Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chadwick Stokes Rails A Solo Debut

Chadwick StokesIt has been some time since I thought much about the Vermont jamsters Dispatch, best known for moving mellow to sublime. (Not since Bang Bang, anyway).

Back then, Brad Corrigan stood out as a clear lead vocalist, never really knowing that future lead singer and primary songwriter Chad Stokes Urmston would eventually front the Massachusetts-born alternative rock band State Radio in a few short years. So maybe it isn't any surprise from those already familiar with the unpredictability of Stokes that he would break away to produce something completely different as a solo debut.

The sound of the solo project is different; not the inspiration.

When some people first saw Simmerkane II, they set out to search for the debut only to discover Simmerkane II was a companion piece to State Radio's Simmer Kane EP (2004). The EP, however, wasn't especially well received so the band went on to produce other releases until the long-play breakthrough Let It Go.

But Chadwick (Chad) Stokes didn't let it all go. He began writing a set of songs inspired by his trek across America, hopping freight trains and crossing the country with his brother and cousin. It also might explain why State Radio hasn't produced much, releasing a few live compilations and a politically-volitle single.

“I had ridden the trains a little bit in the past for a day or two but I had never done it for weeks at a time,” Stokes says. “I discovered an America that I knew was out there but had limited experience with. There's all kinds of people out on the rails..."

As diverse as the people Stokes met along the way, Simmerkane II runs a bit hot and cold with a mix of Americana, country, folk, and rock that is a significant departure from State Radio. Still, what doesn't waver is Stokes' thoughtful and evocative lyrics. He is what he says. He's an artist who wants to explore more than market music.

Simmerkane II opens with more promise than it delivers.

As an odyssey, Simmerkane II opens with the three most powerful tracks on the album. Adelaide opens with a playable fuzz-ed folk rock. Crowbar Hotel captures the hard luck underground of America with its tight ramblings. And Back To The Races is a reflective composite of loss and regret, making anyone believe Stokes frequently re-imagines how life might have been.

After those three tracks, the album courts more variety that often works, but not nearly as much as the openers do. Insulin, for example, wavers between greatness and commonplace. Black Bottle and Ichabod And Abraham is are country-infused folk laments, with the latter deeper than the former. But others are feel like they're going through the motions or hit strong in the choruses but nowhere else.

Among the bonus tracks, Stokes fans like Coffee And Wine, but Don't Have You is the more emotive and moving of the three. All My Possessions weaves in some reggae stylings that State Radio fans are familiar with, but opens the door to second-guessing whether a different arrangement would have made it more powerful.

Simmerkane II By Chadwick Stokes Rails In At 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There's no question that Stokes is one of the most prolific DIY artists around. His contributions include the creation of Ruff Shod Records. He's also one of the most bullish in the music industry, noting that the industry might be a mess but not the musicians. He says there have never been so many great bands out there.

He's an artist. And while the entire Simmerkane II is best purchased by long-time fans (those who leave 5 stars on Amazon and iTunes), casual fans will find enough tracks worth rotation, especially those mentioned. Simmerkane II is available on iTunes. You can also order a CD or wait for the anticipated vinyl release. Download the album from Amazon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Layers Ease Into A Relaxed Fall

Women's Biker JacketNot everyone is ready for summer to be over, let alone shop for fall fashions. So I asked several friends what they were planning to do and they suggest easing into it all with layers.

Most are looking for mid-length dresses, mid-sleeve tops, or light jackets to add some life to summer tunics, which will eventually be traded in for warmer pants and dark denim. Just remember to keep it simple. Stick to light basics as a foundation to avoid too much bulk.

It also makes more sense to keep lighter foundations neutral, relying on accessories to provide a prop of color. The same can be said for textures. Anything with textures or more bulk will look better on the outside. The one exception is wearing a short jacket over a longer cardigan. (But honestly, I think it only works for smaller, slender women).

Three looks for fall foundations and layers from Free People.

Free People, which frequently carries more bohemian and vintage looks, is one of the better retailers who understands and appreciates layering. I covered them in late spring and early summer for a similar late spring season, giving summer fashions a reason to come out early.

About Town CardiFor fall, Free People has plenty of layered looks that work well together. One example is about town cardi. The cardigan is soft, light, and reduces bulk because it can be easily swept to the sides. The original design, with cropped sides, allows the bottom to be styled tied, and features two front pockets and button placket closure. It is made with cotton blends, and can be machine washed.

If you want something more dramatic or bohemian in its styling, the marled fringe cardigan provides significantly more pattern and sports a knotted fringe trim. It's cute, borrowing more from a pullover than a cardigan. The unlined outerwear is a blend of cotton, linen, acrylic, wool, and mohair. The only downside is its hand wash cold only instructions.

Cable TunicConversely, using something like the cable tunic as a foundation and then accenting it with the right jacket makes for a smart effect. The semi-sheer sweater tunic works as a dress with scoop neck front and deep v-neck back. But the v-neck makes it less wearable into the fall, unless you purchase a jacket. The one matched to the hero shot above is a tan biker jacket.

But other jacket styles might better match the different colors. For example, the jade green (one of this season's colors) might look better in black. Perhaps with an unzipped fleece jacket by Affliction or, for a completely different look (sticking with a more neutral tunic), a Sacha military jacket by Marrakech, which can be found at the National Jean Company.

Always keep in mind that most layered looks work for thinner women. Women with curves have a greater need to accentuate their waistlines. The examples I used keep things simple, focusing on layers. A third layer could be a scarf or small vest, taking care not to add too much girth in the middle.

Free People Layers And Foundations Stack A 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Layering has worked for a few years, especially as the days run hotter and the evenings cooler or if you have to move from the colder outdoors inside warmer stores or offices. But where layering requires some thought is in that it looks great, provided the layers are thought out for body size and the bottoms are kept reasonably slim. The point is to look comfortable, not bundled.

Free People frequently changes and adds to it's collection. For the newest fashions, look for the collection at Bloomingdales. The fleece jacket (about $108) can be found at Affliction and the Sacha military jacket by Marrakech (about $148) is at National Jean Company. Sometimes specific styles are limited, in which case any links will default to the storefront.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mona Shoots For The Moon

MonaNashville-bred Mona may have released a partial album (one-third of the full U.K. release) in the United States but that doesn't mean the U.K.-signed band is holding back elsewhere. The four-piece alt rock band has been busy in Europe, earning a headline tour off their self-titled debut album.

Stateside, expect only occasional glimpses. They have a West Coast mini-tour lined up in early October, but then head back to Europe for the remainder of the month.

All of it is leaving some reviewers impatient, especially those who have heard the full album and already know better tracks are yet to come. Well, some reviewers know it. A few trashed the band early.

A full release of the self-titled debut by Mona leaves a different impression.

As good as all four tracks on the EP are, there are several more on the full-length LP worth checking out, including Cloak & Dagger, Pavement, and Alibis. Those three tracks, along with All This Time, may rebuke some of the criticism (or perhaps fan the flames even more). But who really knows anymore?

Sure, there are similarities to other bands in terms of structure and the apparent largeness of production. But more and more, it seems it was frontman's Nick Brown's ill-conevieved comment (to be bigger than Bono) that drew some reviewers' ire and not the music. It begs the question what NME and the Guardian are thinking because they haven't listened to Kings of Leon or U2 lately.

Listen To Your Love was the first single released in the United States via Zoin Noiz Recordings. It is also the first track on the Mona EP. Where the vid does a fine enough job introducing the stylings of the band and their fascination with what they call the Golden Age of the United States, other tracks do better at capturing the bluesy undertones and vocal depth of Brown.

In addition to Listen To Your Love, check out Lines In The Sand over the more radio-freindly chump song Teenager or sometimes monotonous Trouble On The Way. Otherwise, stay tuned for everything else. Even some tracks that didn't appear on the LP like Brick Shoes are worth a listen. It might carry on too long in some parts, but demonstrates that Mona may be only a few steps away from a future breakthrough that the debut can only tease at.

Four guys who say a prayer before every live performance.

Along with Brown (vocals, keys, guitar), Mona includes Vince Guard (drums), Zach Lindsey (bass), and Jordan Young (guitar) make up Mona. Three of them grew up working crowds in church congregations, which might even hint at why they try too hard to shrug off their beginnings (at least in print). But underneath the packaging, there is the vibe that this band is willing to work for it.

Mona might be signed by Universal Island, but the band is very involved in the production. Brown says it's vital to ensure that big songs feel as big as they sound. It also keeps them connected to their roots, self-producing their early work in a basement that flooded every time it rained. All they want to make is honest music, he says.

Mona - EP Scratches Up 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There's clearly some brilliance to be had with Mona and more to come, provided they never get too caught up in producing what they want to avoid (something Brown calls "artistic bulimia"). One can only hope they feel the same way about "attitude bulimia." In other words, the band is cool except when they try too hard. But that's the way it goes with almost everyone.

You can find Mona - EP on iTunes. Or, if you can access the U.K. store, the Mona (deluxe version) includes all 12 tracks plus three videos. On Amazon, you can download the Mona - EP or order the self-titled LP import. Some people might do exactly that. With the U.K. more open to new music, it's a great place to start.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Playing Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay AsherWith the long-awaited release of a paperback edition and a film in the works by Universal Studios for 2013 (with Selena Gomez cast as Hannah Baker), Thirteen Reasons Why (a.k.a. Th1rteen R3asons Why) has been enjoying a resurgence and rediscovery among those who discovered it four years ago. Good.

The book, written by Jay Asher, is powerful. Even among those who hate the book, Thirteen Reasons Why leaves an imprint.

The love (and hate) for it is what makes it art, a daring and unconventional approach to story telling that sounds even better and more haunting as an audiobook, adding clarity to exactly how Baker might have told her story.

The book, like it describes poetry, contains puzzles within puzzles.

As a conversation starter, few books leave as much room open to be dissected, discussed, deconstructed, and applied to any number of messages that may or may not be found inside. Some people have given it an assignment to be about suicide, bullying, acceptance, trust, rumors, reputation, and any number of other topics that people bring with them.

Sure, there is wiggle room to discuss any of those topics as they relate to the book. But, to make the book about any of these things, people bring much more into it than what exists on the page. As literature, the root of the story is much simpler.

Police FileAsher himself has shared its meaning on several occasions. And, in his own voice, points to a single line or two by his character Hannah Baker: "No one knows for certain how much of an impact they have on the lives of other people. Often we have no clue."

This is important consideration, especially as it relates to discussions among early teens who read it. Because when its message is cast for any other purpose, it becomes misaligned.

Specifically, as a book about bullying, most wounds lack intensity. As a book about suicide, the reasons seem thin. As a book about acceptance, no one is truly shut out. And yet, Asher weaves together a story that can profoundly impact whatever characters someone might relate to, causing them to think about or even rethink their daily actions. Sometimes, even the smallest of them have consequences.

The intriguing and sometimes illuminating story of Thirteen Reasons Why.

On the surface, the premise is interesting if not straightforward. Baker commits suicide, but not before recording a series of cassette tapes that explain the course of events that led up to her decision. Her instructions for the recipients of theses tapes are specific.

Hannah's tapeIf you receive them, she expects, listen to them and discover the role you played, and then pass them along to the next person. If you don't listen to them or pass them along, a second set of cassettes will be released, incriminating everyone who she names, punishing them with public shame, embarrassment, or even criminal charges.

The principal action of the story is played out by protagonist Clay Jensen. He's a shy, bright, and likable California high school student who is surprised to discover a shoebox containing seven cassette tapes on his front doorstep. He then learns that he is one of the people on the list, even though he has no idea how or why she would have included him.

It's his tension, the anguish in not knowing how he fits within the context of her death, that immediately hooks the reader and drives the story forward. In addition to helping fill in Baker's story with insights and his insecurities, he provides the action as he visits various locations that she has marked out to give her story a physical presence — places like the park where she had her first kiss or the party that may have pushed her over the edge.

Her story, as well as the revelations made by Jensen, is more believable and intriguing as long as readers keep tragedy in check. As a character, Baker has nothing to learn and, even though she tells a story so that others may appreciate how the smallest of actions can carry consequences, she doesn't apply her own lesson before taking her life. She has little regard for how the tapes might impact the various people in them; some deservedly so and others questionably so.

Jay AsherIt's partly what makes the story both memorable and believable. Asher presents a character that is neither asking for forgiveness nor can be judged as her fate is sealed in the first few pages. She is already dead. And just as suicide is sometimes likened to selfishness so are the tapes she made to explain why she did it. For worse, not better.

In accepting this, the true protagonist of the story shines. Although two stories are being told at the same time, it is Jensen's story and what he might learn, feel, or react to that makes people pay attention.

Author Jay Asher worked at dozens of places before becoming an author, including as a shoe salesman and in libraries and bookstores. He originally thought of writing a book told by a character on a cassette after taking an audio tour. Originally, Baker was the protagonist until he discovered more about Jensen while writing the story.

Thirteen Reasons Why By Jay Asher Swings At 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

As a story is both beautiful and repelling, poignant in its ability to touch human emotion. It's even more powerful as an audiobook, because then the story plays out not on the printed page but exactly as it might have for Jensen.

Based on some reviews, the audio might even provide a more structured read, less confusing because Asher does switch back and forth between Baker and Jensen, sometimes as frequently as every few lines. In the audio version, what might not read as well in print makes perfect sense with alternating male and female voices.

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher is available on Amazon and you can find the book at Barnes & Noble. Thirteen Reasons Why is also on iBooks, but it's the audiobook that is even more striking. Read by Debra Wiseman and Joel Johnstone, the six-and-a-half hour story is hard to put aside, much like it was nearly impossible for Clay Jensen to put the tapes aside when he first received them. Highly recommended, even if you've read it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Soviettes Turn 10 With LP II

The SoviettesAfter ten years of being a definite punk rock girl band (plus Danny Henry) from Minnesota, the completely remastered rerelease of LP II couldn't have landed on a better week. LP II was a slamming sophomore album that received some attention but not nearly enough.

It was a shame it didn't get more. From front to back the album rekindles everything that was right about Berkeley-infused punk since its beginning in the 1990s, while adding in just enough pop punk to keep pace with the flavor of 2004. In other words, it retained the rawness that some pretend punks abandoned for more radio play.

So what happened? That is the question that Annie "Sparrows" Holoien (guitar, vocals), Maren "Sturgeon" Macosko (guitar, vocals), Susy Sharp (bass, vocals), and Henry (drums, vocals) have been asking themselves. Maybe it's best to stick with what Henry said in 2007. "I don't know why we broke up," he said, claiming it was relationships even though it had more to do with an aggressive summer tour schedule.

The Soviettes Reunite For Sporadic Shows And Outings.

What is more clear is why they reunited to play a few fests and similar shows. Initially, Ollie Mikse of Red Sound Records tracked the members down and asked if he could compile a rarities collection and revive the band name. Six months later, it was put out without much fanfare (mostly for good reason outside of a few tracks). The band's own words nail it down.

"Some of it is great, and some of it is totally embarrassing but it's honest," the band submitted with its release. "When we get together in March to play a few shows and have a party for the record, it will be the first time we'll all have been in a room together since the day we stopped playing."

Following the release, they did play in March and have some upcoming shows slated for California (San Francisco in August, Alpine Village and San Diego in September). For Adeline, the timing couldn't be better — a remastered release from the band it signed and then lost to Fat Wreck Chords made sense.

Just as I said then, never mind that most songs wrap in under two minutes. The Soviettes lend more power than most fit into a four-minute track. And, unlike many bands, first-time listeners will discover that the songwriting is just as strong as the musicianship.

While the vintage video #1 Is Number Two is catching some added attention, there are plenty of tracks worth checking out on LP II. Three of my favorites are Ten, Whatever You Want, and Goes Down Easy. The slow down on Tonight is also a nice change of pace, bordering on garage rock more than punk.

Across all of it, what stands out the most is their ability to have four individual personalities come through on a band effort. The same holds true when they perform live. All recent mentions suggest they sound like they never took a break. Two of them really didn't. Holoien and Henry continued to play for some time together in the band Awesome Snakes. But nowadays, all of them have different obligations and three are in other bands.

Holoien plays with The God Damn Doo Wop Band. Macosko plays in The Gateway District. Sharp is in That's Incredible. Of the three, That's Incredible has the most potential based on last year's EP. The Gateway District is good, but still needs to settle into a singular sound instead of two overlapping sounds. The God Damn Doo Wop Band is an alt doo wop band. It's different and it is too soon to tell. Check those out if you like. None of it sounds as good as the four of them together.

The Soviettes Remastered LP II Strikes 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

I've been toggling back and forth between the original release and the remastered one for a few days. The most discernible difference is that Adeline pushed up the vocals and cleaned up a few spots and punched up others. It works.

Along with LP II, the Rarities release does have some gems on the 18-track album. It's The Red, Matt's Song, Latchkey, are all worth the download. Good enough, in fact, that you might long for another outing.

Otherwise, pick up LP II on iTunes. If you want to dig up more there, search for Soviettes and The Soviettes. The original II is at Amazon. You can also find the 2004 version at Barnes & Noble. Double check the release dates to be safe, but generally the 2004 version is gray or orange. The new one is blue-green.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Milk + Bookies Is A Good Will Pick

Milk + BookiesAs children, it's something many of us took for granted. Even if we weren't immediately interested in the ones that lined our parents' shelves, many of us had books at home. They were there, like ever-present and sometimes dusty decorations.

Nowadays, we are even more likely to be among the exceptions. More and more children do not have or see books at home. So they can't take them for granted.

Of course, some people might immediately think the dwindling book supply can easily be dismissed because it relates to digital publishing. But that's not what I'm talking about. I mean that some children have no access to books at home, in any form.

The number of books at home is often a precursor to reading achievement.

According to the Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success, one recent literacy study conducted by researchers in Nevada and California shows that the number of books in a home directly predicts a child’s reading achievement. In fact, children growing up in homes with many books tend to attain three years more schooling than children from bookless homes.

The study suggests this is true regardless of their parents’ education and profession. More books trumps parental achievement.

While a lack of books at home in upper-income families may be a choice, the barrier for low-income families is price. The National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations, reports that nearly two-thirds of low-income American families do not own any books for their children.

Milk + Bookies turns the tables on bookless homes.

One Los Angeles mom, Meredith Alexander, noticed this problem too. But rather than file it away as an interesting statistic, she decided to do something about it. She founded Milk + Bookies in 2004.

Milk + Bookies is a national nonprofit organization that exposes young children to how great it feels to give back while celebrating their love of a good book. It took some time before the organization took off, but eventually it became a formidable 501 c 3.

The organization does much more than collect books and then distribute them to underprivileged children. It also blends philanthropy, literacy, and service learning. The concept is sound: providing a gift can be just as powerful for a donor as it can be for a recipient. It's especially true when the donors are children too.

It starts simply enough. A family hosts a Milk + Bookies birthday party in place of a traditional one. The birthday child, who probably doesn’t really need 20 new toys (he or she might be just as happy with the few from his parents) invites their friends to the party. Rather than requesting toys, they ask their peers to bring a new hardcover book in place of a gift.

At the party, guests inscribe bookplates (possibly sharing the reason they chose a specific book), affixing them in each book they’ve brought. The books are then donated to an organization that will be responsible for putting them into the hands of children in need right in the birthday child’s community.

The events aren't limited to birthday parties. Teens and college students can just as easily host an event at a bookstore or as a class project. In some cases, teens can even earn community service hours. The event host frequently supplies milk and cookies while others might solicit additional funds using Milk + Bookies donation letters.

The power of putting books in the right hands.

“It’s what we should be teaching our children, to use their imaginations instead of staring into a TV all the time,” says actor Josh Holloway, who is a long-time supporter of Milk + Bookies.

Milk + BookiesRecently, he spent time reading to children at Milk + Bookies’ March 2011 Second Annual Story Time Celebration at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The even collected more than 3,000 books that will be donated to children in the foster care system.

Holloway wasn't the only participant. Jack Black read to children at the event and brought along his son Sammy. Other supporters include Jennifer Garner, David Grohl (Foo Fighters), Chris Pine, Rainn Wilson, Jason Biggs, Marlon Wayans, Maya Rudolph, and Jim Carrey. The organization has also attracted the attention of corporate partners such as Scholastic, DreamWorks Studios, Gap, Simon & Schuster, Porsche, and City National Bank.

Milk + Bookies Is A Good Will Pick by Liquid Hip.

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.

We picked Milk + Bookies because more than 4,285 youth philanthropists have learned that picking up books and then sharing them with children who don't have books at home can make a difference. Together, these literacy champions have collected more than 21,500 books for children in need.

Even better, the success of these events is not contingent on having Jack Black turn out to read. Milk + Bookies events are best when future philanthropists reinforce their love for reading while helping others to discover literacy and education too. Milk + Bookies has several ideas on how to manage any event: birthday parties, class projects, specialty events. And if an event seems like more than you want to do, visit the organization's shop & donate page.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Little Barrie Strips Down Sensational

Barrie CadoganOriginally hailing from Nottingham, the London-based power trio Little Barrie has taken an undoubtedly long road to gain some respect for their stripped-down circa 50s garage rock groove. It certainly didn't help that the band took four years off between albums. But then again, maybe it did.

The band wasn't dead per se, just largely tucked away in the background while playing live with Primal Scream and backing other performers like Paul Weller and actress-singer Mareva Galanter. All that started to change when Virgil Howe, son of Steve Howe (Yes) joined Barrie Cadogan (guitar, vocals) and Lewis Wharton (bass, vocals) as the drummer in 2008.

After working on an album for nearly two years, Little Barrie is now putting faith in their 2011 release King Of The Waves. It hit Japan last December (where it was best received) and in the United Kingdom in June. In the U.S., the band has been mostly releasing it as a steady stream of singles.

“We’ve basically just been doing different things,” says Cadogan. “A bit of it’s been about a matter of personal survival, and also getting to the stage of finding somewhere we could work.”

All of the band members have other projects. Cadogan is now lead guitarist with Primal Scream. Wharton works as a DJ. And Howe also drums for Amorphous Androgynous. The multiple projects have paid off for the band. Their new work is light years better than their early work, especially Surf Hell, which recently became the theme song for the British comedy drama Sirens.

While Surf Hell plays fine as a single, it's the band's latest release that convinced us to take notice. The clean and deeper sound of How Come and the demo Don't Know You Like I Want are vibrant and straightforward, capitalizing on Cadogan's guitar licks and splitting up the lead on vocals.

Even more than Cadogen (who fronts the band most often), the biggest changeup from their sophomore release is the energy. I have to attribute that to Howe. He doesn't just lay down a drum beat like a new session player. He's actively part of the music.

Having a drummer who can drive the music forward is critical for any power duo or trio. If you doubt it, listen to the B-side, Precious Pressure, which slips in its effort to be more soulful. Even Wharton's bass can't keep it moving (like it does on the title track King Of The Waves). Point. Stick with How Come and Don't Know You Like I Want.

When the full release of King Of The Waves hits the U.S. in total, add Does The Halo Rust?, Now We're Nowhere (once it gets going), Dream To Live (for the funk), Money In Paper (for the change-ups), Tip It Over (for the lyrics), and I Can't Wait (for the energy). It's great to see Edwyn Collins working with this band again. He brings out the best in them.

Little Barrie's Upcoming King Of The Waves Swells To 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although the sophomore release Stand Your Ground received some praise, the contrast between that album and this one is almost startling. The primary difference is when you take this modernized throwback and clean it all up, it loses all its life. Between the studio and the visiting drummers in 2007, it might as well have been a different band. No matter. We really like this one.

King Of The Waves is available in the U.K. iTunes store. In the U.S., download the singles Surf Hell and How Come and show Little Barrie that they might have a few fans here waiting for the full release on this side of the pond. You can also pick it up King Of The Waves as an import from Amazon.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Denver Diversity Starts At Hotel Teatro

Hotel TeatroDriving around, it is almost hard to believe that Denver was virtually unsettled until the late 1850s. Even then, its true boom didn't start until 1870. In the 20 years that followed, it became the fifth-largest city west of the Mississippi in two decades.

Today, Denver (along with Aurora and Broomfield) is the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the West, retaining its post-gold rush population with a diversified economy. It's diverse in other ways too.

There is an authentic enthusiasm for arts, culture, and history. And the only way to appreciate it all the more is to pick a location in the heart of it.

Hotel Teatro captures the historic and artful charm of Denver.

Although most of Denver's frontier-era buildings were torn down in favor of progress, some have survived from the early 1900s. Hotel Teatro is one of them, restored to a modern classic by Astonbridge Partners and David Owen Tryba Architects in 1997 and remodeled again in 2008.

Originally, Hotel Teatro served as the Denver Tramway Building between 1911 and 1946 and as the nucleus for the University of Colorado at Denver until 1991. Upon completion 100 years ago, it was considered an architectural gem, combining Chicago-style office space and a traditional Renaissance Revival edifice.

Kevin TaylorSome of the finest details from its early years still remain. For example, Tennessee light pink marble flooring, Vermont green marble base, and white Arizona marble wainscoting still adorn the lobby. Located throughout the building, you can also find polished brass letter boxes and retired safe doors, paying homage to its history.

With 110 rooms, Hotel Teatro is truly boutique, with most rooms above the fifth floor offering views of the Rocky Mountains on one side and downtown Denver on the other. (Some may be obstructed by the towering Four Seasons across the street.) It's these views that put downtown Denver in perspective.

Most attractions are within a one-mile radius of the hotel and others are under five. It's perfect, especially because the hotel offers complimentary transportation service for short distances, eliminating almost any need to drive (unless you want to).

Denver has one of the most pedestrian friendly downtowns in the country.

Within one mile, hotel guests can easily walk to the Denver Performing Arts Complex (across the street), Denver Art Museum, U.S. Mint, Larimer Square, LoDo District, and 16th Street Mall (the one-and-a-half mile outdoor pedestrian mall with free buses that run up and down the street, stopping at every block). The Pepsi Center is also reasonably close, as is Elitch Gardens Theme Park. Coors Field is slightly further.

Larimer SqaureOf the three shopping districts, LoDo has more clubs, nightlife, and private art galleries. The 16th Street Mall has fine eateries and street performers, but is largely overcrowded with lower end chains. And Larimer Square, the smaller but finer area, features more unique and upscale boutiques as well as some of the better eateries, from Ted's Montana Grill to The Capital Grille.

Hotel Teatro has two restaurants too. Its Restaurant Kevin Taylor serves dinner with a French, Asian and American Southwest fusion. The other restaurant, Prima Ristorante, serves all meals and provides 14-hour room service. After eating breakfast at Prima once, you'll find the better bet to be the more historic and divey Sam's No. 3 Diner, the best place for breakfast in Denver (about one block away). It's a revived version of a family-owned Coney Island-style restaurant first opened there in the 1920s.

Slightly farther out from the hotel, City Park is home to the Denver Zoo and Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The museum includes visiting and permanent exhibits, interactive discovery centers, planetarum, and IMAX theater. And like the Denver Art Museum, you can invest an entire day there. But all of this only scratches the surface.

Hotel Teatro roomWith such a condensed downtown, expect several days of walking. It's on every return trip you'll find that Hotel Teatro really does make a difference. While we gave up the view, the 550-square-foot junior suite upgrade was worth it, trading in two queen-sized Simmons beds for two partitioned rooms, one with a king and bed-quality sleeper sofa. Both had bathrooms.

I'm sure the queens would have been just as comfortable. All beds are triple sheeted with 600-thread count Frette sheets. Especially relaxing are the bathrooms. Adorned with warm sandstone floors and marble, the deep soaking tub and floor-to ceiling rainforest shower will immediately take off the edge. Turndown service is available on request; all rooms have complimentary WiFi.

Hotel Teatro Plays Perfectly At 9.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Hotel Teatro is luxuriously comfortable without any presumption or stuffiness. The hotel staff are very knowledgeable about the hotel and the area (even warning guests not to take cameras to the U.S. Mint). Everyone is very friendly and accommodating, taking time to get to know their guests. Some people might be happy to know they are pet friendly too.

Like all hotels, rates change frequently. Here, standard rooms are around $250 and $275 per night. In a downtown area like Denver (or any major city), also plan to pay parking changes ($26 per night). For hotels and flights to Los Angeles, try Fare Buzz with flights up to 60 percent off.

As a bonus, ask the staff about the rumors of a ghost or two. While I had no experiences, construction crews are said to have heard voices in empty rooms and some guests say they've seen the ghost of a mechanic walking the halls.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Chimaira Survives The Age Of Hell

ChimairaIf there is one band that no one expected to see break out with a new album this year, it was Chimaira. The metalcore band from Cleveland that barely survived a shakeup last year when three members — Andols Herrick (drums), Jim Lamarca (bass), Chris Spicuzza (keys) — left the band for very different reasons, most citing directional differences.

Undeterred, singer Mark Hunter and guitarists Rob Arnold and Matt Devries signed a new contract with eOne Music and went to work. With the help of frequent collaborator Ben Schigel (Spider Studios) picking up abandoned sticks, Hunter took over the keys and Arnold bass to push their new album, The Age Of Hell, forward in eight weeks.

"Words can’t express what it took to create this album. We hope you love it as much as we do. Turn it up loud, this is Chimaira at its finest." — Mark Hunter.

If you think the band breaks helped the band summon up added ferocity, you can clearly hear it in Hunter's voice and Arnold's riffs. They're pissed but grateful to have retained some friendships with some former members. It's all par for the course.

Years ago, the band had replaced Jason Genaro (drums) and Andrew Ermlick (bass) prior to signing with Roadrunner, and founding guitarist Jason Hager dropped out shortly after the release of their first album. Since, the band has been stable.

The new touring lineup now includes Austin D’amond (drums) of The Elite, Emil Werstler (bass) of Daath, and Sean Zatorsky (keys) also of Daath. The lineup was included in Chimaira's first video, kicking off with one of the harshest tracks, the Year Of the Snake. While the video is less than great, the sound screams through while only hinting at Hunter's clean vocal diversity in his restrained and haunting chorus lines.

Year Of the Snake has become a favorite among critics. It's solid but not nearly as striking as some of the other tracks. Losing My Mind presents the best layering of clean vocals over Hunter's severity while Trigger Finger and Born In Blood have significantly more crushing complexity. It's old school, but of the best kind. Check out Clockwork too. It carries the cleanest vocals.

Most of the lyrics deal with pent-up aggression against unwelcome feelings and vulnerabilities. Notable exceptions include Year Of the Snake and Born In Blood, about rebirth; The Age Of Hell, about the end of days; Trigger Finger, about release; and Samsara, a six-minute plus instrumental.

The shakeup has freed Chimaira to explore more of their music.

The deluxe edition also includes two dynamic bonus tracks. Scum Of The Earth is especially worthwhile, with its aggressively simple driving response to the world, saying it is too late (and not worth taking about). Your Days Are Numbered is more predictable, but carries a nice slice of metal core vengeance.

The new album was kicked off with a mini-tour around Ohio, which no doubt served to revitalize the wave of negativity the remaining band members faced during the elongated breakup. According to Hunter, the entire band suffered through feelings that nobody cares, the industry sucks, and everything in going downhill.

Surviving that, it isn't any mystery why Hunter and Arnold wanted to make the album heavier, but also introduce more harmony then they have on most albums. It was also easier for Hunter to drop in more melody; there were fewer members in the band to fight about it.

Chimaira's The Age Of Hell Rips At 5.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Chimaira is already booked as a headliner from October to December in the U.S. After December, they will be touring Europe and Australia. Pay attention to upcoming interviews too. There is something else decidedly different about Hunter and the way he answers questions. In the past, he and Arnold would often sound scripted, saying how each album is an evolution and every song was their favorite (because there were no bad songs, yawn).

Nowadays, there's just conversation; Arnold too, despite becoming one of the busiest guitarists in the business (he just joined Six Feet Under as well). The invitation came from Kevin Talley, drummer for Chimaira from 2004 to 2006. This news doesn't detract from Chimaira in the least. If you listen to The Age Of Hell intently, you'll notice a change in the guitar tones.

The Age Of Hell (deluxe edition) is available on iTunes. You can find it as Age Of Hell on Amazon. The CD is available at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

James Rollins Uncovers A Devil Colony

The Devil ColonyWith most of the action taking place in the United States as opposed to more exotic locations on a global stage, The Devil Colony by James Rollins has a decidedly different feel than other installments of his Sigma series. It contains more exposition, explanations that link together bits of real history into an interesting, convincing, and sometimes controversial fictional tapestry.

Like the exceptional techno-thriller Black Order, The Devil Colony stands on its own from the series. There is no need to pick up any other Sigma book to enjoy the self-contained story with an exceptional hook immediately following its historical prologue.

The prologue also offers up its own hook, one that links the first of several founding fathers — namely Thomas Jefferson — into the context of a historical conspiracy thriller. Perhaps there was more to the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find a direct and practicable water communication across the continent or declare sovereignty over the Pacific Northwest.

Ancient Americans, Mormons, And Nanotechnology.

The present-day action opens with the discovery of a Native American burial site, with hundreds of mummified bodies and ancient golden artifacts, in the Rocky Mountains. The artifacts themselves — primarily gold plates — aren't ordinary. They are made using the same techniques as Damascus steel, an ancient and lost sword-making skill used between 300 BC and 1700 AD.

The existence of Damascus steel technology and pale-skinned Native Americans in a remote corner of Utah would solidify the story of Joseph Smith, Jr., who was directed by divine intervention to find and translate the writings of indigenous American prophets who had buried a book made of golden plates. In The Devil Colony, the language is alluded to be written in Proto-Hebrew (which Smith had called reformed Egyptian).

The writings describe a people led from Jerusalem to the Western Hemisphere, 600 years before Jesus’ birth. There, they coexisted with the Native American tribes, bringing with them technologies considered magical for their time. It is these technologies that the founding fathers like Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sought to acquire or perhaps protect from falling into the wrong hands.

Knowledge of these technologies and lost people by Chief Castasatego, sometimes called the forgotten founding father, might have been leveraged to broker a deal for the United States to accept a 14th colony, one made up of Indian nations. The deal, however, never came to fruition and the technologies were lost once again but not before changing Franklin's views on Native Americans forever.

In The Devil Colony, the nanotechnology is rediscovered but is no less magical or any less dangerous. When exposed to the wrong environmental conditions, the metal and nano elixir has a tendency to explode, unleashing a nest of nanos that begin to deconstruct all matter that comes into contact with them.

The secret technology and the desire to own this power pits protagonists Painter Crowe and Grayson Pierce against a cunning and ruthless European adversary in a race to acquire them first. Also in the balance is the potential of a cataclysmic disaster that immediately threatens the western United States and then the world.

The Devil Colony By James Rollins Shakes Up 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

It's great to see Rollins tap his personal experience as a spelunker in The Devil Colony. While he never captures the sense of claustrophobia that many equate with tight spaces underground, he consistently makes such archaeological discoveries as exciting for readers as it is for the people who do it.

The fact and fictional mashup is enough to make heads spin, sometimes in curiosity and other times in controversy. For whatever reason, there are always people who would like to dispute early Native American influence on the United States and, of course, those who prefer to discredit the Morman faith. Rollins, who was raised Catholic, gives all of it a fair shake (despite accidentally misstating Joseph Smith's name as John). Although sometimes more informative than intense, the blending of fact and fiction will drive many people to look deeper into the history and forming of America.

The Devil Colony: A Sigma Force Novel is available on Amazon. The Devil Colony is also available on Barnes & Noble or the book can be downloaded from iBooks. The audiobook is delivered by Peter Jay Fernandez.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tomorrows Tulips Get Together Better

Tomorrows TulipsFresh off a release party at an RVCA store in late July, Tomorrows Tulips are already busy running around. Sometimes the shows are aligned with a traditional touring schedule. Sometimes they might follow the surf.

That makes sense for the Costa Mesa duo, supported by musicians when they need them. They aren't a band by trade. Or, at least, they weren't a band by trade. It's just something they picked up together, literally.

Pro surfer Alex Knost (his skateboarding ain't bad either) picked up a piccolo snare drum at the thrift store. He handed it to his girlfriend, Christina Kee. And the two of them started Tomorrows Tulips — an alternative lo-fi psychedelic pop duo supported by other musicians to present their unpolished surf-beach vibe.

Eternally Teenage keeps it imperfectly simple.

The first half of Eternally Teenage came in three nights on a reel-to-reel tape in their friend's studio, The Distillery. That's where the album started, but it almost didn't end there. Galaxia Records, the label behind the release, told them to head up to San Francisco to finish it.

But missing the charm of analog, Knost and Kee weren't keen on the result and headed back to their lo-fi surroundings. Knost would know. Although Tomorrows Tulips came together on the quick, it isn't his first band.

Knost is better known by some for his first band.

That band started just as haphazardly seven years ago. A bunch of guys got together in a basement not knowing anything about instruments and, bang, they became Japanese Motors.

The experience certainly helped give Knost an edge in starting the side project; a confidence that builds with all artists who don't try too hard. He doesn't try as much as he goes with it. It just all comes together naturally, creating music that sort of shimmers in its own haze and simplistic melodies. At first pass, you might not even like it.

Give the right songs a couple passes, however, and the quirkiness of it kicks in so hard it sticks. Sure, Kee keeps the drumming to simple rhythms, letting Knost do the rest of the work, sometimes convincing you that they share vocal duties. They don't. He changes his voice as playfully as he directions on a longboard.

Running down the track list to find a few gems.

Although the 14-track album has more chance of inspiring a half dozen young guys to buy their girlfriends a drum set than influencing music, some tracks are true standouts in their own right. Among them: Eternally Teenage, Shades Of Grey, and Optimistic Vibes. The last one mentioned is the best track, with Knost lowering his vocals and amping up some cynicism.

The three best all run around two minutes or less. Outside of those three, check out Hotel Nowhere and Unconditional Silence. Just consider yourself warned that the rest is mostly hit, miss, and best left unplayed. Specifically, pass on Lull, Casual Hopelessness, and Living Room Sensative (sic). As for the last two tracks, Space Box and Tired, they are exactly what they sound like they might be. Tired with space to fill. Better saved for space in- etween songs at live gigs.

Eternally Teenage By Tomorrows Tulips Treads 3.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale

Sometimes when I listen too long to Tomorrows Tulips, I start to wonder if I picked the album solely because of the carefree way Knost and Kee decided to make it. But then Optimistic Vibes and Shades Of Grey cue up on the playlist and reset the head.

There is something undoubtedly alluring and clever about the music. Even better, some of the videos play better than the album; the result of having more time to perfect their songs on tour.

Eternally Teenage is available on iTunes, where it is being mostly ignored. Amazon also has Eternally Teenage, and the vinyl release can be picked up at Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Oakley Scalpel Adds Vision Precision

Casy StonerIn 1975, Jim Jannard decided not to go to school and started Oakley with $300 and a promise to make products that look better and perform better than anything else. He may have started with something simple — a new motorcycle handgrip — and then he never looked back. He looked forward, but not without sunglasses.

Oakley has two sunglasses on the market that deserve some attention — one is the Jawbone and the other is the Scalpel. Both perform better when you're looking for something a little more than lifestyle. All of Oakley's sunglasses are designed with a three-point fit, and all of them include a choice of lenses.

The Scalpel by Oakley.

One of the newer additions to the active line, the Scalpel comes with Oakley's vision for high definition optics and a base curvature around the sides that open your range of view, minimizing breaks to your peripheral vision. They also include the full line of innovations — complete UV protection and an emphasis on clarity.

What I like about the new Oakleys that inspire this review is they have a sleeker design, creating glasses that are great for casual sports but aren't so overwhelming that you need to change them. Sure, part of that is dictated by the color frames you purchase, but even with a highlighted color like red, the Scalpel doesn't draw undue attention like some of their other frames.

The Jawbone by Oakley

The Jawbone will certainly draw more attention to the frames, but I still have to give Oakley a nod for the glasses I almost bought. The frames open at the bottom, allowing you the opportunity to change out the lens. I was surprised how minimal the handling is to change lens. Amazingly, you can also remove and replace the nose piece.

Being able to change out the lens gives you the chance to change them for light conditions or weather conditions. I've always been a fan of vented lenses that can be purchased with the Jawbone frames. (Accessory lens are about $50 extra). The glasses do come with a "soft vault" pocket to store the lenses you aren't using. If you're wondering which have the bigger lens, it's definitely the Jawbone.

The skinny on Oakley optics and construction.

While I'm not going to say you can't break a pair of Oakley sunglasses, I can say that I've never broken a pair. Considering how hard I can be on sunglasses, they pass every test I can imagine. It's one of the reasons there are no shortages of sports stars willing to team up with them.

All of it is pretty simple, really. With every layer manufacturers add to sunglasses, two things happen. You add weight to the lens and distort the world around you. In some cases, the distortion is noticeable enough that sunglasses can add blur, magnify, or shift objects — attributes sportsmen, bikers, and skaters like Bob Burnquist could do without.

While the degree of protection varies, all Oakley sunglasses have some level of UV filtering. What's most important about its innovations in this area is that certain Oakleys filter all UVA, UVB, and UVC rays, which cause different types of damage to your eyes. Likewise, they tend to block more blue light (a major factor in glare) and build the protection into the lens.

While all of these features are important, one thing that I think has put Oakley ahead for sportswear is the amount of punishment they can withstand. Not only are the lenses better contrasted to withstand high impact punishment, the frames themselves are lightweight and shock absorbent.

The Oakley Scalpel Finds A Sweet Spot At 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Sunglasses are one accessory where it never pays to keep up with trends. The best buys are those that get specific jobs done, especially if you are picking a pair for active or sports use. In other words, Oakley tends to fall in and out of fashion but its performance doesn't when you want something for real sportswear.

You can find more about the Oakley Scalpel at Amazon, which also carries a wide selection of other brands. The Scalpels come in a variety of prefab styles, ranging from $140 to $190. You can also find the Oakley Jawbone there (about $200). The Jawbone comes with two sets of lenses, but additional sets are extra. They carry the Asian Fit, which is especially comfortable for people with smaller noses.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Malone And The Experts Find Avalon

J. D. MaloneWhen you name your band the Experts, you need the chops to back it up. Philly-based J. D. Malone and the Experts do. Look to Avalon for evidence, their first full-length release.

Self-described as “gritty Americana and classic rock," there isn't a better description. They also fit within what's best described as alternative country. Or, maybe your favorite local bar band times 100, with influences that include John Mellencamp, Steve Earle, Tom Petty, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Avalon doesn't reinvent the wheel nor does it retread old ground.

Avalon can stand on its own as a solid album with strong songwriting, pounding rhythm section, and fantastic guitar work. No surprise, given Malone produced it with the help of Dean Sciarra (president of indie label and Grammy winner Phil Nicolo (Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Santana).

Avalon is a well-produced organic album. The full band is made up some seasoned players. Along with Malone, the Experts include multi-instrumentalist Tom Hampton (guitar, mandolin, dobro, lap and pedal steel guitars), veteran Philly drummer Tom Geddes, bassist Jim Miades, and guitarist Avery Coffee. What that means is Malone might be a solid frontman, but this kind of team only comes around a few times every lifetime.

That's the beauty of Avalon too. It captures the warmth and grit of their live performances, even those that only include Malone, an acoustic guitar, and a little help from Hampton.

The result is an album that fools you into believing they've played together for years, even if their time together is limited to one album and a largely overlooked EP. Almost every song proves they achieved a shared goal set down by Malone.

“We wanted to take the energy and excitement the band had developed and try to grab that energy on this album,” said Malone.

Look first for the twangy Still Love You, the Allman Brothers-esqe She Likes, and solid covers of Petty’s I Should Have Known It along with John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son. But as mentioned earlier, its Malone's songwriting that shines.

His introspective lyrics on the title track Avalon and Ballad of Mr. Barbo hit home. The latter is about a dog accidentally shot by a hunter in Malone’s home state of Vermont. Malone's songwriting is solid enough that he doesn't need to be covering anybody else's work. In a few years, expect some younger bands to be covering his work.

Avalon by J.D. Malone and The Experts Rocks At With A 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

With the release of Avalon on the indie label ItsAboutMusic, Malone and company will likely find themselves in demand well beyond Philly. No tour information is currently posted, but they should be hitting the road in support of the release soon.

Avalon’s 13 tracks are available on iTunes or pick Avalon up on Amazon. If you like the tracks, Barnes & Noble carries the CD+DVD package. It includes the 13 tracks along with five bonus tracks that aren’t available for download.

The five bonus tracks are enough to justify the purchase: Just Like New and live versions of Silver From, I Think It Was Monday, She Likes, and I Should Have Known It. It also comes with a DVD documentary of the band recording Avalon. While most band documentaries are hit and miss, this one brings out their good-natured personalities.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Life And Legend Of Doc Holliday

Doc HolidayIf you’ve seen the movie or heard of the town called Tombstone (and even if you haven’t), you probably know something about Doc Holliday. You may know developed a reputation as a real-life gunslinger. And you may know he partnered with Wyatt Earp and the Earp brothers.

But did you ever wonder where the Hollywood version Holliday begins and the a factual Holliday ends?

Historian Gary L. Roberts might. He brings the real man to life in Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, a 544-page anatomy of the Old West legend. To do it, Roberts investigates old information, uncovers new sources, reveals surprise findings, and sets the stage for new legends to be born.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was a man of intense contradictions.

Perhaps what makes Holiday so interesting is that he comes across as a genial gentleman, yet feared for his bad temper and unique ability to back it up. Of course, he was a dentist by trade despite being a sickly consumptive. He was also a businessman, a gambler, and an alcoholic.

Doc HolidayHe was dangerous. And he was a loyal friend. He appreciated fine luxuries. And enjoyed his fair share of debaucheries. He was a Southern gentleman. And he rightly earned his place as one of the most dreaded gunfighters living in the American West.

Roberts begins to unravel the enigma in Holliday's hometown. Doc, who was called John by his family, was raised with good values and impeccable Southern manners. He enjoyed an excellent education and excelled at history, math, and several languages. After school, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, one of the finest schools of its kind in its day.

After graduating as a doctor of dental surgery, Holliday started rambling around the country — Dallas, Denver and of course Dodge City, where he first met Wyatt Earp. It was also around this time that Holliday discovered he had consumption (tuberculosis), which historians suspect he contracted from his mother. She had died from the disease a few years prior.

It was the tuberculosis that drove him West to a dry climate. It was in Arizona where his exploits became better known. And later, in the dusty Arizona town of Tombstone, he would cement himself as a legend. Holliday dealt and played faro, drank too much, loved and fought with girlfriend Kate (known as Big Nose Kate), and pulled his gun any time it was called for.

The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral cemented Holiday as a legend.

O.K. CorralIt didn't matter that this particular gunfight lasted less than a minute. He sealed his reputation as one of the best gunslingers and biggest badasses in the West along with the three Earps — Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt when they shot it out with Billy and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. Holliday and Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.

Most people back then assumed Holliday would eventually die in a gunfight. He might have even preferred it. But sadly, his rough, carefree lifestyle and consumption killed him. Roberts does an especially good job chronicling Holliday's last trip to Colorado in a fruitless search for healing springs. He died in Glenwood Springs at the age of 36, a bittersweet end for the fearless and fascinating man.

And as a story, Roberts does a fantastic job balancing fact and legend. A teacher for more than three decades, Roberts is an emeritus professor of history at Abraham Baldwin College (Tifton, Georgia) and has served as a consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also hails from Holliday’s boyhood stomping grounds in Georgia.

Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend Hits 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Roberts has faced some criticism that his writing here could have been more imaginative and perhaps more stylish. But given he is first and foremost a historian, I found myself preferring clear research and well-documented footnotes over fluff. If you want to know the facts, this one brings the real Doc Holliday back from the grave.

Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts is available from Amazon. You can also find Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend at Barnes & Noble. The biography can also be downloaded from iBooks.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Screaming Trees Carve Last Words

Screaming TreesWhen Last Words: The Final Recordings by the Screaming Trees first appeared on iTunes, I passed thinking it was a reissue. I could not have been more wrong. One of the "Godfathers of Grunge" had left an unproduced batch of songs at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho before they broke up in 2000.

The tapes were recently found by drummer Barrett Martin and producer Jack Endino. No, not every song is new and never heard, but enough of them are, alongside some rarities, that Last Words: The Final Recordings is somewhere in between a reissue and rediscovery. And anyone who knows the Screaming Trees will love every inch of it.

There are a few other surprises too. Peter Buck (R.E.M.) had made a guest appearance on some songs. It's nice to find that Josh Homme (pre-Queens of the Stone Age) did too. That makes sense because Martin and Buck worked together after the Screaming Trees broke up.

There will be no reunion, but Last Works is better than reminiscing.

Last Words being released a little over ten years since it was recorded is bittersweet. After the bottom fell out of grunge and the music became too good for people who made it a fashion statement, even the Screaming Trees couldn't keep it together.

They wouldn't have anyway. While some people say they missed their opportunity, with the band hanging on to Sweet Oblivion too long before releasing Dust, they already had some cracks. Despite favorable reviews, some saying it was their best album, the all-too-brief period of idiosyncratic sound was over. Dust never topped Sweet Oblivion.

Last Words provides a final goodbye at a time when music needs something like it again. It also proves Screaming Trees still had some work left in them, even if not everything was fully finished. I've read some people say it lacks the same level of inspiration, but Last Words strikes harder than many recent releases with active bands, especially a whole grouping that sold alt rock for fluff pop.

Although Butterfly isn't on the album, it reinforces that the Screaming Trees were one of the most underrated bands to come out of that era. From the earliest beginnings and well after, the band always produced solid music and fractured personalities.

The original members included Mark Lanegan (vocals), Gary Lee Conner (guitar), Van Conner (bass), and Mark Pickerel (drums), producing their first demo in 1985 with the help of Steve Frisk. All of them also had side projects, some great and others that only gave them all the more reason to split.

Pickerel was replaced by Martin, but that first fracture produced Sweet Oblivion. But then when the two brothers started drifting (with Donna Dresch temporarily replacing Van Conner), they were ever closer to the end. Despite this, the album proves Homme hadn't just signed up as a touring rhythm guitarist. He was in, as short lived as it would be.

Last Words is more than an epitaph for people who know music.

On Last Words, the most immediately sticky song is the Revelator, with its painfully captivating lyrics and full production. Others to check out include the powerful opener Ash Gray Wednesday, the timeless and melodic Door Into Summer, the sharp strummer Reflections, and the breathtaking and clairvoyant Last Words. It will make you long for Lanegan and company.

Other songs are solid, but strain at being unfinished despite some masterful reconstructions. It also serves as a reminder of where Lanegan came from despite multiple successes as a soloist and within various collaborative efforts.

Most recently, he played with previously reviewed The Twilight Singers and contributed a song to UNKLE. More recently, he joined Queens of The Stone Age on stage at the Nokia Club in Los Angeles to raise funds for Eagles of Death Metal bassist Brian O'Connor.

Last Words: The Final Recordings by the Screaming Trees Quakes At 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Not all of the album is perfect, but there is no denying that the Screaming Trees can contend today with anyone actively producing today. The music and its delivery get under the skin. It doesn't even matter that the material is made up of ten decade-old tracks. They sound like they were spooled together yesterday.

Last Words: The Final Recordings is available on iTunes. Alternatively, you can find Last Words: The Final Recordings on Amazon. Permanent fans might also want to check out the Screaming Trees at Wolfgang's Vault. They have two vintage posters there, including the celebrated 1992 b/w by Michael Lavine.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cracks Splits Audiences Over Identity

CracksAlthough largely discounted by many critics with weak comparisons, there is something interesting, lurid, and likable about the independent film Cracks. As the first full feature helmed by the promising director Jordan Scott, perhaps even more so.

It's a heavily threaded story that attempts to tackle one-sided rivalries, conformity, and perceived identities with a slow burn pace not so appreciated by many moviegoers, making Cracks one of the most clearly 'love it or hate it' films released this year. That is not to say the movie is heavy; it's surprisingly restrained, maintaining a growing creepiness that is never allowed to blow up.

The restraint is also one of several reasons people poked at the film, usually dismissing the complicated plot in favor of under selling one specific detail. While that always works well enough for a sound bite, it doesn't work well with the movie. There are some parts that are better than the whole of the movie, but the movie works better as a whole more than any part.

Cracks upgrades a novel that tried too hard to be unconventional.

Based on the book of the same name by Sheila Kohler, the atmospheric measure goes beyond a simplistic message that children are savages or prone to rivalry. Cracks has a more interesting tale told by adolescents at a boarding school. In the book, the school is set in South Africa. In the film, it's set somewhere around the English coastline.

Juno TempleHere, the environment is sheltered enough, creating a secluded and safe place for a dive team to strive for excellence under the watchful eyes of a dive coach. For the students, Miss G (Eva Green) is the idyllic role model in that she is a dashing and glamourous contrast to her colleagues. She is worldly and experienced, everything these young girls crave.

The students have their roles too, with Di (Juno Temple) holding an influential position, readily reinforced by praise from Miss G. The other girls are equally settled, most of them relegated to a supporting cast with varied stereotypes. One exception is Poppy (Imogen Poots), a sophomoric lieutenant of sorts, who helps balance out Di's relentlessly brooding seriousness.

This perfect world is shaken easily enough, shortly after the start when the daughter of a Spanish aristocrat (and royalty) is exiled for her illicit relationship with a commoner. The infusion of the young and worldly adolescent with a strong sense of self-indentiy is too much for the illusionary world they've created.

Miss G has to face that her fantastical past can no longer hold up to scrutiny. Di suddenly has a rival if not among her peers, certainly around the teacher who once praised her as a favored pet. And the Spanish Fiamma has to come to terms that the boarding school expects her to relinquish her strong sense of self.

Where Cracks sometimes cracks under its own dark beauty.

The film is different from the book, with Miss G is significantly more forward and tortured in print. In the film, she slowly unravels. Unfortunately, the unraveling by Green isn't as graceful as intended, playing out in three or four abrupt transitions, which is probably why some people claim predictability. (In the book, the end is given away as an opener.)

All the girls perform their roles splendidly, including Laurel (Adele Mccann), Rosie (Zoe Carroll) and Fuzzy (Clemmie Dugdale). The script also demonstrates some talent from writers Ben Court, Caroline Ip, and Jordan Scott, who all were tasked with transforming a novel written in an unconventional first person plural for characters capable of standing on their own.

Maria ValverdeOf the primary players, MarĂ­a Valverde is especially adept at remaining steadfast in her character, gracefully resistant to the pressures around her. Temple, through no fault of her own, plays the manipulated villain beautifully, but only hints at an internal conflict between her moral compass and personal gain.

Any reviews referencing overt sexuality and lesbians are generally exaggerated. While certainly part of the film (and much more so in the book), Scott does a fine job shifting it from curiosity or predatory and toward something intangible (making it all the more creepy). In other words, Miss G's infatuation is less driven by sexual desire and more so by objectifying Fiamma, who has everything Miss G always wanted.

Cracks Breaks Away From Formula At 6.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

This isn't necessarily a remarkable film as much as it is a mile marker for a few talented actresses and one promising director. It's also another nice break from the entertaining but more typical films elevated at the box office with an artistic sensibility. Anybody watching will be equally inclined to love or hate it, but mostly because you can make whatever you want out of it.

Cracks can be rented from iTunes. If you like the film, look for it on DVD at Barnes & Noble. You can also find the film on Amazon.