I have been a Nintendo loyalist for a long time. From the time I got my first Super NES in 1995, I have bought almost every system Nintendo has released (Super NES, N64, GameCube, Wii, Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, & Nintendo 3DS). There are many reasons I love Nintendo as much as I do: their singular focus on good game design, their durable systems that stand the test of time (I still play my SNES games from time to time… who can say that about any other system?), and their relationship with their fans. But there’s always been one franchise that they’ve treated like the black sheep, and that is Metroid.
Metroid is, hands down, my favorite video game series of all time. While it may not have as well-developed a universe as such sci-fi franchises as Star Wars,Star Trek, or even Firefly (more on that later), it is hard to top Metroid in terms of solid storylines combined with great game experiences. The series blazed new trails with its introduction of the first female protagonist in a major game franchise as well (and a badass female at that). Before I get to a rundown of the series’ best games, I’ll fill you in on some basic plot elements standard to every game. The main character is bounty hunter Samus Aran, who once worked as a soldier for the Galactic Federation. A few years into her career she ventures off independently, before reconnecting with her old Federation comrades in a later game. Most of her quests involve her developing an understanding of metroids, creatures that live by sucking the life force out of their victims using their fierce claws, essentially an intergalactic leech. Now, on to the list:
Don’t mess with metroids.
The best game in the Metroid series, and in my opinion the greatest video game ever made, is Super Metroid. Samus returns to Planet Zebes, the setting of the first game, in order to defeat a new and improved Mother Brain, the same boss she faced in Metroid, the first game. Through scientists’ study of a baby metroid that had imprinted on Samus, they conclude that the long-feared creatures’ powers could actually be harnessed and used for the greater good. This shift in attitude towards the main antagonists of the series is a plot point that I’ve always found very interesting about the series.
The gameplay in Super Metroid is also superior, with a massive world to explore even given the Super NES’s limitations. One thing I’ve always liked about Metroid games is that they are non-linear. Unlike in, say, a Mario game, you don’t progress from stage to stage in order. In Super Metroid, you can explore any area of Planet Zebes you want. Certain areas, however, are blocked and accessible only after you have acquired certain items. The game also requires you to backtrack to certain areas at times to obtain new items and power-ups once you have other significant ones. For example, after you acquire the Varia Suit in the jungle area Brinstar, you are able to withstand the intense heat of the lava area Norfair and can explore it further. I personally love this kind of gameplay, and it really makes the player rack their brain to come up with a way to proceed forward in the quest. Players’ “Metroid instincts” (as the webmasters of the fan site Metroid Database call them) will often kick in, causing them to search every nook and cranny of an area in creative and interesting ways until they find a way forward in their quest, creating a unique challenge. It also means that there are many different paths to completing the game, giving it a lot of replay value. This open style of gameplay has influenced many games that have come after Super Metroid, on many systems.
This statue blocks your way to the final area in Super Metroid. I think it really shows off the game’s solid graphics.
Just nipping at Super’s heels is Metroid Prime, also considered by many as one of the greatest games of all time. Prime was one of the first games that really unlocked the GameCube’s potential as a system, and stretched it to new heights. Unlike previous games, Prime featured a first-person perspective, with the player looking through Samus’s helmet. You could use different visors to explore different areas, and scan items to reveal plot points or hints as to what you needed to do next. Prime’s sequels were not quite as good, but the original stands as a shining example of the series’ greatness.
Metroid Prime‘s scan visor
The Metroid series also gave the world some great handheld games, like Metroid Fusionand Metroid Zero Mission. Metroid Fusion is probably #3 on my favorite Metroid games list, and turns the storyline on its head yet again. Samus ventures back to the planet SR-388, the setting of Metroid II: Return of Samus. Since she spent that whole game slaughtering every last metroid to eliminate their perceived threat, their natural enemy, the X virus, has skyrocketed in population. Samus is immediately infected with the virus upon landing on the planet, and only cured after a vaccine is administered using metroid DNA. She then seeks to defeat the X virus and deal with a reappearance of aggressive metroids. Fusion’s gameplay is much more linear than previous Metroid iterations, but fleshes out Samus’s character traits more, which had gone largely undeveloped throughout the series. Zero Mission is a true remake of the first game, with new items and areas added. I like to think of it as the “finished” version of Metroid, that tells the full story free of the limitations of the NES. It’s a great game to play as an introduction to the series.
Metroid Fusion‘s final boss
Finally, we get to Metroid: Other M. This game divided the fanbase, as it continued to flesh out Samus’s personality, and many people who had formed preconceived notions of Samus as a stone-faced warrior with ice water in her veins were not happy with what they saw. Many fans also criticized the game’s progression. Unlike typical Metroid games, Samus starts the game with all her items and weapons, but you are unable to use them all. As you progress through the game, Samus is granted permission by her old boss, Adam Malkovich, to use certain abilities. Abbie Heppe of G4 TV even went so far as to label the game sexist, because Samus cannot wield her powers unless directed by a man. Where this logic falls apart, I think, is that early in the game, Samus joins up with her old Federation friends and accepts the authority of Malkovich as her commanding officer. He tells her when to use her weapons because he is her superior officer, not because he is some chauvinistic pig. The same would have been true if her commanding officer was a woman.
All that said, there are obvious criticisms to make of this game. The play control, which alternated between first and third-person views, was choppy and hard to navigate sometimes. Some of the plot points were oddly executed (including a few that are simply dropped halfway through the game), and the gameplay was a little too linear for a Metroid game. However, I still think it deserves a place in the series, and has gotten more flak than it deserves. I’m hoping that the critical response to this game won’t leave Nintendo hesitant to experiment more with the franchise in the future.
One other thing that unites all the Metroid games is great soundtracks. A lot of the music stands on its own as good music, rather than merely being good video game music. Many of the tunes from the soundtrack are just weird enough to be good, and set the scene very well for whatever area of the game one happens to be in. For instance, the Brinstar theme from Super Metroid sets the stage for the jungle area very well. I can’t believe they made this layered and complex a song with a 16-bit game system’s processing power:
This track from Metroid Fusion really underscores the danger Samus and her comrades face at the beginning of the game:
Metroid Prime shows that Metroid games do modern music well, too:
Unfortunately, despite Metroid’s great gameplay and storylines, Nintendo has never really given Metroid its full attention. It always seems like a “secondary project” for Nintendo; something they work on when they’ve made too many Mario and Zelda games. For instance, Nintendo once went eight years without releasing a Metroid game, stretching the entire life span of the Nintendo 64 system. This long layoff was replicated following Metroid: Other M’s mixed reception, with Nintendo going another seven years before announcing Metroid Prime 4 and Metroid: Samus Returns. Because of this, it has been hard for the series to gain a consistent fan following like others. It has the potential to be as good a franchise as Star Wars, with the potential for books, comics, and other media besides video games to be made. I’d even argue that Metroid could succeed where many other video games have failed: on the silver screen. But because Nintendo doesn’t feel like promoting it most of the time, Metroid remains its “redheaded stepchild.”
Sadly, choices like these got Nintendo to where it is today. The Wii U largely failed to catch on in the consumer market, and its relative commercial failure along with the lagging sales of the Wii toward the end of its life put the company’s back against the wall and left it lagging behind the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft XBox. But when you put out a system that doesn’t really have anything new to offer, and games that are largely retreads of older games in their keystone franchises (such as New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Luigi Bros., and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker 3D), even your most loyal customers are inevitably going to lose interest. While their new system, the Switch, appears to be gaining some of those old fans back, the addition of a true Metroid game can only help.
Democrat Jon Ossoff fell 3.9 points short in his quest to capture GA-06’s Congressional seat.
During the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act, then-President George W. Bush talked of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phenomenon wherein teachers didn’t expect much out of children from low-income and minority families, and thus they didn’t achieve much. Today, I’d like to add a new phrase to the political lexicon: “the irrational exuberance of high expectations.”
Since Donald Trump ascended to the Presidency in January, there have been five special elections in the House of Representatives to fill seats that were left vacant by political appointments. The only Democratic win so far has been in California’s 34th, where two Democrats faced each other in the general election after finishing in the top two slots in an all-party primary. Since then, Democrats lost in Kansas’s 4th, Montana at-large, and were expected to lose South Carolina’s 5th district, which Donald Trump won by a huge margin. So all eyes turned to the election in Georgia’s 6th district, a previous Republican stronghold that Trump only carried by a point and a half and that I happen to live in. It turned into the most expensive House race in history, with over $20M spent by both sides blanketing the airwaves with ads and the neighborhoods with canvassers. And yet, Democrats came up short yet again, as Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel by 3.9 points.
Liberal activists the country over lambasted Democrats’ strategy in the wake of the election, saying that given the enthusiasm generated by protests and town hall meetings in a district that was trending Democratic, they should’ve easily won. The Democratic brand was in shambles, and there was no way they would take the House now. Also, no Democrat should run as a centrist ever again.
From an Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog post on the aftermath of the GA-06 special election.
And this is what I mean by irrational exuberance. Because this was the only election going on in the country at the time, and the only one that could be characterized as competitive, both sides attached a lot of importance to it. Importance that, I believe, wasn’t warranted. The fact is, this was one election in one Congressional district for one House seat out of 435. Let’s stop with the frenzied hot takes, take a deep breath, and unpack a few points from this election.
First, the notion that this district should’ve been an easy win for Democrats is dubious at best. Hillary Clinton nearly won it, sure, but any scientist or statistician will tell you that basing an argument on one data point is dumb at best, and dangerous at worst. Mitt Romney won the district by 23 points in 2012, and John McCain by 25 points in 2008. The district’s previous Congressman, Tom Price, was routinely reelected by similar margins (now, some of those races were against token opposition, so those numbers are probably a little skewed). There’s no doubt that this district has gotten more diverse and thus more Democratic since 2012, when I moved here, but the notion that this is a district Democrats should’ve won easily isn’t supported by the evidence. Because of the wild swing between the 2012 and 2016 results, it’s hard to know exactly what the baseline for Democratic performance in the district should’ve been. FiveThirtyEight, my most trusted source for political news, said that the expected result could’ve been anywhere from Handel+7.8 to Ossoff+3.3 depending on what inputs you use. Nate Silver also appropriate said in that piece, “The ‘takes’ you’ll read about the Georgia special election are probably going to be dumb.” I think we can all agree that Nate hit that nail on the head.
Second, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Democrats’ chances in the 2018 midterms needs to stop too. Let’s take a minute and look at the big picture. Democrats have been overperforming their benchmarks in almost every special election this year, some by substantial margins. Not only is this trend showing up in federal elections, but it also showing up in state legislative special elections, where Democrats are outperforming previous results by an average of 14 points. This, plus a roughly seven-point lead in generic ballot polls, points to a national environment that will be quite favorable to Democrats in 2018.
In fact, that table looks a lot like special election results in 2006, where Democrats went 1-for-4 on wins but ended up gaining 30 seats and retaking control of the House. Now, this doesn’t mean a Democratic landslide in 2018 is guaranteed… special election results can be wildly inconsistent. But a relatively consistent trend of Democratic overperformance is a good indicator. Again, drawing wild conclusions based on one data point is a good way to look foolish.
Finally, the notion that centrist Democrats never win and the party should abandon this strategy is also rather dangerous. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders lit a new populist fire in many Democrats’ bellies, moving the Overton Window to the left and putting issues such as single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage into the national conversation. But many of these same activists now seem to think every single candidate should make these issues the forefront of their campaign since those issues are most important to them. In my opinion, this is a good way to lose more elections. Jon Ossoff had his flaws as a candidate. He was too stiff, missed an opportunity to attack Karen Handel on obvious gaffes or tie her to an unpopular Republican health care bill, and was excessively risk-averse. But the notion that he could’ve won in this district by suddenly morphing into an aggressive Democratic populist reflects a flawed understanding of the politics of this Congressional district. Any time a party has a good election cycle, it usually happens because they run the right candidates for the environments in which they are running. Republicans do this too… it’s how they were able to get Republican governors elected in states like Maryland and Massachusetts, and how many of their Congressmen (like Dave Reichert in Washington) hang on in Democratic-friendly districts. Democrats need to focus on good candidate recruitment and make the playing field as large as possible. That is how we won before, and that is how we will win again. That said, I do think we should run more populist candidates, more as a test case for 2020 to see how the message plays. We could do so in districts that lean Democratic and even some swing districts, especially in the Rust Belt.
While you’re at it, Bernie, could you stop undermining our candidates by questioning their progressive credentials? Help your movement or shut up.
In sum, liberals need to stop cannibalizing each other and keep our eyes on the goal. I’m not saying there aren’t things we can do to improve our messaging and brand. I think we should consider hiring a Frank Luntz-style consultant that can help us frame issue discussions in an appealing way, for instance. We also need to be more willing to aggressively defend our accomplishments (like the Affordable Care Act) and stand up for those people (such as Nancy Pelosi) that were instrumental in those accomplishments. But I’ve written on here before about the dangers of a liberal Tea Party emerging. The Tea Party may have helped Republicans rebrand, for sure, but it straight up cost them control of Congress at least once, and liberals will be out of power longer if we continue to walk down that path.
The President of the United States is under investigation
I haven’t written about the Trump/Russia investigation much on here, mostly because my life has been insanely busy lately, and other events demanded more of my attention. Brief recap: former FBI director James Comey was fired on May 9, ostensibly because he was unfair to Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign. While that is true, many people didn’t buy that excuse. Why would President Trump fire him for something he did to a political opponent? Trump gave an interview with Lester Holt soon after in which he seemed to admit that he fired Comey because he was investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the presidential election. This prompted the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller (who was Comey’s predecessor at the FBI) to further investigate the situation. In addition, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence began an inquiry and called both Comey and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to testify.
In Comey’s testimony, he revealed that he had “no doubt” that Russian operatives interfered with the 2016 election. He also described several conversations in which he said Trump pressured him to drop an investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired because of his ties to Russia. Comey also admitted leaking information to the press because he wanted a Special Counsel to be appointed. While Comey didn’t come out and say it, his testimony seemed to indicate that he believed Trump obstructed justice by interfering in an official investigation that he was connected to. Spurred on by this, Special Counsel Mueller is now investigating Trump for that very charge.
So what does this mean? Well… we don’t really know yet. Democrats have been salivating at the prospect of a possible Trump impeachment, but since Republicans control Congress, that probably won’t happen anytime soon. From what we know of partisan polarization and loyalty, it would stand to reason that Republicans wouldn’t start abandoning Trump in any real numbers unless something catastrophic were to happen. That “something catastrophic” would probably have to be one of two things in my view: Either Mueller’s investigation finds solid evidence of obstruction of justice, or evidence that many high-level officials in the Trump campaign helped the Russians interfere in the election. And either of those could take a long time. If Democrats take over the House in the 2018 midterm elections, the chances of impeachment could rise. But they would still need buy-in from Republicans to remove Trump from office, as a 2/3 majority in the Senate is required to do so. Republicans will probably remain in control of the Senate after 2018 due to an extremely favorable playing field.
Republican health care bill gets new life
Lost in the news of Trump’s legal troubles was the fact that the Republican health care reform effort soldiers on. Even as House Speaker Paul Ryan declared that Obamacare was the law of the land for the foreseeable future after the House failed to pass first version of the bill back in March, the effort was revived. Several changes were made to the bill to placate the super-conservative Freedom Caucus, such as allowing state governments to roll back required coverage for essential health services, and letting states seek waivers that would allow insurers to charge more to people with preexisting conditions. Even then, 20 Republican Congressman joined every Democrat in opposing the bill, many of them moderates from swing districts.
Many moderate Republican Senators immediately slammed the bill upon its passage, and promised to work on their own version. However, the Senate bill is being drafted behind closed doors, drawing bipartisan criticism. This has created speculation that the bill will be quickly ushered to a vote without a public hearing or drafting session. Given the intense unpopularity of the House bill, it would seem that these methods would only serve to exacerbate those problems. Even more interesting is the fact that Republicans repeatedly accused Democrats of “ramming Obamacare down America’s throat” (they didn’t… the process took 8-9 months) and now appear poised to do just that with their bill.
After seven years, finally more Metroid
On a lighter note, my favorite video game series is finally making a proper comeback. I haven’t written much about my Metroid fandom on here, frankly because there hasn’t been much to write about since Metroid: Other M’s release in 2010. That game sharply divided the fanbase, and since then Nintendo has seemed reluctant to release a new Metroid game (beyond that weird spinoff in 2015). But at the E3 expo this year, fans’ prayers were finally answered with two games: Metroid: Samus Returns, which is a reimagining of the 1991 Game Boy game Metroid II: Return of Samus, will come out first in September of this year for the Nintendo 3DS. While some may criticize this as a retread, I actually think remaking Metroid II is a good idea. The original version left a lot to be desired in terms of gameplay, though it did continue the tradition of killer soundtracks for Metroid games. Honestly, one of the things that got me most excited about this game was hearing that several composers who worked on Super Metroid’s soundtrack are coming back for this game. Nintendo also has a good track record with Metroid remakes, as Metroid: Zero Mission was an excellent remake of the original Metroid game for the Game Boy Advance.
And, perhaps the biggest news of all: the Metroid Prime series is back! Nintendo unveiled this news with a dramatic reveal at E3 of the logo and the words “now in development for the Nintendo Switch.” And… that’s pretty much all we know about it. Retro Studios, the subsidiary of Nintendo who was responsible for the first three games, is not making this game, which caused some panic among fans. But like the worry that surrounded the Rogue One reshoots, let’s not jump to conclusions until we see the game. After all, Kensuke Tanabe, the producer behind the original series, is still on board, so it’s not like this is a total departure from the past. Either way, after skipping the Wii U because of a less-than-stellar game library and lack of Metroid, I will now be buying a Nintendo Switch.
At the beginning of this week, it wasn’t clear what I was going to write about. Maybe I’d review Erin McKeown’s album. Maybe I’d talk about a TV show. Maybe I’d get in some Trump-bashing.
And then Chris Cornell died.
One of the greatest rock vocalists of all time, Cornell was found unresponsive in his hotel room after a show in Detroit after an apparent suicide by hanging. Cornell’s wife Vicky is now saying that anxiety medication may be to blame for his suicidal thoughts. Cornell was most famous as the frontman of Soundgarden, one of the bands that I refer to as the “grunge triangle,” with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, that helped pioneer this era in rock during the 90s. In my opinion, Cornell was the most talented of the three lead singers, with a titanic vocal range and an ability to wail and emote like few others.
But Soundgarden is not all Cornell was known for, and I felt it appropriate this week to give him the Through the Years treatment in the same way I did for Mark Tremonti, tracking all the different music he’s made over the years in different contexts.
Cornell’s journey started with Soundgarden, where he teamed up with guitarist Kim Thayil and drummer Matt Cameron in Seattle. Hiro Yamamoto started out as the band’s bassist. I’ll admit, I’m not familiar with many of their early releases, EPs Screaming Life (1987), Fopp (1988), or albums Ultramega OK (1988) and Louder Than Love (1989), so I’m going to skip over them here.
Soundgarden’s career didn’t really crack the mainstream until their album Badmotorfinger hit in 1991. This came in the wake of their only major lineup change, with Yamamoto leaving in favor of new bassist Ben Shepherd. I think part of why I like Soundgarden more than the other “grunge triangle” bands is that they seemed more open to experimentation than most grunge bands, who were more known for simplicity than anything else. Weird stuff is all over this record, such as in “Jesus Christ Pose.” But there’s plenty of straightforward rock and roll on there, and that’s where I think they excel the best. “Outshined” is probably my favorite Soundgarden song, because it’s aggressive, raw, and honest, like I feel rock should always be. Kim Thayil’s guitar parts are an absolutely perfect complement to Cornell’s wail. “Rusty Cage” provides a note of determined optimism, with the main character swearing that he’ll “break my rusty cage and run.”
1991 proved a busy year for Cornell, as he brought together the band Temple of the Dog in a tribute to his friend Andrew Wood, lead singer of the bands Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, who had died of a heroin overdose the previous year. The band consisted of a mishmash of members of Wood’s bands, Soundgarden, and two future members of Pearl Jam, which was just getting started in 1991. Despite this somewhat slapdash arrangement, the album is excellent and the chemistry between the members is real. “Hunger Strike” is probably Temple of the Dog’s most famous song, and features both Cornell and Eddie Vedder at the peak of their vocal powers. I’m also partial to “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” Cornell’s first song written as a tribute to Wood, and “All Night Thing,” a mellow one-night stand song. “Call Me a Dog” is another highlight, and Cornell would frequently cover it on his solo tours. Temple of the Dog disbanded after this album was made, but had several one-off reunions as well as a reunion tour in 2016 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their album.
Soundgarden’s most successful album by far was their next, Superunknown(1993). This album contains the song the band is most known for, “Black Hole Sun.” I’ve often wondered why this song became as big of a hit as it did, because while it’s good, it’s probably one of the most generic and least interesting songs on the album. “My Wave,” with the unconventional 5/4 time signature that creates an erratic but cool sound (not to mention exploring the unorthodox keys of E minor and B Mixolydian) is one of my favorites. “Spoonman” has a similarly energetic vibe as well, and became a successful single. Many of Soundgarden’s songs have a weight to their sound, like something is pressing down on them or they’re walking through molasses. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you, just something that’s characteristic of their style in this era. “Mailman” shows this off very clearly, as does “Fell On Black Days.”
Soundgarden returned in 1996 with Down on the Upside, an album with which I’m less familiar, but overall it seemed a step back from their previous two releases. My favorite song on this album is probably “Pretty Noose,” as it has a similar energy and sound to my favorite songs on Superunknown. Though given that Cornell ended up committing suicide by hanging, the song has taken on a weird new meaning in the wake of that event. Lyrics like “…and I don’t like what you’ve got me hanging from,” certainly seem to be a weird sort of foreshadowing. The song “Ty Cobb,” is not about the titular baseball player, but it was titled that because the lyrics reminded Ben Shepherd of him. Cobb was amazingly talented and broke many records, but was also known for his alcoholism, womanizing, and virulent racism. Cornell said the lyrics are from the perspective of “some hardcore pissed-off idiot.” While touring in support of this album, the band’s dissatisfaction with the music industry fostered tension among the members, and led to their breakup in 1997.
Cornell would later go on to form Audioslave, but in the inter-band period, he released his first solo album, Euphoria Morning (1999). Fun fact: the album’s original title was supposed to be Euphoria Mourning, but a typo changed the name, and it stuck. Euphoria Morning is much slower and drawn out than anything Soundgarden ever did, and while Cornell sticks with the experimental spirit that characterized that band, he does it in a different way, veering into psychedelia. This is most apparent in “Wave Goodbye,” which Cornell wrote as another tribute, this time to Jeff Buckley, the acclaimed singer/songwriter who drowned in 1997 at only 30 years old. With its wah pedal effects and strong bass line, I feel like that song could be equally at home on a Doors record as a Chris Cornell one. That, combined with the dissonant chords of songs like “Sweet Euphoria,” make this an interesting experiment, even if it doesn’t hit you as hard as a Soundgarden record. Cornell even skirts the folk line with “Preaching the End of the World,” with its minimalist music that features little more than an acoustic guitar. Another fun fact: a lyric from that song became the title of a movie starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.
When Rage Against the Machine’s vocalist, Zack de la Rocha, quit the band in 2000, other members Tom Morello, Brad Wilk, and Tim Commerford were looking to form another band. Enter Chris Cornell, who was also recently bandless, and the quartet formed the supergroup Audioslave, releasing their self-titled album in 2002. It was Audioslave where I was first introduced to Cornell’s vocal stylings, so I’m probably a bigger fan of theirs than most who first listened to Soundgarden. One key difference between the two bands is that each member got to show off their talents by taking prominent roles in different songs. Tom Morello showed early on in this record that he is a very different guitarist than Kim Thayil, with a more tech-savvy and inventive approach to his craft. For instance, many of his solos incorporate the use of feedback noise between his guitar and amplifier, something many bands would consider more of an annoyance than an artistic device. Audioslave exploded onto the scene with their debut single “Cochise,” which characterized a more straight-ahead, alternative style of theirs, in contrast to the rap-rock innovation of RATM or the progressive style of Soundgarden. “Like a Stone” is one of my other favorites from this album.
Audioslave had a much more cohesive sound on their next album, Out of Exile (2005). As a result, it’s probably their best album top-to-bottom. In “Be Yourself,” bassist Tim Commerford got one of many chances to stand out on the intro. It’s also probably one of the most positive songs Cornell has ever performed on. “Doesn’t Remind Me” once again shows Cornell’s more contemplative side. Even the deep cuts of this album have several gems, with “Heaven’s Dead,” reminiscent of more lumbering Soundgarden songs, but with a sound that’s very clearly Audioslave. A friend once described “Dandelion” to me as one of the most romantic rock songs she’d ever heard (I’m more partial to this one, but whatever), and it has a much softer and caring side to it than most other Audioslave songs. Cornell also achieved a personal milestone in this record, as it was his first where he didn’t drink or take drugs during the recording process. Cornell’s substance issues had threatened to tank Audioslave before it even got started, so that was good to see.
Audioslave wasted no time in the interim between albums, releasing Revelations the following year. Tom Morello described the record in an interview as “Led Zeppelin meets Earth, Wind, and Fire,” and I think that actually describes it perfectly. There’s a funkiness to this record that wasn’t really present in any of Chris Cornell’s former bands, and I think the songs on it are more interesting as a result. There’s a sort of bouncy energy in a lot of the songs, like the verses of “One and the Same,” the chorus of “Revelations,” and the main riff of “Original Fire.” Much of this is powered by Brad Wilk’s relentlessly fast drum line and Tom Morello’s abuse (more than normal, even) of his wah pedal. “One and the Same” was one of the few times since Soundgarden that Cornell got to show off his wail. “Wide Awake” was also the band’s first foray into the political commentary that had previously been Rage Against the Machine’s forte. The song called out then-President George W. Bush for his mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Audioslave abruptly disbanded without even touring in support of Revelations, when Cornell announced he was leaving “due to irreconcilable personality conflicts as well as musical differences.” According to interviews, he didn’t like the process of “doing Audioslave business,” and said that the band’s chemistry had broken down. He’d written several songs that didn’t fit in on Audioslave records, and he compiled them into his second solo album, appropriately titled Carry On (2007). This album, to me, sounds like what would happen if you took Tom Morello out of Audioslave and left most everything else intact. It’s a pretty straightforward hard rock record, but without Morello’s creative flourishes. It has a more mature sound than much of Cornell’s previous work. “No Such Thing” is one of his most underrated songs, with a passionate and driving chorus. “Finally Forever” once again shows off his romantic side. But probably the most creative song on here is his cover of the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean.” It’s always interesting when cover songs cross genres, and that’s definitely true here. The original is much more bouncy and dance hall-ish, where Cornell’s version has a slow and haunting feel.
Remember Audioslave’s foray into R&B sounds on Revelations? Cornell took that to a new level in his third studio album, Scream (2009), teaming up with Timbaland to create an interesting experiment in electronic pop. The result is an album that gave me… mixed feelings. Timbaland just flat-out overproduces many of the songs, which means we get bizarre creations like “Sweet Revenge” or “Take Me Alive.” But when he pulls back and lets Cornell sing, the results are much better. One of my favorite moments of the record is when the end of “Take Me Alive” bleeds into “Long Gone,” which then bleeds into the start of the title track, “Scream.” This is true of most tracks on Scream, but it works the best here. “Scream” also has interesting lyrics, talking about how communication can break down in relationships. “Part of Me” and “Ground Zero” are probably the best pure pop songs on the record, which were remixed into club versions that did fairly well.
After Scream wasn’t especially well-received by critics or fans, Cornell kind of ambled around for awhile, reworking some tracks from that album into rock versions, and generally biding his time until the next thing. That next thing happened when Soundgarden unexpectedly reunited in 2010. They started out releasing some compilations and retrospectives, with some new tracks scattered here and there. They finally put out an album of new material in 2012 with King Animal. Soundgarden showed that they still had their experimental spirit, but I didn’t gravitate to this album for the same reason I never really made it all the way through Badmotorfinger: it just got too weird for me in places. I liked the comeback single “Been Away Too Long,” but beyond that, little seemed to stand out for me. “By Crooked Steps” was decent until the ending got a little odd. But the album was much better-received by the general public than Scream had been.
Cornell took a break from Soundgarden to release what would be his final album in 2015, Higher Truth. Cornell recorded every song on this record on acoustic, which made it interesting and was a much more cautious approach that what he did on Scream. The result is a much more consistent and engaging album, but one that probably doesn’t eclipse a lot of his earlier work. If you want more detailed thoughts on this one, I reviewed it back when it came out. This album makes it all the sadder that Cornell died when he did, because it seems to reflect a new maturity and appreciation for what he had learned in life, which one would hope would lead him to a more stable place. Unfortunately, that was not to be, and we have lost a great artist and talented singer before his time. Rest in peace, Chris, from all your fans.
You may recall that I did a profile on Lostboycrow (LBC) back in February 2015 as part of my Next One Up series. Alternative Addiction dropped the ball on their usual Artists to Watch feature, so I didn’t get to do one of those this year. Instead, I thought I’d do a couple of posts catching up with past winners. Back when we first took a look at LBC, he only had two songs out, but was showing a lot of potential. For most of 2015, he kept releasing singles on the music site SoundCloud, and he released what is probably still my favorite one of his, “Say You Want Me.”
This song has a great beat that sounds creative and interesting without being overproduced in a Lady Gaga Artpop sort of way. It also has a sultriness that is characteristic of the R&B style that LBC identifies with. Combine that with the “we’ve all been there” lyrical theme of telling someone you want them romantically, and it’s a track that, in my opinion, is criminally underappreciated, perhaps even by LBC himself, as he hasn’t promoted it as much as many of his other tracks.
Lostboycrow has started to hit some milestones as an artist as well. Last year, he released his first EP, Sigh for Me. The songs on it are all solid, but the one I’d like to highlight here is “Powers.”
In a similar vein to “Say You Want Me,” “Powers” describes a relationship that hasn’t quite become romantic yet, but those feelings are bubbling under the surface. The main character of the song is clearly infatuated, and wants to do more than talk to the other person, though she keeps pulling away for whatever reason. The underlying beat is slower than the previous song, but at times he layers a faster beat over it, perhaps conveying the lyrics’ desire to speed things up a bit.
LBC has also worked on many collaborations with other artists during the last couple of years, my favorite of which is with LA-based DJ trio Cheat Codes, on their song “Senses.”
This one is much more overtly sexual than a lot of Lostboycrow’s other work, but again, it’s one of those “we’ve all been there” sort of ideas. I know I’ve been so attracted to someone it feels like sensory overload in the past. The beat here is much more straightforward than much of LBC’s stuff. Hopefully, his career can follow the trajectory of Cheat Codes’s, who lit up the “Bubbling Under Hot 100” charts last year with their single “Sex,” which samples the chorus of the classic Salt-n-Pepa song “Let’s Talk About Sex.” That single went Gold in the UK and Germany, and Platinum in Australia. They followed that up with “No Promises” this year with Demi Lovato, which is generating similar buzz.
2017 has seen Lostboycrow hit another milestone, with the release of two more music videos. The first, for the single “Verona,” features a mash-up of scenes from Franco Zefferelli’s film version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The song itself conveys similar themes to the play, dealing with the blind intoxication of young love. However, I’m more intrigued by his video for “Real Name,” which is more of a “proper” music video to me.
“Real Name” is a departure from his usual lyrical themes, instead dealing with how he has tried to move forward in his career while still being true to himself, and remembering where he came from. The video carries this theme further, with LBC encountering several pictures and words that remind him of his past as he walks through the scene, and near the end, he encounters a large version of the logo he currently uses, as if to symbolize the future. He also has his hair in braids, perhaps a nod to his growing up around the Crow Indian nation. There is a boy in the video wearing a jersey that says “Real Name,” and I wonder if he isn’t meant to symbolize LBC’s past self. At first, he ignores him, but the two end up dancing together at the end of the video, perhaps indicating that LBC intends to go forward while still embracing who he’s always been. In the description of this video on YouTube, LBC says this song is “off the first Legend,” which had me wondering if he’s about to release a full-length album soon.
So, since I profiled him a couple of years ago, Lostboycrow has continued to release quality songs, but I’m not sure he’s made many mainstream inroads just yet. That may be just fine with him, as it is frequently easier to maintain artistic integrity as an indie artist. But I hope he is able to find some higher-profile success, if only so his tours can cover a wider spread (his last major one, opening for indie-pop artist VÉRITÉ, was largely confined to the Northeast and Midwest) and he can come to Atlanta.
Having been a huge fan of The Good Wife during its seven-season run on CBS, I was excited to hear that a spin-off, The Good Fight, would be airing almost immediately following that show’s end. I was even more excited when I learned that the show would center on Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), one of my favorite characters from the first show. The Good Fight was the first show to debut on CBS All Access, the network’s answer to the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. This meant that, aside from the pilot, the entire show would be streamed on their All Access app.
Story-wise, The Good Fight picks up a year after the events of the The Good Wife. Diane is a partner at what has grown into a firm with eight named partners (Lockhart, Deckler, Gussman, Lee, Lyman, Gilbert, Lurie, Kagan, Tennenbaum & Associates… I’m convinced the long name was their attempt at parodying law firms). Diane tries to retire, but her retirement funds are frozen after a ponzi scheme perpetrated by her longtime friend Henry Rindell is uncovered. Henry’s daughter Maia has just passed the bar and is a junior associate at Diane’s firm. Diane, who is Maia’s godmother, brings her along when she eventually leaves to join Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad, an all-black firm in Chicago (one of my favorite jokes of the season is when Adrian Boseman says that Diane, who is white, is their “diversity hire”). In many ways, their attempt at starting over is similar to Alicia Florrick’s situation as The Good Wife starts, where she is forced to rebuild her life following her husband’s public sex & corruption scandal.
The incomparable Christine Baranski returns as Diane Lockhart, who has to deal with some difficult events during the pilot.
Spinoffs can be difficult because it can sometimes be a hard task to carry over the energy and synchronicity of the old show into a new context. But The Good Fight hardly misses a beat. The cases-of-the-week continue to be interesting, and just as before, many are ripped from the headlines to give the show a fresh and relevant feel. This is true even in the pilot, where a police brutality case is brought up. Other episodes also deal with trends in clickbait “fake news,” as well as sexist/racist social media posts. The ongoing season-long arc of Maia and Diane dealing with the fallout from Henry’s ponzi scheme is also compelling, and because the season is only 10 episodes long, it forces the writers to advance that storyline more quickly and smoothly.
The acting is also top-notch. Several Good Wife characters return for another go, including Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo), Alicia’s tough-as-nails partner who ends up at Reddick/Boseman with Diane. Diane also recruits Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele), who had appeared in several episodes of the previous show, as her assistant. I actually think Marissa’s character is the most improved between the old show and the new. As a series regular, Steele is able to flesh out her character more and her charming and whip-smart nature is able to be fully realized. Diane’s husband Kurt (Gary Cole) also makes several appearances, and they appeared to make up from the fight they had at the end of Good Wife, which made me happy :). Guest stars from before include Matthew Perry as the villainous prosecutor Mike Kresteva, and the hilarious Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni, who was probably my all-time favorite character from the old show. Part of me wishes she was a series regular, but her personality and brand of humor might not be appreciated as much if she appeared on the show every week. I would love to see Julianna Margulies come back as Alicia Florrick for a guest appearance, and since his daughter is on the show, they just need to bring back Alan Cumming as Eli Gold too.
I also enjoyed the new characters brought on for this show. Rose Leslie does a fantastic job of portraying Maia’s nervousness and wide-eyed-new-girl persona during the season, but she also shows signs of growth and progress in the season finale, so it will be interesting to see the extent to which she finds her sea legs in season 2. Delroy Lindo injects energy, passion, and fun into his portrayal of Adrian Boseman. He and Diane both seem like the types of people I would love to work for had I become a lawyer. Justin Bartha plays Colin Morrello, a lawyer in the State’s Attorney’s office that has something of a romantic entanglement with Lucca. Theirs was the only plotline this season that I wasn’t a huge fan of, more because it seemed tired and not particularly interesting. At least it didn’t sink to Kalinda-and-Blake levels of weirdness.
Lastly, The Good Fight also carries on The Good Wife’s tradition of excellent music. There are several examples in my music collection of songs that I downloaded because I first heard them on The Good Wife. The new show takes this a step further. One of the songs that recurs during the season is “You Were Right About Everything,” by Erin McKeown, and that song is responsible for my current obsession with McKeown’s work. This may be the first example of a situation where I bought entire albums based off a song I heard on a TV show. “You Were Right About Everything,” especially resonated with me because it mirrored a struggle I was going through at the time I discovered the song. I’m thinking about doing a “from the vault” review of the album that song is on, We Will Become Like Birds. Regardless, McKeown’s music is definitely worth a look.
Rose Leslie is probably the best new addition to the Good Wife/Good Fight universe, playing Maia Rindell
All of this adds up to a show that is absolutely a worthy successor to The Good Wife, and I can’t wait to see what bold twists and turns this show has to offer. If you were a fan of the old show, or if you simply are a nerd like me and love lawyer shows injected with politics and current events, definitely make some time for The Good Fight.
I’m pretty sympathetic to anyone trying to do “indie” anything. Indie filmmakers, indie musicians, indie video game creators, etc. It’s tough to do when you don’t have the backing of a major company. Which is why today, I’d like to make a little plug for two of my friends from college, Jen Finelli and Samantha Aiken, who are making their own indie film, I’m Having an Affair With My Wife.
The premise is rather funny and relevant in today’s times. The couple at the center of the show is the epitome of the term “opposites attract.” Lashonda is a driven CEO while Sung-Min is a free-spirited artist with a passion for volunteerism. The fact that the couple is African-American and Korean only makes the plot even fresher and more interesting (it’s actually the first American romantic comedy in 17 years to feature such a coupling). They find their marriage stagnating, so they get on an Ashley Madison-like website to seek out affairs, only to find themselves unwittingly matched with each other! The producers are extending the different concepts explored in the film on their blog that’s featured on the film’s official website.
If all of this sounds cool to you, you should do as I did and visit their page on Seed & Spark, the Kickstarter for movie makers. For as little as a $1 contribution, you can get rewards. Some of perks of the campaign include a personalized poem, DVD copies of the film signed by the leads, music downloads, even a chance to be in the film. If you contribute at the highest level ($3,000), you can even blow up Jen’s car. That’s right… blow up her car. Thanks for reading, and may all your affairs be sweet 😉
Back in 2012, Star Wars Celebration, that four-day extravaganza for fans of the galaxy far, far away, was held in Orlando. The only trouble with that was that I was a first-year teacher with nowhere near the financial means to get myself to the convention. Fast forward to last year, and my insurance underwriter’s salary and benefits ensured that I could grab the tickets when it came back to Orlando. Celebration 2017 finally happened last week, and I thought I’d do a reaction post on it, like I normally do when Dragon Con happens each year.
The main difference between Celebration and an event like D*C is that the entire con takes place in a single large building, in this case the Orange County Convention Center. Dragon Con, on the other hand, is spread out over five hotels and spans many different genres of geekdom, as opposed to just Star Wars. The main drawback with this is that for major panels and events, the entire con will converge on one place, and only the most hardcore fans will be able to enter. For the panels commemorating the 40th anniversary and talking about the next Star Wars film, The Last Jedi, the lines were such that in order to get in, one basically had to camp out starting the evening of the previous day. As anyone who knows me can attest, I was not having that. The price of going to sleep and getting up at a reasonable hour was a two-hour line just to get into the show floor that greeted me on the first day, making me uneasy about the rest of my Celebration experience. However, once I actually got in, the crowds weren’t as bad. The organizers also opened up additional entrances on future days, making those lines much more bearable. The only other line-related snafu came when I tried to get into the show floor on the second day, and ended up not even being able to watch the live stream of the Last Jedi panel. But it ended up on YouTube, which was a decent simulation. Otherwise, I was able to get into and/or watch basically any panel I wanted.
Speaking of panels, the ones I went to were pretty enjoyable. The 40th Anniversary panel featured almost everyone who was anyone in Star Wars that was there: Kathleen Kennedy (president of Lucasfilm), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Ian McDiarmid (Emperor Palpatine), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), and Dave Filoni (Star Wars Rebels producer) were all there, along with a few surprise guests. I expected George Lucas to ride off into the sunset after selling Lucasfilm to Disney, done with Star Wars for good. But he showed up! Another surprise guest was Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker), from the “dreaded” prequel era. I was happy with the warm and enthusiastic reception he got at the con, despite being associated with what many describe as a low point in Star Wars history. Liam Neeson (Qui-Gon Jinn) and Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu) recorded video messages for the fans. Finally, Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, who has never been to Celebration, made an appearance at that panel. It was great to reminisce about some great movies.
The panel that discussed The Last Jedi was also interesting. Rian Johnson (director), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), and Hamill all showed up, along with a new actress, Kelly-Marie Tran, who plays Rose, a maintenance worker for the Resistance. Possibly the most interesting part of that panel was the debut of the movie’s first trailer.
The two most interesting moments in that trailer for me were the scene with Kylo Ren’s crushed helmet, which may imply something about his fate, and Luke’s words. Many fans have speculated that Luke will either fall to the dark side, or become a “grey Jedi,” one who uses both the light side and dark side, while becoming fully invested in neither. His quote, “I only know one truth: It’s time for the Jedi to end,” as well as Rey’s talking of seeing the balance of the Force, light and dark, serve to fuel this theory. Now, this could just be something he says in the beginning of the film that ultimately amounts to nothing after he agrees to train Rey, but it’s fun to speculate.
Other fun panels were the Star Wars Rebels panel, at which Dave Filoni revealed that the fourth season will be the last for the beloved animated series. Mark Hamill did a moving tribute to Carrie Fisher on the second day. Daisy Ridley crashed the Heroines of Star Wars panel, along with Filoni and Rebels voice actresses Tiya Sircar (Sabine Wren) and Ashley Eckstein (Ahsoka Tano), and the audience got to watch the first of the new Star Wars: Forces of Destiny animated shorts. David Collins analyzed the music of Rogue One in an interesting way at that panel, analyzing the themes of hope in them and connecting them back to the music of the original films, and also talking about the “Dies Irae,” musical device, which symbolizes death. Had you been listening for it in Jyn Erso’s theme, you would have known that she would die at the end, as it is repeated four times within her leitmotif. There was a similar panel about the making of Rogue One, where the filmmakers showed several digital sets that were built but not used.
Mark Hamill gave a sweet tribute to his friend, Carrie Fisher
The show floor featured the usual combination of shopping and art that you would find at a place like Dragon Con, but it also had some more unique areas. For instance, there was a section devoted to new Star Wars games that had a digital pinball machine you could try your hand at, and there was one section entirely devoted to people who had tricked out their cars with Star Wars stuff. Toymakers like Lego and the prop replica companies had cool displays. But the king of all of those might be Nissan, who as part of their “Go Rogue” promotion had a booth where congoers could experience using the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality device which I had never tried before. I will be very interested to see what is done with this technology going forward. And, of course, there were many, many great costumes.
Mace Windu has always been one of my favorite Jedi.
My experience was capped off by getting to meet two of my favorite actors from Star Wars: Ian McDiarmid and Billy Dee Williams. The baseball card company Topps worked with the Celebration organizers to make almost all of the celebrities there available for photo ops and autographs. While the autograph lines could be somewhat mismanaged (sensing a pattern here?) it was worth it in the end. All of it added up to a fun experience. While it probably isn’t as relentlessly well-run as Dragon Con, it was great to be surrounded by Star Wars fans and even to run into some friends I hadn’t seen in awhile. Hopefully, Star Wars Celebration 2019 will also be in Orlando, cause I’d definitely go back again.
As promised, I’m dissecting Art of Anarchy’s first album with new frontman Scott Stapp now that it has dropped. When I listened to AoA’s original album with Scott Weiland at the helm, I did realize that there were two distinct styles that had to merge in order for this incarnation of the band to work. The first album was clearly post-grunge, but the vocals and lyrical content were more similar to 80s and 90s bands such as Guns ‘N Roses (which guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal was a member of for eight years) or Stone Temple Pilots (which Weiland fronted for most of its existence). This style had to fuse easily with Scott Stapp’s vocal style, which is very straightforward and passionate, infused with religious themes, and much more firmly in the post-grunge tradition.
All indications appear that this marriage of styles has worked out happily for all involved. Hints of each will come out in different songs, but it doesn’t appear that either AoA or Stapp had to give up their identities in order to make The Madness work well. For instance, “Echo of a Scream” features more ambiguous lyrics than is typical in Stapp-fronted bands, which tend to hit the listener over the head with their respective themes. But then you get to a song like “Changed Man,” an anthemic ballad that could have easily fit in on his second solo album Proof of Life. But even in that song, the legato guitar chords that were in the background a lot of Creed songs are replaced by a riff and a solo that play alongside Stapp’s vocals, something that I don’t remember hearing a lot of in his previous work. I also don’t think this is a song that the Weiland-era AoA would ever have made, either. This song, as well as the first single, “The Madness,” are probably where the album hits its peak. The band’s riffs have a ton of energy, and they complement Stapp’s powerful vocals very well.
Another interesting difference between this album and previous Scott Stapp fare is the almost complete absence of the aforementioned religious themes that pervade his work. Not that Creed was ever really a Christian band, but it was interesting to hear Stapp go through an entire album barely mentioning God. In fact, he mentions the devil more often, hence the song “Dancing With the Devil.” But that one doesn’t explore religious themes so much as it explores the question, “What if Art of Anarchy attempted to do a poppy song?” The end result is sort of weird, but good enough that I can at least compliment them for making the attempt. Stapp also experiments a little with the timbre of his voice, as it takes a devilish, almost Joker-from-Batman quality in “1,000 Degrees.”
One big improvement from the original album to now as well comes in the solos. AoA’s first album featured a lot of guitar parts that kind of made it seem like they were just going through the motions, exacerbated by the fact that the music and lyrics were written separately. But on The Madness, the listener can tell that they put real thought and effort into those parts, and made sure they supported Stapp’s vocals and fit with the rest of the song. There’s even a few fast-moving ones that, dare I say, remind me of Stapp’s former partner in crime, Mark Tremonti, who I regard as one of the greatest living guitarists. But they can even vary that up, like in “No Surrender,” a song with a riff that feels reminiscent of the band’s first album, but is a better fit for its song than others on the first album were.
All of this adds up to a record that feels like it was made by a band, rather than stitched together by a bunch of people working on different parts in different rooms. The sound here is much more energetic and organic, with the drum parts working just as well as the guitars and vocals to bring said energy to bear. While I may be biased because I’m a big fan of Stapp’s vocal style (my track picks are probably the most Creed/Stapp-like songs on the album), I definitely think this album is much better than the first and merits a buy it. While it’s not some kind of radical departure for Stapp or the rest of the band, there are enough subtle differences here that the album won’t feel like a complete retread for either entity. Here are my track picks:
Last year, as has frequently happened since the team’s 2012 renaissance, the Baltimore Orioles defied analysts’ expectations, falling one win short of 90 on the year. However, their season ended in devastation in the wild-card game after Buck Showalter controversially didn’t bring in world-beating closer Zach Britton during extra innings, leaving Ubaldo Jimenez to give up the game-winning home run to Edwin Encarnacion in the 11th. I’m not going to dwell too much on that decision, as it has been analyzed to death on every sports-talk medium you can think of. The fact that the O’s even made it to that game was an achievement, and it will be interesting to see if they can follow it up. It may take a lot of luck for that to happen, though… let’s break it down.
Answer: …not too much. The Orioles lost catcher Matt Wieters (to the Nationals, of all teams…). I liked Wieters during his tenure with the team and didn’t want them to lose him, but it may actually not be the worst thing in the world that he’s gone. First of all, he just turned 30 years old, a time when many hitters start to fall off the age curve. That may be exacerbated for him because he plays the most grueling position in all of baseball. He also never quite lived up to his hype coming out of the minors, with a career .256/.318/.421 slash line (BA/OBP/SLG) and 117 home runs. He was never a great defensive catcher either. With top minor league prospect Chance Sisco looming large over the position, Baltimore probably figured that Wieters was expendable. The O’s’ other key loss was Steve Pearce, who is perhaps the embodiment of the phrase “I can’t quit you, baby.” He appears to have finally left Baltimore for good, however. Pearce showed hints of power, but his batting average and on-base numbers frequently lagged, so he was probably redundant on this roster.
As for what Baltimore brought in, they replaced Wieters with Wellington Castillo from the Diamondbacks, who like Wieters is a good hitter who isn’t as focused on the defensive aspects of his position. His hitting stats (.264/.322/.423, 14 HR, 68 RBI) are actually a tick better than what Wieters put up last season, so he should be able to slide right in once he gets adjusted to American League pitching. The Orioles also traded away Yovani Gallardo, who after a horrific first half rebounded a little to put up a 6-8 record, but his ERA ballooned to 5.42. Most of that was his fault, too, as his fielding-independent pitching (ERA adjusted for team defense behind him) was 5.04. The trade brought in outfielder Seth Smith from the Seattle Mariners, who seems to be somewhat similar to Pearce, and could fill in for him just fine.
Catcher Wellington Castillo was the Orioles’ most interesting free agent signing.
Perhaps the Orioles’ most significant offseason signing was bringing back DH Mark Trumbo. It wasn’t so much that they got him back, but that they got him back for the right price. Rather than way overpay, like they would’ve had to for Nelson Cruz last offseason, Baltimore was able to bring Trumbo back on a 3-year, $37.5M deal. The contract comes with some risk, as he just finished his age-30 season. He probably won’t match last season’s numbers, when he hit 47 homers as the next out-of-nowhere Baltimore slugger (joining Cruz and first baseman Chris Davis). But even if he bats around .250-.260 and gets another 35-40 homers, it will be worth it. His only drawback is that he isn’t that great defensively, so the team may not know what to do with him in interleague games.
DH Mark Trumbo did a lot of this last year.
The core of Baltimore’s lineup is also back, and it’s once again loaded with power. Manny Machado is their best player, snaring nearly every ball that comes at him at the hot corner, and posting excellent all-around batting numbers year after year (career .284/.333/.477 slash line). Oh yeah, and he’s only going to be 24 to start the season. He is going to be a free agent after this year, so expect him to post just as good, if not better numbers to raise his value on the market.
Outfielder Adam Jones is a poor man’s Machado, though a rough start to last year caused many fans to wonder if Father Time had caught up with him. He recovered to his usual offensive numbers, and is still Gold Glove-caliber in the field. First baseman Chris Davis will likely turn into a Mark Reynolds-type player as he ages, with low on-base and high power (just hopefully not as maddening as Reynolds was). JJ Hardy is likely nearing the end of the line at short, but can still hit some. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop had something of a breakout in his second full season at the plate, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on it and become a .275 average, 30-homer type hitter. Hyun-Soo Kim hit for a high average and OBP, and if he can maintain that, he could be the true leadoff hitter that the team has needed for awhile. Adam Jones batted leadoff frequently last year, and I personally think some of his talents are wasted there. Caleb Joseph, the defensive specialist at catcher, will along with Castillo help keep the seat warm for Sisco, who may make his debut this year.
The starting rotation is where Baltimore will need the most luck. Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy showed signs of maturing into solid starting pitchers as the team finally figured out how to properly utilize them. If they can be a one-two punch at the top, Chris Tillman can slide in at the #3 spot, which is probably the best place for him at this stage in his career as long as he stays healthy. Who will be the #4 and #5 starters, though? Deadline acquisition Wade Miley hasn’t been the same since his All-Star 2012 season, and was dreadful after coming over from Seattle. Jimenez is probably more suited to the bullpen. Mike Wright had an inflated ERA in his spot starts, and Virginia Cavalier product Tyler Wilson hasn’t really shown any of the promise he flashed in 2015. This rotation has the feel of being held together with duct tape and string, and is one injury or lackluster performance away from being a disaster.
Starting pitcher Kevin Gausman has to have a breakout season for the Orioles to contend for the playoffs.
The bullpen should be strong again, though. Zach Britton, he of the magical sinker and infinitesimal 0.54 ERA, will be the closer. The ‘pen may not have as much depth as last year, as Darren O’Day took a step back due to age. Brad Brach is still a solid contributor, and Mychal Givens showed some promise in a setup role. Vidal Nuno and Oliver Drake could be solid pieces as well. The team took a step back defensively last year, ranking 19th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating, so that will need to improve.
Add it all up and you have a team that, if everyone produces and avoids major injury, could easily compete for a wild card. I’m not naïve enough to think that everything will go perfectly, though, so while I’m not willing to project the O’s to win 89 games again, I think 84 is an attainable goal. That may be enough to get them a wild card berth, as the Blue Jays look weaker and the Yankees and Rays probably aren’t ready to challenge just yet. I could see Seattle or Detroit making a play for the wild-card, but even if one of those teams is successful, Baltimore could still nab the second spot.
Around the league, I like the Cleveland Indians, who got to the World Series even as their own rotation was held together by duct tape and string due to injuries, as the favorites to get to the World Series. I figure one of these years, my constant predictions of the Los Angeles Dodgers to break out will finally come true. In a matchup of those teams, I like the Indians to win. The Dodgers have the aforementioned record of folding in the playoffs, and the Indians will be supremely motivated, as they now have the longest World Series drought in the majors after the Chicago Cubs broke theirs last year.