Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Regina Spektor Locks Down A Single

There has always been something both fresh and forbidding about Regina Spektor, the Moscow-born singer-songwriter-pianist-guitarist who is unafraid to explore the full range of her unorthodox vocal talents. Falling somewhere between alternative pop, anti-folk, and whatever happens to strike her, it is nearly impossible not to get caught up in her unexpected, impassioned, and eclectic music.

With her newest album set to be released this spring by Sire (possibly May), it's great to hear one of her most lyrically powerful songs will not only be making the cut, but also leading off as the single to introduce it.

All The Rowboats is a classic Spektor.

All The Rowboats isn't new. Spektor has played it countless times during live performances but never took the time to add it to her discography.

It might have been written before her breakthrough in 2004 with Soviet Kitsch (or earlier), but it's hard to say. Spektor has dozens of songs that she performs but never writes down. But this one being set to a studio album is especially poignant because much like the masterpieces she sings about, music sometimes becomes a prisoner until the time it is finally produced.

They keep trying to row away. And the captain's worried faces stay contorted and staring at the waves. They'll keep hanging, in their gold frames for forever, forever and a day. All the rowboats, in the oil paintings. They keep trying to row away, row away.

Ironically, she said that she had forgotten all about the song until she came across one of her older live performances of it on YouTube. It conveys the image of a nightmarish museum, with paintings that have become prisoners of their own beauty and passion — locked away and helpless after closing time.

When she performed it recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at a benefit for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation, she added a disclaimer, saying how much she loves museums. But regardless of her feelings, All The Rowboats beautifully applies emotion to art, conjuring up images of figures, settings, and scenes that are frozen in time and perhaps lonely after hours.

The new studio single with a full instrumental backing is even stronger than the beat-box fills compared to one of the oldest postings of the songs. But we thought it would be fun to include a live fan clip above, which also shows how personable and real her live performances can be. Here is the studio version.

The single has certainly caught some well-deserved attention in advance of the album, What We Saw From The Cheap Seats. The album also marks a reuniting with producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple), who reportedly helped flesh out the instrumental to make each song stand out sonically.

That fact isn't a foreshadow to an overworked production. On the contrary, like many of her albums, Spektor recorded most songs live in front of the piano. Only the accompanying instrumentation was added later. If this is an indication of things to come, expect ten more tense and emotional tracks ahead.

All The Rowboats By Regina Spektor Locks Down 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Spektor is also a first-rate performer in that she is diverse enough to tour with just about anyone. This time around, she will be going with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as a special guest. The eclectic mix of towns includes Broomfield, Colorado; Little Rock, Arkansas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Wichita, Kansas; and Alpharetta, Georgia, in April.

All The Rowboats by Regina Spektor is available on iTunes. You can find her last album, Far, on Amazon (best song, Laughing With). If you need some help finding her on Facebook, you can follow this link too.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Breakers At Palm Beach, Florida

The Breakers at Palm Beach, Florida, has undergone many renovations and changes since the first time I visited years ago, but the timeless luxury associated with the name isn't one of them. In the last decade, the resort has invested more than $250 million in an ongoing revitalization and expansion program. All that remains unchanged is the old-world charm surrounding the estate.

The architecture that has since become legendary is modeled after the Villa Medici in Rome. It took shape in 1926 after the original all-wooden resort burned down in 1925. Today, its Italian-Rennasiance design is listed in the National Registry of Historic Places.

While the original founder, Henry Morrison Flagler, wasn't alive to see the second fire destroy his original hotel, he had successfully impassioned his heirs with his vision. They committed themselves to building the world's finest resorts on the site where Flagler had built the first southeast coast hotel about 30 years prior.

A brief on the storied history of the resort that shaped Palm Beach.

In 1881, Flagler and his newlywed second wife traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, for the first time. He immediately fell in love with the city, even if he felt the hotel facilities and transportation system lacked. He even offered to buy the Villa Zorayda where they honeymooned.

When the owner refused to sell, Flagler began to build the Ponce de Leon Hotel, which opened in 1888. And shortly after the hotel became an instant success, Flagler began to envision something different for the Florida coastline — something that he felt would one day be considered the "American Riviera."

He would find the perfect location farther south on a tiny island off the coast of Lake Worth, Florida. The island, called Palm Beach after a shipwreck reported to be carrying coconuts a few years prior, became the site of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Lake Worth in 1894 and The Palm Beach, a second hotel directly on the beachfront, two years later. To distinguish where they wanted to stay, guests would ask for a room "over the breakers."

The resort was renamed The Breakers when Flagler doubled its size. Along with the resort properties, he also bought up as many acres as he could, giving the orders to buy "at any price." A fews later, as the hotel and the island began to take shape, it was incorporated as Palm Beach in 1911.

By then, it had its own magazine and daily newspaper. The latter was named the Palm Beach Daily, just a few years after Richard Davies had purchased the Lake Worth Daily from Flagler.

The recently renovated resort at The Breakers. 

One of the most significant changes that has taken place at The Breakers are the redesigned guest rooms. While keeping some elements of the classic charm, guest rooms and suites are now adorned in a distinctive airy decor that pays homage to its tropical oceanfront location.

Most rooms are a spacious 400 square feet, with suites ranging from 450 to 900 square feet. All of the rooms have marble baths. Rates vary, but are reasonably consistent with 5-star services and amenities, even if they set the high water mark on the island. Guests also have access to the fitness center and are welcome to join any group fitness classes hosted by the hotel.

Those neither staying at the resort nor a member of the club can still admire some of its beauty as a visitor. Although not privy to the five oceanfront pools, visitors may walk the expansive property (more than 140 acres of beachfront) while visiting select restaurants (some are only open to hotel and club guests), the spa, championship golf course, shopping area, and meeting facility.

The restaurants open to visitors include Echo (Asian fusion), The Circle (buffet), The Flagler Steakhouse (prime steak),  The Italian Restaurant (with children's area), and Top Of The Point (modern American). The Breakers also has two bars (both with full menus; one with live entertainment). When I visited years ago, the resort also served drinks in the open courtyard, accompanied by live entertainment (but that might not be the case today).

Palm Beach itself has several treasures within direct proximity, including Whitehall, Flagler's Gilded Age estate (now a museum). Also nearby but not on the island is the Norton Museum of Art, Kravis Center, and (farther south) International Orchid Center. This area of Florida is also home to the South Florida Science Museum, Palm Beach Zoo, and Lion Country Safari, a drive-through preserve.

The Breakers At Palm Beach Waves In At 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While there are other world-class hotels on Palm Beach, none of them are steeped in history like the The Breakers. For the same reason, it carries a premium rate compared to any hotel in Palm Beach and the surrounding area. As a destination resort, it makes sense. But if you are planning to spend more time away from the resort than at the resort, visiting for lunch or dinner is just as good.

To make plans for Palm Beach, search for deals for airfares, discounted hotels, and car rentals on Fare Buzz. For price comparisons, The Breakers frequently starts at $850 per night, which includes access to most amenities (occasionally rooms can be found for under $600).

Monday, February 27, 2012

Tennis Looks Inside On Young & Old

Most people wouldn't expect that two college students spending eight months sailing the Eastern Seaboard would result in a record. But guitarist Patrick Riley and his girlfriend (now his wife) singer/songwriter/keyboardist Alaina Moore did just that.

They set sail on a 30-foot boat and documented their trip musically, writing lyrics and songs about every experience and port of call. Never once did the duo consider a serious career in a music. They didn't even think anyone would hear those songs.

But people did hear them as soon as they posted a few on the Internet. They called themselves Tennis, and their accidental CD filled with breezy songs was titled Cape Dory. There was just enough spark to give them a start.

How the duo became a trio.

To support the album, Riley and Moore decided to hit the road and added James Barone on drums. The addition of Barone was a smart move because his confident drumming keeps the band moving ahead whereas before they shifted from foot to foot sometimes uncomfortably.

While they were on the road, they decided to write more songs for their sophomore effort, which they knew would be considerably different than Cape Dory. This time they were landlocked and so were their experiences. This gave them the chance to try new compositions during rehearsals and at sound checks.

When they were mostly settled with what would make the cut, the trio recruited Patrick Carney (Black Keys) to record the new album at Haptown Studio in Nashville. His involvement proved vital.

Carney helped give the band a less leisurely and more edgy sound, with a new emphasis on percussion. While the fuzzy guitars remain intact, the sonic edge stands out front.

"We felt like we were doing one thing well and we wanted to expand sonically," Moore says. "We wanted someone with a dirty, bluesy rock background, someone who was the opposite of our sound to help lend an edge to our music. We felt like Patrick would able to handle our songs well and he did."

The CD’s central theme and title are inspired by William Butler Yeats’ "A Woman Young and Old," which is a reflection on a lifetime of memories, good and bad, light and dark. Indeed, Young & Old is heavier, less carefree, and much more mature than Cape Dory. Here, the band delivers 10 soulful pop tracks.

"Patrick really channeled our ideas in the best way possible," Riley said.

Origins, perhaps the strongest track on the album, puts Moore in the driver’s seat with keyboards front and center and her warm voice adding texture. My Better Self has more of an R & B feel, and Petition showcases Moore’s voice, which has grown much stronger, perfectly appropriate for Young & Old’s more serious, somewhat melancholy material.

The central theme of reflection and introspection weaves the songs together.

"I didn’t want each song to be in complete isolation from the next," she said. "I wanted them to belong together. I felt like I’d done a lot of reflection personally while spending months on the road contemplating the transition I had made over the past year. I feel like each song is a vignette, a glimpse into a personal moment of mine spanning from childhood to womanhood."

Unlike some bands, Tennis doesn’t suffer from having stellar studio work and lackluster live performances or blistering live performances and mediocre studio work. They’re pretty consistent , for better or worse. Check out this clip of them playing live in Amsterdam.

Young & Old By Tennis Breezes In With 2.8 On the Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Young & Old is a deliberate departure from the leisurely warmth of Cape Dory, but it is confident, strong, and marks a new maturity for the band. It also showcases Moore’s proficiency as a singer and hints of good things to come.

The band is currently touring the East Coast through March before heading west for shows in Utah, Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona in April and May. You can find Young & Old by Tennis on iTunes or order the CD on Barnes & Noble (vinyl too). You can also find Young & Old on Amazon. Look for the band's latest updates on Facebook.

Friday, February 24, 2012

David Baldacci Counts Down Zero Day

When U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division investigator John Puller is assigned to investigate the murder of a family in West Virginia's mining country, the military's immediate interest is expected. The murdered man was a retiring Defense Intelligence Agency colonel stationed at the Pentagon.

The murders were grisly, but it was the oddity of the way the bodies were found that was unnerving. All four of them — Colonel Reynolds, his wife, and two children — were moved and lined up on a couch in the living room, sitting up. The home was not their own; no one knows why they were staying there.

Puller is dispatched with orders to allow uniformed local law enforcement to take the lead on the investigation, using finesse whenever possible to keep the military in the loop and take charge as necessary. Although unflappable and professional, taking a back seat doesn't fit his personality.

Zero Day starts off as a police procedural, but something lurks below the surface.

The first front of the book invests most of its time laying the foundation. Baldacci not only introduces the environment, but also many of the players. He is especially keen on fleshing out the background and relationships of Puller, his family, Sgt. Samantha Cole (a.k.a. Sam), and her family.

Puller's father is a legendary major general; his brother has been convicted of treason. After her parents died a few years ago, Cole's sister married a coal mining tycoon and her brother has mostly dropped out, unable to cope with the family's loss. All of the characters are well sketched, even bit players who only appear once.

He also does a fair job painting a picture of West Virginia coal country even if some West Virginians have said that Baldacci isn't accurate. Some of his suppositions are grounded in research, however, such as mountaintop removal and other forms of economic development. What is a little less plausible is that the economically depressed are inclined to loot the deceased.

Then again, it's difficult to believe Baldacci might have grounded this idea in something else. He doesn't write from New York or Los Angeles. He is a native of Virginia and still resides there.

While most other characters are flawed to varying degrees, Puller is near perfect in his analytical, physical, and people skills. For the most part, his only shortcomings stem from the higher bar he has set for himself. He is prone to suggest others set their bars higher too.

At times it makes him come off as self-righteous and even super human, but that doesn't necessarily make him unlikeable. He is likable, even if his near perfection makes him and the story a little more predictable in that he will eventually win (but win against what or at what cost is unknown). Other than that, a few misplaced chapters, and some stereotype cliches, especially in the dialogue, there is no question Baldacci is a gifted writer.

As the bigger conspiracy surfaces, the case is intriguing for awhile. 

When the novel shifts its focus from the murders to the bigger conspiracy — a national nuclear threat — it becomes considerably more interesting as a paranoid thriller. There are people in the world who would like nothing better than to exploit the remnants of hidden, long-abandoned military facilities.

While the threat is grounded in a plausible idea, one of those that reminds people that probably fact might read stranger than fiction, some elements of the end game become less plausible. It is almost overwhelmingly convenient that his treasonous brother can play a critical role.

A couple graphs about author David Baldacci. 

Originally a corporate and trial attorney in Washington D.C., Baldacci's debut novel immediately catapulted his career as a writer, especially after Absolute Power was made into a major motion picture. Since, Baldacci has published 22 additional novels (many of which carry an "absolute power corrupts" theme) and scores of articles.

Baldacci's passion for literature extends beyond writing novel and articles. He also the founder of two worthwhile foundations. The Wish You Well Foundation, which was founded with his wife, supports family literacy by promoting new and developing education programs. His other organization, Feeding Body & Mind distributes used books to people who are also receiving food assistance from Feeding America.

Zero Day By David Baldacci Counts Down To 3.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the story is sharp enough and better than average, you will find plenty of people who seem irked by his latest creation (beyond West Virginians). There are some especially interesting comments by people who purport to be Marines, CID, and Lee Child fans (because of Puller's resemblance to Jack Reacher).

Zero Day by David Baldacci is available from Amazon and the novel can be ordered from Barnes & Noble. You can also download the book from iBooks or listen to the audio version from iTunes. The audiobook is read by Ron McLarty and Orlagh Cassidy, which gives the story more depth with both readers covering appropriate genres.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Menzingers Do An Impossible Past

With the release of Chamberlain Waits two years ago, Scranton (Pennsylvania) based punk band the Menzingers seemed like they were winding down. It wasn't that the album was lousy. It was a breakthrough for the band and critically acclaimed (but not acclaimed as loudly as their debut), but didn't make enough money.

They made up the difference by touring, until they got a call from someone else who heard merit in their work. Brett Gurewitz (Bad Religion) called them the kind of pure punk he grew up with and then signed them to Epitaph. It's easily one of the best band-label matches made last year.

On The Impossible Past is storytelling punk.

While some people will argue On The Impossible Past isn't their best album or that every album is equally strong, the Menzingers do bring something different to the table this time around. Their songwriting ability, storytelling, and diverse range all shine on the new album.

Added to their own talents were Matt Allison (Alkaline Trio, the Lawrence Arms) and Justin Yates who produced it at Atlas Studios in Chicago. It's also safe to say touring with Against Me! and The Gaslight Anthem hasn't hurt either. There is a notable uptick in confidence, especially from vocalist/guitarist Greg Barnett.

He is especially convincing when he leads off in a modestly controlled melodic verse before breaking in throat-cracking wails. Guitarist/vocalist Tom May, bassist Eric Keen, and drummer Joe Godino have all upped their game. And then there are a few unexpected moments on the album, like when this upcoming punk band drops down a pop song.

Gates isn't my favorite cut, but the story is compelling as it references personal moments and places between Scranton and Lake Wallenpaupack. It's reminiscent of Barnett's own experiences, easily identifiable to anyone who grew up around there. But you don't have to be from there to get it.

The song is gentle, but pained like many of the angrier songs on On The Impossible Past. Even on the opener, Good Things, which is lighter on lyrics and heavier on meaning, there is something more going on with this album.

On the first pass, the song is easy to like but dismiss as another song about disconnecting from the American dream after failing a few times. But then later on the album, you hear a direct connection to the title track, shedding more light on the same story.

The album is threaded together with relatable personal experiences.

The muscle car that made him feel American in Good Things is the same one that gets wrecked in On The Impossible Past. And all those dreams of possibilities mentioned can be found in Nice Things, stuff that is within their grasp before it all becomes unrecoverable.

Listen to the album again and it becomes pretty difficult to know where the story behind the story begins and where it ends or what songs stand alone and which belong to the bigger Midwestern portrait. This alone makes for a great case to own the album and not just a few cherry picked songs.

While there is little doubt anyone who owns the album will love one song more than another, it's in its entirety that you'll find something specific, passionate, real, and felt. All the while, it might be the band's story to tell, but there are plenty of people who will listen to this album and relate, because they live or have lived something like this every day.

The same can be said about the Menzingers. Their story is like that of dozens of bands who seem to emerge from nowhere (2006). But many have a deeper history. In this case, they really came together by combining Barnett from Kos Mos and May, Godino, and Keen from Bob And The Sagets. After a raving debut album with Go-Kart Records, they flipped over to Red Scare and a brief stint with Anti-Flag. But this album, more than any other, ensures much more is to come.

The Menzingers' On The Impossible Past Rivets 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

First-time listeners might note Barnett isn't as polished as some singers, but he makes up for it by owning his stories and delivering them with raw authenticity. Some songs certainly do outshine others on the 13-track album, but listing them out runs contrary to keeping the compilation together as it is meant to be.

On The Impossible Past by the Menzingers can be picked up on iTunes. The album is also available on Amazon and you can find the CD at Barnes & Noble too. The band is currently heading out to Australia to play the Soundwave Festival. They will be back in March to kick off a tour that will play mostly in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest through April. Find the full schedule on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spring Starters With A Shift Dress

There are several trends emerging in spring ahead of the warmer months. For women's fashion in particular, most of them are straightforward, simple, and retro-elegant.

One of the most surprising styles to make a comeback this year is the shift dress, but not necessarily the ones that can only be worn by women with only the straightest shapes. Many of them carry varied A-line cuts, which means it's much less likely for more shapely women to have to wear a belt or sash.

I've always thought it was a smart look. While it was originally reintroduced in the 1920s for women who were trying to defy social norms, nowadays it tends to look more dressed up than dressed down. Much of how it looks really depends on how it is accessorized if at all.

Fossil has the right idea, fusing two eras into one timeless dress. 

The dress that inspired the story comes from Fossil. It has introduced several retro-styled dresses for spring, with the shift dress being one of the best.

What makes it work especially well is that the designers have kept the lace away from the pencil cut. The result is a dress that carries some air of the 1920s while feeling a bit more 1960s.

Called the Ginger, the dress is 100 percent cotton (always welcome in spring), carries a portrait neckline, and smartly accents the hem. The two color choices include cream and peach. If you visit the page, the model wearing the peach dress has a it cinched. You can see how it works, but it looks better loose and free.

Some other spring dresses worth checking out include the everyday Annie. Although the dress is fitted with a detachable belt and sports pockets as well as a scoop neck, it still borrows a shift dress feel with a more pronounced A-line. Nice, but with a much more casual feel and sturdier construction.

Two other places to find a few shift dresses making the lineup. 

Shabby Apple also included a flapper-inspired shift dress in its Mad Hatter line for spring. But instead of drawing inspiration from the era of free love, they gave their dress a more formal feel. It still carries a straight silhouette with the benefit of a stretch lace overlay and charmeuse lining.

If you are looking for something even more formal, take a look at Shabby Apple's green leaf line instead. Many of the dresses in that line carry the shift dress look with a drop waist and are made with a delicate silk.

Although not a shift dress, Sundance comes close with its Lace Bouquet dress. It's a sheath dress, which has a longer hemline and will possibly flatter women with curves. The look is especially bold with a rose lace pattern and deep red color. The material is a cotton/nylon blend with scalloped lace sleeves and at the hem.

While neither dress will downplay curves as much the design by Fossil, they provide flexibility in fit and are not constrictive. Where it wins is in offering something that can be casual without being confined to casual, making it more versatile than other wardrobe staples.

All three designs are a long way since the style's revival in the late 1950s. The dresses Lilly Pulitzer made were always brightly colored, carefully designed to hide the juice she frequently spilled on her dress at the fruit stand she and her husband ran in Florida. According to the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History, she was already selling more dresses than juice by 1959.

The Shift Dress For Spring By Fossil Skirts 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

In recent years, Fossil has continued to freshen up the vintage look originally inspired by designer Lynne Stafford. Sometimes it's hard to imagine that Fossil only began adding apparel in the 1990s, almost 20 years after Tom Kartsotis ordered his first lot of 1,500 watches.

The Ginger by Fossil retails for $128 and is dry clean only. The The Mad Hatter from the Hatter Line can be found at Shabby Apple, which carries several different inspired lines. It retails for $88 and can be machine washed in cold. The Lace Bouquet dress from Sundance is $158. Sundance currently has a short product video on its site as well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ceremony Creates Some Hysteria

There may be something to look forward to with the upcoming release of Zoo by Bay Area punk band Ceremony. It's the first release by Matador Records and with it comes producer John Goodmanson (Sleater-Kinney, Girls, Weezer). The color vinyl release is long sold out.

What this means to anyone following Ceremony is they will stick with singer Ross Farrar's biting themes, but remain bent on polishing out those jagged edges from their debut days. Being called a sonically crude and destructive force in hardcore punk hardly fits anymore. The band, who once said they came together as a bunch of guys who didn't know what to do with themselves, knows exactly what they want to do.

That isn't a bad thing at all. The diversity split some people heard on Rohnert Park might be falling by the wayside as Ceremony seems much more likely to commit with their new single.

Hysteria is a different, moving away from hardcore.

"I have a little window I peer out of at my house in Rohnert Park where I sit at night and write things down that have come to me throughout the day," frontman Farrar recently wrote for the band's website. "Most of the stuff has to do with people, how we treat each other, and our ever increasing ability to hurt one another, as well as unconditionally love."

As the first single in advance of the album in early March, Hysteria is about the former but delivered in a way that long-time listeners would not expect from Ceremony. Where is works, however, is in laying down the primer for a new sound. It's one of their most well crafted songs, even if it doesn't carry the usual pummel.

At the opening, Hysteria kicks things off with stick clicks before descending into a grinding drum set and guitar teasers. As the drums settle into a steady thump, the guitars power up into a cross between revivalist punk and garage rock, setting up Farrar to fire up his distinctive lyrics and vocals.

Two minutes into the song, almost everyone expects something hugely deconstructive to wrap it up. But nothing ever really happens. The song drifts into a group chant providing Farrar a vocal backup to deliver the last chorus before the song whimpers out.

Any concern over the single is largely unfounded. It's good.

It's the anti-climax that seems to be the primary reason some reviewers are selling Hysteria short. And maybe they are right to a point. But what I hear is something very different. The end of the song provides the perfect set up to power into something heavier on the album or rip into whatever they want  during their live performances.

Since I don't know if that's true, I started digging around and came up with a review by Peter Lillis, who attended a recent live performance at Le Poisson Rouge. He says that is exactly what happens, writing that Hysteria thrives with a third dimension you would never hear off of a studio album.

But if Hysteria isn't enough to give you a sense of things of come, check out this recent video release by Matador with footage from the same concert Lillis reviewed. The song is World Blue from Zoo.

Since the beginning of the band, Farrar has said that what was most important to them was staying inspired. Unlike other bands that sometimes ride their sound into the grave, Zoo could be the right time for the band to change things up while still keeping their penchant for making loud sounds.

Hysteria By Ceremony Primes 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The real measure of the music will come out in March with the release of Zoo. In the meantime, along with Hysteria, check out the band's last EP with Bridge Nine Records. It's packed with six covers, with Holocaust being the bright spot on the album.

Hysteria can be found on iTunes. The single is also up at Amazon. If you are looking for Ceremony on social networks, we'll save you some trouble. Visit their site where they point out that you won't find them on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Blessings In A Backpack Gives Hope To Hungry Children At Area Schools

When many of us were in school, it seemed like only a small percentage of our peers received free or reduced-price lunches. Today is a different story.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 21 million children receive free or reduced-cost school lunches (12 million in elementary school). Of these, more than 16 million children come from households that don’t have a steady food supply. When you consider only 75.5 million children and adults are enrolled in school, the percentage must be nearing 30 percent.

Blessings In A Backpack makes a difference.

For a growing number of students, Blessings In A Backpack is helping to reverse the trend. The charitable organization is partnering with individual and corporate volunteers to ensure impoverished elementary school children are fed on the weekends.

Every Thursday at each participating school, volunteers pack backpacks with ready-to-eat foods such as crackers, juice boxes, cereal, granola bars, peanut butter, tuna and macaroni and cheese. There is no cost. The backpacks are provided free of charge by the national organization.

Students take the backpacks home on Friday, which gives them something to eat over the weekend. A nutritionist reviews the standard food items to ensure everything is nutritious, easy to make, non-perishable, and appealing to kids.

For many, this may be the only food they have until they return to school. 

To date, Blessings In A Backpack has fed 59,000 children in 390 schools in 35 states as well as students in Canada, Colombia, and Haiti. It makes a difference, not only in the students' personal lives. but also in their academic performance.

Specifically, students participating in the program show improvement in school attendance, test scores, and behavior. Their health and hygiene also improve. Here is one example of a success story.

“This program is very close to our hearts because Kate and I know Blessings In A Backpack fills a crucial void for children who might otherwise go hungry,” says PGA pro Justin Rose. “I can’t expect to play good golf if I’m not properly nourished so how can we expect kids to go a full weekend without enough to eat and then be able to focus on learning the next school week?”

Rose and his wife Kate have supported Blessings In A Backpack since 2009, and their efforts have helped to feed more than 1,000 children in the Orlando area. The Roses have donated money and their time, and have also funded special events for children in their area.

Other individuals and organizations that are stepping up to the plate.

They are not the only individuals who are participating in the program. Actress/singer Hilary Duff supports schools in Los Angeles. Singer Sammy Hagar (photo above) supports schools in St. Louis, Hawaii, Las Vegas, and New York. Celebrity chef Paula Deen supports schools in Indiana and Georgia. NBA player Dwight Howard supports schools in Orlando. And race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. supports schools in North Carolina.

Along with their support, corporate sponsors have stepped up to help too. Walmart, Danskin, Dooney & Bourke, Meijer, and Farmer’s Insurance Group all provide support to the organization. The list is growing.

Individuals are encouraged to get involved too. Blessings In A Backpack gives anyone the choice of partnering with a local school in their area to pack the backpacks or to donate to a specific area or school.

A donation of $80 goes a long way. It buys a school year's worth of food for one child (38 weeks). The organization is able to stretch this budget thanks in part to a special arrangement with national grocery chains to provide non-perishable food items that will feed a child over the weekend for just $2.10 per week.

Blessings In A Backpack 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.

What makes this organization especially appealing is that 100 percent of all donations pay for food for the backpacks, directly benefiting the children. All of the organization’s administrative costs are funded by a private foundation.

If you want to get involved in a big way, you can adopt a school that doesn't already have a program. Doing so requires a 3-year commitment, but Blessings in A Backpack provides a wealth of resources. The charity recommend speaking with student counselors in the area to help determine where the need is greatest.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lincoln Durham Hefts The Shovel

Lincoln Durham doesn't have the same the kind of intensity that has helped elevate blues rock. He delivers a smoky swagger and an old world soul. His music is smooth and drawn out, the stuff you can't always find outside the hills of southwest Texas.

His new self-released album, The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones, is authentically raw and a decidedly dark back room confessional infused with blues guitars, old amps, resonators, slides, trash cans, and whatever else he and his friends could get their hands on. But the real soul of Durham's music, if you were to strip it all back, comes down to the strings, songwriting, and the pipes to carry it.

"It is my agony put into words and music via 11 songs," Durham explains. "It is the story of building dreams and tearing down those dreams all in the same moment."

He sees himself as both the shovel and the howling bones — the man burying himself in the ground while protesting the burial at the same time. Durham is deadly poetic, singing stories with the passion of someone who knows the back story of how they came to be.

Mud Puddles, one of the best of the bunch, digs into the deep of it. Durham sings I got a nickel that I keep here in my pocket. I got these snakeskin boots here wrapped around my feet. I got a picture that I keep here in a locket of a woman who's much too good for me. 

He tells the tale like a matter-of-fact condition of his existence, a drifter who doesn't have anything left to do but carry on and away from the sins, mistakes, and mishaps that decorate his life. We don't know why or what or who leads to his misery and we don't have to. It's like looking at a snapshot of a man.

Other tracks are just like that. Drifting Wood is about floating along like driftwood, and letting the stream carry you away to the end. Last Red Dawn touches on knowing, somehow, that it could be the last sunset you'll ever see. And Reckoning Lament captures several sad figures in a darkened picture, despite an uptempo tone.

Also check out the Southern brooder Georgia Lee, the rugged toughness in People Of The Land, and the working man looniness in Tucker's Love Song. While the theme and pace may be generally the same, Durham has a way of keeping each song fresh by mixing in instruments and other talents to support him.

The freshness of an authentic player and his support. 

Throughout the album, Durham picks up any number of guitars, including a 1929 Gibson HG-22, 1964 Gibson J-45, fiddle, and harmonica. And all the songs also feature the talents of stickman Rick Richards on everything from drums to trash cans and bird feeders.

Sporadically, guests include Jeff Plankenhorn (mandolin), Ray Wylie Hubbard (guitar), Bucca Allen (piano, accordion), Derek O'Brian (guitar), and George Reiff (guitar). Backup vocals include a host of talents like Idgy Vaughn, Alissa Durham, Clay Berkes, and all the accompanying musicians on occasion.

Together they deliver something that touches on where rock and roll began. It began with dirty blues, and stories that make you know a man. In this case, it's a young fiddler who followed his artistic path someplace remarkably different. And even if you wouldn't think so, you can't help but to dig it.

The same can be said about his stage presence too. Even before Durham plays his first note or sings his first line, he has a look that lets you know something is coming from deep inside. And then he lets it loose with every bit of himself thrown into the mix.

The Shovel Vs. The Howling Bones Invokes A 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All and all, it's the tone, texture, and tenor of this artist that makes you pay attention. He has an authority about him that will easily convince you that his first self-release is exactly that. It's his first because Durham is going to be around for a long time.

The Shovel Vs. The Howling Bones is available for download on iTunes. The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones is also available on CD or digital download from Amazon. Expect some of the songs to climb the charts in the weeks ahead. The cross-genre appeal will carry them.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Stef Penney Frees The Invisible Ones

As small-time private investigator Ray Lovell veers in and out of consciousness at the hospital, he slowly begins to regain his memory about the case he was working on that put him there. Remembering isn't easy, because the toxins had left him delirious, partially paralyzed, and possibly brain damaged.

"We're waiting for the results of the toxicology tests. You seem to have ingested some kind of toxin. It could be an overdose of drugs. Did you take drugs, Ray?"

He mutters that he doesn't know. But it doesn't come out comprehensible. And he isn't certain they believe him anyway. There seems to be some conviction in the idea that he did it himself.

The Invisible Ones is a spellbinding tale told from two points of view. 

Told from two points of view — Ray Lovell and Jimmy Janko — The Invisible Ones is a glimpse deep inside the lives of modern-day gypsies. They are people who still travel the countryside in caravans, except that their wagons have been traded up to trailers and their horses have been replaced by Suburbans and trucks. They find work where they can, settling now and again before moving on.

Janko, the young teen who answers to JJ, provides the insider's view as someone just becoming really aware of how different he is from other kids his age. He isn't introduced with awareness. It creeps in along the way, spoiling his naivety and, to some degree, his belief in gypsy magic and curses.

The other perspective is Lovell, who reluctantly agreed to take a missing person case. He did it for two reasons, really. The first reason is because he and his partner could really use the money. The second is Leon Wood, his client, wouldn't take no for an answer.

Wood is convinced that anyone who isn't a gypsy wouldn't stand a chance of finding the truth about his missing daughter. And Lovell, although his father traded in the gypsy life to marry a gorjie (non-gypsy) and become a postman, happens to be part gypsy. Never mind that he doesn't know the first thing about gypsies. It's in the blood. At least Wood thinks so.

The Invisible Ones has the overtones of a dual mystery. 

While most people will find The Invisible Ones to have the elements of a mystery, it's more soft-boiled noir than a hard-boiled thriller. That's okay. Its real brilliance transcends the unraveling as it paints a portrait of people who are completely alien to the world around them — from believing a bathroom inside is unclean to having little need for privacy beyond a thin curtain.

As Lovell attempts to peer into their secretive lives (secretive even amongst each other), JJ attempts to peer outside and make sense of the bigger world. For each of them, it makes for awkward moments. Both are outsiders at different stages in life, one looking in and behind. The other looking out and forward.

The contrast in alternating chapters is addictive, and it isn't the only contrast. While the gypsies seem free because they are unbound to a home and married to the road, they are also tied to steadfast traditions, superstitions, and family hierarchy. It is against this other worldly etiquette that both of them will attempt to find out the truth without becoming ensnared.

The missing person case itself centers on Rose Wood. She disappeared about seven years ago, and her father has his doubts that she is alive. If the stories are to be believed, she had an affair and ran off with a gorjie shortly after giving birth to her son, who suffers from a hereditary decease that the Jankos claim is a family curse.

There are plenty of reasons to doubt the story. Even disgraced, her father believes she would have tried to contact him after hearing about the death of her mother. The details of her disappearance don't seem to add up at the onset. There are remains found at a site that the family travels by from time to time. And then, of course, there is one more pressing question.

Who poisoned Lovell? It could not have been a mere coincidence that it happened just as he moved closer to not only uncovering the mystery, but also discovering something more unlikely and unexpected.

A few graphs about Stef Penney, an emerging author and vivid storyteller. 

After graduating from Bristol University with a degree in philosophy and theology, Stef Penney turned to filmmaking and studying film and television at the Bournemouth College of Art. She was immediately selected for the Carlton Television New Writers Scheme, where she wrote and directed two short films. (She made three other films before being accepted by the college.)

Her first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, received critical acclaim and earned the Costa Book Award in 2006. The story grew out of the first screenplay she had written and she centered on it because she wanted to revisit her characters and didn't have enough work as a screenwriter. The Invisible Ones is her second novel.

The Invisible Ones By Stef Penney Disappears At 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Some people will no doubt point out that the ending seems unbelievable. On one hand it might be, unless you notice the clues that Penney left like a trail of breadcrumbs. Most of it is there the entire time, out in the open.

The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney is available at Barnes & Noble. The Invisible Ones is also available at Amazon. You can download the novel from iBooks or find the audio version on iTunes. The latter is read by Dan Stevens, who does an incredible job making each voice its own. The read time is 11 hours, 24 minutes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Janus Finds Its Soul Carries Stains

I've always found it really hard to classify Chicago-based Janus as an alternative metal band. But then again, it always seemed odd to me that many people thought Red Right Return was their debut album.

Janus originally came together in 1998 and debuted the same year on Mirror Records. Then the band self-released Armor in 2004, which could easily be called a reinvention CD that not too many people heard. (Probably a good thing). And then came a 5-track demo, two years ahead of Red Right Return (and one year ahead of the rerelease most people know).

Through it all, the band has continued to evolve and weather lineup changes. It took locking in Mike Tyranski (guitar), David Scotney (vocals), Alan Quitman (bass), and Johnny Salazar (drums) to make it work. And even though it did work, Eyesore was easily the hardest hitting song in advance of a surprisingly mellow album (much too mellow to be alternative metal).

New single Stains foreshadows something better.

Stains, which is the advance song for their next album, Nox Aeris, sounds more promising. It's also the first album for which all four of them can take complete ownership. That might be for the best.

Although each member contributes his own parts, they've also created a composition process where the parts are only as good as the whole. And that means they try to push each other harder. Stains carries plenty of push and some of it indicates they might finally live up to their elusive alternative metal moniker. Here is a live clip, but you really owe it to yourself to listen to the studio track.

Don't misunderstand me. Stains is largely melodic alternative rock, but then the band completely deconstructs and destroys it. And it's in destruction and reconstruction that Janus demonstrates why Nox Aeris could be the beginning of successful career.

As long as Nox Aeris doesn't descend into the more mellow modern mainstream, then it will be one to look forward to at the end of March. All of them have talent, but it is the push that makes them.

The words that make up the lyrics are straightforward for Scotney.

Stains proves the point. Lyrically, it's some of Scotney's more contemplative work. And, according to Scotney, Stains embodies what he was trying to say across the entire record. If you don't follow your heart, then it leaves marks on your spirit as you become someone you're not.

"It's a dark point of view," he said. "But represents a cathartic process of self-healing."

In December, Janus revealed a second song from the upcoming album. And while the song was stripped back into an acoustical piece and Scotney is clearly holding back in his delivery, Numb has potential.

Incidentally, the clip demo Studio East reveals something else. Janus needs to tour with bands like Chevelle and Middle Class Rut. While they have a decent live stage presence, they sound their best in the studio and at big venues. In more intimate settings, Scotney has a tendency to tuck his voice in his back pocket.

The Single Stains By Janus Hits 7.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

No matter. Stains still carries a signature that demonstrates how far this band has traveled since its earliest beginnings. And by the end of the tour, you can bet Scotney won't hold back. He doesn't need to.

Stains by Janus can be found on iTunes. You can also download Stains from Amazon. You can find the band on Facebook and they recently launched a Q&A session on their website for fans. Questions have to be submitted by Feb. 24.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gnarr Promises To End Boring Politics

Americans sometimes think the rest of the world escaped the economic challenges they faced in 2008. It just isn't so. Iceland epitomized the most startling rise and fall of all. And there is a film about it, but not one that is being covered by any major critics in America (probably because it's funny).

It goes like this. Although its population was smaller than Wichita, Kansas, Iceland had grown so rich that its assets were nine times greater than its entire economic output.

By October of that year, its three biggest banks owned a combined $62 billion in foreign currency debt before they were taken over by the Icelandic government because the impending collapse nearly dragged the country down with it.

Enter Jon Gnarr. The least likely mayor of Reykjavik. 

His campaign promises immediately captured attention. All kinds of things for the unfortunate. Disneyland in the Vatnsmyri area. Toll booths on the border with Seltjarnarnes. No more debt, mediocracy, or boring people. Sustainable transparency. A drug-free parliament by 2020.

He came up with most of those on his own, but he didn't campaign alone. Under the banner of his newly created Best Party, Gnarr was joined by indie artists and punk rockers, including one from the alternative rock band Sugarcubes. This led to one of the most brilliant campaign concepts, turning Tina Turner's song "Simply The Best" into the Best Party theme.

While the Best Party started as a joke inside the head of Iceland's most cynically dry comedian, it didn't end that way. The idea to poke fun at the establishment resonated as Gnarr parodied the "left" and "right" parties for what he called a false morality. They were ridiculous.

Not only did Gnarr win the seat, but the Best Party swept the elections. It took six of the 15 council seats, more than any other party. In a single day, the voters of Reykjavik expressed how fed up they were with the status quo of politics, and delivered an extraordinary upset. In fact, some beaten politicians remained unconvinced Gnarr could "actually" serve, even after the win.

The film, aptly named Gnarr, captures it all, sort of. Although there are snippets of the opposition's opinion throughout, the narrow point of view focuses on Gnarr and his campaign, starting with some initial footage of him announcing his candidacy via his computer.

At the onset, Gnarr says his qualifications could be summed up as living in Iceland all his life, working a number of years in a psychiatric ward, and "almost" completing his maritime certificate, which would have allowed him to captain a small boat. Oh, and he was licensed to drive a truck.

How the brilliant idea fits within the confines of the film. 

As a film, Gnarr is a little less comedy than it is Andy Kaufman-esque performance art. Gnarr is committed to his character, but without overtly grandiose pranks or hoaxes like Kaufman. Unless, of course, you consider the entire campaign a grand hoax as some of his opposition did.

For those unfamiliar with Kaufman, the quirky cult film Napoleon Dynamite might suffice as a baseline, but without any awkward teen oddity to carry it forward. But that is not to say any parallels to either Kaufman or Dynamite should be misconstrued that Gnarr is on par with them. It only means it is difficult to tell where the dry and often deadpan comedy begins and ends.

In that regard, the subtitled film captured by director Gaukur Ulfarsson and producer Sigvaldi J. K├írason compels you to watch as it climbs to its quirky sub-comedic level and maintains a plateau there throughout. You would think a political film would have builds and climaxes,  but this isn't like that. It's one long sustained note.

Sure, there are moments it earns some laugh-out-loud chuckles, especially when Gnarr crosses the international lines of political correctness or makes absurd promises like giving unemployed people the chance to have their pictures taken with Mickey Mouse. But then there are also moments when the jokes are grounded in truth, like the real reason behind his promise to provide free towels at city pools.

Perhaps that is what makes it all the more unfortunate that the film never really comes together as a cohesive story. Instead, it plays all right as a collection of loosely woven clips and subtle gags in mostly chronological order. So while the film is certainly worth watching and not is boring, it never lives up to the brilliance of the concept behind what really happened.

Gnarr Shakes Iceland; The Film Rattles At 3.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

This will likely be one of those films I love, but will still find it hard to recommend without some reservation. The film isn't brilliant. But the idea that sparked the film was genius. As funny as Gnarr can be, he rides right up to the truth in saying that you don't have to be serious (and boring) to make things better.

Gnarr is available to rent or own on iTunes. You can also find Gnarr on Amazon. If spry and dry humor is your bag, don't let the lack of consumer reviews frighten you off. Gnarr is just getting started, assuming it gets a start as a subtitled indie film that resonates anywhere. We all need a Best Party.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Capsula In The Land Of Silver Souls

When it comes to South American rock bands, very few (if any) could ever break into the European music scene. But that may change this year. Capsula may hail from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but their musical influences are diversely deep.

From Sixties psychedelic rock with South American influences to American punk, their newest album, In The Land Of Silver Souls, is catching attention in Europe and turning heads in the U.S.

Capsula hails from Argentina, but their sound defiantly carries international appeal.

Capsula takes its name from the Spanish word for “capsule” in honor of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. The band left Argentina for Spain. Regardless of where they play, they sing in English.

"We didn’t know anything about how to tour Europe, but we knew we wanted to be touring wild all year round,” said singer/guitarist Martin Guevara. "We thought that in Europe the distances were smaller compared to South America."

In Argentina, they might have to travel across the Andes Mountains just to get to their next gig. It was extremely frustrating for a band that just wanted to play every night. But, as expected, Europe has opened doors, production facilities included.

What seemed to take years — producing EPs and albums, and booking festival appearances in North America, South America and Europe — now takes months. And although the newest album is technically their eighth studio album, it's light years ahead of the critically acclaimed Rising Mountains (2009) and anything else they have ever done.

As good as Rising Mountains seemed to some, it was formulaic at best. In The Land Of Silver Souls is completely different: 14 tracks of anything but the same old, same old.

The production quality certainly counts. This time around, the album was recorded by Santi Garcia at Ultramarinos Costa Brava at Sant Feliu, and by Guevara at Silver Sounds Studios in Bilbao. Not only does the band wear influences like the Cramps and Sonic Youth on their sleeves, but their brash approach and sonic delivery still give them a sound that is purely their own.

Capsula took a long and winding road, but the journey was worth it. 

It's about time for a band that was originally formed by Guevara and singer/bassist Coni Duchess in 1998. The duo have been slugging it out ever since (and married for better than a decade), and recently added drummer Ignacio “Natxo” Villarejo.

There is a lot of interesting history around the band. Guevara and Duchess lived through some tenuous years in Argentina. They struggled through censorship and dictatorship. But it is also these experiences that likely shaped their approach. It almost seems subtle, even when it's in your face.

It all works because while Guevara sometimes is almost whispered and difficult to decipher, Duchess’ backing vocals are moody and clear, a striking contrast. Add in some crunchy guitars and a barreling rhythm section and it becomes crystal clear that they know what they are doing.

Standouts from the pack include Hit ‘n' Miss, which is a classic garage rock number with a quasi California influence; Wild Fascination featuring Guevara’s Bowie-esque vocals; and Communication which is punctuated by a whispery refrain and Guevara’s low, guttural vocals. When you listen to it all, there is plenty to discover across the right combination of psychedelia, punk, garage rock, and a hint of a pop surf rock

In The Land Of Silver Souls By Capsula Rocks In With An 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Without a doubt, In The Land Of Silver Souls marks a turning point for Capsula. There’s not a weak song on the album — it grows on you in the best possible way. And, even more exciting for anyone who likes it, there is a good chance the band will be touring in the United States this year.

In The Land Of Silver Souls by Capsula is on iTunes. The album can also be found on Amazon. You can also download one free track from their band site or follow them on Facebook. Definitely plan to attend any shows in your area.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Carrie Fisher Scores With Shockaholic

Carrie Fisher has never been impressed with fame and celebrity. She grew up with two famous parents, actress/entertainer Debbie Reynolds and singer/actor Eddie Fisher, and appeared as Princess Leia in the first three Star Wars films.

When you grow up surrounded by it, there is no allure. And this is one of the most refreshing things about Fisher and the underlying theme in her book Shockaholic, the follow up to her well-received autobiography and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking.

Shockaholic takes its name from electroconvulsive therapy.

Fisher endured it to help with a myriad of unresolved issues: drug abuse, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. She is also matter of fact when describing the treatment, which isn’t as horrible as movies would have us believe, but does indeed zap the mind of the patient’s memory.

The book is also a vehicle for Fisher to document her best and sometimes funniest recollections while she still has them stored in her memory bank. Most of the time, it's all over the place, leaving you with a true taste of something witty, urgent, and hilarious.

She also shares stories from her childhood, including her parents’ divorce and subsequent marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and millionaire shoe tycoon Harry Karl. Her stories about Karl, in particular, are laugh out loud funny because Karl, who inherited his fortune and shoe business empire from his late father, was an odd duck with a penchant for sleeping with no clothes on from the waist down.

What makes that fact especially memorable is Fisher remembrance of Karl's non-stop flatulence. He also had an uncanny ability to lose not only his own fortune, but Reynolds’ fortune as well. Yes, he lost his shorts.

Some might be surprised to find very little about Star Wars. 

With so much Star Wars on the market, it seems too much to hope for more. Fisher doesn't go into much detail about filming Star Wars despite the dust cover art. What she does do, however, is provide a glimpse of how notoriety can impact your life.

Even for Fisher, it was an abrupt change. Instead of being the daughter of famous people, she became famous. She found it amusing in many ways.

She also doesn't share much about her relationship, marriage and divorce from singer Paul Simon. But she does share a fascinating account of a blind date she went on with Senator Chris Dodd in which she held her own against a rather randy Senator Ted Kennedy. The strangeness is priceless.

But what makes Shockaholic, and Fisher herself, so engaging is her self-mocking nature. From her weight gain to her belief that her house was haunted by a ghost (after her platonic friend died next to her in bed), it’s almost too much to believe, and yet it’s all very real.

Fisher also describes reconciling with Taylor, her former stepmother, as well as her own odd friendship with Michael Jackson. Fisher and her daughter not only visited Neverland Ranch, but also spent a Christmas with Jackson and his children.

Perhaps the most touching part of Fisher’s story however, is in her recounting of her father’s decline and eventual death. Although she barely saw Eddie Fisher growing up, she did reach out to him late in his life. When his health declined, it was she who oversaw his care and ensured his final days were spent in comfort and dignity.

The real Carrie Fisher is someone you'll be glad to meet.

Put aside the image of Fisher in the infamous gold metal Star Wars bikini. Those days are far, far away from who she is. Instead, you'll meet a solid actress and brilliant writer.

In fact, it's all too easy to forget this is the woman who co-wrote and executive produced These Old Broads (2001), which starred Reynolds as well as Taylor, Joan Collins and Shirley MacLaine. By this time Reynolds, a truly classy lady, had not only forgiven Taylor for stealing away husband Eddie Fisher in one of Hollywood’s biggest love triangle scandals, but had also forged an easy friendship with Taylor.

Fisher is also the author of the semi-autobiographical Postcards From The Edge, which was made into a feature film starring Meryl Streep and MacLaine. And if you find you like Shockaholic, definitely dive into Wishful Drinking. It gives much more insight into Fisher's childhood.

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher Zaps 8.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

After all this time, it seems Fisher has discovered what she’s truly great at. She is a gifted writer and never short at seeing the comedy in it all. The book is well written, nicely paced and engaging from start to finish. You'll likely finish the story, despite its short length, feeling like Fisher is an old friend who just called to catch up.

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher is available at Barnes & Noble. You can also find Shockaholic on Amazon or download it on iBooks.

Personally, I think the best choice is to opt for the audiobook on iTunes, which catches Fisher reading her own work. Her husky voice and impeccable sense of timing add even more color to her craft. No one else could possibly deliver it better.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mark Lanegan Has A Blues Funeral

As frontman for Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan needs no introduction. Both bands broke enough ground that they sometimes swallow up some of his numerous projects like Soulsavers, Gutter Twins, The Twilight Singers (on occasion), and others.

And then in 2003, of course, there was the gritty and tenacious release of Here Comes The Weird Chill by The Mark Lanegan Band. It was a brazenly dark and delicious exploration of expression that was much loved but still somewhat left lurking on the fringe of his other solo work, like Bubblegum.

Not this time. Blues Funeral is an alternative blues rock powerhouse that pulses up from six feet under. It's not Bubblegum or Weird Chill, but something better. It carries forward some of the same shuddering feelings but often with a bigger, bass-heavy voice and thick lyrics.

Blues Funeral is a meticulously haunting love affair with everything under the veil.

The nearly decade long wait to revive this remarkable direction catches Lanegan exactly where he needs to be to deliver it. The music is intensely intimate, reaching out and enveloping everything.

The album leads off with The Gravedigger's Song, a driving introduction that sets the tone of the album with a beautiful gloominess. It's a crushing contrast to anything being produced by the pop quarters and momentarily makes you fall in love with music all over again, right down to the French verse.

Everything is black, my love. Everything is white. I love you, my love. As I like the night.

The obsessiveness isn't all spent on ghostly love and infatuation. It's only the beginning. The surrender in Bleeding Muddy Water with its slow beat blues is infectious. The brooding lament of St. Louis Elegy captivates with its twisting end-of-the-line lyrics. And Riot In My House retracks the pace of the album with some crunchy guitars and an uptempo beat fronted by a celebration of savored chaos.

The album doesn't miss a beat becoming more eclectic as it carries on. Ode To Sad Disco is an awakening song, both spooky and romantically melodic. Phantasmagoria Blues washes over with a regretful sorrow, someone trading in integrity for success. Harborview Hospital is both sad and thoughtful, referencing the life, death, and sickness found inside the song's namesake.

The entire album strikes hot and heavy, with the last three songs sure to be among my underplayed favorites. Leviathan, Deep Black Vanishing Train, and Tiny Grain Of Truth are all contemplative and end-of-life exposes like only Lanegan can deliver. Sometimes it's as if he glimpsed other people's last chance at redemption or maybe he remembers one of his own.

The best made better by some of the finest collaborators in music and film. 

The album was produced in Los Angeles with Alain Johannes (Them Crooked Vultures) and Jack Irons (Pearl Jam) handling most of the production. Irons also guests on some of the tracks, along with Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and Greg Dulli (The Twilight Singers).

The Gravedigger's Song video was crafted by Allstair Legrand. The entire intent of the video was to translate the music into something dark and elegant, much like the song and entire album. Everything is surreal and dream-like, which is undeniably sinister in its literal moments but oddly comforting in how Legrand wants you to be unafraid, an ever-present theme across the album.

The video was shot at a house built on a secluded hillside near Salinas, Calif. According to The Masses, it remained untouched since the retreat of its last residents. Legrand said it was waiting for them.

Blues Funeral By The Mark Lanegan Band Digs Up 9.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For someone as talented as Lanegan, it's difficult to come right out and call this his best work. It would be like saying Warhol is better than Basquiat or Gauguin better than Van Gogh. The fullness, texture, completeness, and songwriting are different, much like Weird Chill or maybe Bubblegum.

Although I'm not especially fond of the repetitiveness in Gray Goes Back or peppiness of Quiver Syndrome, Blues Funeral deserves to be listened to in entirety, start to finish. You can find Blues Funeral on iTunes or pick up the CD at Barnes & Noble. The album is also available at Amazon.

Lanegan is already on tour in support of the Blues Funeral. After tonight in Los Angeles, he will embark on a heavy European schedule (first stop Norway) and a couple of stops in South America. He'll be back in the U.S. for the Sasquatch! Festival in May.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Discgear Makes A Better Storage Case

A little more than 20 years ago, two former IBM engineers took a look across the clutter of their CD collections and said there must be a better way. For most people, that solution would become digital in about ten years. But for other people, CDs are still the best music option out there.

I know plenty of guys (and gals), DJs and audiophiles included, who prefer CDs over any digital format (except for their favorites, which they preserve on vinyl). They also have the equipment where even the slightest differences are noticeable. Otherwise, Apple Lossless is still as good as it gets (with ACC 320 kbps a close runner up) unless you like the art, literature, and liner notes (which I do).

Discgear makes CD storage solutions.

As mentioned, Ron Hunt and Gene Whitehead (who hold 120 patents combined) have been inventing storage solutions for a couple decades, and some have been better than others. Most I couldn't be bothered with, but their last addition (about a decade ago with some improvements) is still their best.

The Discgear Selector 100 Auto holds 100 discs in a compact space, only 13 inches wide and 6 1/2 inches high (5-3/4 depth). The Selector eliminates the need to keep jewel cases entirely, along with the headache of setting a few weekends aside every year to organize them. With this, fix it up once and it sticks.

You can access 100 CDs in four simple motions (or less). Push one button to open the listing deck, slide the catch to the corresponding notch, and push the second button to retrieve the disc you want.

The solution is much safer than jewel cases (especially any with chips and cracks) and the Selectors are semi-stackable. (Semi-stackable because you will have to unstack them to retrieve a disc.)

There are two ways to make the storage work for a music collection. Purchase one or two to keep 100 or 200 CDs within reach (the balance in storage). Or purchase enough Selectors to store your entire music collection; DVDs, game discs, and Blu-Ray too.

If you are only buying one or two, the faux leather casing is attractive enough to leave out with your components. Conversely, they are small enough to store in some drawers and most cabinets.

The look was one of the reasons they caught my attention too. Earlier designs were either plastic or round, which made them impossible to stack. The squared Selector 100 Auto solves both issues.

However, if you want the round Selectors, they do look pretty good. The Selector 100 Black carries sort of a modern tech vibe, which is nice, just not as stackable.

Either one will give you access to an online Discgear library organizer that will help you create a printable list for free. The listing is intuitive, including enabling you to make your list alphabetical but giving it a numeric code so you don't have to rearrange your discs with every new purchase.

Discgear also provides storage solutions for CD literature. 

Although sold separately, Discgear also sells 100-CD/DVD Literature Albums too. If you are ambitious, you can store the literature to correspond with each Selector. (I'm not that ambitious.)

However, what I do like about this solution is the literature albums make you want to browse your collection more often. It's almost like making your own art book, with the only downside being special editions.

Then again, separating special editions never made sense to me anyway. They are "special" after all. Keep those with anything you manage to have signed.

The Discgear 100 Auto Stores Up 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

When you get right down to it, the storage solution from Discgear still beats everything else on the market. It beats bins, boxes, stackable holders, tubs, and especially cases. It makes everything more functional, moveable, and useable. And, for the price per CD/DVD, it's hard to beat.

The company also includes a 10-day return policy and a lifetime warranty (unless you do something stupid with it). Warranties may vary depending on where you purchase it. However, it's also good to know that the company sells replacement parts if something goes wrong so you don't have to ship everything back, at least not on every occasion.

The Selector 100 Auto is available from Sharper Image (about $60, which is the same price point at Discgear). However, they do not sell the literature albums. You can shave some cost on the Discgear Selector at Amazon (but these models may have a variation). Amazon also sells the 100-CD/DVD Literature Album. It also has a literature album without the slipcase, but you'll want the one with the slipcase if you can find it. Without, the album should retail for about $15.