so the entire album could find upon one CD.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Hawks & Doves

Note: the above playlist is missing the song "Stayin' Power"