Monday, December 31, 2012

Spider Bags Shake Out The Past Year

There is something undeniably raucous about Spider Bags, a North Carolina rock band fronted by a New Jersey vagabond. Maybe that's why it can sometimes be a struggle to define most of it; an offbeat alternative rock sound that sputters around like a few friends banging out beats in a back street bar.

At the heart of it is Dan McGee (vocals, guitar) and (for three albums) Gregg Levy (bass), who had played together on and off for the better part of 15 years. The rest of it was largely made up of whatever friends wanted to show up at studio sessions and live shows, until Rock Forbes signed on as a steady drummer.

The year ahead will mark another lineup shuffle as the band tours with Odessa labelmate Gross Ghost. Levy left shortly after the release of Shake My Head, leaving the bass open for multi-instrumentalist Steve Oliva, one of several guests who joined in for the last album.

There's something deliciously sticky about Shake My Head. 

As one of the most overlooked albums released earlier this year, there aren't many better albums to play loud tonight. There is a recklessness to the 10-track lineup with grimy guitar work and always honest and sometimes medicated lyrics.

Queztacotl Love Song is a fine example. The lorazepam-induced song plays out like a middle-aged hippie trading in tie-dyed psychedelia for white collar comfort, while retaining tree hugger tendencies — peace, drugs, and nature traded up for peace, prescription meds, and environmentalism. Somehow it all goes together, especially with that crazy restrained rock calm.

Not everything they play is so medicated. Think of it as the exception. Keys To The City is a high strung gang song fantasy that begs for someone to kick up the debauchery. Permission to party, granted. The same spiraling frenzy is found on Friday Night, with its hard luck fall-out-of-love barstool confessional. (The track is still listed as a free download if you need another sample.)

Much of the album is like that. There isn't a whole lot of seriousness across the release, given it's a cross of drunken goodness and the unfortunately sad side effects that go along with it, usually on the morning after. Daymare plays to it all as the best twangy, slowly drawn out rock lament put out this year. Save it for the after party as everybody's eyelids get heavy and the bottles are nearing empty. Or not.

Pairing up McGee's music, both uptempo and downbeat, is what gives Spider Bags its addictiveness as it wavers back and forth between rock and roll or garage rock. Other standouts on the album include the swooning Shape I Was In, smooth The Moon Is A School Girl, and 60s-infused Standing On A Curb. There are also some stellar instrumental moments throughout Shawn Cripps Boogie.

All in all, there isn't a dud on the album, although you might consider adjusting the track arrangement. Most of Shake My Head is McGee finding the sweet spot between dirty rock with occasional punk- and deep South leanings and a meticulously produced album. It's especially amazing that Spider Bags can lay down what sounds to be a spontaneous ruckus even if it is all carefully planned. While other bands sometimes attempt to capture the energy of their live performance, these guys really do.

Shake My Head By Spider Bags Shake It Out At 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There really isn't any better way to wrap up another year of music reviews than with a band like Spider Bags. They can both close the show and kick off another round, which is exactly what they will be doing in January as they tour around with Gross Ghost for five back-to-back shows, starting with Durham, N.C., on Jan. 15.

Shake My Head by Spider Bags can be downloaded off iTunes. You can also find Shake My Head on Amazon or order the CD from Barnes & Noble. They also put out the single Teenage Eyes with Eileen as a B-side earlier this year. The two extra tracks are worth a listen too, although neither quite measure up to the romp found throughout Shake My Head. For band updates, look for the label Odessa Records on Facebook.

Friday, December 28, 2012

FlipBooKit Rekindles Kinetic Motion Art

The first thing that comes to mind when anyone mentions a "flip book" is its origin as a primitive form of animation. But after the initial spark, individual memories vary.

Some people remember making doodles in the corners of a notebook starting in grade school. Others recall picking their first flip book out of a box of Cracker Jacks. A few might think about those vintage coin-operated machines that used to be commonplace at amusement parks, one of the earliest forms of moving pictures.

It's something between the latter design, a mutoscope by Herman Casler, and a later invention, the filoscope by Henry William Short, that inspired artists Wendy Marvel and Mark Rosen to recreate an artistic exhibition based on the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge. By placing flip books in a hand crank or mechanized box, Marvel and Rosen could tell artistic stories in 24 frames.

FlipBooKit marks a resurgence in kinetic arts. 

The result was a stunning series of gallery-caliber work, featuring original motorized flip books made out of found objects. But as the work was exhibited and well received, Rosen and Marvel discovered they did more than resurrect a kinetic art form. They were at the forefront of rekindling a lost medium.

With so many people interested in telling their own 24-frame stories, Marvel and Rosen began to kick around the idea of a DIY kit that would make the medium more accessible. To make this dream come true, they enlisted the help of former Disney Imagineer Steven Goldstein. 

Goldstein, a product designer with more than a dozen patents, worked with these artists to make mass production possible. Inside every kit, would-be artists could find a buildable box, hand crank spindle, and 24 frames to tell any story they might think up. 

What's inside the FlipBooKit. 

The development team (Marvel, Rosen, and Goldstein) turned to Kickstarter and cut a few corners to ensure early backer kits would arrive before their Christmas deadline. So it is very likely that only the first recipients will ever notice it. While the kits are complete, none were shipped with packaging to hold everything together.

Instead, the entire kit slipped right out of the shipping envelope. It included the die-cut notebook plastic encased cardboard box that folds together in about five steps. It included a spindle assembly, which has a hand crank. And it includes two sets of laminated flip cards, plus a set of stickers. 

The first set of flip cards sport the classic image of a running horse. The second set is blank, allowing anyone to either affix their series to the cards or draw/print images on precut stickers. (It pays to be careful in removing the contents as some cards will separate from their sheets.)  

It may seem slightly daunting as the contents fall out of the envelope, but the instructions make sense. All told, most people can assemble the box with the preprinted horse frames in about 28 steps. Making their own creations, however, requires considerably more thought. 

The creativity of motion media is limitless. 

Much like the artists discovered in creating their own work, one box with a 24-frame story can be interesting. However, stories that sprawl across more than one box are even more memorable. In looking at the work of Marvel and Rosen, many of their motion vignettes sprawl across three boxes — either in a horizontal row or with other spatial considerations. 

Ergo, a horse running in place is interesting, but a horse running from one box to the next can be all the more captivating. Or, as Marvel and Rosen's work have shown, a woman climbing up a ladder and diving into a tub or an elk walking across two boxes before transforming herself into a woman can be unforgettable. 

But then again, depending only on someone's imagination, anything might be unforgettable in the span of 24 linear or looping frames. We can see anything and everything from a series of stills to time lapse photography playing out in an endless loop. With enough foresight, someone could even capture themselves in the same position for 24 years and age themselves with the turn of a crank.

FlipBooKit Moves Art Toward Motion At 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

FlipBooKit is still in its infancy, with the next rounds likely to ignite something lasting more than the first round. In other words, the development team has a few kinks to clean up. The kits deserve better packaging and a spare spindle assembly. The upcoming motorized kits might require programmable timing (like the work on exhibit). And the materials used in making the box ought to include metal or wood, which many people are already expressing a willingness to pay more for. 

There is also plenty of room for preassembled boxes, where the artist is only responsible for adding content to spindle cards, which could be sold as cartridge kits. These might seem like small changes, but could eventually make all the difference — especially as others build upon the work of Marvel and Rosen to prove what's improbable can also be possible. 

Currently, FlipBooKits are only be sold direct through the bigcartel. They are modestly priced at $43 per kit. They are especially attractive to anyone who sees potential around the corner, artists and creatives that want to move into the kinetic arts medium rather than confining themselves to the digital space. Sometimes art needs high touch and low tech as opposed to the other way around. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Of Monsters And Men Back In Rotation

Already regarded as one of the best full-length debuts on the indie scene this year, the Icelandic six-pack Of Monsters And Men is finding that My Head Is An Animal gets better with age. Much like when they won last year's battle of the bands contest in Iceland, every live performance and festival introduces more people to one of the best indie folk play lists put together this year.

"We just kind of ... won," recalls co-singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir. "We weren't expecting it at all."

The band wasn't expecting anything that followed either. After making waves in Iceland with the subsequent release of My Head Is An Animal, the band earned enough support for an international release in 2012. None of them have seen much of their native Iceland since — Hilmarsdóttir's original solo project is giving way to the accidental band she brought together in 2010.

My Head Is An Animal makes for the best indie success story this year.

Of Monsters And Men, which formed in 2009, was never meant to be a band. Originally, Hilmarsdóttir was hoping to recruit more members to round out her sound. The first three additions included Ragnar "Raggi" Þórhallsson (co-lead vocals, guitar), Brynjar Leifsson (guitar), and Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson (drums), and they immediately changed the dynamic of the band by giving the project two lead vocalists and an arsenal of instruments that include the melodica, glockenspiel, French horn, and trumpet.

Shortly after, Kristján Páll Kristjánsson (bass) and Árni Guðjónsson (keys) filled out the band's roster (although Guðjónsson has since dropped out), giving Of Monsters And Men diverse musical depth. Their signature song, Little Talks, remains their best example.

Sung as a duet with Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson, Little Talks doesn't seem like it would be anything special on the front end with its anthem-sized big band open and chants. But as soon Hilmarsdóttir and Þórhallsson break into the alternating verse of loneliness and regret after heartbreak, Little Talks becomes as addictive as it is meaningful. Even stripped back and played in a cramped little room, it has weight.

Little Talks is certainly accomplished, but it's the balance of the thirteen tracks that locks in Of Monsters And Men as a band to watch. Opening the release is Dirty Paws, a semi-surreal metaphorical masterpiece that captures the loss of innocence and how every imbalance is eventually corrected.

The musical arrangement is as haunting as the lyrics, with a soft acoustic opening that erupts into something more forceful. Like many of the songs written by Of Monsters And Men, King And Lionheart also starts with a hushed open before it is interrupted by an invasion, transforming what could have been a lullaby into a larger-than-life, even-tempoed folk epic.

It's in these contrasts that Of Monsters And Men shines, much like Iceland. As Hilmarsdóttir explains it, Iceland can be a "very isolated country and that translates into music." But in many ways, it's really the contrast of this isolation and the vastness of the sea around it that stands out in most tracks.

When Of Monsters And Men neglect the contrasts, the compositions unravel a bit. If not for its sincerity, for instance, Slow And Steady is almost too much of a slow burn for its own good. Soft and gentle duets, even with a restrained drum fill to give a climax, play better in person than on the album.

Instead, songs like Six Weeks show a real spark with more urgency and amped up guitars. Lakehouse too, with its acoustical moments and orchestral fullness. Both songs are heavily metaphoric, which is another reason this band never comes across as too contrived. It's easy to get lost in vivid lyrics and dual meanings, especially when accompanied by impassioned musicians.

Another track worth a listen is Numb Bears. The thirteenth track makes a better conclusion on the album than Yellow Light, with Hilmarsdóttir's vocals taking on a much more staccato presentation. The track tackles what it is like to reach a destination while everyone stays home and plays it safe. It's lonely and celebratory at once, probably not all that different than the band feels lately.

My Head Is An Animal Crosses Oceans At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Another track to check out off the album is Sinking Man, which was released as a hidden track on the more listenable and long version of Yellow Light. The stripped back track that appeared on the Icelandic album release (at 10:52) proves how the duet-led band can demand attention with even the smallest measure of effort on their part.

My Head Is An Animal by Of Monsters And Men is currently enjoying a resurgence on iTunes after cutting into the best new artist album listing. You can also find My Head Is An Animal on Amazon, even if the album does not include the thirteenth track Numb Bears. The CD at Barnes & Noble is also missing the additional track. For a continuation of their tour that starts in Iceland on Jan. 3 before continuing on to Australia, visit the band on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dick Wolf Thrills With The Intercept

Dick Wolf will probably always be associated with the television franchise he created: Law & Order. This television series and its spin-offs made a fortune, with story lines that revolve around sex crimes and homicides.

The characters had minimal back stories. And although the series won several Emmys, it was formulaic if not predictable. It was also highly successful.

Maybe that is why watching Wolf's work unfold for print instead of the small screen is so interesting. Sure, he previously wrote Law & Order Crime Scenes, a nonfiction companion to the show. But his new novel, The Intercept,  truly marks his debut as an author.

The Intercept, A Jeremy Fisk Novel is a Dick Wolf debut. 

There has never been any question that Wolf is an outstanding storyteller. The question is does his storytelling ability hold up in a novel? Yes, it does.

In The Intercept, Wolf trades in sex crimes for terrorism and to excellent effect. The scenario finds the United States just days before July 4 at the much-anticipated dedication of One World Trade Center at Ground Zero.

The ceremony of such an occasion is a pivotal moment in history, recognizing what has passed as well as the resilience of the American spirit. But unfortunately, there is something else percolating beneath the seemingly upbeat vibe in New York City.

Six passengers and crew members are attempting to take down a would-be hijacker on a commercial flight from Stockholm bound for New York City. These six, or "The Six" as these brave passengers and crew come to be dubbed by the media, are a focal point. They are immediately thrust into the international spotlight as heroes, becoming instant celebrities.

Nothing is ever as it seems to be with Wolf.

NYPD detective Jeremy Fisk, who is assigned to the NYPD Intelligence Division, is part of an elite anti-terror unit not dissimilar to the CIA. His job is to investigate the hijacking, which seems pretty routine. Except, things are not nearly as clear cut as they seem.

Despite all the fanfare, the would-be hijacker was nothing more than a pawn in a very complicated game. There is something much larger in the works and Fisk has to figure it out.

He doesn't have to do it alone. One of the other detectives assigned to the case is Krina Gersten, with whom Fisk is having a secret romantic relationship. She gives Wolf more breathing room too, toggling the action back and forth from Fisk to Gersten.

Still, Fisk, who is fluent in Arabic and not afraid to break the rules, is the apparent lead in the investigation where nothing makes sense. There are holes in every security system that the terrorists know how to exploit. There is a Saudi national who disappeared in Manhattan. And there is a bomb plot directed by none other than Osama bin Laden before his death, one that is suspected to take place on the same day as the dedication.

With several action-driven plots to drive his story forward, Wolf only provides minimal back stories for Fisk and Gersten, much like he did for Law & Order. However, that is not to say he skipped their stories entirely. As a novelist, he does provide a few tidbits to make them personable in what is otherwise best described as a tightly-wound thriller, well paced to sustain interest while keeping everyone guessing who or what is the real target.

A bit about author Dick Wolf.

The 65-year-old Wolf began his career as an advertising copywriter who churned out screenplays in his spare time. Like many people in his field, he dreamed about a career in the film industry.

Eventually, he landed a job as a staff writer on Hill Street Blues and then parlayed that into supervising producer on the television series Miami Vice. A few years later, he created a runaway success with Law & Order.

The series was the longest-running scripted show in television history and earned Wolf a number of awards, including two Emmys. Although the original Law & Order went off the air after 20 seasons, don’t worry about Wolf. The Montecito, Calif., resident is still #54 on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list with Law& Order reruns to look forward to. Even more interesting is a stellar start to his off-screen career.

The Intercept By Dick Wolf Thrills With 8.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There is a lot more to Wolf than the series that kept him busy for more than 20 years. His newest character, Jeremy Fisk, makes a engaging and smart start to a terrorist crimes series that will provide him with more flexibility than he ever had on a television show. In fact, many people will find The Intercept is hard to put down as Wolf proves his writing is as crisp and compelling as ever.

The Intercept: A Jeremy Fisk Novel is available today (Dec. 26) at Amazon and the novel can be picked up on Barnes & Noble. The Intercept is also available from iBooks before the new year.

This review is based on an advanced copy of the book from Harper Collins. An audio version of the book is also expected for release, but was not available at the time this review was published.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Operation Christmas Child Is Good Will

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. ... Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. — Francis Church, editorial, The New York Sun, 1897

All over the world today and tomorrow, millions of shoeboxes will makes their journey to places and spaces many people have never heard of before. But these destinations — remote and impoverished communities — are less important than the recipients.

Operation Christmas Child creates connections across continents.

They are children in need, some of whom have never experienced the magical moment of opening a box brimming with generosity. Inside each, sorted by gender and age, is a collection of gifts that range from toys just small enough to fit in a shoebox to staples like school supplies and hygiene items.

The people who pack them are individuals and families, churches and groups. Most of them are just everyday people who want to share the same generosity that they enjoy together every year during the holidays. And some of them take advantage of two unique aspects too.

Individuals and families many include a personal note to the unknown recipient, sharing who and why they decided to participate in the program. Many of them will also receive an email that reveals where their shoebox was sent. A few of them, depending on what information they were inclined to share, might even receive a note, letter, or thank you from the child who received it.

There have even been some occasions when these initial correspondences have opened a lifelong dialogue between two people. It's this dialogue that makes many people realize that much more is opened than a shoebox.

Even the smallest shoebox contains much more than gifts.

One of the several stories shared by Operation Christmas Child includes that of Brenda Valdez. After Brenda was born, her mother decided she no longer wanted a child so her desperate father packed her up in a box and drove out to a a small village outside Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

When he arrived, his aunt took one look at the tiny, malnourished 4-pound baby and made a difficult decision. Although her own family was barely getting by, she accepted the baby and nursed her back to health. Had she decided not to, there is little doubt Brenda would have died.

Today, Brenda is a healthy, vibrant 5-year-old girl despite growing up in an impoverished community without the most basic services (like running water). What she does have, however, is faith. And what she received this year, is the knowledge that someone other than her aunt could love her.

While most boxes are managed and delivered via volunteers, one young 12-year-old girl named Evilyn Pinnow had the chance of a lifetime. She was asked to travel around the United States with the symbolic 100 millionth shoebox that would eventually be delivered to Brenda.

Along with the gifts inside the colorfully hand-printed box, two other items stood out. The first was a photo album of all the people who contributed. The second was two silver chains with brightly colored hearts inscribed "best" and "friends." Brenda kept one, but gave the second to her new friend Evilyn.

The back story might be equally remarkable. The woman who put the chains in the shoebox, Livia Satterfield, was inspired to do so because she received a similar gift she was 12-year-old orphan. Today, she still remains in contact with the person who wears the other half.

A bit about the man who penned the editorial Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. 

While there is no tangible connection between the The New York Sun editorial and Operation Christmas Child, there is an intangible one. Francis Church lived to be 67 and never had any children, but he will forever be connected to Christmas because of his response to a girl who wanted to believe.

What he shares with Operation Christmas Child is an under-appreciated notion that everything we cannot see does not need to be dismantled. Sometimes it is best to leave it all intact because it's the magic in these moments that make life something more than the circumstances we are dealt.

You may tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the stronger men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. It is all real! Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

Operation Christmas Child Is A Liquid [Hip] Good Will Pick. 

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

We chose Operation Christmas Child because beyond the organization that runs it, there are hundreds of thousands of people who bring the impossibility of receiving gifts at Christmas to millions of children every year. The effort is heart warming in its ability to connect people and sometimes establish a connection that transcends childhood and leaves a lasting impact as they grow into adults.

Operation Christmas Child is organized and managed by Samaritan's Purse, an organization that delivers aid to the world's poor, sick and suffering. It is involved in many different programs designed to rebuild people's lives and communities. Although the organization is faith based, there is little evidence that such good deeds detract from the hearts of the people who want to make it work.

In this case, children around the world experience the wonderment of generosity — a brief but unforgettable opportunity to discover that people halfway around the world aren't so different after all. Happy holidays.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Metal By Newsted Already Rocks 2013

Jason Newsted
Heavy metal is already shaping up to have a banner year in 2013 with the upcoming release of a four-track EP by former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. The new band, Newsted, puts Jason Newsted on vocals as well as bass. Joining him to round out the new three piece is Jason Mendez, Jr. (drums) and Jessie Farnsworth (guitar).

The names might not be familiar now, but they likely will be. Mendez is a long-time friend to Newsted, having played with him for the last ten years. They originally met when Mendez was working as a roadie for Metallica in California. Farnsworth has been playing with Newsted for about four years. He also handles backup vocals.

Newsted picked these players for their talent and friendship. He said he didn't want to make a super group or invite anyone in who might be jaded after playing in a recognized band. It's all new and it works too.

There is a real effort by Newsted to make Metal real.

There doesn't seem to be any doubt this is not the Newsted who played with Metallica more than a decade ago. Instead, he seems to have a real interest in reshaping heavy metal as a more approachable and even personal genre (something more commonly associated with punk or rising alternative rock).

There was never any news release or press call in advance of the new EP by Newsted. He just sat down in front of his computer at Chophouse Records and made a YouTube video. That was it.

Along with the video, Newsted has taken to personally managing the band's Facebook page, reading responses and sometimes answering questions. It's hard to say how long he'll be able to keep up with the growing fan base, but he tries to visit the page at least once a night.

Live shows won't be any different. Although the band will play big venues, Newsted also wants to find smaller venues that never have an opportunity to book big metal bands. In fact, even after the EP climbed to number 11 on iTunes (as a preorder), he said the band's success will not be measured in millions of sales but by how much he can move people with the music.

The Metal EP does do that. The first track released, Soldierhead, revives old school metal from the turn-of-the-century Metallica era. As the opening single, it makes a great case for no-holds-barred metal. Here is the placeholder until the upcoming video is released in the days ahead.

Like everything else Newsted is doing, the upcoming Soldierhead video will be a bit of a throwback, featuring the band as opposed to any overblown production. In this case, the trio just headed out to an old dusty factory and played their tribute to servicemen and women as hard and fast as they could.

The second track, Godsnake, is significantly slower and sludgier. Heavily influenced by Black Sabbath, Newsted takes long draws off lyrics that talk about differences and judgements. It's the perfect contrast to Soldierhead and proves that there was an additional payoff in playing with Ozzy Osbourne.

King Of The Underdogs mostly retains a steady and sure-handed tempo, but with frantic bursts and a spooky but purposeful guitar showcase when it counts. Somewhat in keeping with the Godsnake theme, King Of The Underdogs is all about being the best of the worst — the outcast that every other outcast in the group admires.

Rounding out the EP, Skyscrapers closes down one of the most promising starts for a new metal band. The song, which was originally written a few years ago, was refreshed to address all the ugliness on this planet, everything from terrorism to the end of the world.

While Skyscraper doesn't feel nearly as powerful or as memorable as the previous three, it was by design. Newsted and crew wanted to make a song that sounded like it came right out of the seventies and showcase some old-style guitar work. It's not necessarily the strongest closer, but will be a solid addition to the future album.

As it stands, these tracks are only the beginning. Newsted has said that the band has 10 or 12 tracks, with some of the second batch already recorded. The next set of three or four will be released as another EP after Metal. The remaining songs will be delivered as part of their full-length debut.

Metal By Newsted Nails Down 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Newsted might wear his influences on his sleeve (they're all obvious in the music) and Metal might not necessarily break any new ground, but this EP is a welcome addition to any metal playlist. It's prominent and personal, giving off a vibe that nobody has put out in some time.

Metal by Newsted will be released on iTunes. Jason Newsted has said he intends to release the first two EPs via iTunes and then follow up with a complete package in time for the full length, which will appear sometime in 2013. Touring dates have yet to be set, but you can follow the band on Facebook.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

David Kowalski Keeps Dead Company

The Company Of The Dead
In one of the most inventive alternative reality stories published this year, David Kowalski creates a very different world from the one we know. In his novel, The Company Of The Dead, the United States entertains a second succession, permanently splitting the country in two. Germany and Japan emerge as dominant world powers. Mammoth-sized helium-filled military airships roam the sky.

All of these sweeping differences and others can be traced to a single event. On the eve of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic never hits an iceberg. So rather than having to brave icy waters 375 miles south of Newfoundland, more than 2,200 passengers arrive in New York City and are greeted by the buzz of expected fanfare. Or, in yet another timeline, it sinks three hours later with different survivors.

Either way, John Jacob Astor survives. As the wealthiest American in the United States, this German-born businessman becomes the primary catalyst in keeping the United States out of World War I. But without this unifying moment in American history, old arguments that lingered after the Civil War resurface while Europe clings to its Imperial past.

Kowalski's debut is the epic alternative history and time travel adventure. 

Kowalski Map
At the heart of the story is Major Joseph Kennedy, grand-nephew to John F. Kennedy and grandson of Joseph Patrick Kennedy (who was actually killed in action during World War II). In the Kowalski timeline, World War II never happens. Germany wins the Great War without American intervention.

Major Kennedy is a special ops commander for the Second Confederacy. His mission is to organize a covert operation to reunite the United States. If he succeeds, his company will establish a new world order to thwart an ever-expansive Imperial Japan that already had several footholds in North America: Alaska, New York, and a significant portion of the Pacific coastline.

This dramatic and ambitious plan may (or may not) have worked, but Kennedy becomes distracted from Operation Camelot when he learns the truth. The world he as he knows it should have never existed. Worse, the world he knows is about to rush headlong into a global conflict that doesn't end with nuclear weapons like World War II did. It will begin with nuclear weapons and eventually end with every living thing on the planet snuffed out. He and his team want to stop it.

The Company Of The Dead
If there is even a hint of head-spinning confusion at the thought of this backdrop, expect plenty more moments like it inside The Company Of The Dead. Although Kowalski keeps his timeline in meticulous order, reconciling the names, dates, locations, and connections isn't always easy.

In fact, keeping the alternative world map handy is a must as the author spins various layers of change that occur on an individual, national and global scale. It may even catch some readers off guard because the opener is vastly different than the larger body of work that is about to unfold.

The first few pages don't begin with an alternate reality, but rather the cause. As with the climatic end, it all hinges on the sinking, unsinking, or alternative sinking of the Titanic as the semi-reluctant time traveler Jonathan Wells has done a hundred times before. And with each successive strike or counter strike, time is becoming too strained under the weight of a tightening loop. It's about to snap.

The Company Of The Dead is ambitious and bloated because it has to be. 

The size of The Company Of The Dead at over 750 pages (832 paperback) makes for easy criticism as plenty claim it could be cut back by as much as one-third. And yet, no one pinpoints what might be cut beyond a character or two (which would have profound consequences). But I couldn't cut any of it.

As much as the book leans long in the storytelling, almost all of it needs to be included. In fact, Kowalski could have entertained making it longer, as some characters do feel bland and some suffer motivational flips that happen on a whim. More troublesome is the style variation.

Depending on where you are in the story, The Company Of The Dead reads like a different book. It can be easily described as alternative history, science fiction epic, military narrative, covert thriller, conspiratorial saga, or indie adventure. But it never reads like this all at once. It's one or any combination of those descriptions, depending on the page. The shifts can be a bit jarring at times.

David Kowalski
What is constant in The Company Of The Dead is its vivid storytelling. Picturing massive stratolite airships navigating wind currents in the upper atmosphere feels as real as walking the decks of the Titanic. Connecting the dots between time travel and conspiracy theories like Area 51 and Roswell is made effortless. Visiting the still segregated south, Japanese-occupied New York, or brush-covered and largely undeveloped American Southwest has an air of familiarity as if this timeline exists.

Prior to writing his first novel, Kowalski practiced medicine in Western Sydney, Australia. His first writings had nothing to do with fiction. He saw his work published in professional medical journals. He didn't have time to write anything else. This novel took between seven and 10 years to write.

The Company Of The Dead By David Kowalski Turns Over 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Almost unbelievably, the novel started as short story, something that played out on the decks of the Titanic. The universally known tragedy, Kowalski has said, prompts many people to wonder what might have happened had it arrived safely. It was from this notion that hundreds of well-researched ripples led him to the world he wanted to create. And then he had to invent a way to get it back.

The Company Of The Dead is not for everyone, but it is for anyone who has been looking for an alternative reality epic that was born of out of science fiction conspiracy. The Company Of The Dead by David Kowalski is currently available at Barnes & Noble or the novel can be purchased from Amazon. It is also available for download on iBooks. The book was originally published in Australia in 2004, taking almost a decade to land stateside.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Blink 182 Unleashes Dogs Eating Dogs

vintage blink 182
Nobody really knew what to expect when Blink 182 broke from Interscope to become what might as well be called a reverse indie band. Dogs Eating Dogs answers any questions with five stellar tracks.

As the first EP to be released since the split in October, the EP also proves that there was some truth that the recording methods on Neighborhoods was less than perfect. The idea that the band could record in separate studios and email in their recordings was an experiment gone wrong.

Sure, there were some songs fans could stand behind, but the album felt like the recording process. Dogs Eating Dogs is different. Mark Hoppus (vocals, bass), Tom DeLonge (vocals, guitar), and Travis Barker (drums) stepped into the studio on Nov. 5 and produced a handful of tracks that were ready for release during a week when so few bands or labels put out new music.

Dogs Eating Dogs is Blink 182 on their very own again.

There is plenty to like off the EP. The opening track, When I Was Young, is an authentic look back on childhood. Blink 182 neither glorifies nor defaces it, taking the good with the bad and the bad with the good. The sound is smoother and more relaxed, in some ways reminiscent of their earlier work.

The title track, Dogs Eating Dogs, is easily the most aggressive song on the EP. Naturally, all things are relevant, even the most aggressive track on this release doesn't compare to the most aggressive tracks across their career. There's nothing menacing about it.

Suffice to say that with Hoppus leading the song, it's more pop than their punk roots but still brilliant. Instead of grabbing people in the throat, there are moments in this song where the sound will just wash over any space where it is played. The musical arrangements, particularly toward the back half, become exceptionally fluid. And yet, the band never allows a single beat, chord or musical nuance to drop by the wayside. It all counts, every detail.

The back half of Dogs Eating Dogs is perfect in introducing the even more anthemic song Disaster. Just don't let the fullness fool anyone. The song is all about love, death and resurrection. It could play well as a song about loss or a paranormal romance, which seems odd but somehow works nonetheless.

On the whole, both songs showcase a band that sounds more confident. The confidence doesn't come across as rising punks ready to take on the world, but rather competent and talented artists settling into something remarkable. You can even hear it in their cobbled together interview clips that made up the EP teaser last week.

Boxing Day, which was originally titled The Day After Christmas, begins as an acoustic until it gets bumped up by a drum kit. It has become one of the most popular tracks off the EP because it's pretty. Too pretty, really. It's my least favorite track on the album as this is one time Blink 182 infused too much style over substance in making a feel good breakup lullaby.

Pretty Little Girl, which was originally written by DeLonge for his wife, starts out shaky with weak open but then builds into something memorable. Skip the first 20 seconds and the song powers up into something significant as an overview of a relationship from beginning to an almost end.

It's easy to be torn on the guest delivery by rapper and former pro skateboarder Yelawolf (a.k.a. Michael Atha). DeLonge nails it down in the writing and Yelawolf does the delivery justice when he weaves in some of the most compelling lyrics in the song.

Where it feels slightly wrong, almost like the opening of Disaster and possibly Boxing Day, is that the contrasting styles don't always complement each other. It would be interesting to hear all three tracks played straight, with Boxing Day retaining only the folk acoustic, the rap section in Pretty Little Girl dropped back into the verse, and Disaster without the manipulated radio frequencies.

Dogs Eating Dogs By Blink 182 Bites 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Dogs Eating Dogs and When I Was Young are easily the best two tracks off the album. The other three are excellent tunes that work despite wondering how they could be arranged differently. (That's not a criticism as much as a curiosity.) Stack it all up any way you like, but what is obvious is that Blink 182 isn't blowing smoke when they say they want to bring the band back better. They obviously mean it.

The Dogs Eating Dogs EP by Blink 182 is available on iTunes. The EP is an excellent testament to how the band has evolved over the course of two decades, including the disastrous split that they have since made the best of after reforming the band. For tour dates before they sell out, make sure to visit their Facebook page or take a long look back ten years ago at Blink 182 by Tim Footman.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another Side To Seattle Is Underfoot

Growing up in Washington state, I never gave it much thought. But after moving to Los Angeles, the buried city under Seattle took on a different meaning. It's part of the city's rich and colorful history, something everyone there shares.

Under some parts of Seattle, there is still a sprawling network of underground passages and basements that originated with a tragic start. When a cabinetmaker kicked over a glue plot, he started small fire that would consume 30 city blocks.

Fires of this size weren't unusual in the 1800s, but the outcome of this one was very different. Every building after the 1889 fire was required to be built out of stone or brick. Every building was also built one or two stories higher than the original street.

The latter resolution was an effort to solve another problem. The city was growing, but it continually faced setbacks because it was founded on a mud flat. The retrograde aimed at solving other problems, anything and everything from flooding to backed up toilets.

Underground Seattle is both enchanting and spooky. 

After the fire, the rebuilding was something of a spectacle. The streets were lined with concrete walls, making steep alleyways where they didn't belong. Eventually, the city installed sluices (water channels) and covered up the alleys, creating a new street that was 12- and 30-feet higher.

During the transition, people would use ladders to climb from the old streets to the new streets as the once street level storefronts become basements. It must have been odd, especially as a few tried to remain open underground.

Eventually, the city condemned the Seattle Underground for fear of a plague outbreak, leaving most of it abandoned. The few pockets that stayed open attracted a seedy clientele — flophouses, gambling halls, opium dens, and speakeasies.

Even those were eventually forgotten, along with Pioneer Square. Most businesses wanted to move uptown after the Yukon Gold Rush and even the above ground Pioneer Square was falling apart.

All that changed when Bill Speidel took an interest. While some accounts say his story started in 1965, it began much earlier. In 1954, he researched all he could about the downtown area until stumbling across newspaper articles that the then-rumored "passageways beneath the city" were real.

Shortly after, he shared his rediscovery with the Seattle Times and a single newspaper story resulted in 300 letters and a flurry of phone calls. Some people would call Speidel almost daily, all inquiring about tours to the Seattle Underground. Except, there were no tours yet.

Speidel's efforts to save Pioneer Square (and Underground Seattle) took almost a decade. The first tours were offered in 1965, but it would take another 20 years to become an historic district.

The Seattle Underground Tour as it exists today.

Nowadays, the tour has become refined enough that a couple sections of Underground Seattle have been restored. Most notably, the tour begins in Doc Maynard’s Public House, a saloon that originally existed in 1890. The introduction is probably longer than it needs to be, but some of it is interesting, much like this clip from Weird US TV.

Afterward, guides lead guests to three different sections, which includes about a three-block walk through Pioneer Square. Not all of the tour is underground and it doesn't include every underground area. It does, however, end in what is called the Rogues Gallery, an underground gift shop.

Along with the Underground Seattle Tour, the operators have opened another section that focuses on the seediest areas. Called the Underworld Tour, it includes details of the infamous Red Light District as well as some of the long-forgotten opium dens and speakeasies that temporarily inhabited the city. The stories are colorful enough that the operators require all guests to be 21 years of age or older.

The man who started the Underground revival. 

Speidel was something of a character himself. After graduating from the University of Washington in 1936 with a degree in literature, he took a job as a reporter for the Seattle Times. In 1946, he quit the news business and opened a public relations firm instead.

In addition to working with his clients, Speidel became a lead activist in preserving Pioneer Square. The idea purportedly started with his wife. She suggested saving Pioneer Square as a means to help him earn some publicity. He decided to take it on, joking that he could do anything his wife said he could.

Underground Seattle Will Busy You At 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Bill Speidel's Underground Seattle is more often buried under the more visible attractions. With so many museums, parks, and a vibrant arts and music scene (including the addition of the dazzling Chihuly Garden and Glass), the hour and 20 minute tour still retains its charm as something unique despite its sometimes overt touristy and campy flavoring.

As with any off-the-beaten path experience, some people will love it and others will hate it. Unless you're traveling with people under 21, always opt for the Underworld version. That tour includes a drink and, depending on the guide you draw, you might need it. It also doesn't include everything. Little bits of the Underground are located all over Pioneer Square, including at the Alexis Hotel. For travel information and hotel bookings, start with the top travel deals at

Monday, December 17, 2012

Harper And Musselwhite Don't Believe

Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite
There has been some buzz around Ben Harper ever since Rolling Stone had the honor of premiering the first cut off the upcoming Ben Harper - Charlie Musselwhite collaboration Get Up! Much of it is well deserved for the Pomona, Calif., singer-songwriter with an affinity for mixing blues, folk, soul, and rock.

Although the single I Can't Believe A Word You Say is lean on lyrics and perhaps too repetitive at times, the dueling guitar and harmonica is a musical masterpiece in reminding everyone where rock and roll came from. The breakdown is exceptionally adept at delivering maximum effect with minimal means.

I Don't Believe A Word You Say is a rock-infused blues howler. 

The breakdown is every bit of what Harper does best while showcasing Musselwhite, one of the greatest electric blues harmonica players ever. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2010 after a resurgence in his career a decade earlier.

Musselwhite has put out more than 20 records and contributed guest performances on albums by singers as diverse as Bonnie Raitt, INXS, and Tom Waits. He met Harper during a recording session with John Lee Hooker. Ever since, the two have discussed collaborating for a nearly a decade.

It's obvious that the pairing shows two musicians who have connected personally and musically. Accompanied by Jason Mozersky (guitar), Jesse Ingalls (bass) and Jordan Richardson (drums), I Don't Believe A Word You Say comes across as spontaneous as it is heartfelt with bits of instrumental finesse to create a wildly layered sound.

The song itself is politically infused, without being overbearing. Much of it comes across like a buring commentary of the times. Some folks are quick to blame current circumstances on anything and everything else but never take responsibility. The few lyric lines that don't get swallowed up in the chorus capture a growing world weariness of rhetoric with little action.

"Blame it on hard living. Blame it on the times. Blame it on the victims all stumbling begin. I don't even need to look you in the eye. I don't believe a word you say." — Ben Harper

Not all of the upcoming album, Get Up!, due in January, is expected to be as pointed or blend elements of blues and rock. Much like previous work by Harper, the 10-track call-to-action album mixes in blues, gospel, roots, and R&B. All of the songs were written (or co-written) by Harper.

Still, Musselwhite lends plenty of himself to the album, making arrangements that not only accompany but also accentuate the vocals. There is a spirituality to it at times as Musselwhite either responds to or repeats the sentiment of Harper's lyrics with his own musical punctuation.

If the album does anything, it demonstrates that blues is meant to be a community, with each musician complementing or lending something to the music. The depth and substance have the capacity to move people, often telling a story that sticks with you from the first chord to the last refrain.

It's also great to see Musselwhite get equal billing on the Harper album. Musselwhite is truly a legend in some circles, given that he lived the blues as much as he played them. As people like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash were defining music, Musslewhite was digging ditches, laying concrete, and running moonshine before immersing himself in music.

It all nearly came to end in the 1980s when alcoholism almost got the better of him. He stopped drinking in 1987. And a few years later he found himself signed with Alligator Records.

I Don't Believe A Word You Say Starts At 7.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Knowing Harper, there will no doubt be better songs (lyrically) on the 10-track album. But I Don't Believe A Word You Say still wins in its ability to showcase the musicians and Harper's incessant vocals as they punch the air. A little more to the story would have lit up the boards, but we'll still take it.

I Don't Believe A Word You Say by Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite is available on iTunes. You can also find I Don't Believe A Word You Say on Amazon. Harper is also seeing another dream of his come true. He is serving on the Tony Hawk Foundation to help build skate parks for at-risk kids and came up with an idea to match skaters, musicians, and artists together. The idea is cool enough to be a good will pick here in the near future.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bastard Out Of Carolina Hits 20 Years

Bastard Out Of Carolina
For two decades, Bastard Out Of Carolina by Dorothy Allison has received its share of praise and scorn. The praise came from critics like George Garrett with the New York Times and K.K. Roeder of the San Francisco Review of Books. The scorn comes from misguided school districts, those still quick to ban a modern classic that has been likened to Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger or To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

For every challenge, the author still finds some solace in individual encounters, people who thank her for helping them make sense of what makes no sense. Such compliments both lift and break Allison's heart when they happen. They lift her up because her story made a difference. They break her heart because she understands what people have to live through to provide such a thoughtful response.

In the afterword of the 20th anniversary edition of Bastard Out Of Carolina, Allison retells this encounter and her feelings about it. It was the second time her heart was broken that day. The first time was the very reason she had traveled to California. A school had banned her book, breaking not only Allison's heart but also the conviction of the teacher who chose it and the students who discovered they weren't alone.

Bastard Out Of Carolina chronicles coming of age under the shadow of abuse.

Although often described as semi-autobiographical, Allison frequently draws distinctions between her life and the life of her protagonist, Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright. She had written fiction, not a memoir — a child very different from her in that Bone was brave, stubborn and resilient. She was also a child who could maintain hope even in despair, something Allison would need years to find within herself.

"I invented a loved creature to set against the memory of helplessness and rage," says Allison. "I wanted to invent a stronger and more resilient character and give her a family much like my own."

In doing so, Bone becomes not only memorable but also mythic in her presentation. Even as a young child, Bone is both purposeful and observant, frequently pointing out how people dehumanize others based on nothing more than the slightest of differences. And yet, Bone is saddled with labels too, with the one that is most unseen carrying the most impactful and heart-wrenching consequences.

The story that some people struggle with and why it matters.

Bastard Out Of Carolina
Set in rural South Carolina, Bastard Out Of Carolina is the story of a tormented girl and how she attempts to reconcile her circumstances and find a way to see herself in the world. It isn't easy. Bone is born to a teenage mother in an era where "illegitimate" carried a stigma deeper than any snickers might suggest.

Even when her mother attempts to amend the birth certificate out of pride, her efforts are met with resistance. "White trash," especially those with any Native American and possibly African-American ancestry, are expected to wear any stains they pick up along the way.

At the same time, her family presents a compelling and mesmerizing paradox. Bone's family, the Boatwrights, are both proud and broken. For many of the women, their only opportunity for a better life (and sometimes sense of worth) is always tied to finding the right man. After Bone is born, her mother does, has a second child, and is unfortunately widowed shortly thereafter.

When her mother, Anney, marries a second time, it seems their fortunes might change again. Glen Weddell is the son of a socially prominent dairy farmer. But the celebration is short lived as the story isn't kind.

As his family's fortunes change, he loses his job, and his first child (Anney's third) is stillborn, Weddell begins a transformation from a gentle and loving man to one who objectifies his stepdaughter and expects subservience. As he does, Bone becomes the outlet for his failings — the sexual advances and physical beatings escalate to outright abuse and broken bones.

Although Anney leaves Weddell when she discovers the physical abuse (but not the sexual abuse that Bone hides in shame), she ultimately decides to give him a second chance. And, eventually, justifies the abuse by coaching her daughter to avoid the unavoidable. All the while, Anney finds reasons for Bone to live with relatives and friends, providing a deeper portrait of both the family and the community.

A bit about author Dorothy Allison. 

Dorothy Allison
Bastard Out Of Carolina was Allison's debut novel. Although fiction, Bone does share some similarities of circumstance. Allison was also born to a 15-year-old mother in South Carolina. She was poor and worked as a waitress and cook until she married. Allison's stepfather sexually abused her.

She became the first in her family to graduate high school and eventually attend college. It was there that she joined a women's movement that helped her learn not to hide her suffering but state it frankly, not only for her sake but for any child who comes after her. Many people are grateful that she did.

Bastard Out Of Carolina Stirs 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While some might separate the work of Salinger or Lee from Allison, it's impossible not to recognize this novel for finding its power from a different place. Bastard Out Of Carolina is not only near flawless in its telling, but also crafts its own legacy in painting the portrait of a child, a family, and poverty-stricken communities so that others may understand what can't be understood. The lesson here, if there is but one, is that truth remains the cure while censorship feeds cruelty.

Bastard Out of Carolina: A Novel by Dorothy Allison can be found on Amazon. The book is also available from Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded from iBooks. The audio book, available at iTunes, is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. Evans courageously balances the tragedy and atrocity, pride and audacity of every character, punctuating it all with brief flashes of innocence.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Babysitter Has An Eye On Scuzzy Rock

Babysitter Victoria
Two months ago, Psychic Handshake Recordings proved again that they have a hand on the pulse of Canadian underground as they signed the scuzzy garage rock trio Babysitter out of Victoria, British Columbia. The Montreal-based label was right in time to help the band release its first proper debut, Eye.

While only a handful of people have been introduced to the band stateside, Babysitter has been both elusive and ubiquitous in Canada, putting out small-run cassettes and 7-inchers and touring coast-to-coast. Any time there is a lineup of rising alternative and underground rock bands, Babysitter is there.

Eye is 13 tracks of gritty, imperfect rock. 

Heavily influenced by the lo-fi alternative scene, Babysitter puts out garage rock with punk and proto-punk leanings. There are often nods to other genres too, anything and everything from rural rock to hair pop and from 60s slow to 90s wild.

Some of it is hardwired to their roots. Two early members, Andy Vanier (bass) and Renny McClure (drums), used to play with a fuzzy indie folk collective of revolving musicians called Seaweedhead before cutting out with frontman Kristian North (vocals, guitar) to lay down something infinitely harder and less restrained.

Although McClure has since split, Babysitter quickly recruited Seaweedhead vet Aden Collinge to pick up the sticks. The transition has taken almost no time, something North and Vanier say has been fortunate. The biggest requirement, it seems, is finding someone who is ready to bust out a string of shorts that somehow meld into 60 minutes of near-continuous music. It's how they roll — urgent but fun.

The video, Holiday, is the two-and-a-half minute short version that appeared on the 7" split with Korean Girl. On the full-length album Eye, Holiday is much longer at nearly four minutes. The longer version is more explicit, packing in more pointed commentary (the kind of stuff that possibly prompted the band to be a bit more elusive about their everyday lives in recent months).

They seem to have that paradoxical approach to nearly everything. They take a never-look-back approach to their music, pushing out songs as fast as they can write them, but also recording everything they do inside their home studio. The contradiction fuels their creativity, with North writing straightforward lyrics about whatever they talk about and the music arranged to convey the feel of it.

Listen carefully to some of it and any meaning gleaned is likely to change. As direct as North can be, metaphor is also part of the repertoire. And his ability to scream it all out effortlessly lends to its honesty within whatever they make.

Eye is essentially a virile live set cut in a studio, maybe at home.

Standouts from the album include the punked up Talkin Bout The New Generation and its garage rock companion 1969Ties. Both serve up the severity of the band (much like Gotta Be Me, Gotta Be Free), but their slower moments strike the right chords too. Crace Mountain is a solid stripped back, acoustically-driven folk rocker and 1000 Girls plays like it is positioned — a meandering, croaky closer when energy is all spent but not the experimentation. It's a healthy, addictive dose of cross-genre noise.

Calling out a few standouts might give people a place to start, but Eye is best listened to in its entirety. Anyone cutting up the album into little tiny bits will miss out considerably (much like if they skipped tracks off anything put out by Jamestown Massacre). In this case, the entirety of the album creates a wildly bipolar wave of egomanic elation and deflated depression.

Eye By Babysitter Blinks Up 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There is something exciting about Babysitter and its ascent out of the otherwise quiet community of Victoria. Never mind that you'll sometimes hear arrangements that sound uncomfortably familiar. Babysitter makes everything abrasive and scrappy enough that any such nod is offset by their impromptu spontaneity. They are definitely a band to watch and worth seeing live.

Eye by Babysitter was recently released on iTunes. Eye is also available for download on Amazon. In keeping with their elusiveness, there aren't many places to connect with the band. The best bet to find tour dates is off their sparsely appointed tumblr page. Otherwise, follow their label, Psychic Handshake, on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Safety Not Guaranteed Sees A Future

Safety Not Guaranteed
"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." — Classified advertisement

As impossible as it might sound, the indie comedy-drama film Safety Not Guaranteed was inspired by an advertisement that ran in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997. The ad was one of two placed by freelance writer John Silveira as a joke, meant to fill space. His surprise was in the response.

He received more than 1,000 responses.

It was this ad that eventually inspired screenwriter Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow to wonder what might have happened if someone else had placed it — like Kenneth Colloway (Mark Duplass), a stock clerk at a local grocery store who spends his spare time decipering time travel.

The ad does attract some attention, including the editorial team of a Seattle magazine, which assigns one of its writers, Jeff Schwensen (Jake Johnson), and two interns (Aubrey Plaza and Karan Soni) to investigate the person who placed it. It doesn't take long for the three of them to discover someone who is paranoid about being followed by government agents isn't very easy.

Colloway rejects Schwensen as a companion outright, leaving intern Darius Britt to partner up with the would-be time traveler. Britt, a despondent college student who lives at home with her widower father (Jeff Garlin), must pass a series of training exercises before Colloway is willing to accept her as a companion. As she passes them easily enough, she begins to endear herself to him.

While Britt continues to bond with Colloway, his paranoia is proven real as the Seattle journalists discover federal agents really are following him. At the same time, they debunk his reasons for traveling back in time. The girlfriend he claims that he wants to save is alive. And she was never his girlfriend.

Overall, the film is brought together by an amazingly strong cast, frequently clever writing, and a warmth that comes out of the disillusionment of having to grow up more than time travel storyline. While the characters feel less grounded than those in the more thrilleresque time travel indie Sound Of My Voice and Duplass plays Colloway too affable to ever be considered dangerous, the entire film comes from a different place. It relies more on heart, trust and quirkiness to propel itself.

A bit more about the people behind Safety Not Guaranteed. 

Screenwriter Derek Connolly and Director Colin Trevorrow
Although Connolly has written for television and film since attending film school at New York University, Safety Not Guaranteed is his first produced screenplay. Since Safety Not Guaranteed became a light-hearted indie success, he has signed on to co-write another film with Big Beach Films and to rewrite and remake Flight Of The Navigator with Disney.

On both projects, he will be working with Trevorrow as director. Trevorrow is a long-time film enthusiast who started making shorts when he was only 12. Like Connollly, Trevorrow also graduated from New York University. They met while interning at Saturday Night Live. Trevorrow also produced, directed and wrote a handful of titles, most notably the short Home Base in 2002 and Making Revolution in 2003.

While the entire cast turns in memorable performances, Duplass and Plaza are especially sharp in being purposefully one beat off from everyone else. They do develop an oddball spark between them, even if any flame feels more like friendship than a developing romance. The only place either of them seem to struggle is in a script overreach that gives the character Colloway a prosthetic ear.

Safety Not Guaranteed Bends 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

This is the indie flick that reverses the notion that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Here, precisely, the opposite holds true. It is all the independent parts that somehow manage to elevate Safety Not Guaranteed into an offbeat, feel-good film that (albeit being amazingly light) is plainly deserving of attention.

Safety Not Guaranteed is available for rent or purchase from iTunes. You can also find Safety Not Guaranteed on DVD and Blu-ray via Amazon. The film is also available at Barnes & Noble. Since making appearances at several film festivals this year, the movie earned several awards, with Plaza deservedly earning Breakthrough Performance Award from Young Hollywood Actors (among others) and Connolly receiving the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Weeks In Gutter Gaunt Gangster

The Weeks
As a holdover to their upcoming Southern rock/sludge pop album slated for early 2013, The Weeks put out an extraordinarily sharp albeit under-the-radar EP a few weeks ago. It does a fine job mapping out the continuous progression being made by the band that once hailed from Jackson, Mississippi.

With two additional songs added to the rerelease of the original six, Gutter Gaunt Gangster is ambitious enough to be a full length while retaining its EP status. And, with the possible exception of the 50-second Southern folk ditty Goodbye Winston Churchill, there isn't anything quiet about it.

Gutter Gaunt Gangster with The Weeks.

Gutter Gaunt Gangster is all about roots and change. Change because the EP took the band from Jackson, Mississippi, to Nashville and a label change from Esperanza Plantation to Serpents and Snakes, the new label founded by Kings of Leon. Most of the changes occurred over the last two years.

In addition to the new label and base, The Weeks have added Admiral Collier on piano, organ, and vocals, bringing the band back to five members for the first time since 2009. The fuller sound suits the founding members Cyle Barnes (vocals) and Cain Barnes (drums), Samuel Williams (guitar), and Damien Bone (bass).

What hasn't changed is that Cyle Barnes is a dynamic songwriter who cut his teeth at the age of 14 playing any bar that that would let him, his twin brother, and other band members in the front door (and a few more inclined to let them in the back way). This gave The Weeks more than a three-year head start before their debut album Comeback Cadillac (although Olympic Records pressed Dog Days back in 2006).

The roots aspect of the EP is especially notable on Slave To The South. Although some people give props to Stigmata (produced with Justin Louck and Ian Fitchuk), Slave To The South remains my favorite. The track, cut while they were still in Jackson, is all about being born in Mississippi.

"I'm a slave to the South, there's a curse on this house. I've been dying to leave, but I just can't get out."

The song captures a sentiment that pushes Cyle Barnes beyond his years. You don't even have to be from the South to appreciate it. We all feel stuck sometimes. The difference for The Weeks is they did something about it.

The other track that epitomizes the band is The House We Grew Up In, with its uncanny ability to meld Cyle Barnes' Southern rock vocals with pop melodies backed by hooks and sludge. One of their favorites to play, it picks up on the sound they strive for — pop music played at the bottom of a swamp.  (Personally, I prefer the original cut but this one still works well enough.)

Stigmata, which is frequently listed as a standout, is a slow-moving Southern brooder. It takes advantage of the smokiest stylings of The Weeks. It is a beautifully composed and arranged track, even if my leanings are more in sync with the band's raunchier and less restrained songs.

You can get a sense of that with the bust out I've Broken All Your Windows, which wavers back and forth between Southern blues smooth and big Southern rock choruses. Harmony and I'm Not Dead Yet also lend well to the band's six-year pursuit of having a good time while still delivering on desperation.

The diversity is what sometimes makes the band polarizing in that people either love them or hate them.  Expect more people to love them in the months and years ahead. As the members mature, everything they play is meatier and more meaningful. Collier will only add to that. (Agree if you've ever seen him.)

Gutter Gaunt Gangster Is The Weeks At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Gutter Gaunt Gangster isn't new for anyone who knows the band, but it does make for a great introduction for anyone who doesn't. As long as the band keeps close to its Southern roots without drifting too far over into pop territory, their next album has every chance to be on the radar.

You can pick up Gutter Gaunt Gangster by The Weeks on iTunes or look for Gutter Gaunt Gangster on Amazon. Barnes & Noble also carries the CD. The original 12" vinyl edition did not include the new version of The House We Grew Up In or Goodbye Winston Churchill. Recently, the band pulled off a successful series of shows in London. You can check on their current show schedule on Facebook.

Monday, December 10, 2012

SMS Moves Closer To Wireless Bliss

SMS Audio Sync by 50
Fifty feet. This is the maximum range you can expect from the SMS Sync by 50 Wireless Headphones. Most people will experience a little less, without any sizable degradation to sound quality. After about 30-35 feet, expect a few dropouts depending on where and how far away you are from the transmitter and depending on line of sight.

The sound quality is decent in comparison to similarly branded models, even if it is well under what audiophiles are listening for and don't have the booming bass associated with Beats Studio or Dr. Dre. What these do offer is a smoother response across the entire spectrum and two other considerations.

While SMS Sync by 50 has its share of shortcomings, the combination of wireless technology and durability makes them worth consideration. Having even one pair of wireless headphones you're not afraid to take out of the house can be a real plus. And the SMS Sync by 50 are also more comfortable (longer) than other headphones and almost ear buds.

SMS Sync by 50 is a solid wireless solution for headphones, mostly. 

The sound quality hinges on Kleer Technology, which is used in a number of wireless platforms that rely on low latency wireless distribution and deliver CD quality audio. The performance is notable because Kleer works in the 2.4 GHz range and can stream 44.1 kHZ, 16-bit audio with greater resistance to interference. (It is probably the only serious competitor to Bluetooth technology.)

Sure, the headphones still lean toward the highs and lows but not nearly as much. Overall, the sound quality is passable but not on par with headphones like Able Planet or Clear Harmony (which aren't wireless) or Sennheiser (which is the best wireless but not for rough and tumble usage). Even the  "THUMPP" bass boost only helps  moderate level (especially when it's cabled up). Expect more distortions at higher levels while using wireless.

SMS Audio Sync by 50There is another advantage to the Kleer Technology. Battery usage is minimal. A full charge can deliver uninterrupted performance for 17 hours (longer than most mobile devices). The 3.5mm tangle-free headphone cable, included among the accessories, allows them to work even without the charge.

Ironically, the cable adds functionality and more stable, distortion-free sound and includes a microphone, which will allow you to answer any incoming calls on your iPhone (or for gaming purposes). The same controls also adjust audio and skip tracks (forward or back).

Without the cable, the adjustments are all made on the ear cups. The left side includes sync or bass boost. The right side adjusts the volume and skips tracks. The track forward and reverse feature, however, only works when the headphones are connected via a USN or 30-pin transmitter. Go figure.

How the SMS Sync connects to almost everything.

The cable works with any 3.5mm audio source, including iPhones, iPods, iPads, tablet PCs, and some mobile devices, laptops, and gaming devices. Wireless works much the same way, but uses the 3.5mm dongle instead. Syncing is easy. It only takes a few seconds.

SMS Audio Street by 50One of the better and more interesting features of SMS Sync by 50 is that you can sync up to four headphone sets to the dongle. This makes it passible for sharing music with a few friends or listening to the same playlist while working out.

Like the headphones, the dongle is charged using a USB port. While some people find it inconvenient that they have to charge them separately, it beats battery changes. And like any chargeable device, it's best to avoid charging them fully every 15 minutes or you'll notice significant battery draw over time.

I also suspect most owners will have a little more battery life if they turn off one of the most annoying features of SMS Sync by 50. The illuminated S symbol is annoying, especially when it blinks. For yourself and everyone around you, toggle the headset to airplane mode. (Don't confuse 'airplane mode' for noise cancelation. Sync by 50 has noise isolation, which means you'll hear less but still plenty.)

SMS Sync by 50 Clears The Bar At 2.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

These aren't the best headphones in terms of sound quality, especially for the price. But where they do excel is delivering better-than-average wireless music from a model that is more durable, flexible, and least likely to break. (Trust me. You're not going outside with Sennheiser headphones.) In another year, given the progress SMS Audio has made on wired, its wireless will be even better, especially if it can clear up the sometimes muddy baselines.

You can find the wireless headphone (SMS Sync by 50) direct. The wireless model is priced at $400. The wired models (STREET by 50) range from $180 to $300. For people listening for sound quality over durability, check the Sennheiser RS 220 Headphones at Amazon. They retail for almost $200 more (Sennheiser does have other models), which makes the Able Planet models (wired) the best value.