Saturday, August 27, 2011

Foo Fighters frontman Dave / SUN 8-28-11 / West African monetary unit / 1813-14 vice president

Constructor: Patrick Berry

Relative difficulty:

THEME: "Add-A-Long-E Day" — long E vowel sound is added to a word, which is part of a longer phrase that is wackily clued.

Word of the Day: GROHL (115A: Foo Fighters frontman Dave) —
David Eric "Dave" Grohl […] is an American rock musician, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter who is the lead vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for the Foo Fighters; the former drummer for Nirvana and Scream; and the current drummer for Them Crooked Vultures. (wikipedia)
• • •

Today I discovered that preparing to guest-blog is akin to waiting to open gifts on Christmas Day, only the excitement is even more palpable - not only do you want to find out what's inside your present, but you also don't yet know who's giving it to you. Will it be a visual tour-de-force from Elizabeth Gorski, or a guaranteed-to-be-original theme from BEQ jam-packed with fresh clues? It wasn't, but when I saw Mr. Berry's byline, I felt a rush for what lay ahead yet almost a tinge of non-surprise given how often he's able to publish quality puzzles on Sundays.

Add-a-sound themes are not new, but you can expect strong theme entries across the board when Mr. Berry is the constructor. Most of today's eight are very good. My favorite may have been REIGN OF TERRIER (26A: Canine king's regime?), which conjures a funny image and feels natural as a clue-answer pairing. PARTYING GIFT (76A: Set of shot glasses for Christmas?) was nice to eventually figure out, though the clue seems less than precise given there is a vast range of items suitable for partying not particularly restricted to shot glasses.

LITTLE ORPHEAN ANNIE (89A: Sharpshooter Oakley when she was a charming young musician?) was by far the most difficult to discover as ORPHEAN was completely unknown to me. It makes sense if it's an adjectival form of Orpheus, but not knowing the word made it a little less fun to solve. I'm a bit weak on polar wildlife, so KODIAK MOMENT (56A: Encounter with an Alaskan bear?) was also tough. Overall, the theme was a good execution of a tried and true idea.

Other theme answers:
  • BEER BURIAL POLKA (23A: Lively dance performed as a six-pack is being laid to rest?)
  • BOTANICAL GUARDIANS (41A: Eco-warriors?)
  • PARKING METEORS (108A: Interstellar valet's job?)
  • MILES PER GALLEON (113A: Ship info kept for the Spanish armada?)

The clues were easy enough to support a fairly steady solving tempo, but there were a couple parts of the grid that tripped me up. Never heard of GERRY (68A: 1813-14 vice president) or the aforementioned KODIAK, so that area was the last to fall. I'll assume that NICKERS are sounds made by horses (39D: Stable sounds).

A couple cross-referenced clues strive to spice up the tired OMAN (66D: It's due south of Iran) and ARID (81D: Like the climate of 66-Down). But who's to notice when they're next to the two best non-theme entries, STARCHART (34D: Plan for the evening?) and DESDEMONA (51D: Brabantio's fair daughter). There's a one or two other sparkly entries here and there, but these two beauties really caught my eye. As the longest down entries in the grid, you can bet that Mr. Berry ensured they were lovely.

Nice clues for common words:

Construction Thoughts

I promised Rex to bring the constructor's perspective, and there's just a couple notes about the puzzle worth mentioning, if you'll allow a bit of speculation.

The first thing I notice about the grid is that two theme entries on the top and bottom are right on top of each other, which tends to be uncommon because filling around them is much more difficult. Constructing is often a game of maximizing your choices so that you can pick the freshest, most original fill. In this case, many more words must pass through both long entries, so your choices are cut down, whereas if they're not in adjacent rows then a few black squares can go between them. What you get in exchange is a feeling of higher theme density and the elegance of the stacking. (Merl Reagle seems to be the champion of this stacking technique, hop over to his website for some wonderful examples.)

In part of the grid seen above, you'll see that the top pair of theme entries have 9 down words passing through them, which is going to constrain the fill in those areas. You may also notice that three of the four across entries at the top of the grid are abbreviations, which constructions try to avoid.

Another small consequence is that in order to make the stacking work, the constructor was forced to shift the lower of the two entries over by 1 square, so that REIGN OF TERRIER begins in the second column instead of the first. This introduces a "cheater" black square to the left of REIGN. A cheater square is one that is added to a corner of the grid to reduce the number of intersecting words but doesn't increase the word count of the grid. Constructors tend to avoid them when possible.


It's tough writing a crossword blog post. Kudos to Rex for doing it every day.

Signed, Kevin Der, final guest blogger of the week

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