4/3/20

The Golden Cage is Trashy Faux Feminism


The Golden Cage (2020)
By Camilla Läckberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 300 pages.

Where is the line between a steamy romance novel and soft porn? I’m not certain, but I’m sure that Camilla Läckberg (Jean Edith Camilla Eriksson) crossed it. Her newest novel, The Golden Cage, came with promo telling me that this Swedish crime fiction writer has written a dozen and a half novels that have been translated into 40 languages, so I guess her formula is working for her. It’s not working for me. I needed a shower after reading The Golden Cage and it wasn’t a cold one.

Many English speakers will recognize the title as a reference to living in a situation that inspires envy by outsiders but is actually a prison for those on the inside. Betty Friedan used it in her definitive feminist work The Feminine Mystique. More on Friedan in a moment.

Unless one is born into obscene wealth, most gilded cage occupants were once the envious ones on the outside. This is certainly the case for the novel’s putative heroine, Faye. She was actually born as Matilda, but assumed a new identity when she fled from a dark family secret in her native Fjälbacka, relocated to the anonymity of Stockholm, and reinvented herself. (Ironically, Läckberg lives in Fjälbacka.) In Stockholm Faye struggles at first, then acquires both a boyfriend and a BFF named Chris. The boyfriend has to go when Faye first feasts her eyes–and I’m being kind about the relevant body part–on Jack Adelheim, whom she identifies as both hot and a high flyer. Faye helps him build Compare, a marketing firm, and before you can say “knickers off,” they are filthy rich and the envy of their nouveau riche peers. It’s a dream life, but one that changes when Faye gives birth to Julienne and Jack becomes a workaholic and sexist pig. Faye abases herself to try to please Jack, but he’s soon addicted to porn and sleeping with half of Stockholm, before Faye discovers him with Ylva, a younger version of herself.

At this point, The Golden Cage becomes a revenge novel masquerading as feminist. Faye once again reinvents herself and launches a beauty product line named–you guessed it–Revenge. She draws investors from loads of women, including her landlord Kersten, who have one thing in common: Each has been screwed over by a man or two or more. At this juncture I should say that I “get” it. Millions of women have been abused (psychologically, physically, or both) by men and there’s no excusing it under the rubric of “the way things used to be.” Faye’s plan to avenge Jack’s sexism is, to say the least, unique.

All of this raises the question of whether this novel is feminist or just trashy. Jack is a truly despicable human being, but there is exactly one male character in the book who is anything more than a cardboard cutout chauvinist: Chris’ boyfriend Johan. There is also the question of what is morally justifiable. One theory claims there is no such thing as reverse sexism; another that says neither misogyny nor misandry is morally justifiable. If only these were the sole choices in Läckberg’s novel. Hers is a troubling amoral version of feminism, and almost none of how Läckberg extricates women from their golden cage is what Betty Friedan would have condoned.

The phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” comes from Pierre Chordelos de Laclos in the novel whose English title is Dangerous Liaisons. Perhaps you’ve seen the wonderful 1988 film of that title, where the revenge is both frosty and complex. Now would be the time to say that Camilla Läckberg is no Pierre Chordelos de Laclos. A list of what The Golden Cage lacks would include wit, verisimilitude, and suspense. There is, however, crime. And let us not forget soft porn. Had I read the phrase “wet between the legs” one more time in relation to Faye, I might have hurled this book across the room despite the fact that it was loaded onto my iPad. In the opening line of my review I asked where the line is drawn between steamy romance and porn. Perhaps this novel reads better in Swedish but from where I sit, it’s not worth making distinctions. In English, The Golden Cage is trashy pyrite pulp.

Rob Weir  





4/1/20

Wax Packs Looks at Post-Career MLB Players


The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife (2020)
 Brad Balukjian 
★★★
 The Wax Pack is a high-concept book for baseball fans. In 2015, Brad Balukjian, a natural history professor at Merritt College in Oakland, bought a random unopened package of 1986 Topps baseball cards on eBay and spent his summer trying to track down the 14* players lying underneath the bubblegum. In 49 days, Balukjian put 11,341 miles on his 2002 Honda and fueled himself with 123 cups of coffee.

Balukjian chose 1986 because it evoked fond childhood memories of enjoying baseball with his father. Twenty-nine years later, the 34-year-old Balukjian was single, renting a room in Oakland, and in therapy for OCD and emotional issues. His coast-to-coast-to coast baseball journey took on a second life of sorting out his own life. His Topps pack included–in the order Balukjian discusses them–Rance Mulliniks, Steve Yeager, Gary Templeton, Gary Pettis, Randy Ready, Don Carman, Jamie Cocanower, Carlton Fisk, Vince Coleman, Lee Mazzilli, Doc Gooden, Richie Hebner, Rick Sutcliffe, and Al Cowens.

Balukjian bookends his sojourn with stories gathered in Duryea, Pennsylvania, where Topps cranked out 170 packs of cards per minute before closing the plant in 1996. Mary Lou Gula missed the steady employment and camaraderie at Topps, though it was hot, hard work. It’s not easy starting over when you’ve doing something for a long time. Balukjian wanted to learn if that was also true for the faces on the cards.

Getting to the major league usually entails devoting one’s youth to endless hours of playing, practicing, and attending coaching clinics. Those who become prospects spend around four years in the minor leagues, and just one in 33 will make it to the majors. Even then, the average career is less than 6 years; most players retire in their 30s. What one does for the next 30-plus years? What kind of person does one become once the cheering ends?

One revelation is that there is generally a reverse correlation between being a great player and a good human being. Jaime Cocanower, for example, grew up in Panama and lasted just three years in the majors. He now lives in Arizona with his wife, a teacher who works with Asperger kids. Cocanower experienced few problems with walking away.

Professional baseball is notoriously hard on marriages–especially for players from dysfunctional birth families. “Boomer” Yeager was tight-lipped about his unhappy childhood, but you don’t need a degree in psychology to imagine how it contributed to two collapsed marriages and struggles with alcohol abuse. Rance Mulliniks also divorced before he finally found peace in not being the center of attention. Most of the players in Balukjian’s wax pack divorced at least once.

Cocanower is an outlier in severing ties to baseball. Rick Sutcliffe had an afterlife in broadcasting, Yeager as a coach for the Dodgers, Gary Pettis with the Astros, Richie Hebner with the Blue Jays, and Lee Mazzilli with both the Mets and Yankees. Balukjian’s boyhood idol, Phillies pitcher Don Carman, became a sports psychologist who works for superagent Scott Boras.

Wax packers Carlton Fisk and Doc Gooden milked their fame while showing little respect for the fans who idolized them. Balukjian observes that Fisk, “never won any nice guy awards.” He comes across as a prima donna and world-class jerk. His agent claims Fisk is a private man, which begs questions of why someone wishing anonymity needs an agent, or why he agrees to act chummy with anyone who pays for an autograph.

The most direct way of describing Gooden is that he is simply bad news. Through his son, he extorted hundreds of dollars from Balukjian for an interview he never intended to give. Gooden is a junkie who has been arrested for everything from DUI and domestic abuse to child endangerment and cocaine possession.

The wild card in the wax pack is Balukjian’s attempt to connect with other black players. Gary Templeton was extremely open about being the “black kid” who refused to “kiss white butt." He accused his former manager "Whitey" Herzog of living down to his nickname, and cited racism to explain why the percentage of black major leaguers has fallen from 18 percent in 1976 to just 7.2 percent. Balukjian positions Templeton as a complex and misunderstood man whose pride was never broken.

On the other hand, neither Pettis nor Vice Coleman would speak to Balukjian, moments that provide space for Balukjian to discuss his own demons or speculate about non-present subjects. Often, these breaks are book-within-a-book digressions that weaken the book’s coherence. Plus, should someone in therapy try to psychoanalyze others? Vince Coleman’s run-ins with the law are fair game, but few fans would agree with Balukjian’s assessment that Coleman was “a pretty mediocre player” whose sole attraction was base-stealing. Coleman played for 12 years and was a career .264 hitter. That’s solid, even if not earth-shattering.

The book is much stronger when Balukjian immerses himself in the hometowns of the players. Al Cowens died in 2002, and Balukjian visited Compton and elicited remembrances from community and family members. Especially moving was Balukjian’s trip to Carman’s boyhood home of Camargo, Oklahoma, a dead oil-patch outpost now defined by crystal meth and low aspirations. Carman left it behind, a reminder that professional sports are often a one-way escape from nowhere. Metaphorically speaking, that’s a much longer journey than 49 days of crisscrossing America.

Rob Weir

* Normally there are 15 player cards, but one card was a checklist.


           

3/30/20

2020 How the AL East Was Lost

High fives for the Rays?


The self-styled experts and Vegas betters–ever notice there aren’t many  rich sports betters?–are picking the New York Yankees to go to the World Series this year. Says here they are wrong (and I’m a Yankees fan).

The Yankees were cheated out of two trips the Series by the now-disgraced-but-not-really-punished Houston Astros. Those were better teams than the 2020 edition. The Yankees lost the 2020 season because of what they did not do midsummer 2019. You read that right: 2019. In a season in which Aaron Boone should have been manager of the year for patching together a roster from the walking wounded, the Yankees failed to fire their medical and conditioning staff mid-season and waited until the winter to do so. The result is that they will open this season with an outfield of Gardner, Tauchman, and Frazier. Okay, but the $44 million outfield of choice­–Stanton, Judge, and Hicks–is on the disabled list. Maybe the late start will work to their advantage, but none of the three is likely to be 100%.

The DL also includes Severino, their # 2 starter, and Paxton, their # 3. It’s a damn good thing they signed (Gerrit) Cole to be their ace, or the Yankees would be done before the first pitch is thrown. Now the starters will be Cole, Tanaka, Happ, and then what? (Jordan) Montgomery will probably be # 4 and the last spot will probably come from farmhand contenders such as Clarke Schmidt, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Mike King. (It won’t be their # 1 prospect, Devi García who is raw and inexperienced.) With Britton, Chapman, Green, Kahnle, and Ottavino, New York still has MLB’s best bullpen; the pen is going to work hard early and is in danger of early burn out. Plus, everyone has to throw to Gary Sánchez, who is a terrible defender and a much overrated bat.

The lineup still features the wonderful DJ LeMahieu, wunderkind Torres, Voit, surprise star Urshela, and the return of on-base machine Andújar. All of the DL stars except Severino (Tommy John surgery) will return at some point as will suspended pitcher Domingo German, but who knows how effective any of them will be? (Paxton is a critical piece.) To free up salary to sign Cole, the Yankees had to dump a fine backup catcher (Romine) for a career minor-leaguer (Higashioka) and Gregorious, whose replacement is Tyler Wade, who no one in baseball likes as much as the Yankees. By the time players on the DL return, the Yankees might well be fighting for a Wild Card.

I pick the Tampa Bay Rays to win the AL East. If Snell and Glasnow are healthy, they will anchor a staff that already has Yarbrough, Morton, Chirinois, and a minor league system full of lively arms. The question with the Rays is simple: Will they score enough runs? Let’s be charitable and say there are some hopefuls such as Tsutsugo, Choi, Adames, and (José) Martínez. The outfield, other than Kiermaier, isn’t full of sluggers. In baseball, though, great pitching generally prevails over great hitting; far too many of New York’s feared bats lie splintered on the DL.

Are the Boston Red Sox the AL East dark horse? Call the Red Sox the if team of the East. If Sale isn’t a $30 million washed-up dead arm, if (Eduardo) Rodríquez’s 2019 output wasn’t a fluke, if Eoavaldi is healthy, if (Martin) Peréz manages to miss more bats than he hits, if Chavis lives up to his promise, if Devers doesn’t regress, if Verdugo isn’t a broken NL fraud, if Peraza adjusts to the AL, if Bradley hits above is weight (200), and if the Sox fill out the back of their rotation, they might surprise. Potentially, a lineup with Bogaerts, Benintendi, Devers, and JD Martinez is stronger than that of the Rays and the DL Yankees. That’s a lot of “ifs,” though, and the odds are low that enough of them will pan out. One if has already imploded; Sale is headed for Tommy John surgery.

In my heart of hearts, I think the Toronto Blue Jays are a year away from making serious noise, but sometimes good news arrives early. Get used to the names Bichette, Biggio, and Guerrero Jr. as they will soon be the best infield in baseball. The current outfield is the so-so Grichuk and hope that some young players will emerge. The catching is so thin that non-roster invite Caleb Johnson might make the team. Not good, because the pitching has more holes than Dunkin' Donuts. Giles is a tested closer, but you first have to get that far. It’s Roark, (Matt) Shoemaker, (Chase) Anderson, and Yamaguchi, a 32-year-old rookie from Japan. Anyone quaking in their boots? Didn’t think so. This has to change before the Jays are for real.

The only reason to discuss the Baltimore Orioles is to say how badly we feel for Trey Mancini and Alex Cobb. No one seems to know what’s going on with Orioles’ management. It’s sad to see such a once-proud franchise sink to such depths.

Predicted Order of Finish:

1.    Tampa Bay
2.    New York
3.    Boston
4.    Toronto
5.    Baltimore


3/27/20

2020 National League East Wide Open

Might win the East, but a repeat is unlikely


The Washington Nationals won the World Series last year over the now-hated Houston Astros, but they are by no means a shoo-in even to win their division in 2020. It’s not that they are weaker; their opponents are stronger. This is a pitching-dominant division and it could boil down to which staff catches lightning in a jar. Everyone by Miami is a dark horse.

The Nationals don the favorites role by virtue of being the reigning champs and who would not want a bevy of pitchers such as Corbin, Strasburg, Sánchez, Strickland, (Daniel) Hudson, Ross, and Scherzer, the latter a perennial candidate for the best in baseball. Doolittle saves whatever is left unfinished. Nor is there anything shabby about infield talent like Castro, Thames, (Asdrùbal) Cabrera, (Trea) Turner, (Howie) Kendricks, and (Ryan) Zimmerman. Robles sure made people forget about Harper in a hurry and he mans the outfield with Eaton, and the wonderful Juan Soto. One potential pitfall lies with the historical fragility of Strasburg and the recent health woes of Scherzer. Another stumbling block is that Robles might regress.

The team that made the biggest stride forward is the Philadelphia Phillies, who jettisoned head-scratching manager Gabe Kapler and hired no-nonsense Joe Girardi. This is a team that plays in a tough town and needs a kick in the ass. The boo birds were out in force and the Phils have some disappointing guys who will be headed elsewhere unless they ratchet up: Elfin, (Adam) Morgan, Valasquez, Kingery, and Hoskins among them. The biggest bust of all is Harper; he had a decent season in ’19 but not one that justifies his astronomical contract. The good news is that Arrieta is the real deal, Nola seems to be coming into his own, (Tommy) Hunter is solid, as are everyday players such as Realmuto, Bruce, and Segura. The health of McCutcheon, Gregorious, and Wheeler is of great concern. This is a put-up or ship-out team, but somehow, I think Girardi will whip it into shape.

The Atlanta Braves always do well, though their pitching staff is not one that strikes fear: Foltynewicz, Soroka, (Cole)Hamels, and then open competition. (Freddie) Freeman is a gem, Acuña will be a monster, and Ozuna, Markakis, Albies, Swanson, Carmago, and Flowers are good players. All this said, I still don’t see how this team does as well as it does. I would not be surprised to see it take a dip in 2020.

The New York Mets are my dark horse. The pitching (if healthy) is awesome: Lugo, Porcello, Matz (if not traded), Wacha, Stroman, and then two of the best in the biz: deGrom and Syndergaard, either of whom could be this year’s Cy Young winner. Alonzo had an amazing year in ’19, Ramos was quite good, and McNeil, Lowrie, Nimmo, Rosario and Conforto are capable. Look for Céspedes to be his usual disappointing self. Betances and Wilson–Yankee cast-offs–will help the bullpen. If the deck falls right, the Mets might be holding a wild card. As it has been for the past few years, the question is whether the Mets will score enough runs.

Are the Miami Marlins ready to look like a major league team instead of a AAA interloper? No one in Miami knows, because no one there actually goes to a game.  The Fish should be better, but it’s going to take some time and they have to stop selling off their best assets. The final roster is anyone’s guess as most of the names are unfamiliar. Seriously. Google them and there are only a handful of names you’ll recognize: (Caleb) Smith, Steckenrider, Villar, Cervelli, Joyce, Dickerson, and Joyce. None of them will take you as far north as Jacksonville.    

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Washington
2.    New York
3.    Philadelphia
4.    Atlanta
5.    Miami

3/26/20

NL Central: Queen City Sings We are the Champions

Finally something to smile about?


The Central Division of both leagues is up for grabs. Mythical “small market” budgets (except for Chicago) discourage owners from spending–as if someone rich enough to own an MLB team can’t afford their toys. The good news is that the NL Central might be the most competitive league in baseball. On paper, any one of four teams could win it.

I am playing a hunch and picking the Cincinnati Reds to end years of frustration and bring some joy to the Queen City. The Reds have a talent for picking up small pieces and breathing new life into the disgruntled. On paper, this is a very good staff: Bauer, (Sonny) Gray, Miley, and (Luis) Castillo. The Achilles’ heel is relief pitching. Strop as the closer? Don’t be surprised if Lorenzen wrests that away in a Queen City minute. Votto, rejuvenated Freddy Galvis, and Moustakas anchor a strong infield. Castellanos was a great outfield addition. Winker is another OF lock and beyond those two, who knows? Casali is an underrated catcher.

The dark horse, as usual, is the St. Louis Cardinals. Flaherty, (Dakota) Hudson, and the ageless Adam Wainwright are foundations of a good staff, especially if Mikolas rebounds. (Carlos) Martinez is the closer and the Cards hope (Andrew) Miller has something left. (Yadier) Molina might be the best catcher in baseball and an infield of Goldschmidt and Wong is a good foundation. DeJong had better pick it up, though, or Edman will be the shortstop. The only outfield household name is Fowler and he’s not as good as advertised.

Where, you might wonder, are the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers? Each is good enough to win, but both will have to overcome hurdles. The Cubs pitching is a combination of old (Lester), under-performing (Quintana, Kyle Hendricks), or damaged (Darvish, Kimbrel). There is youth on the way, but that can blow hot or cold. The roster is fearsome–Rizzo, (Javy) Baez, (Willson) Contreas, Schwarber, and Bryant–but the latter two are disgruntled. Would anyone be surprised if Souza takes Heyward’s job? Perhaps new manager David Ross can settle things down; if not, the trade van will be parked outside Wrigley Field.

The Brewers have one of the best outfields in baseball: Cain, Braun, Yelich. There’s a reason why so many teams wanted to pluck closer Hader from the Brew Crew. (Brett) Anderson and Woodruff are decent hurlers and Narvaez a decent receiver. Everything else is up in the air. Milwaukee picked up a bunch of replacements–Holt, Gyorko, Lauer, Lindblom, Smoak–and none scream out “slam dunk.” Smoak is now the NL’s answer to Chris KKKK Davis.

No use talking about the Pirates. I’d say they are rebuilding, but they would have had to have been built once before for that term to apply.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Cincinnati
2.    St. Louis
3.    Chicago
4.    Milwaukee
5.    Pittsburgh

3/25/20

2020 AL Central: Joy in Chi-Town?

Is this the year the ChiSox rule the Windy City?


This is the worst division in baseball, which makes for an anything-can-happen scenario–sort of.

The Minnesota Twins won over 100 games last year and logic says they should win the Central again in 2020. Maybe, but their pitching is thin after Berrios and Odorizzi. Maeda came over from the Dodgers and NL pitchers often fare badly in the AL. Hill has had injury woes and Bailey just isn’t very good. It’s nice to have Cruz as your DH and on paper an infield of Donaldson, (Marwin) Gonzaléz, Polanco, and Sanó is really good. The same can’t be said of the outfield. They need much more consistency from low OBP Kepler and “Swings at Anything” Rosario. And there’s Buxton, the Jackie Bradley of the AL Central who catches up to anything except a pitched baseball.

I’m going out on a limb and predict the Chicago White Sox will sneak past the Twins in the 2020 truncated season. (My second guess is that they’ll slink to the bottom again!) Kopech is a stud in the making who can carry a pitching staff and Keuchel wins, though no one can figure out why. Colomé is serviceable. Grandal is a very good catcher and the infield is terrific: Abreu, (Tim) Anderson, Moncada (another giveaway from Boston). Encarnacion is also a productive DH. The outfield is unsettled beyond Jiménez and could an Achille’s heel.

Alas, the poor Cleveland Indians. Terry Francona will get the best from what he’s got, and make them a dark horse, but there comes a time in which subtraction is just that: subtraction. Carrasco and Clevinger are good pitchers, but the rest of the staff is a bunch of guys in camp with high numbers on their backs and big dreams under their caps. Brad Hand might be traded simply because there aren’t enough games for him to save. There’s Lindor and loads of questions about the lineup, including the strange retrogression of (José) Ramirez. Even Francona will be hard-pressed to get these guys into the money.

The Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are works in progress and regress. The Royals should be marginally better than Detroit because of a sprinkling of good players–Montgomery, Soler, (Salvador) Perez, Gordon, and Whitfield. They might even be mediocre if Duffy’s sore arm is healed. The Tabby Cats are waiting and praying that some young guys show them something. He’s had a great spring, but does (Miggy) Cabrera have much left? (Jordan) Zimmerman certainly doesn’t and it’s almost impossible to believe that just a year ago other teams thought it would be a good idea to trade for Boyd. Every tick over .380 will be a moral victory. Mostly, though, there’s not much reason to catch a game in KC or Motown if you’ve got better things to do, like clip your nails or paint the garage.

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Chicago
2.    Minnesota
3.    Cleveland
4.    Kansas City
5.    Detroit


Rob Weir 

3/24/20

Bad News for Haters: The Astros Still Cream of AL West

Pinocchio better watch his back instead of his nose


Should Win: Conventional wisdom holds that the Houston Astros will be a mess in the wake of the sign-stealing controversy. To be sure, so many teams will be gunning for the Astros that their hitters might want to wear body armor. Yeah, yeah, yeah. For all of that they are still the class of the AL West. They lost Cole to the Yankees, but no other team in their division has three hurlers who can match Verlander, Grienke, and McCullers. If Peacock finds his groove, fuggetaboutit.

In Brantley, Reddick, and Springer the Astros also have the division’s top outfield. Altuve will probably regress now he doesn’t know what pitches are coming, but Bregman remains unfazed and Correa is a superb player.

More conventional wisdom BS says the Los Angeles Angels will challenge the Astros now that they’ve added Rendon’s bat to pack the middle of the order around Trout and Simmons. Nonsense! They still have one of the worst pitching staffs in all of MLB. When you rely on guys like Teheran (10-11), Heaney (4-6), Saurez (2-6), and Bundy (7-14), those dogs won’t hunt.

The Oakland A’s are my dark horse, especially if Manea recovers from his injuries. Fiers was a good pickup. Oakland has a way of manufacturing good pitchers that fly under the radar. Plus, a lineup with Chapman, Siemen, Olson, Kris Davis, and Canha will be productive.

Keep your eyes peeled for the Texas Rangers, who are methodically sending dead wood to the chipper. They picked up Kluber, and are just a few pieces short of making some noise.

The Seattle Mariners, as usual, are a mess. I’ve given up trying to figure out what plan, if any, is at work in the minds of a management staff whose heads are pointier than the Space Needle.  

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Houston
2.    Oakland
3.    Los Angeles
4.    Texas
5.    Seattle


3/23/20

Dodgers Rule NL West


The next five days will feature an MLB preview. No one knows, of course, when the season will actually begin but let's be optimistic and think May. So here we go in a special five-day preview.
Who's going to argue with Betty Boop?


Barring a collapse of unprecedented levels, the Los Angeles Dodgers will waltz away from their National League West rivals. Sheesh, when you add Mookie Betts to an outfield that already has Bellinger and Pollock, that’s a good start.  Then there’s an infield with Muncy, (Corey) Seager, and (Justin) Turner. We’re talking serious mash. Adding David Price to a pitching staff that has Kershaw, Buehler, and Wood will make it more than competitive. Jansen closes.

If you’re looking for weak spots, the # 5 pitcher is up in the air, and I’m not sure that new signing Blake Treinen is that hurler. The catching is okay, but not earth-shattering. But the Dodgers have excess they can trade, especially Pederson and Stripling. I’ll be surprised if either is still with the team by mid-season, as they’d be more than enough to secure whatever help is needed.  This looks like a runaway division winner and an odds-on favorite to win the World Series.

Dark Horse: The Arizona Diamondbacks have quietly buried some dead snakes and added useful pieces. If Bumgarner can return to 75% of what he was, he’s worth the money the D-backs shelled out. Leake is intriguing and I like Robbie Roy, as do a lot of other teams who unsuccessfully tried to get him. (Luke) Weaver has great potential. Vogt is one of the better catchers in the NL. Calhoun will help solidify the outfield, especially if Marte lives up to his potential.

On the flip side, the infield is young and unproven, other than (Christian) Walker. One never knows if the young guys will bloom or need more watering in the minors. The pitching will be thin if injuries strike or if MadBum has his best days behind him.

The sexy dark horse pick is the San Diego Padres. I feel about the Padres what I feel about the Seattle Mariners: Meh! They add pieces that add up to nothing in the long run–(Garrett) Richards, Profar, and Pomeranz, for instance. Yeah, they have Machado and Hosmer. Sure, Pham was a good pickup and Tatis, Jr. looks like he will (eventually) be a star. But look at the rest–including the overrated Wil Myers. Name one pitcher on this team you’d trade promising prospects to secure.

If I had to pick another team as a dark horse, it wouldn’t be the Padres. The Colorado Rockies have better pitching and they still have Arenado, Blackmon and others: Story, Desmond, Murphy…. It wouldn’t surprise me if they finished second.

The San Francisco Giants have just enough to be thoroughly mediocre. That might make them just good enough to pass the Padres for fourth, but they really need a tear-down/restart. There are guys on this team that simply aren’t worth their salaries: Cueto, Peralta, Gausman, Samardzija, Smyly, Posey, Belt …. These guys need to pick it up or the Giants will rot in the cellar. At its best, this team would be considered an overachiever if it finishes even for the season.  

Predicted Order of Finish:
1.    Los Angeles
2.    Arizona
3.    Colorado
4.    San Diego
5.    San Francisco



Rob Weir

3/20/20

Tyler Ramsey, Noah Gundersen, Pony Bradshaw, The Menzingers and More



We may be hunkered down for a while, folks, so why not check out some music to while away the time? This column features some short recommendations for music to sample. As always, I’ll tuck in a few live links and if you like what you hear, search for more.

 Let’s lead with something special. Tyler Ramsey is the former lead singer of the folk-rock Band of Horses. Take any track from his 2019 projects For the Morning and The Candler Sessions and you will instantly think “Neil Young.” Ramsey isn’t trying to channel Young, it’s just that their voices are eerily similar. Ramsey’s “A Dream of Home” would have fit like a glove on Young’s Harvest LP, including lyrics such as” Oh the year blew past/And there was nothing you could hold/Except for all the things I told you/Were worth holding onto. Ramsey is from Cincinnati and now lives in Asheville, but his songs have the feel of the open prairie. “The Nightbird” is a tender little song about love taken flight, “Your Whole Life” is a tad more country, and “Breaking a Heart” also sounds like early Neil Young. Listen to everything you can from Ramsey. Listen hard, as his voice has Young’s nasality, but it’s much more supple.

Here’s a hackneyed phrase for you: “He came out of nowhere.” Musicians generally haunt clubs for years before they register on our radar screens. Seattle’s Noah Gundersen is a name a lot of people know these days. He’s now 30, but at 18, he left the conservative Christian home that adopted and home schooled him and began moving in very different directions. He began playing at folk and folk-rock clubs, listened to a lot of Neil Young and Ryan Adams, did some TV scores, got inked all over, bulked up, shaved off his long hair, and became a gay icon (though he’s not gay). The constant is that he’s become known because he can really sing and play. Maybe you’ve heard his single, “Lover.” It’s one of many reasons to know his music. For something quite different listen to the tender acoustic version of “Wild Horses.” 

James “Pony” Bradshaw made his debut album at the age of 38, when he got kicked out of the Air Force after 21 years. Small wonder that he has an affinity for outlaw country, especially Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. Sudden Opera is a good title for his new record as Bradshaw likes to use full throttle vocals backed by thunderous instrumentation. Try “Van Gogh,” which is an interesting lyrical mix of the poetic and the plebeian. In it, the narrator dreams he’s Van Gogh and his walk-on-the-wild-side girlfriend fancied herself a Rimbaud/Coming out that swamp slow/Her head up in the cosmos/She’s got them absinthe eyes…. “Bad Teeth” is another good one to sample.

 
Let’s stay theatrical for a moment. Two Door Cinema Club is an indie rock band from Northern Ireland that’s better known in Europe than in the U.S. They did a 3-song gig in New York’s Paste Studio in September of 2019, including “Once,” from their newest album False Alarm. Lead vocalist Alex Trimble can air it out. I usually prefer acoustic music, but their unplugged sound is a bit too indie generic, so you might want to listen to the amped version of “Next Year” and see which you like better. By the way, the band name was lifted from a movie theater.

If your politics list toward the conservative end of the spectrum, the Cerny Brothers are for you. This Nashville-based country/bluegrass/Americana duo claim they’re not selling any ideology, but one of their songs is called “Bullshit” and I’d have to call it on them. Their EP Common Sense is chockful of hyper-patriotism and put-downs of liberals, political correctness, and those who criticize anything about America. The other track names say it all: “America the Brave,” “America This America That,” “Grand Ole USA,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” (Yes, it’s the national anthem.) An older song, “American Whore” is an apologetic for materialism. Although unreflective nationalism makes me nervous, the Cenrys have the right to hold any views they wish. Just own ‘em, boys. And maybe follow the lead of…

The Menzingers. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the Cernys and “America You’re Freaking Me Out” with lyrics such as: To these sing-alongs of siren songs/To ooh’s and ahh’s/To big applause/With all of my anger I scream and shout/America, I love you but you’re freaking me out. Yeah, I think it’s down-right patriotic to criticize the stuff mentioned in this song: homelessness amidst wealth, monstrous politicians, needless pomp, religious hypocrisy…. Now I’ve got that off my chest, The Menzingers are an excellent punk rock band from Scranton, PA. I like how they can keep their edge acoustically but also jump and sweat through a noisy “Strangers Forever." (The sound quality isn’t great on this clip, check out the energy.)

Chris Knight has 9 albums to his credit, but he’s perhaps better known as a songwriter. He visited Paste Studio in Atlanta to sing three songs off his newest release, Almost Daylight, plus the title track from 2012’s Little Victories. Knight grew up in Kentucky, worked as a mine inspector, and still lives in the Bluegrass State. By his own admission, Steve Earle and John Prine inspired him to write music. You’ll certainly hear Earle’s blue-collar cut-to-the-bone ethos in songs like the hard-driving “Crooked Mile,” an outlaw love song with backwoods survivalist coloring: I ain’t never had nothing/I ain’t never had nothing to hold on to/I ain’t even been living/Ain’t ever been living till I found you. “I’m William Callahan” explores some of the same themes through the eyes of a rambler and a former “Cajun queen” who hopped the rails and never looked back. Knight’s vocals are equally rough-hewn–and honest.

Rob Weir

3/18/20

Azalea, Cora, Tiny Ruins, Randolph,Appalchian Rising, and More



If the new album from Azalea has a house concert feel, that’s because it is. Live at Home is exactly as billed–an album recorded before a small gathering at the Hamilton, Ontario, home of Benjamin and Mia Hackett. This husband and wife duo draws comparisons to The Civil Wars, but from my perspective, the song “Falling Slowly” tells a different story. Some might recognize that song from the movie/play Once. The Hacketts do an absolutely gorgeous cover of it and it’s heartfelt; they too fell in love while on the music circuit. “Butterflies and Alchemists” is another defining song. It opens with ringing tones from Benjamin’s guitar and his high tenor vocals. Mia joins in and harmonizes with her angelic soprano. That’s what you get from Azalea–intimate songs, gorgeous harmonies, and soothing music. Small wonder that the album also contains a song titled “Your Lullaby.” There is slightly more grit on “Come with Me,” which is given some grit from Benjamin’s resonator guitar and Mia’s robust piano chording, but even it wends its way into something more lovely than aggressive. If there is a flaw in the album/concert, it is that all of the songs are beautiful. Some may yearn for more contrasts and colors, I suppose, but it’s hard to knock radiance. ★★★★  

Let’s stay in Ontario. Paige Cora is a dream-pop singer. That handle generally means that the vox are breathy and echoey, whilst the instrumentation is heavy on synthesizers and atmospherics. Actually, Cora is more substantive than is suggested by the term. Her debut album Instant in Time is polished, sincere, and varied in its approach. It all starts with the production. Cora lives in Fort Erie, Ontario, but she crossed the Niagara River to record in Buffalo, and sent the result to Abbey Road Studio to be mastered. There’s double irony in the project being finished in London; there are hints of an English accent in Cora’s voice. Cora backs most of her music with piano, though it’s not always the prime part of an arrangement. On “The Good Side of Desire,” Cora uses repeated piano notes to create space for Frank Grizanti’s guitar to make some serious noise. (Perhaps this is a holdover from the days in which Cora played in a Toronto grunge band.) Big production and meaningful lyrics are major components of Cora’s music. “Forest Pine” showcases robust piano, brass, cello, and some words that are miles beyond usual pop sentiments. She describes letting go of a lover thusly: Yes I will return you to the lost northern wind/Hang up your hat where the leaves roam/Stone to sand and to glass/Forces of light/Gave me a glance. And how many pop stars write tender songs for strangers? Her “Bicycle Bells” tells of a couple from France who moved to Toronto only to have the husband die when a tree branch fell on him in a city park. Cora spins a tale of remembrance from the widow’s point of view that finds grace amidst tragedy. Another great track is “Long Goodbye.” Like most of her music, it is dramatic and the band and lyrics dynamic: Funny, how we box ourselves in to be taken as fools/just to be handed the rules. This one shows Cora’s range, which goes beyond the breathy stuff. Cora is an artist to watch.  ★★★★

Auckland’s Tiny Ruins has appeared before on this blog. It’s actually the stage name for vocalist and guitarist Hollie Fullbrook. Her new album Olympic Girls comes from a much-needed break from grueling tours–a built-in obstacle for New Zealand musicians. Fullbrook began as a folk singer/songwriter, but has recently delved into dream-pop. (See Paige Cora above). The title song, which climbed to #19 on the New Zealand charts, isn’t what you think. It’s based on a long conversation with a man on a bus and contains this line: You only had your Olympic girls/The frosted sheen of leotard twins/Running revolt and winning gold/For the TV screen/Before being led back to the cells. Her seat partner had been in prison and spoke of the irony of being incarcerated while watching those with freedom soar. In “School of Design,” Fullbrook explores the urge to break through the ceiling in a different context. It has a Leonard Cohen feel in its oblique musings that are shaped more by atmosphere than melody. Fullbrook’s voice is lovely, but it’s certainly not Sandy Denny-like in clarity and you may find it necessary to Google her lyrics. Songs such as “One Million Flowers” work better because there is less going on and we can concentrate on the lyrics, and on melody lines that take us from contemplation to something more playful and back again. I confess to missing the energy of Fullbrook’s earlier work. Her dream-pop too often becomes languid. ★★ ½

Robert Randolph has become a blues/funk/soul legend. He usually tours with a full group called The Family Band, but it was just he and Steve Ray Ladson at Paste Studios. They delivered a blues clinic in four songs. Two of them, “Strange Train” and “Baptize Me” are from the Grammy-nominated Brighter Days album. Randolph’s music is informed by tons of past greats, as well as more recent heroes such as The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page. Like many African American blues performers, he got his start in church, but one of the cool things about black Christianity is that it isn’t afraid of all things sensual. Randolph, who plays lap and pedal steel guitars, can wail out an electric gospel-influenced number one moment, but in the next breath cover Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan.” When he sings, Mmmm, black snake crawling in my room/Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon he isn’t singing about pest control. When this dude plays, the room begins to sweat. ★★★★

Short Cuts

Ben Lee recently showed up at Paste Studios and performed acoustic versions of three songs: “Divine Hammer,” “Web in Front,” and “Sugar Kane.” He has both verve and moxie as these are not his songs; the first comes from The Pixies, the second from Archers of Loaf, and the third from Sonic Youth. Lee does a credible job, but is there a point to doing other people’s stuff when you’re allegedly showcasing your own chops?

Tennessee’s Colony House has made some waves in the indie rock scene and if you don’t know the band already, another Paste Studio performance offers three good reasons why you should. “You KnowIt” is the single from the band’s 2017 album. It has a cool retro feel, especially Scott Mills’ surf guitar licks. You’ll also notice that lead vocalist Caleb Chapman has both powerful and smooth pipes. On “Original Material,” he slides into falsetto range, and his phrasing is catchy and tight. “Looking for Some Light” is an optimistic response to life’s kick-in-the-teeth moments.” Check out the lyric video on that one.

Rising Appalachia is often a six-member lineup, but the essential core is the Smith sisters, Leah and Chloe. As the name suggests, they are a bluegrass lineup, though they often incorporate world music into their repertoire. Recently they visited Paste Studios in Atlanta as (mostly) a duo. They dust off their a cappella chops on a gorgeous rendition of “Bright Morning Star.” Add some banjo and bodhran thumps to their amazing harmonies and you’ve got “Resilient” and its message I’m made of thunder, I’m made of lightning. Standing up to life’s slings and arrows is also the message of “Find Your Way.” Can’t wait to catch these ladies live.

Rob Weir