Friday, December 30, 2011

Gauguin's Intimate Journals After 90 Years Defines Early Counterculture

When people are asked which era produced counterculture, most irrevocably conjure up images of the Sixties. Some, it seems, like to scoff at that notion and roll it back to the Beat Generation of the Fifties. Only a few, ignoring when the term was coined, give any credit to the Harlem Renaissance.

Even they are off the mark to some degree. Counterculture is not the stuff of eras; it is more visceral. Paul Gauguin knew it. His work, Gauguin's Intimate Journals, was first published by his son in 1921, almost 20 years after his death. And while there are earlier examples, his work proves the point.

The man for whom Van Gogh cut his ear off was a counterculturist. And Gauguin, who was easily one of the most insurgent spirits of his time, knew it more than 70 years before the beatniks. 
He knew it so well that in 1883 he gave up his job as a stockbroker, said farewell to his wife and three children, and eventually escaped what he called the "sham and hypocrisy of civilization" for the simpler and more savage South Seas by way of Paris.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals is a self-portrait of a counterculturist.

The legendary story that he shed all of his bourgeois ambitions and respectability in a single night, of course, is dispelled early on by his son in the preface. It was less of a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation than an understanding he reached with his courageous wife. She was willing to sacrifice her safety net to let him plunge feverishly and headfirst into his passion for art.

Nonetheless, even tempered by the preface, the story is a good one. The book itself strikes as hot and hard as any contemporary work, maybe harder. Gauguin might have appreciated writers and philosophers (except when they bored him), but had no inclination to be overly contemplative. If there is any underlying message, he is clear enough about it: non-refinement is art.

"I should like to be a pig; man alone can be ridiculous." — Paul Gauguin

The journals, completed during his final years, are filled with wit and no holds barred ramblings and rumblings about his life and what he thought of various colleagues while in Paris, people like Van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Manet, and others. 
Ramblings and rumblings are exactly the right words. Within the first few paragraphs, Gauguin insists that what he was writing was not a book.

Even if an author has no serious readers, he wrote, the author of a book must be serious.

He would rather chatter. In doing so, he reveals motivations much more effortlessly than anyone might expect, despite the fact that many entries fail to retain some semblance of coherency. Most of it is more akin to a series of personal blog posts, collected and printed more than a hundred years before blogs existed.

It strikes me that this is the way he intended it. It may even be that his constant reminders that "this is not a book" is not for any reader's benefit as much as his own. He wanted to write very much like he painted, reinventing how people perceived things like art, literature, theatre, and philosophy.

It is much more important to feel and connect with it, he sums, than to be overtly concerned with old techniques or the tenets laid out by critics. So instead of composition, he writes nakedly, fearlessly, shamelessly. He didn't do it to please anyone, but rather because no one could prevent him from doing it. It was his will.

His personal relationship with Vincent Van Gogh and the infamous ear. 

With the exception of art students, some may be surprised just how much sway he held over Van Gogh, who would become the more famous artist (to the modern general public). Yet, it was Gauguin's premise that an artist needs to cut the shackles of one school or another and paint from his or her nature and will.

Following his advice, Van Gogh would produce some of his most brilliant and avant-garde work. However, given his mental disorder, finding himself may have also hastened his unraveling. Van Gogh may have even subconsciously blamed Gauguin for it, which would explain why he began hearing a voice that urged him to kill his roommate.

Although the account written by Gauguin only sheds light on his point of view, Van Gogh did intend to kill him in a public garden with a razor blade. Instead, when the pending confrontation was about to occur, Van Gogh ran home and cut off his ear in the hope he would no longer hear the voice.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals Turns A 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although not for any literary merit, the book is a must read for anyone interested in counterculture or art. Instead of technique, he writes about things like hanging pornographic pictures at his residence.

He did it because it amused him when the only people who stopped visiting his home considered themselves respectable. They were also the only ones who would dwell on it for more than a year. That is Gauguin, the same artist who influenced the likes of Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Julian Hatton, W. Somerset Maugham, Michael Smetanin, Alison Croggon, and others in art and subject.

Gauguin's Intimate Journals is temporarily out of print and has not been added to digital libraries to date. However, Barnes & Nobles lists several editions in its marketplace for prices that vary depending on its condition. On Amazon, Gauguin's Intimate Journals is also limited to outside vendors.

The book includes 27 black and white illustrations by Gauguin. For those unfamiliar with his work as a painter, we found a surprising collection of prints, museum prints, and canvas prints at Barewalls (including the two above). Just search for his name.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

OBN IIIs Get Restocked For Shock

As Beerland regulars in Austin, the OBN IIIs have developed a bit of a formula. When people aren't paying enough attention, you play a little harder and sing a little louder. 

Houston-born Orville Neeley, who also fronts the 5-year-old Denton-born power pop-punk fusion trio Bad Sports, does exactly that any time he takes the stage with the OBN IIIs. After pumping out singles, a second 7-inch EP, and a full-length album this year, it's hard not to notice. In fact, Tic Tac Totally just recently restocked the all the rawness after selling out the first batch.

Neeley, by the way, isn't only in two bands. He also plays drums in James Arthur's Manhunt and A Giant Dog. Sometimes he performs with John Wesley Coleman III.  He has produced several records for others, books and runs sound at Beerland, and has a passion for making shorts. You get the picture. No one knows what's next. He can't help but to stay busy and make friends along the way.

In fact, that is exactly what OBN IIIs really is: a collection of friends who play in other bands. Graham Low (bass) and Andrew Cashen (guitar) are members of A Giant Dog, and Matt Hammer (drums) was a founding member of the Strange Boys. And Jason Smith rounds everything out to make five. The whole idea was to fill the empty slots at Beerland. And then they overshot.

The One And Only is cleaner than the EP. And that means it's dirty, not filthy. 

We don't have an official top ten list around here, but The One And Only would make this year's cut if there was one. The EP would make it on its own merit too. It was recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder in a garage and still beats out plenty of studio albums.

Originally, Neeley said he wanted to record everything live. But then he found out recording their live shows sounded like shit. So he settled for mostly live and that's good enough, as long as they have fun.

And he does have fun in a very intense way. At least that is the way it seemed at the last SxSW, where he was selling CDs streetside with all the heart and fire he takes to the stage. Something like this...

The opening track of The One And Only, The S**t Fits, is the best introduction to the OBN IIIs anyone could  ever hope to hear. It captures the essence of the one band that is truly his band, with Neeley breaking from his lyrics to bark out when he wants band members to join in again.

There isn't a better a play for wanton abandon and reckless proto-punk out there. It's hard to believe these guys almost never (maybe never) play out of state. They barely break away from Austin.

A quick hit list of the tracks to grab off everything.

The whole album is well worth the download, but if you want highlight tracks on the must have list, pick up No Enemies, Can't Wait Till You Shut Up, Get Off Yer Knees, Communicated To Death, Don't Feel Fine, and Kick Me Out. Off the 7-inch self-titled CD, grab Runnin On Fumes, Do My Thing, Mad, and License Plate. Yes, all four them. And you also need Heavy Heart from their single.

All of it is turbulent. Every track hits hard with howls, dissonant guitar wails, and ballistic drum sets that don't waste a stitch of the short-ordered song sizes, with most played out in under three minutes. 

The One And Only By The OBN IIIs Crunches 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As the last music review of the year (but not the last review), the only band we hadn't reviewed yet that was lively enough to fill the spot was the OBNs IIIs. They are everything anyone can want in an unabashed bruiser of a punk band, without any political statements but with plenty of sweaty attitude. 

Even though a few songs feel rushed in production despite some cleanliness (by comparison), it's the perfect download to rock in the New Year. Play it loud. Play it in heavy rotation. Play it again.  

On iTunes, download The One And Only, the Self-Titled EP, and Mark On You/Heavy Heart single. The The One And Only is on Amazon, which list the EP as Do My Thing. Follow them on Facebook too. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Able Planet Headphones Have An Edge

The biggest holiday gifts this year were clearly Androids and iOS devices (iPads, iPhones, and iPods). More than 6.8 million devices (combined) were activated on Christmas Day, up from the 1.5 million activations a day during the rest of December. Apple alone saw 12 times the number of activations over the holiday weekend.

While it is almost impossible to guess how many of these activations are new devices or upgrades, one thing is for certain. Those little buds, as good as they are, tend to create ear fatigue over the long haul.

Headphones are a better choice for more comfort and clarity, especially for people who love music. And Able Planet is worth consideration.

Able Planet provides a richer, fuller sound.

Sure, there are dozens of headphone makers vying for attention. And many of them support celebrities or athletes like Ashely Fiolek, one of the toughest Motocross competitors out there. But when you narrow the field, there are only three names worth mentioning and one of those has the edge with music (it also makes gaming headphones).

Able Planet knows something about the way we hear music. Originally, it made hearing aids before headphones. But when it made the move to the mainstream, Able Planet brought its patented Linx Audio technology along too.

Linx Audio technology was specifically developed for people suffering from hearing loss, but you don't have to suffer to benefit from the tech. It focuses first and foremost on higher frequencies, which is usually the first range of hearing lost. Losing these frequencies is what causes certain letters or letter combinations to drop off or make music sound less lively and flat.

What Linx Audio does is add harmonics that open up higher frequencies, making music sound richer and fuller without having to increase the volume to drown out any white noise (which ear bud users usually do). The setback to drowning out background noise with volume, of course, is that it causes more distortion (and can eventually cause hearing loss). So Linx Audio enables you to turn it down.

Clear Harmony NC1000 is the company's premium headphones. 

While the retail price is steep at about $300, Clear Harmony is one of the better headphones on the market. The reason it sounds better is because it combines Audio Linx with advanced noise canceling technology (white noise, but not all noise).

It's this unique combination that makes them compete so well, along with other features like a detachable cord, in-line volume control, and a long battery life (it also takes two AA batteries that do not require a special charging unit).

Even better, if the batteries do run down, Able Planet headphones still function. While there is an impact to sound quality without noise reduction, most other headphones won't operate at all.

Two other names you are likely to hear while shopping for headphones. 

Sennheiser and Bose also make great headphones, but I still think the edge belongs to Able Planet. It comes down to specifics. Whereas the best Sennheiser models do compete or beat Able Planet in terms of frequency response and sound quality, Able Planet blocks out more white noise. And while Bose matches Able Planet on noise cancellation, Able Planet has better sound quality.

There is still that question of a higher price. So if price is important, it might be worth checking out the more stylish Extreme Foldable XNC230 (about $100), which comes in black and plaids.

It has many of the same features, but there are three noticeable differences. The construction is lighter, which is meant to add portability along with folding. The comfort is a noticeable compromise. And the battery is limited to one AAA (the company says about 50 hours of play time).

The Extreme does lose some sound quality when compared to the Clear Harmony, but not nearly as much as one would think. Considering the price and portability, the Extreme works well enough as an everyday workhorse or traveling companion. And, like all Able Planet headphones, the price includes two adaptors: one for airplanes and one for professional stereo equipment.

A few people might wonder why I didn't mention the recently-made popular Beats to the mix. To be honest, they really don't compare to any of the other three, except maybe in style. Even then, if style is your biggest concern, it might be better to find some earmuffs. They are more comfortable.

Clear Harmony Headphones Chime In At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

When comparing consumer reviews or reviewers, you may notice some people giving higher marks to Sennheiser or Bose (or even Sony). That makes sense to me, but many of them miss the point.

Generally, reviewers compare headphones at the same levels of volume rather than optimal volume. I make the distinction here because Able Planet headphones sound better at a lower volume (as they were designed), well before any bass distortion. I will, however, concede to some audiophiles who don't appreciate the idea of adding harmonics via Audio Linx. So keep that in mind.

While the premium headphones generally list for about $300, you can find Clear Harmony NC1000 on Amazon for around $170 (the price fluctuates). There are other models are available for under $100, including the Extreme Foldable (about $70). Barnes & Noble carries Able Planet too, including a Sound Clarity mode bundled with an 8GB iPod Nano and the Extreme Foldable (about $100). Prices for Able Planet headphones from start at around $60. Just pay careful attention to what model you order. Generally, the higher the number, the better the sound.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Iced Earth Delivers With A Dystopia

When Matt Barlow said he was leaving heavy metal band Iced Earth again last March, it really wasn't clear whether the band could survive another reincarnation despite Jon Schaffer's continued persistence to keep it alive. Dystopia quiets any questions.

The best days for Ice Earth may be ahead of them, with the band finding a perfect match: Vancouver metal vocalist Stu Block. Block, who most recently fronted the inventive and progressive metal band Into Eternity, also known for a revolving lineup, is one of the most versatile metal singers out there.

And while more than one person has rightly pointed out that Dystopia doesn't open Block's full range, the stylistic differences help distinguish the sound between where he has been and where he is now. It wouldn't make sense for Block to make Iced Earth sound like Into Eternity, especially since the release of Sandstorm. (Into Eternity started soliciting for a touring vocalist in November).

Dystopia sets the stage for a reinvented Iced Earth. 

The title track sets the tone (even if it isn't the best track on the album), but it's everything else that scales up this outing. The website is revamped. The world tour is their most extensive. The online coverage, helmed by bassist Freddie Vidales, is consistently down to earth. And the album is one of Schaffer's most thought out, with some fans even recognizing it as a benchmark classic for the band.

Although the track Dystopia is front and center in promoting the album, it isn't the best track. There are plenty to skip ahead to before considering the entirety of the album.

The mid-tempo Anthem is traditional metal, trudging along with throaty lyrics that ask people to take a chance, break away from their sordid past, and seize a new destiny. Boiling Point is a semi-restrained smasher, with even-paced vocals over furious guitar work. Dark City is also steady and heady, one of the most mature compositions of the band, unshackling souls from the oppression laid out in Dystopia.

As much as Dystopia sounds familiar, the album shows that Iced Earth is ready to stretch its legs. Hints of this can be heard in the previously mentioned song Dark City, which owes some of its influences to German power metal; Anguish of Youth revives more emotive, chorus-heavy metal; and Tragedy and Triumph is a departure for the band, carrying an uplifting tone that conveys how Schaffer attacked much of the songwriting with Block.

Dystopia delivers the message without a concept album. 

While the underlying theme of the album twists some of the darker notes from Schaffer's Somethin Wicked storyline, settling into a message to stand up against an established charade, a dystopia that has been slowly enslaving people. At the same time, Dystopia can be called anything but a dark album. Schaffer himself has said that he wanted to convey that it is not too late to turn things around.

These changes, although perhaps too subtle for some to notice, is what makes Dystopia one of Schaffer's best composed albums. He wants people to wake up. He wants people to have hope and triumph (without the cheese). And, above all, he wants to make the music more accessible than ever.

Throughout the album, expect to hear plenty of solos from Schaffer and Troy Seele. There is some fine drum work by Brent Smedley too, even if he isn't always noticed behind the strong strings. All in all, Dystopia is definitely a revival for the band, easily one of the better traditional metal albums this year.

Iced Earth Delivers Dystopia Heated To 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Dystopia does put Iced Earth back on the map while reviving the idea that traditional metal adds something to music. While the freshness and enthusiasm mostly comes from Schaffer's work on Sons of Liberty, Block punctuates the evolving direction with a commitment to the band and a willingness to explore a broader range.

Although Dystopia doesn't carry Soylent Green as a bonus track on iTunes, it does include a mediocre cover of Mob Rules (Black Sabbath). At Barnes & Noble, look for the CDDystopia by Iced Earth is also on Amazon. Their next video, centered on the song Anthem, is expected to be released soon. It was filmed on Dec. 7. The tour is going strong, with new dates frequently added on the band's website.

Monday, December 26, 2011

SunSaluter Inspires Solar Good Will

Eden Full barely has a website and it redirects to a blog, still listed as coming soon. But she also has an idea, and it's not coming soon. It's happening in Kenya. And expect it to be happening elsewhere too.

The 19-year-old second-year student at Princeton designed a motor-free tracker for solar panels that improved their efficiency by 40 percent. Called SunSaluter, she invented it in high school in hopes of pushing solar technology toward the forefront of alternative energy in both the developed and developing world.

SunSaluter is an inexpensive solar rotator that puts energy within reach. 

Most people know what solar panels are. And some people know that solar tracking helps improve efficiency by about 40 percent over panels that are stationary. Their efficiency is improved because once tracking systems are aligned to the sun, the panels can follow it and improve output.

Full takes the concept a step further because SunSaluter doesn't use electricity to rotate the solar panels. Instead, SunSaluter uses highly temperature sensitive bimetallic strips found in most thermostats to track the optimal position of the panel. The cost is about $10 to $20 each.

"I deployed two prototypes of the SunSaluter in two villages of 500 people that didn't have electricity," she told Poptech. "The villages were located in central Kenya about an hour's drive from the closest town. A lot of villagers have cell phones but they had to go into town to charge them."

Because of her innovation, the villagers can now charge cell phones in the center of the village, safely collect firewood, and remain connected to the outside world by powering portable radios. Her company is now working to install refined prototypes in Tanzania, Uganda, and Western China.

The technology that delivers social good around the world.

What makes her concept so unique is that her solution reduces the costs of tracking and improves output without the complicated mechanics and expense associated with most tracking systems on the market. It requires no electricity, motor, or mechanical parts.

In fact, her solution allows for the solar panel to be mounted on wood, bamboo, or metal depending on location and preference, significantly reducing the cost of installation and maintenance. Currently, cost is essentially one of the last remaining hurdles to push solar energy toward mainstream adoption.

Full hasn't been idle with innovative engineering alone. Throughout the year, she has been meeting with people who are interested in partnering with her and applying for grants.

Remarkably successful on this front, Full has won numerous awards, including the $10,000 social good award from the UN Foundation, a $10,000 Startups for Good award from Mashable, 2011 Staples/Ashoka Youth Social Entrepreneur Competition, and a $100,000 fellowship from the Thiel Foundation. She was also a runner-up in the Green Challenge. As runner-up, she received $275,000.

Her first award came from the Scotiabank Ecoliving Student Leadership Award, which helped her found Roseicollis Technologies, a social enterprise that she intends to use to take her tracking invention and other technologies to developing and established communities.

A few panels about Full and her inspiration. 

Full, who was born in Calgary, credits her parents with instilling a sense of environmental awareness in her at a very early age. She also had an opportunity to travel to the Canadian Arctic two years ago, where she saw first hand how sea ice has been diminished as a result of climate change. It was on that trip Full decided that she could help do something to prevent the problem from getting worse.

"If you set creativity and innovation free, well, then you have so much more and so much potential," she said. "So thinking out of the box and applying to science fair projects, I was able to come up with something that was more accessible to everyone."

Since receiving the Thiel Foundation fellowship, Full has taken time off from school to pursue her passion full time. She is now overseeing the installation of her innovation in several locations and may see SunSaluter begin manufacturing. Full built her first solar car when she was nine.

SunSaluter By Eden Full Is A Liquid Hip Good Will Pick. 

At least once a month, Liquid [Hip] highlights good will efforts undertaken by courageous people with big hearts. We don't score them. That belongs to you.

Although the SunSaluter website is still in development today, there are many other ways to inspire youth like Full to have the audacity to dream, invent, and recreate the world. Rather than investing time into the advocation of policy and protest, help support and raise awareness for programs such as the Green ChallengeEcomagination, and the the Thiel Foundation.

These innovation supporters do more than talk about the challenges we face. They do something about it by catapulting young entrepreneurs like Full forward. And that's pretty cool.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Silversun Pickups Get All Seasick

If the new 10-inch vinyl and digital EP from the Silversun Pickups is representative of what we can expect from this alternative band's third album (called 3), then it will be a great year for music. Seasick rocks.

Sure, all three songs are unreleased leftovers from Swoon that didn't fit. And yes, Silversun Pickups has already said none of them will be on the new album. The three-track set is billed as a single but feels like an EP is standalone, serving as a buffer between the last album and the next one.

If you are wondering, the tracks didn't fit Swoon because Swoon stretched the dream pop slant and further separated the band from their indie rock roots (and brilliant album Carnavas). You can hear it by comparing Seasick to the album. Swoon avoided unpleasantness. Seasick embraces it.

Seasick is darkly calm and hauntingly complicated. 

Seasick best captures the genius of Brian Aubert (vocals, guitar) and his delivery of something that shimmers on the outside while turning with turmoil inside. Everything about it is distorted like someone dazed or near drowned. It's almost as if a few seconds were stretched out to nearly seven minutes.

It's not only the best song on the three-track set but also one of their best songs ever. The atmospheric tone is right. Nikki Monninger joining Aubert for the chorus is right. The distorted guitars that roll in like a wake, with small waves causing a slow and steady sway, feel right too. Hear it for yourself on this audio clip from Dangerbird Records.

While some reviewers are calling Seasick the stuff that only diehard Silversun Pickups fan will love, they couldn't be more wrong. Even the B-sides don't sound like B-sides. They could have easily been released as singles too.

Although bookended by better songs, the second track, Broken Bottles, comes across as a solid indie driver. All you have to do is get past the poppy introduction. After 30 seconds, Christopher Guanlao on drums, Aubert, and the guitars all take over. The off-putting introduction does return in the chorus, but it works better with everyone powered up.

The third track, Ribbons And Detours, is another atmospheric piece almost on par with Seasick but more ethereal and moody. Aubert is showcased as a solo vocalist, and Joe Lester deserves additional props on keys. He sets the near listless mood at the open and carries it throughout.

A few other notables from Silversun Pickups. 

Although not included with the set, another upcoming song from the Silversun Pickups is set to be released on Jan. 24. The track, a cover of Bob Dylan's Not Yet Dark, will be joined by 79 artists (76 Dylan songs) to salute Amnesty International's 50th anniversary and life-saving human rights work.

As a closer, I thought I'd include the video featuring a rare acoustic set with Aubert and Monninger singing Lazy Eye from Carnavas. Not much beats it, except seeing them for the first time at the Silverlake Lounge. But Seasick plays nicely alongside it.

What I love best about the video is how grounded Aubert and Monninger have remained during what sometimes feels like a whirlwind ascent (even if it really wasn't). Let's hope their feet remain on the ground while working with producer Jacknife Lee (U2, R.E.M.). We'll see in the spring.

Silversun Pickups' Seasick Rolls Over 7.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although Seasick and its B-sides were recorded while the band was producing Swoon, it easily proves they have plenty of life left in them to make great music. Fans of the Silversun Pickups will want to download all three tracks. Others might want to stick with the first and third.

Seasick by the Silversun Pickups is ready for download on iTunes and the tracks are available on Amazon. The 10-inch vinyl edition of Seasick is limited. While I included a link to Amazon resellers, check with the label before paying inflated rates.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Paul Harding Tinkers With His Writing

Not everyone appreciates the debut novel Tinkers by author Paul Harding. It's to be expected from a book that nobody wanted to publish. Although richly lyrical, it was hardly a book that could command sales.

After sitting in a drawer for two or three years, Harding eventually found a buyer with the Bellevue Literary Press, best described as a nonprofit publisher as a project of the New York University School of Medicine. Even then, the print run and advance were hardly outstanding — 3,500 books and $1,000.

The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, without a stitch of marketing beyond word of mouth and people so touched by the novel that they would pass it along to friends. Admittedly, it's an odd thing to pass along. The book is a story about death and its links to life.

The story of Tinkers packs a literary punch for all its spareness. 

Tinkers is the story of George Washington Crosby, a man laying on a hospital bed in his New England home. His family stands near him, keeping vigil as his mind begins to slip and slide into a montage of memories and hallucinations that stretch and spin from one to the next as randomly as they were lived.

The heartbreak of it all is laid out in the opening, eight days before he dies in the depth of hallucination as the house around begins to crumble and fall away, starting with the cracks in the ceiling plaster. It's there where he drifts in and out of cognition, unable to control any of it.

For readers, it's a discovery of a man. For Crosby, it's a rediscovery of the man he was and the life he lived. He repaired clocks for a living after retirement as a machinist, mechanical draftsman, guidance counselor, and teacher.

It's repairing clocks, however, that Crosby relates to the most. It was a hobby that turned into a profession, quite by accident, after he bought a broken clock at a tag sale. It came with a reprint of an eighteenth century repair manual for free. He fixed it.

His own father was a salesman and a tinker too. Howard Crosby was epileptic, poetic, imperfect, and an under appreciated father, who would eventually become as disposable as the things he fixed, staving off their uselessness even if he could not save himself.

The story touches on Harding's own. His grandfather grew up in rural Maine and had an epileptic father who abandoned the family after he learned his wife planned to send him to an asylum. Harding also apprenticed with his grandfather as a clock repairman before touring with Cold Water Flat.

A note or two about Paul Harding, author and musician.

Yes, before Tinkers would find its impossible journey from drawer warmer to Pulitzer, Harding was better known as the drummer of the too short-lived alternative band Cold Water Flat, which he formed with Paul Janovitz and Ted Silva. After releasing albums with Play It Again Sam and Fort Apache/MCA Records, they disbanded after failing to find a large enough fan base despite songs like Magnetic North Pole.

Whereas Janovitz turned to photography, Harding turned to writing. Harding has said the experience of being a musician didn't necessarily play a role in book, but it did help shape his sense of rhythm. There are times you can feel it in the book, much like you can feel the gentle fingerprints of his teacher, Marilynne Robinson. Harding now teaches creative writing at Harvard.

Why Tinkers often receives mixed reviews despite its unexpected successes. 

Harding doesn't deliver a straightforward plot in Tinkers. There is nothing to drive the character along in his reflection about life except the ticking clock. Instead he creates dramatic tension out of the character and the character's father.

Likewise, despite his exquisite writing, Harding doesn't struggle to leave anything profound like a final statement to neatly tie up his reflections on life, death, and relationships. He leaves those lessons for readers to ferret out whatever meaning they will, much like they might after they lose someone. Except this story makes it safer and more tolerable because it happens at an arm's length.

Both qualities tend to turn off many modern readers, especially those looking for the author to lay it all out. They want to be told what something means as effortlessly as a professor might list every question to expect on a multiple choice exam. But life is rarely so neat and tidy.

Tinkers By Paul Harding Unwinds At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The book isn't nearly as heady as some people like to pretend. Consider it a good thing, as most authors who become heady tend to weave in too much of their own wit and perceived wisdom instead of leaving it to their characters to figure out, if they figure out anything at all.

Likewise, Tinkers is not a philosophical self-help book. It's just a well-written story that happens to be a good one. Reading it, knowing this, might cast a different light on it and spare the book any more cankerous reviews. The time is better spent kicking Harding's argument against quotation marks.

Tinkers by Paul Harding can be found at Barnes & Noble or you can order Tinkers from Amazon. It can be downloaded for iBooks or purchased as an audiobook on iTunes. The story is read by Christian Rummel at just the right pace and with the right emphasis in place. At just under five hours, the read reveals the natural rhythm of the writing and bypasses the odd no quote mark aesthetic rule.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Deep.Sea.Creatures Surfacing Soon

On the anniversary of their first self-released single last week, some fans had to wonder. When will Los Angeles-based electronica pop duo Deep.Sea.Creatures release its first full-length album?

It's a fair question, but one neither Adam Peri nor Eyal Glass can answer. The duo is continuing to be patient. It's something they've grown accustomed to since their chance meeting years ago, when Glass joined in on a post-military band rehearsal jam session with Peri.

They met again a few days later, wrote some songs, and then developed a friendship while finishing their service with the Israel Defense Forces. After, they performed together for a about year before Glass decided to pursue his music career in Los Angeles and Peri accepted an invitation to play keys for Hayehudim, an Israesli hard rock band started by Tom Petrover and Orit Shachaf.

Glass and Peri wouldn't work together again until 2006. But then, the brief collaboration wasn't for them. It was on Israeli singer Shiri Maimon's album Rega Lifney... (Just Before...).

Sister Mountain is a dark and penetrating intro to Deep.Sea.Creatures. 

It would take another three years before these two songwriters and composers would find a way to fuse their very different and sometimes conflicting musical backgrounds. But when they did, Glass says, it was as though these differences produced work that sounded more inspired.

Like the band's name, which alludes to the dark, mysterious nature of unlikely behemoths gliding effortlessly under the water, Sister Mountain is a song that expresses a shared appreciation for animals and nature.

"The song itself was written while I was riding a bicycle in Tel Aviv in the evening, and then I recorded the melody and words into a phone before reproducing it late that night," says Glass. "The song talks about the need to experience nature, far away from the city's concrete and pollution. It's there we can find deeper connection."

Like Sister Mountain, much of the band's work relies on anthem-sized electronica pop compositions, which leaves Glass' silky smooth vocals to lift another melody into the foreground. Peri often takes the arrangements further, almost answering Glass, creating the illusion of an unspoken duet.

You Should Remember is an elegantly progressive pop ballad. 

But anthem-sized electronica pop doesn't convey the real depth of Deep.Sea.Creatures. They effortlessly weave in elements of IDM and indie rock into some songs. It shouldn't work, but it does.

A lot of it has to do with the way they produce music. While most of their songs carry an over-arching similarity, every story has a different vibe. According to Glass, different stories need to be told and produced differently.

"We both are individual songwriters. So we each take different parts — production, lyrics, melody, harmony — to best serve the songs we have," says Glass. "Human Being was actually a Hebrew track that Adam composed and it grabbed my attention. So I wrote a new melody and lyrics to his verses and we reproduced it."

Their newest single provides a deeper, more meaningful look into Deep.Sea.Creatures too. Shortly after Peri and Glass self-released the mixed track of You Should Remember, they also released a live acoustic session that showcased their raw talent in one take.

"As an artist, the live shows play a major part in my life so I'm fortunate to love and enjoy it," says Peri  "We love how people here [in the United States] make music a more cultural, daily expression. People still go to live shows to discover something new just for the love of music."

Glass agrees, noting how while they created their earliest tracks together in Israel, they never had an opportunity to perform live and feel the reaction from the crowd. It has had an impact. And next year, their music will have an impact too.

Two Tracks By Deep.Sea.Creatures Glide To 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although produced a year apart, Sister Mountain and Your Should Remember express why Peri and Glass are an emerging artist pick. Between Peri's multi-instrumental talents and Glass' deeply penetrating emotive vocals, any full-length album will likely have considerable lift sometime next year.

You can find Sister Mountain on iTunes. The single is also available on Amazon. The new single (mixed), You Should Remember, was released on Bandcamp via the Deep.Sea.Creatures Facebook page. The acoustic version is on YouTube.

While the review considers two songs, I listened to unreleased tracks that may be included on a future album. Rich Becker also contributed to this review.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mandarin Oriental Rises In Las Vegas

There are many ways to play in Las Vegas. With 19 of the world's 25 largest hotels and hundreds of other options from cheap to chic, two different people could visit the city and never share the same experience. Even gambling is optional.

Some of the newest additions to the skyline are especially adept at breaking the old gambling stereotype. The Mandarin Oriental, located on the Las Vegas Strip at the entrance to CityCenter, is one fine example. The 47-story hotel and residence is non-gaming, focusing on the finest international hospitality that the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group is known for the world over.

Staying at the internationally renowned resort doesn't require any sacrifice in entertainment options either. On the contrary, the resort is part of the 67-acre CityCenter, a remarkable and architecturally stunning urban center that is also one of the largest eco-friendly and sustainable developments in the world. Yes, in Las Vegas.

At the heart of CityCenter is couture and cuisine.

Crystals is a expansive experiential environment that redefines the concept of a mall into a community center with wide open, spacious interiors that break traditionally linear mall designs with curves and elevations. As such, Crystals becomes a destination unto itself with dozens of high-end boutiques and brands represented. Live entertainment, although typically staged for passersby and not gatherings, isn't uncommon either.

The boutique names are familiar — bold fashion designer Tom Ford, travel aficionado Louis Vuitton, jeweler to the stars Harry Winston, and luxury publisher Assouline — many of which cannot be found anywhere else in Las Vegas. But perhaps even more memorable than the shops are the experiences.

While all seven of Crystals' restaurants are tempting, Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina stands out with what might be his best Las Vegas offering to date. The restaurant serves wood oven baked pizza, but Puck does it alongside entrees like an Italian sea bass with sun choke cream and tomato peperonata or, sometimes listed as a special, bone-in osso bucco.

Mastro's Ocean Club is also recommended, not only for the food but also because it's tucked inside an architectural treehouse that rises 70 feet off the first floor, placing it on eye level with the second floor. Add the The Cup to the list too. It might be billed as a hot spot for coffee, but it also serves some of the best gelato in Las Vegas.

For guests of the Mandarin, Crystals is a short walk past its artistic extension. Although missing out on interior pedestrian traffic, Gallery Row is now home to The Gallery (currently showing Dale Chihuly), sculptor Richard MacDonald, master wilderness photographer Rodney Lough Jr., and CENTERpiece, which features several contemporary artists. Collectively, it is one of the better art collections anywhere in the city. Seek them out. It's worth it.

Beyond Crystals at CityCenter and inside the Mandarin Oriental. 

The four galleries aren't the only places to find art inside the expansive CityCenter. Several artists have made contributions. Located on the property are works by Isa Genzken, Henry Moore, and Nancy Rubins.

You could spend the day at CityCenter looking for art, not counting the architecture that presents itself as a collection of hotels, properties, and resorts. Along with Crystals and the Mandarin Oriental, the emerging skyline includes the Aria Resort & Casino, Vdara Hotel & Spa, and the Veer Towers.

Aria is one of the reasons neither the Mandarin nor the Vdara need concern themselves with gaming. Although more elegant than most, Aria is closer to what one might expect in Las Vegas with a sprawling casino floor bordered by eateries and restaurants. It also sports its own clubs, spa, salon, shopping, and show rooms. For guests of the Mandarin, it places traditional Las Vegas entertainment within short reach as do nearby resorts like Bellagio, the Cosmopolitan, and Monte Carlo.

That's not to say everything relies on proximity. The Spa at the Mandarin Oriental was one of only 20 in the world to receive a Forbes Five-Star award. The Mandarin is also home to Twist by Pierre Gagnaie, MOzen Bistro, and has the Pool Cafe. High above, with dynamic views of the city, the Mandarin Bar and Tea Room provide very different takes on nightlife and daytime entertainment.

When you're done, the rooms inside the Mandarin are modern, with subtle Asian qualities. The bathrooms are separated by frosted glass, allowing in natural light and even the smallest of rooms (about 500 square feet), are designed with a valet closet to accept deliveries without disrupting privacy.

It's this detail that makes the difference. Nowhere else can you stay at a luxurious hotel at rates comparable to an average hotel in other major cities. Rooms have two televisions (a large flat screen and a small screen in the bathroom), cotton sheets have a 480-thread count, and bathrooms are adorned with aromatherapy products. Everything in the room (wraps, temperature, lighting) can managed from a central remote.

The Mandarin Oriental Rises To An 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Las Vegas remains one of the top vacation destinations in the world, but sometimes we find the formula that makes most resorts exciting can also make them remarkably the same with only a different window dressing. The Mandarin (and the Vdara Hotel & Spa) is among the few hotels that are trying to enhance the image, much like the opening of the Four Seasons Hotel at Mandalay Bay did a few years ago.

While rates very by date, weekends, and holidays, Mandarin rooms are surprisingly affordable. At the time of this review, rooms started at $225. While these rates might sacrifice loftier views, the price is almost startling for a boutique hotel with such amenities.

To make plans for Las Vegas, you can also compare deals for airfares, discounted hotels, and car rentals on Fare Buzz. Once you book your flight, search for hotel packages.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Metallica Goes Beyond Death Magnetic

As the preeminent heavy metal band on the planet with only a handful of challengers, not much can be added to the 30-year legacy of Metallica. But this year is different.

While some people are still divided over the well-conceived but  ill-executed Lulu album with Lou Reed, there is no division over the never-before-heard outtakes from Death Magnetic. The four songs that make up the new 29-minute Beyond Magnetic EP drown out months of ardent defensiveness and lighthearted aloofness over Lulu.

Instead, all anyone can hear now is the unrelenting rolling buzz of four rough mixes originally produced for Death Magnetic. They were introduced at a pace of one song per day over four days at the San Francisco Fillmore as Metallica celebrated their continuing epic run with their most ardent fans. And those who did not attend found the EP in their e-mail. Happy holidays. 

Beyond Magnetic is a reminder why metal means Metallica. 

The EP soared to number one on the same day of its release for a reason. The opener, Hate Train, bulldozes into aggressive old school trash metal that makes everyone wonder why they locked it up in the vault. Much like the lyrics tell it, the song thunders aimlessly through your head with great riffs and mind-bending solos that aren't as fast as speed metal but still separate the wheat from the chaff. 

Originally called Shine, Just A Bullet Away conjures memories of And Justice For All as a mid-tempo thrasher with a clean bridge. The brilliance is in the melodic solo in the middle of the song. Most fans are saying that they wished it was on Death Magnetic, even though the song was likely cut because it sounded too much like a throwback to earlier times.

The lyrics in Just A Bullet Away are well thought out and timed perfectly. The instrumentals are sold, with subtleties throughout. If any of the four songs on the EP can be called full-package Metallica, it's this one with James Hetfield picking up lead guitar.

"We're pretty excited to be bringing these songs back to life after nearly four years after they were recorded. Once again, this is the unpolished version of the song ... the original rough mix from March of 2008 in its rawest, untouched form." 

The third song, Hell And Back, originally called To Hell And Back, was one the hardest tracks to find anywhere on the Internet. Expect a clean riff at the open before the song tumbles along, with some beautiful accents brought in by Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo. And after a cue from Hetfield, Kirk Hammett brings in a barrage of notes to help finish it.

The last track, Rebel of Babylon, opens like it might be a swooning metal ballad. The opening is only a warmup as it breaks back into thrash. The song has plenty packed into it: builds, duels, and breakdowns. It's one of my favorites on the EP, proving that Metallica is more than ready to climb back into the trenches of the recording studio and write something without being confined to Reed's backup band.

Although the tracks are rough and raw (which means better Metallica by my standards) and nearly four year old, the EP helps remind people why Hatfield responding to Ulrich's newspaper advertisement was a historic moment in music history. Of course, I'm biased having listened to their music since the beginning and through all the changes (including the Dave Mustaine shakeup). Beyond Magnetic is a classic mesh of both old tricks and evolution.

Metallica's Beyond Magnetic Points North At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Metallica generally has three kinds of fans. Those that like to pretend they "liked them back when...", those that only turned out for the Black Album, and those that have been with them from day one. I'm happy to be part of the latter crowd (just not so smitten to sing the praises of Lulu, which is why we skipped it for review).

That said, if what the band has been working on since earlier this year comes close to the material released on this EP, then their next album will ensure they will continue to play out with a bang and not a whimper. All four tracks are well worth the download. It's 30 minutes of Metallica.

Beyond Magnetic was released on iTunes. If you missed Death Magnetic when it was released in 2008, you can find the album on Amazon, the vinyl at Barnes & Noble, and download on iTunes. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hillenbrand Captures The Incredible Story Of Louis Zamperini: Unbroken

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Corps B-24 bomber crashes into the Pacific Ocean and disappears, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. It would be hours before the Army Air Corps would learn that the plane was missing. Even when it did, the chance of rescue was slim for the three men who barely survived.

The two rafts that a young lieutenant, along with two other crew members, had managed to tether together was little more than a dot the expansive blue ocean. Their whereabouts were largely unknown and the ocean was already sweeping them deeper and deeper into enemy territory.

The notion of capture, however terrifying the stories of abused, tortured, and murdered prisoners were, was preferable to the fate they anticipated. Without survival rations and barely enough water to wet their lips, they would eventually become a meal for the sharks that swam lazy loops around them.

Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption. 
When Laura Hillenbrand opens the story, she puts readers right in the raft with the men, already weeks since they ditched their plane. It's virtually impossible not to be dragged in with them in the short span of a four-page preface, especially as the men light two of their last remaining flares to grab the attention of a plane flying far overhead, only to learn that the pilot has no intention of helping them.

As the Japanese bomber circles around, the sea around them erupts in gunfire. And the men are given a choice. Lay on the rafts as unmoving targets or jump into the water, where the sharks are still waiting.

It's with this image in their heads that what some might mistake as a historical war novel is something else entirely. Although the story mostly reads as smooth as fiction, Hillenbrand paints an inspired story that is at times as hard to fathom as real as she recounts the life of an amazing man from his perspective as well as remnants of other servicemen letters, diaries, accounts, and historical research.

The story itself starts from the earliest beginnings of a man as a young boy growing up in a small house in Torrance, California. He was the rebellious, undisciplined, and dangerous 12-year-old, accurately described in the title of the first chapter. The One-Boy Insurgency, a.k.a. Louis Silvie Zamperini, was prone to fights (which he lost), thievery (which often resulted in being caught), and incredulousness against any form of authority (even the police).

Hillenbrand painstakingly conveys just how perilous such a path for anyone to take in 1930s. It wasn't uncommon for them to be spirited off to juvenile detention or worse, either committed to an institution and perhaps indifferently exposed to tuberculosis. In fact, infractions for far less than Zamperini mustered could have resulted in the worst of punishments.

From an Olympic champion to a prisoner of war. 

Fortunately, it was his brother who helped channel all of his uncontrolled energy into track, which spared Zamperini from such a fate. And the result of this newfound direction would take him farther than anyone could have ever anticipated. It took him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, the same one dominated by Jesse Owens.

There, although finishing eighth in the 5,000 meter run, his final lap set new records. His finish was so fast that even Adolph Hitler would ask to meet him. This meeting would only be eclipsed by Zamperini's decision to climb a flagpole and steal the personal flag of Hilter.

Zamperini's showing at the 1936 Olympics, at a distance that wasn't even his preferred race, virtually ensured him a spot on the 1940 Olympic team. He, of course, would never have the chance to race. The Olympics were to be held in Tokyo, Japan, and were cancelled at the outbreak of World War II.

Eventually, Zamperini would still make it to Tokyo, but in a way he never imagined. After surviving 47 days at sea, he and Russell Allen Phillips were eventually captured by the Japanese Navy. Both men were held in captivity and severely tortured, with Zamperini eventually transferred to Ofuna, an infamous "high-value" prisoner camp where he was tormented by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (a.k.a. The Bird). Watanabe ranked seventh on General MacArthur's 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

Like many men who serve in the military during times of war as well as those who become prisoners of war under the harshest and cruelest of captors, Zamperini struggled for many years after his release. Nightmares, alcoholism, and a strong desire to return to Japan for the sole purpose of murdering The Bird engulfed him. It might have killed him too, had Zamperini not rediscovered the same resilience that helped him survive.

A couple graphs about author Laura Hillenbrand. 

Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, became a well-known author after her first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. She said at the time that she was compelled to tell the story because she found so many fascinating people who lived a story that was improbable. The same can be said about her second book, perhaps changing the adjective improbable to impossible.

What makes her work in Unbroken immeasurably unforgettable is that although the story is easily classified as a biography, it doesn't read like a biography. Throughout the story, Hillenbrand manages the pace of everything that occurs by breaking away from Zamperini to flesh out a much more global view of the Pacific theater of war and, occasionally, from the eyes of other servicemen.

Unbroken By Laura Hillenbrand Breaks 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sometimes people say that there are no more true heroes among us. And yet, by the measure of the legacy that Louie Zamperini still lives to this day, he proves that there are many who walk among us, if only we take the time to look for them.

Unbroken is the near-perfect book of an inspired life. There is no question that Zamperini is an inspiration. Had the book, like his life, been even more carefully constructed, I would have had no problem calling it a 10. However, even at 9.9, one has to forgive the writer for sometimes losing her readers in a sea of facts as well as the editors who carelessly missed pronoun inconsistencies when personal diaries were woven into it.

With the possible exception of some people having some misgivings of faith that is sometimes front and center in the life of Zamperini or perhaps the stories of what was endured by prisoners of war, this is a remarkable book that rekindles the human condition and spirit. It will leave you with more than you could ever possibly have before reading it. It is as authentic as they come.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is available at Amazon and the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. You can also download Unbroken via iBooks or listen to it as an audiobook, available though iTunes. Read by Edward Herman, the audio doesn't lose a beat, frequently adding to the fear, suspense, awe, and calm experienced by the servicemen. Herman was the perfect pick.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

An Ex Norwegian Sketch Is Born Again

For all intents and purposes, Ex Norwegian was dead. The band had been together since 2008 and enjoyed modest success on college radio stations. They were especially well received after their single Something Unreal became a hit on MySpace and CMJ took notice.

But then it happened. Their momentum evaporated when their 2009 full-length album, Standby, failed to ignite a few sparks, even though most critics gave it some acclaim. Soon their upward trajectory came to a halt and band members called it a day.

But then something unexpected happened. Their self-produced second album, Sketch, was released on a shoestring budget and the critics had mostly forgotten them. But to the indie label Dying Van Gogh, Sketch was a lively introduction.

Ex Norwegian finds a second life after their split. 

Second chances never come easy in the music industry. But bassist /vocalist and de facto leader Roger Houdaille was never one to pass on leading any charge. With the re-release of Sketch to pave the way, he was all in.

Never mind that Houdaille freely admits that he was finished with the band. The timing to try again seemed perfect. Unfortunately, it wasn't so perfect for everyone.

Most fans know that Sketch features Houdaille with bassist/vocalist Nina Souto and drummer/guitarist Arturo Garcia. But joining Houdaille in the new incarnation of Ex Norwegian is Michelle Grand (vocals), Alex Ibanez (drums, vocals) and Lucas Queiroz (guitar, vocals).

Don't get too comfortable or used to the names. Houdaille has described this second chance as “a very liquid lineup.” The members may change, plus or minus, at any given time. That's not the only change.

Sketch finds the new band in fine form and trying out a variety of styles. 

Musically, lyrically, and vocally Sketch is leap years ahead of Standby. There’s power pop, rolling acoustic, surf rock, and a bit of other styles thrown in for good measure. The result is a quirky album that has a flow all its own.

Acting On An Island marries ska, rock and jazz to create a moody sound. You’re Elastic All Over Me is glorious pop punctuated by an infectious chorus. The rocking Girl With the Moustache is said to be inspired by Hole.

Turn Left has a big rock sound that would do Pete Townshend proud and Jet Lag’s distortion-heavy sound nicely complements Houdaille’s upbeat vocals. It's here it becomes clear Houdaille has evolved as a performer, making Sketch the title but not a description. It is thoughtfully put together. 

The album is quirky, fun, and eclectic power pop that would fit nicely in the 90s if it were not quite so sophisticated. And for anyone listening to Ex Norwegian for the first time, you'll hear that they have that special ability to shift gears from lo fi to power rock without missing a beat.

Houdaille is a pretty busy guy these days. In addition to fronting Ex Norwegian, he’s also the bass player in Ed Hale and The Transcendence, which is also on the Dying Van Gogh label.

Sketch By Ex Norwegian Pops In With A 5.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Florida-based band features no Scandinavians, Norwegian or otherwise. The band takes its name from a Monty Python skit. If you have a chance to catch their live shows, Ex Norwegian will pull out all the stops — sometimes playing a 30-song set if the mood and the crowd seem right.

Sketch by Ex Norwegian is up on iTunes. You can also find the CD at Barnes & Noble and the album at Amazon. The band is already working on their next album, House Music, tentatively set for a 2012 release date.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Planet Of The Apes Franchise Rises

When looking at the 2011 Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rise) with Will Rodman, most people consider its similarities to the 1972 prequel (and fourth installment of five from the original franchise), Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (Conquest) with Roddy McDowell. It's a mistake.

Both tell how apes became the dominant species on the planet, a story that was alluded to for its historical context in the original source novel, La Penète Des Singes a.k.a. Monkey Planet a.k.a. Planet Of The Apes, by French author Pierre Boulle. But that is where the similarities end, with Conquest remaining closer, even if it is not necessarily an accurate representation, to Boulle's original vision.

In the 2011 reboot, director Rupert Wyatt, along with writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, removed the shackles of the previous franchise despite nods to the previous films.

Instead of apes overwhelming humans after they become lazy enough to degenerate (Boulle) or because apes from the future created an ancestral time loop (Conquest), Rise apes are given a boost from a gene therapy drug (a modified virus) that mutates and endows them with hyper intelligence. The virus has other consequences too.

The inspiration for such a reinvention very little to do with Conquest. It largely hinges on the 1968 film Planet Of The Apes (Planet) with Charlton Heston, with the modern version more straightforward in its origin.

The Boulle story behind the films is satirical.

La Penète Des Singes bears little resemblance to Rise. It's more closely akin to 1968 The Planet Of The Apes. However, even Planet lost some of the original nuances from the novel.

There are no space tourists to find the story of Ulysse Mèrou, a journalist who recounts being one of the first men to travel at near the speed of light to a distant planet where humans are primitive and apes are nearly identical to 20th century Earth. (The space travelers are also important to the novel's final twist.)

And, with the exception of time dilation, Boulle never explores time travel as much as he explores the possibility of a second Earth with nearly identical timelines. Even the name of the Boulle's imagined planet, Soror (Latin for sister), plays this out. A planet fitting for his crisp and mocking message: our pride in human superiority is largely misplaced.

The different starts are starkly dramatic.

For the 2011 filmmakers, the 1968 film serves as the most significant inspiration. Wyatt says as much in interviews, conjuring up the image of Heston dragging his hands through the sand in front of the Statue of Liberty, saying: "You did it. You really went and did it."

As an introduction to a franchise reboot, the film locks its sights on the moment when one rising species and one undone by its own hubris cross each other on the same curve. For writer Jaffa, that moment was best articulated when Caesar, the chimpanzee protagonist played by the brilliant Andy Serkis, vocalizes his first word: "No."

Although uttered in one single syllable, Caesar says much more. No, we will not cower any longer. No, we will not leave our fate in your hands. No, we do not recognize you as our masters. Chilling.

While the film travels in one direction toward a known destination, it also carries the storyline further away from the original work. This is a man-undoes-man story, with viewers left powerless. The best anyone can hope is that Caesar learned some of our best and not just all of our worst qualities.

As the 1968 franchise starter, Planet follows a similar path to the Boulle novel but with a much more apocalyptic vision from writers Rod Sterling and Michael Wilson. The apes never ascend to the sophistication of the 20th centrury, but are trapped inside a modern political allegory nonetheless.

The astronauts crash and are astonished to find pre-lingual people on an alien world before being captured by apes on horseback, one of the most iconic scenes in science fiction history. So is Heston, who plays an unlikeable brute of a protagonist, always willing to fight insults and violence with insults and violence. At the end, he learns where that will lead. And we all learn that humans are doomed unless we change today.

Although the poignancy of the book is sacrificed for something more serious, the first film always left so many questions unanswered against the backdrop of an otherworldly landscape. And, as much as Serkis is celebrated today for his talents in stop-motion acting, Kim Hunter and McDowell were celebrated then for acting past all the makeup.

Planet Of The Apes (1968) And Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) Share A 7.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although some might argue that Planet is dated and ripe with overacting, it's still the film against which all sequels, series, remakes, and spins have been measured (usually with disastrous results). However, in its own right, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was smart to start on another chapter, leaving everyone longing for another film — the one that will face a much more critical eye.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) is available for purchase on iTunes with special features and Planet Of The Apes (1968) is available to rent for $2.99. Barnes & Noble carries the 2011 film on Blu-ray, the 1968 film on DVD, and the 1963 novel by Boulle that started it all. Amazon also carries a 2011 two-disc combo, 1968 collector's DVD, and novel by Boulle.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Girl In A Coma Makes Some Nice Exits

Named after an old song by The Smiths, the unlikely trio of three "sisters" from San Antonio, Texas, continues to pack a punch with its punk and grunge-imbued rock. Exits & All The Rest is intensely diverse, testing a full range of fuzziness and growlers to make a wild ride from the top down.

And while some skeptics still say the girls — Nina  Diaz (vocals/guitar), Phanie Diaz (drums), and Jenn Alva (bass) have had an exceptionally easy go of it over the last five years since their adoption by Joan Jett and producer Kenny Laguna, there is much more to it than that. They work for every note, especially Nina Diaz, who continually proves she can sing nearly anything.

There is only one way Exits & All The Rest is a disappointment, and it has nothing to do with the band. So much attention is being given to the 80s Brit-rock pick Smart that the best of the album is being dismissed. Yeah, Nina Diaz has a beautiful, softly sweet voice when she wants to, but it is her ability to swoon, growl, and pommel that is her greatest asset.

Girl In A Coma hopes to diversify the musical palate of their fans. 

On the flip side, no one can fault them for what they really wanted to do with Exits & All The Rest. Phanie Diaz might have put it best when she said they wanted to make an album that introduces people to the diversity of music they like and give them a glimpse into who this band really is.

The reason it's important to them (and any band for that matter) is that they want to remain connected to their roots, with influences ranging from their grandfather to Buffalo Springfield and Joy Division. They are very proud of being from San Antonio, where many people's fondness for sound isn't confined to a single genre. If anything, they try to merge them all and break the rules. Just like this fan capture suggests.

Adjust is the broodiest, hardest-hitting sonic track on the album, bending back and forth from restrained to ferocious over a steady bass line and drum beat. It's also an example of how the girls have remained unfazed by musical trends and keep a consistent eye on a feral approach to the music scene.

Other underplayed tracks include the brutally honest throwback She Had A Plan that resurrects Dick Dale, and the near deeply emotive and reflective crooning inside Sly, the grinding instrumental bed overlain with the fuzzed and silky vocals from another era. Nina Diaz's voice has a stickiness unlike any other in the business, even on the bonus track Coffee And Tea.

There's no surprise the entire album was recorded on analog. 

The thickness of the production deserves props too. Recorded in Austin, the behind-the-scenes work is easily among Mike McCarthy's (Spoon, Trail of Dead, AM Taxi) best. The recording process obviously brought out a ferociousness that can only be achieved on analog, with all of the basic tracks recorded live. There is no other way to capture the real energy of a band caught up in the music they create.

You can hear it in the fearless song One Eyed Fool. You can feel it in the punk assault of Hope. Never mind that the song is about an immigration dispute. It transcends the politics, capturing some raw and passionate feelings. It shakes and rattles, right down to the bones.

In fact, one of the reasons I've always liked Girl In A Coma is that while they've always been willing to talk openly about being women rockers, Mexican-American, and two-thirds lesbian, none of that really defines them. While they want to represent, the only thing they want people to see them for first is as musicians.

Exits & All The Rest By Girl In A Coma Nails 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Maybe it's the maturity in the songwriting, but if Exits & All The Rest can't wake up some people to new music or prove that there is plenty to explore in rock, then they must be the ones in a musical coma. Sure, I'm a little less bullish on Cemetery Baby and a couple others but I couldn't imagine the LP without them. The diversity helps build anticipation for whatever might lay around the corner.

Exists & All The Rest by Girl In A Coma is on iTunes. You can also find the CD at Barnes & Noble or  download it at Amazon. One caution before you purchase the album. Make sure it is the bonus edition. You also need to be aware that the bonus tracks are split. Coffee And Tea is on iTunes, but Amazon carries the haunting track Hotel.