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Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
by Eric Schlosser
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.57
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5.0 out of 5 stars Somehow we're all still here..., May 10, 2015
After reading Eric Schlosser's horrifying and addictive "Command and Control," many may find it incredible that humanity somehow managed not to blow itself into tiny radioactive bits during the tumultuous and sometimes reckless twentieth century. Throughout this jaw-dropping narrative Schlosser's subtext seems to scream unabated "oh please, civilization, please, oh dear god, please come to your senses!" Using previously classified documents, the book reveals just how close the United States came, on surprisingly numerous occasions, to an accidental nuclear explosion within its own borders. Some of these incidents, even without an actual detonation, could have spilled lethal fallout onto nearby urban areas. The Cuban Missile Crisis may remain the closest we came to another country eliminating us with nuclear weapons, but we apparently came close to at least partially eliminating ourselves a surprising number of times. One of the book's subtitles, "the illusion of safety," adequately sums up the attitude that some in the military and government had to humankind's most self-destructive and deadly creation. Power, economics and national defense undergirded much of this illusion. Only a few seemed to realize that possessors of super destructive weapons may inadvertently blow themselves up with these same weapons prior to unleashing this ominous power onto their rivals. "Command and Control" shows just how close we came.

Two parallel stories run throughout the text and gradually converge to emphasize the main point. A general history of the technological and political development of nuclear weapons from World War II through the Cold War and to the present weaves with the chilling story of a Titan II missile accident at a silo complex in Damascus, Arkansas in 1980. The Damascus story unfolds in the style of a good old thrilling newspaper serial. Each chapter ends on a nail-biting cliffhanger inserted into the wider general history of nuclear weapons. This approach could have resulted in a distracting and annoying unity as readers absorbed in the Damascus drama find themselves once again trudging through numerous pages of history, politics and science to eagerly find out what happens as alarm bells continue to sound in the silo. But the intertwining of the stories manages to heighten the drama of both narrative threads as one slowly informs the other. And both stories contain an equal amount of tension as a few historical examples clearly demonstrate: the frightening 1954 Bikini Atoll tests; the rise and fall of Strategic Air Command, complete with Jimmy Stewart film; debates and coverups over the "missile gap"; the seemingly suicidal, and now thankfully obsolete, SIOP; "mutually assured destruction"; the 1979 inadvertent insertion of a training tape into NORAD computers that indicated a Soviet strike. The intermingling of these stories, similar to the dangerous oxidizer based fuel system of the Titan II, finally and inevitably explodes. The climax arrives like a completely unexpected shock, though a few foreshadowed the event despite repeated assurances that "everything is OK." Masterfully, the Titan II's fuel system provides a fundamental metaphor for the book and the history and future of nuclear weapons in general: the correct combination of elements, expected or unexpected, will combust. Given enough complexity and the human element, which always involves a margin of error, a small seemingly insignificant event can easily catalyze into a catastrophe. That risk still exists today and some argue that the risk is greater than ever.

But somehow the most ominous elements haven't yet merged and erupted. We're still here. The Cold War didn't end in nuclear holocaust. We survived the Cuban Missile crisis. The Soviet Union dissolved. The Damascus incident, though plenty horrifying, didn't culminate in the detonation of a nuclear warhead. Even countless other previously classified and documented incidents involving American bombers carrying multiple warheads crashing or bursting into flames, such as the 1961 Goldsboro accident, didn't result in full nuclear explosions. The book relates a true miracle. Despite the shocking and well documented, and often denied, safety flaws in America's historical command and control system, mass disaster was averted. Given the sheer number of harrowing events and close calls, particularly throughout the 1950s and 1960s when the world's superpowers remained on almost constant nuclear alert, some, even some military personnel, attribute this to inconceivable good luck or even, in one case, to "divine intervention." A few unsung heroes recognized the risks and attempted to escalate them, usually to no avail until the end of the Cold War. Though many needed safety measures were eventually enacted, the risks of the correct combination of elements remains. The book highlights the ongoing tensions between the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan. China also has increased nuclear ambitions with its "underground Great Wall" project. George W. Bush's administration increased nuclear spending and development following 911. North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons. A growing risk of cyber attacks looms over the world's arsenal. The book predates the recent rising ire between the United States, the European Union and Russia over Ukraine and other disputes, which could also easily escalate. Debates on outright nuclear bans or a continuance of deterrence endure. Some argue that no one can now "un-invent" nuclear weapons so bans remain unrealistic and utopian. Others think that only a well enforced total ban can save humanity from an inevitable, and possibly accidental, destruction. Whatever the case, "Command and Control" clearly shows that many potentially explosive elements still exist today, along with enough immensely destructive weapons able to bring about an intended or unintended global disaster. Despite the general disappearance of nuclear weapons from the media, all of these volatile elements continue to linger, waiting for just the right combinations to intermingle like the fuel of the now retired Titan II. "Command and Control" provides an apt, and a very serious, warning.

Babeti Soukous
Babeti Soukous
Price: $7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars One of Real World Records' 1989 inaugural releases..., April 30, 2015
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This review is from: Babeti Soukous (MP3 Music)
Way back in 1989, it seems like a different universe now, Peter Gabriel released his acclaimed soundtrack for "The Last Temptation of Christ." Coming out of a short hiatus following his massive hit album "So," many anticipated the release of this mostly instrumental album, but even more was to come. Those who noticed the thin strip of rainbow colors in the lower left of Gabriel's new album may have noticed identical markings on certain CDs in the international or "World Music" section. Each color represented a region of the world that Gabriel's new record label "Real World" would represent through approximately a half dozen new albums per year. Those who paid attention, especially in the particularly musically myopic United States, would find themselves ear to brain with some of the world's most amazing artists. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Geoffrey Oryema, Remmy Ongala, Orquesta Revé, the Musicians of the Nile and long established Congolese artist Tabu Ley. Many more incredible releases were to come and thankfully the label still forges on today. It all began in 1989 and "Babeti Soukous" helped kick off the then nascent label.

Though many consider "Babeti Soukous," Tabu Ley's only Real World recording, a more lackluster effort, the album, containing a completely live set, nonetheless contains enough highlights to justify a listen. "Linga Ngai," arguably the album's most rousing track, slowly builds up into a revelatory and mesmerizing chorus with swooping vocal fireworks and an unforgettable vocal melody. Faya Tess, who apparently went on to a successful career of her own, gets introduced by Tabu Ley before "Moto Akokufa" to complete silence. She gradually wins the crowd over before Tabu Ley returns to the microphone following the beautiful "Nairobi." The powerful instrumental "I Need You" begins almost hyperactively, slows down into a solid groove and then the horns take over gloriously right to the finish. The music throughout remains relatively more laid back and sedentary than some of the explosive performances of other soukous artists. Things could have definitely been cranked up a notch or two, but the album remains enjoyable throughout, though admittedly a little sluggish in places. Also, antithetical to most live performances, the energy generally depletes as the set progresses.

Tabu Ley's career stretched from the 1950s until his death in 2013. He also held various political positions and apparently bore prolific progeny. He remains one of the most influential African artists of the twentieth century. Though "Babeti Soukous" may not have presented him at his absolute best, it very likely introduced him to many who may not have heard of him otherwise. Real World Records, sometimes controversially, would continue this tradition throughout its long and still sentient life.

Offered by SONY Music Entertainment Downloads LLC.
Price: $8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Just You, Just Monk..., April 4, 2015
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This review is from: Monk. (MP3 Music)
Jazz pianist and indubitable musical genius Thelonious Monk had a way of covering songs so effectively that the original versions became almost irrelevant relative to his singular reworkings. By 1964, arguably the peak of his popularity and as jazz waned from mainstream dominance, he had recorded countless covers of standards and classics. One could perhaps call his covers "rewritings" given their unique, idiosyncratic and instantly identifiable stylings. Unfortunately, as his controversial Columbia years rolled on, critics continually accused Monk of regurgitating past material instead of breaking new ground. Recent revelations of Monk's decreasing mental health during the 1960s likely explains some of this dearth of original material, but Monk's Columbia recordings nonetheless sound fresh and vibrant today. The vast majority of them, though arranged identically with few deviations, contain purely concentrated and thoroughly entertaining Monk.

Monk's second 1964 studio album, the second album of his career emblazoned with the unforgettable title "Monk," probably further fueled accusations of eternal musical recurrence. His previous release, "It's Monk's Time," featured three brand new, and undeniably bizarre, compositions. "Monk" only had one, the brilliantly boppy "Teo." This catchy number lets out with a staccato melodic pattern that rhythmically approaches Morse code. An appropriately angular piano solo leads into the mathematically precise stop-drenched theme's reprise. Apart from that, "Children's Song(That Old Man)," a playful reworking of the classic children's song and the beautifully rendered solo piano "I Love You (Sweetheart of all My Dreams)," had never before appeared.

Still, Monk has a way of breathing new life even into re-runs. The album opens with the frenzied "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)." Its head bobbing, foot tapping drive could drag someone back from the brink of despair. Here stands a supreme example of Monk's power to use rollicking beats and dissonance to express happiness and joy. Monk's music ranges from ecstatically happy to introspective, or sometimes even pensive, but never depressing. "April In Paris" exemplifies Monk's introspective powers. Its nuanced dissonant piano rolls evoke a rainy day on a sheltered balcony as the rain gently falls onto the landscape. Relaxing, a bit brooding, possibly slightly melancholy, but never hopeless. "Just You, Just Me" presents a mellow swinging version of the popular 1929 stage song. Monk has recorded more memorable versions of "Pannonica" than the one included here, but it still satisfies in many ways, including the deep low piano tones that rumble ominously in the first few bars.

The original LP release ended with "Teo." A subsequent reissue includes alternate takes of "April In Paris," "Pannonica" and a medley of "Just You, Just Me" and "Liza." "Pannonica" does not include the low piano notes but features plenty of giddy Monk-esque piano play. The medley considerably speeds up "Just You, Just Me" and suddenly transitions into "Liza" during the saxophone solo then ends again on "Just You, Just Me," leaving the lingering thought that this frenetic interweaving was possibly a happy accident.

Few would probably declare "Monk" the best Thelonious Monk album, or even rank it amongst his best. Regardless, it sounds strong beside his best Columbia material and it stands up well on repeated listenings. But it does lack a certain amount of adventure and energy compared to "Monk's Dream" or "Criss Cross." Most Monk fans won't care or notice and enjoy every nanosecond anyway. Monk would nevertheless rise again with a final burst of creativity before retiring his nimble fingers and penetrating musical mind forever. That day still reverberates with sadness for lovers of innovative music.

Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks
Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks
by Dick Cavett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.51
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4.0 out of 5 stars May make you think twice before desecrating a statue of William Jennings Bryan..., March 29, 2015
How many of us would like to spend our younger years interviewing and fraternizing with interesting and influential people and then, following that all too inevitable aging process, spend time reminiscing, writing and publishing about those earlier years of glory? The man whom Judy Garland hilariously asked "what's it like to be a legend?" has done just that in, so far, two books featuring articles from his online New York Times column. In many ways, Dick Cavett's now long absent and frequently cancelled talk show fully deserves the adjective "legendary." YouTube, which has permanently syndicated copious amounts of previously impossible to find material, has caused Cavett fans to mourn the show's passing and subsequent generations to discover just what wonders they missed via the abject misery of being born too late. His show often featured a single guest interviewed for an entire hour, which seems unimaginable today. Many of these guests have since passed both from existence and into their own legendary realms. Names such as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Jimi Hendrix, Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Ray Charles, Marlon Brando, John Lennon, George Harrison and countless others. Some viewers acclimated by soundbites and instant and constant gratification may find Cavett's long form talk show a snoozer, but no one can deny the conversational depth that this format allowed. Though Cavett has spurned the title "intellectual," anyone yearning for substance in an age where substance seems vacuously absent may find it difficult not to apply this term to his long defunct show. Far from snobby, "The Dick Cavett Show" also managed to remain funny, as his remark to a then younger Carol Burnett attests: "Come on Carol, we know your life is riddled with vice."

Fast forward to the present century as the strata and detritus of information piles incomprehensibly high. Cavett now speaks to his gradually passing pre-internet generation in a monthly online column. Here he both shares stories from the lost past, along with some reflections on the present, and mourns the mortality of names that many from the current generation may find completely unfamiliar, as surprising as that may seem. These commentaries have also appeared in good old codex analog book form. Two books, so far, "Talk Show" and "Brief Encounters," provide a more tangible and tactile experience for those seeking such stimulus. The more recent "Brief Encounters" contains articles from approximately mid-2010 to early 2014, though not always in chronological order. The topic of uncomfortable dreams bookends the volume and provides parallelism for the collection, though the pieces appear out of their order of original publication, which marks one major difference between the online and pulpy versions. Each installment runs three to five pages and remains easily digestible in a short sitting. Most include interesting historical and philosophical reflections tinged with Cavett's distinct style of humor that has served him well.

The topics vary widely, but expect numerous tributes to recently passed celebrities, such as Art Linkletter, Jonathan Winters, Eddie Fisher, Tony Curtis, Dick Clark, Nora Ephron and James Gandolfini (he also wrote a pean to Sid Ceaser shortly after this book appeared - perhaps a third volume is ripening). Two pieces reflect on the now largely forgotten, yet incredibly influential, Arthur Godfrey, whose on-air "swan song" comment caused a national scandal. Cavett also comments on hugely disparate topics such as the New York City "Ground Zero" Mosque, the death of Osama Bin Laden, the "Book of Mormon" musical, awkward and enjoyable High School reunions, driving dangerously on ice, boyhood in Nebraska, his "gun-packing" days, the sorry state of the current Oscar's ceremonies, easily offended network executives, George S. Kaufman, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, his bizarre drunken episode following the cancellation of a Jerry Lewis special, opening for a mind-reading horse, meeting Steve Jobs (who asked him "how does it feel to be Dick Cavett?"), working for B-class comedians who "sort of" made it, Muhammad Ali's glory days and sad later days, alcoholism ruining careers, Mel Brooks and countless others. Unforgettable highlights include his telephone conversations with Marlene Dietrich, his touching visits to Stan Laurel's modest apartment in the 1960s and even more stories about the comedian he helped lionize, Groucho Marx. The tale of his introduction to the 1972 "An Evening with Groucho" recorded at Carnegie Hall gives that event a somewhat melancholy, though bittersweet, dimension. One bizarrely shocking piece discusses the nude photos that certain Ivy League schools used to take of their students for scientific research that stank of both physiognomy and eugenics. Cavett talks about lining up, fully naked and shivering, with his classmates in a gymnasium waiting their turn at naked photography from multiple angles (the good news: this no longer happens). But perhaps the most charmingly anti-heroic tale concerns Cavett's adolescent involvement in the desecration of a controversial William Jennings Bryan statue that once stood on the capitol grounds in Lincoln, Nebraska. No one caught him and the event made local news (a reader even sent in a long lost photo which appears in the book), but others pointed out to him later that, had authorities caught him and his friends, his life may have changed in startling and horrifying ways. Confession: better late than never? Or maybe never?

Some may experience a trace of unintended nostalgic or sentimental sadness in these columns as they relate of times past and people fading into inexorable history. It seems strange and paradoxical that names that once illuminated marquees and screens now seem almost doomed to eternal oblivion. What will future generations think of those that came before? We have no control over what will happen, but regardless of what the nebulous future holds, Cavett's column provides a healthy dose of entertaining history and reflections on what has passed and how it relates to the ever-present now. In any case, writing that evokes both thought and a litany of emotions always has value and Cavett's recent books evoke plenty of both.

Madeleine (French Edition)
Madeleine (French Edition)
by Ludwig Bemelmans
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $14.42
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5.0 out of 5 stars Madeline in French... c'est parfait!, March 11, 2015
Madeleine, the smallest and the mightiest. This tiny book inaugurates the well-known series published from 1939 to 1961 by Austrian author Ludwig Bemelmans. Originally published in English, this French translation serves as the perfect linguistic backdrop since the story takes place in an orphanage in Paris. The "plus petite" girl Madeleine has no fear of tigers (caged ones, at least), mice or gravity. She loves the icy winter and presents a perfect example to the rest of her troop, led by the stalwart and habit-bearing Miss Clavel. But one night this little fearless red-headed girl sits up in bed groaning in pain. The doctor arrives and rushes her to the hospital. Strangely, this makes the rest of the girls miserably jealous. The story ends with one of the greatest twists of all juvenile literature. Simple but highly effective artwork accompanies the simple story. Some pages feature nearly impressionistic colors and wildly stylized backgrounds, such as the zoo scene with the roaring tiger. Others contain stark black on yellow line drawings with very minimalistic coloring. These variations provide the perfect visual fireworks to the narrative drama.

The French translation manages impressively to preserve the original rhyming scheme in many places. This does result in some jostling of standard word order, so absolute beginners to French may find themselves a little perplexed here and there. As for the language level, it remains at the late beginner to early intermediate throughout. Those undaunted by sentences such as "se renfrognaient s'il le fallait" will encounter few challenges. The imperfect tense seems to dominate the story. Apart from some vocabulary, which any dictionary will illuminate, this story probably serves as a good first real read in French for those just breaking out of grammar and vocabulary drills. Again, absolute beginners familiar with only the present tense will need to study further before confidently mastering this little tale. And for those of any age who already read French, this tiny book simply offers a great and hilarious read. Everyone who reads this will want their appendix out. Well, maybe not, but the book does somehow make it look like fun.

The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (Expanded Version)
The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads (Expanded Version)
Price: $16.49

5.0 out of 5 stars The "other" Talking Heads live album finally emerges from the shadows..., March 9, 2015
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Talking Heads' "other" live album, with its appropriately deadpan title "The Name of this Band is Talking Heads," has lived unfairly in the shadow of the highly acclaimed "Stop Making Sense." Released only two years earlier, it clearly preserves the band's almost shocking transformation from a stripped down "pop punk" quartet into a full ensemble utilizing aspects of African and South American styles. Originally released as a double album set sequined with band photos ranging from their humble beginnings to their dense "Remain in Light" lineup, it remained available only on vinyl and cassette (remember those?) for years. Finally, someone had the sense to release the set on CD in 2004 with a generously bulging litany of extra tracks. The LPs original 17 songs inflated, like a Big Bang of bonus, into an incomprehensible 33 tracks. Following the original release's format, the performances appear more or less in chronological order and date from 1977 to 1981.

The band's true early quirkiness, which likely explains their niche appeal, rings throughout the performances. David Byrne's sometimes highly exaggerated vocals, ranging from humorous to terrifying, probably provide the largest contrast between this collection and the relatively more reserved "Stop Making Sense." He elongates, almost to absurdity, the terminal "me" on "Don't Worry About the Government," provoking audible laughter from the audience. His screaming voice becomes almost muppet-like towards the end of "Mind." The vocals become more controlled and less wild as the album and the songs' harmonic complexities progress, but only in comparison to the early performances. Adrian Belew's inimitable and ethereal guitar also distinguishes the early and later sets. Not to mention that the sheer size and vastness of the cheering audiences seems to grow with time.

Some of the unquestionable highlights include songs that never appeared on the group's standard releases. "A Clean Break (Let's Work)" and the lambda statement infused "Love--> Building On Fire," which served as their first commercial release, prove that Talking Heads can also produce incredible outtakes. "Electricty(Drugs)" also shows how songs could evolve over time. Though perfectly recognizable as an early incarnation of the surreal and ineffable "Drugs," this primordial version nonetheless provides enough of a contrast to make it interesting in itself. The version of "Born Under Punches(The Heat Goes On)" sounds nearly unrecognizable until Byrne half sings half speaks the classic line "take a look at these hands." And of course the album features two somewhat distinct versions of their early signature song "Psycho Killer." The probably Brian Eno-inspired effects on the later version sound more than appropriately psychotic. Also, the 1977 version features the later abandoned "I passed out hours ago" verse. This collection, like some live albums, does not simply rehash the songs as recorded but often pushes them in new directions and energizes them in ways that don't seem possible. Talking Heads, in all of their various permutations, definitely put on a good show. Their undeniable creative and musical power permeates every performance of this amazing anthology.

Though, in retrospect, this album also sadly closes a chapter. Following these tours the band stopped working with Brian Eno and went in a completely new direction that made this innovative and arguably "intellectual" band into an unexpected pop sensation. The band also began to unravel personally as the artistic differences between Byrne and the other members began to slowly saturate the music press. Innovations that culminated with "Remain In Light" were put on hold until the band's final release, "Naked," which explored additional aspects of world music. In short, the band was never the same, for better or worse, though their success skyrocketed exponentially. "The Name of this Band is Talking Heads" captures this bygone and forever lost era as the band progressed and pushed themselves in unimaginable and unprecedented ways. They would tour only once more before, Beatles-style, becoming an exclusive studio band. The album may also evoke reflection on a time when live performance focused more on music rather than image, not to mention that the live setting could serve as an innovative vehicle. Though Talking Heads definitely had a carefully tailored image, the music always seemed to dominate, as it clearly does on this collection. In any case, this incredible reissue of this once almost lost recording allows anyone to resurrect Talking Heads at their musical peak.

Sapo y Sepo, Inseparables = Frog and Toad Together (I Can Read! - Level 2) (Spanish Edition)
Sapo y Sepo, Inseparables = Frog and Toad Together (I Can Read! - Level 2) (Spanish Edition)
by Arnold Lobel
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.46
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4.0 out of 5 stars Stay together forever with Frog (Sepo) and Toad (Sapo) in Spanish..., March 7, 2015
Someone apparently couldn't resist the alliterative possibilities of translating the incredible "Frog and Toad" series into "Sapo y Sepo" rather than the probably more accurate, but less catchy, "Rana y Sapo." They also reversed the words from English, as "Sapo" seems to mean "toad," so this may cause some confusion. Otherwise, the similar sibilant words don't cause too many problems in Spanish, but sometimes one has to stop and think about who just said or did what: "was that Sapo? Or Sepo?" Using "rana" would have made the references clearer and caused less confusion. Nonetheless, the characters and the stories mostly overcome the limitations imposed on the use of these almost identical words.

"Sapo y Sepo Inseparables" translates the original 1972 book "Frog and Toad Together" into highly readable and enjoyable Spanish. All of the fun of the original comes through in translation and of course the book preserves the excellent original drawings. This, the second book in the series, features four stories highlighting the adventures of Frog (Sepo) with his somewhat more assured friend, Toad (Sapo). "La Lista" finds Sepo making a detailed list of everything he has to do that day ("Lista de cosas para hacer hoy"). Even his handwritten list gets translated into Spanish. But he seems a little too dependent on this list. In "El jardín" Sepo wants to equal Sapo's amazing horticultural skills, but shouting at the seeds doesn't seem to help. Gluttony reigns in "Las Galletas" as Sapo makes cookies (galletas) so tasty they cannot stop eating them. The birds definitely benefit in the end. "Dragones y Gigantes" finds the dynamic duo testing their bravery against giant snakes, hawks and avalanches. They of course never experience fear, especially while trembling under the covers or shut away in the closet. The surreal "El Sueño" could almost qualify as creepy as Sepo dreams about a fabulous dream performance he gives while his friend, Sapo, mysteriously shrinks and shrinks in size in the audience. The story seems to warn against those who need to prove something to others, or prove that they can do things "better" than others.

Though marketed as a book for kids, Spanish language learners of any age at the intermediate level will find this an enjoyable practice read. Most verb tenses appear, such as the present, preterite, imperfect and also some compound tenses. Beginners will probably find themselves quickly lost in the vocabulary and grammatical structures. But overall, the book provides a good read especially for those seeking enjoyable and humorous ways to improve their Spanish skills. Readers in any language and of any age will quickly find themselves never wanting to separate from "Sapo y Sepo."

Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience (Music)
Lunar Notes: Zoot Horn Rollo's Captain Beefheart Experience (Music)
by Bill Harkleroad
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Memoirs of a maniacally gifted guitarist..., March 7, 2015
Don Van Vliet christened maniacal guitarist Bill Harkleroad as "Zoot Horn Rollo" and blessed him with a sort of musical immortality on the unforgettable track "Big Eyed Beans From Venus." During a slight pause in the song's otherwise roaring instrumentation, Van Vliet (who, of course, everyone knows as "Captain Beefheart") says with his cool raspy voice "Mister Zoot Horn Rollo, play that long lunar note and let it float." It should surprise no one that Harkleroad would appropriate that cherished moment for the title of his reminiscences of his time with The Magic Band. "Lunar Notes" spins his twisted tale.

The preface describes how this book came about. Harkelroad outright admits that he can't write, so he just spilled his memories vocally into a tape recorder and let co-author and compiler Billy James assemble it all into a comprehensible written whole. Not surprisingly, the book reads like a transcription of a conversation, complete with informal language, the occasional digression and editorial commentary and even well-placed f-bombs here and there. It does not have the tone of an exhaustively researched and tirelessly worked over diary that relates events by the nanosecond. It really feels as if Harkleroad were sitting at the table across from the reader just relating what he remembers moment by moment. This makes for an effortless and breezy read that many will engulf fully in one or two sittings.

Harkleroad played with The Magic Band during their unquestionable peak. He joined while murmurs of "Trout Mask Replica," their most acclaimed work, began to bubble up in Van Vliet's skull. Expectations of fame and fortune followed his 19 year old idealism into the famous house on Ensanada Drive. Instead, he describes something akin to a musical sweatshop where 12 to 16 hour practice sessions, small rations of soya beans and emotional manipulation remained the norm. This almost incomprehensible concentration turned him into one of rock's most innovative guitarists, but it also seems to have taken quite a toll. He subsequently found a little bit of fame and absolutely no fortune. He claims to have made no money whatsoever from the albums he played on with The Magic Band.

Though present at the band's pinnacle, he also experienced its slow decline. He left the band after recording the often maligned "Unconditionally Guaranteed," for which he openly expresses embarrassment for his involvement. At that time he also decided that he could no longer stand Van Vliet's incessant manipulation and empty promises of writing credits and royalties. The entire band, broke and somewhat humiliated, quit just prior to the upcoming European tour. Harkleroad never played with Van Vliet again.

Throughout, the book paints a curious double portrait of Van Vliet. On one side, he had undeniable charm, humor, creativity and a magnetic personality that drew people to him. Harkleroad remembers "normal" times with him, such as fishing in a verdant lake or watching football on television. Times where he apparently didn't feel the need to keep up his "self-consciously clever" image. On the other, he controlled and possessed people with the fury of an autocrat with an irascible temper, brutally pitted band members against each other to the point of violence, made false promises and rarely showed up for rehearsals. Van Vliet comes across as a man who one could both hate and love with an equal passion. The book by no means trashes him and even manages to give a fairly balanced and sober view of "Captain Beefheart."

Harkleroad of course talks about music. He even played the role of musical transcriber after John French left the band and describes the Herculean process by which Van Vliet would deliver tapes of piano music for him to turn into playable and arrangeable tunes. Shockingly, he also memorized all of those insanely complicated guitar parts from "Trout Mask Replica" and "Lick My Decals Off, Baby." The band could apparently play them all perfectly at the drop of a hat with almost no variation. Some even involved overlapping and incompatible time signatures. Someone would play in 4/4, then another would play in 3/4 and the two disparate lines would somehow intersect. Completely mind boggling. He also gives song by song accounts for almost all of the Beefheart albums he appeared on.

Early on, Harkelroad says that he has "no illusions that this book will be about me." Regardless, it does include a lot of his own life and experiences before and after his Magic Band years. Apart from stories about meeting celebrities, good and bad gigs, parties and personal relationships, he also muses on his childhood, musical development and post Magic Band life. When the book first appeared in 1998, Harkleroad had abandoned recording and found himself teaching guitar and managing a CD store. He finally made some money and claimed a long yearned for financial solvency. The book ends on a somewhat resigned note as he relates his now relatively "normal" life with a wife and pets. Considering what he went through, he seems to have turned out rather well. Since 1998, he has recorded a solo album, reunited with former Magic Band members and continues teaching guitar (even over Skype, for a premium). Rolling Stone even included him in their "all time best guitarists" list in 2003. So regardless of the somewhat self-conscious ending of "Lunar Notes" his influence continues, though he has apparently shied away from Magic Band style playing. But somewhere in "Lunar Notes" he claims that one time he threatened to quit the band Van Vliet defiantly responded "you'll never quit. This will always be a part of you." Harkleroad admits that Van Vliet was correct. It never left him and it apparently still hasn't.

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5.0 out of 5 stars One of Tsuji's best albums, featuring a re-arrangement of her signature song..., February 28, 2015
This review is from: RENRENFUKA(reissue) (Audio CD)
Everyone seems to possess a list of artists that they consider tragically unappreciated. Listening to the sometimes substandard quality of popular music, which today focuses more on attitude, photogenic faces and bodies and marketability, won't help quell such grievances. One can hear the agonizing cries of the afflicted as they gnash their teeth, rend their flesh and howl "how can this shallow crap sell millions while [insert unappreciated artist here] remains painfully obscure? Why must life grind me to powder?!?" Life does contain many mysteries, but music, as a purely aesthetic experience, dwells mostly in the realms of opinion and personal taste. Today's predominant and furiously competitive winner take all music industry also limits the number of those who "reach the top" since scaling such heights requires large budgets, gratuitously manipulative saturation marketing and an omnipresence and ubiquity akin to a living god. Given such stifling requirements, only an infinitesimal fraction of artists ever really "make it." So spins the loaf.

Some may subsume Japanese singer-songwriter and ukulele connoisseur Tsuji Ayano under the category "unfairly marginalized." Her now long career demonstrates songwriting mastery and enough experimentation to almost qualify her as eclectic. Her fourth full-length album from 2003, "Renren Fuuka," provides a great example. Not only does it contain a re-worked version of her signature song, but also a potpourri of styles and moods. Ukulele appropriately saturates nearly every song and every song shows a growing artistic maturity. Knowledge of the Japanese language isn't required to enjoy the album, though the lyrics definitely add an extra dimension to the unforgettable music.

The album opens with the gorgeously haunting "Sakura no Ki no Shita de" or, roughly, "under the cherry tree blossoms." A waft of wavering synthesized strings glides over the delicate vocal melody. The song also gradually intensifies as guitar accompanies the first sparsely arranged verse, piano the second and the strings and additional instruments thereafter. "Arisatari na Romance," one of Tsuji's most uplifting songs follows, complete with a catchy "la la" refrain and a bouncy danceable rhythm. "Ameoto," or "the sound of rain," one of Tsuji's best songs, feels frustrated and self-questioning, as though exploring a tentative distant question. The strings provide perfect emphasis to the chorus, not to mention their excellent instrumental interlude. Other songs feature wind counter melodies, sparse arrangements where ukuele dominates, lush fully layered productions and even jazz. No duds mar this set.

Those who find this album after seeing "The Cat Returns" may want to look closer. This album does not contain the "acoustic" version of Tsuji's most famous song, "Kaze ni Naru," as featured in the Studio Ghibli film, but a faster and fully re-arranged version with lush strings, electric guitar and percussion. It's still excellent, but those wanting the film version should look to "Koi Suru Megane," an EP released the year before "Renren Fuuka," the CD single from the film or the 2009 "Tsuji Gift" compilation. "Tsuji Best" from 2006 contains the fully arranged version. Very complicated.

Tsuji never found absolute stardom even in Japan, but she did attain a respectable level of success with "Kaze ni Naru," two other film songs and numerous songs featured in commercials. She apparently sold enough albums to maintain her major label contract through some fifteen albums, EPs and compilations. For more than a decade she released something every year, but her output has groaned to a near halt recently. "Oh! Shigoto Special," a mash-up of mostly new songs, appeared in 2012 and, according to, she released two digital singles in 2013, but nothing since. Her all-Japanese blog shows her playing music festivals, hosting what looks like ukulele seminars and hanging out with friends in envy-inducing restaurants. Time will tell whether she has ceased producing new music, but even if she produces nothing else her litany of albums remains a testament to her songwriting skills and talents. Nonetheless, her fans will probably keep bemoaning her relative, and to them unjustified, obscurity.

Strange Angels
Strange Angels
Price: $9.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Anderson's most accessible album, but still undeniably quirky..., February 22, 2015
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This review is from: Strange Angels (MP3 Music)
Very few major label musicians arise from the obscure depths of the avant-garde, but by 1989 Laurie Anderson had accomplished that seemingly improbable task. The almost incomprehensible success of her 1981 experimental single "O Superman" in the UK led to a Warner Brothers contract, something even few blatant mainstream or gratuitous sellout artists ever achieve. They even released her sprawling magnum opus "United States Live," which spanned 5 LPs and later 4 CDs. She followed this up with "Home of the Brave," a feature length concert film and soundtrack album. Up to this point her music still felt far closer to the art world than anything one would hear on the radio or echoing through cavernous malls. Though she obviously never never went all out Top 40, "Strange Angels" represented a rather large step towards greater accessibility. Though still very much a quirky Laurie Anderson album, it sounds more akin to the pop music of its time than any of her previous work. Her trademark violin and heavy vocal treatments do not appear and she even learned how to sing. Her new-found beautiful and versatile singing voice graces every song and adds an entirely new dimension to her then well-known deadpan spoken word poetry. Every song contains musical and rhythmic complexity, but the electronic effects and synthesizers here sound considerably more conventional than anything on "Mister Heartbreak" or "Big Science." Some fans at the time cried "sellout!" (back when that accusation still meant something) and others reveled in how she applied a less angular and esoteric pop music approach to her inimitable style. Whether she wanted to pursue a larger audience (perhaps her cameo on Peter Gabriel's 1986 mega-selling "So" provided a taste) or just experiment with popular music stylings, "Strange Angels" remains a highly enjoyable anomaly in her catalog.

The album contains many highlights. "Monkey's Paw" combines a chilling 1902 W.W. Jacobs short story with warnings of cybernetic wish fulfillment and ecology. It begins with an amazing display of echo-drenched vocal acrobatics. Probably even more disturbingly relevant today, the verses talk of FM stereo dental implants, "high heeled feet" and strategic mole placement. Ominous choruses chant about nature's rules, laws and the tenuousness of life and evoke the monkey's paw symbolism, which suggests people who receive their deepest desires but at an unexpected and terribly heavy price. Other verses tell of people trapped in an all too familiar way: "I got everything I ever wanted, now I can't give it up, it's a trap, just my luck!" "Baby Doll" sees Anderson struggling with her seemingly autonomous brain who demands that "they" go to the movies, to the ballpark or to Tahiti. Not a pean to free will. "Beautiful Red Dress" paints a picture of a woman on a somewhat self-deluded prowl and then suddenly cuts in with a small interlude on the (still existing) gender wage gap, which includes the great line "for every dollar a man makes a woman makes 63 cents. now, fifty years ago that was 62 cents. so, with that kind of luck, it'll be the year 3,888 before we make a buck." The song then explodes into seemingly defiant lines suggesting making it and faking it and "saving ourselves," but then the whole surge dissolves into the line "but tonight I've got a headache." "The Day of The Devil" contains a rousing gospel chorus and great devil growlings by Anderson.

Around the time of "Strange Angels" Anderson filmed a series of short brilliant "public service announcements" that discuss the national anthem, misplaced protests, tv lunches, "Jerry Rigging," the national debt and other things. These apparently stood in for the then "necessary" music videos, but Anderson did shoot one for "Beautiful Red Dress." She also continued working in the arts, but her recording career then experienced a long hiatus. Only two albums appeared in the 1990s, one of them entirely spoken word, before "Life On A String" broke the silence in 2001. Then yet another decade nearly passed before she released her most recent album "Homeland" in 2010. Whether "Strange Angels" resulted in a slight retreat from mainstream recording remains an open question, but her major label recordings slowed considerably following her arguably most accessible and straight-forward effort. Her work in general didn't slow down and she continued to experiment with multimedia and even became NASA's artist in residence. We probably haven't heard the last of her yet.

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