Thursday, March 31, 2011

Author Peter Hedges Takes Suburbia To New Heights

The Heights by Peter HedgesAt the start of The Heights, Peter Hedges paints the picture of a couple that could be anyone. Tim teaches at the exclusive Montague Academy; he's a genuinely nice guy even if he is a bit nerdy. Most people would even call him scattered, too busy to be stylish, and forever trying to finish his dissertation.

His wife, Kate, is a stay-at-home mom who enjoys raising their two small sons in their safe Brooklyn Heights neighborhood, with its upscale coffee shops, private schools and green streets. Kate and Tim aren't wealthy. They live in a cramped apartment filled with children’s artwork and other trappings of normal life. Like many people, they are struggling to make ends meet.

The Heights is the story of an average middle class family. Their suburbia could be yours or mine.

And then one day, a wealthy, beautiful and mysterious stranger meets Kate. Anna Brody, the beautiful wife of wealthy Phillip Ashworth, is about to move into the neighborhood and Kate assures her that it is a great place to live. And from that point forward, everything begins to fray.

With Kate unexpectedly receiving a job offer from a former boss and Tim taking a leave of absence from teaching to finish his dissertation and stay home with the kids, the couple unwittingly opens the door for Anna to peer deeper into their seemingly normal, unglamorous lifestyle.

It's almost too easy. Anna has a little girl so she and Tim mingle in the same circles — moms and dads in the Heights’ playground, coffee shops, and schools. The two develop a mutual interest that doesn't seem innocent beneath the surface.

Kate doesn't notice. She is too busy with her lucrative position of giving a foundation’s money away to worthy charities. Next comes the opportunity to reconnect with an ex-boyfriend after he contacts her out of the blue. He is a television star.

And then there is Bea Myerly, a former student of Tim’s who has always had a mad crush on him. And of all the people Anna could hire as a babysitter, she chooses his former student. And from then on, everybody and anybody begins to wonder.

Maybe you don't need more than you have. Maybe you only think you do.

Told as only Hedges can tell it, The Heights is a story about people who don’t need more than they have but think they do. With every character rendered so deeply, it will leave most people wondering why Hedges took more than a decade off before writing for the page as opposed to the screen again.

Peter HedgesHedges, in case you don't know, is probably best known for writing What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and co-writing the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the Hugh Grant film About A Boy. And much like those stories, Hedges takes the inexplicably ordinary case of people who think the grass is always greener and turns it into something else.

Sure, Anna wants what Kate has. And Kate wants want Anna has. And Bea wants what she thinks they have. And at some point, Tim becomes less sure if he has anything left to want. Or, at least that's the feeling Hedges instills presenting the story as a bystander. He lets Kate and Tim tell the story, and occasionally has an ancillary character like Bea tell some parts too.

The Heights By Peter Hedges Earns A 5.7 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Heights is an excellent telling with honest writing and the right rushed pace. You might even have a sense that The Heights will probably translate very well to the big screen. You would be right. The author plans to direct and produce the film in the next year or two.

The Heights: A Novel is available on Amazon. The Heights by Peter Hedges is also available at Barnes & Noble. The trade paperback and digital versions were released by Dutton Books in late February.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Collingwood Is An Emerging Artist

Chris Malinowski by R. BirchKeeping together a genre-defying, heady progressively soulful rock band with long meandering songs is never easy. And since its beginnings in 1999, the Pennsylvania-based rock band The Collingwood has had five incarnations with a lineup that forced the band to continually reinvent itself as members dropped off after personality clashes, marriages, addictions, and death.

Yet, somehow, frontman Chris Malinowski (guitar, vocals), who also has his feet firmly planted in filmmaking and 35 mm photography, has never given up. This time around, with Bill Ackerman (bass), James Pennington (guitar), and James Boruch (drums), Malinowski believes he might have the lineup right.

Ackerman, a friend from film school, relocated closer to help shape the sound. Pennington met Malinowski at Accent Music where he manages the music store. And Boruch was added after a chance meeting on Craig’s List. All of them have deep roots in music. Malinowski has fronted two other bands, most notably the heavy metal band Freakshow, which he founded as a teenager, and then a goth-rock inspired band called The Absurd.

"I formed The Absurd after tiring of metal and a rift between members, and released a few albums," said Malinowski. "But then broke away from the band so I could go to film school at Ithaca College, one of the best decisions in my entire life."

Malinowski attributes some of the cinematic qualities of The Collingwood's music to his film work. The long-drawn songs tend to capture a pacing similar to cinema with an incessant awareness of creative pacing, planting lulls, builds, and climaxes in the sound.

Even the familiar minor key motifs inspired by horror classics made in the Seventies inform the music. Malinowski and Ackerman's film experience is also apparent in the production of the bands's full-length music videos.

F**k Yeah, Hollywood! makes for an excellent introduction to The Collingwood, opening with its harshly ferocious lyrics before drifting into a retrospective soft, melodic chorus. The song unexpectedly dips toward a different bass line at the half point like a second act, delivering some of the most memorable elements of the song.

Poor Man's Potter and Birthday Cut work much the same way. Birthday Cut opens with a hypnotically drifting foundation and slowly builds with horns adding a soulful blues-infused feel before building, climaxing, and dropping in a bluesy bleakness that introduces the second act. Deliciously brilliant. Poor Man's Potter strikes a similar arrangement with its Rush-flavored false open before diving down into a slow-moving, meaty drifter with several climatic restrained chorus points.

"We still haven’t found a label that’s brave enough to take us on. We’re healthy, willing to tour, and light up a supreme fire with our live shows," says Malinowski. "Maybe a label with bravado will find us one day and marry us to a lifestyle of consistent releases and yearly tour dates. We're in. But even if they don't ... we have our own thing moving nicely."

The Pitter-Patter Of Little Everything isn't easy to categorize. With influences that capture both progressive and retroactive elements, it often feels like an experimental rocker's version of the beat generation, allowing the music to move in its own unexpected flow, even if it is structured with purposeful pacing and a radio unfriendly play length.

"I just want to share the songs and the resonating existential crises/hopefulness with the proper audience," says Malinowski. "And maybe dance a bit with them in a live performance so everything is brash and charismatic. Hey, this is all quite fun."

Everything about it seems fun, but Malinowski is striving for an elusive perfection that may even lend itself to songs grappling with the sourness of life. It's there within reach, if only it is worked a little longer.

Every track begins with main riffs before rough melody lines and lyrics are added by Malinowski. Other members then pick their instruments, improvising off the looping riffs until something concrete begins to come together.

How they come together requires painstaking patience and attention to detail as engineer Rich Degnars worked in his basement studio in Wilmington, Delaware, from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. two nights a week (along with Malinowski) for an entire year and a half. Degnars even played the drums to help close Birthday Cut, an easy favorite from the album.

Along with Degnars, the album includes the combined talents of Gina Degnars, who also fronts the alt pop rock Little Invisibles (backing vocals), Brian Naudain (some drums), Joe Harris (saxophone), and Gerald Chavis (trumpet). Most of them work with Malinowski and Pennington at Accent Records. Off the album, Malinowski hints at a muse and lifelong companion.

The Pitter-Patter Of Little Everything By The Collingwood Cracks 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There really is nothing like The Pitter-Patter Of Little Everything on the market. While the album isn't perfect given that Even The Black Lamb Tuckers wraps itself up so tightly inside the 1970s B-movie disco rock grooviness it becomes almost unbearable, even three of the five tracks will deliver 22 minutes of unbridled riffs, drifts, and atmospheric tenseness that most bands save for live performances. We already anticipate The Collingwood will be landing here again.

Just as important, the real measure here is that even if The Collingwood only ever captured a smaller following, someone will be inspired and influenced by their offbeat viscous tracks. Count on it. The Pitter-Patter Of Little Everything is available exclusively on iTunes. Malinowski also recently directed and produced a 33-minute artfully primal feature short entitled Alms, You Say.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making Supermen With A Super Story

Waiting For SupermanAt what point can a book be more than a book? Or a film more than a film? Or a concert more than a concert? Or even an app something more than an app?

These might be the questions that filmmarker Davis Guggenheim or educator Geoffrey Canada and/or StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee ask on a regular basis given their roles in the award-winning documentary Waiting For Superman.

Although the film feels long at times, the greater purpose of the message overshadows the length. It strikes at a failing education system.

By the fourth grade, more than half of the elementary students in public schools have fallen behind on required reading skills. And the majority of these students will never catch up.

In many cases, their only hope — at least the hope of those followed by Davis Guggenheim — is to avoid neighborhood dropout factories and literally win coveted spots at charter schools that abolish the labels of socio-economic status and drive every student to excel. By every measure, the film strikes at the ugliness of truths — that it is not the communities or the students failing the education system, but rather the education system and "the blob" that controls it is failing the students.

Waiting For Superman is as controversial as it is poignant, as it presents the greatest crisis facing this country as reading and math scores have flatlined. It also touches on why these lagging results created a triple jeopardy within the country: a failing education system, a country that has priced itself out of the low-skilled labor market, and the growing unemployment that feeds both socio-economic entitlement programs and an increasingly crowded criminal justice system.

"You're doing fine in school until you hit the fourth grade, fifth grade," explains Canada in the film. "Between the fifth grade and the seventh grade, you see a huge number of minority kids go from being B students to D students."

Except the problem isn't only related to minorities where it is most severe. For all of the children, they are already developing a sense of their future opportunities — with most concluding that they are going nowhere. In some schools, only one of three high school students will meet the minimum college criteria and about half will drop out all together.

Why The Film Sparked Controversy And Criticism.

There are more than 2,000 dropout factories in the United States. And the film pinpoints the primary difference between students who succeed and those who do not has nothing to do with the students or their varied and sometimes challenging backgrounds or the funding that the schools receive. It has to do with teachers.

Specifically, the film does not target all teachers. It targets poor teachers, many of which are protected by collective bargaining contracts that make it next to impossible to let poorly performing teachers go.

Many people mistake the message as union-busting propaganda. But within the context of the story, it becomes clear that it is not exclusively the unions to blame as much as bigger bureaucracy with even the best policies adding even more layers to an already stifled system.

The conversation began before the film was politicized. Before the film, most proponents argued for two equally bad choices — paying even more for a system that doesn't work or busting unions that were only created as the result of exploiting teachers decades ago. Both claim they have the best interest of kids at heart. And both are primary drivers for failure.

While the film is not flattering for unions, it doesn't drive at either point per se. It recasts the discussion to consider that the only agenda ought to be to educate children. And yet, the current system increases non-teaching administrators and interests while enabling bad teachers, whom Princeton Press says cover only 50 percent of required material. In contrast, good teachers cover 150 percent of the material. For good students and good teachers, it means next year's classes are burdened with students who do not have the foundation for the classes they are in. And it's not necessarily their fault.

Waiting For Superman Is A 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.

Waiting For Superman was chosen because it has become much more than a film. Since its initial release, the producers have created resources for parents to become education activists. In October, there will be a performance by The Speaking Clock Revue, which is multi-artist performance at Wang Center in Boston and Beacon Theater in New York City. All proceeds will benefit The Participant Foundation to support music and arts education programming in public schools.

Waiting For Superman is a film you can own or rent on iTunes. You can also find a free Super School app. Waiting for Superman is also on Amazon, where the book Waiting for SUPERMAN: How We Can Save America's Failing Public Schools (Participant Guide Media) is also available. The book and film are also at Barnes & Noble.

The book includes a $15 gift card from to give to a classroom in need. The revolutionary concept site matches people who are willing to give with specific classroom needs. The innovative nonprofit helps donors search for specific needs or proximity. Even without the gift card, DonorsChoose empowers people to directly help specific education projects.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Black Francis Brings Some B-Sides And The Golem

Black FrancisThere doesn’t seem to be too much that Black Francis (a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. Charles Thompson) can’t do. His success as a solo artist, frontman of various self-formed bands, and as one-quarter of the seminal Pixies would be enough for most. But Black Francis plays to a different beat.

Recently, the artist has released two CDs — Abbabubba B-Sides Etc. and The Golem. Diehard fans already know the work. They are not technically new.

But they are new to the digital world. Abbabubba, originally released in 2010, has previously only been available through the Black Francis Website. And The Golem is culled from the DVD of the same name. More about that in a minute. Let's talk about the first.

Abbabubba is a disc of demos of songs, such as Rabbits and Dead Man’s Curve, that previously appeared on CDs like Nonstoperotik. The demos are different, nicely fleshed out versions that are just as strong as the “final” versions, especially Dead Man’s Curve.

There are also some tunes that have never officially been released before and several studio quality b-sides. Two standouts: Serious Curious, with its “curious” spoken word verses, and the whimsical Polly’s Into Me.

The set is notable for the inclusion of three versions of The Seus. First is the Infadels remix, which is a mishmash that, at least for this listener, mashes up the song almost beyond reason. The Charles Normal remix layers in synth strings, resulting in a track that would not have been out of place on Frank Black’s Teenager Of The Year. Then there’s the Bloc Party remix, which is a bona fide dance floor tune if ever there was one.

Abbabubba has a directness that’s refreshing and features artwork by Black Francis himself. It's a collection any serious fan would want to own. Released on alone, it would be great. But then there is The Golem.

The Golem is even more remarkable in many ways.

It is an original score by Black Francis for an old and unusual film of the same name. The film, a beautifully shot silent black and white released in 1920, was based on a screenplay by Paul Wegener, who also served as director.

It is set in the 16th century where we learn that a rabbi reads the stars and discovers that misfortune threatens his people. To protect them from persecution, he decides to fashion a giant “golem” out of clay. Unfortunately, the creature rebels and destroys the rabbi's Prague ghetto. The film is vivid and compelling, but not something many people have seen.

Enter the San Francisco International Film Festival, which asked Black Francis to score the film and perform it live for their annual 2008 festival. He did, marking the first and only time it has been performed live in its entirety.

That is too bad because the work is sublime. The Golem CD represents 18 tracks carefully chosen from the two discs’ worth of music that accompanied the film. It’s been called a rock opera, but there’s an elegant, jazzy feel to it that works. Some will no doubt wish there was some space between the releases. I'm just happy to have them.

Black Francis’s The Golem Rebels With A 9.2 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If I was adding Abbabubba, it would land somewhere around a 6.7. Abbabubba is available on iTunes. On Amazon, look for Abbabubba (b-sides. etc.). You can also find the CD at Barnes & Noble.

The Golem is breathtaking and extraordinary. You can find the The Golem on Amazon, along with the DVD, called Black Francis: The Golem - A Film. For music downloads, The Golem is on iTunes. The CD is at Barnes & Noble. But just in case there is any doubt, you can get a taste of The Golem on Vimeo. DRPNP3K7U8R2

Friday, March 25, 2011

Ray-Ban Revisits A 1950s Style Classic

Ray-Ban Rare PrintAs hard as it is to believe, Ray-Ban was introduced as high-end sunglasses in 1937 for the United States Army Air Corps by Bausch & Lomb, after Lieutenant John MacCready returned from a balloon flying adventure that had damaged his eyes. The original prototype was one of the first anti-glare patents filed. The sunglasses were known for their extremely light frames weighing 150 grams.

Nowadays, Ray-Ban is owned by the Luxottica Group, which is the largest eye company in the world. But the eye for Ray-Ban design is no less thrilling, especially with the revival of the retro Ray-Ban Vagabond sunglasses.

The colors are especially striking, ranging from classic black to a colorful tortoise shell. Some of the modernized styles also have a solid color (like white) highlighted with the tortoise shell across the top and on the inside (a very smart design).

Ray-Ban gives the classic 1950s vintage cat-eye shape a modern spin.

For Ray-Ban, the art of making sunglasses has always been about science as much as style. The lens colors actually mean something.

Ray-BanNeutral Gray (G-15), which sometimes looks green, is designed to reduce eyes train and squinting because it transmits all colors equally, helping them retain their true color despite polarization. Brown (B-15) are special ops glasses, which add contrast to everything you see. So, the lens color you choose is more important than what looks good.

These glasses, which are sold exclusively online, are modeled after the original Wayfarer produced in 1952. Ray-Ban did launch a limited Original Wayfarer edition set, engraved in 18k gold at the temple tip, but many of the basic and most striking elements of the modernized exclusive shown are still there (and within easier reach, priced around $145 to $195).

Ray-Ban has launched a series of videos that coincide with the launch of the modernized Wayfarer revival. They capture the cool of the 1950s, but don't take themselves too seriously (like some people did in the 1980s).

Depending on the eight variants of style, each offers unique benefits. Some are polarized while others are gradient, which makes it easier for reading outdoors with a tilt of the head. But all of the frames still contain carbon fibre sheets set within the plastic, making them stronger than your average sunglasses.

What works better with the modernized take on the 1950s classic is that not everybody looked good in the original cat-eye style. These help temper the shape slightly, making the pronounced square less obtrusive. It's a nice new spin on the classic that everybody else copied.

Expect to see other revivals, but stick with Ray-Ban or maybe Oliver Goldsmith.

Fred by GoldsmithOf course, sometimes similarities are welcome. For example, we also noticed Oliver Goldsmith recently came out with a spectacle frame based on their early 1960s models too. If you're not familiar with Goldsmith, they have ten years on Ray-Ban and are based in the U.K. Only slightly more than the featured Ray-Ban (about $330 U.S.), you'll find a little more exclusivity with frames that are still made by hand.

The Modernized Wayfarer By Ray–Ban Polarizes For A 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

It took me a long time before I ever owned Ray-Ban sunglasses. When they were revived in the 1980s, they were just too popular to appreciate. Someone bought me a pair about five years ago as a gift and they've become the the pair I wear most often (after exchanging them for a better fit). These new models are striking enough to purchase a second pair and the Oliver Goldsmiths are tempting too.

You can also pick up the Ray-Ban Original Wayfarers direct from Ray-Ban. As an online exclusive, there is no set date for how long these shades will be on sale. If you are looking for something even more unique, then consider the sensationally handcrafted glasses from Oliver Goldsmith. You can find the Fred design at Quintessentially Gifts for a limited time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Richard And Linda Thompson Shoot Out The Lights Forever

Richard ThompsonAs the Seventies gave way to the Eighties, British folk singers Richard and Linda Thompson found themselves without a record label and no clear direction. The husband-and-wife team had already recorded five albums, but none of them had achieved any level of success that they had hoped for.

The couple had toured with singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty, who liked their sound and helped them record tracks for a new album. Unfortunately, things fell apart when Rafferty couldn’t get them a record deal. In November 1981, noted producer Joe Boyd (Nick Drake) took the Thompsons into the studio for what was to be their sixth album, recorded over the span of just a few days.

Since Linda was pregnant, it was a given that she wouldn’t immediately hit the road. Instead Richard would venture out on his own as a solo act until she could join him a few months later.

Richard Thompson heads out on his own, painfully forever.

He embarked on a small tour in December 1981, and Shoot Out The Lights was released in early 1982 on Boyd’s Hannibal label. While on tour, Richard began a relationship with the woman who would become his second wife. And Shoot Out the Lights would be the swan song for Richard and Linda Thompson.

As the album garnered critical and fan acclaim and brought an unexpected level of commercial success, Richard and Linda split (in May) and later divorced. Sad. Contrary to popular legend, Shoot Out the Lights was recorded before the dissolution of the Thompson marriage, not during. Still, the tension and urgency of its songs, Linda’s pure and fragile voice, and the finest guitar work of Richard’s career together make Shoot Out the Lights a true masterpiece.

Rhino Entertainment does this masterpiece proud with Shoot Out the Lights (Deluxe Edition, Handmade). It features the album’s original eight tracks, plus a bonus disc with 11 rare and previously unreleased live performances, all nicely packaged in a hardcover book complete with 40 pages of photographs, liner notes, and bittersweet memories.

What makes Shoot Out the Lights a real gem is that it is simple and complex all at once. The album features Linda on vocals, Richard on vocals, lead guitar (of course), dulcimer and accordion; Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar; David Mattacks on drums; and Dave Pegg and Pete Zorn splitting bass duties.

Shoot Out The LightsAll the songs are strong, but the whole album is greater than the sum of its parts. There is the bitter Did She Jump Or Was She Pushed, the searing guitar on the title track, and the jangly guitar solo on Wall of Death, which is a song of survival.

While Richard’s urgent guitar displays a virtuosity that never overshadows the songs, it is Linda’s voice that pulls it together so nicely. It’s perhaps the Thompsons’ finest moment.

“Where’s the justice and where’s the sense? When all the pain is on my side of the fence. I’m walking on a wire, I’m walking on a wire, and I’m falling,” she sings in the Richard-penned Walking On a Wire.

Shoot Out The Lights By Richard And Linda Thompson Lights A 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Thompsons may have divorced personally and professionally, but Shoot Out the Lights still represents a high water mark. It completely repositioned Richard as the incredible songwriter, nimble guitarist, and solo artist that he is. And while Linda has battled dysphonia that leaves her unable to sing at times, she’s gone on to record some fine solo albums.

Shoot Out The Lights (Deluxe Edition, Handmade) is a masterpiece from Rhino Entertainment. As mentioned, it includes the never before released live recordings, which make it one of the finest offerings from the Thompsons anywhere.

As an alternative, you could look at the Shoot Out the Lights from Barnes & Noble, which will be adding a book from the 33 1/3 series by Hayden Childs soon. Or you could download some tunes from Shoot Out the Lights at iTunes or find the album on Amazon. But none of them really approach the depth and beauty of the handmade edition from Rhino Entertainment.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lydia Criss Comes Sealed With A KISS

Sealed With A Kiss by Lydia CrossThere have been dozens of books written about KISS. Some of them were even written by associates or former associates of the band.

But Sealed With A Kiss paints a picture from the perspective of someone who was so much more. Lydia Criss was once married to drummer Peter Criss.

The book even has a story. The author decided to self-publish Sealed With a Kiss after being turned down by several big name publishing companies. It's their loss. Lydia Criss has an interesting story to tell and a unique way of doing so. It's especially true because her book reads more like a family photo album than a tell-all (which it is not).

This story — her story — starts with life prior to KISS, including her early relationship/marriage to Peter Criss. She follows this early glimpse by covering the band’s rise to stardom … and then megastardom … and the end of her marriage.

Love and heartbreak but no regret fill her triumphant story.

Lydia Di Leonardo could be best described as an outgoing New York teenager when she met aspiring drummer Peter Criscoula. He played in a variety of bands and as a fill-in drummer to earn a living.

The two married in 1970, and Lydia helped to support their household as her husband continued to struggle in the music industry. But all that was destined to change as Peter Criss formed a band with ambitious singer/rhythm guitarist Stanley Eisen (Paul Stanley) and uber ambitious bassist Gene Klein (Gene Simmons). They would be joined by lead guitarist Paul Frehley (Ace Frehley).

From Wicked Lester (clip below) to KISS, Lydia recounts the band’s lean years when virtually nobody showed up to hear them play except for Lydia herself and a few close friends. As hard as it is to imagine, the original KISS Army was nothing more than a family affair.

It was hard work that eventually paid off for KISS when their stage makeup and electrifying live performances attracted as much attention as their music. Something was happening and it was the right time for it to happen. And it wasn't very long before Criscoula, a.k.a. Peter Criss, was on a meteoric rise to super stardom.

Lydia attended most of their shows, helped to make their costumes, and even handcrafted what were probably the first KISS T-shirts to feature the band’s name in glitter. But amazingly enough, she doesn't plow through many dirty secrets.

Sealed With A Kiss is like owning Lydia's scrapbook.

She shares her experiences by showing thousands of never before seen unpublished photos (most she took herself) and scraps of memorabilia (plane tickets, show tickets, correspondence). Some of these items may never be seen again. But I did find a few KISS collector finds, mostly backstage passes and old tickets, at Wolfgang's Vault.

Highlights of the book also include some excellent photos of the band showing how their makeup and costumes evolved from primitive to polished as well as behind-the-scenes photos of the band at rest and at play. But in between some of it, you will get glimpses into Peter Criss’ nagging depression and insecurity. Lydia shares it all with class and only because it's part of her story — and it is her story — not a true KISS biography.

Most diehard KISS fans already know how her story turns out so it's hardly a spoiler. At the pinnacle of stardom, Peter Criss leaves Lydia for a Playboy model, who ends up dumping him for someone else anyway. Sadly, Lydia is left with a pile of bills and understandable anger before eventually rising above it to find success as a photographer. You can find out what she is doing on her Website at Lydia Criss.

Sealed With A Kiss by Lydia Criss Rocks In With An 8.1 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The book is pricy, with various resellers offering it up around $50 per copy. But this isn't your ordinary book. It measures 10”x12” in size and weighs in at just under 5 pounds. There are 360+ pages and the memorabilia tucked inside will feel like uncovering a lost treasure of the real KISS, at least seen through her eyes.

As a longtime KISS fan, it has quickly become one of the most fascinating reads I've ever stumbled across. There are only a few places to find Sealed With A Kiss, including Amazon. You don't even have to be a member of the KISS Army to appreciate it either. Lydia's story offers an intriguing look at the lifestyle that comes with being married to a rock star.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Joy Formidable Makes A Big Roar

The JOy FormidableThere is something undeniably earthy about the pop-rock delivered up by Welsh-raised, London-based The Joy Formidable. No matter that their time on stage was cut down from what the band was due, many people at SXSW discovered the deep-seeded charismatic energy of Ritzy Bryan (vocals, guitar), Rhydian Dafydd (bass, backing vocals), and Matt Thomas (drums, percussion).

Although without the feedback rained down during live performances, The Big Roar is an album that makes them a heavy-rotation standard for anyone who enjoys vibrant pop vocals set on fire with immensely heavy guitar textures.

It's almost unbelievable that Bryan and Dafydd grew up in the rural Welsh countryside. Until you find out that someone's parents liked to play music loud. The it all comes together after that. Once they drop their soft smiles, they play with feral veracity.

The Big Roar was written in retreat, much like the original tracks.

After spending less than six months together, they duo stomped out enough material for their first album. Their first single was released in 2008, which was followed up by an eight-track EP filled with what they love — dirty, loud, rhythmic guitars and thick bass lines.

"Some of them start [with acoustics]. Some start just as lyrics, some as drumbeats, guitar riffs. We swap up the way that we write all the time," Bryan said in an interview with Clash Music. "Some of it comes from Rhydian first, some of it comes from me first and some of it comes literally from just pissing about in rehearsal."

The reason Whirring seems so big is it breaks up the monistic expectations of a pop song, allowing it to break into a full-fledged heavy hemorrhaging of gutsy indie-infused rock. It builds, breaks down, builds again, and climaxes. We picked the live version to capture the electricity of the band, but the animated video is big fun to watch too.

Everything about The Big Roar works too. Their escapes to a small London apartment in between a heavy tour session paid dividends. Starting with the epic near 8-minute The Everychanging Spectrum Of A Lie through the broody, low-tone belts of The Greatest Light Is The Greatest Shade, there's not a track to skip.

A few early breakthroughs are redone.

While anyone who loved A Balloon Called Moaning, it's obvious some of the tracks are the same and different at the same time. Basically, they reworked how some of them play after picking up four years of experience on the road and whole lot more raw energy. My favorite off the album is easily I Don't Want To See You Like This with its downplayed chorus and powerful lyrics.

A few people didn't care for the shoegaze-grunge hybrid as the Guardian called it, but writing from the small confines of a cubicle is a bit different than standing in the sweaty enclave of a concert hall anytime Bryan starts beating on her guitar. Ahem, Guardian reviewer. Get out more.

I won't go so far in the other direction as to overindulge in review lines that claim everybody else is mediocre. We seem to find some gems in the heap (some weeks tougher than others). But even among those that sparkle, few are as strikingly steady enough to be a triumph like The Big Roar.

The Joy Formidable Cracks With A Roaring 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Joy Formidable is a brisk and dangerous exercise in sweeping anyone who listens under wave after wave of heavily played riffs that seldom slow down. Trust me on this. Anybody who sees them live will develop an addiction. Your best chance to catch them stateside is right now. They are touring from coast to coast through April 29 before returning to London and then hitting their hometown with an additional concert in Germany.

The Big Roar can be downloaded from iTunes or from the link to Amazon. Barnes & Noble also carries The Big Roar. File it under someone to watch in 2011. They leave a mark.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Paprika Designs Some Striking Summer Dresses

Paprika blouseThere is a fashion design boutique in the United Kingdom that only a few people in the United States have heard about. But much like Los Angeles sometimes offers counterculture to more sophisticated New York fashions, this design boutique and others like it outside London are picking up a better vibe than the catwalks.

In short, several independent British designers are working to create more unconventional styles, fusing vintage techniques and modern styles together. By doing so — adding more fun and flow to fashion — they're making Armani's vision from a few years ago a little more functional and well within reach.

Paprika, which was founded in 2008, provides the example. This design boutique pored over some of the latest designs and then added some throwback techniques into the mix. And much like Vintage Havana did with its spring line, Paprika designers seem to have a good sense for what people want — simple summer dresses with just enough detail to make them stunning, immediately eye catching.

Paprika Throws Back Summer Fashions.

There are two summer dress styles that turn heads. At least I think so. With the warmer weather in Los Angeles, I saw one of the designs this weekend and assumed it was vintage. It wasn't. It was shipped overseas from Paprika.

Paprika Frill DressRelaxed Casual With Detail. Picking up on the demand for more relaxed fits, Paprika has several dresses that flow. While simplifying the design with a form-fitting jersey top and scoop neck, the summer dress has a chiffon frill skirt with detail that adds textures instead of patterns to make it work. Matched with a leather jacket in spring, it looks sharp while remaining casual. (94% poly, 6% elastane, about $47 U.S.)

And much like the understated ruffles add dimension to the frill dress, Paprika also has a laser petal dress that captures the same look with more color options. The detail work includes a petal design from the shoulders and down along the neckline. It also comes in on the bottom, negating any hint of a hemline. It ties above the waist. (100% poly, about $55 U.S.) Available colors include beige, white, cream, and black (coral is already sold out).

Form Fitted With Simplicity. Paprika still captures the look with its knot front jersey dress. The detail work includes small horizontal pleats at the hips. But what makes the dress stand out is the neckline and sleeves, with one side sleeveless and the other pleated, creating the illusion of a wrap. (95% viscone/5% elastane, about $35 U.S.)

If you want something with more color, Paprika also has a simple form-fitted floral cup dress. Inspired by the Sixties, the design places the cut where it matters most. While it's difficult to see in the pictures, there is a front panel that adds shape to the dress. (100% cotton, about $47 U.S.)

Paprika also carries almost two dozen tops (top) that include some of the same design principles. Several are cut long enough to wear as a day dress or be matched with short shorts and skirts or pants.

While Paprika has a long delivery window — up to five weeks for international orders (considerably less time in the U.K.) — the wait is worth it. Since Paprika is still somewhat new to the United States, there isn't much chance of running into someone wearing the same dress or top at a summer concert or weekend lunch.

Paprika Summer Dresses Stun At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There isn't anything not to like about Paprika. Do keep in mind that like many U.K. boutiques, there are some order limitations. This one limits orders to three items or less, and less than £150 (about $250 U.S.). Shipping is handled by Royal Mail, which requires a signature. On mainland U.K., check for special free shipping offers.

You can order Paprika designs right from Paprika, connecting direct from the links above or by visiting their new in section. The store has a 14-day return policy, provided you're responsible for anything you might return.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Disappears Makes Guider A Fuzzy Wonderment

DisappearsOne of the best things to come out of Chicago lately is the scuzzy hypnotic grooves of the Disappears. With nothing but heady, shoegaze guitars and a rhythm that rarely deviates from its naked essentials, they go one better than paying homage to the 1970s experimental krautrock scene. Disappears improves upon it without feeling a need to eschew the term.

It does everything you want the sound to do, with its post-psychedelic jamming, moody progressive rock, and experimental punkish pickups that trudge and chug along. It makes for some impressive music making, but plays even better live when the band breaks away from anything an audience might expect. They don't hold back.

An unapologetic experiment in propulsive sameness.

If anybody else would have put out Guider, it would have never worked. Compared to their first Kranky outing, Lux, Guider has narrowed to become even more incessant, especially in their delivery of the continuously even-handed nearly 16-minute long track Revisiting, cut in one take.

After being formed in 2009 by Brian Case (formerly 90 Day Men and currently The Ponys) and Graeme Gibson (formally Boas) who partnered to record the earliest songs written by Case, they added Jonathan van Herik (also Boas) and Damon Carruesco. When Gibson left to invest more time with The Fruit Bats, Case called Steve Shelley (formerly Sonic Youth), never expecting him to join. Shelley did, adding even more allure to the solid lineup.

"The idea is to get something going. To get to where the music becomes physical almost," Case said in an interview last year. "We call it the bliss-out part of the song–everything is going and it's just happening."

I don't hear too many people say this outside the Beat Generation with jazz (and maybe Bardo Pond). But the Disappears don't just talk about it. They actually do it, sometimes in no time at all. Of the five shorter songs, Superstition is packed tightly in under two minutes. The shortness not only makes it a success, it also leaves everyone wanting more.

Superstition is one of a dozen examples of what Case means when he talks about trying to make these songs physical. The repetitive beats wash over, building and building until you want them to explode. They never do. They just build up the tenseness and flow from one track to the next.

Along with Superstition, Not Romantic and the title track, Guider, are among the strongest, all for their driving steadiness. Halo is okay and New Fast is tired. There are five more songs expected to be out soon, most of them played during their European tour in February. They will be releasing them (get this) on cassette before weeding out which ones will land on some future LP.

Guider Disappears In All The Right Ways With 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Disappears is the kind of band you put on anytime you want to hear something that sounds like nobody else. Even from my own take that they're a little bit krautrock and a little bit punk, they really aren't any of it. They just play until they get "it."

You can pick up Guider at iTunes. Amazon has Guider and Barnes & Noble also carries the album. They will be playing Chicago on March 22. I'm watching for their next LP.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Despair Colors The Last Child By John Hart

John HartJohnny and Alyssa Merrimon were much like any 12-year-olds. They were full of hope and their lives were full of happiness. But all that changed on the day when Alyssa was abducted. It changed everyone.

Her father would abandon the family, seemingly unable to cope with the blame of not having picked her up from school. Her mother would turn to self-medication, combinations of oxycontin, cocaine, and whatever happened to pour from the bottle. The detective assigned to the case became obsessed, distancing himself and destroying his own family in the process.

Their lives would be turned upside down again as they relive the tragedy when another girl goes missing one year later. Except this time, things are different. Despite his age, Johnny Merrimon isn't content to sit on the sidelines. He has been working the county for months, peeking in windows, listening to conversations, and taking notes. The only question is whether he has enough to find the predator.

The Last Child weaves together a triple mystery against a stopwatch.

Time is running out for everyone. It's running out for Detective Clyde Hunt because his career is headed toward a crashing end. It's running out for Katherine Merrimon, whose drug abuse and destructive relationship will eventually force Johnny Merrimon into child services. It's running out for convict Levi Freemantle, who seems to be tied to the unspeakable crimes. And it's running out for Alyssa Merrimon and Tiffany Shore, the second abductee.

North CarolinaThe story isn't so much a detective mystery as a literary work that explores the darkness of the human heart and how far people will go to protect their secret and sometimes sinister twisted desires, including vengeance masquerading as justice or righteousness. Laid bare, the story borders on the horrific. But colored with richly vivid characters, author John Hart breathes compassion into each primary character, drawing out some empathy or perhaps pity for everyone except the monsters.

There are plenty of monsters in the story. Even those who have no connection to the abducted are hellbent on exerting their control over other people, giving themselves a sense of glorified power. They believe, somehow, they are in control of not only their destiny, but the destinies of others as well — a failing even the protagonists suffer from time to time.

A little bit about the author who pulls the strings of despair.

Born in Durham, N.C. and now living in Rowan County, where he draws inspiration, John Hart is also as much of a contrast as the socio-economic classes that clash in his books. He has worked as a banker, stockbroker, and attorney, but also as a teak sander, helicopter mechanic, and bartender.

John HartHe gave up all those other careers to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist after failing to write stories part time in the mornings or late at night. The result was his first book, the acclaimed The King Of Lies. The Last Child is his third book, which has already won an Edgar Award for best novel 2010 and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for 2009.

Where Hart does exceptionally well is in his ability to play on the mechanism of classic mystery — giving you enough foreshadow to guess at whom might be tied to any number of treacherous twists — but then pulling every thread away. They aren't even twists sometimes as much as an author purposefully laying bait. What remains most interesting even though it is at times overwhelming is how every character suffers in despair.

The Last Child By John Hart Is Bleakly Entertaining At 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Not everyone will enjoy a book that is cut from several genres, but some of the more conspicuous criticisms are well off the mark. For example, some could argue that Johnny witnessing a murder was an overreaching coincidence that gives too much away. That's not true, really. It doesn't give him any real clues, but it does give him a refreshed sense of urgency.

However, some other points are valid. Stereotypes and prose sometimes get away from Hart, allowing characters to pound some points over and over again. Hunt's observations of how he sees the Merrimon boy is one. The way the boy's friend continuously pleads is another. But overall, these are small annoyances that can be brushed aside.

The Last Child by John Hart is available from Amazon. Barnes & Noble also carries the book. Scott Sowers narrates the audiobook on iTunes.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Western Hymn Climbs Up From The Underground In Olympia

Western HymnNot everyone has heard the power punk LP released by Western Hymn last year. It was a self-released vinyl record with a limited run of 300. Their tour was handled much in the same way. They played in basements and pizzerias. Their gear was broken. Some of it was vintage.

The same can be said about the Olympia-based lineup: Western Hymn is made up of Craig Extine (guitar, vocals), formerly of Old Haunts; Sarah Utter (bass, vocals), formerly with Bangs, and Kris Cunningham (drums), formerly with Couch of Eureka but also in I'm A Gun. Starting with Extine and Utter, they began playing when and where they wanted before bringing Cunningham in along for the ride.

As some people might know, Bangs had broken up when Utter moved to Los Angeles and Old Haunts had faded into the background after their last album didn't have enough bite. Not many people can say that with the release of Out Of The Way by Western Hymn.

Western Hymn climbs up from the underground.

With the help of K Records, Western Hymn has already received a lukewarm reception. Expect it to grow hot. Western Hymn is only hindered in that they were so far underground that no one outside of the Northwest (and maybe Olympia) even knew they existed. How far underground? Check out this performance.

While the venue doesn't do much to catch the snarls or what the trio has taken to calling a thundering guitar propulsion, it does demonstrate where Western Hymn is placing the emphasis. It's all about the music, no matter where they play.

Out Of The Way is a winner from start to finish.

All four tracks off the EP are winners. Underground wins with its consistent pounding, Extine's steady vocals backed by Utter's chorus response. Along with Underground, Out of the Way scores with its murky undertones, Take This Weight with its funky beat, and Life Is Strange with strangled, clipped guitar riffs tucked in between the choruses.

The band dishes out several under 2-minute clips in its MySpace arsenal, all of it underscored by Extine's scratchy voice. But even more than sharp-sided songs, the band comes together with two strong lead guitars, even if one of them has traded it in for the bass.

Western Hymn is good enough that we hope it sticks. Extine is known for two things beyond his music. He always attracts dynamic musicians to perform with him and he is always in a state of change. Utter often has plenty to work on too. She is equally well known for her painting and design work, and never let herself get boxed in by critics.

Out Of The Way By Western Hymn Uncovers A 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Scale.

Maybe it's because the band is currently under covered or slowly clawing its way toward larger venues down the West Coast, mostly in Washington, but we've added Western Hymn to the watch list. We're not alone. Weekly Volcano reader called them the best indie band in Olympia during their Best of Olympia party.

Out Of The Way is on iTunes. You can find Out of the Way and Underground on vinyl at Amazon. The album was released in March, but was initially released to K Records subscribers in September.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

PEZ, The Ultimate In Low-Tech Iconic

Vintage PEZIs it candy or is it a gadget? If you ask PEZ Candy, Inc., it's candy. But if you ask collectors, they’ll say it's a gadget.

They are simple, elegant, low-tech candy gadgets. PEZ has a long and interesting history. It made its debut 83 years ago as a peppermint in Vienna, Austria. That's how inventor Eduard Haas III came up with a name for his candy. PEZ is an abbreviation of sorts of the German word for peppermint: pfefferminz.

Haas had a purpose and so did his candy.

Haas was not a fan of smoking and he envisioned PEZ as a substitute for lighting up, with the added hygienic factor of a dispenser that could hold the candies. His original dispenser, which looks an awful lot like a cigarette lighter, is known by collectors around the world as a “regular.”

As a candy, it did well enough. Haas was able to expand into the U.S. market, figuring children would be a good target market. But in order to capture their attention, he needed to evolve his product. The first evolution was changing the flavor of the candy from peppermint to fruit flavors. And the next was making the dispenser look more like toys.

The earliest creations feature characters like Casper the Friendly Ghost. But the idea really took off in the 1960s after PEZ struck an agreement with Walt Disney to use characters such as Mickey Mouse on the dispensers.

A myth and the magic of PEZ.

It used to be that PEZ would never make character heads that were based on real people. But there were some exceptions. The first few included Betsy Ross, Daniel Boone and Paul Revere, made in the 1970s to celebrate the bicentennial. They didn't look anything like their namesakes, but nobody really knew or cared.

In recent years, PEZ has added a few figures that enthrall some audiences. The likeness of Elvis, the dudes from Orange County Choppers, and all the characters from the Wizard of Oz, among them. But the next evolution wasn't about the heads as much as something else.

In 1989, PEZ added what are known as “feet” to the dispensers. The little tabs on the bottom of the dispensers were designed to make them more stable. Some flavors were also retired. Favorites such as apple, lime and less popular flavors like coffee are all gone. But the retiring of a few flavors hasn't slowed production or fan appreciation.

Some quick stats on PEZ production.

The PEZ plant in Orange, Connecticut, operates 24 hours a day. More than 3 billion candy "bricks" are eaten in the United States every year. It's anyone's guess how many are eaten worldwide. You can do the math if you like. More than 65 million dispensers are sold every year, all manufactured overseas.

Captain HookThe reason PEZ became an iconic collectible is simple enough. More than 1,000 different dispensers have been made over the years and some were produced in painfully limited runs. Having a rare PEZ dispenser or one people could readily identify with makes them magical enough to appear from time to time in movies and television shows, including one unforgettable moment on Seinfeld.

The rarest of them all, of course, are now worth thousands of dollars. One dispenser recently sold on eBay for more than $6,200. It's one of the reasons collectors continue to seek out any hard-to-find and “misfit” dispensers for their collections while watching for new heads to roll off the assembly lines.

PEZ Clicks In With A Perfect 9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

One of the better finds in recent years was Warman's PEZ Field Guide: Values & Identification (Warman's Field Guides Pez: Values & Identification) from Amazon. The second edition by Shawn Peterson is perhaps one of the best books for values and identification. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble.

You can learn more about the Haas family here. From time to time, you can also find special collections on sites like Amazon. Currently, Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs Pez Gift Set is available. So are PEZ Sourz Candy Refills and PEZ Cola Candy Refills. And the official PEZ site is the best place to keep track of what's next.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Middle Brother Brings Goldsmith, McCauley, Vasquez Together

Taylor Goldsmith, John McCauley, and Mathew VasquezMaybe it's all in the band living up to its name, but Middle Brother has been largely overlooked since Partisan Records released the band's self-titled debut. Or, perhaps it's just because the band members continuously write its existence off, reminding would-be fans that the name gives a nod at how they'll treat the project — like a neglected middle brother.

Consisting of three singer-songwriters who front other groups — Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), John McCauley (Deer Tick) and Mathew Vasquez (Delta Spirit) — Middle Brother is not a side project as much it's a side-by-side project. Prior to entering the studio together, the collaboration was not much more than impromptu jam sessions between three performers, most notably at last year's SXSW under the moniker “MG&V.”

Goldsmith, McCauley, And Vasquez fire up a brilliantly abused collaboration.

“The more we thought about it, the more we realized that Middle Brother’s existence is dictated by the scheduling of the other three bands,” said Goldsmith in a recent interview. “So, to me, the band exists in the same space as that stereotypical, neglected middle brother.”

There are the one off-stylings of all three bands to consider too. Goldsmith's band is known for its rootsy, country-fused melodic rock off Dawes' North Hills. Vasquez leans toward soulful alternative with the Delta Spirit's History Down Below. And McCauley's Deer Tick is ragged indie folk rock, with only its latest, More Fuel For The Fire EP, drifting deeply into southern country alt rock.

Middle Brother bridges them all, with leanings toward Deer Tick. It's hard not to lean in that direction given McCauley's raw, powerful, and distinctive voice. The uptempo rocker Me, Me, Me, and painfully powerful lament Daydreaming, with McCauley at the lead, best illustrates the point.

That's not to suggest Goldsmith and Vasquez don't deliver the goods. As a duet between the pair and McCauley dropping back, Blue Eyes is an unforgettable even-handed folk rocker. Goldsmith shines in Middle Dollar Bill and Wilderness. But even better than the album are their live performances.

Middle Brother plays best where it started ... out on the open road.

All three musicians are known for their commanding stage presences, but when they perform together it feels less like a collaboration and much more like an unplanned happening, just as they did before adopting the Middle Brother moniker. At times, all three might even switch up on the songs. They had a similar approach in the studio, structuring the songs to play to each of their strengths.

The collaboration even has an historic element as all three of the singer-songwriters are at potent moments in their careers. All three are attracting solid followings for their respective bands. And sometimes, when touring together, it's not uncommon for the singers to pull double duty, adding on Middle Brother songs after both bands have performed on their own.

Middle Brother Blends The Best Of Three Frontmen At 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Middle Brother has tours scheduled through April, including two shows at SXSW on March 18 and 19. The band has also added a free Middle Brother app on iTunes. The app includes twelve tracks from the album, six videos, tour dates, and even a self-contained fan wall. Watch for a special release sometime soon too. There are a few tracks that remain unreleased.

While the app is a great introduction, the album includes the bonus track and more versatility to add it to playlists. You can find the Middle Brother debut on iTunes. Middle Brother is also on iTunes and the debut can be found at Barnes & Noble.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Razor's Edge Closes On 70 Years

The Razor's Edge"Rise, awaken, seek the wise and realize. The path is difficult to cross like the sharpened edge of the razor (knife), so say the wise." — Katha Upanishads

The epigraph inside the book The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham bears a slight variation from the text, but the meaning is no less an intriguing thread that weaves throughout the story of a World War I American fighter pilot. Instead of conforming to prevailing social norms of affluent social circles, Larry Darrell sets out to find the meaning of life.

It's mostly told through the starkly contrasting view of his friends and associates as they interact with the author, who not only recounts the story but is also an active participant and detective of sorts. He prompts questions to better understand everyone.

Among the principal characters he interacts with are Elliott Templeton, a good natured elitist snob; Isabel Bradley, a vivacious and charming young woman at the start; Gray Maturin, a hardworking businessman and childhood friend; and Sophie MacDonald, a quiet and plain girl who eventually becomes self-destructive. There are several others. But besides Darrell, these four have the most impact on the story.

The Razor's Edge is a triumph in redefining courage.

While it is all too easy to cast the story as a rejection of materialism, a more appropriate accounting of the book is the rejection of conformity for a higher purpose. It also warns against placing too many expectations on people or even your own life. Most of the central characters struggle in their pursuit of the status quo, while Darrell discovers a simpler, less stressful but more strident path.

Darrell makes his choice after being changed by an incident in World War I and returning to America. Waiting for him are expectations. Maturin expects him to join his family's business. Bradley expects that they will marry. And Templeton sets the social standard for which they (and everyone) ought to ascend.

But Darrell has other plans. After pushing off job opportunities and his pending engagement for two years — masking studies as mere loafing — he decides to travel abroad, living on a meager pension and searching for purpose in his life. He initially asks Bradley to join him, but she rejects the idea in favor of having nice things, wearing fancy clothes, and having fun. (The truth is that she is too scared to give up her sense of security to follow him.)

Darrell sets out without her, first living plainly in Paris as a scholar of sorts but then taking jobs as a coal miner, farmer, and spiritual student. The others pursue their expected paths with Templeton climbing the social ladder; Maturin and Bradley marrying; and MacDonald settling down.

Life is rarely so simple. Each of the characters face life-changing challenges that make them question their sense of self-worth as they have defined it. As Templeton ages, he struggles to retain his standing while society aims to cast him aside. The stock market crash destroys the security and status that Maturin and Bradley pursued. A car accident kills MacDonald's husband and child. And only the author and Darrell manage to remain constant, with Darrell's path taking him to India.

However, the theme of the story is not to bludgeon materialism. Despite their varied paths, most of the characters' destinations are not disastrous (although some arguably deserve worse fates and others happier endings). Maugham expertly drafts a tale that isn't judgmental. Everyone gets what they want, but it is debatable whether everyone wants what they get.

A brief about the author and film adaptations.

W. Somerset MaughamW. Somerset Maugham was an English author, playwright, and screenplay writer; one of the highest paid and most notable of his generation in the 1930s. He had written several significant works. In fact, The Razor's Edge was considered a departure for him, especially because he told the story as told to him through American eyes. In doing so, the story paints a compelling picture of multiculturalism as well.

The book was adapted twice: first in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney and then in 1984 starring Bill Murray. The latter, perhaps unjustly, suffered critical ridicule as Murray's first dramatic role.

Murray had incredible passion for the project: writing the screenplay with director John Byrum, including a farewell speech to friend John Belushi in the script; and taking a hiatus from acting after the film's disappointing reception and financial disaster. However, everyone here thinks it is worth its own review another time.

The Razor's Edge By W. Somerset Maugham Crosses 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The book bears little resemblance to the movie, which is told exclusively from Larry Darrell's point of view and with abundant adaptation license. The book is shared mostly from Maugham's point of view and he mostly attempts to remain objective. His connection is mostly to Templeton, to whom the other players are tied. The book itself is very likely based on the life of American mining engineer Guy Hague.

The Razor's Edge is available from Amazon and the book is available from Barnes & Noble. iTunes carries an audio version of The Razor's Edge, read by Michael Page with brilliant authenticity as if Maugham himself were telling the tale. The Razor's Edge 1984 is available to rent on iTunes, but Columbia Pictures has yet to offer the digital for sale. (You can, however, find the DVD on those sites offering the book.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Dum Dum Girls Get High With You

Dee Dee PennyWith the band name that plays homage to The Vaselines and Iggy Pop, what began as a solo project for singer-drummer Kristin Gundred a.k.a. Dee Dee Penny continues to find a fuzzy garage noise pop following since Penny expanded the band in 2008. She picked the right ones.

Right on the heals of the successful 11-track LP with Jules (guitar, vocals), Bambi (bass), and Frankie Rose (drums) who left last June, Sub Pop dropped another 4-track EP with the band's new drummer Sandy a.k.a. Raveonettes vet Sandra Vu. The EP, He Gets Me High, includes three new tracks and a twangy higher tempo cover of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out by The Smiths.

The new EP was produced by Penny, Richard Gottehrer, and Sune Rose Wagner (Raveonettes). It sounds great despite knowing that it will mark the end of the early chapter in the band's career. The Dum Dum Girls' tour was interrupted last year after Penny's mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. What's ahead will be different than what some expect.

"The songs on the EP were the last songs that I had that weren't affected by [losing her mom]," Penny has said. "[The next album is] going to be a pretty dark, sad record. The tone of it is pretty intense."

As the one goes, so goes the band. Even with the change on drums, the band is known for its tightly knit sound. It's easy to see in their live performances, like this solid fan capture of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out cover. (Penny's notes also pick up lower tones in live sessions.)

Almost everyone says the same thing about the cover. They don't expect to like it, but the Dum Dum Girls do an amazing job honoring the way The Smiths' played it while making it their own. It's gold.

So are all of the other tracks. Wrong Feels Right is as strong as anything put out on last year's I Will Be. Take Care Of My Baby drops down the tempo into a deliberate, languishing ballad. And, my favorite, the driving melodic and psychedelic He Gets Me High. The throwback, modernized sound demonstrates the increasing depth of a band that Penny never meant to be a band.

You would never know it based on their stage presence. As soon as they take the stage, it's like somebody hits a switch. You can tell Gottehrer has some influence on the on stage performances as he does in the studio. The strident energy they bring to the stage reminds everyone why they are sudden but deserving Los Angeles-based headliners.

He Gets Me High By The Dum Dum Girls Ratchets Up At 7.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Sometimes living in Los Angeles has its privileges. One of them is catching bands before they hit an upward climb. The Dum Dum Girls are much like that for me, knowing they can hypnotize everyone standing in front of the stage with their rhythmically forceful performances.

Right now the Dum Dum Girls are on tour in the southern states and swinging up Florida before heading abroad. Expect big buzz in Europe. He Gets Me High is available on iTunes. You can also find He Gets Me High on Amazon, which also carries vinyl. The Dum Dum Girls' EP is also at Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mesrine: Killer Instinct Is A Wild Ride

MesrineWhile some critics dinged the episodic rough ride offered up by part one of the two-film biopic based on Jacques Mesrine's (may-reen) autobiography, the French flick carries a gritty rawness fitting of the period. And the roughness of it all lends well to capturing the character of this circa 1960-70s outlaw tied to 32 bank heists and several maximum security prison breaks (for starters).

There are plenty of people to credit in this film, but much of the praise belongs to French actor Vincent Cassel (Black Swan). His portrayal is galvanizing in that he makes Mesrine ruthless with threats, aloof in murder, believable in his conviction, and even honorable and compassionate when the mood strikes him. At times you feel sympathetic, until being reminded he is a killer.

The slash and hack story of Jacques Mesrine

The film, subtitled for Americans, is based largely on L'Instinct de Mort, which was written by Mesrine and published two years before his death. That is not to say that the film doesn't take some liberties, such as placing one arrest in Texas or Arizona as opposed to Fulton, Ark. But regardless, the first installment spans his life from 1956 to 1969.

With the exception of showing us how it all ends, the film mostly starts while Mesrine still serving in the French Army during Algeria's war for independence. He then returns to France and begins a career as a burglar and bank robber. He doesn't go it alone. He joins childhood friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) and Guido (Gérard Depardieu).

At first blush, the early criminal introduction is caper-esque as Mesrine convinces an elderly couple, who walk in while their home is being burgled, that he and Paul are police investigating a crime that has already occurred. The same can be said for the memorable, tensely comedic meeting between him and Guido. And again when he earns the affection of his future wife Sophia on the dance floor.

The counterbalance is rough and violent. He callously stabs and buries someone while still alive. He threatens to places a gun in his wife's mouth after she protests his return to crime. He kills two rangers in Canada without remorse or blinking an eye.

The film is equally abrupt at times.

The abrupt scene changes are jarring at times. Neither writer Abdel Raouf Dafri nor director Jean-François Richet seem to have any patience for builds, which is where all the episodic complaints germinate. Perhaps the most abrupt introduction is of Jeanne Schneider (Cécile De France), the Bonnie to his Clyde.

It's 1966 Paris and Mesrine walks into a bar. He randomly meets Jeanne who says she is ready for anything. Blip. They rob a nightclub. Blip. They've become a couple. Blip. They flee to Canada. And so on. Sure, it is jarring and yet somehow it fits.

Mesrine is equally adept with charm and brutality. He can flip the switch anytime, unabashed at making it his world.

The real life Jacques Mesrine.

Jacques MesrineThe real Mesrine was equally complicated. Perhaps it would not be unfair to describe him as an intelligent psychopath who won over the media with a relentless justification. He frequently told them he was mostly interested in exploiting those who exploited others.

Although it makes him sound more noble than he was, there may be some truth to it. Mesrine didn't seem to be chasing money as much as the means he used to get it. While not in the film, he did open a restaurant in 1966, but still robbed a jewelry store and hotel that same year. He was motivated by something else.

This is one of several reasons I've rolled my eyes at all the Dillinger comparisons. Dillinger frequently avoided fire fights and loathed killing. Mesrine seemed to look for them and had no remorse. Dillinger had no prospects for employment. Mesrine sought out crime. Dillinger was cold but approachable. Mesine was charming but with a temper like Tommy DeSimone.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct Breaks Out With A 6.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (originally L'instinct de Mort) took two years to make it to the United States, which is far too long. Still, the delayed U.S. release doesn't dull any fascination with the film. Mesrine is something to marvel at as an anti-hero without concern for consequence, thanks largely to Cassel, Richet, and cast.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct is available on iTunes. The second part, Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, will be available on March 21. Mesrine: Killer Instinct: Part 1 is also at Amazon and the film is available at Barnes & Noble. Some booksellers occasionally list L'Instinct de Mort, which is the book the film is based on (written in French).