Saturday, December 31, 2016

Marcy Playground vs. The World

Every few months or so, I fix a drink and (only half-) jokingly posit the argument that Marcy Playground’s self-titled debut album is better than anything Nirvana ever recorded. Now I realize this argument has obvious flaws and does not hold up to many serious (or even casual) listeners. I am merely making the statement because it always leads to an amusing, albeit intense, discussion which I am more than happy to instigate. Ultimately, I have no problems conceding that Nirvana is the better band; but at its best, Marcy Playground is honorably reminiscent of Nirvana, and there is nothing cheap about it.

Nirvana has been and forever will be remembered as the face of grunge. Supposing a casual listener was asked to imagine a grunge group from the 1990s, most would probably picture Nirvana. Certain rock groups like Mudhoney in the mid-80s had more to do with its inception, surely, but the rock band from Aberdeen brought grunge into mainstream popularity. And Nirvana was at the forefront of this scene, inspiring countless rock musicians after them. Marcy Playground was one of these groups inspired by the grunge wave.

With the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain, the band ceased making music and remaining members pursued different projects. This shift marked the end of grunge as the most popular form of rock music in America. I’ve often thought Cobain single-handedly brought about this change. Britpop bands such as Blur and Oasis rose in popularity, pushing the harder grunge out of the limelight. On the other side of the country, roughly two years after the death of Cobain, Marcy Playground became a part of this tail end of grunge and the beginning of the new, post-grunge.

Marcy Playground may have enjoyed a longer career than Nirvana, but they have received far less notoriety in the world of music. For whatever reason, Marcy’s fame has been largely reduced to a single. Back to the original argument, however, Marcy Playground’s 1997 debut album, taken as a whole, is a near-perfect example of rock music from the 1990s. Of course, its legacy does not compete with, say, a 10x Platinum selling album like Nevermind, but it definitely deserves to be discussed in the history of rock in the 1990s. At the very least, it deserves better acclaim than it has received. It should be remembered as a suitable tribute to Nevermind. Even looking at the track-listing shows that Marcy owes something to Nirvana and are paying it back with this album. So, I am not comparing the two albums directly to decide which is better; instead, there are multiple occasions in which Marcy Playground can be depicted accurately as a proper tribute to Nevermind. And to me, the two complement each other in such a way that makes them equally important. They should come up in the same conversation. This can best be observed by listening to the albums side-by-side:

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“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Poppies” Little more can be said of Nirvana’s explosive opener to Nevermind that has not already been said. The first several chords are unforgettable. Cobain’s wailing, nearly unintelligible lyrics haunt the entire song. Complete with heavy riffs and watery bridges, the song serves as a perfect opener for a strong album. There’s a reason it is VH1’s best song of the 1990s. It is (rightfully) the first song most people think of when they think of Nirvana. The allure of “Teen Spirit” is aggressive for five full minutes, as Cobain dares you to participate in the anarchy of punk rock. Instead of being frightening, however, the power of the song is welcoming, even addicting. In short, the song serves a dual purpose: it is catchy enough to ensnare casual listeners and raw enough to reach fans of heavier music. It is Cobain’s “ultimate pop song” and it is an incredible beginning to the sounds of Nevermind.
     In sharp contrast, “Poppies” is just that--poppy. It is a short song with bouncy guitar and lyrics that just carries with it a good mood. Indeed, the song is catchy enough that it sounds like a radio single. Yet, underneath this fluff, there lies power chords that clearly demonstrates the influences of Nirvana and the rest of the grunge movement. Interestingly, the upbeat pace of the music is juxtaposed with fairly dark lyrics. The song tells a loose story of the influx of opium from China in the early part of the 20th century. Considering the possibility, even probability, that this album is a tribute to Nevermind, these lyrics are the first of many allusions to Nirvana in the form of Cobain’s battle with heroin addiction. All in all, “Poppies” is a short opener on a short album and it sets the tone nicely for the rest of the tracks.

“In Bloom” and “Sex and Candy” “In Bloom” rocks hard. It is the heaviest song on the album, and, as a result, it reasonably bridges the gap from 1980s metal to 1990s grunge. As the final tones of “Teen Spirit” drone out, the opening chords of “In Bloom” take over the listening space. Dave Grohl’s drums guide the song into the lilting, powerful verses. In fact, there is not a song on this album that more clearly exhibits Grohl’s drumming talent. Many moments in this song hang directly upon Grohl’s ability to carry a measure with a seemingly effortless drum fill. The lyrics, somewhat sardonically, are meant to reveal to listeners that Nirvana is more than just a pop act. Sure, the songs are catchy, but therein lies a deeper meaning, one that the average listener might not “know what it means.” Furthermore, a bridge towards the end of the song displays the pedal-driven, distorted, and woozy sound that was emblematic of a time period which included shoegazing acts. “In Bloom” successfully linked its metal audiences with popular music of the time. If “Teen Spirit” was enough to grab listeners, “In Bloom” subsequently kept them excited.
     “Sex and Candy” is, as everyone probably knows, the song that gives relevance to Marcy Playground. Charting at number one for fifteen weeks, it was by far the band’s most successful single from the album. It has maintained a moderate level of popularity, even appearing at #73 on VH1’s (highly) subjective list of 100 songs of the 1990s. And it truly is an enjoyable song. It is short and sweet (no pun intended) and to the point. Some of the lyrics may be corny, to be sure, but compared to some other lyrics of the decade, these fit in nicely. Stripped down, the song portrays a possible romantic affair between the band’s lead singer and an attractive girl who is apparently soaked in various sweets. The video is no help either. All I can gather is that the lead singer is nonplussed by large spiders. But the melody is bouncy, and the lyrics are mellow, making it an altogether catchy tune. The unfortunate fact remains, however, that this is the only remembrance of an otherwise forgotten band.

“Come as You Are” and “Ancient Walls of Flowers” At first, “Come as You Are” sounds a bit like a departure from the first two songs on the album. Sure, the chorus creates a headbanging attitude, and the guitar solo, one of the longest you will find in any Nirvana song, is distorted just enough. Coming off the heels of “In Bloom,” however, this song elaborates on another side of Nirvana, a mellowness we have not yet seen in the first ten minutes of the album. The tempo is quick and upbeat, but a smooth, pervasive guitar riff from Cobain carries on throughout, consistently grounding the song. Chronologically, it was the second single from Nevermind, and it charted well, showing a diversion from hard rock. Three years later, “Come as You Are” appeared on their MTV Unplugged in New York live album as the most well-known song in the collection. Because of the acoustic setting, the song fits in easily, where other, harder songs might not have.
     From the beginning, “Ancient Walls of Flowers” sounds noticeably different as well. An acoustic guitar picks up a slow groove. Drums come in subtly after a few seconds and it begins to feel like a true blues song. Once again, I have no idea what the lyrics mean (not at all uncommon on this album), but I am forced to presume that substances are involved, causing the vocalist to “mess his mind inside.” That said, the song sounds very comfortable and laid back. The folky blues tones are very refreshing; the acoustic solo near the end of the song is incredibly appropriate. Not overdone and complex, the solo represents a minimalist tone that is common throughout the album.

“Breed” and “Saint Joe on the School Bus” About this time into Nevermind, I am always struck by the significance of the album’s iconic cover. As I’m sure you’re aware, the cover depicts a nude baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishhook. Without fail, a half minute into “Breed,” I realize that this album sounds as though it is being dragged through water. Not in a literal sense, of course, but the compressed tones and controlled reverb acts in such a way that creates in my imagination sounds from the bottom of a pool. Masterful producer Butch Vig mastered this album unlike any other hard rock album. Cobain himself called the recording “perfect.” “Breed” is the perfect example of this production value. Following the coolness of “Come as You Are,” its edginess is amplified, but in no way does the transition seem abrupt. The heavily distorted flows right from the previous song like a crashing wave.
     “Saint Joe on the School Bus” was the second single from Marcy Playground and also the second most popular. Moderately conceptual, it tells the story of a young person who is antagonized about his poor family life. The is fairly obvious, especially considering the album jacket literally says, “This song is about being picked on.” Incidentally, it sounds like it would fit easily on an album like Nevermind. It is the heaviest, most grunge song on the album. Power chords cycle throughout the song on guitars that are distorted like a Nirvana track. Lead vocalist, John Wozniak, channels Kurt Cobain as he utters the chorus a few times over with a slight growl. It is a darker, more intense song, making it very different from the first few songs.

“Lithium” and “A Cloak of Elvenkind” Made apparent by the song’s title, “Lithium” is about drugs. Throughout the song, we hear the words of someone (though not necessarily Cobain) “in a daze” seeking normalcy, trying not to “crack.” The title is absolutely perfect. Lithium is a mood-normalizing drug, and the song works to convey this sense. The music makes the words seem accurately spoken by someone from a manic-depressive perspective. From the verses to the chorus, there is a constant swing from tranquil to intense. In fact, this tranquility is directly juxtaposed with the hard hitting “Breed,” establishing a diversity of sounds on the album as a whole. “Lithium” is probably the best song on this album and possibly the best song Nirvana has ever done.
     For the most part, I have tried to think about this collection of songs fairly objective. This is the only time during the overview for this album that I must think personally on a song. For some reason, inexplicable even to me, “A Cloak of Elvenkind” became my favorite song on this album upon first hearing it and remains so even today. It is a short song, not very complex, and largely forgettable. I cannot say I have a major affinity to Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy-like lyrics mean nothing to me. There is just something about this song that made me smile when I first heard it. There is a pleasantness about the transition from the verses to the chorus and back again, all while the main riff curls around the whole piece. It was not long before this surpassed “Sex and Candy” as my most listened to track on the album, and even now it makes me happy.

“Polly” and “Sherry Fraser” “Polly” is, without a doubt, the most laid-back song about kidnapping ever recorded. Whether or not the rumors are true that the titular subject of this song is a kidnap victim, the lyrics seem to point in that direction. Furthermore, Cobain sounds weak and even a little sad. It is a unique song, to say the least. There are absolutely no elements of the hard grunge of the rest of the album. Mostly, the song contains contains acoustic guitars and Cobain’s somber voice. Discounting whatever meaning the song may have, it is a soft, easy listen. And the song happens to provide one of my favorite moments on MTV Unplugged in New York: the band launches into “Polly” about midway through their set and the crowd is audibly excited. While the song is, of course, recognizable and on Nirvana’s most popular album, I’m convinced that the song provoked such a reaction because the audience thought they were getting “Lithium.” The first twelve seconds of each song are strikingly similar, and on an acoustic set, they would be nearly identical. Listen to it. You’ll see what I mean.
     The third single, “Sherry Fraser,” is written in the form of an open letter to its namesake, Sherry Fraser, a friend of the band and co-writer of the aforementioned “Ancient Walls of Flowers.” The references to Sherry are direct and personal. As a result, the song is very charming. Throughout the song there are appeals for her to “come back,” implying that she is deeply missed. There is a sense of true friendship lost and a desire to restore the relationship. I believe these emotions work on listeners as well. After several listens of the song, it conjures fond memories of friendships from my life. Sherry becomes a character who is a part of everyone’s past. As odd as it may sound, the song makes it possible, even plausible to fall in love with this girl named Sherry Fraser.

“Territorial Pissings” and “Gone Crazy” Side two of Nevermind begins with bassist Krist Novoselic yelling the chorus of a 1967 song by the Youngbloods. That is only the beginning of “Territorial Pissings,” the craziest song on the album. I say crazy, because it actually sounds dangerous, as in it could incite a riot. As Novoselic’s outburst fades out, Nirvana launches into a song that may as well be a speed metal anthem. The guitars are distorted to sound almost toneless. Grohl’s drumming is quick and incessant. All the while Cobain presses the need to “find a better way,” although we really do not have enough context to know what he is trying to do. It may only be slightly over two minutes, but no other song on the album is as hard-hitting and in-your-face as this song.
     Conversely, Marcy Playground’s second half begins with the infinitely relaxed song “Gone Crazy.” It concludes a trio of songs that sound equally light and happy. It sounds like you should hear this song on a beach covered by Jack Johnson. Again, the lyrics are difficult to follow, and I have no idea who or what the song is about, but nothing else in the song is complex. It is simply a sunny, carefree track. There are also some very cool fills from an acoustic bass guitar that are worth noticing. Although it is one of the more forgettable songs in the collection, it is exemplary of the album’s minimalist style.

“Drain You” and “Opium” “Drain You” is an intriguing song. At 3:43, it seems longer than it is because it is situated in the middle of three songs under two minutes. The lyrics sound convoluted, but according to Cobain, most were invented on the spot in the studio, which I find admirable. The verses and the chorus sound different enough to be parts of other songs mixed into one. But what makes the song most compelling is a full minute of a psychedelic interlude about two minutes into the song. This interlude is complete with grating guitar and odd screeching and hissing sounds that were made by, what else, but a toy rubber duck. It is this type of ingenuity that makes Nevermind a special album. Then, just as subtly as the interlude started, it blends seamlessly back into the chorus perfectly. This band was simply doing something right, combining woozy noise rock and heavy metal.
     Unsurprisingly, “Opium” sounds very drug fueled. It encompasses the highs (“so happy / I’m in heaven”) and lows (“the seizures come from opium”) that have become common to portrayed images of drug use. The song does such an effective job conveying the narcotics that at times Wozniak’s wailing lyrics are downright chilling. If the previous three songs were very light, this song begins a series of several dark and depressing songs. From a musical standpoint, this song also signals a shift to a heavier side to the album. For the first time in awhile, we hear full blasts from the guitar that dominate the space. I adhere to my thought that this album, particularly the latter half, is a sort of tribute to Nirvana. This is the second song title that alludes to heroin, which I think, by extension, refers to the sadness of losing a figure like Kurt Cobain.

“Lounge Act” and “One More Suicide” Truth be told, I’m not sure why this song is called “Lounge Act.” It is far from relaxed; instead, Cobain sounds vindictive and infuriated. His last verse is angry guttural screaming. One thing for sure about the song, though: the first ten seconds are great. It begins with Cobain softly moaning from the back of his throat. He sounds exhausted as if he is building himself up. Then Novoselic’s bass line slides in and, for a few seconds, his notes are the only sounds heard. Finally, drums and a fairly clean guitar kick in and the song takes off. For such a quick and angry song, it does not fail to sound intelligent.
     As the song title would suggest, “One More Suicide” continues a trend of some of the more depressing songs on this album. As a highlight, the track makes good use of extra instruments in this song. A cello features prominently throughout the song, notably at the bridge about ninety seconds into the song. The rest of the song, though, is pretty bleak. It is comparable to a ballad or an especially sad folk song. It tells the story of a character who kills himself and the effects on said character’s mother. The deeper meaning shows that the media, in this case the newspaper, trivializes such terrible tragedies by simplifying the headlines to just “One More Suicide.” I believe this is yet another expression of remembrance to Cobain. The main verses of the song sound like mourning, to be sure.

“Stay Away” and “Dog and His Master” “Stay Away” feeds directly off the rapid conclusion to “Lounge Act.” It is another song that hearkens back to Nirvana’s metal roots. Boiling drums open the song, and a quick bass line threads behind. Cobain screams constantly, imploring everyone to “stay away” from him. The final moments come crashing down, not unlike one of their famous set-smashing live performances. One facet that has always stuck out to me is that Cobain manages to fit in a defiant shout of “God is gay” as his last line. I still cannot decide if he is trying to squeeze in a quick political statement or merely seeking attention. Either way, the song thrashes for three quick minutes that pick up right where the previous song left off.
     When I listen to an album, I like to do it as a whole. Skipping songs seems to me an insult to the rest of the album. And although I speak glowingly about Marcy Playground, I just do not get this song, “Dog and His Master” and have no issue passing through it. Sure, it is nice and upbeat, but I find it pretty void of meaning. For one, the nonsensical lyrics mean nothing to me. Maybe it’s just me that doesn’t get the meaning. Then, there is that horrifying verse (“One little, two little, three little idiots...”) that I find frankly annoying. I’m sorry, but for such an otherwise stellar album, this song leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

“On a Plain” and “The Shadow of Seattle” “On a Plain” is one song that is seemingly all about drugs. There are some pretty terrifying lyrics where Cobain claims he is “so high that / I scratched ‘til I bled.” Aside from being a typical heroin infused rock song, it is bookended by some very cool moments. The introduction begins with about eight seconds of a noisy guitar riff and accompanying hand claps, before launching into the main part of the song. The final seconds fade out with Cobain’s cooing voice. Interestingly, his “oohing” had actually been there the whole chorus, but it only becomes eerily evident in the final seconds. The middle part three minutes of the song really aren’t bad either. Also worth checking out, is the Unplugged version of this song. It is very well done. For what it’s worth, the Unplugged version does a better job capturing the sadness of the song, but then again, sadness seems to be a theme throughout the complete set.
     Truthfully, my entire concept of Nirvana and Marcy Playground being somehow related hinges on this song alone. Even the title, “The Shadow of Seattle” seems to refer to the Marcy being shrouded by the image of Nirvana. From the beginning of the sound, it sounds like it could be a B-side from In Utero era Nirvana. The first chord progression is nearly exactly the same as the chord progression of “Teen Spirit.” At times, Wozniak’s lyrics sound like Cobain demos. But do not get the impression that this is a cheap knockoff of Nirvana. It is instead one of the coolest, most honest sounding songs of the collection. This could be the most underrated song on the album, but on an album this underrated, does that say anything? At any rate, let this song soak in; it is truly a highlight of the album.

“Something in the Way / Endless, Nameless” and “The Vampires of New York” The final song on Nevermind is surprising compared to the rest of the album. It is subdued, calm, and deeply introspective. It sounds as if Cobain could easily perform it by himself on an acoustic guitar. In fact, he was known to do this at least once. The chorus does not get much louder than the rest of the song; the vocals and even the drums are only slightly elevated above the rest of the song. The chorus also includes some very neat use of a cello. The cello is noticeable immediately because it adds a distinct sound that had not yet been heard on the album. Contrasted with the explosiveness of the beginning of the album, this subdued four minutes is a near perfect close to one of the finest albums of the decade.
     On some versions of the album, however, it is not the end of the album. After about ten minutes of silence after the end of “Something in the Way,” the grating sounds of “Endless, Nameless” come to the forefront. I distinctly remember jumping the first time I heard the pulsing of the song, having thought the album was over. Incidentally, the song’s title is probably the best name for an untitled hidden track at the end of an album given its function. I think either this or “Something” can be seen as the last song, because each provides a different conclusion to the collection as a whole. If you shut your CD player off after “Something,” you’re left with a slow and personal hymn. If you opt to wait the extra ten minutes, you will be jolted through six minutes of hard rock that has echoes of future scream metal. The song crashes to a halt as if another live set has been destroyed. It is jarring, of course, but it is definitively more Nirvana. The choice of which is the true ending to Nevermind is up to you, but remember, as Mr. Cobain aptly put it, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
     I find “The Vampires of New York” to be a pretty good closer as well. It may require a few listens to sink in, but it does sound like an appropriate finale. It is a simple song that details presumed observances of degenerate citizens of New York City. Being that the band is actually from the city, I imagine there is some experience behind these lyrics. The lyrics are silly and meaningless in some parts, but it still seems like there is a personality behind the words. There is also a nice combination of clean guitar sounds in the verses and grungier guitar parts in the choruses, although the song is never heavy. The part that I find most endearing, though, is the final moments of the song. The song rounds a chorus and feels as if it is going to continue, but it comes quickly to an unexpected halt. The hurried ending leaves the listener wanting more, of both the song and the album. At least, that’s how I feel. In fact, I find the song hard to listen to only once. It is nothing if not enjoyable.

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You may observe that, for the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about either one of these fine albums. I tried to overemphasize my praise while glossing over my qualms. This is because I truly do love both albums unequivocally. Also, here I have no reason to pick at faults. My purpose is not to establish which is better. The two really are not very comparable albums. While they share certain similar characteristics, they are barely of the same genre. But Nirvana’s influence on Marcy Playground is obvious, nonetheless. Because of this fact, I have always associated these two albums with each other.

Of course, it is fundamentally absurd to maintain the argument that Marcy Playground is better than Nirvana or any one of their albums. Nirvana’s oeuvre is simply too great: three terrific studio albums, an amazing back-catalog of tracks, and possibly the best live recording of the decade (1995’s MTV Unplugged in New York). Marcy Playground, on the other hand, has done little else of note besides their debut. Yet, Nirvana is immortalized and Marcy is forgotten. Why is this the case?

Since 1991, Nevermind has sold over ten million copies and was the number one selling album in the US for two weeks in 1992. Marcy Playground only sold one million copies and charted highest at #21. An obvious conclusion is that consumers no longer cared about grunge. Considering the strongest era of grunge faded out with the death of Kurt Cobain, Marcy may have been several years too late. Furthermore, since grunge had become less evident, Marcy was competing with different genres of alternative rock and, therefore, a variety of bands. Cobain was far more charismatic than Marcy frontman, John Wozniak, which probably attributed to the heightened popularity. All in all, Nirvana legitimized a genre of rock music which made them far more memorable over time.

Another distinction that highlights the two bands was the length of their respective careers. An important reason why Nirvana’s music is so remembered is that it is so limited. They made excellent music in a short period of time; they never had the chance to fade into the obscurity seen in Marcy Playground1. Consumers of music consistently ask, “What have you done for me lately?” when there is only a finite amount of quality music a band can put out. Marcy Playground is still making music today and their debut, now over 15 years old, is slowly being buried. This is unfortunate, but true. Granted, I have not given the time to Marcy Playground’s later albums2, but it pains me to still see new releases from them, considering they are so extremely under-publicized.

I’m not going to pretend that listening to Marcy Playground was this visceral experience that defined my understanding of music. I am also not going to say the same for Nevermind. I cannot remember anything special about the first time I listened to either album. I can say, however, that I will always juxtapose these albums when I hear the first chords “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Poppies.” These two albums are forever inseparable in my mind, intertwined with each other. I remember paying $12.99 for Nevermind from a Borders Bookstore; I remember paying $0.50 for Marcy Playground from a local pawn shop. I bought one (admittedly) for “Teen Spirit” and the other (admittedly) for “Sex and Candy.” I remember being pleasantly surprised listening through Marcy Playground and pleasantly un-surprised (possibly even a little disappointed) upon hearing Nevermind. This is, in truth, the root of my love for the former album. I went into Nevermind expecting to love every song on it, and my expectations were met. I went into Marcy Playground with no expectations at all and was shocked at what I found. I bought because it was only fifty cents and so I could put it into my CD player for “Sex and Candy.” It took me several listens of that song alone before I took the time to listen to the whole album, and it hooked me. Thankfully, it was only fifty cents or I might have missed it all together.

In the end, I know I will never convince anyone that Marcy Playground is better than Nirvana. And they’re really not. I love Nirvana (although I prefer and Bleach to Nevermind and Unplugged to both). I bring it up less as a serious statement and more as a way to get a conversation (or a rise) out of people. But, as long as some listeners take the time to try more than just the one song they heard on the jukebox at a bar from a CD called “Super Hits of the 90s,” I consider that a success. I promise it will be a worthwhile listen.

1 This is fairly commonplace in music. The Doors in 1971, Joy Division in 1980, or the Smiths in 1987 are three examples of bands whose limited collection makes them incredibly well-respected. Conversely, some respected bands, like the Rolling Stones, continue to make music for decades.
2 Although, their third album has an unspeakably clever title: MP3. Honestly, I think that’s genius.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Disaster Revisited

What novel would you believe the Huffington Post could call "possibly the most important piece of literature ever printed"? Ulysses? No. The Great Gatsby? No. Try The Disaster Artist, the story of the making of The Room, the infamously horrendous movie from Tommy Wiseau. I read it with an incoming appreciation for the film; never did I think I would enjoy the book as much as I did.

If you haven't already, go watch The Room, then probably watch it again, and then read the book. Because you are most likely going to want to watch it another time after that. The movie is phenomenal, and the book is a wonderful supplementary piece.

The first time I watched the movie was a special experience. I had known the infamy of the film, of course, and I found out it would be playing at midnight on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Having never seen it before, I patiently stayed up for it, despite having class in the morning. I remember being a little worried that my roommate would return during this film and think I was watching something truly disturbing, thus ruining my first experience. As it turned out, he did not return in time for the end, and I was able to fully absorb The Room, as it came to its satisfying conclusion at 2:00am.

As it turns out, the movie is truly a special production. The story is ridiculous, seemingly not adhering to reality. It is more like a series of popular movie tropes jammed together in nonsensical ways. There is a love triangle between Tommy, his fiance, and his best friend, which awkwardly destroys the future marriage. There is a neighbor boy who looks up to Tommy as a pseudo-caretaker. There is a drug sequence. There is a suicide. Trust me, the movie has it all, even if it does none of it well.

The book, The Disaster Artist, chronicles the making of this movie, often called the worst movie of all time. But for as bad as the movie is, the book is really quite poignant. Author, Greg Sestero plays Mark, the aforementioned best friend who ruins Tommy’s marriage. Sestero also happens to be about the only human being to connect with Tommy Wiseau--the person, not the character. At times, the descriptions of the film production are hilarious, but they can also be heartwarming. It is a group of people following the lead of one man who spares no expense to make his dream come true.

If nothing else, it is a fascinating look at the Tommy, again, the person. In this age where as much as possible is known about celebrities, Tommy Wiseau leads what is truly a mysterious life. No one knows how much he is worth, despite his enormous bankroll for The Room. No one knows anything about his family life. No one, not even Sestero, knows even where Tommy was originally from (and his accent only adds to the intrigue).

Tommy has since made a TV series called Neighbors, equally uncomfortable and poorly made. It’s easy to look at these and feel sorry for Tommy, to ask “Doesn’t he get it?” There is no sign he gets it, but it honestly does not matter. There is something so damn endearing about his productions; any viewer will see these are his visions as accurately as they can be created in the physical realm. The Disaster Artist does a wonderful job bringing Tommy--the person AND the character--to life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

2016 Detroit Pistons Preview

The Detroit Pistons have the potential to be best team in Detroit this season. Unlike the Tigers and (possibly) the Lions, the Pistons have a chance to make the playoffs, and unlike the Red Wings they have a chance to go far. They are coming off their first playoff berth since 2009 (and really, the first successful season since 2008). For the most part, they are returning the same team as last year. Basketball is such an intimate team sport; there weren’t any additions that could disrupt the rhythm of the players. But the changes they did make should give them some more depth at a couple positions.

We’ll start with the positives: the Pistons have a returning core of Andre Drummond (C), Marcus Morris (PF), Tobias Harris (SF), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (SG), and Reggie Jackson (PG) which could be one of the best starting fives in the country. Seriously. When these five guys are all playing well, they can be competitive with any team, proving why they can be one of the best teams in the conference.

The Pistons are getting a size upgrade as well. A relatively small team last season, Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes got some help with Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer. Boban also brings a year of experience under Gregg Popovich. Hopefully, he can spread some of that coaching genius. Detroit also retained both of their draft picks, Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije.

Possibly the biggest downside is Jackson opening the season with a knee injury. There is a chance he might not see the court until December, so the Pistons will have to make do without a top point guard for the first six weeks. Not only that, but Detroit will lose one stable source of three-point shots, and they struggled from three-point range last year. They patched the hole somewhat by signing Ish Smith and (late pick-up) Beno Udrih, and Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson can take some trips at point guard, but it will be nice to get Jackson back in the lineup.

Also, I’m a little concerned with Andre Drummond’s contract signing, up $20 million from last year. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to lock up the best rebounder in the league. But he is an expensive center in an increasingly shooting guard league. Also, it’s bittersweet to hand over five million dollars to yearly-joke Josh Smith for another year. The good news is it’s one more year off the monster contract (holding the Pistons to $27 million until 2020); the bad news is it’s $5,400,000 the Pistons don’t get to use this year (and next year, and the year after, and the year after). I don’t know how they pay him, but I hope it’s in the form of a giant check with “Thanks for nothing” in the memo line.

So, the Pistons did not make an drastic improvements, instead sticking with the solid core of last year. How does that make them better off than last year? Basically, I wasn’t impressed with many other teams in the East over the offseason, with the possible exception of Indiana. The teams at the top--Cleveland, Toronto, and Boston--stayed there or got better. Atlanta and Orlando got a bit worse. Chicago, New York, and Washington all confuse me. If the Pistons can play at the same level as last season, I think even the same W/L record will earn a sixth spot where last year it was only good for eighth.

Vegas has set the odds for the Pistons’ win total at 45.5 wins. This might be too high. Nate Silver’s ESPN subsidiary, FiveThirtyEight puts them at 39-43. For a team that finished 44-38 last season, this might be too low. As for the 2016-17 campaign, I really like them somewhere right around .500 or just above. And if they do surpass their record from last year, 46 or 47 wins should make them a very likely candidate for that fourth spot in the Eastern Conference. After the Cavs, the Raptors, and the Celtics, Detroit should at least be looking at one of the remaining playoff seeds. I am ready to watch some DE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Bob Dylan, Author

Earlier this week, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This was naturally a very controversial decision in the literary community. Dylan entered the nomination process with the low odds of winning--because of course you can bet on the Nobel Prize--set at 50 to 1. His mere appearance in the probabilities was considered laughable by most experts; however, Bob Dylan defied his slim odds. Now, many of those experts are not happy with the academy’s decision.

In the opinion of many, the selection of Bob Dylan gives short shrift to many equally qualified poets and novelists. The award is ostensibly intended for the person who contributes the most literary merit. As with most sides of our culture anymore, the award has become overly politicized, but the intention remains the same. At the very least, the Nobel Prize in Literature is representative of high-quality literature. So what is the issue with Dylan? Why are critics so up in arms about his qualifications?

The most obvious complaint is that Dylan is ‘just a musician.’ Some would say that he has no business being compared to the eminent authors of today, or (my favorite) that he should refuse the award in favor of someone more qualified. Ridiculous. In what world is writing music not considered literature? Sure, music may not be the traditional concept of a prosaic novel, but music is no different from poetry, in that it is lines of words assembled to tell a message. Moreover, music is typically performed; a musician performing at a coffee shop is hardly different from the poet who reads his or her work at the same coffee shop. The Prize has been awarded to people who produced more or less exclusively poetry. So until I hear a definition that clearly separates poetry from music, I refuse to accept that being a musician immediately disqualifies one for the award. Reducing to Bob Dylan to just a musician and claiming he is unworthy of the award is absurd.

The next, slightly more acceptable argument is that Bob Dylan’s quality of work is not on par with some of the other authors up for the award. The reason this argument is more acceptable is simple: it is perfectly fine not to like someone’s artistic output. But to claim that he does not deserve an award because his work is not appreciated is not a valid argument. For one, regardless of his style of music or his vocal talents, several of his songs became emblematic of specific times in our history as a country. Besides, this subjective nature arises with any and every award. There will be disagreements with any choice, but these do not invalidate the recipient. Was The Heist really the best rap album of 2014? Exactly.

Finally, we have the sheer length of Bob Dylan’s career. This is not so much an argument, inasmuch as there is not a lot of room for disagreement. He has been actively recording for music for an astounding fifty years. Half a century! Over the course of his career, he has put out at least three (probably more like six) of the most important albums in the history of American music. This is not really much of an overstatement, either. Few recording artists can demonstrate such a consistency of releases over such a long period of time.

This year’s Nobel Prize in Literature was unique. It is the equivalent of a particularly cinematic video game being considered for an Oscar (which I would also defend). The fact that this is the first time it has been awarded to a musician is special. But for the first choice of musicians, Bob Dylan is certainly an exceptional one.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

2016 Detroit Lions Season Preview

The NFL preseason is mercifully over. We have now entered the purgatory between preseason's last drive and kickoff of the first game. Fans can start making safe guesses about which players gave enough to make the regular team and who might have missed out. The Detroit Lions finished their four games against a middling AFC North division (sans Cleveland; plus Buffalo) with comfortable 2-2 record. I didn't watch all of them--it is still the preseason after all--but I caught some action here and there. And naturally, I have some thoughts as the Lions enter the 2016 campaign.

First, of course, many eyes will be on the wide receiving core, now less the future Hall-of-Famer Calvin Johnson. That has been the story for much of the off-season, both in Lions-centric publications and at the national level. It's true: losing one of the Lions' best offensive weapons and truly one of the best receivers in the league leaves quite a large gap in that offense.

Actually, though, Detroit has done an effective job turning the offense for the better. To complement the already exciting backfield of Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick (one of the best receiving backs in the league), the team has added veteran wideouts Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin, and Andre Roberts. Rookie Dwayne Washington excited fans during the preseason. Not to mention, Golden Tate, who will be the primary target after Johnson’s retirement, has the potential for his second 1,000 yard season. Matthew Stafford is a solid quarterback with some terrific weapons.

The issue, however, is in the offensive and defensive lines. Stafford may be good, but no one can expect him to win many games if he is constantly under pressure. He has been sacked an astounding 89 times in the last two seasons. The defense has not been much more impressive, in the bottom third in points allowed. There have been some improvements in the lines--notably Taylor Decker, an offensive tackle drafted in the first round--but I worry that may not be enough.

It may be telling that the most exciting part of last season was a shakeup in the front office. Mid-season hire and media darling Jim Bob Cooter shook up the team as the offensive coordinator, and I cannot wait to see what he has done with the offense in the offseason. And Bob Quinn, former scout for New England, is heading into his first full season as Detroit general manager. His popularity with Lions fans rose during the draft, and it’s always nice to get some Patriot blood in an organization. One of the only remaining pieces from (abysmal) years past, is head coach Jim Caldwell. The head coach position could stand to be freshened up, so I think (read: hope) he is on a short leash for the upcoming year.

As of this writing, the over/under is set at 7.5 wins for Detroit. That seems fair to me. By my count, I see at least seven winnable games, with--I imagine--plus or minus two that they should win (but blow late) or have no business winning (and catch a lucky break). It is the NFL after all! The Lions should have no problem doing exactly as well as last year to finish 7-9. Honestly, they should have won more than seven games last year. Despite playing six games in a tough NFC North division, their non-divisional schedule is against a weakened NFC East and an even weaker AFC South. Does Detroit have the pieces to win their first ever Super Bowl? Of course not. Can they make the Playoffs? Still questionable. The way I see it, the Lions will be in competition for a wild card spot with the Minnesota Vikings. I can only hope that competition remains close.

In any case, I’ll be watching. Go Lions!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

This Inevitable Schedule-gate

The Boston Red Sox are surging. They have won six straight games and stand a good chance to make the playoffs, either by winning the American League East or one of the two Wild Card spots. The Detroit Tigers, meanwhile, are faltering, dropping eight of their last ten and slipping further back from that second Wild Card spot. But, to add insult to injury, today's game is now a scheme by the city of Detroit to "mess with" the Boston Red Sox. Wha-...?

I'll get to the facts first, just so we're all on the same page. The Red Sox played a game last night that went late due to rain delays. Due for an early flight to Detroit, they allegedly requested a move from an afternoon start to an evening start. Sound like a simple request? Unfortunately the Lions, who play across the street from the Tigers, have a preseason game scheduled for the same time, which would cause a traffic and logistics backlog in the city. So today's game on the 2016 Major League Baseball schedule, established over a year ago, will have to suffice.

Except the fans won't stand for it. After fans took notice to the tragedy, articles started cropping up about how the Tigers are purposely doing this to hamstring the Red Sox. Just like that, the Tigers are unwittingly forced into a heel turn.

Here's my trajectory: I woke up and read about the conflict, and dismissed it with a "What? Huh." But the more I thought of it, the more it just didn't make sense. To use such aggressive language--the Tigers are "manipulating" the schedule--is simply unfair. I drove to work in silence, becoming more upset by the mile. I mean, to even consider that this is an intentional way to gain an advantage is absolutely absurd. I checked some more articles only to find distraught Sox fans seeking a little payback and revenge for the way they've been mistreated1. By now, I'm just about irate and have been seething ever since.

For me, I've just had enough with feeling sorry for Boston sports teams. Nothing is ever their fault when things go wrong, and yet their teams have won nearly a dozen championships in the last two decades. I'm sorry; you don't get to be the underdog and the champion too. We can only hope this will balloon into a Deflategate-esque saga so we can witness how persecuted the city of Boston is by another major sports league. Please, Red Sox Nation, you are not maligned, and no one outside of Massachusetts thinks you are.

Most Boston sports fans--self-named "Massholes"--will say that sports are just different in the northeast. They just love their teams so passionately that (of course) the rest of the country would take offense to it. Also, all Boston teams are successful with recent championships so (of course) it's popular for the rest of the country to dislike them. I’m sure everyone’s heard the “Don’t hate us ‘cause we’ve got the rings!” defense. It's always Boston versus the world. Right? Well, I disagree. I have no problems with championship teams, but I do have a problem with excuses that turn very public (and largely unfounded). Celtics fans pulled similar excuses last season when they nearly handed the Warriors their first loss. No, you cannot force me to feel sorry.

I know what all of this sounds like. Believe me: I’ve read it all from stuck-up Sox fans this morning on Twitter. The Tigers are on a losing streak, punctuated by a horrendous loss last night after destroying a one-hit shutout effort from the starting pitcher, Anibal Sanchez. So, I must be bitter? Well, sure, I don’t like the losses, but last night was last night, and I’m looking to move on. Or maybe I’m still upset about the loss in the 2013 American League Championship Series? Yeah, that was the most crushing experience of my time watching baseball, but it has no bearing on today. This has nothing to do with the past; it has to do with journalists and fans attacking my favorite team without reason. It bothers me, so I’d like to defend them.

The way I see it, there are two ways this can play out2, and neither of them are pretty. A) the Tigers win today, and Red Sox Nation complains that the game was not on a fair plane. Or B) the Sox win today, and the Tigers suffer yet another humiliating defeat (I mean, they did get to sleep in this morning). In either case, the Tigers are in a no-win position. What would make it better? Detroit could offer to play without a shortstop, or maybe even start every at bat with an 0-1 count. Would that help? Maybe Red Sox Nation could get the NFL to move the Lions game to tomorrow? To be sure, the NFL owes the people of Boston something as well. For what it's worth, I hope the Tigers win by 40. They're already the villains, apparently; they might as well win big. Go Tigers.

1 To be fair, Tigers fans are also claiming the "Suck it up: you're a professional ballplayer, so you should be able to play in these conditions" stance. I'm not too proud to see my fellow fans sinking to this level, but hey, this whole thing's a mess.
2 The third way was that the game actually got moved to the evening, which would have proved whining always wins.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Good News of blink-182

I am a complete apologist for blink-182. In my eyes, they can do nothing wrong. I will listen to anything and everything they release--usually arguing for its worth. Here’s the thing, though: I know that they are just an average band to most people, all things considered. Some may not even consider blink-182 a great band in the canon of punk music. But that doesn’t matter to me. For better or for worse, barring some catastrophic stretch of bad albums, blink-182 will forever be my favorite band.

I realize that this sounds like a ridiculous, dumb claim, pure hyperbole, but I can’t help it. Believe me, I’ve thought it over, and it’s not as crazy as it scans. I’m not saying that they are the only band I will ever voluntarily listen to for the rest of my life. Sure, there will be long stretches of time when I will be obsessed with another band or even genre. But blink’s music will always be there for me when I return. And I always return. Typically right on schedule, around June.

Let’s get some things out of the way: first, they are an absurdly juvenile band, whose combination of bathroom humor and coarse language almost definitely does not hold up in comparison to today’s music. Admittedly, it would be daunting to decide today, right now, that you were going to get into blink. You would have to wade through a lot of childish humor that was genuinely fun when you were in junior high. But that’s not why I come back to blink-182.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, you already know some songs by blink-182. They are responsible for some colossal hits that really transcend punk music. Catchy beach songs that high school and college students will (probably?) play forever out of cars and dorm windows. Songs that are perfect for the summer, like “All the Small Things” and “First Date.” But along with the goofy tracks come the emotional ones, as in “Adam’s Song” and “Stay Together for the Kids.” Chances are, even if you haven’t been paying close attention to surf pop punk for the last twenty-five years, you know these and other songs from the Greatest Hits catalogue. As with any single, these songs are hugely important in initiating the uninitiated.

To answer the question about recommended listening to digest the band, I used to say that Enema of the State was their most popular album, Take Off Your Pants and Jacket was my favorite album, and their self-titled was technically their best album. This statement is, of course, pure nonsense. The fact is, I spent so much time with these albums that I have on blinders and cannot be trusted to recommend just any of their songs. I would love to spend some time going discussing every album (and truthfully, I considered it; I could probably spend a few hundred words on each one), but I decided against it. I will say, you can't go wrong with any album before their hiatus in 2005, and certainly the aforementioned three should not be passed up.

Now, in 2016, we arrive at their newest full-length, California. There are (valid) complaints to be made. It is the very first album to not feature Tom DeLonge--who makes up literally ⅓ of the band, and some would argue means a lot more to the band. Replaced by Alkaline Trio-frontman, Matt Skiba, DeLonge has left to pursue his own devices, which involve (as any blink-pessimist will gladly inform you) legitimately searching for extraterrestrial life. But here’s the thing: Skiba (and his other band for that matter) is actually a great musician. At times, of course it is very easy to miss DeLonge's voice. In fact, on my first listen-through, his absence was always in the back of my mind. But Skiba proves to a very apt replacement.

For what it’s worth, California is a really cool album. I’ve even been heard saying that it’s a perfect record (for them right now). That last bit is important: it’s perfect for them right now. Is it their best album? Far from it. It may not even be in my top five. But for what they are right now--a collection of forty-something pop musicians who rely on a lot of cheap juvenile jokes for popularity--this album sounds just right for the middle of their third decade. The music is still cool; the jokes are still there. They wear their influences on their sleeve. At times, they shred like an early Black Flag record; other times, they proudly showcase their self-proclaimed heroes, the Cure.

I love blink-182, but I can't convince you to love them. All I hope to do is raise some sort of appreciation for a band who is past their prime. They may make (admittedly) generic pop-punk music with crass jokes that are (definitely) less funny now than they were then. But there is something special about them. It's a mistake to take them too seriously, and when they take themselves too seriously is them at their weakest. On the other hand, there are some really terrific tracks on some really fantastic albums, and a lot of fun to be had along the way.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Overlapping Champions

June is an interesting month. Two of the four major sports in the United States have their playoffs at the same time. Exactly the same time. Sometimes on back to back nights. Two of the Big Four sports (interestingly, the two whose conferences are split by region) pit the best team in the West against the best in the East. The best team in the sport emerges. In football, the Super Bowl is one of the biggest events on television, far separated from the other sports. The MLB playoffs have their own month, maybe even their own calendar season1. Even college sports are unique in that they have specialized championship times--Bowl season and the ubiquitous March Madness. So why do professional basketball and professional hockey have to share the time in the spotlight?

The NBA Finals are long and arduous. Eight teams from each conference qualify, making for more than half of the league in the postseason2. Many fans would probably be just fine dropping the first round. Nothing much interesting happens, and the teams who are supposed to win almost always do just that. Lower seeded teams in the first round have already been essentially eliminated by the end of the regular season. Meanwhile, the NHL, ostensibly one of the four most popular sports in the US, is just as draining of a two-month process, with similar results. The proverbial cream rises to the proverbial top3. And they are almost completely concurrent. Correct: they start within three days of each other and happened to end one night apart.

Is the overlap of fans really that small? Is it that inconceivable to think hockey fans might want to watch basketball too, and vice versa? Much to the detriment of hockey, it seems like the NHL schedule is inextricably linked with that of the NBA. Even the drafts are a few nights apart. And while everyone, myself included, is tuning into ESPN to watch the NBA Draft, most people, myself included, don’t know a single fact about who was taken first in the NHL Draft.

Maybe it’s just part of a larger, unfortunate problem: American sports fans just can’t be bothered to care about professional hockey. I’ll admit it, I’m part of the problem. Given the choice of watching the Detroit Red Wings or the Detroit Pistons, as they (often) play on the same night, I choose the Red Wings. But by the time the post-season rolls around, if neither of my teams are involved, it is a totally different story. I try not to miss a quarter of the NBA Finals, and I’m satisfied merely reading the scores of the Stanley Cup games.

This is troublesome to me, and I can't quite understand why. I proudly and passionately support the Red Wings, and I care equally about the Pistons. I could happily watch either one, any night they were on. But when it comes to the overall sport, basketball just has a different air of excitement. Storylines seem to develop that just don't in hockey (or many other sports, for that matter). Something about the fast-paced lead changes makes for a sense of drama that is unique to the sport of basketball. It's almost a fictionalized quality.

Take this season, for example. We have a team who won 73 games in the regular season trying to cap off what was arguably the greatest NBA season, at least from a historical and statistical standpoint. On the other hand, a team from a city who had not won a championship of any kind in over 150 combined seasons. Either way, the outcome guarantees an historic champion. How can hockey hope to compete with that?

I don't know. I wish hockey had more respect in the broader community other than passionate pockets of fans here and there. I understand the hypocrisy when I myself admitted that I choose to not follow the Stanley Cup finals. But I do think it is unfortunate that the two sports are so closely related. It's also unavoidable.

In 2016, we have the last game in the each respective series only a few nights apart. Just a week after the Pittsburgh Penguins skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup in hand, the Cleveland Cavaliers lifted their own memorable championship trophy. Could we please get some separation? For anyone who appreciates both sports, it's not double the excitement; it's too much to follow. One sport usually gets pushed to the side.

1 It's tough to deny that baseball owns the fall. Or at least October.
2 By contrast, only a quarter of MLB teams get to play a full postseason series, not counting the one-and-done Wild Card teams.
3 The proverbial wheat separates from the proverbial chaff.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On the Golden State Warriors

In the nascent stages of my appreciation for professional basketball, I was just old enough to be aware of the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. I knew the major players and how obviously dominant they were, but not much more than that. It really wasn't until the 2004 Finals-winning Pistons that I really developed my interest in the National Basketball Association. I've gone back and consumed books and documentaries about the 1989/90 Pistons to the point where it feels like I was there for it. I watched some consistently solid Lakers, Spurs, and Heat teams over the years. But the fact remains, for someone like me born in the early 90s, there has not been an NBA franchise as exciting as this year.

All year long, the Golden State Warriors have captivated my attention and that of millions of other people around the globe. Since winning the championship in 2015, the Bay Area fan base has noisily grown to an enormous level. It's actually difficult to not like them. They're not my favorite NBA team, of course, but I'm continually interested in their success. Can it be considered a bandwagon if they are simply fun to watch? When I watch the Warriors, I'm not necessarily excited for them as a team, I'm excited for the sport of basketball itself.

Next to the Pistons, there was no other team I watched more this year than the Warriors. Like many people, it started with last year's Finals. I knew the names--Curry, Thompson, Green--but I hadn't seriously watched them until the playoffs. In fact, I knew more about Draymond Green from watching him at Michigan State. I actually watched the 2015 Finals with more of a vested interest in the Cleveland Cavaliers. My attention shifted sides the more I watched.

Starting with the 2016 season, there were a lot of questions about the Warriors. They were very slight favorites to win the Finals, and indeed, several outlets didn’t even pick them to repeat. They responded by winning the first 24 games in the season. It was the first time I experienced an actual “can’t miss” NBA team, where I was seeking out every game on TV. I’m still kicking myself for not acting more quickly on getting tickets when they played the Pacers in December. Even after they lost, I don’t remember being more excited to watch a team that wasn’t my own. On the last day of the 2015-16 season (competing for attention against Kobe Bryant’s last game), the Golden State Warriors won their 73rd game of the season, breaking the Bulls’ record for most wins in a season. It will go down as a classic game in NBA history, and I’m glad to have watched it live.

The first two rounds in the West were uneventful. The Houston Rockets had no business being in the tournament, and Steph Curry rested much of the series against the Blazers. The Western Conference finals was the series to watch. Since the All-Star break and maybe even before then, this series was highly anticipated, perhaps even more so than the Finals themselves. For most of the season, three of the four best teams in the league were in the West, and it looked very likely that the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs would meet in the conference finals. Not so. The Oklahoma City Thunder surprised the Spurs with their youth, speed, and size. Now, instead of the Spurs, the Warriors had to face the streaking Thunder, where they promptly lost three of the first four games, including the opener in Oakland. Did I think they would come back and beat the Thunder? It's easy to say in retrospect, but after the Oklahoma could not close out the series at home, I thought Golden State would ride the momentum. A drive that has only grown stronger after the win and now carries them into the Finals.

In a sport where stories seem can seem too good to be true, how incredible is it that we get the same teams in the Finals two years in a row? Time and again, sports prove to us that real life can be just as good as storytelling. As I said earlier, I’m not concerned with who wins, I just want to see some good basketball. On one hand, we have LeBron's Cavaliers, whose troublesome past includes zero championships and a very public and probably very regrettable departure. On the other, an historic Warriors team winning an almost untouchable 73 games in the regular season. As for predictions, both teams are so good, that I’m really not sure. I will say that I was nervous about Cleveland’s chances going into the series; now that the Warriors have had to face elimination for three games, the Cavs are going to have to defend against a new determination. Whatever the outcome, the 2016 Finals will be a memorable one.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Radiohead Retrospective

Radiohead never really ceases to surprise. Every time a new album surfaces, ├╝ber-fans spend inordinate amounts of time dissecting each and every part of the album. Countless articles surface looking at what it is that makes the band so intriguing. They went from being a band who makes good music to a band who makes good music with a sense of the mystique. Even their ninth album, released early this month after only a few days notice, was a bit of a surprise to most fans despite years of anticipation. The coverage that the band receives around album release times is always a little overwhelming. Seemingly every music website has articles, interpretations, speculations, critiques, analyses, and investigations on any facet about the band and its music. It’s easy to observe it all and perceive it as overzealous.

The attention they receive, while obsessive and slightly overrated, is not entirely undeserved. They truly do make some really great music, but I can’t read every little piece that comes through about them. The attention always seems, to me at least, diametrically opposed to the intimate nature the music actually possesses. To be honest, Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. But as of this month, I had not seriously listened to them in over a year. I don’t feel the need to listen to them regularly; they are the perfect band to set aside for a long while before coming back to savor. As always happens when one of my favorite artists is releasing an album (I’ll be doing it in about a month with my favorite band of all time), I like to do a dive into their past releases just to get in the mood for a new one. So, here I wanted to jot down some of my thoughts on each of their albums as I listen to them. If not for any reason but to remind myself of how fantastic this band is during the next long stretch between listens.

Pablo Honey (1993) - The first album may very well be the most different sounding of all of their albums, which makes it a little hard to classify. There is more guitar work and standard “rock” sound than any of their albums. It sounds more in tune with their British contemporaries, Blur, Oasis, and Pulp. It’s also hard to miss the clear influence of the Smiths, which is never a bad thing. Favorite song: “Creep”; how couldn’t it be? Their single-most recognizable song holds up incredibly well, despite the band’s unwillingness to acknowledge its existence.

The Bends (1995) - I know it is the favorite pastime of Radiohead fans to list, argue, reorder lists, and argue some more about which is the band’s best album. Usually, it’s easy to claim the can’t-pick-only-one defense, but since I started listening to them, The Bends has unwaveringly been my top choice. It signifies the transition from the standard alt-Britpop sound to their more modern qualities. And the opening four tracks is one of my favorite series of songs on any album. Favorite song: “Just”; really tough choice here. I easily could have said two or three others, but this song (and its accompanying video) is simply amazing.

OK Computer (1997) - However you feel about the music website, Pitchfork Media, there is a quote about OK Computer that I always remember when I listen to this album. “I don't listen to OK Computer that much anymore, and occasionally I get the idea in my head that it must be overrated. Then I put it on again and realize that it's even better than I remember. I find new things to appreciate every time I listen.” I really don’t think there is a better way to describe this album. It is an efficient album, perfectly blending the titular computerized digital sound with the astounding presence of acoustic guitars. Seriously, it is easy to forget just how much acoustic guitar there is in this album. Favorite song: “No Surprises” AND “Lucky”; I’m sorry, I just can’t give credit to one without the other. Both are so full of emotion and complex, and they play next to each other so well.

Kid A (2000) - Kid A is a weird one, an album that I think may be slightly divisive in the Radiohead-fan community. I’ve read hyperbolic statements that this is the their best album and the best album of the 2000s and the best album of all time. I’ve also seen comments that it is overrated. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. It’s not my favorite album by them, but it’s certainly not overrated. For a follow-up to something like OK Computer, this album permanently changes the musical direction of the band for (I believe) the remainder of their output. Side note: one of my favorite writers, Chuck Klosterman, has this fascinating piece about how he thinks Kid A predicted the events of September 11, 2001. Very highly recommended. Favorite song: “Everything In Its Right Place”; no question here, this is actually my favorite Radiohead song of any album. With the proper headphones, the opening notes of the studio version are actually perfect. Also worth checking out is the live version from their 2001 live album I Might Be Wrong. The counted lead-in to the opening notes gives me chills every single time.

Amnesiac (2001) - An album is unofficially known as Kid B, the songs from the same time period as the previous album that go hand-in-hand and might as well be considered the second half of a double album. Honestly, it is hard to separate the two in my head, as to which track goes with which album. But there are some differences as well. Amnesiac loses a tad of the overall electronic feel that Kid A had, and returns to some more conventional guitar-driven songs. This album, perhaps more than any of the others, has the feeling of more of a collection of songs than an album as a whole. Fortunately, it is a collection of good songs. Favorite song: “I Might Be Wrong”; one of the band’s heaviest songs and the closest thing they come to playing a blues song.

Hail to the Thief (2003) - I’ve caught a lot of flack for thinking this is the band’s weakest album. It’s not that I think it’s bad by any stretch, but I do think it gets a little lost in its intended message at times, making it feel somewhat disjointed. Even looking at the tracklisting, there are quite a few songs that I simply cannot recall. That said, the highlights are very high. The opener is great, “Myxomatosis” hits so hard, and I always fall for the slow, plodding nature of “A Punch Up at a Wedding.” There are some really standout songs, to be sure, but I still rank it as my ninth favorite album. Favorite song: “There There”; from the way the drums work together to open the track to the guitar creeping its way in, this song is an excellent mid-album track.

In Rainbows (2007) - For awhile, I ruined this album for myself. The band released under a pay-what-you-want plan that meant you could download the tracks for $0, if you chose. I did choose this, as I had other things to buy when I was in high school. I ‘bought’ the album and listened to it for the first time late on the night I got it. For whatever reason, it was not a good first experience. I thought it was the end of the band, and I did not find myself returning to it for a few months. I think I was just too tired that first night. In any case, I’m glad I did eventually return though. Something came together for me, and I heard what I’d been missing. It is probably their finest album of the second half of their career. Favorite song: “House of Cards”; this was the one song that stuck with me from the very first time I heard it to the most recent. Close second is “Bodysnatchers,” tonally completely opposite, with a chord progression resembling an Iron Maiden song.

The King of Limbs (2011) - For me, this was the most anticipated Radiohead release. In college, I was surrounded by like-minded friends, all eagerly awaiting this album. From its announcement, it was the topic of discussion, and we could not wait to get a hold of the tracks to hear them. I was snatching up every bit of news I could get. My favorite rumor of the time, was that this was going to be the surprise first half of a two-part double album, a concept I’d still like to believe. In the end, the payoff was worth it. I listened on repeat when it was finally released. Although it has not proven to be the longest lasting album, slipping away somewhat into forgotten territory, at the time, I could not be happier with the album after all the time I had dedicated to waiting for it. Favorite song: “Separator”; I’m tempted to cheat again and use the last TWO songs, but I won’t. Seeing the second-to-last song was a great experience live, but the final song, “Separator” is a really strong album closer.

A Moon Shaped Pool (2016) - Now, this year, as I said, I was not following the rumor mill as closely as I had for the last release. I had a general idea of which songs to expect, but beyond that, I knew nothing else. I figured there would be a ramp up of anticipation online, and I would have time to consume the band and get in the mood for a new album. Not so. Announced and released in what seemed like a weekend, I was totally unprepared for it. Even after it was available for purchase, I was not ready for it. I still wanted to work my way into it, because as I said, I like to listen to the band’s previous albums first. Since high school, I never dreamed that a Radiohead album could come out and I would not listen to it immediately on the day it was available. So, what’s the consensus? I have to give it more time to see where it truly settles compared to the rest of the albums. Initially, I would say it’s a better-than-average Radiohead album--which is to say that it is better than I feel about a lot of new releases. Favorite song? I can’t quite tell yet. Time will tell what song or stretch of songs holds up for me.

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Along with each of their albums, I listened to the corresponding B-sides and unreleased tracks from each era. These can be found on the special collector’s editions of the first six albums. There is some suggestion that these were made against the wishes of the band by the owning record label as a way to turn more of a profit. Regardless, these collections are some of the finest released packages for fans of the band. One disc is the original album, another is bonus tracks, and a third is a DVD with music videos and live performances from the album’s release. They are ranked with the re-released first four Pavement albums, in terms of valuable supplementary content.

At any rate, in addition to the core albums, there some bonus tracks which should really be considered. The Bends-era, “Maquiladora,” almost feels like a math rock track at times, showcasing modern genius, Jonny Greenwood’s guitar work. “Talk Show Host,” also from The Bends was featured in Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, Romeo + Juliet, and it is one of the coolest parts of the movie. The haunting “Amazing Sounds of Orgy” from Amnesiac has had a resurgence as a live song lately. “I Am Citizen Insane,” which lends its name to a great online database of everything Radiohead-related, should have been on Hail to the Thief.

Probably, the fandom surrounding Radiohead has ballooned to be something greater than the band itself. Even as a fan of the band, it is easy to see the sheer number of online posts and discussions and become a bit jaded. I want to be both critical and defensive of Radiohead adoration, and it’s hard to have it both ways. In the end, though, I am happy that the band has had such a truly outstanding career.

There was a lot of goofy speculation that this is their last album based on vague lyrics in the newest album, which I find preposterous. I did, however, elect to think of this as a retrospective because I do actually think this could be Radiohead’s last album. It would be fitting if they called an end to a really excellent span, and honestly, I would love it if they closed on a good note. Overrated or not, I really don’t think they have put out a bad album. On the other hand, they could announce a free triple album next week. Nothing they do would surprise me anymore. I’ve been listening to Radiohead for quite awhile now, and I’ve enjoyed my time doing it.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Sports Related Aneurysms

As a fan, sports often take us to the edge of our seats. When your favorite team is down by two points or a goal, and this is a must-win game to advance in the playoffs, then yes, it might be better just to close your eyes.

Now that we are in the thick of both the NBA and NHL playoffs, there is no shortage of stressful moments. Players are unfortunately being injured; teams are constantly facing elimination. And it all adds up to stomach ulcers and tears if we lose. There’s a reason sports fans refer to their team as “we.” The feeling of identification we have with our guys is important. Their highs are our highs, just as their lows can be our painful lows.

Often in the high stress situations, one player becomes the focus of attention--to the point where success or failure can depend on this one person. Over the course of many stressful moments in sports, I have tried to determine some of the more common pressure points. What are the most tense positions in sports? Or perhaps more accurately, who has the most potentially aggravating?

Now, I can only speculate on the stress of athletes themselves. I logged 5 career points in high school basketball (including some AAU play), and I batted somewhere around .212 in baseball. Needless to say, I was not called upon often in stressful situations. But I am more than qualified to talk about the impact on the fans, with over 20 years of experience, predominantly with teams from Detroit, which I think earns me some bonus points.

ANYWAY, here is a list of some of what I consider the most terrifying positions in sports, in no particular order. If any of these positions cause near as much strain as we feel, then I can’t help but feel for them. Unless they play for the other team.

The Placekicker - I’ll start with an easy one. Although the field goal is only worth three points, it’s hard to imagine a more isolated task in football than kicking one. For a sport in which there are so many players on the field at one time, and the action occurs within about three seconds for each play, kicking is about the only time where no one else is watching anything. So much so, that the strategy known as “icing the kicker” involves taking timeouts only to increase the pressure of the moment. Regardless of the point value, I bet you can think of a few games your team has won or lost from a FG off the top of your head. After the fact, of course, the replay can decide that the snap was bad or the holder mishandled it, but in the moment, a missed kick is one person’s fault. And that can be all that matters.

The Putter - Here I am referring not to the golf club, but to the role of the golfer, the final and sometimes most difficult task of each hole. Experience has taught me that almost nothing is more elating on a golf course than watching a putt fall from fifteen or twenty feet out. Imagine how much that feeling would be multiplied if sinking that putt meant winning a major. Imagine also how crushing a missed putt would be. Just ask Doug Sanders or Scott Hoch. I also know from experience that there is no one more critical of your golf game than yourself when you are having a bad day. Just consider the amount of self-induced pressure when lining up a makeable putt. Which direction will it break? How hard should I hit it? Is there anything in the path? These and a thousand other questions are racing through a Tour golfer’s mind and the minds of the two hundred people crowded around the green staring at them. That kind of pressure would be unbelievable, and very well may be the most intense on this list.

The Free Throw Shooter - Possibly the most obvious example of stress in sports. All eyes are on one player as they take a shot. Pretty straightforward. Everyone likes to complain about free throws and how easy they are, usually with the witty comment, “They’re called free throws!” But free throws are not that automatic. Percentages made can range from the amazing (Steph Curry, 90.7%) to the atrocious (my Pistons’ Andre Drummond, 35.5%), but most are somewhere in the middle. Still, on average, players are going to miss one out of every four or five shots. Compound all the screaming and yelling at a player when they are at the line, and it’s a wonder they don’t miss more shots. Foul shots at the end of the game are especially stressful, of course, because they can decide the result. As fouls start to fly in the last 40 seconds of a game, half the people in the arena are hoping a player will miss the shot to keep it a one-point game, the other half are wishing the opposite to expand the lead. Simply making free throws--worth a measly one point--can be more than enough to win a game.

The Shootout Goalie - A shootout is to hockey as one-on-one is to basketball. Both the goalie and the shooter have exactly one goal in mind, and that goal is in direct opposition of the other. The skater has a lot of time to think about the strategy for scoring a goal. The goalie can only react to the play. I would like to know what goes through a goalie’s mind in the seconds leading up to a shot. Should they expect the fake? Or the backhand? Or is that too predictable? There’s a lot of time to second-guess yourself as a goalie. I can’t even stand to watch shootouts; it’s just too much for me. I also don’t like the shootout because it reduces everything that’s happened over the last 65 minutes down to just six shots that take about two minutes to complete. It feels anticlimactic and a bit like the rest of the game was wasted, but that’s neither here nor there.

The Closer - I saved this for last because a closer can be one of two people. A good closer can save a winning baseball game or he can be the single most aggravating part of a pitching staff. Closers, if you don’t know, are specific pitchers who enter at the start of the ninth inning with their team leading, ostensibly collect three outs, and save the game for their team. It sounds easy enough. But it isn’t always.

This is different from some of the other entries on this last because the stress of a closer’s final inning is not limited to just a moment, but rather a drawn-out series of minutes where every pitch could change the outcome of the game. And unlike the other athletes listed here, the entire stadium’s focus is not solely on the pitcher, but also on the batter--an equally stressful position--who could groove a hit in the gap or a home run into the stands.

Every baseball fan, without fail, has watched their closing pitcher give up a walk and a hit and, before they know it, their team has lost. And in that moment, it can feel like losing a World Series. There’s not many harder moments to endure than watching your team lead for a majority of the game only to throw it away in the final inning. It’s easy to blame the pitcher, but it’s not always fair.1

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After looking at this list, some commonalities emerge. For one, they are of relatively lesser value than other aspects of their sports. By this, I mean literally one free throw is worth far less than a three-point shooter with a hot hand, or a putt is 15 feet compared to a 250 yard drive. Comparatively, it is easy to discount the little parts of games, but they truly do add up. The saying, “Free throws win games,” is not wrong. Secondly, most involve a stoppage of play, which adds to the anxiety levels. When play stops, all eyes are on the person responsible for the next action, such as the field goal kicker, and the ensuing result.

Finally, the people on this list are rarely the type of player you would categorize as the “star” of the team. Starting pitchers are in occasional stressful situations like a third inning jam or a no-hitter in the ninth inning. Quarterbacks might be under pressure to complete a pass to continue the last drive. But the typical face of the organization is not under such situational stress. This gives those on this list more of a heroic quality. Or it could set someone up for infamous failure. Either way, moments of stress in sports can become the stuff of legends.

1 Permit me a brief discourse on Detroit Tigers’ closers. No one likes going through those stressful ninth innings, but the Tigers always seem to have a guy who does it. We went through a decade of Todd Jones (actually nicknamed the “Rollercoaster” because his outings were so up and down), Fernando Rodney, Jose Valverde, and Joe Nathan, where winning never felt like an absolute guarantee. To be sure, these guys mostly got results, each with at least one 30+ season. But I just don't understand why we have to worry so much going into the final inning. For me, it's almost like a Red Wings shootout. So my question is, how many other teams experience this with closers? 20%? Half? It can't be only happening to us. I know Cleveland has had their ups and downs in the 9th inning, for example. It just seems like, anecdotally, other closers are more or less a sure thing. There are reasons to expect this, I guess. We're inheriting closers who are more experienced (read: older), so they may be coming out of their prime. Also closing is really tough. I just remember when Joe Nathan would come out with Minnesota years ago: If we got to him, it felt like an anomaly, not the other way around.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Writings from Solaris

High quality science fiction is not always easy to find. On occasion, I will pick up a book that looks intriguing, only to find that it includes the same tropes in all other sci-fi stories. It must be hard to generate innovative science fiction that doesn’t rely on the same story pitting humans against aliens, or something like that1. Films and video games have the same problem--as if humans fighting aliens is the only concept left to explore in the scope of science fiction2.

Eventually, you have to look to classic science fiction to fulfill this need for original stories. After some recommendation, I came across the brief, but impactful novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris. It was really an astounding read, set around a confounding planet that has futuristic scientists of Earth baffled, featuring an astronaut more or less trapped in orbit of the planet. Described as a philosophical science fiction novel, the reader experiences similar emotions to the astronaut--at times, he is comfortable with his surroundings despite only having studied and read about it; at other times, he is horrified with the effects the planet is having on himself and his fellow scientists.

Solaris (1961 novel) The novel is about an astronaut and psychologist named Kelvin who is sent to a distant planet after some disturbing and unclear messages are transmitted about bizarre happenings on the surrounding space station. It becomes apparent quickly, however, that the story is not about the characters, but the planet itself. Even after being studied for generations, very little is known about the planet. Specialized scientists, called Solarists, have come to the general agreement that the planet is not an object, but more of a conscious being. Being mostly liquid or plasma, the planet appears to respond to external influences, namely the attempts of the scientists to establish contact. Throughout the events, the planet does not come across as hostile; it is merely reactionary.

What the novel does well, among other things, is by giving a fair amount of description to the science surrounding the planet. The science does not feel invented or self-serving to the story. Instead it feels like the branch of study has been established and evolved over generations. The descriptions of the capabilities of the planet are feasible and realistic.

Shortly after arriving to the space station, Kelvin begins receiving a visitor from his past, who it becomes clear, is a creation by the planet based on his consciousness. The other scientists on the ship are dealing with similar apparitions; it has driven one man to suicide. The book chronicles how Kelvin along with his visitor grow together. It approaches a natural point where the two are questioning their own humanity, obviously a conundrum for a human and his apparition.

After finishing the novel, I knew I wanted to track down both film adaptations to see how they compared.

Solaris (1972 film) This is an excellent rendition of the original source material. Directed by the Russian visionary, Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is as much an art film as it is science fiction. It is long (almost three hours) and very sparse, with several scenes of Kelvin, solitary, taking in his natural surroundings. Garnering a Criterion Collection release, there are very few shots wasted, including a striking sequence where a car drives into Tokyo with the sound effects of a shuttle taking off. Interestingly, the author of the novel, Stanislaw Lem, was not pleased with the outcome of the film, as it took too many liberties from the novel. Tarkovsky plays with the effect of having little to no sound at times to demonstrate the isolation Kelvin sometimes feels both on Earth and on the space station. The film definitely does not rely on special effects (this was five years before Star Wars innovated upon flashy effects), but the depictions of the planet are no less striking. And while I do not want to give too much away, I will say the ending, the slow pan-out, must be seen to be believed.

Solaris (2002 film) The 2002 remake of the earlier film is not as good, though it is far from disappointing. It does accomplish much of the original message of the book, but there are some details added that detract from the story. Reported, James Cameron had wanted to make a new version of the film for some time, and he was able to produce it with the direction of Steven Soderbergh. Together these two filmmaking icons obviously brought their own styles to the story. The external shots of the planet are breathtaking--expect nothing less from a Cameron production. My issues with the film concern the extended sequences of George Clooney’s reminiscence of his time on Earth. Much shorter than the 1972 film, this version uses a lot of valuable screen time away from the space station. There was also an added twist to the story that seemed more akin to the modern, generic sci-fi tropes I mentioned earlier. It did little to add to the suspense and certainly was not necessary here. And the ending, while it attempted to recapture the classic film, personally did not have the same striking success.

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Probably the most powerful message from any of the versions is that the scientists are disrupting a planet that they truly do not understand. The planet is so incomprehensible that its “motives” could be almost anything. It could be trying to establish benevolent contact by providing an image of loved ones; or it could be attempting to drive the scientists to madness, and thus away from continually studying it. Again, while there is never a sense of hostility from the planet, there is almost always a sense of unease. We know there is something wrong with the “visitors” but, like Kelvin, we feel strangely comfortable with it. The dangers in the story do not feel as if they are caused by the environment, but rather at a psychological level. And all three tellings of the story capture this sense, in different ways. Essentially, however you go about this story, in whichever order, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience.

1 This is not to say this type of story always fails. War of the Worlds is a classic novel, and Aliens is one of my favorite movies.
2 Substitute dragons and orcs for aliens, and the same holds true for fantasy. Simply having epic wars of mythical beings is not the key to quality fantasy. Finding good fantasy is often difficult, as well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Slowest Month for Sports

Now that the Super Bowl is over, we are left with a fairly dismal month in the world of sports. There is something a little empty feeling about not having football every weekend--college or professional. The NHL and the NBA are just far enough from their playoffs that teams are not quite being eliminated or saved on a nightly basis. The excruciatingly long time of the MLB preseason is slowly beginning. Even college basketball is in a bit of a lull, before the excitement of March.

Of course, all this changes very quickly. In one month’s time, we have hockey and basketball teams fighting for that last playoff spot. The NCAA basketball tournament is a blinding display of constantly exciting games. The Masters and WrestleMania are approaching. Baseball teams are beginning to take shape and resemble what they will be on Opening Day. Basically, we have an exciting month and half of sports, but first we have to wade through the drudgeries of February.

So, now would be a good time to look ahead to the future season(s) of your teams, an opportunity which I will take now. Apologies to most people, but this will be a Detroit-centric discussion. You’ll have to indulge me. They are in rough order based on their upcoming championship opportunities. Let’s get started!
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Dayton Flyers men’s basketball This team is good. Having been in and out of the top-25 rankings (19th at the highest, heretofore), they are finally starting to play well with a bit more national attention. They are winning games they are supposed to win, and in most cases, by an notable margin. Their losses have not been pretty, but at least they’ve been few. Barring a major collapse, they should garner at least an 8-seed in the tournament. I’m just hoping to eventually get out of the black hole of the Atlantic 10. After top-tier teams abandoned the conference, Dayton’s wins have been much less impressive. I, for one, would like to go through a few games in the tournament without being called the “Cinderella team.”

WrestleMania To make the month of February even worse, we had to say goodbye to Daniel Bryan, a wrestler that you could not help but like. There was not a dry eye in Seattle on the night he announced his retirement. Otherwise, it’s the best time of the year to be a fan of professional wrestling. I like the look of the matchups for Fastlane coming up later this month, but I am dreading the possibility of Dean Ambrose turning heel.

The Masters All eyes will, of course, be on the young sensation, Jordan Spieth. Number one in the world and defending his crisp Green Jacket from last year’s Masters, I can’t wait to see what he does this year. At 22 and with two majors already, he also has the tantalizing chance to pursue Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 championships. I feel like he could add one or two more in 2016. The player I’ve been most impressed with early this season has been Brandt Snedeker. With one win and three top-3 placings so far, he’s been consistently showing up at or near the top of the field. Unfortunately, I have concerns about Rory McIlroy. He’s only missing the Masters to complete the set of majors, but he dealt with an injury and a slow 2015 following wins in the 2014 British Open and PGA Championship.

Detroit Red Wings The Red Wings have been in the NHL playoffs every year since 1991. I worry about this streak every single year, to some degree. After some trepidation, I’m more and more confident this team will make the playoffs this year. Dylan Larkin has a viable shot at winning Rookie-of-the-Year, and Petr Mrazek has a terrific record of 21 wins in 37 games with a Goals Against Average under 2. Despite the extremely tight Eastern Conference standings, even a .500 record should be enough to secure a spot in the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons As confident as I am about the Red Wings, I’m cooling on the Pistons. Losing the best offensive player on the team in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a huge blow, as the team has dropped 4 of the 5 games he’s missed. There are solid players to cover the holes he has left, but they’re falling just a bit short of late. Andre Drummond is clinging to the most rebounds in the league, but even he has slipped a bit. A bright spot? It’s not going to take much more than 45 wins to get a spot in the East, which is quite doable. Another bright spot? KC-P is expected to be back this month.

Detroit Tigers This is probably the team I am most excited about this year (read: every year). The baseball offseason is always the longest, isn’t it? And spring practices and training is so torturously long leading up to the regular season. In any case, I went from being lukewarm on the team this year to all in after the trade securing Justin Upton. He improved an average to below-average outfield and added yet another dangerous bat to the lineup. The sometimes dismal bullpen shed some dead weight, and added a closer who might not murder fans out of stress each and every night (although I’ve thought that every year for a decade now). I recognize that my optimism is a result of fandom, but I think the Tigers have a legitimate shot of contending for the Central, and possibly the American League.

Detroit Lions As usual, I have no idea what to expect from this team next year. It’s too early to tell with the combine and the draft right around the corner. I will say that so far this offseason has not been altogether positive, seemingly losing more players than we’ve gained, most notably future HOFer Calvin Johnson. The already-lacking offense will take a hit, but the Lions will likely be drafting a defender with their 16th pick. At this point, we have to wait and see how the draft shakes out for any further speculation.
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Again, if you’re not a fan of any of these teams, I can’t believe you made it this far. Instead, I encourage you to reflect on your own teams and sports, and try to get through this dull month in good spirits. Cheers!