Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Color Uncovered Is Wildly Insightful

Although the release of iBooks 2 textbooks (selling 350,000 textbooks in three days) stole some thunder from recently released educational applications, it's impossible to ignore Color Uncovered from the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Its recently released educational app is wild, beautiful, and free.

The subject is color. And while designed with children in mind, the program can easily be considered a must have for artists and photographers — especially those who haven't studied color, light, and pigments. Color Uncovered presents just under 20 exhibits similar to those that you might see at Exploratorium stations except they are beautifully recast for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad.

The hero shot is the first exhibit, featuring an optical illusion that helps demonstrates how the brain fills in shapes that it expects to see rather than what is actually there. The faint blue square you see, for example, is absolute fiction.

The interactive experiments capture attention, but how you apply it counts.

Most reviews have touted it as an educational tool, mostly for children. The assessment comes from the interactive feature included on the page. Each of the circles can be pulled outward, disrupting the pattern. It's fun, even if it could be more than that.

Depending on how you apply the lesson, different ideas emerge. Someone who is science minded might consider the theory that the optical illusion is a latent ability that once helped us see faint outlines underwater.

The artist, designer, or photographer might take away something else. Paintings or photographs could impart entirely different meanings by taking in what our brains are all too ready to see. While not necessarily new on its own, there are more mini exhibitions to explore, including a better understanding of Claude Monet.

The French impressionist had more than light in his eyes.

While many people are familiar with the the French impressionist's paintings, especially Water Lilies, there is more to the story than being included in exhibitions for breaking with tradition. According to Color Uncovered, Monet could see and frequently painted patterns and colors to include the ultraviolet spectrum.

He acquired the ability late in his career after he developed cataracts that dulled his vision. In 1923, he underwent surgery to have them removed. The unexpected result was allowing him to see the ultraviolet spectrum, which a normal lens is equipped to filter out. In other words, water lilies look white for most people but Monet saw them how he painted them — pale blue with vibrant patterns.

A cross sampling of color exhibits within Color Uncovered.

The application presents dozens of optical illusions, most of which are interactive or ask for specific participation to make the optical illusions work. Don't be surprised to recognize a few if you've sought out optical illusions before. Where Color Uncovered shines is in the explanation.

Your eyes will make spots disappear, imagine colors that don't exist within the pigments used, demonstrate how the mind is attracted to luminance, or how color saturation can seem fleeting. One of the most striking (even if you've seen it before) is how the brain can colorize a photo based on nothing more than color negatives. The effect only lasts a second, but the artist's application is mind bending.

Of course, not all of the screen exhibits are about how we see things. Sometimes they are about how things are. As most designers know, computer screens only use three colors. As most photographers know, incandescent lights add more reds and halogen lamps emit more blues. Or as only people in the tropic might know, oranges are really green unless they've been treated with ethylene gas or blasted by cold.

All in all, the app is light on content in that it can be digested in the quick span of half an hour, maybe an hour if you are really concentrating on each experiment (and watch all of the videos included in the Shades of Meaning, which is the least grabbing of every thread).

However, just because the app is 17 exhibits today, that doesn't mean it will have 17 exhibits tomorrow. The Exploratorium originally launched the app with 11 pages. The additional exhibits were added as an update.

Color Uncovered By The Exploratorium Surprises At 5.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a free education application, the Exploratorium has put together a great starting set for anyone interested in light, color, science, and perception. The physical Exploratorium is a museum of science, art, and human perception with hundreds of explore-for-yourself exhibits. The museum will be moving to the San Francisco's historic waterfront in 2013.

You can find Color Uncovered for free on iTunes. You can also learn more about the Exploratorium  on its website. For those interested in the work of Claude Monet, we found a surprising collection of printsmuseum prints, and canvas prints at Barewalls (including Water Lilies). Just search for his name.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Xray Eyeballs Catch Splendor Squalor

The Brooklyn band with the curious name has a new lineup and a brand new album. It's enough change that 2012 could very well be the year that Xray Eyeballs finally catches fire.

Gone are Jay High (guitar), Rop Style (synth and theremin), and Allison Press (drums). In are Liz Lohse on guitar and synth (formerly with Heaven and Runaway Suns) and Sarah Baldwin on drums and vocals (formerly with The Girls At Dawn). Lohse and Baldwin join stalwarts Carly Rabalais on bass and vocals, and O.J. San Felipe on guitar and vocals. It's almost an entirely new band.

Xray Eyeballs change up their sound, but not their look. 

If you’ve heard the band’s previous work, you’ll immediately notice that the new version of Xray Eyeballs is a bit less goth in sound. Only the appearance remains relatively unchanged. It all seems by design. Band founder San Felipe knows what he wants but it took awhile for him to find it.

He originally relocated from his native San Francisco to Brooklyn around 2000 and quickly found himself part of a burgeoning music scene playing in a variety of bands, most notably Golden Triangle. If you've never heard of Golden Triangle don't feel bad. They were always light on output, but made up for it with their fiery live performances and wacky stage presence.

It's also where San Felipe met Rabalais, and shared his vision. He wanted to do something different.

“I just wanted to make every song sound like a lullaby," he said. "To me, lullabies are the most memorable kind of songs; everyone remembers them from when they’re babies. They’re not all happy lullabies either. I think people like songs they can relate to, with things like love, loss, dark vices, and sex.” 

San Felipe wrote the songs and then started recruiting band members, with Rabalais being the first. Not Nothing was released in the spring of 2011 on Kanine Records and earned the band props for their dreamy pop hooks and hazy, fuzzy sound that makes one think of Jesus and Mary Chain and Velvet Underground. But that's not what makes Splendor Squalor really tick. Here's the lullaby, live.

While you can't catch it all in the clip, Splendor Squalor actually kicks up the songwriting several notches. The synths are more prominent. The showcase is all on the harmonies of San Felipe and Rabalais with a strong garage pop noir sound. And you can hear it better here, from last year.

The 11-track Splendor Squalor offers up a nice bunch of tunes. Not one of them sounds too much like the others, with the band shifting effortlessly from garage rock to an eerie rave up.

Die Little Love is very new wave, punctuated by a piercing guitar and low-key synth. Gotham Low Lifes (sic) features jangly guitars with a pulsating rhythm. X is a punchy tune featuring Rabalais’ throbbing bass, and Four, the first track on the CD, kicks things into gear with a driving beat that makes you want to get up on your feet.

After a few listens to the CD in its entirety, you will hear some traces of the Shangri-Las, X’s John and Exene, and maybe even the Raveonettes (to a lesser degree). Yet, Xray Eyeballs manages to mix it all up and deliver something original. It's inspired and inspiring.

Looking forward, this is a band that manages to do what few can. They bring the intensity of their live shows to their recordings. Want proof? Check out another clip of the band in action at the Mercury Lounge on Vimeo. It includes everyone in the new lineup.

You can stay up to date on the band's comings and goings on Facebook. Twitter too. Right now, the band has a few shows set in February and March, with a Feb. 28 show on their home turf of Brooklyn. In March, they hit Houston and then Chicago.

Spendor Squalor By Xray Eyeballs Raves Up A 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

If you are still unsure about the sound, take it for a test run. You can download the song X from their Bandcamp page. In exchange, all you need to do is share your email address.

If you are more certain, then you can find Splendor Squalor by the Xray Eyeballs up on iTunes. The entire album is a steal at $7.99. Listen to X, Four, Pill Riders, and Cold Bones first. Summer Daze too if you like something less expected. The album is also on Amazon, but we haven't seen Kanine Records put it up at Barnes & Noble yet.

Friday, January 27, 2012

John Green Sees Fault In Our Stars

Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster has a problem. It's not a small problem. It's a big problem.

She is going to die. And when she dies, the last thing she wants to be is a grenade — someone who causes collateral damage to everyone around her; people who might get to know her, become her friend, or otherwise attach themselves to her long-standing battle with cancer since she was 14.

So she sleeps, eats, repeats, limiting her contact with everyone except a few friends long vested, her parents who have no choice, and the support group just because her mom makes her go. You need a life, her mom insists. Make friends.

"Then we introduce ourselves: Name. Age. Diagnosis. And how we're doing today. I'm Hazel I'd say when they'd get to me. Sixteen. Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled satellite colony in my lungs. And I'm doing okay."

Although she also takes a few college classes, every day is the same. And every support session is the same. It's an exercise in sharing their medical stories, offering near-scripted circle support for the living, and remembering the dead. Every session is the same, except when one attendee brings his friend, cancer survivor Augustus Waters. From that day forward, Hazel will never be the same.

The Fault In Our Stars is a perfect expose on life, love, and the mortality of everything. 

Hazel and Augustus are almost mirror images of each other. They are smart, snarky, sarcastic, cynical, contemptuous, and sometimes a little pretentious.

It won't take long to forgive the pretentiousness. Hazel, because she has faced death for almost three years and fights for another breath every day. Augustus, because he gave up a leg and basketball to beat it. More than that, it's their desire to tell their sad stories in the funniest way that wins people over.

It won't take you long to forget any summation that suggests the book is about dying of cancer, either. It's about living, and how infinite you can make life when circumstance pulls the knot of time taut.

When there isn't time, accepting an invitation to a boy's house to watch V For Vendetta, simply because he says she has a likeness to a millennial Natalie Portman, is perfectly justified. When there isn't time, putting off video game serials to read the thick-spinned An Imperial Affliction in order to impress a girl, makes perfect sense. And when there isn't time, you tend make time by splitting seconds into fractions of a second, just to savor all of it a little longer.

The pair of them do exactly that, perfectly enough that although The Fault In Our Stars is fiction, it is impossible not to become attached to the characters. Their sheer determination to deny their affliction will bond you to their lives. So will their unabashed wit and the occasional theatrical artistry for everything.

It doesn't take long for this fast friendship and hesitant romantic interest to develop into an inspired idea. The girl with an oxygen tank and the boy with a fake leg decide to take on a noble quest. They must find out what happens to all of the characters, including the hamster, in their mutually beloved book An Imperial Affliction by Peter Van Houten.

It won't be easy. The author is notoriously infamous for not responding to fan mail and lives in Amsterdam.

John Green has written his most ambitious novel and a timeless masterpiece. 

Although John Green is already a best-selling and award-winning author with two collaborative works and four books, The Fault In Our Stars is easily his most ambitious work. Not only does he take on the challenge of making his ill protagonist an adolescent girl, he also molds together a near-adventure story into a beautifully moving contemporary classic.

Green has captured his white whale. He wanted to write the book, or more exactly could not not write the book, to the story of characters who do not have the luxury of taking their own bodies for granted, taking their own mortality for granted, or taking their ability to find meaning in the world for granted. All the while, he shows them as full and complete humans and not people who need to be treated differently or less than.

Before writing and starting a popularized videoblog project with his brother Hank, Green worked as a book reviewer for Booklist Magazine and has had reviews appear in the New York Times. He also worked at a children's hospital for five months, immediately out of college, while considering whether or not he wanted to pursue a life as a minister. He met many teenagers with cancer.

The Fault In Our Stars By John Green Soars To 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Fault In Our Stars is a breakthrough in simultaneously taking on the awkwardness of adolescence and challenges of living with a terminal disease. Although he takes the subject matter head on, his decision to make Hazel sick from page one immediately casts the affliction as expected and accepted because it has to be. This makes it possible to laugh with the characters throughout, even when the story takes a crushing turn toward the end.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is available on Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble or download the book from iBooks. The audio version, from iTunes, is especially brilliant. Green describes Kate Rudd's narration as adding more to the book than was even in the book. He's right.

Rudd becomes Hazel Grace Lancaster for about seven hours. If you think the book is haunting and will stay with you forever, so will Rudd's voice, cadence and performance. There is also a short question and answer interview with Green at the end of the audiobook. Read or listened to, it will change you.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Murder City Devils Rise Every Day

It has been ten long years since the The Murder City Devils put out a new single. And when the new single hit iTunes on Tuesday, it only confirmed what everybody knew. Ten years was too long.

It's good to have Spencer Moody back, and most of the Seattle-based punk garage rock sextet with him. (And Gabe, making seven.) Yes, the band has been back and playing live shows here and there since 2006, with increasing frequency. But this is different.

The release of the new two-song 7" single marks a much more serious reunion, especially since nothing new has even been locked down since two unreleased songs appeared on the 2002 Halloween concert track in 2003 (R.I.P.). It also seems fitting for the band to restart with something close to how they first started. They debuted with a 3-song 7" in 1997.

Every Day I Rise feels like someone pushed paused on the Murder City Devils. 

What always worked for the Murder City Devils ten years ago is working today. Every Day I Rise takes everything they learned as a punk band and shifts it into the garage rock slot. Their music was even described as the kissing cousin of punk back then, which is why they were able to open for X.

Nowadays, the genre-bending sound still applies. They sometimes play with bands we like on both sides of the spectrum (Obits and JEFF The Brotherhood among them). Every Day I Rise is partly why.

But since the video exists, let's start with the B-side. Ball Busters In The Peanut Gallery first appeared on the scene as their first new song played in front of a live audience. At the time, it didn't have a title.

When Moody first played it in 2010, it was still unpolished with the singer speak-belting the vocals even more than he does on the track. Not so on the new studio cut. There is more melody and bigger instrumental breakouts, creating a crisp sound more indicative of where they are as band.

And although more subdued than the front side, Ball Busters captures the essence the band. Moody hollers poetry vocals. The music bed is thick. The instruments are gritty. And when you add up all the elements, everything plays dark, bleak, but woozily party ready.

Every Day I Rise plays even closer to In Name And Blood, their last full length, with a little bit of the band buster direction of Thelema tossed in. What does sound different is the mix. The instruments are more pronounced. Moody's maturity makes it possible for him not to shout as loud to command attention as his voice growls and cracks under the emphasis.

In fact, while his vocal style has been likened to dozens of artists (including Jim Morrison), it's obvious Moody's real influences are one off from music. He screams his words as fiery as any preacher. The effect is as menacing as it is captivating.

"Every day I rise and nobody cares, I've got no disciple to scare." — Moody

The song is wrong, of course. The response to the 7" pressing overwhelmed the band, selling out almost immediately after it was posted. The second pressing is expected to be ready in March. It will sell out again, and not just because some people are are feeling the tug of nostalgia. It's great music.

A quick catch up on the band.  

Mostly, everything has come together for the Murder City Devils as sort of a slow creep, which is a complete contrast to how it all ended. Moody drove the band in a different direction to produce Thelema in 2001. While fans revered the directional change, it also broke the band apart.

They ended like they played. It was fierce and unforgettable, much like their presence on the punk and garage rock scene. Of course, that was only on stage. Most of the band, especially Moody, always appeared easygoing, contemplative, and even joyful off stage. They all went on to do other stuff.

Notably, Moody has focused on his store, art, poetry, and other bands. Dann Gallucci (guitar) played on and off with Modest Mouse. Derek Fudesco (bass) played with Pretty Girls Make Graves before The Cave Singers. Nate Manny (bass) is a commercial art director and artist. Coady Willis (drums) plays with Big Business. Leslie Hardy (keys) did real estate. And Gabe has been keeping things live on the website for awhile. Even better, they all get along now.

Every Day I Rise By The Murder City Devils Raises 9.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

What else can be said? They're back. And if some of the interviews they've held over the last few months are any indication, they might have created more than two new songs since they started working on new material in 2009. We can hope.

Every Day I Rise by the Murder City Devils is on iTunes. If you want to dig up some other material, start with In Name and Blood, which is on Amazon. You can also find the album on iTunes. Barnes & Noble still has the vinyl edition put out by SubPop. The new material, however, is all self-produced.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Early Spring Escape To ME Cabo

Some people might disagree, but you need a swimmable beach anytime you stay in Cabo San Lucas. The ocean air and weather makes it too inviting not to swim. And some hotels are either landlocked or located on the west side of the point, where swimming is impossible because of the waves and riptides.

ME Cabo is idyllic for this reason, even if you don't spend every waking minute on the beach. You'll want to. The music starts every day around noon and the place becomes a party within a couple of hours.

The same goes for the terraced pool area on the weekends, especially Saturday night. During the week, everything is considerably quieter (compared to the weekends). You're much more apt to notice the wear and tear in the town and the club music can still be a bit much. And yet, it's Cabo San Lucas.

The ME Cabo is the heart of the Cabo San Lucas. 

There are a few things you need to know before you stay here. Booking a view room is an absolute must, as is asking for a room farther away from the lobby and club. If you can afford it, upgrade for one of the rooms on the upper floor (about $50). They call that the "Level."

Booking a better room is especially important if you are looking for something more relaxed. The experience varies dramatically. The same can be said for the entire city. So other hotels might be a better match for escaping couples or families (like the nearby Casa Dorado). This is a party hotel.

I went with two friends and we were looking for fun. They picked the ME Cabo because they had stayed there before. It's one of the best places to mix and mingle with people in their twenties to forties.

On the Level floor, you'll know your experience is different. The rooms have private balconies overlooking the Sea of Cortez. The beds are comfortable, with 300 thread-count sheets. The extra bed is not as comfortable (about $80 per night), but the couch works well enough. So do the patio chairs, where I fell asleep on the first night.

The hotel itself feels like a destination, which is by design. It's owned by Sol Melia, which owns experience-based hotels all over the world. Its newest is opening in London this spring.

It would be easy enough to stay at ME the entire time, but there are other places to go. But it also feels good to have a home base, knowing you can always eat at The Deck. It's easier to get a table there than it is to lock in a cabana bed or lounge chairs during peak times.

Everything is within an easy walk of the ME Cabo San Lucas. 

You might need a car or a cab for some excursions, but staying at a central hotel has advantages. You can walk almost anywhere, including to the water taxis continuously departing for the El Arco. While it is the most common thing to see in Cabo, there is always a thrill being bounced around in a water taxi where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez.

Make sure you take one that allows you to hop out at Playa del Amor (Lover's Beach) and spend a few hours. (The water taxis will take you back any time.) If you get off, prepare to get wet. The taxis don't land at the beach; you have to jump into waist deep water, off a rocking boat when the water is choppy.

The less common excursions (meaning less crowded) are fishing tours and parasailing expeditions, which highlighted my trip. Definitely charter your own boat, usually for five to six hours. The guides will take you anywhere you want to go, but they mostly want you to catch a fish, especially a marlin.

We did, but it wasn't me. Anything in March or earlier will usually be cabrilla, yellow tail, or wahoo. But our guides were good, especially because we asked questions and befriended them.

The best part of about chartering a boat (assuming it's a small boat) is you can find one for about $300 to $500, which includes license, bait, equipment, cervezas, and cleaning your catch (unless you release it). The only extra is the tip (usually 15-20 percent, which is why they want you to catch a big fish). The downside is heading out so early to get more out of the day. Seven comes up early.

Parasailing is much more spontaneous. It usually happens in the afternoon after lunch. You kick back with your friends on the beach and you see someone else parasailing. As soon as you mention it looks like fun, your friends vote for you to go first. The thrill is all about being lifted out of the water, even if I prefer to have a board under my feet. (Surfing will be a must next time.)

Some other stops to make in Cabo include Habanero's for breakfast, Tequila for dinner, and Cabo Wabo after that. But most of best finds along the tip of Baja California are made walking around. The downtown area and the marina are filled with little local shops and more commercial places too.

ME Hotel At Cabo San Lucas Catches A Wave At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Truly, Cabo San Lucas is not Jack Kerouac's Mexico. This is a resort town as Americans would like all of Mexico to be. Since the 1950s, it evolved from a billfishing hot spot to a resort town. There are areas you can find with a little more authentic charm, but mostly you have to drive a few hours to feel it.

To make plans for Cabo San Lucas, compare deals for airfares, discounted hotels, and car rentals on Fare Buzz. Fare Buzz recently started a new promotion for servicemen and women to receive an addition $10 off too (code MIL10).

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Turf War Takes Its Years Dangerously

When Turf War made the move from Augusta, Georgia, to Atlanta, it was one of the best decisions they ever made. The other, of course, was having guitarist Ian Staint Pé (The Black Lips) produce their debut album, Years Of Living Dangerously. 

John Robinson has never sounded better. After a few years working it as a solo artist, he and the full band that has since joined him are hard to beat. With a stack of regional shows lined up in February, expect to hear their name more often in the coming months. 

They've already earned a reputation for some knockout rowdy performances after supporting their debut album in December. They opened for The Black Lips and Vivian Girls last year, part of some earned perks just before gaining some attention at SXSW a few months earlier (where they met Rob Mason, owner of Old Flame Records).

At the time, their debut record didn't even have a name. But what they did have were four songs on a free EP and a killer live show. Between their punk-infused demos and sweaty stage presence, Turf War had all the makings of a band with the best of indie goodness.

In fact, all four demos did make the album. While the songs have a little more fuzz, a little less fullness, and a lot more polish, it's clear they haven't given up on the punk roots that have been recast as garage rock.

Years Of Living Dangerously is all anxious and dirty, dark but upbeat. 

Although the name Turf War suggests this is a tougher band than they are (it was the toughest name Robinson could think of at the time), the album cuts across the last days of everyone's younger years, when fun means drunkenness, recklessness, and as little responsibility as possible.

That doesn't mean they have produced a laid back party album. It means that these guys play every song as if they know all too well that such days are numbered. You have to make the most of every moment while you can.

Robinson feels it because he almost gave up music to become an electrician. The rest of the band knows it too. One of the most poignant songs on the debut underscores the sentiment. It was written for a dead friend. (The band did a See/Saw cover by Jay Reatard the night after he died.) There is no time.

This knowing, always present and lurking in the background, is precisely why the album works so well. It plays like a tug of war between being a mess and wasting your time versus getting your shit together and wasting your time.

Cheers To The Years is the song the band has been pushing in advance of the album. It captures all of their catchiness, and some subtle Southern influences.

There is much more to discover from this nearly undiscovered band. For The Last Time showcases their ability to bury emotive and somber vocals deep inside their upbeat instrumentals. Where I Belong throws punches at the idea of being trapped in a path of circumstance. A Little Harder This Time captures how it feels to be yanked in different directions, none of which are necessarily good.

If Years Of Living Dangerously can be summed as anything, it's that space between a rock and a hard place. It's knowing that life is too short to trudge through but wasting time and punching a time clock seems much the same. It sucks so you might as well have a good time.

Turf War does know a lot about good times. Even during their holiday hiatus, they composed a new song (not on the album) exactly where you might suspect. They did it in a garage or maybe a basement.

Turf War has been together as band for about three years, but Robinson first started it as a bedroom project back in 2007. The balance of the band includes Cecil Moss (guitar), Brian McGrath (drums), Brad Morris (bass), and Ian McDonald (who they added after working with him in the studio). McGrath, by the way, designed the album art.

Between booking shows and emptying bottles (or cans), they have a wry sense of humor. Follow their updates and you might see a shot of a random beef jerky store. The caption? Best day ever.

Years Of Living Dangerously By Turf War Hits 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There is plenty more to like about the band. Robinson has always said they would rather have respect than ever be popular. In other words, they'll work it as long as they can to avoid the daily grind. We think it will be a long time before that happens. Maybe never.

Years Of Living Dangerously by Turf War can be download from iTunes. Years of Living Dangerously is also on Amazon. The entire album is worth the download. But if you do try to pick and choose, start with the ones mentioned in the review plus Bones, Enemies, and 100 Years.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Victorinox Swiss Army Is Timeless

If there is such a thing as a perfect watch, it should be stylish enough to wear on special occasions but durable enough to wear every day. They aren't always easy to find. Swiss Army’s women’s Vivante with mother-of-pearl pink dial meets both criteria effortlessly.

As someone who collects watches, I've always wanted a Swiss Army watch but never found just the right one. That changed when I opened a gift box containing the Vivante last month.

The pink pearlescent background shimmers, accented by bold silver-toned Arabic numeral hour indexes (very easy to read), and stainless steel case and bezel with a cabochon crown. The date display covers the six position, and the watch features beautiful Swiss analog quartz movement.

The features that make the Vivante stand out and Swiss Army shine.

The Vivante is also water resistant up to 99 feet, which means you can wear it in the shower and in the pool without worrying about it. It's an important feature for anyone who frets over wearing their finer jewelry or watches.

Another smart feature is the anti-reflective sapphire window. It makes the face virtually scratch resistant, which is a big plus for anyone who needs a watch that can endure wear and tear.

The stainless steel bracelet is also something to admire. It includes a push button folding clasp that is easy to put on and take off but secure while wearing it. The links can easily be removed by a jeweler to adjust the bracelet down to fit a smaller wrist. (I paid $5 to have this done at my local jeweler.)

Some of the finer details aren't seen so easily seen. Swiss Army watches, for example, are handcrafted. The company also guarantees only first-class stainless steel is processed in its plants. All employees are responsible for quality control, which isn’t surprising given the company’s long and respected history.

A bit about the brand behind the Vivante watch.

The history of Swiss Army goes back some time. In 1884, a gentleman by the name of Karl Elsener opened his own cutlery workshop in Switzerland, a business venture made possible thanks to the support of his mother Victoria. After being in business for seven years, Elsener and his team delivered their first order of knives for soldiers in the Swiss Army, hence the Swiss Army connection.

In 1909, Elsener registered the now iconic cross and shield emblem as a registered trademark. In 1921, he chose the company name Victorinox to honor his mother Victoria, who had passed away. The “inox” part of the name is an abbreviation of the French term for rust-resistant steel, inoxydable.

By 1945, Elsener’s original Swiss Army knives were available and widely popular worldwide. It wasn't until 1989 that the company started selling watches in the United States under the Swiss Army brand.

Since, the success of the company’s knives and watches paved the way to offering other product lines, such as travel gear, clothing, and fragrances. Part of the allure is in the quality. Swiss Army has one of the better warranty programs.

It promises each watch will be free from defects in materials and workmanship for three years. All you have to do is make sure any work done on the watch is by an authorized Victorinox Swiss Army retailer. Otherwise, the warranty will be void.

The warranty information isn't always included by resellers on websites. However, the warranty is spelled out in a little book (literally) that accompanies the watch. The packaging is impressive too. My watch came in a heavy box that fit snugly in a larger box with just a silver logo on the lid. Perfect.

In checking out other models in the Vivante line, I noticed a nearly identical watch that includes shiny diamonds instead of the Arabic numerals. It’s priced at about $150 more, which is still a nice value although not as functional. Either one beats the more outrageously priced brands on the market.

Victorinox Swiss Army’s Vivante Clicks In With A 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Victorinox Swiss Army’s Vivante mother-of-pearl women’s stainless steel watch is one of the best looking watches for a better value on the market. The company is also environmentally conscious, locating its global headquarters in Ibach, Switzerland, and its North American headquarters in Monroe, Connecticut. The locations help it secure mostly recycled products in its buildings and offices.

You can order the Victorinox Swiss Army’s Vivante mother-of-pearl women’s stainless steel watch through Sundance Catalog (about $500). Sometimes you can also find good values at the Swiss Outlet, but not necessarily the specific watch you want. Also, I noticed there is generally no price difference on Swiss Army watches unless they've been discontinued.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Plants And Animals Put Up Lightshow

The new single, Lightshow, released by Plants And Animals in anticipation of their new album, isn't getting as much attention as some would expect. But any lack of love doesn't have much to do with Lightshow. It has to do with the B-side.

For some unknown reason, the eclectic Canadian indie band from Montreal decided to add their recent cover of I'll Believe In Anything by Wolf Parade. It's the one they recorded live at the POP Montreal International Music Festival.

It's not bad, but Plants And Animals didn't really do much to make it their own, creating a rather flat rendition in comparison to the original. I understand why they played it straight, but they really didn't need to.

Sure, the angst is felt and the emotion of the song bristles along through their fingers and onto their instruments. And yet something feels off, almost as if they were trying too hard to play it like Wolf Parade instead of like Plants And Animals.

Or maybe it does sound like Plants And Animals, just not the one we've heard before. Both tracks on the single suggest that their next album, The End Of That, is going to have more of an indie rock edge than La La Land ever did. That's a good sign. Plants And Animals sounds better when they play dirty.

What is really weird to me is that the cover actually does work well when you can see them play it, especially with the lead-in homage to Wolf Parade as being one of the first bands to take them on tour. See for yourself.

Why it doesn't work as well as an audio track is hard to say. But all the reactions to it are different. Those who saw the video love it. Those who didn't see the video aren't so excited. And that is why the cover is getting more attention than the single, which is just too bad because the single rocks.

Lightshow Is A Powerful Reintroduction To Plants And Animals. 

Lightshow highlights some renewed indie brilliance on behalf of Plants And Animals, something for an entirely new audience. The song meanders in and out of musical stylings, including some deathly hard transitions that could physically manifest themselves as head snaps.

The lyrics are dark, moody and biting. The delivery brings back some of the sounds from Parc Avenue, but from a more mature band that is unafraid to evolve. In fact, Lightshow is especially distinct because it dares to do things other bands would never do. And even if those bands did, it would never work.

The single comes together as a richly complex track, alternating sharp pop sections with crushing indie rock. After listening to it a few times, you might even wonder if it alludes to where the band is more than the you, me, and the planet (which is what the song is about).

Or maybe not. Knowing Plants And Animals, only one thing is certain about Lightshow. This isn't post-classic rock as they used to describe their music. It's something different. Something better.

The band that everybody expects more from, including themselves. 

With three vocalists and varied backgrounds, Warren Spicer (guitar), Matthew Woodley (drums), and Nicolas Basque (guitar, bass, keyboards) the band always surprises. Even when they released their first self-titled sprawling full-length with Ships at Night Records, they were counted as a band to watch.

But then they followed up with a sharply cut full-length and a new label. It was so sharp that it might have been a mixed blessing as much as it was a mixed bag. It catapulted them into the public eye with two Juno nominations and a spot on the Polaris Prize shortlist, but also set their sophomore album up to feel less complicated and more contemplated.

Lightshow doesn't suffer from being over thought. It feels natural. And even if they did record some songs two or three different ways (as they have been known to do), no one would ever really know it.

Lightshow Puts Plants And Animals At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Lightshow comes across as a new direction for Plants And Animals, closer to the less played basement mix of The Mama Papa from La La Land. Of course, there is no guarantee that the single is a foreshadow to The End Of That. Eclectic and meandering is just as likely.

Lightshow by Plants And Animals is up on iTunes. Take the B-side or not, but definitely pick up the single. You can also find Lightshow on Amazon. The End Of That is due out on February 28.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Nevil Shute In The Wet For 60 Years

For most people who read the book when it was published in 1953 (written in 1952), In The Wet by Nevil Shute Norway (aka Nevil Shute) was a provocative, controversial, and sometimes overreaching story in its attempt to be speculative about the British Commonwealth. And being so overtly critical of England's future, some of the early negative reviews were probably unfair.

Shute always considered In The Wet one of his better books. And he probably considered it as such because the book tackles topics such as democracy, socialism, and racism. He does so enough that some might find it equally provocative and controversial today. But in terms in being speculative, it'd be more likely to come across like an oddly crafted alternative reality, as his future is set in 1983.

The two interwoven stories in the foreground of In The Wet. 

The book opens with narrator Roger Hargreaves, an aging priest who is assigned to a remote area in the Australian outback in the 1950s. The portrait he paints is remarkably vivid in that it captures a stark and unforgiving landscape almost parallel to what one might expect in the American West some 50 years prior.

It is in this harsh and unforgiving environment that Hargreaves meets Pisspot Stevie (Stevie Figgins), the area's most infamous drunk who spends a good portion of his time hustling pints in town or disappears for days to see Liang Shih. Shih, among other things, grows his own opium in the bush.

Still, Shih proves to be a good friend. When Stevie becomes deathly ill, he looks for help. And when no one else is available to accompany Sister Finlay to aid Stevie, Hargreaves insists on accompanying her. The three of them set out across the flooded landscape together.

When they do arrive, Hargreaves spends considerable time with Stevie, expecting to give him his last rights. And it is during his final opium-soaked hours that Stevie begins to tell Hargreaves about his life, but not the one he lived. The next one he will live.

The substance of science fiction to explore social commentary. 

David Anderson is an Australian pilot who is assigned the Queen's flight team. In the forefront of this story is Anderson's relationship with a young English girl who works as an Oxford-trained secretary for the Queen. While it is a courtship story that slowly develops as the romance is placed on hold for the good of the Commonwealth and the Queen, it's obvious Shute brought the couple together so they can compare and contrast their respective countries.

In Shute's world, the United Kingdom has suffered an economic crisis caused in part by a socially driven exodus as the country became both more socialistic and adversarial toward the Royal Family. The crisis itself seems to have occurred in three parts over a span of 30 years.

The population, which still relies on World War II rationing, used democracy to continuously vote for a higher standard of living at the expense of entrepreneurial opportunities. The loss of these opportunities sparks a mass migration to America, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Canada.

Young men and women, he describes, decide to place more faith in liberty and individual ability to succeed than in the government's ability to keep people secure in their respective stations. The mass exodus compounds the economic weakness with a collapse of the housing market (which the government assumes).

Australia, on the other hand, embraces rugged individualism and an alternate democracy, which grants people multiple votes based on their contributions, e.g., one vote plus an additional vote for military service, a college degree, living abroad, raising a family without divorce, etc. The intent was to elevate the quality of the people in government rather than those who cater to a wanting majority.

The contrast between the two fictionalized futures exists, but the storytelling is never mired down by it. 

Perhaps even more interesting is that Anderson is a "quadroon," which means his mother was "half caste" Aborigine. Shute doesn't create a world where racism has disappeared, but Anderson disarms people by embracing it. He adopts the nickname "Nigger" even though no one would be able to tell by the color of his skin.

Some people might be offended by its usage, but Shute is pretty clear in his intent. He wanted to show two-fold that people of color are as good as anybody else and that even a quadroon born in a ditch can not only grow to become self-made but also to be the hero of the story in action and romance. Shute was well ahead of his time.

In The Wet By Nevil Shute Flies To 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

In The Wet sometimes gets mixed reactions for its unapologetic layering of social commentary, but it's not a plea to embrace Shute's socio-political fantasies. Anyone could easily place more weight on the reincarnation story with a pastor attempting to reconcile it or the light romance between two people during political strife. More than that, it is effortless storytelling despite its complexities.

Then again, it might be some Americans without any understanding of the Commonwealth (and the ability to separate fact from fiction) will find some sections tedious or alien. Personally, I think Shute possesses a literary talent to keep it moving, but not everyone will. This isn't an intense story (even an assassination attempt is overtly calm), but it does fully realize the characters and a future of the author's making.

In The Wet by Nevil Shute is available on Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble. iBooks also carries In The Wet and iTunes carries an audio version, read by Norman Dietz. Dietz breathes a fresh pace into the story, but as a decidedly young Hargreaves. He makes a better Anderson.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Midnight Empire; Emerging Artist Pick

Last year around this time, no one had heard of the Dallas-based rock band called Midnight Empire. They were still a few months out from starting a band. Bassist/vocalist Jacob Henderson and guitarist Art Struck hadn't met. And drummer Matt Cook wasn't a glimmer (someone else with sticks came first).

And yet, Midnight Empire comes across as a three-piece that has played together for decades. They have a manager. They have a slate of booked shows. They earned some play time on local stations. They have a self-produced album, up on iTunes and stocked at most Dallas record stores.

"When you look at other local bands, so many seem like they are afraid to do stuff for themselves," says Cook. "They seem like they're waiting around for something to happen."

But not this band. Despite a big rock sound that often harkens back to an era that predates grunge and alternative rock, they have a modern tenacity that's hard to ignore.

They set their lightning pace early last year, shortly after one of Henderson's friends suggested he call Struck. Struck had recently graduated from the Musicians Institute's GIT Program in Hollywood and moved to Dallas in the hope of starting a band too.

When they did meet, it came together naturally. They started writing acoustic arrangements on the same day. They established a definitive direction. They could see who they wanted to be.

All they didn't have was a drummer. And it would take several months before they found Cook. In fact, Henderson and Struck still describe their first drummer experience with an intense bitterness. They call him lame. A fucking idiot. A virgin with STDs.

"We really wanted a band that could collaborate on all ideas," says Henderson. "A lot of times, we piece together stuff and then Art shows up with some chords, and maybe a word or a phrase or a title. And then we all jump in and start dissecting it until something comes out of it that isn't forced."

That's not to say everything comes easy for the band. After advocating that they take a long shot on Kickstarter, band manager Kevin Huckabee had more than a few sleepless nights. Despite one of the better EPKs to showcase the album they wanted to produce, Midnight Empire hit another wall.

Everything And Nothing almost added up to nothing. 

Some people liked what they heard enough to share it, but the funding seemed stuck in neutral. And with less than half the funding pledged a few days before the deadline, any excitement had waned. Huckabee even sent a private message to backers, outlining a backup plan with less than 72 hours left.

"We didn't expect anything at that point," said Henderson. "But then Kevin called me two days before it was over and said 'you're not going to believe this but we just got $2,500 from one person.'"

The single contribution reignited the funding, pushing it $11 over the $6,000 needed for studio time at Crystal Clear Sound in Dallas, which has recorded artists ranging from Ted Nugent and Eddie Coker to Tripping Daisy and Doosu. It was also enough to cover their engineer, Kent Stump.

Even so, the band didn't waste a single minute of studio time. Although some songs were written a few weeks prior, the entire album was fully realized before they walked through the doors. It left the band just enough time to wing a few guitar solos and change up some harmonies.

"The album took 37 hours and we recorded our parts in 17 hours, so that was everything. That was the rhythmic beds, that was the overdubs, that was tiny fuck ups," said Struck. "I felt inspired there, like there was a real electricity in air. There was a real wonderment about the whole thing, at least from my perspective."

There was a real wonderment in being funded too, by Struck especially. He admits that he didn't get it [Kickstarter] or even fully appreciate what it meant until he heard a Dallas Morning News report on their success. He gets it now and, like the entire band, couldn't be more grateful.

"That effort — the labor, hustling, promotion — is all Kevin," said Struck. "Now, I just drink beer and play guitar."

Of course, Struck does more than play the guitar. When he isn't making jokes, he is surprisingly reflective about the kind of music he and his bandmates want to make. In working on songs or playing on stage, he strives for a sound that can't be quantified. They only want to be sincere and make genuine rock and roll music like they grew up with, and with a few new twists.

"We do stay real busy as a three piece," adds Henderson. "We've got a lot of jobs going on when we're playing on stage, but we love it. We've even been adding more backup vocals, especially with Matt to liven up our presence."

Midnight Empire Revives Big Rock At 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All in all, there is something likable about the band. And while they really like an early review that described them as "like everything and nothing you ever heard," their real calling card is exactly like Henderson, Struck, and Cook echo on a regular basis. They deliver polished, genuine rock and roll that might not be edgy, but still carries a smooth and sometimes melancholy sound you haven't heard since rock bands in the late 80s started over thinking record sales.

For starters, check out the fast-paced All Used Up, bipolar-ish Tidal Wave, and Take You Home, an up tempo lament about a girl who blows off the guy she goes out with. Ask the band and they'll instinctively pick Black Eyes and Misery. The album, Everything And Nothing, is available on iTunes.

Rich Becker was also a Kickstarter backer on the album.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hoops Of Hope Takes Its Best Shot

Eight years ago, Arizona's Austin Gutwein saw a video that changed his life forever. He learned from the film that more than 15 million children would be orphaned by HIV/AIDS that year, and 12 million of them lived in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Gutwein was only a nine-year-old boy, he felt a profound connection to the children affected by AIDS in Africa. The way he saw it, those children weren't any different than him. Except, they suffered in a way he could never imagine. They had lost their parents.

"People think that kids can't really make a difference, that they should wait until they are older, but that is totally wrong," Gutwein said when he was nine. "You can do something as a kid."

On World AIDS Day in 2004, he shot 2,057 free throws to represent the 2,057 kids who would be orphaned during his school day. People sponsored him for his effort and he was able to raise $3,000. That year, the money was used to provide hope to eight orphaned children. But that year, Gutwein also learned that these children needed more than basic food and shelter. They needed an education.

"I told my dad that there has to be something we can do to help them," he had said. "I wanted to give other kids the opportunity to do something they could be proud of and then let them see the results of their effort."

From that year forward, he decided to shoot more free throws. And every year, he encouraged more and more American children to join him to raise funds for African children who lacked what he and his peers took for granted — food, shelter, parents, and an education.

Even in his earliest involvement, Gutwein wouldn't accept that there were limits to what could be accomplished. When his campaign raised enough funds to build a school, he became concerned how far the children would have to walk to make it.

Hoops Of Hope has grown into an international effort led by a 16-year-old.

To date, Hoops Of Hope participants have raised more than $2.5 million, helping the orphans of AIDS receive food, clothing, shelter, schools, dormitories, medical centers and, more than anything else, an opportunity to live productive lives. And at the same time, the participants are forever changed too.

As Gutwein's own efforts have expanded as a story of inspiration as well as a fundraising effort to ease the burden of AIDS orphans, the children and adults who participate learn how powerful becoming more involved in the world can be. Even more remarkable, listening to some of the testimonials from children as young as Gutwein was when he first started, it becomes clear they learn something else. They learn not to take anything for granted. Somewhere in the world, there are children who wish for those things.

"When you help somebody change their life, it changes yours," says Gutwein today. And sometimes that change can even be as small as giving someone a soccer ball on what has become one of many visits to Africa.

Interestingly enough, Gutwein wasn't even that good at basketball despite his love for the sport. But what he did learn, like many children who now participate in Hoops Of Hope, is that you don't have to be the best at something to do something extraordinary with it.

Today, the United Nations estimates that more than 5,700 children are orphaned every day because of HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that more than 15 million children have already lost one or both parents. The number is expected to grow to more than 20 million in the next few years, which is one of the reasons Gutwein's campaign has expanded in prevention.

Three years ago, Gutwein also wrote a book with Todd Hillard in the hope of inspiring others. Take Your Best Shot: Do Something Bigger Than Yourself, which chronicles his journey while challenging others to make a difference in the lives of others too. Although the book also carries a message of faith, the real message is one of seeing a goal and then being moved and motivated to accomplish it.

Hoops Of Hope By Austin Gutwein Is A Liquid Hip Good Will Pick.

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

Hoops Of Hope sets tangible goals every year, outlining exactly what Gutwein hopes to accomplish. Last year, he set goals that included feeding 1,000 children and building a community center in Malawi, building a dormitory in Kenya, building a computer lab in Zambia, providing scholarships for a high school, and digging boreholes in India. The site includes a listing of how to join an event or host one of your own.

Equally important is that Gutwein's message is one of motivation. He has spoken to hundreds of thousands of people on behalf of orphaned children in America and around the world, inspiring others to take their best shot and do something bigger than themselves. It could be something in support of Gutwein or even something on your own, closer to home.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lemonheads Laughing At The Cleaners

It’s almost hard to believe that enough time has passed for the Lemonheads to release a career retrospective. But think about it: the band was formed in 1986 by Evan Dando and two friends while they were still Boston high school students and plenty has happened in the span of 26 years.

All of it is punctuated with highs (literally) and lows (more than a few). Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners/The Best Of The Lemonheads is a 2-CD collection packed with 47 tracks. It serves as a career anthology of the unlikely indie band that could break into the mainstream with a catchy cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. The year was 1992.

Never mind that Dando doesn’t like Simon & Garfunkel and refuses to play the song today. 

The anthology takes its name from the band’s edgy debut EP, which was released in 1986. Right from the start, the band was lauded as much for Dando’s boyish good looks as for their music, which was a big hit on the college rock circuit.

The Lemonheads quickly released three solid indie LPs on Boston’s Taang! Records, Hate Your Friends, Creator, and Lick before being scooped up by major label Atlantic in 1990. And in 1991, Dando met bassist Nic Dalton and songwriter Tom Morgan, who would play prominent roles on what is arguably the band’s finest release, It's A Shame About Ray.

Boston-based singer/guitarist Juliana Hatfield (Blake Babies) played bass and sang on the album, which fueled plenty of speculation about her and Dando’s relationship.

Were they or weren’t they? Did they or didn’t they? Had they or hadn’t they? 

Speculation wasn’t such a bad thing as it helped to generate interest in the band and also Hatfield’s other work. But media hype aside, the album delivered some tasty pop rock, including Confetti, My Drug Buddy, and Rudderless. Not long after, Into Your Arms was also embraced and the band performed on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno.

From the early to mid Nineties, Dando appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and battled a host of personal issues and a raging heroin and crack addiction. He was even booed at the Glastonbury Festival for turning up late and trying to play anyway.

Few bands hit highs and lows in such a short expanse of time. But in 1997, the Lemonheads mercifully disbanded. Only Atlantic would think to squeeze out every last drop with a premature Best Of The Lemonheads release in 1998. It seemed the final nail in an already tattered coffin.

Back then, people never really expected Dando to surface again. But in 2006, Dando/Lemonheads found a home with Vagrant, recording a self-titled album with notable guests such as Tom Morgan, bassist Josh Lattanzi, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and The Band's keyboardist extraordinaire Garth Hudson (playing on Black Gown and December). Two years later, It’s A Shame About Ray was reissued packed with raw tracks and demos. Varshons, a CD of cover songs, soon followed.

Dando seems to have mostly escaped his inner demons. 

No one can argue that Dando has talent. He is still an engaging performer. Watching him in 2011, especially at the Triple Door in Seattle, will make you forget he ever took time off.

Seeing him today might make you glad that he survived at one time being named to People’s 50 Most Beautiful People (seriously). Most that make the list and then hit rock bottom never survive with their looks intact.

Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners features songs from every incarnation of the band’s constantly revolving door, with the only common denominator being Dando himself. In addition to much of It’s A Shame About Ray, give a listen to Big Gay Heart, Rick James Style, Hospital, and Mallo Cup, and their punk cover of Suzanne Vega’s Luka.

All in all, this is a solid collection. The only drawback might be in the track order, which is quite random and not at all chronological.

Laughing All The Way To The Cleaners/Best Of Lemonheads Rolls In With 4.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While much of their young punk roots have mellowed over time, there are some real gems to be found in the new release. And whomever helped pick what to include did a great job avoiding any duds. The release also helps usher in a grueling tour schedule through the early part of 2012, when the band hits the Midwest, South and plenty of places in between.

Last November, the gritty Hotel Sessions was released early. It includes 14 songs that never made it an official Lemonheads album. In the meantime, Laughing All the Way To The Cleaners/Best Of Lemonheads can be found on Amazon. You can also find the occasional resale on Barnes & Noble. There are no plans for a digital release to date, but you can find the very rough Hotel Sessions (complete with background noise) on iTunes.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Night Strangers Will Creep Inside

When author Chris Bohjalian first started writing The Night Strangers, he didn't have to look far for inspiration. In the basement of his own house in Vermont was a door. It was five feet high and three feet wide, consisting of rough wooden planks that were nailed shut.

He convinced himself it was nothing more than a coal shoot, much like one of the principal characters of The Night Strangers. A few years later, curiosity finally had gotten the better of Bohjalian and he pulled the door open using a crowbar, wrench, and ax.

When he finally opened it, he found nothing more than a space about the size of the door and 18 inches deep. It also spooked him enough that he nailed it shut again, and steered clear of the basement after that.

The Night Strangers Is A Creepy Chiller From Chris Bohjalian.

Unlike the door inside of Bohjalian's basement, the door inside the rambling Victorian house owned by Chip and Emily Linton would hold a much more sinister secret. Sealed shut with 39 six-inch carriage bolts, it slowly became an obsession of Chip Linton as he remodeled his family's new home in New Hampshire.

His fixation on the door in the corner of the dirt floor basement isn't a side effect of curiosity alone. Thirty-nine was a number that meant something to Linton. It was the number of people who died aboard Flight 1611 and Linton, the pilot of that ill-fated flight, was one of a handful of survivors.

With the promise of a fresh start, neither he nor his wife had noticed the odd door when they purchased the home for themselves and their twin girls. But there were many oddities about the house that they ignored.

The move from Pennsylvania to a northern New Hampshire town was too important. Although the people would still recognize Linton after months of being splashed across the headlines, the slowness of a small town seemed easier to endure than the judgment of an entire urban city.

"When your Philadelphia therapist refers to this as a flashback, you wonder if you should correct her. It's a nightmare, not a flashback. In reality, you didn't actually auger into the ground." — The Night Strangers

Of course, the book doesn't open on one of Linton's many nightmares. It opens in the minutes leading up to a bird strike, very much like the one that caused US Airways Flight 1549 to go down in 2009. But unlike pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who succeeded in landing his disabled plane without incident on the Hudson River, Linton's emergency landing on Lake Champlain goes horribly wrong.

Bohjalian meticulously paints the details of the accident — the actions, the reactions, and the thoughts of the crew and passengers — as the plane attempts its emergency water landing. Some of the passengers remain surprisingly calm in their reflection of what Sullenberger had done months before, adding even more tension because you know they're wrong.

The difference between life and death all comes down to a single wave, a small wake caused by a boat turning to assist any survivors. And as the wing tip crashes into it, Linton's chapter as a carefree pilot and attorney raising twin girls is over. Something wicked in on the horizon.

A ghost story at its heart, but with the head of something more sinister.

Most people consider The Night Strangers a ghost story. It is much more than that, blending elements of haunting, a coven, and psychological strain of post-traumatic stress disorder into a novel that sometimes putters along with slow-motion melancholy and other times at a feverish pace.

It mostly works, largely because two opposing forces — both with misguided and malicious intent — bear down on a broken family in a tight and frightful squeeze. However, that doesn't mean it all works.

At times the similarities between the book and well-known movie material (Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, and The Sixth Sense specifically) are so apparent that it steals any attention away. Along with this small annoyance, Bohjalian also runs the first person perspective of the pilot using "you" as the operative pronoun, apparently in an attempt to put "you" in the story.

The technique doesn't work well, especially when coupled with the pilot's predisposition toward rehashing the accident. At times, it even makes you want to rush ahead to the more interesting points of views, predominantly the wife, children, and occasional outsider. And then, unfortunately, there is the epilogue. It's hard to like, especially because whatever feelings you have for any character in the story will be irreparably changed.

The Night Strangers Creeps And Crawls To 4.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The story is still worth the share for the creepy atmosphere Bohjalian conjures up. He does an exceptional job making the supernatural subtle and more believable as a result. While the earlier chapters are almost more climatic and engaging than the balance, it's rare to find an author so willing to keep everything from tumbling toward an epic cosmic struggle between good and evil. This is about people.

The Night Strangers: A Novel by Chris Bohjalian is on Amazon. You can also find the novel at Barnes & Noble. The Night Strangers is also on iBooks as well as iTunes. The audio version is read by Mark Bramhall and Alison Fraser. Bramhall covers the point of view of pilot Chip Linton, even though the story is told as if it is "you." Fraser's voice isn't always as engaging, but she does a solid job covering the rest of the characters, especially the wife and two daughters. It will also be published as a paperback in April.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Spectrals Play Like A Bad Penny

Leeds has an incredibly vibrant music scene. It's been mentioned more than once here. It’s where the Mekons got their start. It's where bands like Dopamine and the Diamond Sea are big draws today.

It's also what makes the Spectrals stand out. While they are technically part of the scene, the band comes across like a bastard stepchild. It's partly by design and partly no fault of their own.

The band is (mostly) a single person, Louis Jones. He's a 21-year-old redhead from Heckmondwike in West Yorkshire, which is about 10 miles from Leeds. He’s been dabbling in music and playing in bands for a number of years, usually with a punk bent.

Louis Jones is a multi-instrumentalist and insightful songwriter.

He started started recording his tunes in a friend’s homemade studio and then put the finished songs on his MySpace page for his friends, never expecting anyone else to listen. But they did listen, including reps from the labels Captured Tracks and Slumberland.

This gave Jones the avenue he needed to record a slew of songs, including the 7-inch Peppermint. The Spectrals is really a vehicle for Jones to shape and share his distinctive sound and his yearning lyrics.

Before you listen, keep in mind that the Spectrals are way out there. It's not like anything we've reviewed before. That, and Jones is an old soul, which is why his songs sound as though they’ve been written by someone who has done a lot more living.

Where Peppermint carried the surf pop forward, Bad Penny, the Spectrals’ first full-length album, is more of a detour from previous reverb-heavy work. It's very much a throwback.

This time out, except for the drums, Jones plays every part. (The drums are now handled by his brother.) As a prolific songwriter, it's no surprise that these are a brand new batch of songs, all of which carry a collective theme. It's about a relationship and all of its ups and downs. Mostly downs.

He didn't make it up either. The girl in question is Jones’ long-time love. So yes, there is a bit of a spoiler. He gets the girl in the end.

“Love songs are the kind of songs I like,” said Jones. “Not all of them are nice, but they’re all feelings I’ve had.”

Check out the video for Get A Grip, which finds Jones singing and playing guitar in a variety of Yorkshire country settings. Like the song suggests, the album, produced by veteran Leeds-based producer Richard Formby (Spacemen 3), weaves together doo wop, 60s surf music, soul, garage rock, and Phil Spector-like choruses.

The result is understated and nicely balanced. So while Get A Grip is dreamy, Big Baby is a brighter slice of California surf rock. Luck Is There To Be Pushed adds in tasteful piano and some of Jones' best songwriting. Start with those and then listen to the rest, and play the clips more than once because they do unexpectedly grow on you.

What you might find is that Jones does a nice job balancing his songs between his influences and his own vision. He grew up listening to a wide variety of music, and embraces his decidedly American influences.

In fact, the contrast between the American music and Jones’ Yorkshire croon gives the Spectrals a bit of charm. It seems to match his personality, which comes across as somewhat shy and sincere. In reality, he is a bit of a control freak. And that's why he plays nearly all the instruments.

According to Jones, he says he writes the music on his guitar first and then adds lyrics in after. He has consistently said he is not interested in anyone else shaping his songs or direction.

The result is a band that performs as a 4-piece, but any song played is really Jones times four. And if it doesn't sound like that, then it's not really the Spectrals. This attitude might also be why he's often kept at arm's length in Leeds. He's rebellious and intends to stay that way, doing his own thing. Here’s a clip of the Spectrals at Benicassim Festival in July 2011.

Bad Penny By The Spectrals Chimes In With 4.3 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If there is any criticism of Bad Penny, let it be that it does become repetitive at times. I also think that Jones is more engaging performing live compared to what he’s managed to put down on tape. It’s an obstacle he’ll have to overcome.

The Spectrals will be touring the United States in March and April. It will be very interesting to see if their mostly American sound truly resonates with actual Americans. You can keep up with the tour via MySpace and Twitter. Just don't expect too much about music on Twitter. Jones would rather talk football.

All 11 tracks from Bad Penny can be downloaded from iTunes. You can also find Bad Penny on Amazon. There is also a vinyl edition at Barnes & Noble, along with the CD.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Parra Knows Underground Post-Pop Art

It's almost hard to define Pieter 'Parra' Janssen. He's a skater. He's a band member. He's an artist. He's a sculptor. He's a cult apparel designer. And he's self-taught creative whose underground club posters are torn down within minutes of being posted around Amsterdam.

They are not torn down to be tossed. They are torn down to be treasured.

You can still see his work all over the place. Kids wear his shorts and shirts. Store owners protect their paintings and prints. And he only started working in Amsterdam a little more than ten years ago.

On the whole of it, all over Amsterdam, people convey a sense of community pride about his work. It doesn't matter that he grew up in Nijmegen, sometimes affectionately referred to as the dirty south. He calls Amsterdam home. His art has taken root there in every possible way. And his shows, no matter where they are held in the world, always sell out.

He also does commercial work as an art director, but usually only a few lines at a time. Most of them are small lines of clothing and skateboards (sometimes bearing his name and sometimes not), but his larger portfolio includes Nike and Heineken. His signature style has a vintage feel with saturated colors that pop or bleed or melt on whatever canvas needs to be filled.

His approach is casual, usually fast drawing designs from whatever inspires him. Then the designs are scanned, colored, placed, and sold. Perfect, considering he originally started the company with a friend out of necessity and still maintains that the best advice came from his father. Just keep playing.

Parra does do more than draw, but usually he likes to put it on paper first. His sculptures are surreal. And he doesn't always color, smooth, and blend his work as an illustrator. Sometimes he paints. But always with the same bold designs and minimal color combinations. Or sometimes intense black or whites.

He calls all of it fun. But somehow his work still transforms the usual, like a T-shirt, into something much more than it started. If you ask me, it's mostly because he captures emotion in the simplest shapes and forms. The curves carry most of it. And sometimes the names do too.

Some of the shirts I caught at Urban Industry certainly capture the message. The illustrations are named after what they convey, like Annoyed. Sometimes they aren't, like a shirt he called Rockwell but the emotion is hung up. Another, called No, is hung up for another reason.

It doesn't really matter what emotion or scene or point of inspiration he is chasing after. He catches it, with the work being unmistakable. (And almost all of it is produced on 100 percent cotton, organic when available).

According to Parra himself, his art came from growing up with a father who was also a painter and sculptor. So he grew up around colors, paints, weird images, and Rubenesque paintings. The latter refers to the fondness toward the extravagant style characterized by Flemish baroque painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Although the finished work could be considered very different, you can see it in his lines, curves, shapes, and moods.

When added to a minimal color palette, esoteric characters, and poster designs reminiscent of the 1960s and 1970s, it can be hard to tear away. Mostly because it's both familiar and new at the same time.

Designs By Parra Round Out A 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Parra is going to be around for some time to come. I was fortunate enough to catch his How Original Show at HVW8 Gallery in Los Angeles. It features some of his more provocative work, which you can glimpse with a time-lapse video of the show.

Like his art, Parra's work isn't always easy to find, especially on apparel. It's not so much that there isn't enough of it. It's the opposite. There are enough individual designs that you pick them much like you might pick a painting. You have to find the one that hits home for you.

You can find Annoyed at Urban Industry, which is located in the United Kingdom but ships worldwide. Most Rockwell by Parra apparel retails between $50 and $120 U.S. Urban Industry has a flat shipping rate, which varies by country. His apparel isn't all that common in the U.S., which adds to the appeal.