Friday, March 30, 2012

Monte Pittman Embraces His Destiny

For as long as most people can remember, Monte Pittman has always had a great singer in front of him. Tommy Victor (Prong) as a phenomenal poet. Adam Lambert with his amazing vocal range. Chris Sheehan (Myra Mains) as one of the finest frontmen. And Madonna, who is best at being Madonna.

It has always been that way for Pittman, a Texan who took a chance on California to start a music career at the age of 24. Like many young musicians, he found work where he could, first at a local guitar store, and then as a teacher.

He still might still be teaching if it wasn't for his third student. British filmmaker Guy Ritchie had just received a guitar from his girlfriend and then bought one for her in return. In less than a month, Madonna would invite Pittman to help promote her new album, Music, on the Late Show With David Letterman. That was almost ten years ago. Today, Pittman has the mic.

"I started playing solo and taking it seriously when I realized I could only count on myself," says Pittman, who recently released his second full-length album. "That's kind of like how James Hetfield started singing in Metallica. It's got to be somebody."

His album — Pain, Love & Destiny — is an eclectic mix of pop-rock with a much fuller sound than his first album, The Deepest Dark, a mostly acoustic outing. But don't mistake the change up as anything settled. Skipping across all 14 tracks, it becomes pretty clear Pittman isn't locked to a sound.

"I'm letting it build from the ground up naturally," he says. "I'm in this for the long haul."

What he has decided is that he intends to rely on songwriting more than the guitar work for which he is best known. And for the most part, that works. The finest tracks from Pain, Love & Destiny are all dynamic, with songs that never drift into the predictability of straight pop.

The best track off the album is (I Am) The Black Rabbit inspired by Watership Down, much like the cover art. The 6-minute plus track — which does include the finest guitar solo on the album — carries a more somber note as it captures Hazel's loyalty and loneliness along with the forbidding black rabbit (a.k.a. grim reaper). 

Other standouts from the album include Fortune, The Price of Fear, and Definitely. All three explore the challenges and opportunities faced in the midst of change. But there is a little more to these songs for an artist who tries not to pin down anything he does.

"Each song means something different to different people at different points in their life," Pittman said. "Hopefully, people take the idea that it's never too late."

He carries a very similar message when he lends time to Little Kids Rock and other charities. As an example, Pittman visited one middle school last year to help raise over $7,000 for the organization. The aim of the program is to revitalize music education in disadvantaged schools.

"For me, it's a way to teach a lot of kids at once," he said. "It also allows me to bring attention about the needs of all the kids out there that crave a musical education but don't have the tools they need."

Pittman isn't against learning either. Prior to the release of his first album (and sometimes at random), he plays open mic nights around Los Angeles. Originally it was a means to overcome his trepidation about singing. He knew, even then, that iconic performers carry larger audiences but solo performers are much more exposed to intimate ones.

"It's the absolute worst predicament you could be in and you still have to make it work," he said. "You plug in your guitar and go."

And once you go, there is no chance of turning back. He says aspiring musicians ought to do something similar, placing more faith in their instincts instead of "people who focus on why you shouldn't do something simply because they don't want you to do it." Instead, he says, treat your coworkers, bandmates, and fans with the highest respect. There are more important things to be concerned about — the business and the music.

"Usually, songs just pop in my head like a curse," says Pittman. "It happens when I'm playing the guitar and I come up with a chord progression or a riff. If it's good, it sticks in your head until you lay it down or make a demo. And then, you keep building it."

Pain, Love & Destiny By Pittman Soars To 4.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Pittman has proven his presence as a solo artist, picking up Best Solo Artist honors at the Artist In Music Awards. He is also nominated for Best Male Singer/Songwriter for the Los Angeles Music Awards, but even more interesting is his new signature Jarrel guitar, the MPS, which he designed with as much diversity as his career has offered him.

Outside of the songs mentioned (and maybe Lost or Burn Down The Garden), it would be great for Pittman to dirty up his studio sessions and power up his vocals on stage. He already has two parts down. He's a solid songwriter and a guitarist with guts.

Pain, Love & Destiny by Monte Pittman is available on iTunes. Pain, Love & Destiny can also be found on Amazon. Incidentally, Pittman funded his second album with the help of Kickstarter. He asked for $5,000 and raised $65,000, setting a new record among rock soloists.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sinners & Saints With Devilish Delight

Rachel Jackson Adams, first lady of the Houston-based Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church, could barely keep her composure when she first learned that her husband, Rev. Lester Adams, would be the Southern region nominee to lead the American Baptist Coalition. It was the largest African-American religious organization in the nation.

He was sure to win. And the only thing more exciting than seeing him win was knowing that she would become first lady of the American Baptist Coalition, a position of prestige that came with invitations to White House dinners, the Grammys, and television talk shows like The View.

Rachel would have been right too. But 1,600 miles away, another first lady was having the same vision. Jasmine Larson Bush, married to Pastor Hosea Bush and first lady of the City of Lights Church in New York City, had just received a call. Disenchanted with the slate of nominees that the Northern region had received, Pastor Earl Griffith urged Pastor Bush to submit his resume.

Unlike Lester Adams, however, Hosea Bush seems a little less certain about even bothering to run. And Jasmine knows, right then and there, she needs more than divine intervention to make sure he doesn't let the opportunity pass by. She needs her friend, Mae Francis. Mae knows everyone.

Sinners & Saints: A Novel is a blistering political smackdown without gloves.

Given the street smart backgrounds of both feisty characters — Jasmine, created by Victoria Christopher Murray, and Rachel, created by ReShonda Tate Billingsley — the collaboration has drawn some exceptionally curious categorizations, ranging from romance to urban fiction. It's neither.

Sinners & Saints: A Novel is as fiery as a political campaign without any of the boredom of political bias. On the front end, there is nothing but two ambitious women who are equally eager to plow a path to victory for their infinitely more humble husbands. Simply stated: They are in it to win it.

Never mind that Jasmine Bush and Rachel Adams have graced the pages of four and three novels, respectively. Anyone can pick up this collaboration and immediately fall in with the mischievous women. From the onset, it's almost like reading two authors sitting down for a chess match, each attempting to out plot the other as their respective heroines amuse, frustrate, shock, and surprise each other.

Cancel transportation reservations from the airport? Check. Bait with innuendo and subtle insult to illicit a primal reaction? Check. Make wild promises that may or not be kept? Check. Dig up dirt and throw stones from glass houses? Check. Suck up to influencers to curry favors? Check. Ambush someone with a face from a more promiscuous past? Check. Frame someone for a crime they didn't commit? Check. And all of it, unbelievably, is only a warm up.

The two women become so embroiled in one-upping each other, that neither one of them is quick to see that there are other conspiracies underfoot. Not everyone, not even their respective allies, have either woman's best interests or the interests of the American Baptist Coalition at heart.

Two talented award-winning writers tell a remarkably fluid page turner.

Victoria Christopher Murray is the author of nine bestselling novels, six-time winner of the African-American Literary Award for Fiction, and recently named Author of the Year (Female). Although she always knew she would become an author, the Queens native first opened and managed a financial services agency for ten years before she returned to writing. Today, she divides her time between writing and speaking in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

ReShonda Tate Billingsley is a bestselling author of 21 titles (both adult and teen novels) and her work has landed as a #1 national bestseller more than once. Although she always enjoyed making up stories and crafting poetry, the former Texas-based television and radio news reporter still works as a journalist, speaker, and radio talk show host in between writing novels, including one that won the Gold Pen Award.

Together, they turned in one of the finest collaborations between two authors using existing, well-defined characters. In some instances, there are character similarities as if they were cut from the same cloth. And in others, their differences, including age and wisdom, set them apart. Even their husbands, especially if you heard either women tell it, are content in who they are and who they serve.

Sinners & Saints by Murray and Billingsley Riles 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the book sometimes carries enough comedic drama to make the characters feel younger and more soapish than they really are, Murray and Billingsley succeed in delivering a genre buster that anyone might enjoy. There are parallels to political drama, comedic satire, mystery, and crime woven throughout.

And yet, anyone who has spent any time near a political campaign or organizational shakeup will immediately recognize the lengths people might go to win an election. As unbelievable as the book sounds at times, those who know can attest that truth still remains stranger than fiction.

Sinners & Saints: A Novel by Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Tate Billingsley is available on Amazon. The novel is also available at Barnes & Noble. You can download the book from iBooks. The audiobook is brilliantly read by Patricia R. Floyd, who breathes life into every character, especially the principal women, their closest allies, and unseen detractors.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Luke Roberts Opens The Iron Gates

Luke Roberts has done some moving and traveling over the last year. He moved from Brooklyn to Montana and then to his hometown of Nashville. In listening to his second album, The Iron Gates At Throop and Newport, it sounds as though the troubador has come full circle. He’s home again.

In August 2011, he released his debut album, Big Bells and Dime Songs, which featured what can best be described as country blues. It was very much a man and his guitar — stark, singular and sparse.

This time out, Roberts enlisted the help of Mark Nevers (Lambchop) as producer and recorded the songs in Nashville. Then he turned them over to the capable hands of Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk) for mixing. The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport was released on Thrill Jockey in March 2012.

As much as Big Bells And Dime Songs worked, Iron Gates works harder. 

The newly completed album is a stronger, more rounded album that includes fuller arrangements and seriously improved songwriting (not that Roberts’s songs were ever weak). He is also joined by a host of guest players adding drums, harmonica, mandolin, and fiddle, which only serves to enhance his lyrics and plainspoken delivery.

The songs sound like he wrote them on the road, but he didn't. This batch of songs was written while Roberts was still holed up in Brooklyn. You might never know it unless someone told you because heartbreak doesn't have boundaries.

"The first record I made has a very homeless or Wild West feel to it and this new one is filled with addresses and luxuries,” explains Roberts. “It's a rags to riches story about family and love and faith, where the first one was about not having that stuff. This album is about how hard that stuff is."

The restless Roberts shows that he may have been burned in the past, but he’s still hopeful. He has always been someone to look for the good. The next best thing could be just around the corner.

His Song is easily the strongest cut on the album. It carries a true band sound with lyrics that explore religion and the pain that sometimes comes with it. There’s a great guitar solo and a catchy chorus.

Second Place Blues is different. Emily Sundblad comes in later in the track to accompany his plain lyrics, making it an easy favorite. But Roberts can pull it off on his own too, with nothing more than himself and a guitar in the driveway.

It doesn’t get much more real and organic than that. It's who Roberts really is and how he feels most comfortable. Even Spree Wheels, which shows a much more confident Roberts accompanied by Sundblad, can be described as sparse and gritty. What makes the song pop all the more is the nice acoustic guitar and added ace fiddle work by the talented (and in demand) Billy Contreras, who has recorded and/or toured with the likes of Hank Williams III and George Jones.

Another track at the top of the play list is I Don’t Want You Anymore, which presents as if it were written and played as a confessional. Meanwhile, Old Fashioned Woman keeps pace with its solid bass work.

It also alludes to something else. If anything, support always gives Roberts an added boost. And I think that's why The Iron Gates has a more pleasing sound than his first album. Last year, plenty of people noticed the same thing when he performed All American with Harvey Milk at the Union Pool in Brooklyn.

It's pretty certain Roberts grew up listening to bluegrass, and those early influences have stayed with him to this day. His songs are uncomplicated. And he manages to draw his audience and listeners in as if you're watching his struggles unfold, right there. You nod your head in understanding.

The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport Rings 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Roberts is unpretentious and laid back, always content to ramble and travel. He is happy to sing his songs for people who can appreciate and relate to personal struggles.

The Iron Gates At Throop And Newport is on iTunes. You can also find Iron Gates at Barnes & Noble. You can download or order The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport from Amazon.

Interestingly enough, The Iron Gates At Throop and Newport is named after actual streets in Brooklyn. I can't help but wonder if Roberts left a piece of his heart there before moving on. The singer heads out to Europe in mid April for a series of shows in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France and the UK. He will be back in Brooklyn on May 4.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

For Stunning Views In Santa Monica

They didn't call it the Roaring Twenties for nothing. California was prospering along with the rest of the nation. Hollywood was making advancements in film. And Santa Monica was abuzz with the opening of the La Monica Ballroom on the Santa Monica Pier in 1924.

That wasn't the only excitement in Santa Monica. Brothers E.A. "Jack" and T.D. Harter had picked an ideal location for a high society beach club, Club Casa del Mar. Even before the club was open, people were excited to join — so much so that the brothers fenced off a small area, erected tents, and invited future members to grill on the beach and host picnic lunches during construction.

It would take two more years before the club building would open (and $2 million), but its membership was already well established. Its roster read like a who's who of Los Angeles, hosting dinners, luncheons, tea times, and bridge parties amidst lavish floral displays of orchids, gardenias and lilies of the valley.

Club Casa del Mar thrived as the most successful beach club in California. 

Even after the Roaring Twenties had ended and the nation fell under the grip of the Great Depression, Club Casa del Mar continued to thrive. For some, it was considered one of the last bastions of better times, with its special events, lavish bridge groups, yacht members, and volleyball teams.

It reign as a premier club might have lasted longer, despite the setbacks caused with the construction of a major highway in the 1930s, but the building was claimed by the U.S. Navy at the outbreak of World War II. For the next four years, the once lavish club became a recreation center for enlisted men.

After the war, the building was too well worn (and without the benefit of member dues) to rescue. Even when T. D. Harter came out of retirement in 1959 to save the failing property, it was too late. It closed a few years later.

The revival of the Casa del Mar as a beach resort on the Santa Monica coastline. 

Although the property had undergone several transformations from a drug rehabilitation center in the 1960s to a nutrition and health care facility in the 1970s, it wasn't until the the Edward Hospitality Group Corporation (Etc.) purchased the property in 1997 that it could be returned to its former glory.

The hotel reopened in 1999. Today, Hotel Casa del Mar feels more like a beach club than a resort.

A large part of the transformation has to do with the emphasis on social activities. The hotel is home is the eco-friendly Sea Wellness Spa. Executive Chef Jason Bowlin has created several outstanding menus for Catch (including one that is gluten free). The pool has a beautiful beachfront facing. And the library like the lobby has high back leather chairs, with the lobby lounge hosting live entertainment nightly.

But even more exciting for guests, or even locals, is that Chef Bowlin doesn't confine himself to the kitchen. He joins a private instructor almost every day to teach people how to surf in Santa Monica. The packages are reasonable, about $350 for two for locals. For guests, surf lessons can be added as part of the room rate. And without the chef (and lunch), lessons start at around $120.

The rooms inside Hotel Casa del Mar carry some semblance of a long-lost era. The 1920s Renaissance revival styles are back, mostly a mix of modern and classic accommodations. Even if is a partial, the ocean views are especially stunning.

The bathrooms are appointed with Italian marble and hydrothermal tubs. White Italian linens make up the four-poster beds. Most are 400 square feet, which might seem small for the rates. If you can, upgrade to the 540-square-foot one bedroom, with a small living room. However, don't upgrade unless you keep the view too.

The Hotel Casa Del Mar Hits The Beach At 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There are two ways to look at the location. Casa del Mar, much like its sister property Shutters, is right on the Santa Monica beach, with Venice Beach starting a little less than a mile away. There are plenty of more convenient places to stay on the north side of the pier, but all of them are on the cliff overlooking the ocean.

There is certainly an energy here that you won't find elsewhere. The social environment Etc has been trying to create here over the last few years is starting to pay off. It makes for a swanky but friendly feel. Likewise enjoyable are the room rates. They range from $550 to $900 depending on the season and length of stay, forcing you to hunt or wait for better rates, which sometimes drop to $350 to $450 per night for a standard room, depending on the season and the view.

There are plenty of hot spots in the area, like Chez Jazz (where Sinatra once hung out), Mariscos Guilllen La Playita (for great taco and seafood cocktails), and the Buffalo Club (a divey little supper club). But mostly, it's all about the beach. For flights to Los Angeles, save up to 60 percent from Fare Buzz, which is also running Spring Break specials.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Grindcore Finds Happiness In Napalm

Never mind that the Birmingham-based Napalm Death (Napalm) weathered a few lineup changes in the first decade after being founded in 1981. They are still one of the most consistent bands in metal history, the style that originally laid the grindcore groundwork in the 80s.

Their new album Utilitarian is no exception. The godfathers of grindcore make extreme sound easy.

Utilitarian does represent a slight shift in anarchy-tinged themes for Napalm, paying attention to the ethical theory frequently contributed to by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill — the concept that that people are faced with two choices, and the one that leads to greater happiness is the best.

That's not to say frontman Mark "Barney" Greenway (since 1990) and the band are necessarily subscribing to or paying literal homage to the philosophy. The always thoughtful singer says it isn't as easy as all that. There's plenty to think about in regard to this outing.

He likes the idea that good actions promote good consequences, but not if someone is willing to achieve their happiness at the expense of others. Rather, he says, being independent without joining movements or philosophies that put you in a box can be its own form of low-level protest.

Utilitarian is gut-wrenching intensity broadening the definition of grindcore. 

While Greenway says Napalm has its own sound and it always comes together quickly, Utilitarian clearly broadens the style by changing up some arrangements. Most of that is for the best, even if it sounds overproduced in spots.

As a result, there are plenty of call outs on the album right from the start. The atmospheric qualities of the first instrumental (with a few spoken words), Circumspect, is the perfect lead into the classic and avaricious intensity of Errors In The Signals, which suggests adopting philosophies can be its own sort of disfigurement (much like Everyday Pox does). It's brilliant as a three-chord punk powerhouse.

But where the album really shines all the more is in the band's insistence that grindcore doesn't have to be limited. After 15 albums, Napalm is still full of surprises. There are the John Zorn sax passages on Everyday Pox, the clean vocals on The Wolf I Need, and snarls of lyrical simplicity that open up complexity of meaning on tracks like Quarantined. Mitch Harris leads some of the songs with higher-pitched wails, adding even more contrast than the throaty Greenway delivers on his own.

Utilitarian carries an exploratory warning of sorts against conformity.

There's not a bad track on the album, even if the overproduction is sometimes noticeable around Danny Herrera's drum work, especially when it overpowers Greenway's vocals, Harris' frantic guitar, or Shane Embury's basslines. But that's not the only place where production calls misfired a bit.

Harris directed the first video for the album. While it's easy to undertsand what the band wanted to do (highlight their 80s roots), the low-budget effects distract from one of the best songs on the album. Close your eyes for awhile while playing it, and you'll immediately get what I mean.

Regardless, Analysis Paralysis is one of my favorite tracks because Greenway so eloquently nails down  why looking for the failings of others really draws more attention to our own. He's right. Equations and discord divide but never unite. Figuring out where other people are wrong doesn't make you more right.

But even more compelling than any of the call outs is the album as a whole. Greenway clearly has something to say, almost as a reaction to the various movements that recently circled the globe. Here's the first part of a track-by-track analysis of Napalm's work. (You can find the restart 2 on their site).

With 19 tracks (counting three bonus songs), it's an ambitious album that makes a great case for anti-conforminty. Even the songs that Greenway didn't write fall right into place on an album that never fails to represent. I especially like Collision Course, written by Embury.

Utilitarian By Napalm Death Smacks Down 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There has been some resistance to elevating this album above others in Napalm Death's long history, especially Scum. But when you add up the thought behind it, the reactive timing, and the sheer range of style, it's easy to recognize it for what it is.

Utilitarian is a provocative assembly of tracks that preserves Napalm's ambiance, revisits the finer moments of Diatribes at a faster pace, adds in plenty of newness to keep things fresh, and creates an album that sounds better and better with every listen.

Utilitarian by Napalm Death is available on iTunes, which includes the bonus Aim Without An Aim. You can pick up the CD from Barnes & Noble, which includes the bonus track Everything In Mono. Utilitarian is also on Amazon (also with Everything In Mono). The third bonus track is Standardization, which only appears on the LP. You can also join Napalm Death on Facebook as part of their Occupy Napalm campaign. It's the easiest way for them to keep up on scattered tour dates.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Commando -- The Autobiography Of Johnny Ramone Hits Shelves Hard

Soon after Johnny Ramone learned he had prostate cancer, he started working on an autobiography. He kept working on it right up until his tragic death in September 2004. He was 55.

It would take another eight long years before his book would ever be put into print, despite the many Ramones fans who have been waiting for it. Few bands have ever been as influential as the one that came out of Queens in 1974 and spearheaded punk rock music throughout their careers. They performed 2,263 concerts while touring non-stop for 22 years.

Written in his own words, Commando — The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone, is Johnny's definitive story. The book was edited by his good friend musician, director and producer John Cafiero. The photos were chosen by Johnny’s wife Linda Ramone.

“It is a really powerful book because his whole life has gone before him and he knows it’s going to come to an end, and he really needs to tell everybody what he’s feeling inside, so that’s what makes it so amazing,” Linda Ramone told the Associated Press.

In the foreword, original Ramones drummer and long-time friend Tommy Ramone describes Johnny as “the magnet that pulled us (the band) together.” But it is the daughter of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, who perhaps best (and lovingly) sums up Johnny Ramone.

“He was grouchy. He was loyal, kindhearted, soft on the inside, set in his ways, and well… grouchy.” — Lisa Marie Presley

So much of the book is written just like that. It is straightforward, unapologetic, and workmanlike, just like Johnny himself. He even admits to being angry all the time. And those few moments when he wasn’t angry, he often felt ambivalent.

Sometimes you would never know it based on the stories he chose to share. He openly discusses his role as de facto leader of the band, an infamous altercation with Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, his days as a petty criminal and neighborhood bully, and the brutal attack on a New York sidewalk that put him in the hospital with a serious brain injury. Until now, he mostly keep his thoughts and feelings about those events (including the attack) to himself.

As far as the other Ramones go, Johnny pulls no punches in Commando. 

Johnny always had high expectations for the band, and he was willing to put in as much work as it took to achieve success. He expected the same from his bandmates too, even if they didn't share his military-like precision and work ethic.

They played show after show, with Johnny watching the finances and frequently trying to make decisions for the band. Above all, he always wanted to push ahead.

That doesn't mean that Johnny felt alone in his pursuit. It's very clear that he respected original drummer Tommy Ramone, noting that Tommy had no vices other than cigarettes. Johnny would often ask Tommy's opinions.

Johnny also had a deep and longtime friendship with his neighborhood pal Dee Dee Ramone. In the book, he makes it clear that he always understood their bassist played an integral role in the Ramones, particularly with his songwriting. But Dee Dee was also an addict, which angered Johnny. He saw it as a weakness, whether or not it was spurred on by bipolar disorder.

Johnny genuinely liked second drummer Marky Ramone, giving him high marks for his musical ability and hard work. But much like Johnny was concerned about Dee Dee's addiction, he also had serious disdain for the drummer’s early troubles with alcohol. Eventually, Marky kicked the habit during a 4-year hiatus from the band.

As for Joey and his many ailments (including severe obsessive compulsive disorder), Johnny was unsympathetic. The two may have been friends in the early days, but after one-time girlfriend Linda Ramone left Joey and moved in with Johnny, any friendship they had was obviously replaced with bitterness and resentment.

It was well known to everyone. Joey and Johnny would go for months without speaking, even while traveling together on tour. But despite all this and his matter-of-fact telling of Joey's lymphoma and death in 2001, Johnny expresses sadness and loss in his own way. He knew there could never be The Ramones without Joey.

Life went on, but not long enough.

Once the Ramones disbanded and Johnny retired, he began to let his some of his guard down and finally enjoyed friendships with people such as Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Nicolas Cage, and Lisa Marie Presley. In fact, Johnny was the best man at Presley’s wedding to Cage.

Even while writing the book while facing his own mortality, Johnny finds irony in the situation that befell him. The only times he was ever sick was when he had a ruptured appendix and when he was attacked.

In fact, until he was diagnosed with cancer, he had led a healthy lifestyle with no major drug or alcohol use, except for some occassional pot smoking. His health wasn't the only irony. He said that neither he nor the band ever received as much respect and recognition or earned as much money as they did after they retired (or now that three of them are gone). Ironic indeed. Viva Ramones.

Commando By Johnny Ramone Rocks 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the book is only 176 pages, it features scores of great photos and plenty of notes in Johnny’s own handwriting. One of the highlights of the book is Johnny's notes (and ratings) of every Ramones album ever produced. He also wrote down top ten lists of everything from baseball players and Elvis films to favorite TV shows and Republicans. All of it can be summed up simply enough. Johnny Ramone was his own man and this book is his story.

Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone is available from Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble. This is also one of those rare books that can never be the same as a digital download. Most digital versions will be added to online stores around April 1, but this is a case where it feels good to hold Johnny's words, pictures, and lists in your hand. It makes it all physical, like the Ramones and their music.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Colleen Green Takes Milo To Compton

There isn't any question why Colleen Green has earned her place as Oakland's garage band darling. She may have grown up in Massachusetts listening to her parents' golden oldies, but she hasn't forgotten them.

Aside from all the fuzzy punk and seduction, she could have easily helped usher in the 1950s. Her melodies roll out in whispers that beg you to listen and remember. And all across her newest album, it's all too easy to forget that Green isn't really singing about love or other teenage daydreams, not even when she does.

He song, Nice Boy (I Want A), is about how much she wants a monogamous relationship without all the drama after all. Who can blame her? Love seems a little better than out of reach when you're self-medicated.

Milo Goes To Compton plays smoke-filled haziness.

Going to Oakland changed everything for the East Coast girl who was always obsessed with music. Some people say if you  are exposed to enough of it, it will eventually change you. And with the Full House she and friends started up in West Oakland, it rubbed off on her until she had her own pile of well-composed but unproduced songs littering her living space along with her handmade comics. 

It was only natural that the comics and the music seemed to go hand and hand. So sometimes she releases her comics and one-page stoner strips, Real Shit Daily, with a tape or CD. Maybe that is why she never takes anything too seriously, with straight-faced interview answers that suggest people worship her, start tribute bands, and generally envy her success as a slacker.

Except, she doesn't slack so much. She spent two months in Los Angeles working on her 8-track album with Art Fag Recordings and Hardly Art. It's a well-invested half-hour of dazed escapism, covering her favorite topics — heartache, separation, and true love (sort of) — songs like the Ramones-inspired I Wanna Be Degraded.

I Wanna Be Degraded or Nice Boy (I Want A) aren't the only songs to dial up. The constant contrast between the anxious guitar and sticky sweetness of her vocals are set up on the first track while she covers a slowed down Good Good Things by the Descendents. 

The brilliance of her rendition, which swaps "man" for "girl," is that it leaves listeners to head-scratch over whether she's surreally sentimental or stickily satirical. Goldmine comes across the same way. She writes straightforward, but it doesn't all that feel straightforward when you're taking in her detachment. 

Did you ever hold a telescope the wrong way? Everything seems so desperately far away, small, and confined. And much of Milo Goes To Compton feels like that, with the instruments set at the big end and Green down the hole on the other end of the world, wounded. 

As much as it was out there, her debut seemed so much closer. Check out this cool video made by Wendy Wright, set to one of Green's earlier songs, Green One. 

When Green performs live, it's just her, an electric guitar, and typical understated drum machine. Some people wonder how long that can hold people's attention. 

But she's evolving. Sometimes she takes the stage with a bass player (her friend Marissa). Sometimes she jumps in with other bands like the Dum Dum Girls. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the simplicity of it, especially because she still accepts the occasional living room set when she isn't booked. 

Milo Goes To Compton By Colleen Green Fuzzes Up 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

New artists who do their own thing, even when the influences are felt, are always a good thing. Green is also great at making any covers her own without making anyone ashamed. She's covered Blink 182, The Mission 120, Nobunny, Pixies, and The Rentals to name a few. But its her originals that you'll want to kick around for a long time. 

You can download Milo Goes To Compton by Colleen Green from iTunes. You can find it on vinyl from Barnes & Noble, which also comes with a digital download coupon. Milo Goes To Compton is also on Amazon. Check out her Cujo EP on iTunes too. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Smarter Sandal For The Summer

The convenience of sandals (a.k.a flip-flops) might encourage people to walk around more in the summer, but too much of a good thing might not be for the best. The problem isn't in the walking. It's in the sandals.

When most people buy sandals, they generally pick up the cheapest pair that fits their feet, unless they purchased fan flip-flops when they were popular a few years ago. There are big problems built into many of them, specifically those spongy soles, which gives the foot more roll than usual.

While the sponginess is supposed to help reduce the shock of walking, the additional roll from the outside of the foot to the inside can lead to over-pronation. Over time, over-pronation can cause problems in the feet, ankles, calves, knees, and even back because the arch isn't locked in place when it attempts to absorb the shock. Some people end up suffering from more serious symptoms ranging from inflammation and tendonitis to soreness and fatigue.

Nobody ever thinks the sandal could be the cause, because sandals are often the most comfortable shoes people own. In reality, sandals can cause the over-pronation that leads to more problems.

Two medical professionals team up to create a better sandal.  

A couple of years ago, Dr. Andrew Weil wanted to promote walking as a better form of exercise because of its immediate health benefits. Dr. Weil, who is best known for establishing integrative medicine, says it is one of the best forms of exercise available.

"Our bodies are meant to move. And if we don't move, we're at great risk for developing a lot of complaints that are common in older people, aches and pains," he said. "Maintaining activity throughout life improves every aspect of life, physical and mental."

But he also stresses the importance of proper footwear. So he teamed with Phillip Vasyli, the Australian podiatrist who introduced Orthaheel in 1991, to create better sandals and shoes. Along with Orthaheel, Vasyli added what he calls Aided Motion System (AMS), which consists of three design features.

In addition to the Orthaheel, AMS includes Tri-Planar Motion Control to address excess rotation while walking. It's the excess rotation that gives the foot and ankle a curvature and misaligns the leg all the way to the knee.

Basically, this design maintains the straightness of the foot from the heel to the front of the foot, keeping it aligned with the knee. Without support, the foot is more inclined to roll inward.

Another feature of the design is the 1st Ray Flexor Zone, which gives the sandal more flexibility in key areas as the foot pushes down. In other words, it provides the sandal with a natural bend as opposed to facing resistance and jamming up the toe as people walk.

Two women's sandals and one men's sandal incorporate the integrative design. 

The first sandal style is the Restore (above), made of a recycled rubber outsole and leather upper. The soft leather straps are set back further than some sandals, minimizing the gap between the heel and cradle of the sandal.

Interestingly enough, it is the gap between the heel and the cradle that earned the sandals their dubious nickname flip-flop, referring to the smacking sound they made when the heel and cradle would reconnect.

The second design, Spirit II (upper right), has all the same benefits but in a more formal sandal design with two buckle straps. This design specifically reduces the friction that is sometimes associated with flip-flops at the toe because the strap placement redistributes the weight of the sandal more evenly over the foot.

Although Dr. Weil hasn't developed as many options for men, the footwear line recently introduced the Compass (lower right). This design is similar to the Restore, but with the arch of the straps pushed back on the top of the foot and slightly behind the heel, removing any pressure off the toe and reducing the traditional flip-flop drag.

Integration Footwear by Dr. Weil Imprints 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sandals and Southern California have always gone together, especially at the beach. It's easy to slip them off in the sand. In terms of comfort, I like the Compass sandal better than any other flip-flop because they cradle the feet instead of slapping up against them without being trendy like Birkenstocks.

For women, the Restore (about $79) and the Spirit II (about $100) are available at PlanetShoes. They are sold in black, brown, and natural (gray in the Restore line). Sizes typically range between 6-11, but some Restore sizes might not be available as the outlet is clearing the line. While the men's sandals haven't been added at PlanetShoes, they are available direct for about $95. Sizes range from 7-13. PlanetShoes also carries Integration Footwear with the same design technologies too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ugly Kids Club Whack Around Popular

When Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter Steve Wilson was touring the Midwest in a rock band, he met a girl. She wasn't just any girl. Aliegh Shields was the sister of one of his bandmates, someone who had the same appreciation and love for music.

So it only made sense that when Shields graduated from high school and moved to Nashville, she would look up Wilson to help produce her demos. But then something happened. She wanted to do something different. And so did Wilson. 

"Our name is inspired by the pretty and popular kids versus the ugly, nerdy kids back in high school," says Shields. "It seems that the pretty and popular kids never end up going as far in life; they peak in high school because they don't focus on the long term. The ugly and nerdy kids do something significant with their lives because they are less concerned about just what was cool or would make them popular."

But that doesn't mean that the emergent electronic rock band from Nashville, Ugly Kids Club, is stuck on high school. They see the same game playing out in music — flashy compositions that aim at the masses. They wanted to so something different, and write about something worth talking about.

The debut EP from Ugly Kids Club is a crunchy, fuzzy rock, pop, dance, soul mix. 

Sheepskin was one example. It was the first song that the duo put together as a band, a biting commentary that takes a whack off the two-faced society Shields says we endure. The song itself leans toward the ugly side of life, but it also became a barometer for the direction of their self-produced EP.

"We can put on friendly faces, but behind the scenes we can be extremely vicious," she says. "If we don't learn to get along, we may not survive it."

The lyrics are dark and heavy handed. The guitars are fuzzy. And the distortion is amped up into a frenzy to match the visceral mood. Shields growls out the lyrics with Wilson, giving the entire track a heavy grade sandpaper coarseness until its abrupt finality-laced end. 

"The heavy distortion came from me wanting us to push the limit. I'm a bit obsessed with distortion and I have no idea why," says Shields. "I've had a few other people mention it [the distortion heaviness] and I respect all those opinions. Diamond In The Fire is probably my favorite song, which is ironic because it has little to no distortion."

The song, Diamond In The Fire, still carries the coarseness but Shields' vocals are largely distortion free. It gives the track more of a sultry club vibe compared to the rest of the EP while retaining the guitars. It's a solid track, giving diversity to the range that the band wants to bring to life ... and life sentences. 

"Justitia was a reaction to a documentary I saw about a man that was convicted of murder and spent 30 years in prison," says Wilson. "DNA evidence was later discovered and he was finally released."

The song, titled after the Roman goddess of Justice, is as much an allegorical personification of moral force as its namesake. Of all six tracks, Justitia is among the most layered, with Wilson speaking the lyrics and Shields lending her pop-sensible chorus but with the characteristically cruel distortion amidst elements of electronic, pop, rock, and soul. 

When combined it's exactly what makes the band's sound unique and all of it is by design. There is definitely some push and pull behind the scenes with Wilson pushing in the direction of electronic and pop and Shields pulling in the direction of soul and rock. The middle ground is where they want to be.

"I like the idea of not writing love songs and writing about other situations that rarely get covered in music," says Shields. "You do have to listen carefully to the lyrics to get a grasp of what we're talking about. But to me it's exciting to hear a danceable song that makes you pause and notice something deeper."

While Ugly Kids Club put out the EP to help them book shows, Wilson adds that there is some hesitation to putting out an album, especially one that follows the traditional format. They have enough material to put it out, but the entire concept of an album is beginning to feel like it's from another time.

"One of our visions for the band was to keep everything as simple as possible," says Wilson. "We want to see the limits of what Aliegh and I can do ourselves before anybody else comes along. Right now we're very happy to be creating what we want, when we want. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

The Self-Titled EP From Ugly Kids Club Whacks 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The best tracks on the EP include Sheepskin, Justitia, and Diamond In The Fire. One Small Instrumental is worth a listen too, with the best of it tucked inside the middle. My Soul certainly leans toward more pop-infused dance and the one cover, Burning Down The House, makes me appreciate the songwriting abilities of Wilson and Shields all the more.

The self-titled EP by Ugly Kids Club is available on iTunes. You can also download the Ugly Kids Club EP from Amazon. Last December they also issued a limited edition cassette tape, but you can also find a free download or two if you poke around their website.

Monday, March 19, 2012

DonorsChoose Is An Education Miracle

Twelve years ago, Charles Best came up with an idea during lunch in the teachers' lounge at a public high school in the Bronx. He and his colleagues were talking about books that they wanted their students to read, field trips they wanted their students to experience, and art supplies that they needed.

But like many special programs dreamed up by teachers every year, these great ideas would never go beyond the lunchroom. Their school, like so many across the nation, didn't have the budget to support their dreams or the dreams of their students.

Except one dream, which some people now consider the Best of all. 

Like many teachers, Best sensed that there were many more teachers in distressed schools who needed help, and that there were many more people who would like to help distressed schools. So he created a website called, which directly connects individuals who want to help to the teachers and students who need it.

Today, DonorsChoose has raised more than $86 million that has fulfilled 210,000 projects and directly helped more than 5.1 million students in the United States. But even so, the real magic behind the success of has very little to do with the size, scale, and scope of the website.

The projects that are funded represent the best in giving on the smallest of scales. Individual teachers submit proposals for their projects, which are vetted by DonorsChoose, and then funded directly by individuals. The needs, ideas, locations, and projects are as varied as the benefactors.

Sometimes $20 is all they need to make their dream come true. Here are just three project examples, all of which have been funded.

Literacy. The teacher requested books with folktales from various countries so her students could use them to learn reading, writing, listening, traditions, and cultural awareness. After learning about the folktales, the children used index cards and markers to create their own.

Science. The teacher came up with the idea to test various soil samples around their school to determine the optimal growing conditions for various fruits and vegetables. Not only would the students learn science, but some of them could also apply gardening skills at home.

Arts. The teacher requested air dry clay, tools, and paints to create individual sculptures that move them beyond their paper instruction. Without the support of their art teacher, it would have been unlikely that his students would have been exposed to 3-D art in the second grade.

Not all of the supplies are related to special projects. Some cut to the core of distressed public school needs — classrooms that need new white boards, music rooms without instruments, students without pencils or paper to take notes. When they do have these basic materials, some of their notes are used to express their gratitude, tell donors how their gift made an impact, or even ask questions.

Wow! My teacher said that you were the one who gave her the books. The books are fun and exciting to read. Sometime my teacher will read half a book and make us wait until the next day to read the rest. I hate having to put the book down.

Sometimes when we read these books, our writing gets better. We have been working very hard on our writing this year because we have to take a writing test. The writing test is going to be hard. – Faith

Donations reinforce education as well as a legacy of giving. 

Students frequently write thank you notes to their donors (usually over a certain amount), and they often include illustrations or photos related to their project. The feedback provides insights on how appreciative the children are, not only for the materials but also because they are genuinely surprised people care about their education.

It's important for several reasons. Not only do the students receive the materials they need to learn, but many of these students may one day grow up to be education donors too. They will be adding to the growing number of people who share stories about why teachers are so important.

DonorsChoose has highlighted several of these stories on its YouTube channel, including Melody Hobson, Tom Brokaw, Phil Jackson, Bill Brady, and others. Alongside their testimonials are stories from teachers and sometimes students, all of whom have directly benefited from the program.

DonorsChoose By Charles Best 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 is continually striking about DonorsChoose is that it isn't only Best and his team that are highlighted as people with big hearts. It is everyone else. The teachers, the donors, the students are all working together with the common goal of sharing their love for education — something that doesn't end with a donation but starts with one.

Over the years, has made its website increasingly intuitive, with filters that allow people to pick projects by location, subject, urgency, resources, ages, and other criteria. This enables donors to quickly find projects that appeal to whatever interests them. We've mentioned it before as part of the good will pick Waiting For Superman. is one of the solutions, one class at a time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Taylor Momsen Says Hit Me Like A Man

When Taylor Momsen remade herself to front The Pretty Reckless, some people were taken aback. I wasn't one of them. Make Me Wanna Die was a powerful introduction for the (then) 16-year-old Gossip Girl actress on the Kick-Ass soundtrack.

For anyone still unconvinced that she was the real deal, the band's self-titled three-track EP won a few more over. My Medicine and Going Down rightly earned some anticipation for the album, Light Me Up.

On the whole, however, and despite its popularity, the album wasn't as great as the EP suggested. Momsen and company had straddled the fence between pop and rock, producing a half great album. But that isn't the case for their new EP, Hit Me Like A Man. The Pretty Reckless seem settled to keep things hot and heavy.

Hit Me Like A Man adds three ferociously good heavies.  

Never mind two of the five tracks are live recasts of Light Me Up. Both Make Me Wanna Die (complete with audio chanting and added guitar finesse) and Since You're Gone fit in with this EP.

The real magic happens with the newest material. Hit Me Like A Man, Under The Water, and Cold Blooded all represent the kinds of the songs that some hoped to hear more of on the first album. There is no pop-rock fence straddling here. The Pretty Reckless know their hearts belong to rock and roll.

Hit Me Like A Man pulls out all the stops, carrying over some familiar arrangements from the best of Light Me Up, but with a freshness that capitalizes on Momson's remarkable genre-bending range. The song carries her smoky, brooding blues through the verse, teases her acoustically pleasant pop voice in a pre-chorus, and then powers the rock growls for the chorus. The song is remarkably composed and the delivery unfettered. It's one of the most interesting songs I've heard for some time.

While the sample clip doesn't showcase it in entirety, it does provide some semblance of what to expect from the EP, courtesy of Interscope Records. The track carries the first 1:30 of the 4:43 song.

The next new track, Under The Water, is a classic rock ballad with an acoustic open. The open first creates the illusion that the song will drift into safer pop waters, but it thankfully never does. Instead, Momsen adds more richness with every refrain. Also of note, Ben Phillips adds a memorable guitar solo into the song. The only thing that wasn't needed, in my opinion, was a vocal echo overlay.

Cold Blooded also carries some experimental arrangements, including an organ open that establishes and helps to maintain a bluesy, soulful rock groove throughout. Not only does it include another memorable guitar solo, but Phillips lends his voice to transform the song into an unexpected duet while Mark Damon (bass) and Jamie Perkins (drums) hold down the beat.

It's a great reminder that although Momson gets more attention, The Pretty Reckless is an incredibly accomplished band. Everyone on the inside knows it and it's great more people outside will too.

It's not a surprise to anyone who has seen them live. The other members are finding themselves in the spotlight more often, especially Phillips who has always been instrumental in assisting Momson with the songwriting (along with Kato Khandwala) and in reaching her potential. Here is a clip of Momson and Phillips on the MTV special, with Phillips providing backing vocals for an acoustic Zombie.

This live acoustic version really relights up Zombie in interesting and unexpected ways. And although it is not included on the EP, it does demonstrate the diversity of both Momsen and Phillips (easily said about Damon and Perkins too). So with this little bit of trivia and the fact that Momsen gave up on acting to pursue music full time, you can expect The Pretty Reckless will only get better.

The Pretty Reckless' Hit Me Like A Man Hits Hard At 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

When I reviewed The Pretty Reckless the first time, there wasn't nearly the same level of excitement from people as there is with this new release. The credit belongs to everyone involved. The EP has some experimental arrangements that will be felt for a long time to come. And their live shows rock.

Hit Me Like A Man by The Pretty Reckless is up on iTunes. You can also pick up the Hit Me Like A Man EP for a few pennies less on Amazon. Barnes & Noble carries the EP as a CD. The band is currently on tour, playing Seattle on St. Patrick's Day before heading to Canada and the Midwest. Look for them on the East Coast in early April.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Matthew Pearl Invents Technologists

Without the likes of Dante, Poe, and Dickens, Matthew Pearl's latest historical fiction aims to stand on its own without the benefit of more widely known personas. Instead, he centers on founders, professors, and classmates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), opened in 1865 (founded in 1861) at the dawn of the industrial revolution.

Although lesser known, many of the characters are real and notable. William Barton Rogers championed the institute. Charles Eliot was set on merging MIT with Harvard College's Lawrence Scientific School. Ellen Swallow was the first woman admitted to MIT. Her future husband, Robert Richards, was a member of the crew team and class of 1868. There are others too.

Historically, Boston was undergoing several dynamic transformations. It was already one of the largest manufacturing centers in the nation, well regarded for its garment, leather goods, and machinery industries. And it was especially suited to commerce, given its growing river and railroad networks.

Waves of Irish and Italian immigrants had ensured a continued population boom, but it created tensions between these new Catholics and a largely Unitarian upper crust. The Brahmin elite had also established a cultivated and urbane social expectation. And the looming industrial revolution of the next century wasn't unilaterally trusted as it strove to replace men with soulless machines.

The fictional mystery that intersects with Boston history. 

Pearl immediately sets a near steampunk tone to the book, with a technological disaster taking place in Boston Harbor. As a cargo ship attempts to guide itself into port, one disaster after the next begins to befall it until the captain realizes his vessel is not alone. More than a dozen other ships have lost their navigational instruments, sending some into the wharf and others into each other.

The dizzying and fiery scene won't be the first or last disaster to unfold in Boston. Not too long after the harbor incident, the business district will explode in a panic as every watch face and pane of glass buckles and melts, appearing to come alive and even encasing at least one helpless victim.

While witchcraft and technology are equally suspect, the more humorous scientific conclusion proposed by Professor Louis Agassiz is more entertaining. Rogers' scientific rival suggests that Boston is the victim of its own growth. Its burgeoning population has unbalanced the tectonic plates beneath it, causing a shift in the magnetic field and causing mysterious gas leaks.

The boys and girl of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

With newly formed MIT already drawing the ire of Boston for embracing godless science, inventing technologies that could put people out of work, and accepting average citizens to become educated gentlemen, the founders of MIT aren't willing to draw attention to themselves by solving the puzzle, at least not openly. That leaves a handful of students, who are also expected to maintain discretion, to get involved.

At the helm of the detective work is Civil War veteran and machinist Marcus Mansfield, a commoner given a scholarship to attend the school. Along with him are Robert "Bob" Richards, Edwin Hoyt, and Ellen Swallow. It's these four who become become the original Technologists, a secret society that is very different than the one they cross paths with at Harvard.

It's also with this steampunk version of the Breakfast Club that Pearl weaves a historical detective story that sometimes touches on greater literary ambitions. Throughout, minor historical plots and conflicts are used to distract from the primary mystery — ranging from university rivalries and scientific debate to open class warfare and gender inequality.

A couple graphs about author Matthew Pearl. 

Matthew Pearl does find himself somewhat at home in writing about collegiate life, even if it is from a different era. He is a graduate of both Harvard University and Yale Law School. He also taught literature and creative writing at Emerson College and Harvard University, and is still a visiting lecturer in law and literature at Harvard Law School.

Although reasonably accurate and plausible, it is anyone's guess how his alma mater might feel about the presentation of the school, professors, and students. However, Harvard did struggle under the control of secular and societal influences of the age. Ironically, it was Eliot who eliminated the favored position of Christianity from the curriculum.

Technologists By Matthew Pearl Strikes 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

At its best, Technologists delivers several intense moments, handles numerous societal conflicts handily, and smartly portrays a society that saw Frankenstein not as fiction but as potential fact. At its worst, the novel sometimes becomes unbalanced from chapter to chapter, lost in its own stereotypical stuffiness, bravado, and a hefty back story. Expect it to take some time before finding its pace after the first chapter.

Technologists: A Novel by Matthew Pearl can be found on Amazon. The novel is also at Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded from iBooks. It is also available as an audiobook from iTunes. Listeners might question Stephen Hoye's narration at the front of the book, but his selection becomes apparent as he handles a large cast of characters effortlessly, giving each a unique and believable voice.

In addition to the book, Pearl has written several stories and a prequel related to Technologists. The stories focus on William Barton, Marcus Mansfield, Edwin Hoyt, and Ellen Swallow. Anyone who find themselves enjoying the book will no doubt want read a few shorts that Pearl ran out of room to include.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Ocean's Eyes Get Lost And Found

While London-based pop punk band The Ocean's Eyes has only played together for two years (and not even as a complete band), no one would ever guess it while listening to Lost Along The Way, their second EP. All four tracks are incredibly polished, reigniting a familiar sound from a decade ago.

Part of the EP might make someone think they were part of an early contemporary shift, but they weren't. Mitch Wright (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Luke McInroy (vocals) were still growing up, hanging out, and most likely watching bands instead of being on stage. But even then, it might have only been a matter of time before two longtime friends would eventually talk about starting their own band.

"After my old band broke up, we started jamming and flowing with some ideas," says Wright. "At first I thought it would not work whatsoever as Luke had quite bad timing. But then we had a few more meetups and started writing our first song together, which ended up being A Long Time Coming."

The first recording of A Long Time Coming, eventually included on their self-produced Lions EP (complete with production dropouts), wasn't perfect. Wright leaned on former bandmate Nick Birss and electronic drums to produce the original demo. It was just good enough to garner some attention on MySpace and catch some early interest for future gigs.

To book anything, of course, The Ocean's Eyes needed the balance of their band. They recruited two more friends, Ben Smith (drums) and Charlie Robery (bass) by December. A few months later, after Birss left to pursue other interests, they opened the lineup for Andy Dutnall (lead guitar/vocals).

"We had mentioned on our pages that were recording a new EP and I Am Mighty Records sent us an email asking if we would be interested in label support for the release," said Wright. "I don't know that Lions really had much to do with it, but they definitely saw room for maturity."

Lost Along The Way proved I Am Mighty Records right.

Booked into a better studio and with producer Daniel Broady (Futures, That Sunday Feeling), The Ocean's Eyes experienced a smoother recording session than anyone expected. Any of the rough edges are gone. It may even be too smooth at times, considering the context. Room Of Red, one of the four solid tracks, is about selling your soul to the devil and then wanting it back.

"I just read really weird things on the Internet," says Wright about the song. "I read about the 'Faustian bargain' and thought that would be a cool concept for a story line in the song. I usually come up with story lines whereas Luke [McInroy] writes more personal lyrics."

Wake Up, which McInroy wrote, is an excellent example of personal, emotive lyrics. The story reveals quite a bit about his upbringing. The song opens with how he had to weigh disappointing those close to him or living dishonestly while pushing aside his own ambitions.

"The chorus is about how I finally broke free and started to live life for myself, without worrying about what everybody else thinks," says McInroy. "As far as I'm concerned, making yourself happy is a thousand times more important than making anybody else happy."

Wake Up easily carries the most angst on the album, and hints of the band's heavier undercurrents that set them apart from other pop punk bands. Keep Me A Secret has heavier, darker elements too. Drummer Ben Smith says the song came together at the last minute and seemed to create itself. Everything about the song flowed naturally and fell together.

"The main thing we ask ourselves is ... are we happy playing it?" says Smith. "We tend to not think about the genre when writing music. Having Andy [Dutnall] in the band has changed our sound for the better too. I feel we've stepped up as musicians and are comfortable playing with each other. We're enjoying the ride."

Expect the ride to continue. As their first label release, this EP suggests that any full length in the future would make for a great album unless they morph into a boy band with pop songs. Then all bets are off.

Lost Along The Way By The Ocean's Eyes Hits At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

I'd like to see them bring more of an edge to their vocals, especially those that call for it. Doing so would make for a deeper connection. All it would take is channeling some of that runaway energy. As for their technical skills, there's no question. They're exploding and just keep getting better.

Lost Along The Way by The Ocean's Eyes is available on iTunes. Lost Along The Way is also on Amazon. Visit their Tumblr page and you can download the Lions EP for free. The evolution will blow your mind.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shooting At Photographer Robert King

Where The Bang Bang Club painted an artistic depiction of four conflict photographers within the townships of South Africa between 1990 and 1994, Shooting Robert King follows one brash young war correspondent who dreams of being the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner in history. It's the real deal, providing thought-provoking insights that a creative treatment could never capture on its own.

The film opens in 1993 with King in Sarajevo. He's too broke to stay at the hotel where most of the other journalists are staying and he was caught at least once trying to pick up a free meal. His primary sustenance is accepting handouts from homeless shelters in the area.

Other journalists dismiss him outright; his naivety is pointed out at every turn. One warns him off from wearing military pants because it can make all the difference at check points. A solider tells him that his white shirt makes an excellent target. And yet another says he doesn't have the right aura or even enough luck to make it.

After four months in Sarajevo, he only earns $400 despite landing his first front page, a photograph of prostitutes. The same shot also earns him his sternest story. He's told that he doesn't know who he's dealing with when he takes pictures of prostitutes.

Another conflict proves him to be another kind of professional. 

From Sarajevo to Chechnya, King undergoes a transformation. When most of the press corps is pulled out after the conflict seemed to be over, King stayed behind and became one of the few to cover the rebel counter-offensive. His work immediately became internationally acclaimed.

As King continues his transformation, the story brings in more details of his life. He is sometimes entertaining but also complex. King becomes aware that the pain he experienced was with him throughout his life, and running toward world conflicts was his flight from his own difficult childhood.

At one point in the film, he says chasing the conflict of war helped him put off his own internal conflict and tendency toward addiction. But that's not to say he avoided all temptation. While following the story in Chechnya, he fully engaged in the seedy nightlife offered up by a changing Russia.

He never had a need to brood in his rooms for days or weeks to find art. He wanted to be part of it all: go to a war, go to a bar, get laid, get drunk. Journalism, he says, was rehab from hell.

Afghanistan was different. When he switched to film, some of the images he captured left him shaken. And although it's the shortest of three diminishing segments, he becomes more contemplative. He describes how photographers distill the carnage into objects that need to be framed, but sometimes the realization of everything comes flooding over them upon completion of the shoot.

Unfortunately for King, however, Afghanistan also left him more cynical. Unable to embed himself into the population like he had done during several other conflicts, being embedded with troops limited his perspective and often any access to events until the military could sterilize it.

Along with such restrictions, it wasn't uncommon for mobs to suddenly turn on photographers and kill them. For a journalist, the proposition seemed even more frightening than the stray bullets that sometimes left him shaken during his first foray.

A brief about producers Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith. 

One of the most striking elements of the documentary is that Richard Parry and Vaughan Smith never anticipated making a film. They were working just like King — freelancers who were trying to make a buck, see the world, and stay alive. (Parry and Smith arrived in Yugoslavia a year before King.)

They incidentally covered King for much of his fifteen years at various points in his career. And while it would have been more compelling had it shown more footage, more context, and more stills from other places like Kosovo, Rwanda, and Albania, among others; the transformative story brilliantly holds.

One even wonders about Parry and Smith too. Although they are not the subjects of their own film (despite Smith appearing in it at times), it's important to note that they are frontline videographers too. In fact, since they started, they have lost eight cameramen at their agency Frontline News.

Shooting Robert King Fires Up 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The documentary is wildly engaging and beautifully edited to show a sympathetic portrait of a war correspondent and conflict photographer. It is an interesting and little understood perspective, bringing in some additional commentary from King at home in Tennessee; most of it while he hunts from a blind, which was the reason for the original title Blood Trail.

Although the documentary originally appeared in 2008 and the DVD in 2010, Shooting Robert King recently made its electronic debut on iTunes. The new edition is also available on iTunes. Barnes & Noble still lists it as Blood Trail. Some of King's most recent work can be found at Polaris and you can find some more information on the film's website.