Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An iPhone Taktik Fresh From Lunatik

There are iPhone protectors. There are iPhone covers. There are iPhone cases. But there is only one Taktik from Lunatik, which is the most protection anyone has ever thought to bestow to the iPhone.

All the thought that went into its durability didn't sacrifice design sensibility. The casing is retro-futuristic with an industrial edge designed to military specifications. About the only thing you can't do with an iPhone cradled inside a Taktik is submerge it. But a little water won't hurt. This is like a real Hummer. Rugged.

The Taktik transforms iPhones into tanks.

While tempted to review the Taktik like plenty of other people who were among the first to receive one fresh off the production line, I wanted to live with it for awhile. It's a good thing. Sometimes you can learn a little more with patience. First impressions are easier to shake with a three-week commitment.

Despite the allure of the video, which is one of the better gadget demos on the market, initial reactions to the product in hand will take some people aback. The Taktik is bigger, bulkier, and heavier than anything you're used to. Once encased, the iPhone feels close to twice the girth and double its weight.

Encased is the right word as some assembly is required. In this instance, the Taktik housing is fastened together by six tiny screws. Lunatik includes one spare, along with the heptagonal specialty screwdriver to lock and unlock them. It's easy to do, and you might do it more often than you think.

The casing itself is a 3.5 HSJ cover made from anodized aircraft grade aluminum, which sandwiches the iPhone between the 9mm silicone impact truss that extends beyond the two aluminum frames. The bezel is tapered, making it easier to slip in a pocket but primarily engineered to compress on impact.

The front is optionally protected by another layer of Corning Gorilla Glass, without affecting the touch screen. On the back, the silicone polymer is exposed on the back of the case. Almost every port is protected too. There is a polymer/plastic flap protecting the 30-pin connection. There is a heavy aluminum lever locking in place over the headphone jack.

The only exposed area is a small cutout for the camera and light. Even the speakers and mic are protected by water and dust resistant covers. The home, volume, and power buttons are covered by either protruding or recessed indentations in the polymer. The mute button has a push button slider.

The Taktik was designed for durability. Period. 

There are some inconveniences, but most are an even trade. One common complaint right out of the box is that the polymer covered buttons feel stiff and require some heavy pushing. This becomes a myth in a few weeks. Like a pair of new jeans, functionality opens up with normal wear.

Likewise, it doesn't take long before the weight and girth feel familiar (except inside suit and jacket pockets). But the trade off is even. The additional girth makes the iPhone easier to use as a camera (but not with the SlingShot) and the polymer adds traction.

More troublesome is the polymer casing around the 30-pin connector. Depending on the dock or plug, the opening will be too snug for some connectors. (The one on my television included.) Extensions will work, but sometimes even these require finesse as the polymer opening is pliable and bows slightly.

The company says that the snug fit is related to durability design. It seems more likely that, much like the headphone jacks, Taktik was designed to accommodate whatever comes out of the box as opposed to third-party accessories. Slightly larger openings wouldn't have had an impact.

Although it is nominal, it does diminish connectivity on outgoing calls and shortens the distance for WiFi. It's not significant, but worth noting. More challenging is the bevel aluminum around the glass. Because the glass is inset, screen touch points around the edges and corners aren't as accessible.

The Taktik By Lunatik Covers 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All in all, the Taktik was designed for people who have active lifestyles and hazardous occupations or spend time in unforgiving environments. This is where the Taktik gets the job done, giving the best protection possible for people who always feel like their iPhone is at risk. Hands down, it wins in this category (even after being tested according to military standards).

It could have scored higher, but it does lose a little ground as an all-around cover. Harkening back to the Hummer comparison, it's too much case for someone who never goes off road. And yet, it's undeniably cool. The Taktik for the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5 is available on the Lunatik site or you can order it on Amazon (sometimes at a discount). Almost all mix and match colors are available.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Veda Rays Die Fast When Life Kills

Jim Stark and Jason Gates
The post-punk experimental band from Brooklyn that shook through the arthouse rock scene last year with Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays has undergone an evolution, easily heard across two recently released back-to-back EPs. The equally haunting but more subdued atmospheric work assembled represents two sides of a conceptual journey — a descent into the underworld and the ascent out of it, surviving but forever changed nonetheless.

"We considered making it a full length, but in the end we decided to break it up into two EPs for the conceptual differences," says Jim Stark (vocals, guitar). "Die Fast is a series of reflections, the equivalent of someone's life passing before their eyes. Life Kills represents what has been gleaned from the experience with a new found awareness."

"Be in the world, not of the world" becomes the traveler's mantra.

The evolution in sound began last year, with Stark and Jason Gates a.k.a. Jason Marcucci reconsidering how they approach recording and arranging instrumentation. The intent was to contain the atmospheric elements of the work, leaving more room for each element and then sonically evoking a greater sense of spaciousness.

"It might seem like an odd way to get there, considering our earlier work," said Stark. "But we were going for something just as full and just as dark as anything we have ever done in the past but in a different manner. We wanted everything to be heard this time around."

Part intentional and part happenstance, stripping away gratuitous layers of distorted guitars wasn't the only change. Stark and Gates are all that remain the previous four-piece band. Bassist Tyson Frawley dropped out to invest all of his energies into raising his son as a single dad. Guitarist Jimmy Jenkins moved to Colorado with his long-time partner.

Neither are completely out of the picture. Stark says that both may contribute later down the line in different ways, and Jenkins had contributed to Better The Devil and Cop Knock on Die Fast before the move. The absence is noticeable, but not for the fullness. Even live, Stark and Gates have compensated by adding sequences and electronic elements to retain their enveloping sound.

Likewise, the changes have opened up other ideas. One of them played out shortly after Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays was produced. The closing track on Life Kills on Time Is A Vise features Julee Cruise, the singer and actress most noted for recording the theme song to Twin Peaks.

Her involvement began after she and Gates met by chance through their mutual work as part of the New York studio scene. As Cruise became curious about the Veda Rays, Gates half-jokingly asked if she would contribute her voice to the track. She agreed without hesitation and Gates almost passed out.

"Cruise, even partially demystified, creates a surreal experience," says Stark. "She fit perfectly in that the song is about being bound to the physical machinations of the physical universe as we understand it. We're enslaved by the ego and organic desires. And this song is about your knowing your place in the scheme of things, allowing yourself to suffer the world instead of being attached to it."

How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?

The mind bending near mysticism isn't surprising from Stark. Along with his hypnotic and soaring vocals, he readily composes deeply contemplative songs with richly layered meanings, many of them straddling both physical and metaphysical planes of time, thought, and space.

Case in point. Whittled into Time Is A Vise is a Nikola Tesla's thought that everyone is automation, with geniuses being more efficient automatons. Stark then carries this forward with a twist of William S. Burroughs' awareness that "a paranoid is someone who understands a little bit of what is going on," while simultaneously giving nods to both the late Michael Hutchence of INXS and Neutral Milk Hotel.

It isn't the only one that plays like a puzzle box. At the top of the steps descending down, Better The Devil addresses the problem of self-styled indie hipster bands against the grain of original musicians. Untitled 93 contains a Carl Jung postulation interwoven with all the untitled tracks written by Elliot Smith. And even if he didn't hear it while recording the demo, Noble Beast now reminds Stark of Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete, originally written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont. The beat, a bull being led around by his nose, plays the part of tempter and redeemer. Those are only starters...

The Veda Rays Double Down With Two EPs At 8.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

I have to be honest. When I first heard Die Fast and Life Kills, it was difficult to listen without longing for the primal beastliness and urgency of their pervious outing. But as everyone settles into the ethereal qualities of both new EP sessions, there will be a general consensus that Stark and Gates have produced something as remarkable as it is unique.

Die Fast and Life Kills really belong together, and play perfectly alongside Gamma Rays Galaxy Rays Veda Rays. There are too many meanings, nods, and notes to even begin to list them all. You can find the 4-track Die Fast and 3-track Life Kills on iTunes. Die Fast and Life Kills are also available from Amazon. For upcoming shows in New York and elsewhere, visit the Veda Rays on Facebook.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Rogan Warms Up The Field Jacket

Telesto by Rogan
On those occasions when leather doesn't seem like the right choice (rarely), the best alternative is to find rugged field jackets that fall just short of the military moniker and more in line with the working class — harbor men, foundry workers and field hands. They are the kind of men who don't need anything pre-washed or worn because they wear it.

Rogan fits. It's the brand Rogan Gregory and Scott Mackinlay-Hahn built before Loomstate, the eco-friendly clothing line that focuses on organic cotton and yarns made from wood pulp. Although Rogan doesn't follow the same manufacturing requirements, some of its social responsibility has worn off.

In other works, you won't find as much denim washing to make clothes look vintage as you did ten years ago. Nowadays, Rogan works harder to fuse traditional, experimental, rural, and urban. They certainly did it in making one of the best field jacket designs this year.

The Telesto Field Jacket by Rogan buttons up nicely.

Although slightly lighter than winter wear, the shirt-cum-jacket design adds some warmth in the fall without adding too much bulk. This can be important for winter, when you can wear a heavier coat over it (whether that might be leather, wool or trench).

The jacket features ring snap closures down the front and to close the waist pockets. The patch chest pockets are different, set high enough to help them disappear into the design. Even better, the all-cotton, half-lined field jacket is washable. It also has an accessible pen pocket feature (although I couldn't care less).

Cygnus by Rogan
When winter does roll around, Rogan also has one of the better looking coats. The Cygnus is a front button fully-lined wool coat (80 percent virgin wool and 20 percent polyamide). Like the jacket, it's a straight tailor fit and carries a classic look.

One subtle, but nice idea was to add a discreet chest zip pocket. The vertical zip disappears into the overall design. While most people don't use vertical zip pockets, especially with a coast that has three inner pockets, it's nice to have in a pinch when you don't want to unbutton. Sized right, it easily fits over the Telesto field jacket.

A couple alternatives to what Rogan put out this year. 

Lodi by AltamontAlthough you won't find many as clean as Rogan, there a few alternatives. One of my favorites, despite  giving up the solid, is the Lodi jacket from Altamont. The rust and blue flannel hues harken back to my other life in Seattle, but the design is still incredibly smart.

It's made with 65 percent cotton and 35 percent acrylic. The designers consider the styling in line with military field jackets, but I think it falls more in line with the look I was taking about. It's one-off from a military jacket and warmed up with a sherpa lining. No surprise, I found this one at a U.K. retailer and the price is brilliant.

Carcoat by Paul FredrickFinding an alternative coat was a little more challenging, until discovering the Carcoat from Paul Fredrick. It's heavier in construction, but carries the right look at a fair price. The fully-lined coat has a five button closure with a covered placket. Under the placket, the coat zips up for additional warmth.

Paul Fredrick tends to pay attention to details, which is why the wool coat features some suede trim in all the right places: behind the collar and under the the placket. The three outer pockets are fairly traditional. There are two at the waist and one just under the chest. There is another small zipped pocket on the inside.

The Telesto From Rogan Warms 7.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.  

Although Rogan looks different from the days they first founded it, Gregory and Mackinlay-Hahn deserve some additional props. When everyone started to wear their denim, they started to consider how wasteful the manufacturing process was in terms of water. So they set out to create other lines and some of their ideas seem to have come back full circle, impacting other creations.

That's pretty cool. You can find the Telesto Field Jacket at Bloomingdale's. For the alternative picks, visit Urban Industry for the Altamont Lodi Jacket and Paul Fredrick for the Carcoat. Bloomingdale's also carries other products from the Rogan line as well as many other fall fashions for both men and women. Men might also be interested in last year's jacket find, designed by Kuhl.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tweak Bird Grows Undercover Crops

Tweak Bird
The Bird brothers, Caleb and Ashton, have been pounding out tunes and sometimes each other for the better part of five years. Their newest addition to the Tweak Bird lineup is no exception. Undercover Crops is an instantly satisfying 15 minutes of sludgy hypnotic rock and roll.

That's all there is to it. Although closer to an EP than an LP, the only real criticism of Undercover Crops is that it ends too soon, leaving listeners wanting more. And yet, no one can really fault the Bird brothers for putting out something so tight and efficient that setting the tracks on a continuous loop is probably the best answer.

Undercover Crops is perfectly balanced psychedelic rock. 

Easily their most ambitious set list, Undercover Crops find Tweak Bird continuing to add more energy to each album much like they've done with every show over the last few years. It's almost impossible to listen to them without hearing it. They are always looking for ways to push each other much like brothers will do with a punch, shove or dare.

The only constant is their signature sound, with Caleb playing a deep-throated and fuzzy guitar to make up for the want of a bass. Some years ago, Ashton played bass until he had to take a seat behind the kit and pick up sticks. The twosome made the decision then that they didn't need another member.

Along with their simple but magically-patented grooves is the Bird brothers' cloud high vocals that bring up the treble in their sometimes sarcastic songs. The second track, following the effect laden "everyone is paranoid" rinse and repeat of Moans, coveys a straightforward satirical sentiment: "So many people in the world ... I don't want to be one."

Weight, which was recently released as a video to help promote the album, readily dazzles in its carefree attitude and throbbing percussions. Lyrically, the Bird brothers manage to present bigger meaning with one or two sentences of verse, edited down into as few words as possible.

The seemingly unrestrained meaning of the song is a well-crafted paradox, wondering if we can find a way not to be so serious in world hellbent on being serious. It's a rare talent to shrug something off with intent, leaving everything a little more relaxed and upbeat.

Bunch O' Brains is similarly conflicted about a smart guy short on thinking. Like the others, it's both serious and not to be taken seriously. Too much effort put into over thinking defeats the restlessness of youth and spoils the hazy effect.

Tweak Bird is largely consistent across Undercover Crops, with subtle variations found on the pounding Psychorain or weary and woozily dreamy Pigeons. But the entire album ends before you can really take it all in, on Know It All.

Know It All chugs into itself like a car turning over until it hits its vocal chorus. Like many of their songs in the studio, there is plenty of room left over to embellish on the live stage and add an extra minute to a track that only runs two and a half minutes in the studio.

Throughout the album, Tweak Bird continues to give a substantive nod to the sixties and seventies while keeping the music fresh with pop-savvy sonic accents. Like many of the past albums, expect a few people to note that Tweak Bird doesn't produce many standout tracks, singles that are immediately recognizable. It's partly true, but only so far as the Bird brothers tend to deliver an entire experience.

Undercover Crops By Tweak Bird Climbs 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Tweak Bird likes to play with plenty of energy and aggression, offset with a trudging heaviness and lofty vocals. It's a winning combination. Add in their free-spirited sense of composition in the studio (this album took about a weekend) and jam-packed onstage performances, and it becomes pretty clear these two brothers from the southern tip of Illinois will be lighting up music for a long time to come.

Undercover Crops by Tweak Bird can be ordered from Barnes & Noble or downloaded from iTunes. You can also look for Undercover Crops on Amazon. For some more samplings and last-minute show scheduling and tour information, find them on Facebook. They played Las Vegas a few nights ago, presumably on their way back to Los Angeles.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ann And Nancy Wilson Are Dreaming

Ann and Nancy Wilson
One of the first albums I ever owned was Heart’s Dreamboat Annie. I liked the songs, the music, Ann Wilson’s voice, and Nancy Wilson’s acoustic guitar. Now, after four decades and 30 million records, the Wilson sisters tell their story and I have a deeper appreciation for their albums.

The Wilsons grew up the daughters of loving parents, but had a gypsy-like existence. Their dad was a Marine, which meant constantly moving and never putting down roots. They didn't have enough time to forge many friendships so the three Wilson sisters (Lynn, Ann and Nancy) were always very close.

There is a lot of heart in the Wilson sisters' story.

Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll, published by Harper Collins, was written by Ann and Nancy Wilson with co-author Charles Cross (Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain). Most of it is told through the perspectives of Ann or Nancy. Some scenarios are told through the eyes of both, with slightly different memories.

However, the book isn't limited to the sisters alone. Sue Ennis, best friend and songwriting partner, provides input too. Other past members of Heart also chime in from time to time. And it's these fine additions that help add depth.

We learn that when the Wilson family finally did settle down for good in Seattle, Ann and Nancy were obsessed with the Beatles. They had seen them on the Ed Sullivan Show and did everything thing they could to see them live. But unlike most girls of their generation, they didn’t aspire to be rock band girlfriends or wives. They wanted to BE the Beatles.

Music quickly took a serious turn in the seventies.

In the early 70s, singer Ann decided to pursue music seriously and headed to Vancouver to join a fledgling band called Hocus Pocus, later renamed Heart. She hooked up with the band’s headstrong and svengali-like visionary, Michael Fisher, and lived with him for a number of years in a hippie/commune environment.

HeartIt is Fisher who would eventually inspire some of Heart’s biggest hits, including Magic Man and Crazy On You. But before that, Heart paid their dues as a cover band, playing top 40 hits and plenty of Led Zeppelin. It wasn't until guitarist Nancy joined the band that they found a new dynamic.

Heart was unique in that it was made up of two sisters and two brothers (Michael Fisher as the de facto leader and Roger Fisher as lead guitarist). It wasn't long before Ann and Nancy's songs started to spotlight the band’s repertoire. Magic Man earned airplay in Vancouver.

And yet, they still had challenges, including misogyny. Women weren't readily accepted in rock and some people questioned whether or not Nancy's guitar was plugged in. Inside the band, the men wanted to remain in charge despite Ann and Nancy writing, singing, and playing their own material.

The book is unabashed in covering their pain, struggles and successes. Some of them will surprise. For example, Elton John’s songwriting partner Bernie Taupin once tried to seduce Nancy at John’s birthday party. Alex and Eddie Van Halen invited Ann and Nancy for a romp in the same bed, which they politely declined. Nancy did, however, give Eddie an acoustic guitar after learning he didn’t own one.

Ann and Nancy WilsonEven after they did reach the pinnacle of their careers, nothing came easy. By the 1980s, records sales were declining as outside influencers pushed them to become pop stars instead. They were recording songs that they didn't write for the first time (What About Love and These Dreams). Ann admits she especially hated All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You, written by Mutt Lange.

"She did sing it, and we begrudgingly turned it into a Heart song," Nancy wrote. "It ended up being one of our most controversial songs, even getting banned in Ireland and a few other countries."

Ann shares her other struggles too. Not only did weight continue to be a life-long issue, but also alcoholism. Nancy is straightforward about her marriage and painful divorce from writer Cameron Crowe. Both sisters are candid about infertility (which runs in their family), which prompted Ann to adopt two children. Nancy had twin sons through a surrogate.

Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul And Rock & Roll By Ann And Nancy Wilson Rocks With 8.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The book is candid and shows just how tight the Wilsons really are. With them, family truly does come first. It had to. The sisters frequently talk about failure, vulnerability, and humiliation. But what is different is in the timing. Their story is one of two women who are told there are rules. As many people know, they did everything they could not to follow them.

You can download Kicking & Dreaming on iBooks or find Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll on Amazon. The autobiography is also available at Barnes & Noble. The audiobook is read by Ann and Nancy. Just recently, Heart released its newest addition, Fanatic, which was mastered with iTunes in mind.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pigeon Park Is An Emerging Artist Pick

Pigeon Park
When Nick Weber (vocals) and Kevin Okabe (guitar) were writing music in the hallways of school a few years ago, they didn't really know where it might lead. Everything just started falling into place.

Artur Leppert (bass) and Hunter Elliott (drums) had already formed a duo, but were looking to expand their sound. It was as the four of them were just coming together that they happened to hear Logan Pacholok (guitar, vocals) at a winter talent show.

They were blown away and invited him along for the ride. Nothing after that, however, was anything but chance.

Pigeon Park is an emerging artist pick from Vancouver. 

Named after an area that once served as an unofficial dividing line between the prosperous and struggling sides of downtown Vancouver, Pigeon Park had no problem booking shows. Their initial draw was their diversity. With each member having different musical backgrounds and interests, it was easy enough to play a gamut of sound ranging from blues and reggae to roots and indie rock.

"It's something that's a bit of a challenge, especially with the press. They hear the first track off the album and assume the rest is going to sound similar," says Okabe. "Instead, they're hit with an abundance of genres. Some people like it. Some don't."

Expect some of that to change in the years ahead, but not entirely. The blues-rock infused opening track of their new self-titled EP has the band leaning toward a heavier, smoky sound. However, having the freedom to take music in any direction can be addictive.

The song, Lovelight, started like most Pigeon Park songs. One member brought in the spark for it and then the rest of the band turns it into an elongated jam session with each member contributing. Except Lovelight was a bit different in that Okabe, who writes many of the songs, was much more specific.

"I was a bit of a control freak during the jam process, which is a rare thing for me," said Okabe. "I don't like telling people what to play, basically ever. In this case, I just had a really specific vision of how I wanted the song to sound."

Part of the reason is related to the inspiration. Love doesn't always present itself clean. It's often saddled with indecision and doubt. The second track, Figures, which has a lighter and jazzier pop-rock sound, conveys the same idea in a different way. Written by Weber, it titters back and forth on he bright and biting sides when you fall for someone.

"Most of it has to do with me learning a lot of hard lessons, like most people go through," says Weber. "They are things that have made me a better person. On the outside, it can all seem so simple. But when you live through it, it all feels more complicated."

How Pigeon Park makes richly diverse work.

The two songs are different, but even those differences don't fully represent the dramatic and occasionally jarring contrasts that have become part of the Pigeon Park repertoire. Although most songs are somehow grounded in blues, the band frequently moves in any direction.

"Our diversity was never something we planned," says Weber. "Sometimes it happens quickly and other times it takes a long time for it to grow into something we feel is 'us.' Whatever direction it happens to turn can be hard for a fan to accept. It might even mean losing people, but it's part of who we are."

There are some advantages, however. It's not uncommon for the band to adjust during live performances, leaning in one direction or the other. Several fans have told the band that every show sounds different and that makes sense. The band members say every show feels different.

"We've never really had a consistent set list. People tell us that we ought to keep the same set list, but we never have," explains Pacholok. "There are differences between cities. Things tend to get a little more metal-ish as we head east so we never truly decide what to play until we see the venue and feel out the vibe."

Pigeon Park
Being an independent artist helps too. Okabe says it can be great in the sense that they retain 100 percent control over what they produce. The downside is it takes a little more time to manage the business side, the music side, and keeping a day job. Leppert is equally balanced in his take, adding that it's important to enjoy what you're doing as much as making music that people dig. And, he says, you have to keep getting better.

"We're pretty much married. When you spend 40 days on the road together in a cramped van full of stinky feet, it really brings you together," says Okabe.

Other tracks down the EP punctuate the point. It's easy to catch the chemistry in Statues Of Feathers even if it took longer to come together. It was only after little bits were added across dozens of jams that an outro riff helped make the track happen. It's Not That Likely too, which ends the EP, is a short, quirky little song that seems a million miles away from Lovelight. But then you'll smile with the band, just the same.

The Pigeon Park EP Lands 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It might take a little time for Pigeon Park to catch the bigger break, but count on one to come. Some of the typical band hardships have already played out. Even this EP, which they tracked in house after an exhaustive summer tour and during a particularly cold Canadian winter, wasn't pain free.

When they were done, their management agency dropped them. So they headed back into the studio with someone willing to give them more time. They tapped Vancouver producer Jordan Oorebeek to produce it, and found themselves with a richer, fuller sound.

You can find the Pigeon Park EP on iTunes. Each track deserves its own listen, given the genre jumps, but there is no question this band has the talent and chemistry to see it all come together. You can also hear the EP on Bandcamp, along with their first release, Sun. To follow the band, look for them on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Varden Blends In Historic Chic

Varden Hotel
Any time I stay overnight in Long Beach, Calif., I find myself equally split between to two very different hotels. Hyatt The Pike Long Beach is a 138-room hotel that now occupies the land once famous for Pike amusement park and The Varden is a 35-room urban boutique hotel originally built in 1929.

In deciding which to review, I chose the smaller one for its colorful history and the character of its namesake. Besides, it gives up a little in terms of location, spaciousness, and amenities in favor of comfort, attentiveness, and affordability, with room rates almost $100 less than many in the area. Sure, the rooms are tiny by any standard and there is no elevator, but the sparse European design creates the impression of clean, cozy, and urban chic.

A brief history of The Varden's namesake. 

Although the hotel has undergone some major renovations, except the original front desk installed in 1929, the name has not. It was originally called the Dolly Varden Hotel. Varden a.k.a. Mrs. Raymond O'Dell was a retired circus aerialist and equestrienne who once co-starred with Buffalo Bill Cody.

Dolly Varden
At the height of her career from approximately 1882 to 1912, she was one of the best known circus performers in the country (including an act with elephants) and had shoes and chocolates named after her. After retiring to do social work, she traveled and moved to San Jose but had an admirer in Los Angeles.

He bought the hotel, gave her the top floor, and named it after her. Later, presumably the couple moved to St. Louis. Varden would eventually die penniless a few months after her husband, except for a trunk of jewelry. Although estimated to be worth more than $100,000 at the time of her death, an appraiser later said the find wasn't worth anything as it consisted mostly of costume jewelry.

The Varden Hotel still sports the original historic sign, which even gives a hint at its luxurious past. It boasts a bath in every room, a little less common in the 1920s and 1930s. The sign itself was probably added in the 1930s, after an historic earthquake rocked the area.

The hotel itself is an alternative to standard fare. 

Varden LobbyAlthough small, the hotel does have 9-foot ceilings and compact custom shelves and desks. The baths are decorated in penny mosaic and cultured marble subway tiles. The beds are winners; Simmons sleepers with pillow top mattresses and 300-thread count sheets.

Like many Euro-style hotels popping up in Southern California, the Varden offers a wine reception in the late afternoon and evening. The entire hotel also makes the most of eco-friendliness, including mini-rain showers and hallway air shafts converted to become natural light sources in the hallways.

In the morning, they serve coffee, muffins and oatmeal. But if you want more options, The Birdcage Coffee House has great coffee and the Colonial Bakery (even closer) is known for its donuts (despite many vegan complaints). Likewise, while the Varden doesn't have a fitness center, there is a Gold's Gym located just a few feet away.

Long Beach continues to improves its offerings. 

The Pike At Rainbow Harbor
If I were born even a decade earlier, I might have experienced The Pike as it was meant to be when my parents used to scuttle down from Seattle for a few weeks of Los Angeles sunshine. The Pike amusement zone closed down in 1979. It took another 20 years before The Pike at Rainbow Harbor would be built between the convention center and Aquarium of the Pacific.

The aquarium is still a focal point and primary anchor for the area as is the Queen Mary, which is a "haunted" ocean liner that has since been converted into a hotel with three restaurants and several lounges. Long Beach is also one of the gateways to Catalina Island.

Although Long Beach has never captured the same amount of buzz it did in its heyday, it continues to improve despite not having one of those pristine Southern California beaches connected to it (although there are some close by). The city has been busy adding art and performing arts to Rainbow Harbor. Long Beach also is home to a 1920 Spillman carousel and Ferris wheel as nods to its past. At Rainbow Harbor, most of the restaurants are chains. The real upcoming draw will be in early November at Comic & Horror Con.

The Varden In Long Beach Squeezes In 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although Hyatt The Pike Long Beach or Hyatt Regency might be preferred as full-service hotels in the area (there are several), neither capture the charm of The Varden as a boutique. While you will have to walk a little further to and from Long Beach offerings, there are other finds along the way that will make up for it. Even the parking, for example, is a fraction of what most hotels charge.

If you visit, try Fare Buzz to save up to 60 percent off or start with the top travel deals at Long Beach still hasn't earned my top spot for places to stay around Los Angeles (and I live here), but every year it becomes a better place to visit (especially during events and concerts) and always makes for a great overnight getaway.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Deftones Drift Into A Fiery Tempest

DeftonesIn advance of their upcoming Koi No Yokan album this November, the Deftones released the Tempest as an introduction to what promises to be a more dynamic sound. The single is a near prefect progression for the Sacramento-based alternative metal band, which continues to fine tune its experimental leanings.

There are dozens of the subtle change ups to expect this time out too. Most notably, guitarist Stephen Carpenter has changed from a 7-string to an 8-string guitar. Chris Moreno had previously noted that it would carry the heaviness of their more-than-decade-old album White Pony, but with the songs moving in several directions — sometimes at once with its riffs, interplay, and tonal qualities.

The Tempest is forebodingly beautiful, a frightening surrender.  

The Tempest rolls in with a soft, atmospheric instrumental at the open, broken only by singer Chino Moreno's soothing tenor in a whisper. It serves as both a hook to catch attention as well as a foreshadow that the dreamy and almost ethereal qualities of the song are headed somewhere big.

"Take out the stories they've put into your mind. And brace for the glory as you stare into the sky," he sings. "The sky beneath I know you can be tied."

On the last lyric of the first verse, the Tempest begins its ascent into a bigger sound, an impending avalanche driven forward by pulsing bass, keys, and drums. When Moreno re-enters with the second verse, he moves up the ends of days storyline another notch for maximum effect.

All in all, the Tempest is a journey, complete with a liftoff and destination. The foreboding qualities of the song are both cathartic and caustic. There is nothing left to do except enjoy the ride to its eventual climatic fury. And once they reach it, there is nothing left but an echoing memory.

The Tempest also represents the starting concept for Koi No Yokan, which originally began with studio conversations about the end of days. Of all the songs on the album, Moreno has said it best represents the album concept as a starting point, driven by Carpenter, whom he calls their biggest conspiracy theorist.

The band themselves don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that this will be their last album when the Mayan calendar runs out. But as a band that has largely avoided political and societal statements, the concept was an interesting place to start in capturing a sound and giving it technical perfection.

Leathers accompanies the single as a powerful B-side.

Originally offered up as an early street release, Leathers also begins with an atmospheric charge. It only takes the slightest spark to ignite into a furious wall of sound. Like Tempest, it flirts with the end of days concept but also helps the band break away from a singular concept album.

The lyrics suggest the the song may have started out with all the intensity of a judgement day, but then moved into the broader theme. It's mostly about letting go of the past, layers of labels that people hide behind. It's thick enough to be a second skin, albeit a fake one, and won't be very useful or protective.

The Deftones reset their direction, dynamic and heavy.

Both songs represent a heavier direction for the band compared to Diamond Eyes, which had been greatly influenced by the car accident that put bassist Chi Cheng in a coma. The Deftones had scrapped the album they were working on, Eros, in favor of starting over with Sergio Vega, former bassist of post-hardcore band Quicksand.

While Diamond Eyes was largely well received, it was a more optimistic album than anything they had produced before and a departure from what was meant to be a significantly darker and angrier album. Based on the first two glimmers from Koi No Yokan, it seems like the Deftones are moving back in the direction they originally intended before the tragedy.

The band still holds out hope that one day Cheng will return to tour with them. It is equally great to see the band continuing to evolve along its original course again with the release of Koi No Yokan.

The Tempest By The Deftones Dazzles At 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Both songs, Tempest and Leathers, are well worth the download. There has always been a synergy between members Carpenter, Moreno snf Cheng as well as Abe Cunningham (drums) and Frank Delgado (keys). Its also good to see Sergio Vega step up as a member and contributor, well earned after years of support.

Tempest and Leathers were originally offered as a single for download on iTunes, but now Tempest can be ordered off the Koi No Yokan preorder. You can also find the Tempest and preorder available on Amazon. While you can preorder the CD from Barnes & Noble, consider the limited edition bundle on their site, with 100 people who preorder the bundle receiving a signed lithograph by the band. For tour information, visit the band on Facebook.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Amanda Coplin Plants The Orchardist

The Orchardist
Although sorrowful and somber, The Orchardist: A Novel by Amanda Coplin, presents a beautifully haunting tale of what it means to be a family. This is especially true for William Talmadge, who had already settled into the idea that he would live out the balance of his life alone.

His own family was taken from him long ago. It was the summer of 1857 when they first arrived in Washington and he was only 9 years old. Three years later, his mother would die of a respiratory infection. Five years after that, his sister would head out into the forest one day and never return.

Somehow, Talmadge managed to persist on his own. He continued to tend the orchards that he and his family started from nothing more than  two ailing Gravensteins and a small plot of vegetables. The orchards, of course, were significantly larger now. After he acquired more land with the help of the Homestead Act of 1862, he had grown the orchards to nearly 25 acres, widening the space between himself and his nearest neighbors at the same time.

Maybe families are made by the people we find and lose. 

Everything Talmadge had come to know about being alone, except when he sold his fruit at market, comes to an unexpected end when two runaway girls, both pregnant survivors, seek shelter in his orchards. These girls, despite being damaged and distressed, change his outlook about everything.

Even before they followed him home, he was immediately taken by these hungry and dirty creatures who were busy contemplating how they might steal his apples and apricots. If he dozed by his wagon before the churches let out, they would eat for the first time in days.

When Talmadge did doze off, he wouldn't wake up again until one of the boys from town hollered at him. He had been robbed and the boy offered to chase them down. But Talmadge didn't want to bother. He was more curious than furious over the loss of a few apples.

He became even more curious when they camped themselves at the foot of his orchard a few days later. Their appearance had rekindled a memory, two ghosts who reminded Talmadge of his own lost sister.

In the days that followed, the two girls would only take one tentative step after the next, slowly shortening the space between them. From their point of view, it was only out of necessity. Talmadge had food, and taking it from a man was barely the lesser of two evils against the prospect of starvation.

A story is set in the near wilderness of a different era.

The novel is not historical in that the era is but a footnote compared to the isolation and introspection that drive it forward. In this regard, although horse wranglers do seasonally use the open area of Talmadge's land for their horses, there is a near-gothic tone that could have played out almost anywhere or in some other time (archaic laws and a general mistrust of lawmen notwithstanding).

Instead, between her bouts of vidid imagery, Coplin tells the story of this rare and gentle heart, a man who lives in a time and a place that was anything but tame. In fact, the world around him is incredibly harsh.

Jane and Della, for example, had good cause to run away. But even they have become so familiar with an unsympathetic world, they never speak of the horrific lives they were dealt. They leave it up to Talmadge to discover that on his own when he sets out to discover their past. What he finds quickly ends any notion of reuniting a family as he had once hoped someone would do for him and sister.

Instead, with some assistance from an herbalist, midwife, and his closest neighbor Miss Caroline Middey, he decides to protect them (and their babies) the best he can. He does so despite knowing that any tranquility the three of them find will eventually come to an end. It is only a matter of time before the man who wants them back will change the trajectory of all their lives in a willful atrocity.

A quick wrap without spoilers and a note about the author. 

Amanda Coplin
The book spans the entire balance of Talmadge's life, his tentative relationship with the girls, and remnants of the next generation. Coplin mostly does so with unforgettable ease and a poetic lift to her prose. While there are times her pacing stumbles — either drawing some segments out too long and rushing others with a quick back and forth that bleeds years away in a few pages — The Orchardist has literary merit and Coplin the promise of becoming a great author.

After receiving her degree from University of Oregon, and MFA from the University of Minnesota, Coplin received residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Ledig House International Writers Residency Program in Ghent, New York. No surprise, Coplin's considerable insight in her novel comes in part from bring raised amongst her grandfather's orchards in Washington state.

The Orchardist By Amanda Coplin Picks Up 9.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

This is the kind of book that proves there are many different kinds of cool, with some of them loud and others just a sorrowful whisper. The Orchardist falls decidedly in the latter column, but only in so far as the orchard shelters those against the much darker and disquieting world.

Even so, every trip away is a constant reminder that the world is big enough to swallow them all up. Isolation and inoculation are two different things after all.

Although the novel isn't packed with as much action as many of our picks, it's fitting for anyone who appreciates a richly drawn atmosphere and characters you might know better than yourself. You can find The Orchardist: A Novel at Amazon or download it for iBooks. You can also order the novel from Barnes & Noble. The audiobook version is read by Mark Bramhall, who accurately captures the somber tone.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

No Doubt Pushes And Shoves Back

While we have an affinity for the raw and less polished music across genres, No Doubt has made a near heroic effort to become relevant again. After all, 11 years is a long time to go between studio albums.

No Doubt proved they can do it, even after a studio hiatus that latesd longer than their active career. The foursome came together in Orange County about 17 years ago, bursting onto the music scene with a unique blend of pop/rock/ska. Tragic Kingdom is still felt today.

What happened during the studio hiatus? Plenty.

Since Rock Steady was released, most people know the members made their own marks. Singer Gwen Stefani embarked on an uber-successful solo career as a singer and fashion icon. Stefani, bassist Tony Kanal, drummer Adrian Young, and guitarist Tom Dumont became parents. They all grew up.

It wasn't until the foursome spent time together on a No Doubt reunion tour in 2009 that the idea for a new album was sparked. Even then, there was no rush.

It's part of what makes the release of Push and Shove so interesting. They may be older and wiser, but they haven't lost any spark. Even producer/engineer Mark Stent noted that the band wanted to do an album that was purposely intended to be played live, which meant less dubs and more chops in the various LA studios where it was recorded.

The changes are notable across the album.

If anything, Push and Shove has more adult themes lyrically while returning to the band’s roots musically. It’s danceable arena synth pop, one off from our favorites but well crafted nonetheless.

In fact, the catchy Settle Down is a classic No Doubt song that harkens back to the band’s Tragic Kingdom days. And while the song won’t match the punch and hooks of the band’s better known songs, it’s still satisfying.

The title song, Push and Shove, features Major Lazer and Jamaican rapper Busy Signal trading raps over a reggae beat. Easy lets Stefani show off her vocals, but the slower tempo gives the song the feeling of being stuck in low gear. Sparkle is a poppy classic that gives each member of the band a chance to shine. It’s punctuated by a reggae-flecked horn solo.

Undercover represents yet another No Doubt relationship song, but it’s the rhythm section of Young and Kanal that give the song that added lift. Looking Hot is a guitar-driven gem with some great work by Dumont that finds Stefani marveling at the fact that she still looks great in her 40s. She sings “You think I’m looking hot?” It works best live, like this rarity from the iHeart Radio Festival.

The final track, Dreaming the Same Dream, is a synth-heavy tune that features some gorgeous drum work by Young. It's arguably the strongest track on the album.

Push and Shove is also notable for its unique cover art, which was done by Los Angeles street artist Miles MacGregor, better known as El Mac. The four portraits were taken as photographs and then rendered manually into paintings. El Mac has said that it was a painstaking 6-week process, which included creating acrylic wood panel portraits and then using his own maze-like paint work on each.

Push And Shove By No Doubt Trips In With 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

No Doubt is back, and long-time fans will easily find this album to be good news. While the band doesn’t take any real risks here, maybe they don’t need to. It’s No Doubt.

You can pick up Push and Shove from Amazon or download it from iTunes. Given the work by El Mac however, you might want to splurge on a physical copy. You can order the album from Barnes & Noble.

The band is slated to peform at the MTV European Music Awards in Frankfurt, Germany, on Nov. 11. Then they return to Los Angeles for a six-show residency at the Gibson Amphitheatre. Tickes for three of the shows are already sold out. To check for new tour dates and other news, visit the band’s website.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Reiner Knizia Adds A Tigris iOS Twist

Tigris And Euphrates
Two years ago, prolific board game designer Reiner Knizia released Samurai for the iOS, which remains one of the finest handheld device adaptions based on his games. Last year, his widely acclaimed strategy board game Tigris and Euphrates debuted with an equally beautiful design.

The game is named after the Tigris and Euphrates, two rivers that produced the Fertile Crescent and gave rise to what is commonly called the cradle of civilization in the Middle East. It was around this area that Mesopotamia supported some of the earliest urban settlements, which eventually included the Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian, and Assyrian empires.

What is the Tigris and Euphrates?

Tigris and Euphrates was one of the first games published by Knizia after he became a full-time professional game developer in 1997. Game play takes place on a map between and around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers at the dawn of civilization, with two to four players attempting to create a winning and lasting dynasty.

To do it, players draw and place tiles and leaders that represent various elements of civilizations — temples and priests (red), farms and farmers (blue), markets and merchants (green) and settlements and kings (black). With each turn, players attempt to expand their empires, represented by the Potter, Archer, Bull, and Lion.

The goal of the game is to develop four key aspects of civilization in the most balanced way possible, which includes part of the twist to one of Knizia's most popular games. The lowest scoring aspect — spiritual, agricultural, commerce, and government — will determine the winner, not the highest.

Tigris And Euphrates iOSIn addition to receiving victory points for possessing placed tiles connected by a leader, players can expedite the accumulation of victory points by collecting treasures, building monuments, and winning conflicts. Monuments deliver specific victory points during each turn of play (but leave kingdoms vulnerable to attack) while treasures serve as a wild victory point placed in their lowest scoring aspect.

Conflicts are the most strategic plays of the game. They arise any time a leader is placed in a kingdom with an existing leader of the same color (a revolt) or when two kingdoms with leaders are united. In addition to quickly expanding an empire, they effectively force the losing player to start over.

There are a few other nuanced features, such as catastrophe tiles, but the basics cover the general spirit of the game. Although it is similar to Samurai as a strategy-based tile game, most people consider this game Knizia's masterpiece. (Others might argue that he has had dozens.)

The brilliance of bringing the game to mobile devices.

Tigris and Euphrates always had a complex scoring system, which is alleviated by the computer taking over the role. Tallying victory points takes place in real time, allowing players to immediately recognize what aspects they need to shore up before the final rounds of the game. Likewise, any missed conflicts are immediately identified and reconciled.

Although the game might feel intimidating the first few times, the optional tutorial and pop-up tips not only teach you how to play, but also give you a good grasp of the strategy involved. There is even a hint feature against AIs if you feel especially lost. It helps diminish the learning curve.

Reiner Knizia
Most players will start playing against one to three AIs, which have slightly different personalities and adjustable difficulties. In lieu of the AIs, you can use the app as a pass-and-play game or look for friends and random strangers to play against.

As with many adapted board games, there is never a shortage of people (or AIs) to play against and never anything to set up or pick up after the game. Game play is relatively short, about 30 minutes (more or less) depending on how long you or other players take to move pieces. More experienced players might take longer.

Reiner Knizia's Tigris and Euphrates Captures 8.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although most people will find Samurai easier to play, Tigris and Euphrates is the more engaging game. The game play is smart as a strategic and tactical game that relies on only a little luck (tile draws), providing an enjoyably complex game that feels deceptively simpler on the iPhone, iPod, and iPad. And graphics are adequate, blending the vintage qualities of the board game with the on-screen interface.

Kudos also goes to Codito Development and Sage Board Games, which rendered Tigris and Euphrates into an app. They have brought several boutique board games to market with the iPad in mind, including Knizia's Ra. It's a job well done, especially in that it changes the way people think about games.

You can find Tigris and Euphrates on the App Store via iTunes. Or, you can look for the out-of-print board game, last published by Mayfair Games, on Amazon. The Tigris and Euphrates board game includes a double scenario edition, which features a different map on the backside of the game board. The game is beautifully produced, with hundreds of painted wood pieces and illustrated tiles. (The top image is from the latest republishing.)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Paws Pours On A Fuzzy Cokefloat!

If you haven't caught the rising stars of Scottish rock-noise, Paws, then their debut will be a nice surprise. Recently signed with FatCat Records to clean up their demos, they're part of a growing garage punk revival in the United Kingdom. It's a good time for one.

Currently living in Glasgow, the trio came together there after their original quartet went bust. What came out of the new band was an always fuzzy and sometimes sarcastic sound that hints at alternative rock without diving in completely to retain originality. It's called Cokefloat!

Cokefloat! introduces Paws to a bigger world. 

Although Cokefloat! is their full-length debut, Phillip Taylor, Matt Scott, and Josh Swinney have been at it for awhile as an indie band, opening for the likes of Dum Dum Girls and Japandroids as those bands toured Europe. After the debut, it's likely they'll be looking for openers of their own soon.

Between tours and openers, they wrote several dozen songs and even self-produced a few homegrown lo-fi demos via Cath Records (co-managed with friends) to share around until they were found. They also did a split with Lady North before a little-heard FatCat Records EP and double-sided single (both with FatCat). But you don't have to dig for them. Cokefloat! fits in most of what was missed.

Cokefloat! features 13 tracks, leading off with Catherine 1956. The opener starts out a little nasal in its tone, but it doesn't take long for the lyrics and rhythm to wash over it as you're hit with the fact that this song is about the loss of Taylor's mom. She's gone, lost to cancer. She's missed a lot since then and her absence is felt, but somehow Taylor manages to muster that life that goes on and makes her wish come true.

"A lot of crazy things have happened in our lives over the past two years. Some good and some horrific," said Taylor. "I'd like to say that there is a strong feeling of positivity and hope running throughout this record. Light piercing through some distinctly dark times."

Much of the album is like that. The sound is punchy, catchy, and quirky until you recognize what the song is all about. Sore Tummy and Bloodline drive the point home. While the album has a much fuller, bigger sound, the band put up this acoustic version of the latter earlier this year along with home videos.

When the band says that they often found themselves playing just to keep themselves alive, they mean it. That doesn't mean every song on the catchy, quirky album is wrapped around dark times. When they constructed the album, they picked 13 tracks from their entire catalog to represent the last two years.

That was only one part of it. Mostly, they sat around and picked their favorite songs and then re-recorded them, including several that only existed as demos. Along with Sore Tummy, Poor Christopher Robin, Get Bent, Tulip, Boregasm were all rough cuts before they entered the studio with producer Rory Attwell (Test Icicles). He likely added some of the punk influences that lend well to the sound that the band has always wanted to achieve, a sugar rush before the crash.

Other standouts on the album include the grinning lyrics and borrowed riffs in Pony, the poignant Bird Inside Birdcage, Ribcage Inside Bird, and the intensity of the more experimental Winners Don't Bleed. The rest of the album has other high points too, surprisingly different given the simplistic structure. The entire album is worth consideration.

Cokefloat! By Paws Rocks 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

If Paws is representative of more Scottish rock ready to come out of Glasgow, then there is plenty of promise for noise rock yet. Sure, some people might be ruffled in saying these guys belong to another era, but not me. Listen to the lyrics and you'll find that Paws are authentic in their trials and exuberant in their youth. This is a band to watch.

Cokefloat! by Paws is available on iTunes. You can also find the album on Amazon or order it from Barnes & Noble. Right now, Paws is touring the U.K. and looking forward to a Japandroids tour, round two. That would be like two headlining acts instead of one. So if you have the chance to see them live, take it. Find dates on Facebook.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Kara McGraw Makes A Good Will Pick

Kara McGraw music
Thirteen songs benefiting 13 causes over 13 weeks. This is the vision of a singer-songwriter Kara McGraw who recently composed and produced her first album in more than a decade. She wants to raise awareness and funds for a variety of nonprofit organizations, all of them close to her soul.

"Music heals hearts, and it only makes sense to me that it also extends to healing the world," she says. "Each song on the album is designated to raise funds for a specific charity. Some of them are very personal choices."

Among the most personal are the Alzheimer's Association and National Multiple Sclerosis Society, as her grandmother is afflicted with Alzheimer's and a close friend from college is diagnosed with MS. The Yonso Project also has a personal connection. Her cousin and cousin's fiancé founded the program in the Ghana, which sponsors education, micro-loans, and other innovative programs to lift up people in isolated rural areas within this West African country.

As for the rest? She's connected to all of them, with some suggested by her friends and family. It's her hope to help as many people possible, while giving each organization the equal attention it deserves.

The Hound And The Hare as an uplifting good will pick. 

The compositions that make up the album are uplifting, haunting and reflective songs with theatrical leanings. All of them are vivid enough to conjure images of costumes and spotlights, musical arrangements that have an apparent affinity to be choreographed and then played out on stage.

"The album is two-sided to reflect two frames of mind: One is personal, inward focused, and vulnerable; the other is playful and outgoing," she says. "I am constantly bouncing between these two sides of myself."

Side A, The Hound, is the extroverted side, with many of the songs of exhibiting an excitement and bounce. A few are reminiscent of the musical Chess by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, not in content but in influences felt in the arrangements. Listen to Tough Cookies first.

Side B, The Hare, carries more quiet self-reflection as opposed to the robust self-discovery on The Hound. While these too could be set to the stage, some of the confessional, contemplative and dramatic upticks could stand alone as pop songs. Start with the first track, Icebreakers.

McGraw, a self-described closet introvert who often comes across as an extrovert, says she wrote most of the songs over the last ten years while working on unrelated musical and joining several writer groups. Last year, she also released a single to benefit farmers recovering from Hurricane Irene.

"Making my own music is nothing new," says McGraw, who won the Vermont Young Composers scholarship award for her ballad “Comic Books and Flashlights” in 2001. "What is new is that this is the first time I have the opportunity to promote my own music using some of the knowledge I've gained  [over the years] and I'm honestly not sure how it will be received. My songs are personal; they feel like part of me."

While McGraw sometimes struggles with the range her compositions call for, it's always clear where she is going as a singer-songwriter and composer. She has a beautiful voice, but also leaves one imagining what Broadway performers could bring to her work.

The organizations that benefit from The Hare And The Hound. 

McGraw's fundraising efforts began with Free Arts NYC during the first week of the release. Other organizations include: Heifer International (Oct. 2), Rainforest Action Network (Oct. 9), Kiva (Oct. 16), Creative Visions (Oct. 23), American Diabetes Association (Oct. 30), A Child's Right (Nov. 6), Alzheimer's Association (Nov. 13), The Bully Project (Nov. 20), The Nature Conservancy (Nov. 27), Yonso Project (Dec. 4), National Multiple Sclerosis Society (Dec. 11), and Wild & Scenic Institute (Dec. 18). You can find a listing of the songs as she matched them to organizations on her site.

If there is a common thread in her picks, it's two-fold like her album. McGraw seems to gravitate to giving people a hand up or those people who can't sadly accept one. It's also worthwhile to note that the project could give her a hand up too by helping her refocus on the major musical she has composed.

The upcoming musical (unrelated to the release) is about a young college student who falls for a coal miner's son and is then tempted by the divine trappings of choice. The girl can be selfish with the man she loves and find her way into heaven or selfless in her action and face damnation. Much like the emotion love, which it explores for all its fury and comfort, there might not be a 'right' choice.

The Hound And The Hare By Kara McGraw Is A 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.

McGraw clearly has a passion for the arts as well as the world around her. We think it's great that she found a way to bring the two together, much like she did last year with The Chandelier. This time, she takes a decade of work and gives it freely to several worthwhile organizations.

By purchasing the album during specified weeks, select organizations benefit. You can find The Hound & The Hare on iTunes or download it from Amazon, but McGraw notes that Aurovine and Nimbit afford more proceeds to the artist (and thus more proceeds to the benefactors). Currently, McGraw is planning a CD release party in the Bay area. You can keep up on her appearances on Facebook.

Friday, October 12, 2012

As I Lay Dying Is Awakened In Metal

Tim Lambesis
Most of the time when people write about metalcore, there is always some mention that it is fading into obscurity or maybe a footnote, placing considerable pressure on metalcore bands to evolve or die. Some move into softer territory and others move to a heavier fare.

When San Diego-based metalcore band As I Lay Dying (AILD) released The Powerless Rise in 2009, most people marked them as making the move to a heavier sound. And it's with this in mind that their newest album, Awakened, prompted some to call the album a big step backward.

It's hard to reconcile that, given that Awakened digs in to deliver a richly varied album, rife with hooks, harshness, and and breakdowns. Bringing in producer Bill Stevenson (NOFX, Rise Against, Anti Flag) clearly paid off. He's known well enough for pinpointing strengths and pushing for refinement.

Awakened is as dizzying as it is relentlessness.

While most people would be hard pressed to say the album is breaking new ground, it does deliver metalcore in following less formulaic steps. Many of the tracks have a complexity in the composition, writing, and delivery that eschews mediocrity, which proves metalcore isn't fading away as much as the number of bands that do it right might be. That's good thing. We don't need ten AILD. We need one.

Cauterize, which opens the album, nails the point. There's a difference between self-restraint and forced repression. It makes for a great introduction into the album, maybe even laying the bridge between The Powerless Rise and the rest of Awakened because it truly takes off with A Greater Foundation.

It's a big song, technically precise, and remains heavy throughout the first half of the song, until the melodic qualities are really needed as a moment of reflection. This is also one of the reasons that AILD has always hit harder than many metalcore bands. They seldom resort to the pat harsh-melodic back and forth, preferring to look for the right moments. And even then, the melodic verses remain strong.

This is where Tim Lambesis and Josh Gilbert have always had an advantage in their exchanges. Gilbert never becomes overtly melodramatic or excessively sensitive in his vocal bits but rather elevates Lambesis, making an impact. The complement works well enough on the song Resilience too.

All three tracks lead up to the most memorable song on the album, Wasted Words. With the melodic chorus woven in but Lambesis never relenting his harshness, it's the most relentless song on the album, making the case the band is still evolving musically and lyrically with its anti-regret message.

The balance of an impressively representative album.

As I Lay Dying
Wasted Words is strong enough to wish for more tracks like it, but AILD does commit to diversity on Awakened. Whispering Silence, Tear Out My Eyes, and Defender all give Gilbert more room to command clean vocals. All three have some standout instrumental moments, including some big guitar solos that may feel familiar but are welcome nonetheless.

Overall, some of the solos on Awakened prove that neither guitarists Phil Sgrosso nor Nick Hipa have any intention of slowing down in the next decade. Awakened is faster and fresh. Even some of the simpler riffs are overlaid and emotive, leaving an imprint. Likewise, Jordan Mancino lays down several powerful grooves across the album, not only on Defender but also as the binding that keeps things together across most tracks.

The bonus track, Unwound, is also a must have. It skews more toward the heavy side of AILD. The second bonus is a slightly longer demo version of A Greater Foundation. It's worth a listen, feeling more raw than the original and perhaps alluding to Stevenson's influence in giving up a comparison.

Awakened By As I Lay Dying Stands Up At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

There really haven't been many metalcore albums that were a listen this year, and even metal in general has struggled during some months to put out consistently worthwhile material. As I Lay Dying does, even if some people claim to have expected more. Maybe. As I said before, Awakened isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but there is a level of refinement at precisely the right time. It's going to do very well.

You can catch Awakened on iTunes or Awakened (Deluxe Limited Edition) on Amazon. Both  include the bonus tracks. You can also find the CD on Barnes & Noble. The vinyl and deluxe issues were posted by the store at press time. For tour dates, check with AILD on Facebook.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Adrian McKinty Runs With Irish Luck

Michael Forsythe never wanted to immigrate to America, but his homeland left him no choice. He took a window replacement job after a bombing at The Europa hotel in Belfast had unintended consequences. The Department of Health and Social Security considered the temp work employment and unceremoniously charged him with benefits fraud.

He was given a choice. Go to court and risk the consequences or plead guilty and sign off on benefits forever. It wasn't a hard choice for Forsythe. At 19, he had already been drummed out of the army and served time. So he pleaded guilty and decided to take the one job he never wanted to take.

He would go to work for Darkey White, a crime boss in pre-Giuliani New York. The job suits him, but not because he relishes violence. He genuinely loathes it, even if it is all he ever knew growing up in Belfast during the seventies and eighties. It was perfect training for the civil war of sorts happening in Harlem and the Bronx.

Dead I May Well Be is a sharply written must-read noir.

Forsythe would have settled for low-wage construction work, which makes up most of White's legitimate business (aside from the bribes to get his contracts), but it doesn't take long for one of White's righthand men to make him. Forsythe is hired on as muscle, one of several Irish thugs who take care of White's shadier business interests — everything from loan sharking to the protection racket.

There is another reason the boss needs more muscle too. For months, maybe longer, Dominican drug gangs have been testing Irish turf. Forsythe seems right for the job, either as a near-sociopathic thug who is biding his time for an elusive break or as an intelligent, self-educated mick who is unflappable under pressure. The choice is left up to the reader.

Most people will lean to see him as the latter. Even as an anti-hero, Forsythe seldom enjoys his ruthlessness, which makes it difficult to pinpoint his detachment from it. Half the time, he acts out things he has seen or heard of in the fog of disbelief that he is actually doing them. Even his colleagues are often left with a sense of awe by his ability to shrug off brutality and order a sandwich.

When he is not slugging or shooting it out, Forsythe often seems wise beyond his years. He is well-read, street-smart, and keenly observant, able to quickly size up people and places when he is thinking. When he is not thinking, he exhibits all the brashness of a tough-loved teen.

Sometimes he is bound by old world honor. Other times, he doesn't have a shred of self-restraint. The duality of his character explains both his bad luck and ability to narrowly survive it. For instance, Forsythe is smart enough to capture admiration, but dumb enough to get involved with Whitey's girl.

Michael Forsythe is the kind of character you never forget.

While the plot is straightforward, McKinty paints it with such vividness that there isn't any question why his debut crime novel was short-listed for the CWA Steel Dagger Award in 2004. Even after almost a decade, the cadence and character of an Irish survivor is as additive as it is adventurous.

You know before it happens that Forsythe is going to continue his run of bad Irish luck. It's apparent the boss is too suspicious of Forsythe's infidelities for it to never be found out. And yet, nobody can really guess how bad retribution might be when Whitey decides to send his boys south of the border.

The four of them are given enough money to have a great time, but absolutely no details about the job. Forsythe knows that it doesn't feel right and yet he plods head first into the ruinousness of it all. People disappear all the time in Mexico and Whitey wants almost all of them to disappear.

A few graphs about Irish-born Adrian McKinty. 

Like his principal character, Adrian McKinty was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Although he grew up in County Antrim, he also moved to the United States in the early 1990s and first lived in Harlem. He didn't stay long and eventually moved to Denver, Colorado, to teach college.

He has written 13 books, most notably his Michael Forsythe trilogy and young adult Lighthouse trilogy. He is currently writing the Sean Duffy trilogy from his new home in Australia. He and his family moved there in 2008.

Dead I Well May Be By McKinty Packs 9.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There aren't many noir books with better characters than the persistent Michael Forsythe. Never mind that he always assumes he will die. It's his relentless nature to try anyway that keeps him afloat in the world a little longer. His knack for treading water and sometimes darkly comic assessments of life remain even more memorable with a little age behind them.

Recently rereleased in paperback, Dead I Well May Be: A Novel by Adrian McKinty has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts. The novel can be found on Amazon or it can be purchased from Barnes & Noble. But perhaps even better than the reissued paperback is the new audiobook version out this year.

Read by Gerard Doyle, Dead I Well May Be is one of the best audiobooks out this year. His delivery and accent breathe new life into a strong and fearless Irish anti-hero that remains profoundly satisfying. You can download it from iTunes.