Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sensu Brush: A Stroke Of Genius

Many iPad and iPhone stylus designers try to inspire. And most of them come up short. The Cregle iPen comes to mind. The iPen is one step above junk. The low-tech Targus Stylus beats it.

So it only stands to reason that when someone came up with an idea even more ambitious — to create a better paint brush that works with the iPad — we set our expectations appropriately low. It turns out that we never needed to settle. The Sensu Brush will change the way you think about art apps.

The Sensu Brush as a well-designed stylus.

The Sensu Brush is a stylus is housed in a chrome-plated container reminiscent of the Fisher Space Pen bullet as conceived by the late Paul C. Fisher. The housing has several practical benefits: it protects the brush, makes the stylus smaller for portability, and extends the length of the brush for balance.

Closed, it can be employed as a traditional malleable rubber-tipped stylus, similar to the Targus and other stylus designs. While the Targus tip has more density, creating more intuitive, resistent, and precise lines, the Sensu tip comes very close to perfect.

Once you have a feel for how much pressure to apply, it works as well as any of the better stylus designs on the market. So, other than density, the quality is nearly identical. It won't tear, rip, or become deformed like many cheap models are known to do. And overall, the Sensu Brush feels right with a little more weight and the cool, graceful curve of an elongated chrome bullet.

The magic begins when you use it as a brush.  

With three easy steps, the stylus transforms into the best paint brush on the market. Open the bullet, flip the brush, and reattach to the base. The balance and overall feeling of the brush is perfect, a testament to the experience that Artist Hardware has in designing and inventing traditional art supplies.

The soft, fine bristles of the Sensu Brush look indistinguishable to a fine arts paint brush with a tapered, sightly rounded end. This also creates a little more precision than the Nomad Brush design did last year, evolving the concept of a digital brush to the next generation. The silicone grip is a nice touch too.

The brush glides effortlessly over the iPad screen, without any concern for pressure. And while it cannot duplicate the feel of a brush (e.g., the weight of paint or coarse resistance of some canvas), the Sensu Brush is about as close at it gets to a traditional fine arts feel in the digital age.

When used in conjunction with art applications ranging from our favorites like ArtRage or SketchBook Pro, the experience is as close as you can get to the real thing. In addition to the video put out by artist Matt Lynaugh and Artist Hardware (above) using ArtRage, I was also struck by one of the first illustrations shared by artist Raul Allen (below).

Allen is a fine artist living in Spain who does illustration work for a number of select book publishers and magazines, including Rolling Stone. He initially did a series of quick portrait sketches as soon as his Sensu Brush arrived and tweeted them. His favorite, Vanessa Grimes, was shared on this blog.

Like more artists and illustrators, Allen doesn't expect that his digital illustrations will replace fine arts in entirety. But he admits not having to clean up after painting a portrait is definite benefit. His work speaks for itself, including those subtle lines that look even more like a brush.

The story of the Sensu Brush was not without suspense.

Many developers, especially those that launch on Kickstarter, create striking prototypes that need adjustments during manufacturing. And the story of the Sensu Brush, like many of them, was not perfect. It took six months to modify the prototype during production, much longer than anyone wanted.

In this case, however, backers didn't mind so much because Artist Hardware kept everyone up to date. The first issue was the quality of the conductive brush hair. The second issue was the silicone grip. And the third issue, which was heartbreak on Valentine's Day, caused the company to reject the first 3,200 brushes.

While the brushes themselves had worked, some came loose at the junction of the silicone handle and cuff. Artist Hardware did feel some pressure to deliver, but everyone agrees the wait was worth it. I mention some of the setbacks because it demonstrates Artist Hardware's commitment to quality.

Many developers simply pass along products that are less than perfect with a shrug. Artist Hardware wasn't willing to pass along less than perfect and we're grateful. This is a fine artist instrument that happens to be made for the iPad and other touchscreen tablets. Amazing.

The Sensu Brush By Artist Hardware Paints 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The Sensu Brush is expected to make its general public debut in May. It was developed by Artist Hardware, which is a design consultancy that creates consumer products for artists. It takes great care in the products it delivers, and the Sensu Brush is one of the first it owns for itself.

As part of the initial launch, the Sensu Brush will be sold exclusively on the consultancy's Sensu website. It will retail for about $40. As more retail outlets are added, we'll update the page. Do take care putting the brush back in its housing. The last thing you will want to do is bend the bristles.

I received one of the early Sensu Brushes as a Kickstater backer. My only regret is that I didn't order more than one. The Sensu Brush is an exceptional example of inventiveness and innovation.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Demon Hunter Turns To True Defiance

Ryan Clark (vocals) likes to say that every Demon Hunter album must be a step up from the last. But you know how that goes. Everybody says it. Not everybody means it. Even fewer can actually do it.

"This record without a doubt is our most aggressive," says Clark. "It seems like most bands' prime years are long behind them. I refuse to let that be the case of us."

This is only one reason that True Defiance is such a standout album. While many metal and hard rock bands soften with each passing year, Clark, Patrick Judge (guitar), Jonathan Dunn (bass), Yogi Watts (drums), and newcomer Jeremiah Scott (rhythm guitar) have stepped up to produce what is arguably their best album.

The Seattle-based alt metal band that was conceived by Clark and his brother Don ten years ago has moved beyond what was starting to feel formulaic. Sure, there is still some predictability in specific arrangements and even in the order of the album as a whole. But they get it right this time, enough so that even people who aren't fans of metalcore are quick to note that something is different here. And that difference is better than good.

True Defiance by Demon Hunter works with Clark digging deeper into his material. 

Kicking the album off with Crucifix was one of several great calls for this album. Clark skips delivering any of his signature metalcore melodies in favor setting a different pace for the album. He growls unapologetically in describing the wickedness of people over a ripping drum set by Watts, probably his best set on the album.

Crucifix is stunning as Clark grimly channels the appropriate amount of aggression without giving up on everything. As good as that song is, God Forsaken is tracking as the fan favorite mostly because it best represents the what people expect from the band. The riffs are catchy, the vocals are clean, and the bass lines line up right.

My Destiny, on the other hand, is one of the better songs to showcase the band's direction. And although the chorus eventually erodes into snarls (weakening the effect), it's easy to appreciate the reason reason for Clark writing it the way he did. This is his song, harkening back to the day when he decided which path he wanted to follow.

That said, it only makes sense that the aggression would eventually be overcome by something else. What I can't help you with in the video is the interspersed skateboarding clips. While the band is happy enough to include skateboarding stills on their Facebook page, it doesn't feel like it fits.

The confessional nature of My Destiny is the likely reason it was picked to promote the album over some of the better tracks, including Wake. The lower tones in Clark's chorus lines and guitar solos make it one of the must have songs from the album. It's also less overt in its message than many tracks, content with waking the fine line between following the masses and self-reliance.

Someone To Hate, We Don't Care, and Resistance are all solid. Someone To Hate best epitomizes the album's title, True Defiance. We Don't Care has a harmonic chorus that cuts up apathy. And Resistance, which is similar to Someone To Hate, is a down tempo contrast.

And then there is Dead Flowers, which can easily be sized up as the band's best ballad. It's about the death of a friend, balancing despondency against hope that they're in a better place and will be seen again. In fact, it is the imagery within Dead Flowers and songwriting of I Am A Stone, released as a bonus track, that represent some of Clark's best lyrics, words he deftly delivers.

True Defiance By Demon Hunter Rips 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

True Defiance isn't a perfect album, even if it is the best Demon Hunter has put out and quells any ideas that this band is past its prime. In fact, they have a long road ahead of them if Clark continues to raise the bar. True Defiance proves he will. At the same time, some songs do tire out faster than others. My remedy is simple. I stick with the best six to nine songs.

True Defiance (Deluxe Edition) by Demon Hunter is available on iTunes, which includes the must-have I Am A Stone. True Defiance (Deluxe Edition) [+Digital Booklet] is also at Amazon. If you are only interested in the original release, you can find the CD at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

William Landay Is Defending Jacob

It is difficult to imagine anything more disturbing than the murder of a 14-year-old boy. And this is the consensus of the residents of a quiet suburban community in Middlesex County, Mass. Nothing would ever be the same again. Some events are too haunting to let go, ever.

Ben Rifkin's body was found in the park, lying face down on an embankment just off one of several paths that many students use to travel to and from school every day. He was stabbed three times. The wounds were purposeful, awkwardly angled so the serrated blade could slip between the ribs.

When someone finally found the body, the nearby school was immediately placed on lockdown. The students were ordered back to their home rooms, doors locked. The teachers held them there for hours until the all clear was finally given.

In the days that followed, the school grounds became a carnival. Every parent would elect to drop their children off at school. News crews would set themselves up in the parking lot, looking for reactions. Police officers would be stationed at the entrance and along the grounds. Parents would loiter outside, uncertain how long it would take to feel safe leaving any of them while a murderer was in their midst.

Defending Jacob is a courtroom and crime thriller by an untrusted source. 

On any other day, Andy Barber would be the most reliable source for any story. He is respected in his community. He has been the assistant district attorney for 22 years; first assistant for many of them. He was also among the first to know about the Rifkin murder and expediently assigned himself the case.

But today, at the open of Landay's novel, Barber is hard to trust as he answers questions from the witness stand. Never mind that the grand jury proceeding itself, roughly one year after the murder, isn't about the murder. It becomes clear enough quick enough that it's all related.

Barber can't be trusted for two reasons. As a former prosecuting attorney, he takes some delight in being able to dismantle and rebuff the questions being asked by a former de facto protégé, the man who has since taken his position as first assistant district attorney. And second, as we will quickly learn in the retelling of events, his 14-year-old son Jacob Barber is the prime suspect one year prior.

The dismantling of a respected family as told across three interlinked timelines. 

While most people are quick to classify Defending Jacob as a courtroom thriller, the novel by Landay works harder than that. The story is told in different timelines — the events immediately following the murder trial, the trial, and the grand jury proceeding. Meticulously crafted together, this alone could create a convincing case that Defending Jacob would become a classic thriller.

Landay delivers much more. By conveying the entire story through Barber, he presents three layers of perspective — what happened, based on evidence; what the protagonist perceives to have happened; and what the protagonist refuses to believe happened. And in that telling, Barber becomes as fallible as he is likable as an unthinkable tragedy befalls his family.

For Barber, his son's innocence doesn't merit speculation. He doesn't think his son is innocent. He knows it. But regardless of his convictions, the presumption of innocence is a luxury that is only afforded to those inside the courtroom. Outside of the courtroom, the Barbers are dealt one blow after another as Andy Barber is taken off the case, his son is suspended from school, and his wife Lori fixates on her husband's dark family secret.

While she was never meant to know, Barber has no choice but to tell her. He comes from a long line of dangerous men, something that he himself had largely buried to protect himself from being judged. Barber's father didn't simply abandon him at age 5. He was sentenced to life in prison for murder.

The connection, compounded on the accusation and arrest, is too much for Lori to bear. She begins to crack, fray at the seams, and add up all those moments some mothers have a hard time explaining away.

Was Jacob a difficult or violent child when he was growing up? Was there more to all those injuries his friends and classmates endured while he was around them? Isn't a certain degree of narcissism a condition of being a teenager? Is it possible that the boy in the next room inherited a murder gene?

A few expedited graphs about author William Landay.

William Landay isn't a fan of encapsulating author biographies and blurbs, whether for the purposes of adorning dust jackets or even reader reviews (I imagine). He makes his case as effortlessly as as he wrote this novel. Effortlessly, of course, is the wrong word. The appearance of effortlessness in writing is the most surest sign that it was anything but effortless.

The blurbs, he considers, can mislead the reader and influence the experience, especially when they include credentials like his: a graduate of Yale University and Boston College Law School who worked as a district attorney before becoming an author. Inevitably, however, readers like to look behind the veil of any great story to see who or what is behind it even if all stories ought to stand on their own. And we think his take on all this says more than any blurb might.

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay Cuts 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

I'm not one to dive into any book described as a courtroom crime thriller. There is much more to be found here because Landay fully realizes Andy Barber and his perception of the people around him. While infusion of Barber is so complete some readers will say some parts are better than others, those feelings probably have more to do with how we feel about Barber than the story. The book is near perfect from start to finish, impossible to predict, and difficult to put down once it gets going.

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay is available from Amazon. The book can also be found at Barnes & Noble. You can download it from iBooks or listen to the audiobook from iTunes. With Grover Gardner's stunning narration, the audio only enhances the experience all the more, especially in sections that spin out passages of courtroom dialogue. For better and worse, Gardner becomes Barber.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ed Hale On Your Heroes And Villains

"These bands that get in the studio for two years and are forced to record 50 to 70 songs in order to come out with 10 tracks and the record companies are still not happy … they're looking for 'hit singles' rather than a great fucking album. Well, we haven't been working that way. — Ed Hale And The Transcendence

Nothing Ed Hale does is by the numbers. Even his band, Ed Hale And The Transcendence, isn't structured like others. It includes five core members, five guest members on every record, and another five musicians who sit in with the band for live productions. That doesn't count Karen Feldner, who has provided vocals for the band since their first album, Rise And Shine.

Yet, despite its sheer size and scope, the band has managed to maintain a distinct sound, even if it is one that can be hard to pin down. Their fourth studio album, All Your Heroes Become Villains, has been described as everything from a concept album of Brit-pop and world music to seventies glam rock and progressive alternative, but it is really something else all together.

"It wasn't supposed to be a concept album, but we were trying to make sure the songs were connected in some way because critics had said our albums 'weren't cohesive enough.' We didn't know that was one of the rules to making albums," Hale laughs. "It was only later, with a lot of it coming from DJ Kamran Green, that we started hearing how the songs could be tied together. This guy smoked more pot than anyone I had ever seen in my life. He's got this medical marijuana card, right? So he smokes out 24-7!"

It was also Green, Hale says, who would stay up after everyone else had called it a night between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. When the band would return in the late morning, Green would still be working — creating brilliant little snippets of music that would be incorporated in all the songs, tying them together, and giving it a "rock opera" like quality.

All Your Heroes Become Villains is a collection of personal insights. 

One of the most powerful songs on the album, Blind Eye, carries a potent message. Hale has always been regarded as an outspoken social and political activist, but this song throws its hands up in the face of everything, moving from protests that feed the system and toward passive apathy, just to survive.

"Sometimes I want to feel that way. I did when I wrote it. I mean, regarding how evil all the governments of the world are, yes, I feel that way," Hale said. "You and I know that I can't get into that here, in a public domain. But that's what the song is really about ... the fact that we are forced to turn a blind eye to all of it."

Instead, Hale points to a host of entertainers that mostly stay away from politics and take matters into their own hands. People like Bono for his work in Africa, Sting and his wife Trudy saving rainforests in Brazil, and Matt Damon attacking water shortages, he said. Instead of trying to change legislation, he points out, they go out and get it done.

Blind Eye isn't the only politically charged song on the album. We Are Columbine is equally poignant, laying the ownership of what Hale considers injustices on the societies that make them possible. Musically, it's one of the best rockers on the album. Lyrically, it is among several songs Hale says he didn't write as much as they wrote themselves.

"It's a hard song to stomach if you don't agree with the position it takes," says Hale. "It didn't take anything to write, but I had to ask myself if I had the courage to write it. To say those things."

Not every song addresses political letdowns. Solaris, for example, is written from the heart, about a girl that Hale has known since junior high school. He just happened to be watching the movie Solaris when he picked up his guitar. As he strummed, what came together was an amalgamation of his feelings and the movie.

"I had placed her in outer space … which I guess was easier than being real about it, with her living out in Oregon with another man," he said. "Fucked up, I know."

Messed It Up Again carries a similar theme, bottled up emotions that Hale felt a need to get out. The song is about a different relationship, a girl who took his ring, his love, and never gave it back. Listen carefully to the lyrics and you might discover Hale isn't singing about messing up the relationship. He says he messed up his life because he let her screw him over.

His favorite song on the album, however, After Tomorrow, is a dizzying seven-minute track that Hale calls his Magna Carta. On its own, the lyrics tell a story of a man who sounds like he's writing a suicide letter. But he's not as sad about it as he is celebratory, something that comes across because of the way the members — Fernando Perdomo (guitar), Roger Houdaille (bassist), Allan Gabay (keys), Ricardo Mazzi (drummer), and Bill Sommer (second drummer) — play together.

Houdaille, who is also in Ex Norwegian, recently agreed to pick up production duties on the next Ed Hale album. Hale says they cut enough songs to make two incomplete albums, work in progress after Houdaille flew up to New York and laid his air mattress down in the middle of the studio. It won't be like anything you've heard, Hale said.

Ed Hale And The Transcendence's All Your Heroes Become Villains Throws 5.1 On The Liquid Hips Richter Scale. 

Ed Hale And The Transcendence is infinitely listenable because Hale and company set down a sound well outside the mainstream. It's also hard to believe this is the same talent that recorded the confident Scene In San Francisco, which still reappears on top 40 lists almost three years after its release.

All Your Heroes Become Villains by Ed Hale And The Transcendence is available on iTunes. You can also find the album at Barnes & Noble or you can find All Your Heroes Become Villains on Amazon. If you want to hear how diverse of a singer-songwriter Hale really is, check out Scene In San Francisco, a rerelease from his album, Ballad On Third Avenue, three years ago.

Special thanks to Rich Becker for his help on the interview questions and contributions.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Open Studio Project Paints Good Will

While plenty of attention has been given to the breathtaking collection of 151 art partners across 40 countries via the  Google Art Project, there is another studio just north of Chicago that also shows compelling and sometimes provocative work. The difference between the two, of course, is the number of people who have heard of it.

At the Open Studio Project (OSP) in Evanston, Ill., the artists aren't famous. They don't have names like Vincent van Gogh or Giovanni Bellini, Edouard Manet, or Charles Le Brun. Most have names just like anyone, unknown or even obscure. And many wouldn't even call themselves artists.

This is by design. The focus at OSP is much less about becoming an artist and much more about the artist. In other words, the art made here has less to do with the outcome and more to do with the process. Once the work is complete, no one even offers any comments or critiques (negative or positive). It's enough that the art exists as a form of self-expression.

The Open Studio Project is a nonprofit arts and social services organization. 

It all started about 20 years ago, when art therapists Dayna Block, Deborah Gadiel and Pat Allen wanted to transform their clinical experience into an art and writing program that placed an emphasis on using creativity to inspire personal growth, interpersonal understanding and social change. It was originally like many new ideas; it began as an initiative someplace else.

But when the studio closed despite the program being refined, Block re-opened OSP in Evanston in the hope of providing more outreach to underserved populations outside of the sprawling urban center of Chicago. Today, she oversees a team of facilitators who serve a diverse group of non-artist and artists alike: young, old, novice, experienced, unemployed, overworked, inwardly troubled, and outwardly expressive.

It is a juxtaposition of art school and group therapy without being either. 

Unlike art studios where instructors teach technique and critique how students interpret and execute it, OSP facilitators move the process forward without instruction. And unlike art therapy, there is no rush to complete a project, process it, and then use it as a foundation for independent or group discussion. OSP does something else.

"After twenty years as an art therapist, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation, The Power of the Image, as a sort of manifesto against what I experienced as the 'clinification' of art therapy," writes co-founder Pat Allen, who now focuses on her own art and other projects in California. "Our intention was to make art and be of service."

The open studio concept might sound simple at first, but there is complexity in the experience. It allows people ample time to create in-depth work with minimal directives, with facilitators mostly providing materials, structure, and enthusiasm while working on their own projects. This in turn evokes a safe atmosphere for artistic self-expression, which begins after students write down a statement of intent.

Once the session time begins, the atmosphere is richly layered. Participants take part in what some describe as a personal journey. But unlike independent art, they also benefit from the group around them, taking more chances and being unafraid to let go. They know they can't do anything wrong. 

Later, they have the option to write something about the process or art (witnessing), share their thoughts or not, and decide what happens to the work. As one student related, participants can recite "blah, blah, blah" and no one will mind. There is no dissection or discussion. The above film — the studio's first film-as-a-medium project — encapsulates the process as seen through the eyes of a student. 

Most classes and workshops are completed during a five- to eight-week session and are priced under $200, with scholarships available for those in need of financial assistance. The OSP also hosts special classes, workshops and exhibits onsite and with a variety of organizations.

The Open Studio Project 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 the Open Studio Project unique is that it allows every participant to set their own intent. According to Open Studio Project facilitators, participants have used the experience to face personal challenges, cope with medical issues, nurture relationships with other family members, build self-esteem, and explore their own latent talents. Many others just come in to have fun.

While the project is located near Chicago, the concept has since inspired similar studios around the country, encouraged in part through partner programs. The studio is funded by private and public contributions to purchase supplies, provide scholarships, and develop community outreach.

The painting (at top) features the work of Carrie DeBacker, who captured her diagnosis and treatment experience as a Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor. Her work will be on display in Gallery 901, April 14-29. DeBacker has partnered with Twist Out Cancer

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bleeding Knees Club: Nothing To Do

A little more than two years ago, Aussies Jordan Malane and Alex Wall were two friends who decided to form a band. Never mind that it was their first band. Never mind it didn't have a name. Never mind they didn’t know how to play.

They quickly learned as they went along, settling on the Bleeding Knees Club for name and a lo-fi punk/surf/garage sound. And then it all caught on, enough to release an EP with IAMSOUND Records.

The EP, Virginity, barely clocked in at 11 minutes. But the tunes included were undeniably fun. Have Fun and Bad Guys reflected the duo’s punk sound. And that was enough to hone their skills while touring alongside bands like Wavves, sharing the stage with bands like Black Lips, and playing festivals like Liverpool Sound City.

Imagine their surprise when NME named Bleeding Knees Club among the 50 Best New Bands of 2011. In truth, it was a mixed blessing. It gave them recognition and created some lofty expectations. But somehow they still managed to take it all in stride. They just kept doing whatever they wanted, which is why their next step was just a leap of faith.

They signed with a major label to produce their first full-length LP, aptly titled Nothing To Do. It was recorded in New York City over five days with Dev Hynes (Blood Orange, Lightspeed Champion) producing and Dan Grech-Marguerat (The Vaccines, Radiohead) handling the mixing and touch ups.

Nothing To Do is spontaneous, raw, urgent, and good clean fun.

As with their EP, the band continues to favor brevity, with the album tracking at less than 27 tight and swaggering minutes. The longest song of all (Lipstick) clocks in at just over 3 minutes. But short doesn't mean there is nothing to it. They pack it all in much like they did on their EP with Teenage Girls.

Teenage Girls, which appeared in the Virginity EP, gets a replay here because it fits so nicely. Nothing To Do is a bit different. It has a cleaner, more cohesive sound than their EP, but still gives the band the freedom to be loose and inspired.

It’s also clear that Bleeding Knees Club is influenced by bands in the United States and the United Kingdom rather than their native Australia. The best example is Lipstick. The song has a 1950s-inspired sound, complete with a quasi Shangri-Las spoken-word intro and perfectly placed female backing vocals, courtesy of the Vivian Girls and The Like. It was arranged by the tasteful Hynes.

Not surprisingly, inspiration for the song came from the band watching and listening to American Graffiti again and again. It’s arguably the strongest song on the album.

The title track, Nothing To Do, is youthful and energetic, with a bit of a Ramones feel. The official video for the song is worth checking out. It was produced by animator Jon Vermilyea (The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror). It’s a live action video that features the band as crime-fighting witches (yes, witches) battling monsters presumably to save a damsel or two in distress (although there’s a twist).

While the video came out different than the band had envisioned, the result showcases their goofy I-don’t-care attitude and demonstrates their willingness to just have fun. Other standouts on the album include the surf rock Girls Can Do Anything and the punk of Boy In Lust.

At just 22 years of age, Wall and Malane don’t have a wealth of life experience to draw on for their lyrics, which suits them just fine. They write about what they know — girls and looking for something to do to combat the boredom they apparently felt growing up on Australia’s Gold Coast.

It probably included listening to lots of music too. While their sound has influences in American music from the 1950s, punk, surf, and garage scene, there are elements of early Raveonettes and maybe some Violent Femmes. Somehow it manages to work, maybe because they don't know better.

Nothing To Do By Bleeding Knees Club Surfs In With 4.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While the band is technically still a duo, they did add drummer Matt Woods to join them on tour. It was necessary because they needed a fuller sound on stage, giving Wall the chance play guitar and shifting Malane to bass.

Think short attention span meets girls on the beach and then find Nothing To Do on iTunes. You can also find the CD on Barnes & Noble or download/order Nothing To Do from Amazon. Right now, the band is on tour in their native Australia through the end of April.

You can find upcoming tour dates by checking the band out on Facebook, but their interesting and eclectic blog is worth a look too. If you don't get it, then maybe you can ask them what's going on via Twitter. If you ask me, they are just having fun and it happens to sound good.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Tess Gerritsen Tests Gravity In Space

The reason author Tess Gerritsen originally traded in writing romance for thrillers is immediately provocative. She was having a dinner conversation in Russia and learned that orphans were being abducted from the streets of Moscow to be used as organ donors. She knew she had to write about it.

It's this same sort of urgent timeliness that has rekindled interest in another one of her thrillers, Gravity. As the Discovery space shuttle makes its final voyage from space to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Gerritsen had fictionalized a different fate for it.

Discovery crash lands in White Sands, New Mexico. Its crew was either incapacitated or already dead, victims of a contagion unlike any other.

In reality, Columbia was the only shuttle to ever land at White Sands. But this landing may have provided just enough inspiration for Gerritsen to imagine a real belly landing like the one Columbia nearly experienced. Although most people would never notice, the landing was near disastrous as NASA tested the shuttle's Autoland system for the first (and last) time.

Gravity is a riveting medical thriller set in the least likely confines of space.

Much of the story takes place on the International Space Station (ISS), where a team of six astronauts suddenly finds themselves threatened by a virulent contagion. They don't know it at first, but anyone reading the story will never forget the first careless mishap when an Archaea experiment is able to make the leap to another experiment.

This fatal moment happens when one of the tiny mice greedily gobbles up a free-floating, blueish-green globule, much like astronauts might do for entertainment in a microgravity atmosphere aboard the ISS. Had the globule actually consisted of Archaeans, the micro-organisms known for their ability to survive in extreme conditions (acidic mine drains, volcanic hot springs, etc.), it may have been a non-event.

But Gerritsen has other plans for the ill-fated astronauts. And to make her thriller play out, she uses the readers "knowing" to create a feeling of isolation and helplessness as each successive problem unfolds and the first astronaut is infected. Those feelings can be easily appreciated by touring the real ISS.

Now imagine fictional Kenichi Hirai from Japan's NASDA having no idea why his mice are dying or why some of the other mice cower on the far side of the cage and away from the deceased. In attempting to work through the mystery, it is Hirai who becomes infected, but without exhibiting symptoms associated with a pathogen.

Instead, his upset stomach, high amylase count, and scleral hemorrhages in both eyes seem to be related to pancreatitis or maybe something he ate. In fact, it is this possible early diagnosis of pancreatitis by protagonist Emma Watson that distracts everyone from the severity of the problem.

Instead of focusing on the medical problem, everyone is considering the operational problem. NASA only has two emergency evacuation protocols for Hirai. Either they would have to move up the launch date of the next shuttle flight or instruct the crew to use the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV). Using the CRV comes with consequences: Every onboard experiment would have to be abandoned.

The decision is encompassing enough that no one ever considers something else. Maybe bringing Hirai home could potentially expose the planet to something more sinister and deadly.

Maybe alien life forms don't need flying saucers to ever conquer Earth.

The concept isn't too far removed from the classic techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, but Gerritsen has two advantages in her storytelling. The first is her own background as a physician that breathes life into the medical thriller of the story. The second is 30 more years of science, microbiology, and genetics.

There really is speculation that archaea could exist in environments like those found on Mars. And if that is true, then viable microbes could be transferred between plants in meteorites or hapless space explorers. And in this case, Gerritsen creates a nasty variation with parasitic properties, except it steals DNA from every creature it infects and has no concern about killing its host.

Gravity By Tess Gerritsen Orbits 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Gravity is an extremely fast-paced novel, driven by Gerritsen's education and impeccable research that makes the story plausible. As many readers discover, her backup career — a physician — became the catalyst for making her thrillers feel real.

While there are moments that the novel feels too rushed for its own good, Gravity manages to cover considerable ground within its subplots, raising small questions about living in space for long periods of time, to big questions about how much humans have left to learn. The story, however, is not a warning.

"There are always dangers to exploration. Yes, there will certainly be deaths as we move into space or deeper into the sea — but that's the risk man takes whenever he moves into unknown territory," she says. "That compulsion to push into the unknown is what makes us, as a species, unique — we are always asking what's beyond the next mountain."

Gravity by Tess Gerritsen is available from Amazon and the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. Gravity can also be found on iBooks and was recently released as an audiobook on iTunes and read by Campbell Scott, who struggles at times in distinguishing between the story's unique atmospheric and action-driven sequences.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trampled By Turtles See More Stars

After what became the widely acclaimed success of Palomino, the the band with one of the best names ever, Trampled By Turtles, has opted for a more organic approach on their sixth album. Stars And Satellites feels and sounds more introspective than the band's usual lighting fast bluegrass/rock/punk leanings.

This might surprise a few people, especially after the last album by this Duluth, Minnesota-based band stayed on the Billboard bluegrass charts for 52 weeks. Much of it was thanks to an unexpectedly great video for Wait So Long and constantly energetic shows.

So why the change of pace for Trampled By Turtles? 

"From the start we knew that we didn’t want to go back to trying to recreate a live show with our new endeavor. We wanted to make a record that breathes. We wanted it to feel and sound warm and more like one piece of work than several pieces put together," says singer/songwriter/guitarist Dave Simonett. “We took our songs, along with engineer Tom Herbers (Jayhawks, Low) and his tape machine, to Soleil Pines, a log home outside of Duluth and within the gravitational pull of Lake Superior."

It was there that they moved the furniture, set up some mics, worked, slept, and ate all in the same space. Musically, they thought this would help them step out of their comfort zone and play on the outside border of it. At least that is how they define this creative endeavor.

On some counts, they are right. The result is a warmer, more cohesive album than the band has done before. Always on the road and always touring since they got together in 2003, they had previously viewed recording an album much like doing another tour — a process rather than something organic.

"This record is all about going inward, building a focused bond as players and friends, and bringing a different mindset to the sounds Trampled By Turtles can make,” said Erik Berry (mandolin/vocals).

Berry, Simonett, Tim Saxhaug (bass, vocals), Dave Carroll (banjo, vocals), and Ryan Young (mandolin) have done just that. Stars And Satellites features 11 tracks filled with candid and nuanced lyrics that seem to carry a theme of loneliness and of missing out on daily life at home while on the road.

The band started work on Stars and Satellites last fall. There very little punk-rock influence. It's decidedly more progressive bluegrass/pop from beginning to end.

The first single off the album (second track), Alone, is a sobering tune delivered with the soaring harmonies that are characteristic of the Trampled By Turtles sound. But it's the third track, Walt Whitman, that deserves attention. The clip captures the band playing it live at KDHX in December.

The song is the strongest track on the album and features an infectious chorus and some dazzling fiddle work. Risk is a frantic instrumental that manages to capture the fire of the band’s live performances, without losing anything in the translation to tape. It also illustrates how the band's arrangements are what set them a part from other bands.

Most tunes on this album are layered and purposeful, albeit slower (mostly) than fans might be used to. As a folk and bluegrass lover, I don't hear a weak track in the bunch. Some folks who fell in love with Palomino might. But the people in the band's hometown of Duluth couldn't be happier.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Ryback and Duluth Mayor Don Ness proclaimed April 11 Trampled By Turtles Day in Minnesota (if you can imagine it). In fact, the mayors took it a step further by standing on the stage with the band as the curtain lifted, kicking off their 2012 concert tour.

Ordinarily, mayors and bands don't really mix. But these mayors proved to be an exception. After the kick off, they both dove in for some crowd surfing.

Stars And Satellites By Trampled By Turtles Floats 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

If you’re an audiophile, look for the gatefold LP on heavyweight vinyl because it includes a card for a free digital download of the entire album. The band is currently on a North American tour in support of the album with stops at key places and venues along the way, most notably the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I., on July 29 and the Sasquatch Music Festival in George, Wash., on May 27.

Trampled By Turtles' new album, Stars And Satellites, can be found on iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries the CD and will be adding the LP. You can also find Stars and Satellites on Amazon. Or make plans to see them live at one of the best festivals of the year. Lollapalooza in Chicago is Aug. 3-5 and Trampled By Turtles is already listed in the lineup.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Austin Is Even Cooler Beyond SXSW

Any time someone mentions Austin, most people make an immediate connection to South by Southwest (SXSW), the music conference and festival that draws thousands to central Texas. If not for the music alone, then for overlapping interactive and film components of the 20-day event every March.

While SXSW is a spectacle that brings the indie scene to Austin every year, many attendees never consider that Austin is dynamic year round. Even without crowds of people competing for elbow room, walking up and down the Sixth Street Historic Entertainment District is always memorable as live music ranging from rock to blues seeps out from the long corridor of bars, clubs, pubs, and music venues.

Weekdays or weeknights, it doesn't matter. The music, mood, and tempo change up every 20 feet. All you have to do is pick one and stumble inside, something like B.D. Riley's on a Monday for open mic night. It's always a good call: local brews on tap, a few dozen imported whiskeys, and fish & chips with hand-dipped cod fillets.

B.D. Riley's is next door to The Driskill Hotel, the most haunted place in Austin. 

While there are other places to stay a block or two off Sixth Street and several blocks south toward the Austin riverfront, nothing really beats the location or history of The Driskill Hotel. The property was built in 1886 by local cattle baron Jesse Lincoln Driskill, a man who would win and lose more than a few fortunes in his lifetime.

The hotel might be among his most bitter losses, as he is one of several ghosts occasionally seen wandering the halls. There are plenty of other stirrings and sightings that have been reported too, including a strange incident witnessed by singer Annie Lennox, who laid out two dresses before choosing one for a concert. When she came out of the shower, only one remained. The other had been returned to the closet.

While the areas reported to be the most haunted are in the original hotel (and especially room 525), the balance of the rooms located in the 1920s tower edition are not exempt. While the hotel is too bustling to ever create a sense of creepiness, my wife was awakened one night by unexplained whispers.

The Driskill has a historic, homey feel that defies what some call casual luxuries. 

The rooms are comfortable, well appointed, and have had a few modernizations like flat screen plasma televisions and extra desk plugs for portables (but no refrigerators). So unless you upgrade to a suite or one of the historic rooms, most will feel just a step up from standard, especially when the throw pillows remain stacked in a corner after day one. The benefit of a view from a Cityscape room makes up for it.

Most of the staff are genuinely nice, but the mood is sometimes mixed. The unsolicited promises of milk and cookies upon arrival never happened, but some staff were ready to bend over backward to extend our stay another night (despite being booked full) after the April hurricanes caused dozens of connecting flights out of Dallas (including ours) to be cancelled.

The sporadic ebb and flow of extremes is connected to some misplaced attentiveness. The ones who befriend you will make you feel like The Driskill Hotel is more home than hotel. And the ones who don't will carry an air that reminds you every stay is borrowed time. While I won't hesitate to stay again, there will be an adjusted expectation that this is elegant ranch house luxury as opposed to boutique luxury.

The entire city makes a great case for Austin any time of year. 

With The Driskill Hotel being in an ideal location, you won't be there all too often. Austin is experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts, with different districts delivering different experiences. Aside from Sixth Street, the Market District is shaping up to become a big brand retail environment (even if the best of it is the last independent bookstore, Bookpeople), and Sandra Bullock is making an effort to add some class to the Warehouse District just north of it.

The Colorado River (Texas) riverfront still needs more work, but it is well worth the walk a few blocks from Sixth Street. There are more and more restaurants opening up nearby, even if the biggest attraction happens at dusk. The well-used river walk is also home to 1.5 million bats under Congress Avenue Bridge in the spring.

Heading north toward the state capital and university, the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, LBJ Library & Museum among them. And in the opposite direction, across the river, is the developing DIY SoCo neighborhood, which is home to another art and music scene more reminiscent of Sixth Street. And that's but a sliver of offerings that SXSW attendees never have time to find.

The Driskill Hotel In Austin, Texas, Plays At 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The city, of course, rates higher than the hotel. The Driskill is still a cool place, but needs to remember that it's also competing with everything around it. The fourth-largest city in Texas is steeped in everything from history to entertainment, with an explicit slant toward toward the smaller venues. Nearly perfect.

To make plans for Austin, Texas, compare travel sites with deals for airfares, discounted hotels, and car rentals on Fare Buzz. Fare Buzz recently started a new promotion for servicemen and women to receive an additional $10 off too (code MIL10).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dead Sara Wakes Up From A Break

When you listen to the Airport Sessions (2008), the first EP from the two-girl fronted foursome Dead Sara (before their new bassist and drummer), it's painfully obvious they hadn't exactly settled into a sound. At the time, they could have become almost any kind of band, even if their hearts mostly belonged to rock. But they didn't become anything.

That said, there is still plenty of diversity divided up between Siouxsie Medley (guitar) and Emily Armstrong (vocals, guitar) on the band's new eponymous LP. What is gone is any hesitation about who they want to be. Along with Chris Null (bass) and Sean Friday (drums), Dead Sara is a rock band from Los Angeles, straight up. They are also independent. So skip the glass.

Dead Sara's self-titled debut digs deeper to skip across several rock genres.  

Released on their own label, Pocket Kid Records, Dead Sara is sort of an indie anomaly in that they didn't record this album in a basement. They spent much of last year in the studio writing it down and wringing it out. The hard work paid off. They've produced something better than many big labels do.

The production is so good, some people might mistake some of it for studio magic. The truth is that their primal rock sound with all those influences that spiral in and out of indie, punk, and hard rock are as blazing in person at places like the Viper Room as they are on the album. It's all natural.

Not to take anything anyway from the talents of Null and Friday, but the girls steal the show. Medley is the master of her guitar strings, whether she is laying down atmosphere or ripping up riffs. Armstrong is convincing in any role she plays, a dreamy folk singer or hardened rock wailer. She's two sides of the same coin, on stage and in person.

Since it was released as a single, Weatherman is what mostly convinced people to be anxious for some good things to come. But even so, few expected that Dead Sara would lay down 11 smashing tracks with plenty of diversely honest favorites and no skippable wimps.

"That diversity is what's honest and real to us," Armstrong says. "We love classic rock, blues, folk, metal, punk, gospel, all of it. So we didn't want to put restrictions on ourselves genre-wise. We just knew we wanted to sound really raw and primal, even a bit unsettling."

To really appreciate the album, however, you almost have to listen out of order. Whispers & Ashes and We Are What You Say are solid but reasonably safe classic rock songs, which makes the opening all the more misleading. By the time you hit the frightfully angry Monumental Holiday, you realize there there is lot more depth to Dead Sara than six inches. So I'd start with that after watching the video.

I Said You Were Lucky also brings in some Jett-reminiscent vocals, backed up with some dazzling distorted guitar riffs. The last thing you expect to follow is Face to Face, a pained rock ballad that Armstrong delivers convincingly, relying on her own folk singer roots to plow emotion into the song.

Ironically, Armstrong says I Said You Were Lucky was one of the hardest songs for her to write. So was Lemon Scent because Armstrong doesn't do drugs. But what she has managed to do is to bring in her emotive folksy side and transform it into a fully-formed rocker. She's mad on that song and tells it like it is.

She also tells it how it is in the bluesy Timed Blues and indie rocker Test On My Patience. And maybe it's in these two songs, more than any others, where you can really make out why Dead Sara is worth the attention. Medley clearly captures the unspoken emotion with her guitars in almost every song, and then Armstrong passionately explains why it feels that way.

As you can hear, Armstrong is most addictive when she is fired up but that doesn't mean she can't lay down some beautiful ballads. While I still think the album is out of order track wise, Sorry For It All is the perfect closer, an attempt at reconciliation after a break.

The song, by the way, opened the Airport Sessions EP,  but as a contemplative acoustical. Recast as a rock ballad this time around, it's so much more powerful that one can expect plenty of booze-infused tears to be shed while it plays in the background.

Dead Sara Wakes Up From A Break At 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If there is any other weaknesses to be found outside the track order (their show arrangement is fine), then look at some but not all of the lyrics. Not every song would hold up without the right foursome powering it up to mean more than what is written down. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is what it is and why the genre struggled a bit in the late era of anthem rock.

All together, the album is worth every lick. People will be talking about it for a long time, and I think the band has the talent to make their next one even more memorable. This isn't some band that just came together. The core of Dead Sara has been waiting for this moment for almost eight years.

Dead Sara's self-titled LP is on iTunes. You can also find the CD at Barnes & Noble or pick up the album on Amazon. The band is currently touring. You can keep up on their schedule via Facebook where the most common comment is "rock is back."

Monday, April 16, 2012

Blade Runner Hits The 30 Year Mark

Even after 30 years, Blade Runner easily finds its place as one of the best science fiction movies ever made. Set in Los Angeles in the year 2019, director Ridley Scott found the perfect follow up to his equally classic science fiction horror film, Alien.

The film, known for being extremely dark, literally and metaphorically, paints a corporate-driven dystopian society where technological advancements come with the consequence of urban blight and decay. Los Angeles is cast in a chronically dark, hazy and rainy shroud with towering structures that blot out the sun and give the streets an ominous subterranean atmosphere.

Blade Runner questions the morality of sentient human-like bio-engineered androids.

The primary plot thread revolves around the four replicants, bio-engineered beings that are virtually identical to humans but with superior strength, agility, and variable intelligence. Among the best made are the Nexus series developed by the Tyrell Corporation, which are used for off-world physical, menial, and leisure jobs.

The most advanced models, Nexus-6, were designed well enough that the replicants began to develop their own identities and emotional responses, including the human longing for independence. It was a desire for independence that eventually led to an off-world android mutiny, which prompted replicants to be banned on Earth, The Tyrell Corporation also included a fail-safe that limits life spans to four years.

While the film never recounts the mutiny in detail, it does follow the story of six replicants who escape from their off-world jobs and return to Earth with the hope that their fail-safe can be turned off, along with the detective Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), called a Blade Runner, who is assigned to find and "retire" them. Here is the oddly constructed 1982 theatrical trailer.

In the the Final Cut edition, six replicants escape but two are killed in an electrical field (which was never filmed). The ones who make it to Earth include combat model Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), pleasure model Pris Stratton (Darryl Hannah), pleasure model (retrained as an assassin) Zhora Salome a.k.a. Luba Luft (Joanna Cassidy), and combat model/nuclear fission loader Leon Kowalski, a.k.a. Max Polokov (Brion James).

The script originally includes for only one replicant to be killed in an electrical field. And had the film not been plagued by budget constraints, the sixth would have been played by Stacey Nelkin.

Much like Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott asks what it means to be human. 

As an important subplot that lends to the film's paranoid and claustrophobic feeling, a seventh replicant, Rachel (Sean Young), who Deckard meets at the Tyrell Corporation, is a prototype Nexus-6 model without the fail-safe (or perhaps a Nexus-7 model without a preset lifespan). Initially, she doesn't know that she is a replicant because Eldon Tyrell implanted her with real memories from his niece.

Even more striking is the possibility that Deckard, despite being played as a human by Ford, is also a replicant. Much like the engineers tell Deckard about Rachel's unshared memories (Deckard recounts these memories to Rachel as evidence she is a replicant), police officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn that alludes to a connection between what Gaff knows and Deckard's dreams. A unicorn is also seen in the toy-filled apartment of brain designer J.F. Sebastian.

What makes this especially compelling is that Scott has said he wanted to imply that Deckard was a Nexus-7 replicant, without giving audiences a definitive answer. But Ford never played him as a replicant, which makes it all the more convincing that he does not know. In the book, even more emphasis is also placed on Deckard's somewhat limited capacity for empathy.

In the original story the film is loosely based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Deckard encounters bounty hunters and police officers who are replicants. The question becomes, especially for replicants who do not know they are replicants, whether or not being human matters.

The legacy of Scott as the definitive master of science fiction film. 

Although Scott has directed and produced scores of great films, it was his decision to follow his underrated film The Duellists (1977) with Alien after seeing Star Wars that made his career. Ironically, although he saw real potential in large-scale effects-driven films, he always avoided animation and other CGI effects — shooting everything real when it could be shot real.

The result of this on his best work has always ensured a timeless quality. Nothing ever feels dated in Blade Runner with the one exception of its stated 2019 date. Recast today, it could easily fit a possible future for 2039. His original science fiction film, Alien (and the only one he directed), felt the same way.

His newest original film (as an indirect prequel/sequel to Alien and the only other Alien film directed by him), Prometheus, promises to deliver an equally compelling glimpse into the future. It will be released in June 2012, which is the same month that the retrofitted Blade Runner film was released 30 years ago.

Blade Runner By Ridley Scott Scores 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Blade Runner was a remarkable film in that it brought together the emerging talents of Scott, Ford (who was looking for a dramatic follow up to Star Wars), and Dick. Although Dick would never see the final work, he did work with David Peoples to rewrite Hampton Fancher's script until everyone was satisfied with it. He also saw some of the preliminary special effects that would help immortalize it.

Blade Runner (The Final Cut) is available on iTunes as is the hastily-made and misrepresented Blade Runner (The Director's Cut). Beyond these, Barnes & Noble has the 4-Disc Special Edition, which includes the Final Cut along with complete archival editions of 1982 U.S. and international versions (and the director's cut). Amazon carries these editions, and a special release Blade Runner (Five-Disc Complete Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray].

There is some confusion about which Blade Runner version is the best, especially because the film itself had seven installments. In our opinion, the Final Cut, which is the only version Scott had complete control over in the final product, is the best. Like the director's cut (which also removes Deckard's narration and a more hopeful epilogue), a few people prefer the theatrical cut, because it lends to the detective noir quality. Neither Ford nor Scott wanted narration in the film.

The original source material, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, can be found on iBooks. The book is also available on Amazon and it can be found at Barnes & Noble. It's not Blade Runner, but a different and more complex story (that presents an inversion of Blade Runner) in that Dick adds programable moods that humans can buy, which further blurs the lines between human and android.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Counting Crows Underwater Sunshine

Few successful bands rarely leave a major label for an independent. Counting Crows are among the few. After being firmly ensconced at Geffen for 18 years, beginning with their multi-platinum debut August and Everything After, they walked away and focused exclusively on touring.

Maybe that's what makes their latest endeavor somewhat unexpected. After skipping the studio for four years, they produced their first album since Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings (2008). Even more peculiar, Underwater Sunshine is an album of covers.

Underwater Sunshine is a collection of mostly unrecognizable covers.

They aren’t instantly recognizable. In fact, some people will listen to the album without ever knowing about many of the original obscure versions (or equally obscure original artists) of many of these songs.

That's fine with singer/songwriter and front man Adam Duritz. He personally selected all 15 tracks for one reason. They are all songs he likes and wants to share with his friends and fans.

“There’s a million great songs written every day that you discover, and wish your friends could appreciate as much as you do,” said Duritz. “These songs come from bands young and old, stretching from the early 60s to last year. They’re all great and will hopefully be heard by a few more people now.”

While most bands release an album of covers to bide their time or meet a contractual obligation, that's not the case with Counting Crows. They did it because they can and because it helps the songwriters who might not have gotten the play they deserve.

“If you wonder why we didn’t just write our own records, it’s simply because we wanted to do this one,” said Duritz. “We now have the creative freedom to release albums like this.” 

The result is 15 tracks that are truly an eclectic mix of various styles and flavors. And some of them are better known than others, helping lift up the entire stack. But all of them have been played live by the band at one time or another, including this one by Kasey Anderson.

But that's what makes this unique. There is Bob Dylan alongside The Tender Mercies and Sordid Humor, bands that featured various Counting Crows before the band ever found itself in the spotlight. And, since they have played so many of the songs live, the production work sparkles despite the fact that they only stepped inside Ocean Studios in Burbank with producer Shawn Dealey for seven days.

Among the gems (because not all of them are), is Fairport Convention’s Meet On the Ledge, penned by Richard Thompson. Counting Crows infused some solid, soulful vocals, not unlike Fairport Convention in their heyday. It also features some nice guitar work by Dave Immergluck (guitar, banjo, mandolin) and Dan Vickrey (lead guitar).

Duritz and company also do a fine job with Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo written by Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The acoustic guitars and David Bryson's banjo keep the song honest, true to the original.

Even Pure Prairie League’s Amie, written by Craig Fuller, might have been covered a zillion times (and with good reason), but few have put as much affection into it as Counting Crows. It's nice to see the song covered here for posterity. Some might even say the addition of some mandolin and accordion give it an added lift that makes it almost as good as the original.

Rounding out the strongest songs is a cover of the Faces’ Ooh La La, written by Ronnie Lane and Ron Wood. The piano work and subtle drums keep the song firmly in drive without forcing it into overdrive.

If you want to discover more than that, it will be easy enough to find your own picks out of the 15. In fact, go ahead and skip the lightweight Start Again (Teenage Fanclub) and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (a Bob Dylan tune recorded with the Band on Big Pink and also by The Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album). Sometimes too much is just too much.

Underwater Sunshine By Counting Crows Lights 4.3 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

No, this isn't a breakthrough album or gallant return. But it's not a cheat either. Duritz (vocals and piano), Bryson (guitar), Charlie Gillingham (accordion and keyboards), Vickrey (lead guitar), Immergluck (guitar, banjo, mandolin), Jim Bogios (drums), and Millard Powers (bass) have a lot more play in them than Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings suggested.

And what really makes some of the covers work is that Counting Crows isn't just trying to duplicate the originals. They’re paying homage to an impressive cast of songwriters, and rounding out what they can play on stage through May.

You can find Underwater Sunshine by Counting Crows on iTunes. The CD is available at Barnes & Noble. Amazon lists it under its full name: Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation). The band has also been linking up the original tracks to videos and sound clips when they can on their website.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Henderson Makes Ten Thousand Saints

In 1981, the American hardcore punk band Minor Threat produced a single 46-second song that became a defining moment for the hardcore punk subculture "straight edge." The song, Straight Edge, was written by Ian MacKaye and still has as much immediacy today at it did 30 years ago.

It is within this emerging subculture in 1988 that Ten Thousand Saints provides the perfect backdrop for the transformative story of Jude Keffy-Horn, a Vermont teenager who had been adopted by a pair of diehard hippies. It's also an unlikely beginning for someone who becomes paired with Johnny, a character who bears a striking resemblance to John Porcelly (Youth of Today) as inspiration, including his ties to Krishna.

Jude's adoptive mother makes glass bongs. His adoptive father has long since traded up the bucolic homestead for New York, where he still makes a living selling "quality" marijuana from his girlfriend's apartment. And his best friend, Teddy McNicholas, eeks out a marginal existence with him as they get high by whatever means are most available.

Ten Thousand Saints: A Novel is about family, rebellion, and a punk subculture. 

The book opens with Jude and Teddy getting high under the stadium seats of a football field on Dec. 31, 1987, in the fictional town of Lintonburg, Vermont. It's Jude's birthday. It's Teddy's last day.

The impact of Teddy's death and what he leaves behind will become the catalyst for Jude to reinvent himself and cement a bond between Eliza (the daughter of Jude's father's girlfriend) and Johnny (Teddy's half-brother). Jude, who initially blames himself for the death of his best friend, will eventually escape to New York City to restart his life with Les. And it is there in New York City that Jude will befriend Johnny and learn Eliza (who was visiting Lintonburg on the night Teddy died) is pregnant.

It is the friendship with Johnny, the guitarist in a hardcore straight edge punk band called Army Of One, that drives the novel forward. The relationship, assuming it is ever more than a mutual substitution, quickly becomes tested after Johnny devises a plan to protect Eliza from having to give up her and his half-brother's baby for adoption.

The coming-of-age story draws a contrast to generational interests and actions.

He intends to marry her, despite Jude's interest in Eliza and another secret that Johnny purposefully keeps from them. If that sounds heavy, expect more heaviness. The book deals also with drugs, deviance, lifestyle choices, sexuality, gentrification, religion, teen pregnancy, and the emerging threat of AIDs. There are enough themes, in fact, that some critics say the abundance of them detract.

I'm not so sure it is too much of a distraction. All of those issues were relative for the times. And although author Eleanor Henderson did not experience the straight edge scene firsthand, she had plenty of close sources to tap, including her husband, guitarist/bassist Aaron Squadrilli. She even includes in the acknowledgements that his story (or perhaps stories) made her fictional story possible. She also cites many other people who were part of the scene for their insights and inspirations.

If anything, the novel can be overtly descriptive in the details (but not to a determinant) and tends to meander along a thin plot made complex with all of aforementioned issues. In other words, it adds depth but also slows the pace of what happens in a single year.

Still, Henderson tackles most of it without trying to glamorize either hippies or the straight edge crowd by letting her characters play out their lives. And that becomes a relevant point in total. All these people are striving to identify with something, and yet none of them is necessarily comfortable with themselves.

If there is a climax, it can be easily described as the Tompkins Square Park riot in 1988, when different groups (drug pushers, homeless people, punk rockers, and skinheads) took over the East Village park in protest over a 1 a.m. curfew imposed by the city. When police charged the protestors, a riot ensued.

Although Ten Thousands Saints is her debut novel, Henderson has also had her fiction appear in Agni, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and Columbia. Her story The Farms was selected for Best American Short Stories 2009. She now teaches as an assistant professor at Ithaca College in New York, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Ten Thousand Saints By Eleanor Henderson Pins 5.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

If you want a thinking novel that scratches the surface of the straight edge scene in the late 1980s with some real stories woven into the fabric of fiction, this is an excellent choice. Although structured as a linear biopic that drags at times, Henderson still brings an interesting perspective to family and rebellion, one that will be hard to forget.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson is available on Amazon. You can also order Ten Thousand Saints from Barnes & Noble. On iTunes, the audio version is read by Steven Kaplan, who brings a quiet intelligence to many of the characters, especially Jude. The book is also on iBooks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rooftop Runners, Emerging Artist Pick

Benedikt and Tobias MacIsaac will tell it to you straight. The Berlin music scene is as varied as the city. And although it is best known stateside for how well the metal matches the language, electronic is currently the rage while techno wears the crown.

"The underground scene which we got started in is super experimental, with open mic nights having musicians wearing giant light bulbs on their heads or women who stand up and talk about their sex life," says Benedikt MacIsaac, one-half of the Berlin-based, Vancouver-born duo Rooftoop Runners. "It's a pretty crazy place, but I would say the musicianship is not super high."

The benefit, however, is the limitless opportunities for experimentation. Anything goes. Musicians take risks. It's a great place to start anything, Benedikt says, whether it is a new shop or another band looking to test their artistic limits.

And that is what this duo wanted to do two years ago. Instead of the characteristic downtempo electronic music associated with trip-hop, they wanted to explore what a friend of theirs called "trip pop." It carries a  downtempo electronic vibe with darker lyrics and enough progressive rock elements to genre hop.

Rooftop Runners puts out a darkly experimental electronic rock EP. 

We Are Here is anything but predictable, which is why it made for interesting emerging artist pick. With exception to one track, the EP is atmospherically dark and dramatically stripped back with with one foot in pop, one in rock, and a hand in electronic.

"We wanted to create something that had depth," says Benedikt. "We wanted to make people feel alive and raw ... to peel away the bullshit."

One of the best tracks on the record is Bang Bang, an emotionally charged brooder that throws daggers at the doubts people develop about relationships. More than that, it nails loneliness — the kind you still might feel when you're with someone but undecided if it's the right someone. They're all strangers, really.

Bang Bang is the third track down the album, but the opening is just as strong. Streets, a song that he composed while walking the streets of Berlin, is dark and heavy and thickly delivered. Benedikt says it's about walking on the right side of life, but the feeling it conveys also captures how easy it might be follow a different path — the one most people travel.

While both tracks carry a consistent theme, Rooftop Runners have more options than one direction. She Devil is an indie pop rocker with deep, steady guitar rhythm and sparse percussion. The song, packaged together as a duet, alludes to some pretty provocative alternative potential.

It has grown on me the most. But then again, it also suggests that it is anybody's guess what these guys might do next. And Benedikt says as much.

"The sound mostly came from the fact that the we did not perform with a midrange," he said. "It was quite a sparse arrangement, a weakness and a strength. Expect that to change in the next album."

The second track off the EP includes some midrange. But while Energize has its moments, it also serves up the most theatrical vocals. Too much theatrics isn't a good sound for them, even if it is an understandable part of their roots.

Both band members have had careers as dancers. In fact, Tobias was already working in Germany and Benedikt in the Netherlands when both decided to restart and focus mostly on music together. That's when Benedikt moved to Berlin, one of their favorite cities.

"We love the collaboration," Benedikt said. "Working with other artists is a highlight for us. We loved working with Angi Seserman, who produced our EP. We are just about to get into the studio with Martin J. Fiedler, who recorded Josh T. Pearson's album last year. We've also enjoyed working with director Kaleb Wenzel Fischer, EP illustrator Sarah Clement, and designer Allabelle Choi. All very talented people."

Rooftop Runners composes its music in much the same way. Either one brother comes up with lyrics or a riff and then they build it up together or they improvise songs on the spot. But no matter how it starts, Benedikt says they always work toward creating an authentic experience for people.

Rooftop Runners Here We Are Breaks Out At 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Rooftop Runners have engagements this summer in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. When they visit, they want to get a renewed sense of the Canadian music scene. Occasionally they talk about moving home, but with all of their energy focused on Europe with shows in Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (in May), Benedikt says Europe feels like the right place to be based.

Rooftop Runners definitely delivers up something different. Never mind that the name of the EP is awful; you can find We Are Here on iTunes. We Are Here is also available at Amazon. The band's full length is expected to be produced and released later this year. You can keep up on their schedule on Facebook.