Friday, September 30, 2011

The Barr Brothers Beg A Listen

Listening to the sometimes harp-backed blues-infused folk rock ballads and stories played by Brad and Andrew Barr, it is almost hard to imagine them throwing near bare-knuckled blows in the basement of their Providence, Rhode Island, home.

They didn't discover rock until the following year. It was no less physical, but with a little less blood.

Rock also got them out of the basement and into criss-crossing North America as a spirited improv-based rock trio, mostly self-taught by playing cover songs inside near empty bars and small clubs. Their journey spans almost three decades.

Near the end of it, it would take fate and another few years before they would be drawn to Montreal, where they would eventually stumble into visceral harpist Sarah Page and multi-insrumentalist Andres Vial. Together, the unlikely quartet would form the Barr Brothers.

The Barr Brothers self-titled indie album begs to raise the bar. 

Beggar In The Morning first caught some attention after the band teamed up with Stephen Bircher, a visionary who makes remarkable art out the bones of roadkill, to produce a music video under the direction of Sebastian Lange. It's one of the most surreal and hauntingly beautiful videos produced this year.

Beggar In The Morning is only the beginning of their experimental folk rock strung across their 11-track esoteric and organic album that weaves in unexpected sounds into its pristine production. Bound together by Brad Barr's magnanimous gift as a songwriter, every song seeps into your skull.

Old Mythologies is a deeply textured and emotive folk ballad. Give The Devil Back His Heart fuses uptempo retro rock to loosen the mood. Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying scoots the album toward heavy-handed blues as if it was produced off a back porch.

It wasn't. The Barr Brothers collected up a set of friends from the Montreal music scene and recorded it all in a boiler room. A handful of talent showcased includes Elizabeth Powell, Nathan Moore, Miles Perkins, Jocie Adams, and Emma Baxter.

That's the way it works up there, with many musicians making the rounds in each other's bands and side projects. Even the Barrs are better known for their work with Surprise Me Mr. Davis (with Moore and Marco Benevento), and, of course, as The Slip (with Marc Friedman). Maybe, not as much going forward.

The Barr Brothers have put something together that's quite remarkable for their first self-titled release. While they've always produced great work, Brad Barr has found the right measure in his vocals and sharpened his guitar. Andrew Barr has redefined his approach to percussion, driving moods while holding the beat.

The addition of Vial is smart, as is Page. The bonus track even showcases Page's skills on harp. The piece is named Sarah Through The Wall, a clever tune how she and Brad Barr met. They were neighbors in an apartment complex.

The Barr Brothers' Self-Titled Debut Lights Up 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While the album is lighter than what I listen to most days, this eclectic offering of songs that brings in a collection of indie talents, stretching them across a half dozen or so genres while remaining cohesive and addictive, is nothing less than visionary.

You don't have to fall in love with every track to appreciate the craftsmanship, just find the tracks that slip inside whatever you listen to on most days. In some ways, though, not buying the album cheats an experience that is unlikely to be reproduced any time soon.

You can find The Barr Brothers self-titled release on iTunes. The CD and vinyl edition are on Barnes & Noble. You can also find various formats of The Barr Brothers on Amazon.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Maze Runner Clunks And Shucks

With book three of the Maze Runner series by James Dashner due out in two weeks and Catherine Harwicke signed on to helm the first film in 2013, plenty of people have been tempted to pick up the first book. All that seems to be stopping them are the abundance of mixed reviews about the Maze Runner.

It's very much one of those books that readers will love or hate, but not for many of the reasons they rave or rant about. The Maze Runner is surprisingly confined and linear, not unlike the maze itself, which adds both intrigue and irritation to the story of the group of analytical boy survivalists who populate it.

From the point of view of Thomas, the protagonist.

Everything that happens in the story revolves around Thomas, a teenage boy who wakes up in a dark metal box that is slowly being hoisted, metal grinding against metal, for what feels like hours. His memory, gone.

The opening alone is a giveaway. Without the benefit of a protagonist with any memories beyond his first name, readers are not privy to any context except what unfolds around them. Amnesia, forced or otherwise, dots plenty of plot threads, and tends to be effective in helping the author keep any cards close to his chest at the expense of character.

Thomas doesn't know what makes him tick, and neither will you. Not for awhile, which is the primary driver for the story that Dashner uses to propel the story forward. It's not unlike a maze, offering up a limited field of view and never knowing what might be around the next corner.

The Glade and the Maze beyond it, a puzzle box without answers. 

There is a bigger world beyond the one where most of the story takes place. But that comes much later. Most of the Maze Runner is confined to a smallish and simple space, with Thomas being freed from the metal box by a group of other teen and preteen boys who have created their own society in a very unsettling environment called the Glade.

The Glade is an open space surrounded by tall stone walls with four massive gaps that open into a maze. It's here that the boys, who call themselves Gladers, have developed a makeshift society out of necessity with different groups assigned duties to survive, but not without a supply line.

A boy like Thomas, about once a month, isn't the only thing to arrive in box. The boys have learned they can make requests and receive either prefabricated supplies or raw materials. Their duties are straightforward. Some farm. Some herd. Some build. Some clean. And some run the maze.

During the day, the maze, with its overgrown ivy walls, isn't much of a bother beyond the possibility of getting lost and not making it back before dark. But at night, it's a different story, as bio-mechanical monsters hunt for anyone foolish enough to do so.

The story is straightforward and suspenseful as a forced fast-paced mystery. 

The Maze Runner reads like a mystery in that it keeps you wanting to look around the next corner, but the story runs at a clipped pace, as if it might all collapse behind you. This leaves very little time to understand many of the characters who suffer tragedies, trials, and tests.

And at times, Dashner shortchanges secondary characters by all but ignoring them during some chapters in the book, especially toward the rushed end. You might want to know what is happening with Alby, Newt, Minho, Chuck, or Frypan, but Thomas is too wrapped up in his own head to notice.

It can be annoying at times, almost like being locked inside only the foreground of Thomas' head. And yet, at the same time, the story is intriguing enough to overshadow these shortcomings. It's entertaining.

A few spins with James Dashner, author.  

Dashner isn't shy about his inspiration for the story, at least on the front end. He isn't shy about giving nods to Lord Of The Flies by William Golding or Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Just don't expect flashes of their greater complexities inside the Maze Runner. These boys aren't like regular boys, which is why some of their behaviors seem so out of the ordinary.

This is the third series written by Dashner, who was previously best known for The 13th Reality series, which is still progressing with Shadow Mountain. The Maze Runner, which was published by Delacorte Books, is meant to be a trilogy. He is a surprisingly down-to-earth author, still wide eyed and filled with some wonderment that people like his stories. He tells everyone that persistence is the key.

The Maze Runner By James Dashner Clunks At 4.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There is no question that Dashner is an amazing storyteller, someone you can easily delight in as he weaves straightforward stories against brilliantly imaginative environments. It's true enough that it is easy to forgive sometimes shallower characters, linear plots, and clunky writing. At the same time, his books don't pretend for a minute to be something that they are not — they're fantastical entertainment.

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Trilogy, Book 1) is available at Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble. The Maze Runner is also on iBooks and the audiobook is available on iTunes. Mark Deakins is perfectly cast as the narrator. He's so good, it would be difficult to hear anyone else complete the series.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Youth Sounds Is A Dream Pop Pick

If anyone can appreciate the hardship and elation that comes with self-starting an indie pop band, it's Erika and Frederico Mejia. Playing mostly around the New Orleans area, the brother-sister duo have been trying to carve out their niche by crafting songs that alternate between indie folk rock and electro dream pop.

And while they know any aspiring indie artist can never be afraid to be different, there always seems to be some pressure to create something sellable, music that someone wants before you will ever be noticed. It doesn't always matter how good of an artist you are, someone else has to hear it too.

"It's no longer enough to be a band with an EP or album, or even playing gigs," said Frederico. "Even for us, I honestly believe what's holding us back is that one big song, writing that one song you just can't get out of your head."

While Youth Sounds may not have hit that one song that gets them signed, several come close. As Strangers Would and Smoke And Mirrors off their first EP and We're No One as well as Foolish Love off their second, Youth Sounds delivers delicate arrangements around a potentially explosive range. There is something here, especially within their indie roots.

"My favorite song from The Bit Parts EP is Smoke And Mirrors because it comes from a place where, in a relationship or anytime in your lifetime, no one really knows who you are," says Erika. "It takes a lot for a person to be vulnerable enough to set aside all the flair and proudly state 'This is who I am and you can like it or not, I don't care.'"

On Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow, Erika points toward We're No One. Not only does she enjoy singing the arrangement, but also the meaning of the song; That people are a collection of flaws and assets. Nobody can ever be perfect.

Hearing her talk about the songs, one almost gets the impression that she is the songwriter. Her deep connection to the material comes across so convincingly. It's her brother, a natural storyteller, whom Erika trusts to write songs that she can own as a performer, relate to, and deliver with sincerity.

"Although I do a majority of the writing, the end product is collaborative," says Frederico. "All of the musicians get a demo copy of the song and write their parts, which are then fine tuned during rehearsals."

Expect their next release to define the direction of the band.

It's at rehearsals when the band syncs their musical vision and pushes subtle nuances into the work, much like any family would. And they are a family. The balance of the band includes Adrian Frye, Taryn Mejia and recent addition Nicholos Mejia. Each of them lend differences in the direction the band could take.

Even two of Frederico's favorite songs, What It Is Like and You'll Be The Death Of Me, fall on opposite sides of the spectrum for him as a lyricist. The first is a contemplative look at relationships that end before they begin. The latter is about how people can push you away.

They are also very different from the songs Erika singled out, but that's what makes Youth Sounds so listenable. While there is an undeniable connection between Erika and Frederico, they see some things differently. Ask them how they fell into music, for example, and both will tell you a funny story about how their parents chose piano lessons so they could prove they were ready for the commitment, despite Erika wanting to learn violin and Frederico guitar.

"Frederico picked up the piano because he felt the love and passion for the instrument," says Erika. "I initially resisted, and felt more freedom and emotion through singing."

"I never practiced [the piano]. I honestly hated it," said Frederico. "Erika was the better pianist."

But that's where the innocent differences end. They are both quick to express gratitude to their parents for funding the lessons as long as they could. And then, when the family could no longer afford it, each pursued respective passions — Erika focused on singing while Frederico taught himself guitar, piano, and drums, perhaps as a songwriter more than a player.

Youth Sounds' Dual EPs Hits 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There is something very right about Youth Sounds. And while I lean more to the indie flair of The Bit Parts, Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow includes some sharply thoughtful dream pop tracks. Most of the magic is in the lyrics and the vocals, but it's easy to hear that the instrumentals are coming into their own as they grow.

The real tell for this emerging band will likely come with their very next release. Their music video, Whatever Works, is about to be released. So are new songs for their upcoming LP. Look for it to be released soon, under the album name Favors.

For now, enjoy a few tracks from The Bit Parts and Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow on iTunes. You can also find The Bit Parts - EP on Amazon. Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow... can also be found there. Both sites will also likely carry Favors, which should reinforce the band's dream pop sound, with a bit more drums.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kickstarter Is A Good Will Pick

There is barely a week that goes by when someone around here doesn't peruse the ideas and innovations on Kickstarter. And every week on Kickstater, we're not alone. Tens of thousands of people make pledges to fund music, film, art, technology, design, food, and publishing projects.

For the artists, musicians, and creative talents found there, it's a dream come true. They receive enough funding to get their projects off the ground. And for the people who help fund them, anything and everything is possible — from film credits and limited edition prints to prototypes and finished products.

It's the creatives' way of saying thank you, and you help make it happen. 

It doesn't happen every time, mind you. According to Kickstarter, a little less than half (44 percent) of the participants meet their funding goals. And for those who don't, no money ever changes hands — freeing up any pledges for some other idea, album, or DYI project.

This all-or-nothing funding model might sound harsh on the front end. But it's an incredibly bright idea. The growing Kickstarter team of 28 in New York City wants to make sure any project will be completed. And since Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler founded Kickstarter, they've done an amazing job doing exactly that. More than 10,000 projects have gotten off the ground.

It also helps artists reign in what they really need. After all, it's easier to fund smaller requests, even if some receive two or three or four times the initial ask. Anything is possible before the pledge deadline lapses — including a bridge between the artists and patrons, stronger than anything we've seen.

Three brilliantly creative projects being made possible at Kickstarter. 

Of course, the best way to appreciate Kickstarter isn't always to talk about the platform, but rather the people and their projects on it. It's their work that fuels interest and inspiration. Here are three.

Makeshift Magazine. While most people think that print is dying or dead, it didn't stop Steve Daniels from listing his idea for a quarterly magazine and multimedia website about creativity in unlikely places.

What's especially unique about the magazine is its emphasis on environments where resources are scarce and creativity is born from necessity. The first issue focuses on recycled art and adaptive reuse all over the world. Makeshift not only reached its funding goal; it doubled its initial ask.

Sensu Brush. Although the concept seemed to be a bit more of a risk, given our experiences with other iPad styluses, sometimes you have to take a chance. The Sensu Brush is an authentic brush for use with  drawing and painting apps on the iPhone or iPad. If it works, you'll likely see it make a return visit.

The innovative concept brings the tech tool that much closer to a true tactical experience for the iPad. What helped win me over was some of the other (non-tech) products made by Art Hardware. As a design consultancy, it will be interesting to see how Sensu Brush stacks up. The Sensu Brush has since doubled its initial ask.

Creatures — The Card Game. Brand new with 38 days to go, the creative card game challenges people to match up the front, middle, and back of some 28 animals tucked inside the 84-card deck. Even more interesting, you don't have to match up the animal exactly. You can make up your own.

Once you make up a new and zany animal, you pit it against your opponents. May the best animal win. Clever? Creatures - The Card Game is the creation of Tyler and Angie Panian of Long Beach, California. Tyler came up with the idea and Angie has lent some striking minimalist artwork for the animals. As of yesterday, the project had pledges accounting for 12 percent of its goal. Maybe you can help fund Creatures too.

Kickstarter 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. 

These three picks on Kickstarter haven't been the only projects we've backed since the beginning of the year. We've also backed a comic by Jeff McComsey and an album by Mary Lou Lord, among others. But that's the best part of Kickstarter. You can find and fund whatever projects you like. 

While Kickstarter does retain a percent of any project's funding (about 5 percent), it's relatively modest considering all the good they've done. Even better, artists and innovators who aren't funded are never charged for trying. And that means more to us than anything. In fact, if we did score it, Kickstarter would easily hit a perfect 10.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Veda Rays Densely Dark, Beautiful

Earlier this year, Jim Stark (vocals, guitar) of the primal post-punk experimental band The Veda Rays, summed up the state of the music industry as a return to "the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days" without any band needing to be propped up by the old guard of big labels and traditional media.

It was early in the morning. And Stark was ready to embark on another all-day mixing session at Dubway Studios in New York. A month or so prior, mostly from their remote Pennsylvania hideaway, the band had already tracked new songs, nine of which made their new LP, Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays, released under their own label, Alleged Records.

Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays is a haunting ensemble of post-punk arthouse rock. 

The band has every right to consider the album a make it or break it moment. Most of the new album is propelled along by four years of songwriting, playing gigs, and making 4-track recordings much like Stark and his bandmate Jason Gates a.k.a. Jason Marcucci (drums) had done since grade school. Much of it also carries with it what Stark describes as a turbulent odyssey of loss and heartbreak.

"One of my best friends died of an accidental overdose, another of my former bandmates was forced out by his family and sent halfway across the country to rehab, and Jason Gates' sister committed suicide after many years of battling psychological problems and substance abuse," Stark said. 

By the way, if Gates' other name sounds familiar, it should. He is a well-known engineer at Dubway Studios, having tracked and mixed artists like The White Stripes, Beck, and Story Of The Year, mostly for Live at VH1. It's astounding to hear on both sides of the work for The Veda Rays.

While most of the attention has been falling on the floating uneasiness of All Your Pretty Fates and the thumpingly hypnotic Honey Pot, Just Dust is one of the most compelling songs with ever-progessing builds. It even sounds great, or perhaps especially great, when it's cut against the confusion of Kenneth Anger's Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome.

The match up isn't accidental or random. Stark has a habit of dropping in nods, hidden meanings, and homages into some of his songs. He does it in the lyrics. He sometimes does it in his delivery. And he did it with the band's eclectic cinematic meanderings as placeholder music videos.

In every case, the films chosen underscore the dream-like wonderment of the music that has been driving the buzz in Brooklyn. Stark and company clearly have a knack for taking people to some strange and unexpected destinations. And maybe that's the point. The album doesn't take you for a ride; it takes you someplace vividly unforgettable.

Of course, Stark and Gates aren't the only ones to be commended. Tyson Reed Frawley, who came up with the band's name, adds some serious undertones with his bass. Relative newcomer Jimmy Jenkins (guitar) really helps round out the sound. He also plays keys and sings.

Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays is a complete journey. 

Every track on the album deserves to be well played as they drift and surge in and out of experimental, post-punk, and noise pop. Out On Love, Our Ford, and Long May She Roll are grounded in the uniquely pop-infused alternative rock arrangements and shaped by Stark's emotive tenor.

All in all, only Ellipsis misses, feeling too heavy under its own weight. And yet, even that song makes the perfect lead in for the cinematic Deleted, which begins like a ballad featuring guitar wizard Juan Montoya (formerly Torche).

It's not the first time Montoya has lent his skills to the Veda Rays. He also worked on two singles, one of which you can catch on the overtly dramatic Time Is A Vise, which also features singer Julee Cruise. The song does not appear on the album.

Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays Orbits 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The Veda Rays are well on their way as an independent act to add to any watch list. While their upcoming touring schedule seems to be confined to the East Coast, we don't count them out for a bigger tour as more people discover something familiarly new here.

Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays by the Veda Rays is available on iTunes. Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays is also available on Amazon. Both online outlets include an acoustic version of All Your Pretty Fates, rounding the album out to 10 songs. The band is already working on their next, possibly an EP that will be ready in the months ahead.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Prestige Becomes A Masterwork

Many people had never heard of the book The Prestige by Christopher Priest until the movie by the same name broke five years ago. Starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale and reasonably well-received by critics, the film treatment of The Prestige inspired people to pick up the book.

But like many of the magic tricks that grace the pages, not everyone was prepared for the original treatment. Priest conjured up this story as epistolary, a series of documents, rather than as an author spinning out an imaginary tale set mostly in Victorian-era England.

His work is more elaborate too, as the story isn't only about two illusionists with a career-long rivalry and obsession for revenge. It's also about their descendents, and how what began as the debunking of a fraudulent seance would eventually spill across generations.

An accidental rivalry between magicians. 

While Alferd Borden had already known the name of Rupert Angier, the fellow magician who would become a bitter nemesis, it was only fate that brought the two together. Angier, who also peddled his craft as a clairvoyant and spirit medium, had paid a visit to Borden's aunt.

Since Borden knew the seance was a ruse, he takes it upon himself to stop the sham, a decision he later regretted but all too late. Angier decides to return the favor, visiting Borden's performances and outing him on stage or, sometimes, even before the show.

He has more cause than Borden might suspect. In proving the seance a fraud, Borden had done much more harm than he ever knew or imagined. But that is part of the mystery that propels the men's hatred well behind rivalry alone. Angier does not want to mess with Borden's life. He wants to ruin it.

The ultimate twist toward pseudo-science. 

Much like his greatest influence H.G. Wells, author Christopher Priest has always been fascinated with the real mechanical and fantastical allure of invention. And in The Prestige, while some people scoff at the pseudo-science behind the magic, it's the thread that ties the book tightly around the ethical and moral consequence when ambition marries science.

Priest makes this complete by bringing in fantastical sciences that might have been pursued by Nikola Tesla. Although later dismissed as a mad scientist, most people today regard Tesla as a genius who rejected any notion that anything was impossible.

Part of the illusion brought into the book is the notion of the wireless transmission of electricity. The other is something much more sinister — a failed teleportation experiment that Angier later brings into his act anyway. But what it actually does, mind you, is better left a mystery.

A hat tip to the talented Christopher Priest.

Born in Cheshire, England, Priest began writing almost immediately after leaving school. He started his freelance career in 1968, going on to write 12 novels, four short stories, novelizations, and near countless other works.

More recently, Priest recently had his newest novel published, The Islanders. The science fiction tale is one of murder, artistic rivalry, and literary trickery. Already out in the United Kingdom, it was published by Gollancz, the same publisher that recently included The Prestige as part of its classic reprint series this year. Another one of his books, The Separation, had also been been included in the Master Words series.

The Prestige By Christopher Priest Appears At 6.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Priest has always enjoyed using the art of misdirection in his novels. He does so expertly in The Prestige, often using point of view and what isn't written in the diaries to make it complete. For those who think of it as falling short (a feeling confined to the States), it never does. It only paints a darker side of human nature with roughness and honestly. And sometimes, we don't want the truth.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest is available at Barnes & Noble. An earlier printing of The Prestige  in paperback can still be found at Amazon. In 2006, Simon Vance voiced the audiobook, which can be found on iTunes. The movie, also made in 2006, is available on iTunes as well. It's a good movie, even if it doesn't include the full force of consequence.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Thrice Is Unbridled On Major/Minor

Major/Minor delivers a rediscovered intensity for Thrice, with guitarist/vocalist Dustin Kensrue having more power and presence than on recent albums. Any thought that Kensrue was softening as a singer is gone. On this album, Thrice keeps its refinement and rekindles much of its post-hardcore roots.

Taking only a week off after concluding their Beggars tour certainly influenced the band. There have been several occasions when members said they felt pickier in the studio, thinking ahead to what the album would sound like on their next tour. It also helps that most of this album was recorded live, playing together, much like they did for Vheissu. 

It all works because Thrice worked Major/Minor in every way possible.

Even after recording at Red Bull Studios with Dave Schiffman in May, the band went back guitarist Teppei Teranishi's home studio, a.k.a. New Grass Studios, to add overdubs, tweaks, and "ear candy." But that doesn't mean they just dropped in anything. Major/Minor is an exercise not in experimental as much as meticulousness after 13 years together.

The band would try dozens of odd sounds, percussions, and other elements. And then they would take them out. And then add them back in, or not. The process gives the album a handcrafted sound. 

"It's definitely got the most parts, melodies, and different things here and there that I get stuck in my head a lot," said drummer Riley Breckenridge. "More so than prior records, not that I listen to a lot of our stuff."

Promises starts out as a solid track, with a dynamic vocal chorus. But where it kills is in the build throughout the song, adding intensity and urgency as it progresses. Everybody — Kensrue, Teranishi, and  both Breckenridges, Riley and bassist Ed — are at the top of their art. 

Yellow Belly is my favorite song, with its hard and thrashing undercurrent in the rhythm with each guitar adding independent voices, layer upon layer. Kensrue barks over it all, sounding gruffer but polished. And that's just the beginning of the 11-track album and one acoustic bonus. 

If you liked the softer side of Thrice, don't fret. There are some smoother tracks that carry over well, including the six-and-a-half minute Words In The Water, an airy almost ethereal track that touches on faith. Anthology is also melodic, but keeps some heavy elements that help the sound remain grounded. Disarmed carries a moody sadness to it, which fits because you won't want the album to end. 

Major/Minor By Thrice Pounds New Ground At 9.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Overall, Major/Minor starts out as an album that is much more in your face. But then there seems to be a progression that makes it feel like a culmination of the band's career. The lyrics are some of the best Kensrue has ever written (almost always written after the music) and the way the band built every song from the ground up is inspired.

Major/Minor is a triumph for Thrice and is available on iTunes. You can also pick up the CD at Barnes & Noble while the limited vinyl edition can be found on Amazon. If you are still unconvinced, Thrice put up a free download of Yellow Belly on China Shop along with their fall tour dates. Their first stop is Vegas on Sept. 30. The people at Vagrant Records have got to be happy. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hotel Solamar Is On In San Diego

There are only two kinds of places to really stay in San Diego. Somewhere with a beach or nearby the renowned Gaslamp Quarter, where some of the city's best events are held. The latter is one of my favorites to visit, with the boutique Hotel Solamar always near the top of the list, especially during the cooler seasons.

The historic 16-1/2-block section of Downtown San Diego is dotted with gems, and the hotel is one of them. Its location puts it close to everything, notably Seaport Village, two Embarcadero Marina parks, and, of course, the very best of the city's shopping, dining, entertainment, and events.

Since the neighborhood underwent urban renewal in the 1990s, the Gaslamp Quarter only seems to get better with every visit. There is almost always something new to discover, with the area boasting almost 150 restaurants, more than 100 retail shops, and about three dozen pubs and nightclubs. But much like the Victorian-themed architecture, you'll enjoy the old as much as the new.

Croce's is a must eat when in San Diego. 

As much as I like rediscovering cities and avoiding places I've been, Croce's is remarkable. And if you don't know, the story is as inspired as anything you can order there.

Shortly after Ingrid and Jim Croce moved to San Diego in 1973, they had stopped on the corner of Fifth and F  Downtown, looking for a place to eat and listen to live music. They were disappointed, joking about opening a local restaurant to revitalize an area that was better known for tattoos, the homeless, and ladies of the night. Less than a week later, Jim Croce's plane went down in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

It took some time for Ingrid to recover from the loss, but eventually she decided to open a restaurant and jazz bar to help keep Jim's memory and music alive. By chance, Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar opened on the same corner where the couple had joked about finding a place to eat.

The food leans toward organic gourmet. Pan-seared sea bass, seared scallops and lobster-scented risotto, free-range chicken, and pistachio dusted lamb provide a small sampling of tastes. The last time I ate there, we dined on a small balcony that overlooks the main floor. It's almost too private, but intimate.

Highlights from the Hotel Solamar In San Diego. 

There are only 235 rooms in the Hotel Solamar, making it a boutique hotel despite being owned by Kimpton. The hotel generally excels in service and, in recent years, has smartly made the move to being green, but green doesn't interfere with comfort.

While there is some wear, the rooms are designed somewhere in between contemporary and conservative, with aqua blues and chocolate browns. The overstuffed chairs and sofas carry clean lines, but the furnishings are dark mahogany. The beds are plush and the windows open.

Every morning, the hotel serves tea and organic coffee in the lobby living room (which feels like a living room). And in the evenings, the same area hosts a complimentary wine reception. Parking, on the other hand, is not. Expect to add $36 per night (although the hotel recently added a reduced rate of $18 for hybrids). It's not all that uncommon anymore. Consider it part of your room rate.

While some people say it can sometimes be noisy, the best room views likely overlook the year-round heated roof pool on the fourth floor. I don't know first hand. I've yet to stay on the fourth, fifth, or even sixth floor, facing the pool. I have been on the terrace however. The property's photo speaks for itself.

Another plus for the Kimpton hotel is the Jsix Restaurant and LOUNGEsix. Jsix is the restaurant that serves the hotel, but it is mostly known for its fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients (and what Executive Chef Christina Graves can get her team to do with them). Mostly it's an eclectic mix of pasta, seafood and meats. LOUNGEsix is much more casual, basically providing a gourmet bar menu (rosemary french fries, etc.) near the pool. Like the hotel, all of it is eco-friendly.

Hotel Solamar In San Diego Hits 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

I can't necessarily say that the Hotel Solamar is the best hotel I've ever experienced, because it doesn't always have the warmth and intimate feel that some independent boutiques capture. But that's not really a criticism. It is a comfortable place to stay, with friendly guest services and comfortable rooms (starting at $275; averaging $350).

I do, however, give them high marks for working hard to create a more eco-friendly environment inside and out. The hotel is also pet friendly, but some rooms are designated as pet free for people with allergies. When you add it all up, it's clear the Kimpton property is making big strides toward excellence.

Some of it could just be that there is an added bustle, given the hotel is close to Petco Park, the convention center, and the growing number of festivals hosted by San Diego. (The biggest are the Gaslamp Quarter Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday and ShamROCK St. Patrick's Day celebration, both in March.) Then again, that is part of the experience; take it all in.

To visit San Diego, you can search for deals for airfares, discounted hotels, and car rentals on Fare Buzz. My last visit to San Diego was during a Thanksgiving vacation. The climate was surprisingly warm, feeling more like spring during the day. And Croce's on its own would hit 9.6. Easy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Conley Saves The Day With Daybreak

Princeton's transformative alternative pop rockers Saves The Day have been around a long time. So why is it their sound still sounds new, fresh cut, like a band stretching its legs for the first time? Maybe because it's always been mostly Chris Conley's band and he's frequently swept away in change.

Only the ageless (but chameleon-like) Conley's vocals are left from the original lineup. The rest of the band now includes Arun Bali (guitar), Rodrigo Palma (bass) and Claudio Rivera (drums), all of whom joined in 2009 or later.  Even the label is new. Razor & Tie Direct signed them in March, delaying the original spring release date of Daybreak for September.

There isn't any bad blood between past members, not really. Many of them have dropped in and out to work on other projects, notably Mannuel Carrero and Durijah Lang (Glassjaw) or, more recently, longtime band member Spencer Peterson, who joined Black Cards. Another former member, David Soloway, still plays with Conley now and again via their super group side-project, Two Tongues.

Conley is still introspective but a little brighter on Daybreak.

Take the song 1984, for example. It's one of the better tracks on the album and Conley says the song is reflective on personal life and the world that have "kept you from being the person you want to be." But more than that, he says it's about finding strength in your heart to respond in a more positive way.

"We tried to keep our heads down and play as hard as we could," said Conley. "It really lets the song explode into the final chorus." 

Let It All Go carries a similar message. Conley wanted to reflect on how dwelling on the past can sometimes prevent you from being who you want to be. Some of this comes across loud and clear in the accompanying 20-minute documentary, a bonus for anyone purchasing the entire album.

Even the teaser captures the sometimes pained but always contemplative nature of Conley, especially on this album. As much as Sound The Alarm was one of my favorites of the three for its darker lyrics (but still no Stay What You Are), hearing Conley talk about his personal journey so candidly changed my perspective. I appreciate the final installment of a three-album concept more than a casual listen.

Admittedly, Daybreak is more pop than punk, but I think the louder arrangements are among the strongest songs. 1984, Deranged & Desperate, and Undress Me pack in more than other tracks.

The deluxe edition also has electric versions of Stay and Hold. The latter is the better of the two, but even that is almost too airy for my taste. You might find one or two you might like, but I'd also skip any track defined by a single letter.

And yet, even if many of the songs aren't on my heavier play list, there is no denying that Conley takes his work seriously, digging in deep to find his material. All of the music he created clearly affects him, making him an artist first and a commercial musician second. Isn't that what we hope all musicians do?

The new lineup isn't afraid of the past. They came ready to play.

I have to give kudos to the newer bandmates. They've been asked some straight up questions from fans, and have obviously put some thought into the answers. One of the pointed questions featured on their site basically asks Palma if he can fill the shoes vacated by Carrero.

After giving Carrero props, Palma admit that he won't deliver a "beefy" bass sound but he has lent some big, bold, out-of-bounds bass flavors. It's true. But more than talking about the sound, it also tells me Conley and crew are the right guys right now.

Of course, other questions aren't so tough. One person asked what redeeming qualities the band might find in the Star Wars prequels. Seriously? They're good sports. They answered, albeit anonymously. Asking them which shooter they like, on the other hand, drew out their resident expert.

Daybreak By Saves The Day Rings In At 4.8 on The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Daybreak puts Conley back on track, convincing me that there is some more material left to be produced under the Saves The Day name. While it's too soon to tell which group of fans he will likely alienate more, there is no doubt Conley made the album he wanted to make, and after hearing him talk about it — it's clearly the album he needed to make.

Don't be surprised to see fans rate it all over the map. As an album, you have to expect it. As a collection of singles, some songs would fare better than the album as a whole. (BTW, check out the acoustic version of Let It All Go caught by Smart Punk too.)

Daybreak is available for download from iTunes; the deluxe edition includes the documentary. If you are just interested in the CD, Barnes & Noble carries it. You can also find Daybreak on Amazon. Before you get it, one final thought. People always talk about how Conley's voice has changed over the years. It has and hasn't. He can still deliver a tenor, but the alto feels right for him.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Set Course For Crimson Steam Pirates

Hands down, Crimson Steam Pirates is the most meticulously polished adventure strategy game created to date for the iPad. It's set in a richly detailed environment similar to the high-flying steampunk world of Crimson Skies, except the hero or heroine sets sail with a top-down fleet rather than climbing into the cockpit.

Crimson Steam Pirates revolves around the character of Thomas Blood, who is based in part on the real Thomas Blood, an Irish colonel best known for attempting to steal the Crown Jewels of England. Except this Thomas Blood exists in a world made entirely of imagination, an alternate universe that extends the reign of the steam engine and futuristic Victorian-era Brits battling it out in the West Indies.

The sea isn't the only place to command the fleet. Blood is also given the occasional submarine and zeppelin, creating the illusion of three planes of adventure instead of just one. Occasionally, even the icons of the era make guest appearances — Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla among them. 

The steampunk storyline of Crimson Steam Pirates. 

While Crimson Skies takes place in 1937, Crimson Steam Pirates begins in 1888 with Blood captured in the Canary Islands and loaded aboard the Albatross, a steam-powered transport ship. In this alternate reality, many similarities ring true. 

Queen Victoria still rules, America's Civil War borderlines have become borders, and steam pirates now thrive alongside British, French, American, and Confederate forces. And, it is the steam pirates who board the Albatross before Blood is ever exiled to an English labor colony in Jamaica.

Based on nothing more than his reputation, the beautiful steam pirate Captain Blackheart frees Blood and agrees to make a stake in him as a partner. To help with his start, Blood and Blackheart's first mate, Cordelia, are given the newly captured Albatross and a tip to free their first crew member from a British prison.

Captaining the Albatross is not enough to make the game worthwhile. With each adventure, Captain Blood is given additional ships at his disposal, including lighter-than-air blimps and Nautilus-styled  submersibles. Each adventure also carries a plot and subplots that are difficult to follow the first time through, but only because the game makes you want to race ahead and play. 

Crimson Steam Pirates adds strategy with turn-based animated play. 

The game is turn based, but it doesn't always feel turn based. After giving each ship instructions, they follow the course laid out for them with the crew automatically firing on enemy ships, forts, and ports.

On the surface, it seems simple for a strategy game. But along with plotting the ships' courses, captains have to weigh various options, including which special ability is the most worthwhile to order up (assuming the right characters are on board): full steam power, ship repairs, grappling hooks, etc.

How many turns it takes to complete a mission matters. In addition to earning points for every enemy ship destroyed and objective met, captains receive bonus points for completing each voyage under "par," the number of turns required to complete a voyage.

Alongside game play, the ability to sink deeper into the details is one of the most fascinating aspects of the game. Click on any ship and its armament and engines (as well as their condition) are in plain sight. Click on crew detail and every meaningful character on board is outlined, complete with mini-histories and special abilities that become increasingly important as the game progresses and when characters attempt to board ships.

A quick bit about Harebrained Schemes and Bungie Aerospace

Harebrained Schemes is a small group of creative types working wildly under the direction of serial entrepreneur Jordan Weisman. Not only is Harebrained Schemes working to expand the amusing and snarky Crimson Steam Pirates universe, but  has several other projects in the works, including the Trans-media literary experience, funded in part by Educurious and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Harebrained Schemes' Crimson Steam Pirates is being propelled by Bungie Aerospace, a company that not only creates games but also helps independent developers launch their games like a publisher. They help find financial backing, introduce audiences, and offer technical expertise (like stat tracking) and advice. Creativity abounds there.

Crimson Steam Pirates Boards At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There are several areas where Steam Pirates could be improved, but the immersive universe isn't one of them. It would be nice to see a better boarding module, something similar to the game play besides an updated version of the card game war. But for now, it's not too distracting. Second, while you can skip the storyline and play head to head against a friend, the duel option is limited to pass and play.

No worries. All good things in time. You can find Crimson Steam Pirates on iTunes. The iPad game, including its first saga chapter (eight voyages) was free when we downloaded it. The second chapter can be purchased as an in-game add-on. If you like the game at all, you'll want to purchase it straightaway. It's smartly steampunk.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Widowspeak Spins A Hazy Web

There’s one comparison that needs to be gotten out of the way. Widowspeak’s Molly Hamilton sounds quite a bit like Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval.

There’s similar phrasing and similar delivery. But then again, someone could argue comparisons to the Breeders’ Kim and Kelley Deal, Cat Power, and Drugstore’s Isabel Monteiro. But let’s be clear: Hamilton is her own performer. And Widowspeak is not a knock off or cheap imitation.

Widowspeak has deep roots in three cities: Tacoma, Chicago and Brooklyn. 

Tacoma is the home of singer/rhythm guitarist Hamilton and drummer Michael Stasiak; guitarist Robert Thomas hails from Chicago. Hamilton and Stasiak met Thomas in Brooklyn, which is now the band's home and cosmic base.

The trio has managed to craft a surprisingly cohesive sound in a relatively short amount of time. They even played some solid shows in Brooklyn while Thomas and Stasiak finished their degrees at New York University.

Their stripped down sound definitely captures a unique vibe as Thomas strums his Telecaster, Hamilton picks out notes on her junky Danelectro, and Stasiak holds it together with a drum kit that can only be described as ultra minimalist.

The sound conveys a slow burn with a Brooklyn lo-fi sensibility, with a bit of nostalgia and 50s rock added for good measure. It's at once familiar and brand new, unbridled and addictive.

Released on Captured Tracks and recorded at Brooklyn’s Rear House with Jarvis Taveniere (Woods), the self-titled Widowspeak is sparse, artistic, nostalgic, and confident. The songs have a common theme of longing for home (perhaps Tacoma) and finding oneself in strange and unusual places, perhaps with strange and unusual people.

It's a heartbreaking album, but not depressing. The best word might be haunting. 

The album proper was released in August 2011, but preceded by the March release of Harsh Realm/Burnout as a 7 inch and Gun Shy/Wicked Game in June, also as a 7 inch. Wicked Game, a cover of the song by Chris Isaak, is worth the download for its fresh sound. If you didn’t know better, you might think Wicked Game was a Widowspeak original. It’s that strong.

The band’s influences clearly include Velvet Underground. But Lou Reed and Mo Tucker would likely approve of Widowspeak’s ten tracks, especially the hazy, lazy Ghost Boy and the Sixties yet modern longing of Harsh Realm.

Even the most upbeat tracks such as the near-pop-like Hard Times and Puritan, present a band that is low key, lamenting, and tense. Fir Coat’s poppish beat and guitar evoke images of Tanya Donelly and Belly. In the Pines isn’t the classic folk original popularized by Leadbelly (or Nirvana); it’s an original that seems to swirl as it tries to find itself. Limbs, meanwhile, is contemplative and slow moving.

Throughout, Hamilton’s voice conveys loneliness, yet confidence in its acceptance. Although all of these songs feature solid songwriting across the board, sometimes the lyrics get lost in Hamilton's delivery, which, although emotive, is not always easy to interpret. She has openly admitted being a bit shy and suffering from stage fright.

"I knew you in the harsh realm. I thought about how it was. I thought about you because, I always think about you," sings Hamilton in Harsh Realm. 

The song has a haunting quality that is elegant in its simplicity. In all, it's a strong album, but I can't help think that there's so much more untapped talent and potential here. If the band delivered an album this good on comfy ground, imagine what they could achieve if they took some risks.

Widowspeak Will Burn Your Head At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The band is still finding its niche. But as they get more shows under their belts, I anticipate that we will see and hear great things. They are currently on tour with the Vivian Girls through the end of September, with more dates expected to be announced soon.

The band stays in touch with fans while on tour through Twitter. You can pick up the self-titled LP Widowspeak from iTunes. You can also download the LP from Amazon. Extra kudos to Captured Tracks for taking a chance on a band with a bright future.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dennis Lehane Walks A Moonlight Mile

Readers sometimes feel bitterness at the end of the series, and some authors do too, leaving the last book to come across like a watch running down. And Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane does run down, even for someone who had never read previous Kenzie-Gennaro installments.

But I'm not sure that this is necessarily as bad as some readers suggest. The private investigator couple, nearing the possible end of their careers (with Angie Gennaro already focused on finishing her studies and raising their daughter), raises something beyond a hard-boiled Boston crime novel.

Lehane adds hindsight to weighing societal morals against individual morals again.

Moonlight Mile brings Patrick Kenzie full circle to Gone, Baby, Gone the fourth crime mystery novel in the series that was adapted into a movie directed by Ben Affleck. The story revolved around a missing 4-year-old girl, Amanda McCready, whom Kenzie is hired to find.

In the Gone, Baby, Gone, Kenzie's moral compass is primarily tested in finding and returning the girl to an unfit and neglectful mother. In Moonlight Mile, he is asked to find the girl again, now 16, eventually leading him to confront whether or not he made the right decision 12 years earlier.

The book opens with Kenzie finishing a different case, outsourced from a private investigation firm that is considering whether or not to hire Kenzie full time. The case quickly reintroduces the author's gift for social commentary and sizes up his protagonist, a private detective growing increasingly weary of taking on jobs that inevitably protect the guilty.

As this case is wrapped but before Kenzie is assigned another, he is asked to find McCready again because neither the police nor the media is pursuing a disappearance that the girl's mother denies. Kenzie, still damaged by the personal strain the initial disappearance caused, declines until someone sets him up and attempts to threaten him off the case.

The conflict between professional and personal obligation draws taut. 

While a significant portion of the quick read revisits old characters and the wounds they endured in the sometimes splintered definition of justice, Moonlight Mile offers an interesting resolution to the various lives left behind by its counterpart novel for fans. At the same time, Lehane doesn't leave many loose ends in covering the back story, making the novel work well enough as an independent story.

This time around, Kenzie faces a new challenge as his personal life — his wife and child — are put in a clear and present danger as he crosses paths with the Russian mob. While most of the mobsters, including boss Kirill Brozkov, are thin characters, Yefim stands out as personable, charming, unflappable, threatening, and empathically dead. For Kenzie, he is the other side of the same coin, enough so that Yefim makes a strong case for Kenzie to walk away.

The Dennis Lehane experience. 

Dennis Lehane is the author of nine novels, three of which have been made into movies, most notably Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone. Like many authors, Lehane worked his fair share of odd jobs, ranging from waiting tables to being a counselor for mentally handicapped and abused children.

The latter experience no doubt served as the inspiration for Gone, Baby, Gone in so far as it may have raised the original question about societal and personal morals. Are children better off with their sometimes grossly flawed parents or some other guardian with the best intentions? In Moonlight Mile, Lehane winds down that question with an answer some people may not want to read.

Moonlight Mile By Dennis Lehane Burns A 3.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It's easy to understand some fans expressing disappointment in the novel, despite Lehane's apparent ease with a weathering character who has worked too long in an occupation that consistently places his feet on either side of the moral line. Kenzie has aged, and not necessarily in the best way.

At the same time, there is a progression in the character that is difficult to dismiss. Both his gritty Boston charm and aloofness might make him all the more real, even if we don't want him to be that. What is more distracting, perhaps, is that Lehane does occasionally dispel the sense of nail-baiting urgency with poorly timed cynical or satirical observations that only a man who has given up would do.

Moonlight Mile makes the cool cut in that it is still worth sharing on the scale. You can find Moonlight Mile: A Kenzie and Gennaro Novel on Amazon. The book is also available at Barnes & Noble. From iTunes, you can find it on iBooks or audio. The audiobook is read by Jonathan Davis, who does especially well lending a weathered voice to Kenzie. As an aside, Lehane has some interesting questions to ask about the book on his website.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Echoes The Fall Restarts With An EP

When Phoenix-based Echoes The Fall (ETF) released Bloodline in 2009, no one could have predicted the amicable shake up, rearrangement, and rapid ascension that followed two years later. Even if someone did, they could have never foreseen the instant chemistry a new frontman and second guitarist could bring.

For the core members — Michael Gable (guitar), Trevor Keeling (bass), and Mitch Gable (drums) — it must seem long overdue. They've played together for six years; three years as Echoes The Fall (2008) and three years under the retired moniker Hillside (2005).

But this year, with the addition of Jeromy Moorehead (vocals) and Myles Byrum (guitar), ETF found themselves on an aggressive schedule, recently touring as an opener for bands like Drowning Pool and 10 Years. Some might even make the case they are too good to open. With a longer set list and larger fan base, they could be thisclose to headlining.

The new self-titled 4-track EP is something between a fresh start and a spectacle. 

The lineup isn't the only change made by the band. The original demo work in 2008 that led up to Bloodline was primarily written by Michael and Mitch Gable. The EP and subsequent songs for an anticipated album in 2012 is more collaborative, including some assistance from outside the band.

"All Echoes The Fall band members have a fair share in these songs," says Mitch Gable. "The idea was to write about 25 songs so we had a lot of material to choose from. Joey Avalos also came in to work with us on songwriting. And from there, Jasen Rauch took the songs and started preproduction."

Avalos (guitarist, Stars Go Dim) is an accomplished and award-winning songwriter, musician, producer, and co-owner of of ETF's management team, JMA Music. Rauch is the former rhythm guitarist and (still) songwriter for alternative rock band Red. He also wrote songs for Breaking Benjamin and Pillar.

All this is not to say that the very hands-on management team, who also matched Moorehead with the band, call all the shots. Gable mused that as soon as the band arrived to begin recording at the Tennessee studio, they started to change everything for reasons other than those you might think.

"We have all been through so much in our lives individually so we write about life," says Gable. "We don't think there is anything better than to write about life in a way that relates to people."

And if there is one consistency since the earliest ETF beginnings, that is it. Every member of the band has a true desire to connect with and relate to people through their music and on the stage. So, while scratching out compositions might feel right on paper, nothing is truly final until the band has an opportunity to hear how the songs feel in a studio and how they might play out on the stage.

There is something to be said for their approach. It's one of the reasons the band has earned a solid reputation in Phoenix, known to be hard market to break out of. It also seems to have helped them land some of their biggest opportunities to date.

"Phoenix is definitely a tough market for up and coming bands," said Gable. "We have great fans in Arizona so we can't complain, but we also love touring, especially with epic bands like Drowning Pool and 10 Years. It's an experience of a lifetime and we're taking full advantage of it."

Fans might call it mutual, given the work ETF put in during their six-week studio session. All four tracks off the EP are worth the listen, with the front three — This Is Not Goodbye, Because Of You, and Start Over Again — representing the strongest progression. The fourth, Burn It Down, is constantly listed as one of the best received by live audiences.

What works especially well for ETF is the band's ability to deliver a rich, full sound underscored with aggressive hooks and big riffs. Every song is remarkably fluid, carrying along Moorehead's harmonies until the arrangement leaves openings for more finesse on drums, guitars, and bass.

The Self-Titled EP From Echoes The Fall Hits 7.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The self-titled EP is a strong restart for Echoes The Fall, easily priming the band for a full-length album as early as summer 2012. According to Gable, they are already writing new songs between tour dates. But as it stands now, they have four solid songs about life, with an emphasis on heartbreak and resolution that comes with change.

The Echoes The Fall self-titled EP is available on iTunes. Echoes The Fall can also be found on Amazon as downloadable MP3s. The EP is remarkable for the band in that the lineup changed a few weeks before entering the studio. It also earns Avalos and Rauch an extra nod from a band who admires their multiple successes in the "tough music biz." They helped us grow as musicians, Gable said.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Experimental Autumns With Sportun

If there is such a thing as a universal language, Anne Sportun must be fluent. The Toronto-based designer has an undeniable talent for finding beauty in nature and then communicating it within shapes, symbols, and arrangements.

"With my designs, I hope to encourage an intimate exchange between each piece of jewelry and its wearer," she writes. "This kind of communication is not bound by words, geography, or ethnicity, but is nurtured by a universal language of shape, symbols, and form."

One of her newest creations captures her meaning perfectly. Sportun blended Peruvian chalcedony, prehnite, turquoise, amazonite, and cultured pearls to create an assemble that is both spontaneously natural and impeccably organized.

Strung together by hand on 16-inch, 14-karat gold wire, the necklace is a remarkable original work that captures the timelessness of sea glass in several precious gems.

Other remarkable designs that augment the autumn experiment. 

Along with the necklace Sportun named Betwixt & Between, she has hand crafted a collection that complements the look. Using a single Peruvian chalcedony stone, shaped and polished into a teardrop and fastened with matching gold loops, the Chalcedony Kiss design is understated and striking.

The allure is easily attributed to the stone. Taking advantage of the gemstone's transparency and pale aqua color, the chalcedony helps draw the eye into its natural depth.

The same holds true with the necklace, which helps the work stand out against more opaque stones from the chalcedony family. It's the fogginess that makes it so incredibly easy to find yourself lost inside.

However, Sportun doesn't really rely on the stone effect alone. Some of the pieces from her current collection capture the same sensation of tranquility by the shape and transparency of other stones as well. For example, her Double Moonstone earrings deliver more than two stones threaded on gold.

In shaping the semi-translucent moonstones, she is able to recreate additional depth while taking advantage of the gemstone's natural ability to shimmer in the light. In the trade, this unique quality is known as "adularescence," which defines its ability to look different when the stone is moved and not by the cut as diamonds and other gemstones rely on to create their brilliance.

Moonstones are among the most notable stones to have this quality, but it does appear in opals, rose quartz, and some agates. It is sometimes described as the impression of lunar light floating on the water.

Interestingly enough, there is more about the moonstone than meets the eye. Legend has it that it can help lovers foretell the future. And if you purchase a moonstone for a loved one, you will love them forever. At least that is what people believed in the 1930s, the last time moonstones were popular.

The precious everyday made by Anne Sportun.

Like many jewelry designers, Anne Sportun started simply. She began experimenting in the basement of her childhood home with nothing more than her father's tools. Sportun was only 16 when she received her first wholesale order.

Sportun, who was originally interested in archaeology, decided to follow her passion and enrolled in a three-year jewelry arts program instead. But even after seven years, she didn't find success in her artistic trade. She held odd jobs and part-time employment until meeting Barbara Kelly in 1987.

With the help of her new business partner, a bookkeeper willing to attend international trade shows, Sportun eventually opened her first Toronto retail location in 1992. She opened her second store in 2004.

Betwixt & Between by Sportun Shines At 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There isn't any mystery here. Sportun continues to emerge at the forefront of design. Even some of her more recent creations featuring gemstones and pearls secured by worn and weathered gold loops are stunning enough to stop someone mid sentence. The same can be said for these free-spirited designs.

Sundance Catalog initially added more than 150 pieces of jewelry to its fall fashion lineup, including a selection from Sportun. You could find Betwixt & Between (about $690), Chalcedony Kiss (about $165) and Double Moonstone (about $350) earrings, but now your best bet is to visit her direct. For something more suited to every day, take a look at the Forestry Necklace (about $90) While it is not part of the Sportun collection, it does offer some of the charm, just with a little less brilliance.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Waters Crashes In With For The One

"Port O'Brien is no more," opens the "about section" of the band's Facebook page. Sad news for fans following the acoustically-inclined indie folk band founded by Van Pierszalowski and Cambria Goodwin. But good news too.

Pierszalowski's new indie project, Waters, is rock solid. The first single released from the upcoming album Out In The Light is making some waves. For The One is a sharply arranged indie rocker with raw and impassioned lyrics. It's not all that unlike his life at the moment.

"The record is about waking up. It is about getting out of a situation that seems endless, and realizing you're not too old to make dramatic and sudden changes in your life," said Pierszalowski. "It is about starting over." 

Pierszalowski did start over. After the shutdown of Port O'Brien, he headed to Olso and put together a new band of of Norwegian musicians. They practiced together every day for two months before heading to Dallas to record with alternative rock underground legend John Congleton (The Paper Chase) to create a stark and intimate sound with a large and enveloping rhythm section.

Pierszalowski and Congleton had worked together before on Port O'Brien tracks, not to mention three or four dozen other bands, ranging from Modest Mouse and The Mountain Goats to Okkervil River and Bono. Congleton's influence on any album always aims to break from mediocrity, which perfectly underscores the theme of Pierzalowski's songs.

Pierszalowski moves from downsized to stripped down bigness. 

Although For The One underscores the move toward a bigger sound for Pierzalowski, several of the upcoming tracks retain his attachment to folk rock. Mickey Mantle, for example, is a brilliantly composed, acoustically-driven lament with honest and near-confessional lyrics. Abridge My Love begins in much the same way before it crashes into something fuzzier, bigger, and bolder.

More than that, Out In The Light stretches Pierzalowski's addictive tenor, opening doors that the musician had never been able to budge before within the context of the loose and punchy structures of Port O'Brien. There's no question he has been living his theme, making changes that simultaneously fill him with regret and hope. Sometimes you have to blow up what you have to move forward.

Perhaps the track that captures that feeling best is O Holy Break Of Day, which ebbs and flows back and forth before surrender and freedom. The feelings are etched in the instrumentals too, quietly setting the tone before breaking into bristling loudness with scratchy guitars and crashing drums.

There is one more thing that stands out with this new direction for Pierzalowski. For as long as I can remember, he has always had the utmost concern for the audience, always striving to engage them. The new album accomplishes this on every level. You could see it at the Troubadour in August, with the audience straining to hear the music before they became awash in it.

For The One By Waters Crashes In At 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although Waters carries forward his affinity for the sea (even Port O'Brien was named after a bay in Alaska featuring a now-abandoned cannery on Kodiak Island), Pierzalowski seems to be playing in the thin line where the water touches the sky. Sometimes it's as if he is drowning. Other times it's like he is being pulled ashore, winded but safe. All of it, together, amounts to his best album ever.

Although the full album will be out later this month, you can find the single For The One on iTunes. As a bonus, Pierzalowski recently dropped O Holy Break Of Day on Sound Cloud. We'll add links to the full LP as soon it is out. It's being released by Pierzalowski's longtime label, TBD Records.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Kathryn Stockett Taps The Help

Every now and again, it happens. An author spends five years of her life writing a book that nobody wants to represent. And for Kathryn Stockett, more than 60 literary agents gave The Help a pass before she found agent Susan Ramer.

The connection must have seemed improbable for Stockett. In some ways, Ramer had become her champion not all that unlike the character Elaine Stein, a publisher at Harper & Row who encourages principal character Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan to write a book about something that disturbs her in Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. The book has since become a best seller, which is now being propelled by a critically acclaimed motion picture that might be too heartwarming for its own good.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is anything but hype.

Told from the point of view of three narrators, The Help is a storytelling triumph in its ability to capture the duality of race relations and tensions between African-American housekeepers and white employers, as well as the difficult transition faced by a tradition-bound community caught up in the wake of the 1960s. Times were changing.

Although the narrators — Aibileen Clark, a middle-aged maid who has raised more than a dozen white children; Minny Jackson, Aibileen's friend, known for talking back to her employers as much as for her cooking; and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a recent graduate of Ole Miss with her heart set on being a writer — place an emphasis on ignorance, segregation, and hypocracy, the underlying story is more encompassing. It is also about people who choose to break from tradition and those who do not.

As such, Eugenia becomes as much as an outcast as the maids because she is more interested in pursuing a career as opposed to finding a husband. She also becomes an outcast because she sees African-Ameircans differently than her socialite friends, despite growing up on a cotton plantation. Although admittedly ignorant at times, Eugenia develops a sense of empathy for the housekeepers, built upon her own close relationship with Constantine Bates, a beloved childhood maid and confidante.

Eugenia is not alone with her feelings. Celia Foote becomes the de facto employer of Minny after she is fired by the daughter (nemesis Hilly Holbrook) of her employer, Miss Waters. Foote, who grew up in the economically-depressed and poverty-stricken area, is also a social outcast for other reasons: her commoner background, her admiration for modern fashion, and her marriage to Holbrook's former fiancĂ©.

Collaboration inspires unlikely camaraderie and friendship.

After taking a job as a domestic housekeeping columnist for the local paper (the only writing job available), Eugenia asks her friend, Elizabeth Leefolt, if she can ask Aibileen for cleaning tips. Although reluctant, Elizabeth gives permission and Eugenia uses the interviews as an opportunity to inquire about why her own childhood maid abruptly departed before Eugenia returned home from college.

At about the same time Holbrook begins the "sanitation initiative," which would require all white homeowners to build separate bathrooms for their black domestics. The bathroom initiative becomes the initial spark for Eugenia to settle in on the idea of interviewing housekeepers for their perspectives of working for white families.

The book does break its own pace at times. Most notably, one chapter is unexpectedly written in third person, breaking its stride as a first person narrative from three points of view. In addition, although the book rightly begins with Aibileen as the hook, it becomes clear as a the book progresses that Eugenia is the primary character and not Aibileen or even equally between Aibileen, Minny, and Eugenia.

Katherine Stockett is an author to watch.

Stockett was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, and later worked in magazine publishing and writing for nine years after graduating from the University of Alabama. Growing up, her family also had a beloved maid, one who had picked cotton as a child and married an abusive husband.

Stockett is honest, open and authentic when she talks about her own childhood. She doesn't apologize but seems to deeply regret her own youthful ignorance, such as considering her maid lucky to have a stable job picking up after a good, decent, and Christian white family. She also doesn't apologize for Jackson, freely discussing its deep-seated sense of shame and pride. She feels both critical and compassionate toward it, and is equally quick to defend or dissect it.

While the book is fiction, Stockett seems to have drawn some inspiration from her own conflicted feelings about segregation — the love between herself and her family's maid vs. her dismissal of racial concerns back then. She cannot stress enough that she makes no claim to know what an African-American woman might have felt in the 1960s but rather imagines it as an answer to questions she never thought to ask back then.

The Help By Katherine Stockett Earns 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Interestingly enough, The Help was almost passed by for review, given it had already gained significant traction and popularity. It was only out of curiosity whether the story was being propelled by hype that I picked it up. Almost immediately, after just a few pages, I found it to be a compelling and immersive must read.

The Help  by Katherine Stockett can be purchased on Amazon or the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. You can also download The Help for iBooks or as an audiobook. The latter is read Jenna Lamia, Cassandra Campbell, Octavia Spencer, and Bahni Turpin, with each narrator delivering perfectly on the point of view they lend their voice to. They do an exquisite job with an already extraordinary book and paint a darker, more frightening story than the motion picture ever manages to capture.