In celebration of the humble beetle

I bring this up because for the past few weeks around here I’ve noticed something:

“Oh wait, there’s another black beetle…man, how many of them ARE there?”

My Flickr stream has a couple of photos of the ducks that are always around in spring, but seeing all these beetles was a bit more surprising, if only because I’d rarely seen so many of these kinds of beetles around in droves. I kept idly wondering about it but it wasn’t like they were invading my apartment or the like so I wasn’t too bothered.

Happily, there is an answer to it all:

The Calosoma beetles, which experts identify as predacious ground beetles, are not dangerous to humans and pose no threat to vegetation; their large bodies and threatening mandibles, however, have some residents frightened.

This summer’s influx is caused by a combination of rainfall and warm temperatures, which increases the number of worms that the beetles eat, he said.

“Most people consider them beneficial because they’re eating insects that are considered pests, but some people don’t like them because they’re ugly,” Nisson said.

The last point has some validity, though I wouldn’t call them ugly, just, well, beetley:

Behold a beetle

If you can stand it, there’s pictures of this species plus others via this page, while my new favorite page discovered on the net is What’s That Bug. Hurrah for insects! But admittedly, hurrah for screen doors and windows too.

Sparks in SPAAAAAAAAAACE

Another quick post here, I’ll get back to more detailed thoughts tomorrow!

Yesterday’s feed was among the choppiest yet, sadly enough, but the show looked great, Angst In My Pants given a full live runthrough made an already fantastic album sing even more. And having the encore be “Minnie Mouse” seemed only appropriate!

So today is In Outer Space, not a bad album but not one I regularly go back to though there are some spectacular tracks on it, so I’m hoping for a Big Beat/Introducing level show tonight where the whole thing is pepped up. It’d be interesting to see if Jane Wiedlin came out for her two songs but I’m guessing not — still, would be a fun touch!

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

IN OUTER SPACE

Sparks finally got their first – and so far, their only – American top forty success with the lead song on this album, “Cool Places,” though it certainly didn’t hurt that it was actually a duet between Russell and Jane Wiedlin, then riding the peak of her own fame as one of the Go-Gos. It wasn’t an inappropriate pairing at all, though, given that Wiedlin was herself a Sparks fan since the seventies – she also appeared later on the album with “Lucky Me Lucky You” – and the resultant single, if one of the Maels’ most straightforward compositions (especially lyrically) is still a fun kick.

It’s also one of the most straight-up synth-pop style numbers the band had yet recorded – even drummer David Kendrick sounds more like a drum machine than Keith Forsey had done back on the late seventies albums – and reflects In Outer Space as a whole, with a number of songs being practically guitarless (Bob Haag notably is credited with playing guitar synthesizers as well as his chosen instrument), though the core backing quartet remained unchanged from Angst. Possibly the Maels, producing themselves for the first time since the misfire of Introducing, wanted to experiment a bit more with other approaches without specifically repeating the Moroder albums. Happily it’s an experiment that works, and a new slew of Sparks highlights were the result – “Popularity,” a dryly hilarious portrayal of hip young things out on the town, and its brilliant lyrical flipside “I Wish I Looked a Little Better” are both winningly-sung and performed electronic pop at its best, an enjoyable tip of the hat to groups like Depeche Mode and Bronski Beat, among others, who had worn out their copies of No. 1 in Heaven long before.

That said In Outer Space can be a bit too stiff for its own good – a song like “Prayin’ for a Party” tries to replicate the monster stomp of “I Predict” without as much success. Add in some more timekilling lyrics and arrangements at points – “Please, Baby, Please,” despite a few good lines, sounds scarily MOR towards the end – and this isn’t a start to finish winner like Angst. But it’s still one of the band’s finer efforts, and any album with songs (and songtitles) like “All You Ever Think About Is Sex” (“All right with me!”) and “A Fun Bunch of Guys From Outer Space” has its snarky heart in the right place.

Sparks, angst and pants

Full day here so just to say that Wednesday’s show was great and seeing as how Angst is even a better album, today’s show should be spectacular!

As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

ANGST IN MY PANTS

The Kimono My House to Whomp’s Sparks/Woofer, Angst in My Pants consolidated the strengths of Sparks’s early eighties incarnation into a smash commercial success – at least within a certain context. At this point Sparks were near gods in their hometown of Los Angeles at long last, establishing themselves as firm favorites on KROQ and attracting massive crowds in the area. But like one of their many indirect descendants Oingo Boingo, this didn’t translate into a national success – a pity, since in many ways it was one of the group’s playfully daring releases, hinted at with one of their best album covers, Russell dressed as a groom in a spangled suit while Ron played the blushing bride.

With keyboardist James Goodwin added to the group and Mack following up on his Whomp production duties, Angst starts out with one of the Maels’ all time best, the title track. Russell sounds downright sad and desperate in the opening words of each verse as well as the chorus, and the bite of the lyrics (“You can be smart as hell, know how to add/Know how to figure things on yellow pads”), not to mention the pun of the title, doesn’t hide the sheer frustration he slyly captures, the sharp, stripped down arrangement shot through with low synth moans. It’s a striking starting point and the rest of the album lives up to it, ranging from the proto-industrial stomp of “I Predict” – deep electronic bass lines set against psychic parody lines like “Somebody’s going to die/But I can’t reveal who” – to the John Barry/Ennio Morricone tribute of “Nicotina,” which makes the simple act of smoking a cigarette seem like apocalypse. Quite why longtime Sparks freak Mike Patton hasn’t covered this yet is a mystery.

The giddy, almost epic ‘let’s go out and hit the town’ spirit of “Sextown USA” and the explosive (and deeply hilarious) “Moustache” were also among the winners, while the murky melodies and rolling drums of “Sherlock Holmes” and “Tarzan and Jane” further shows that the stage-show musical heart of the Maels was still strong, if somewhat sublimated. If there’s an established fan favorite beyond the singles, though, it might well be “Mickey Mouse,” the Maels’ merry celebration of their long-running Disney fascination made manifest. It’s a bit surprising that the Disney monolith didn’t try and sue the song out of existence for copyright violations, but such is the weird nature of multinationals.

A tired Thursday

Finishing up a lot of work and catching up on other things, so right now just a few links of interest:

  • It’s yer typical ‘hey isn’t this interesting, this thing that’s been going on forever’ piece on first blush, but this LA Times story on ‘guerrilla gardening’ has more to offer than on first blush. Among other things, it’s a nice observation about what exactly public land means in terms of who does what with it — and how the government isn’t always against creative use. A key part:

    Scott sees his Long Beach garden as a showcase for drought-tolerant, low-maintenance city landscaping. But he’s in a bind. How does he broach the subject, given his unsanctioned status? “I wish I could get together with the city,” he says. “But I’m apprehensive and pretty much keep under the radar.”

    Meanwhile, over at landscaping headquarters for the city of Long Beach, superintendent of grounds maintenance Ramon Arevalo waxes on about one of more than a dozen gardens done by “road planters,” as he calls guerrilla gardeners. “It’s like an underwater scene, a cactus garden that looks like a corral reef. It’s beautiful. It’s been there on Loynes Drive for 10 years, and we don’t know who did it. You should see this place!”

    It’s Scott’s garden. I tell him I have seen it and know the mystery man who planted it. Arevalo is ecstatic. “I can’t wait to know him! He’s been the talk of this place for 10 years. He’s like the 007 of gardening,” says Arevalo, laughing heartily. He says a homeowners association has complained that their medians are ugly. Why can’t theirs look like that cactus island?

    Arevalo is impressed by Scott’s use of drought-tolerant plants and assures there will be no repercussions if he comes forward. There is no law against planting on city landscaping, except for ficus trees, whose roots wreck roads and sidewalks. The city discourages unapproved gardening but tries to work with road planters it discovers. “If you want to do this, my advice is to contact myself or the council person,” says Arevalo. “We want to partner with people who care about where they live.”

    My kind of happy ending. Who knows, it may yet be the groundwork for something more detailed that ends up helping everyone.

  • No Sparks show today but Steven Nistor has updated his blog with reports on the last four. A sample:

    I was excited to play (“Whomp”) since it and “Angst in My Pants” are my favorites. I get to get inside the mind of David Kendrick, the drummer who played on both of these. His playing is such a great combination of groove, inventiveness and a bizarre “trashiness,” made even more interesting by Mack’s unusual drum sounds. Growing up as a “jazzer,” it has been wonderful for me to get to imitate so many unique drummers over the past two weeks.

  • Finally, a story from a few days back, but part of the joy of the Phoenix lander mission to Mars were the photos that have been captured of it during its descent and on the ground. And there’s no question what the crackerjack one was — trying to show it here would be an insult, so just follow that link. Here’s the description:

    This amazing image was captured as Phoenix came in for its Mars landing on May 25, 2008. The HiRISE camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pointed at Phoenix, which is seen here against the background of a 10-kilometer-diameter crater called Heimdall. The dramatic view makes it appear that Phoenix is falling into the crater, but in fact Phoenix was 20 kilometers closer to HiRISE than Heimdall, and it landed nowhere near the crater. The photo was taken 20 seconds after Phoenix’ parachute opened. Credit: NASA / JPL / U. Arizona

    An earlier image was striking enough, a small shot of the lander against what turned out to be that massive crater. It inspired an excellent post over at Bad Astronomy, which sums up my thoughts better than I could right now:

    Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

    Never, ever forget: we did this. This is what we can do.

    Exactly so.

Mushroom stew


Though arguably it could just as easily be mushroom soup. Depends on the amount of the broth in the end!

Mushroom Stew Recipe

Ingredients
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 pound shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned, and caps roughly chopped
1/2 pound red-skinned potatoes, such as Red Bliss or All Reds, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 pound yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Austrian Crescent or Yukon Gold, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 Tbsp minced fresh rosemary
1 Tbsp minced fresh sage
1 Tbsp fresh thyme
2 cups mushroom or vegetable stock
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Instructions
Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Swirl in the oil, then add the onions and cook until soft and fragrant, about 4 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the cremini and shiitake mushrooms; cook just until the mushrooms begin to give off their liquid, about 3 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir in both kinds of potatoes with a wooden spoon, then add the rosemary, sage, and thyme. Cook just until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Stir in the stock, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer until the potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork, about 12 minutes. Gently stir in the parsley, salt, and pepper and cook for another 2 minutes to bind the flavors. Serve immediately. The soup can be made in advance — store it covered in the refrigerator for up to three days, but thin it out with extra stock as you reheat it.

The stew can be varied with a seemingly limitless list of mushrooms. Substitute hedgehog, lobster, black trumpet, porcini, portobello, or hen of the woods, so long as you have a total of 2 pounds.

You can also finish the stew with one of several enhancers. Along with the parsley, stir in one of the following:

2 Tbsp dry vermouth
1-1/2 Tbsp sweet vermouth
1-1/2 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 Tbsp basil oil
2 tsp sesame oil
4 dashes Tabasco sauce, or to taste

Yield: 6 servings

Post-Memorial Day AMG links…

Once more and once again:

The only things to be said about Scott McClellan

And they aren’t much, really.

  • Dude was, and is, a grade-A doof. Some people you can’t even work up contempt for, and while I know I snapped a few times over the past years at some of his more egregious idiocies on the job, point is he deserved no more than the courtesy one gives any professional mouthpiece. Now, some mouthpieces are perfect at their job — Tony Snow was a perfect pro on this front, oily enough to work the game and seemingly friendly enough that everyone dealt with it even though he was oily. Scott McClellan maybe thought that not seeming like a pro would endear him to people. Instead he perfectly captured the feeling of his boss, but made it more concentrated somehow, like bouillon. Of the festering sort.
  • The fact that he’s written a book basically saying all sorts of fun things about the inner working of the current Administration means that he’s burned his bridges thoroughly on the one hand and made everyone else who couldn’t stand him think no better of him now on the other. Entertaining!
  • Dana Perino, current inhabitant of the job McClellan used to have, had this to say:

    “Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House,” she said. “For those of us who fully supported him, before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew.”

    ‘Disgruntled’ as a word choice just makes me think of descriptions of postal employees who got a little frustrated and took it out on their coworkers. This was perhaps not the most appropriate vocabulary. Perfectly timed for the release of that Uwe Boll film, though.

  • But really, the only thing to be said is this — iceberg, tip. Not just of things to be said or unsaid regarding the current Administration by those who worked in it somewhere, but of the attempts to try and work against whatever comes out. As noted in that link to Balloon Juice up there, Ed Morrissey seems to be leading a charge that probably won’t pan out. Still, gotta work in your dry runs as you find them. Folks like Morrissey need the practice, as it’ll be a long few years here for them.

Sparks get whomped

And my prediction pretty much came true yesterday — the Terminal Jive set was definitely the least of the shows in the series on all levels. Not that the band didn’t get in there and do it, but everything clearly felt a bit more functional all around — I’m almost surprised they didn’t speed up the songs to get through them more quickly!

Still, a number of fun touches — in honor of “When I’m With You” being the Maels’ huge French breakthrough single, Ron wore a beret and Russell made a few stage comments in said language, while “Young Girls,” definitely a ‘please don’t take these sentiments seriously’ number for the band, sounded pretty good live. Meanwhile, the encore of “Singing in the Shower” was a good chance for the band to acknowledge the passing of Fred from Les Rita Mitsuoko, while the world finally got a chance to see the ‘secret’ member of the Sparks team, John Thomas, on second keyboards — he’s worked with the band on keyboards and engineering and more since the mid-eighties and by default is the longest-serving member of the group-as-such besides Ron and Russell himself. Seemed like a friendly looking feller!

Anyway, tonight’s Whomp That Sucker, inaugurating the band’s ‘eighties phase’ for lack of a better word, where stripped down arrangements and hooks became the baseline and, more often than not, were handled brilliantly. If this was being held in LA these next few evenings would be the packed out nights and the band have already spoken about how they’re wondering what the UK crowd will be like for the next six shows, so we’ll see what the result is soon enough!

From here on in the drafts I’ll be publishing come pretty close to the final entries; after having written much more detailed earlier reviews Jay at Arthur noted things probably would need to be shorter, so I shortened my initial thoughts accordingly. As before, the final version of the piece below is in the second part of this Arthur issue, while tonight’s show is accessible here:

WHOMP THAT SUCKER

In ways, Sparks’s first album of the 1980s was an equivalent to their debut efforts at the start of the previous decade – based firmly back in LA with a three-piece rock band as their collaborators. This time around, they went ahead and recruited an entire group, the power-pop (and definitely Sparks-inspired) Bates Motel, consisting of guitarist Bob Haag, bassist Leslie Bohem and drummer David Kendrick. With Ron armed with a bank of keyboards to play around with – early digital synths galore, treated with the familiar hypercomplex melodic runs he enjoys – and Giorgio Moroder partner Mack handling production, the resultant Whomp That Sucker was a crisp example of Sparks placing themselves firmly in the New Wave that they had no small part in inspiring.

This eighties rock and roll version of Sparks in all was a much simpler and more direct one than those of earlier years – instead of frenetic performances and instant stop-start changes, the feeling here is steady riffing and straightforward rhythms, immediate but less astonishingly unique (though if anything, songs like “The Willys” indicated how Sparks was listening to bands that had followed in their wake like Devo and XTC). In ways, this is the sound of a ‘new’ group still finding its feet, just, and the end result is a bit uneven. Still, plenty of songs have the sensibility of Sparks at its most theatrical, such as “Where’s My Girl” and “That’s Not Natassia,” while Russell’s falsetto is as sweetly dramatic as ever, especially in the choral overdubs.

But it’s the in-your-face numbers that score the most here, such as the hyperactive smack of “Upstairs,” the absolutely hilarious “Tips for Teens” (“Don’t eat that burger/Has it got mayonnaise/GIVE IT TO ME!”) and especially “Funny Face,” with a gorgeous “When I’m With You”-style chorus anchoring the tale of a man so perfect in appearance he despairs of never being left alone, tries and fails to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge and lives a happy life from there after his appearance is permanently marred. This was the lead single, by the way.

Stuffed zucchini

Interesting little dish, took less time to prep than I would have figured. Filling but not overstuffing!

Stuffed Zucchini

two (6 to 8 inch) zucchini
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of butter or margarine
one 15 ounce can of red kidney beans, slightly mashed
1 cup (4 ounces) of shredded sharp Cheddar Cheese
3/4 cup of spaghetti sauce, divided
1/4 teaspoon of dried oregano leaves
1/4 teaspoon of dried basil leaves
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/8 teaspoon of pepper
1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese

Wash the zucchini thoroughly, cook in boiling salted water for 5 minutes.

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise, remove seeds and membrane. Set shells aside.

Sauté the onion in butter until tender.

Combine the onion, kidney beans, Cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup of spaghetti sauce, oregano, basil, salt and pepper, mix well.

Arrange the zucchini shells in a lightly greased 9 inch square baking dish.

Spoon bean mixture into zucchini. Top each with 1 tablespoon of remaining spaghetti sauce and 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.

Cover and bake at 375ºF. for 15 to 20 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Makes 2 servings

A late May sunset to the side

Overlooking South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.

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