Monday, February 23, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Prodeinotherium

Prodeinotherium is a species of elephant that lived during the early to mid Miocene. At an average height of 9 feet, it was  approximately the same size as modern Asian elephant. Characterized by large downward curving tusks, Prodeinotherium is known by five distinct species. The earliest known fossils of Prodeinotherium come from Kenya, Namibia and South Africa and date to 20 million years ago. By 18 million years ago, Prodeinotherium had dispersed into Asia and Europe. It is believed to be ancestral to the late Miocene elephant species Deinotherium.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Neil Young - Tonight's the Night (1975)

Release date: June 20, 1975
Producers: David Briggs and Neil Young, with Tim Mulligan and Elliot Mazer
Track listing: Tonight's the Night, Speakin' Out, World on a String, Borrowed Tune, Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown, Mellow My Mind, Roll Another Number, Albuquerque, New Mama, Lookout Joe, Tired Eyes, Tonight's the Night
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica, vibes), Ben Keith (pedal steel guitar, slide guitar), Nils Lofgren (piano, guitar), Billy Talbot (bass), Ralph Molina (drums), Tim Drummond (bass on "Lookout Joe'), Kenny Buttery (drums on "Lookout Joe"), and Danny Whitten (vocals, guitar on "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown").

After the release of On The Beach Neil began work on a new album titled Homegrown. The album was produced by David Briggs and Elliot Mazer and included appearances by Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Emmy Lou Harris, as well as Stray Gators Ben Keith and Tim Drummond. Seventeen songs were recorded and the album art work was completed, but  Neil decided not to release Homegrown. Homegrown was shelved, but the songs from this album would slowly find they way on to other releases over the coming years.

Instead Neil opted to release Tonight's the Night, an album made up primarily from one recording session which took place on August 23, 1973. The accompanying band was called the Santa Monica Flyers, which consisted of a mash-up of the Crazy Horse rhythm section (Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina) with Ben Keith from the Stray Gators and After the Goldrush collaborator Nils Lofgren. The two songs which were not part of this recording session include "Come on Baby, Let's Go Downtown" (Crazy Horse live in 1970) and "Lookout Joe" (Stray Gators, Harvest outtake).

It's a bit of an understatement to say that much has been written about this album.  It's often described as a dark, depressing, brooding lament about the deaths of two of Neil's close friends. First,Neil tells us about Bruce Berry, a roadie who "late at night when the people were gone, hd used to pick up my guitar and sing a song in a shaky voice that was real as the day was long". Sadly, we also learn that "If you never heard him sing, I guess you won't too soon". All we have is Neil's words. This sets up an interesting contrast with the other central figure of the album, Danny Whitten. The song "Come on Baby, Let's Go Downtown" is written byand features Danny Whitten on lead vocals. Here we're allowed to see Danny Whitten on his own terms, not just as character described by Neil.

Tonight's the Night has become a fan favorite and one of the most critically acclaimed Neil Young records. Some writers have even claimed that this album is central to understating the entire career trajectory of Neil Young. In my opinion it's a good album and it has some beautifully honest moments, but I can't agree that it is a definitive masterpiece. I understand it's importance, particularly in regard to the mythology of the Ditch Trilogy and overcoming Danny Whitten's death. Still, this album stands in danger of being over-hyped. I'd like to do what I can to lower the hype, while still admiring the fact that this still a good record.

Some of the songs, like "Roll Another Number" to "Albuquerque" are fine songs, but I don't find them particularly unique or memorable. Meanwhile, the way the rumbling guitar riff of "World on a String" chugs alongside the straight forward snare drum of Ralph Molina creates a sound that's impossible forget (a sound which has been much imitated by other artists). All and all my favorite song on this album is probably "Mellow My Mind". It's kind of the definitive Neil Young song. It's a catchy mid-paced song, accompained by cracking out of key vocals, passion fueled harmonica, the incomparable sound of Ben Keith's slide guitar. The chord structure are reminiscient of a doo wop chord progression, but it's mixed with Nashville, California, and Winnipeg.

The album begins and ends with different versions of the same song. Neil repeats this idea on various albums throughout his career, but this is the first appearance of this idea. In this case it serves as sort of bookend for the story of Tonight's the Night. It also serves as the end of the ditch period and marks the dawn of a new direction for Neil and perhaps more importantly, a new direction for Crazy Horse.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Zuma

Saturday, February 21, 2015

It's World Pangolin Day!

I just found out that today is World Pangolin Day! To celebrate here are a few Pangolin facts:
Pangolin scales are made up of keratin (same stuff as your fingernails and hair).
Pangolins are nocturnal.
A pangolin's tongue extends into its abdominal cavity.
Pangolins can emit a noxious smelling acid via glands near the anus.
There are eight extant Pangolin species.
Sadly, pangolins are endangered and there's a huge black market in China which is fueling their extermination. Thankfully, there's this cool group called WildAid which putting together a media campaign in China to raise awareness about pangolins (and the fact that it's actually illegal to eat them). This is the same group that put together an elaborate media campaign a few years ago that showed the world the brutality behind shark fin soup (they also did this badass Jackie Chan rhino psa). Shark fin soup consumption dropped by over 50% following their campaign, so it seems quite reasonable to suggest  that their upcomming pangolin media campaign might be pretty effective too. If you're interested in donating to WildAid go here!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Miocene Mammal Monday: Deinogalerix koenigswaldi

"Deinogalerix koenigswaldi head" by © Citron
Deinogalerix koenigswaldi was a giant hedgehog that lived in Italy during the Late Miocene. Unlike modern hedgehogs Deinogalerix did not have quills. Instead it belonged to a subfamily known as moon-rats (Galericinae) which superficially resemble rats and shrews. In fact the genus name Deinogalerix translates as "Terrible Shrew".  The species name comes from the famed twentieth century paleontologist Gustav Heinrich Ralph von Koenigswald.

Deinogalerix  had a skull 20 cm long and a body that measured 60 cm in length. Fossils of this animal come from the coast of Gargano peninsula in Italy, although during the late Miocene Gargano was an island. The large size of Deinogalerix, compared to other hedgehogs, can likely be attributed Foster's rule (the evolutionary principle that small animals evolve to become larger and large animals evolve to become smaller in insular environments because of resource availability). Deinogalerix is thought to have been primarily insectivorous, but it has been suggested that it may have also consumed gastropods, crustaecans, reptiles, and even small mammals and birds.

Image credit: © Roman Yevseyev /

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Neil Young - On the Beach (1974)

Release date: July 16, 1974
Producers: Neil Young, David Briggs, Mark Harman, Al Schmitt
Track Listing: Walk On, See the Sky about to Rain, Revolution Blues, For the Turnstiles, Vampire Blues, On the Beach, Motion Pictures, Ambulance Blues
Musicians: Neil Young (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano), Ben Keith (slide guitar, bass, steel guitar, dobro), Rusty Kershaw (slide guitar, fiddle), David Crosby (guitar), George Whitsell (guitar), Graham Nash (Wurlitzer electric piano), Tim Drummond (bass), Billy Talbot (bass), Rick Danko (bass), Ralph Molina (drums), Levon Helm (drums).

When I set out to review all of Neil Young's albums I decided that I would write a review every week, come hell or high water. Well, this is one of those hellish high water weekends. I'm sick in bed with cold sweats, a runny nose, and ever present dull headache. Still, we have work to do. So let's get to it.

The first thing to note is that this album has no set band. The backup musicians vary from track to track and include members of the Stray Gators, Crazy Horse, the Band, as well as David Crosby, Graham Nash, George Whitsell (early Crazy Horse guitarist from the pre-Neil Young Rockets period), and 1950s bluegrass musician Rusty Kershaw. This is also the first album not to feature Jack Nitzsche since 1969's Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. We see the return of David Briggs in the role of producer, joined by Mark Harman and Al Schmitt. Still, this album feels as though Neil is the one in control. According to wikipedia,
"The album was recorded in a haphazard manner, with Young utilizing a variety of session musicians, and often changing their instruments while offering only bare-bones arrangements for them to follow. He also would opt for rough, monitor mixes of songs rather than a more polished sound, alienating his sound engineers in the process."
Temporally, this album can be a bit confusing. It was recorded after Tonight's the Night, but was released before. This has led some critics to remark that this album is the real end of the ditch trilogy in which we see Neil begin to overcome the depression that characterizes the Ditch period.m Although this album can sound bleak at times (I'm thinking of "Vampire Blues" in particular), the album starts with a relatively upbeat song, "Walk On" which seems to be about moving on in the face of tragedy. As such it sets an interesting stage for an album that grows increasingly darker as it continues to play its self out.

By the time we get to the third track "Revolution Blues" Neil is singing about the Manson family's attempted race war. Having known Charles Manson during his days as a California based folk musician, Neil's choice to include a song about Manson was not looked upon favorably by anyone else involved in the production of On the Beach. Even David Crosby, who plays guitar on the track, has been quoted as telling Neil writing a Manson-themed song was a bad idea. Thankfully, Neil didn't listen to Crosby.

Interestingly, despite the dark, rough, distorted nature of On the Beach, many of the songs take on a very traditional blues structure. You can still here Neil's distinctive leads, but it seems as though he's trying to draw inside the lines a little more. It's not stifled, but structured. It reminds me of when my creative writing teacher used to make me write sonnets (as opposed to free form poetry). Sometimes putting yourself in a box can give you more freedom, especially when everyone else is outside the box kicking and punching aimlessly into the air. This is exemplified in Neil's guitar playing on "Vampire Blues". The song is built on a standard blues pattern, but then as we get to the point where one would expect a blazing blues solo, it sounds as though Neil's dragging a bag of quarters across the strings. It's a muted, weird mess and it works to make one the most fascinating leads on the album.

By the time we get to the second half of the album, things have slowed down considerably. This is apparently because Neil and his fellow musicians were consuming a homemade concoction called "Honey Slides" - some sort of goopy edible mixture of marijuana and honey. The result is a slower, more laid back side B. Neil also seems less careful about his voice, as you can hear as it cracks on songs like "On the Beach".

Ultimately, On the Beach culminates with the song "Ambulance Blues" which is a rather dark, pessimistic song about the late 1960s Toronto folk scene and the state of CSN&Y in 1974. When Neil sings "You're all just pissing in the wind", he seems as honestly pissed off as one can in folk song and it's great. I did some additional research and discovered that this song also describes a neighborhood that is only about a 15 minute walk from my current apartment. If I wasn't sick as a dog I'd walk down the street and check his former Yorkville stomping grounds. Maybe I'll do that later this week. In the meantime I'm gonna get some rest and listen to Tonight's the Night.

NEXT WEEK: Neil Young - Tonight's the Night (1975)

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Anti-Vax Movement is like the Manson family, only worse

In 1971 Charles Manson was found guilty of conspiracy to commit the murders of seven people, all carried out by members of the Manson family at his instruction. He was convicted of the murders through the joint-responsibility rule, which makes each member of a conspiracy guilty of crimes his fellow conspirators commit in furtherance of the conspiracy's objective. As far the courts are concerned, although Manson never actually physically killed a single person, he was equally as guilty of murder as those that followed his commands to kill.

Between the June 3, 2007 and January 31, 2015 the Center for Disease Control recorded the deaths of 6,336 people from preventable diseases. These are diseases which the MMR vaccine would have protected the individual from. As Jenny McCarthy has been an outspoken opponent of the MRR vaccine it's quite evident that her celebrity status, books, and continual spread of misinformation in the media has influenced some parents decision not to vaccinate their children. As we've all seen in the news, the measles are making a comeback, in part thanks to the stupidity and fear mongering of people like Jenny McCarthy. I'm beginning to wonder if the same laws that enabled the police to take down Manson could be similarly applied to McCarthy (and perhaps even Andrew Wakefield, the originator of the modern vaccine-autism myth). Regardless, McCarthy has far more blood on her hands than Charles Manson ever did.

Charles Manson is less violent than Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vax movement has now grown far more dangerous than the Manson family. It is time to begin incarcerating parents who refuse to vaccinate their child for non-medical "philosophical" reasons. They are engaging in child abuse. Anti-vaxers have killed too many people not to be considered a serious terrorist threat which we need to stand up and take action against.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Darwin Day

Yesterday I was talking with a friend about Charles Darwin's book The Voyage of the Beagle. She mentioned that her favorite parts are when Darwin plays the role of cultural anthropologist, describing the various people and cultures he meets along his journey. I was perusing some of these passages today and it struck me that The Voyage of the Beagle contains a number of eloquent arguments against slavery. I'd like to take a moment this Darwin Day and share one such passage with you.
I must here commemorate what happened for the first time during our nearly five years' wandering, namely, having met with a want of politeness. I was refused in a sullen manner at two different houses, and obtained with difficulty from a third, permission to pass through their gardens to an uncultivated hill, for the purpose of viewing the country. I feel glad that this happened in the land of the Brazilians, for I bear them no good will - a land also of slavery, and therefore of moral debasement...On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil, I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master's eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said, that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of; nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated; and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master's ears.

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin. ― Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter XXI