Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Jacob Bromwell Pops Up A New Year

popcorn popper
One of my favorite gifts this year is destined to be one of my most used old school gadgets next year. Never mind that the design is almost 200 years old. It works just as intended and as cool as they come.

The original popcorn popper was designed to pop popcorn over an open campfire or on a stovetop. You don't need a microwave, electricity, or anything pre-made or pre-mixed. And the taste is considerably different, capturing old school movie popcorn taste without buying an entire cart. 

The Original Popcorn Popper by Jacob Bromwell. 

If you ever wondered how Jiffy Pop came up with its self-contained stovetop popping pan in 1959, Jacob Bromwell knows the answer. The nostalgic pre-mixed popcorn idea was inspired by the original popcorn popper design, a stainless steel pan with a near perfect ratio for ventilation. 

These poppers go further back, predating the carts that made popcorn popular at fairs in the 1890s. Although popcorn had been a food and decoration staple for centuries for the Aztecs, it took a campfire design to help the discovery spread throughout the Western world. Prior, ancient cultures popped over heated sand. 

The invention of a ventilated pan made it possible to pop it anywhere, even if the art of it didn't truly take off until the Great Depression when popcorn became one of the few luxuries anyone could afford and then again with the advent of movie theaters. In fact, just prior to microwave popcorn, it was Jiffy that tried to stave off a popcorn slump caused by the introduction of television.

Shortly after, people popped popcorn using special hot air machines and then microwaves to avoid the mess made trying to make it in a pot on the stove. What many of them of missed was this old school specialized pan. Just like the video shows, Bromwell poppers pop almost every kernel. 

The specialty popcorn popper is made of quality stainless steel. The handle is wooden, negating the need for an oven mitt. And, interestingly enough, these poppers are made in the United States.

The package comes with recipe book to make 3.5 quarts of popped popcorn. For an additional price, Bromwell will include popcorn kernels with the popper (perfect if it is a gift). 

A couple more graphs about Jacob Bomwell. 

Bromwell is the oldest kitchenware manufacturer and retailer in the United States, established in 1819 by frontier entrepreneur Jacob Bromwell. At the time, Ohio was considered part of the expanding west and Bromwell knew he could sell direct to pioneers and settlers as they set out stake their claims.

Jacob Bromwell
While the Cincinnati-based company was originally founded out of necessity back when there were only 22 states in the union, the company has thrived and survived in preserving American tradition. Not only is it one of the very few family owned and operated companies to have survived almost 200 years (34th continuously owned and operated company in the United States), it has never changed its manufacturing models. All products are made with authentic materials on authentic machinery.

Many, if not all of them, are still made with tin, stainless steel, aluminum, and copper just like those that were offered to American frontiersman and women. Even during the Great Depression, this company found a way to remain loyal to its employees by operating just three days a week rather than giving in to the pressures of a depressed economy. Now that's a ruggedly cool company.

The Original Popcorn Popper By Jacob Bromwell Pops 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Some people like to say that they don't make things like they used to, but they do. It just takes a little more time to find those increasingly rare companies that do. The Original Popcorn Popper is a perfect example from a company that still makes kitchenware the way it ought to be made.

You can find America’s Oldest Cookware by visiting Jacob Bromwell direct. Sometimes you can find Jacob Bromwell products on Amazon too. While the kitchenware tends to be slightly higher, the Made In The USA commitment and lifetime durability makes it worthwhile! Happy New Year. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Maine Plays Imaginary Numbers

John O'Callaghan
After the Tempe, Arizona, quintet The Maine released its well-crafted roots rock album Forever Halloween last year, few people could guess where they might land next. The answer come out a few days ago with a newly released, sparsely populated EP called Imaginary Numbers.

The entire affair is largely lighter than anything the band has put out in entirety. There isn't a single rock number among the five tracks. They are tender acoustic ballads that couch confessional lyrics about loneliness, depression, and being crushed under the weight of the world.

In sum, it sounds like a bittersweet departure from the pop punk and alternative rock beginnings of the band into an alternative singer-songerwriter acoustic stint that is punctuated with anguish. There is no one better to tell it than John O'Callaghan whose even-tempered vocals share stories that I suspect most people can pinpoint as pages right from their own lives. I know I can.

Imaginary Numbers plays to the phantoms in your head. 

That said, it doesn't make much sense to review the EP from the top. The middle is a much more meritous open with Visions, a track that captures the simultaneously comforting and claustrophobic nature of the careful and contemplative EP.

Simply put, Visions is a track about waking up to the pain that the person you love is gone. And your only recourse, even if it doesn't deal you anything better than being miserable even longer, is to lay your head back down and pretend they are still there.

No, there isn't anything wrong with replaying all those good and bad memories in your head. But what makes the whole thing begin to feel uncomfortable is the realization that you can't hide from the truth forever. Nobody can keep thrusting their head deeper under the covers forever.

It's an interesting place where The Maine has decided to take its fans this time around. None of the five tracks have any resolution. From the opening to the end, everything about Imaginary Numbers is about gray days and loneliness.

Raining In Paris is another example of the restrained tension The Maine is able to capture with remarkable accuracy. As O'Callaghan conveys, it doesn't even matter where you are when you can still feel the rain and pain of what you once had.

When coupled with the quiet foundations of Pat Kirch (drums), Kennedy Brock (guitar), Garrett Nickelsen (bass), and Jared Monaco (guitar), it paints a bleak but not unsurmountable emotion in your head — that place between being in pain and moving to whatever might come next in life. And yet, at the same time, there is always this hesitancy to leave it all right.

The balance of the tracks — Room With No Windows, Perfectly Out Of Key, and Lovely Sad are equally miserable. Lovely Sad is a haunting, folksy lullaby. Room With No Windows is tortured against a background that balances a ballroom funk against a painful and hypnotic pout. Perfectly Out Of Key nearly celebrates the sadness weighing down their souls.

Imaginary Numbers By The Maine Rakes 5.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

It's the relentlessness of being able capture the tenor of uneasy feelings and overthinking that makes The Maine one of the most listenable bands out there. The only down side is trying to figure out when, where, and how anyone would want to listen. If you're not in a depression over any demons you left behind, you might be by the pass.

And it's because of it that this EP might be best listened to mixed into some brighter bits from the band's earlier albums. Maybe. There is something to be said for letting your head swim. I guess.

Imaginary Numbers by The Maine can be found on Amazon. You can also download the EP from iTunes. The band is currently on tour with a big schedule starting in the Philippines before picking up again on the West Coast. For complete details, including a big Tempe reunion on Feb. 7, visit the band on Facebook.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Robert McCammon Counts To The Five

Horror-suspense writer Robert McCammon tackles his first contemporary suspense novel in years with The Five, a novel about an eponymous rock band struggling to survive on the margins of the music business. Made up of five members who have been on the road a long time and are survivors of many different other bands, The Five have come to a familiar career crossroads.

While they have a small touring schedule lined up for the next few weeks or months, they are on the verge of breaking up. And to help keep the band together despite two members already having plans to leave, they agree to write one last song — one that each of them will contribute lyrics and instrumental sections too. Even the manager is invited to contribute.

But what they don't know, could not even begin to suspect, is that the song that they are proposing to write might become significant to someone far off into the future. The song is so important, in fact, that something awakens to prevent them from finishing it.

The Five is a suspense thriller with a supernatural undercarriage.

The novel is not abruptly supernatural, but much more subtle and organic as its first manifestation is very human. On the day he intends to commit suicide, Iraq war veteran Jeremy Pett sees a music video centered around an anti-war song and takes it as a personal affront to his service and sacrifice.

He decides right then and there that he has been called back from the brink of death by another mission. The former Marine sniper, who lost his wife and son to an accident while he was fighting for his life in Iraq, decides that he has been chosen to kill every member of the band. And his reward in doing it will be to receive contract killer work from his government and others for the rest of his life.

His first attempt to kill one of the members is successful. While the local police initially believe the shooting to be an accident, the story quickly spirals toward the truth. There is a trained assassin who is anxious to kill them all, creating a moral dilemma for the band.

All the media attention has created a surge of interest in the band, causing record sales to spike for the first time in their career and every upcoming show to sell out well in advance. Once they decide to press on and donate a portion of the proceeds to their lost bass player's family, they are joined by a veteran FBI agent who is as much interested in capturing Pett alive as he is in protecting the band.

A few more graphs about author Robert McCammon and his novel. 

The idea for The Five came to McCammon while he was sitting in a pizza restaurant and heard the song Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve. He almost immediately started thinking about how songs affect people and how they affect people in different ways. It also provided him an excellent opportunity to bring his fiction back into the present.

"The book is about the power of music," said McCammon. "It's one of the strongest stories I've ever written because I felt so connected to the characters."

The depth of the characters is an asset and curse for the novel, creating long passages of sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes out-of-place backstories that enhance and detract from the plot. The whole of it weighs the thriller down to a crawl, diminishing any sense of urgency that one might expect from a hunter-killer thriller.

The mundane also undermines any connection to the tug-of-war between good and evil, with the lyrical work by McCammon falling short of the inspirational wunderkind lyrics it promises it to be. The message is much more obvious — life is short so make the most of it.

The Five By Robert McCammon Tours 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The Five never becomes the riveting pursuit thriller it could have been and does not truly capture the inner dynamic of the band beyond the surface. The members are mostly characteristic of thumbnail bios, including rage-filled frontman Nomad, self-possessed bassist Mike, gentle singer-guitarist Ariel, lesbian hippie Berke, and retro-hispter keyboardist Terry.

You can find The Five by Robert McCammon at Barnes & Noble. The Five is also available from Amazon and can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is available from iTunes. It is narrated by Nick Landrum, who helps keep the pace of the novel moving forward — making the most mundane aspects of the story entertaining if not interesting.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Jamestown Revival Out In California

Jamestown Revival
As Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance grew up together in the small town of Magnolia, Texas, they would frequently disappear for hours and explore their old family land and dilapidated ranch house. And it was there, on the back porch, that the two friends eventually propped up a pair of old speakers.

Many days played out just like that. The would spend the day exploring the land and the early evenings listening and mimicking a diverse assortment of musicians, anything and everything from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Eventually, after every acre was explored and most records played out, the duo decided to pack up their belongings and head to Los Angeles by way of Austin. And somewhere along the way, they started to perfect a blend of deep South and western folk rock.

Four tracks off the California EP introduces a full-length ahead.  

The California EP features three songs and one cover, all self-produced by the band. It quickly captures the essence of their sound, a grassroots revivalist quality that they say plays best off the back porch. Maybe it does. But for most people, it sounds sharp almost anywhere.

California (Cast Iron Soul) kicks off the album with an ode to the state they've started to think of as a home base. Like so many musicians, the sprawling coastal city drew Clay and Chance as far west as they could travel to find both hope and inspiration. The song conveys it.

With complementing harmonies, Jamestown Revival captures the mysterious allure of California. The lyrics carry the sentiment of many who have tread the same path, experiencing an unexplainable feeling of freedom that comes from crossing the mountains and reaching the ocean. At the same time, the duo isn't naive about their expectations there. They know California can change who they are too.

Also on the EP is a cover of Paradise, originally written by the American country/folk legend John Prine and discovered by Kris Kristofferson. Incidentally, Prine was considered a revivalist to his generation too, becoming the central figure of folk revival in Chicago.

Jamestown Revival treats the cover tenderly, slowing down the tempo to make the song more of a lament than the way Prine approached it. They also add in an element of mystery to the track with a new arrangement that sets the chorus ahead of the verse, transforming the original open into a standalone chorus. It's a brilliant rendition. They make the song their own while honoring Prine.

Those two songs bookend Golden Age and Fur Coat Blues. The first is a rolling folk ballad that laments the end of an era. The track is haunting in that it feels like the duo pulls the tune out of the past even if the lyrics reflect on contemporary changes.

Conversely, Fur Coat Blues is an uptempo folk country blues blend. For just over two minutes they power through venerable lyrics with a casual, carefree acceptance. Suffice to say that the track reinforces the notion that things don't have to be great to take pride in the way you manage them.

While all of the songs were written in Los Angeles, the duo wanted to enhance their authenticity by finding a more rustic location to record everything. To do it, they packed up their instruments and an engineer and set out for a log cabin high within the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. They tracked 14 songs there, performed live with no headphones, and captured direct to tape. The EP includes four of those songs.

The California EP By Jamestown Revival Rocks 6.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a foreshadow of their upcoming full-length debut, The California EP captures the essence of Jamestown Revival. The guitar and keyboard arrangements are solid. The vocals are stunning. The songwriting is reminiscent of a quieter, more reflective time.

You can find the California EP by Jamestown Revival on Amazon. The EP can also be downloaded from iTunes. For a limited time, Fur Coat Blues can be downloaded for free from their website (email required). You can also follow them on Facebook for tour updates and showtimes.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Help Start Some Good This Season

Crowd funding has come into its own with sites like Kickstarter helping would-be entrepreneurs. In fact, we still think it's one of the coolest ways for creative people to get attention — so cool that we highlighted them as a good will pick almost two years ago.

Since then, dozens of other crowd funding sites have started up. Many of them are similar with slight variations in terms. Some allow funders to collect a portion of their goals. Others have introduced an equity option that turns contributors into investors. And then there are those that continue to inspire something else entirely — crowd funding for social entrepreneurs, change makers, and nonprofits.

These are people who have great ideas and the passion to see them through, but they lack the start-up capital to get great civic things off the ground. How does this differ? The value is intangible and sometimes immeasurable.

Maybe you could StartSomeGood this season, literally. 

StartSomeGood is a crowd funding platform that was built specifically to raise funds and build a community of supporters who look for good social ideas and help them start up or meet specific goals. Think of it like DonorsChoose except the classroom in need might be an entire community.

The platform isn't confined to startups either. Many of the organizations that are aiming to raise funds already have proven programs with specific needs. Some of them, like SMAC! Sock Monkeys, have been featured as good will picks in the past. It's where they raised money for many good ideas.

The ideas that are accepted do have to meet some criteria. All campaigns have to create positive social change, lay out a coherent budget, establish a tipping point that covers minimum objectives, and promise to send rewards to contributors within a reasonable timeframe. For those campaigns that can answer yes to these questions and a few others, StartSomeGood will give them a green light.

The platform makes fundraising possible online. 

Of course, the real power behind programs such as these isn't about receiving a green light from StartSomeGood. It comes from people, with the majority of successful campaigns already having a network of potential supporters in place long before listing their campaigns.

StartSomeGoodSure, it's not uncommon for other champions to take an interest or help push a program over the line as these contributors help the campaign get off the ground. But just like any fundraising campaign, core support almost always comes from where the program intersects with a community or special interest. The rest is generosity and sometimes a kind way to give some kudos for a good idea.

At the same time, where StartSomeGood truly excels is in helping social champions get the job done without a donation page, merchant account, or program to track campaign goals in real time. In some cases, developing those assets can cost more than an effective program.

More than that, StartSomeGood also provides programs with a road map to help them succeed. The platform has a "how it works" section that walks people through what they need to do to build a campaign, promote a campaign, and nurture it into something worth talking about.

StartSomeGood Is A Good Will Pick From Liquid Hip.

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. Happy holidays.

We chose StartSomeGood because the platform keeps popping up on our radar with all sorts of good ideas and worthwhile causes. While we often select specific programs and people to highlight, it seemed especially fitting to leave the giving wide open this time around.

There are dozens perhaps hundreds of ideas that are looking for support right now. Some of them only need a few hundred dollars to see their projects become a success — ideas like an educational incubator that helps students develop new innovations in science and technology, a lacrosse league designed specifically to help inner city youth avoid at-risk behaviors, a multicultural center that plans to renovate its indoor and outdoor space. Find them all, listed by urgency, at StartSomeGood.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Noise Figures Gets Some Grease

The Noise Figures
It's not every year that a punk-noise duo debuts out of Greece and meets anxious acceptance. But this isn't just any year for the Noise Figures and they aren't just another punk-noise duo.

Making their music with a self-induced rock madness caused by "the drinking of wine and fertility," this Athens-based band generates a quasi-mythical haze, tinged with garage rock and fuzz. The chords might be deceptively simple, but how they layer the constant feedback buzz will win you over.

The Noise Figures is all garage rock haze and easygoing punk-noise bliss. 

The duo consists of drummer/vocalist George Nikas (Zebra Tracks) and guitarist Stamos Bamparis (Keyser Soze), two frontmen who wanted to take on a side project and blend their varied talents. By November, they put together a blues-infused fuzzy 4-track that garnered a good deal of underground attention, especially in Athens where there has been a resurgence in garage-kraut-pysch rock.

When the duo reconvened the following year, they evolved their sound with even more early punk and rock influences out of San Francisco, circa 1965. The lyrics match the mood, drawn from their life on the road and a relentless for living.

The self-titled debut opens with Black Caravan, a restless head-nod road song with a surf-rock underbelly and sharply sung punk vocal leanings. The lyrics are repetative and bleating — making the song feel like a record skip centered around the memory of a girl. It's the perfect introduction for the throwback Out Of Your Mind, which the band put out as a vid complete with subtitles.

The kaleidoscopic adventure captures the hypnotic flair of the band, albeit more 1990s than the rest of their sunburnt album. The next three tracks plow through a variety of sounds to prove the Noise Figures isn't willing to settle with a single direction.

They sweep through the West Coast lo-fi Rollin', make a garage rock slacker out of Bless The Flood, and add some Brit-blues heaviness on Turn Off The Lights. While other bands might falter with the fluctuations, the Noise Figures just takes it in stride as they create their own brand of skeletal DIY.

Never mind that much of it sounds flatly vintage. The Noise Figures derives its passion from drawing upon several decades in order to fulfill their introspective and observational meanderings about everything from mismatched shoes to burning beds. In doing so, they put you in a lull and then wake you up, over and over again.

The self-titled debut album deserves to be downloaded in entirety. The listenability of playing track after track back to back is what makes the lushly drawn album so enjoyable. Just as you think you have the band figured out, they reset the tempo and emotional slant with a slightly different direction.

If you are looking to pick a couple of tracks for a sampler, Out Of Your Mind is the better introduction while the slower droning Space Mountain creates a tripped out contemplation reminiscent of the dreamlike state of emergent sixties rock.

Tame The Knife is also worth a listen. The track titters on the promise and plague of domestic life. Meanwhile, Bones is eerily cryptic and the most psychedelic song on the album.

The Noise Figures Self-Titled Debut Titters 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All in all, the Noise Figures is a side project with all the potential of turning permanent. It not only provides a great foreshadow for the band, but also proves the potential for Athens to emerge as a serious rock contributor in the years ahead. No one can knock that.

You can pick up the Noise Figures self-titled debut from Amazon or download the album from iTunes. The original EP, Turn Off The Lights, is harder to come by but still available on their Bandcamp page for two euros. You can also follow them on Facebook as they become one of the best new bands to watch in the new year.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Make A Statement With Italian Wool

Wool Coats
While many leather jackets have long been regarded as part of the counterculture crowd, wool has been making a comeback. Much of it has to do with its rugged roots. Wool coats always feel well worn and weathered while leather, unless you own a bike, doesn't always convey its toughness.

Andrew Marc has put out a couple of standout designs this winter that do. One of them features Italian wool with a shadow plaid button-down front. Shadow plaid is a style that understates the pattern, making the coat look even more worn.

Along with the pattern, the Parker, as it's called, features a knit collar, removable bib, and leather trim detailing. The lapel is held together with a single row of buttons (and an interior zipper).

There are four outer pockets, but only two are really functional. All together, it creates a working class rugged look.

Andrew Marc adds rural ruggedness to urban design. 

Andrew Mac Wool Coats
By no means is the coat a country stand in or a replacement for the back country. This design is much more urban functional, with the right amount of wool to keep someone warm between their transportation and destination, without having to take everything off.

Along with the Parker, there are other styles as well. And while it doesn't have the same all-around charm, the mixed medium camel hair silk/wool blend with cleaner lines provides for another top coat alternative. It too features a knit bob and leather pocket detail.

Some other details include a notched standing collar, interior zipper for added warmth, and three interior pockets to keep your personal belongings. The best aspect of either coat is much simpler. They are incredibly warm and highly water resistant. And the wool is Italian, so you can anticipate better weight, firmness, and construction.

Wool Coats For Women
Andrew Marc has several wool coats for women too. While the designs feel more sixties retro as opposed to rugged and timeless, the toggle front coat makes a different kind of statement. Made with a virgin wool-polyamide blend and lined with polyester and fur, the coat is a much softer counterpart.

Some of the features include a stand collar with two closures, concealed front zipper behind the toggle buttons, and two front slit pockets. The cut has a slightly sixties feel to it, but learning toward a larger size will provide a more rugged style than the photo suggests. Another detail to keep in mind is that the fur is real, not fabricated.

A few graphs about the brand Andrew Marc.

Andrew Marc and Suzanne Schwartz
Andrew Marc has always had an urban appeal. You won't see many of its designs in the country. Even so, you have to give the brand credit for keeping the look the rugged and artisan feel authentic. It's not easy to do, but they've done it for 30 years.

The name, of course, comes from company founder Andrew Marc Schwartz. He founded the company with his wife Suzanne in 1981 as a leather goods label before being acquired by the G-III Apparel Group, Ltd. Its first fashion release was a fur-lined lambskin bomber jacket that became the cornerstone of its success.

Along with its founders, Chris Gbur has kept the intent of the brand largely intact. He has served as an in-house creative director for over 25 years. He is responsible for the brand, image and ads.

Wool Coats By Andrew Marc Warm Up 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Andrew Marc may have started as a leather goods company, but its wool line has continued to develop nicely over the years. The only downside to this year's lineup, in my opinion, is the women's options are nearly as strong as the men's. The Toggle coat is an obvious exception. It looks even better with a bulkier fit.

You can find a full line of wool coats from Andrew Marc at Bloomingdales, which recently discounted them. The retailer also carries a full line of the designer's leather and down outerwear jackets too. Conversely, while styles vary, Andrew Marc coats sometimes appear on Amazon and the brand supports its own online storefront.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Reignwolf Rocks Hard In The Dark

Jordon Cook
Ever since Canadian-born Jordan Cook played Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, he has been on a rocket ride with Seattle-based Reignwolf. Even a single graph can only begin to sum up his great year.

Those two appearances landed him an opportunity to open for Black Sabbath during the April leg of their tour. The band just played two shows in Sydney and Melbourne, giving him and his soulful howls the first signs of a global reach. Rolling Stone premiered his newest single, In The Dark.

The song was tracked less than a month ago in Ani DiFranco's home studio. Her husband, Mike "Nappy" Napolitano, agreed to engineer it. And it doesn't disappoint, not even for a second.

In The Dark has some stomp, rock and soul. 

Inspired by a 13th century Romanian novel and being stuck in the basement of his home in the dead of winter when his Saskatchewan town lost power for nine days, the song opens with a distorted blues chug before Cook hums his start. Just don't let the simplicity of the few minutes fool you.

If Cook does anything well, he knows hows to deliver a smoldering, smoky build. He follows in the footsteps of great blues rockers, letting his guitars weep and throaty vocals glow. Even more remarkable, while he is accompanied on the low end by David "Stitch" Rapaport and drummer Joseph "Texas Joe" Braley, he is best known for his one-man opens, aided only by his vintage Ludwig bass drum.

If you have never seen him live, KEXP recently plugged Cook into its studio. His music making looks something like this on the yet-unreleased track Electric Love. It will blow you away.

The promise behind his powerhouse one-man music is straightforward. Cook puts his soul into the music until he is sure that he can't give anything more. Not only does this convey how the artist likes to play, but it also describes his lyrics.

As much as In The Dark talks about unconditional love, so too does his brilliant debut single Are You Satisfied? The track has gone a long way in helping Cook reign in his sound, which is considerably more bluesy than when the musician was first breaking onto the scene a few years ago.

As for the rest, Cook learned to play the guitar by growing up around music. He owned his first guitar when he only was 2 years old, mostly his dad didn't want him tripping over the Fender Stratocaster anymore. Not only did it work, but Cook never looked back.

Cook says it also helps coming from Canada. With extremely cold winters, he says Canadians have a natural affinity for writing, painting or playing music. It was during those cold winters that he fell in love with rock and blues.

In The Dark By Reignwolf Snaps 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

During an interview a couple of years ago, Cook said that he only had one plan. He wanted to keep pouring more into music and keep getting louder. Based on Are You Satisfied? and In The Dark, it seems like mission accomplished. The only better impression comes from those who have seen him sweat drenched and live, especially when he is the only person to take the stage as a solo artist.

You can find In The Dark and Are You Satisfied? on iTunes. You can also download In The Dark from Amazon. Assuming Cook can find some time in between his increasingly heavy tour schedule, there is some building anticipation for an album out next year. Stay up to date on Facebook.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Firefly Catches Meira Pentermann

Firefly Beach by Meria Pentermann
After placing her marriage on autopilot for years, Beth LaMonte wasn't surprised to learn about the affair. It was her fault as much as his. Her husband merely gave up trying and accepted the attention and affection from whomever was willing to offer it. It wasn't her. It hadn't been for years.

The divorce did eventually wake her up, however. How long had it been that she neglected him and chosen to work long hours as a controller for a small company in the city instead? She didn't know.

But what she did know, as she finalized the divorce and packed up her personal belongings, was that she didn't want to be empty anymore. She wanted to escape  and find out if there really was a person lurking under her cool facade.

Firefly Beach is an emotional journey with a hint of paranormal. 

I picked up the book in October while looking for something supernatural and what I found surprised me. Firefly Beach by Meira Pentermann is one part personal transformation and one part paranormal.

When LaMonte decides to live off an inheritance for a few months and rekindle her long neglected artistic talent, she finds a quiet community in Maine and rents a cottage to set up shop. Maine seemed to be ideal.

Long before she ever took a class in economics in college, she had once imagined herself living on the coast and selling paintings of lighthouses or rocky coastlines. So this was supposed to be the reincarnation of a dream long forgotten. It might have been had the cottage not come with a visitor.

What LaMonte suspects to be a firefly comes by the cottage night after night. She even considered it a nice diversion from all the unpacking in an effort to make an orderly home. It might have even been an insect to match her own mood, a dedicated loner trying to get her life back together.

She thought so, at least, until the firefly turned out to be something else. Slowly but surely and with increasing intensity, the firefly lures LaMonte into the woods and down an overgrown path that leads to the beach. It's there that she finds the diary of a young girl — bundled, waterproofed, and hidden away in a small recess in the craggy cliff.

At first, LaMonte doesn't pry into the contents. But when she finally breaks down at the urging of the firefly, LaMonte discovers the story of a girl who doesn't live in Maine anymore. And as she reads it, the questions in her begin to mount. Did she run away? Was she still alive? Did someone murder her?

A few graphs about author Meira Pentermann. 

Firefly Beach was the debut novel of Colorado author Meira Pentermann, originally released by Lyrical Press in 2009. Last year, she rereleased it herself, adding a digital edition to accompany her dystopia novel Nine-Tenths (2011) and children's book Sarah And The Magic Mayonnaise Jar (2013).

Meira Pentermann
With the exception of Sarah, Pentermann's writing leans toward young adult fiction that delivers a blending of the unexpected. She has a gift for grounded, down-to-earth characters. They feel like regular folks, if not somewhat sheltered and innocent, which gives her work a slightly nostalgic feel.

In Firefly Beach, Pentermann sometimes comes across as slightly Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys. And if the "firefly" wasn't connected to something unexplained or supernatural, it might even be confined to that kind of vintage caper mystery. In most cases that wouldn't be enough, but LaMonte is interesting enough to overcome other shortcomings — the girl who wrote the diary is largely unlikeable and sometimes LaMonte is so linear that it's hard to see her as a painter.

Firefly Beach By Meira Pentermann Wisps 3.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While considerably lighter than other books reviewed here, Firefly Beach demonstrates significant potential from this still-emerging author. Read it when you want something light, with the paranormal presence that creates intellectual mystery more than anything frightening.

Firefly Beach by Meira Pentermann can be purchased from Amazon. Last month, Podium Publishing released an audio version of the book read by Donna Postel. It is available from iTunes. Postel makes a great LaMonte but the diary writer even more annoying for her naivety. Still, it's worth sharing as a tightly written book with a well-oiled plot and several interesting sub plots.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lightouts Disappear After Two Tracks

If any stateside city has had more than its fair share of startups, it would be Brooklyn. The music scene there has been burning brightly for years, producing so many bands that it's easy to miss a few.

The Lightouts are one of those that was easily missed but only because the band has yet to land a label or put out an LP across every distribution channel. They have managed to self-produce a few singles to create a solid back catalog along with the release of Want in March. Landing gigs doesn't seem to be a problem either. 

The band is a foursome led by New York music veteran Greg Nelson (vocals, guitar) and band founder Gavin Rhodes (guitar, bass, drum programming). The primary duo met after Rhodes left a cryptic want ad plastered across some post-industrial space near the Gowanus Canal.

"Robert Smith/Emily Haines, where are you?"

Rhodes didn't necessarily need another Robert Smith, but he did have the idea that there might be room in Brooklyn for a band that toed the line between darkness and light. They also had to be willing to work, producing a series of singles over the span of several months to make an album. 

Their newest addition to the growing collection includes Disappear and My My. Disappear is the track that caught my attention, a bright and bleak indie rock number that will have people crowing about how they sound like this band or that band.

While they do pick up some tricks from the early 90s, the sound is recast to capture a fresh and spacious desolation. Disappear plays like a lonely party song — someplace packed with people but you or someone else is feeling out of place and against the wall. 

They are not primitive, but there is a minimalist bent in the structure. The bass is simple. The beats are even. The power chords are choked. Somehow they layer it all together to make it work.

Lyrically, the band isn't nearly as uptight. They know what they want to say and they set it to a punky fuzz rock beat. The B-side, if you want to call it that, moves forward with the same steady sureness. Nelson barks a bit more to punctuate their punk leanings. 

Prior to the new release, Lightouts had already caught some attention for The Big Show last year. The single, along with Stray Boy and Push, created enough stir that some rags called them the next big thing. I don't know if the band is ready for such heady bigness, but they can play. This is the vid they put out last year. 

The Big Show is a great track to listen to after the new release because it makes the case that these guys really do have the right back catalog. They bring back a retro punk fuzz that has been missing from the music scene lately. It will take some people back, but mostly it moves everything forward. 

The Big Show does a brilliant job of blending that electronic bounce with indie rock grit. It works because the band never lets the music get too soft for its own good. It's almost what nu wave could have been had the entire genre not wimped out. 

Disappear By Lightouts Flicks 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It's an odd time to release two new tracks with the March release still fresh (and not listed everywhere), but it really sets the stage for what everyone wants next year — another album. You can find the album Want in entirety on Amazon or clean up on 11 or so tracks right now on iTunes. 

Start with Disappear/My My on iTunes and then plow through the back catalog there. They also have plenty of free music up on Facebook. It's the same place you can find out where they might be playing next. Unless I'm mistaken, they're flying all the way to Singapore in December. Rock on.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Solvang Is A Danish Spin On California

Anyone traveling across California along Highway 246 will likely find an unexpected sight (unless they go looking for it). Just a few hours northeast of Santa Barbara, breaking up the Santa Ynez Valley farmland, is a small Danish village complete with four Danish-styled windmills.

While the town didn't always look Danish, the earliest area settlers were. They city was founded in 1911 on almost 10,000 acres with the specific intent to establish a Danish colony far away from Midwestern winters. The Danish-inspired architecture would come later, shortly after World War II.

Initially, three Danish immigrants raised money to buy land and then subdivide it into plots for farms, homes, and a small town center. Profits from the land sale would build a Danish-style folk school and, later, a Lutheran church. Settlers, mostly Danish, answered the call to create this new colony. The hotel opened in July 1911. The rest was a matter of time.

Solvang started as a farm community before becoming a tourist destination. 

After the opening of the hotel, other businesses followed — a general store, creamery, bakery, bank, and butcher. Most of them were built to support the growing number of farmers who moved there, especially as irrigation systems were quickly developed and the area's first school opened.

Solvang History
Like many Danish schools, it was a "school of life." That meant it offered a broad range of courses, which included Dutch arts and dual languages. Within two years, Attedag College became the heart of the community (until it closed in 1952).

While the college eventually closed, the spirit of the Danish people did not. When the college helped the township celebrate its 25th anniversary, it created what became a predecessor to Danish Days. And Danish Days would later help inspire the concept of creating a Danish village in California.

After Word War II, Ferdinand Sorensen from Nebraska was the first to build a møllebakken (Danish-styled home) and the first village windmill. His work was followed up by local architect Earl Petersen, who began to add facades to existing buildings in order to give them a Danish Provincial look. And once this authentic Danish atmosphere took hold, it continued to grow into a vibrant tourist destination.

A small collection of ideas add to the Solvang experience. 

One of the most obvious reasons to visit Solvang is to experience the abundance of shops and galleries that line the town's Danish-themed streets. More than 150 independent shop owners populate the stores, with an emphasis on arts and antiques. There are plenty of treats and eats too.

The more historic and interesting stops include the Elverhoj Museum of History and Art. The museum, which was once the handcrafted dream home of artist and sculptor Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife Martha Mott, was converted to accommodate permanent and visiting exhibits.

Along with that popular museum, the town is also home to a small but interesting Hans Christian Andersen Museum above The Book Loft. It includes many artifacts that encapsulate his life and work. Along with that collection, Solvang is home to the Old Mission Santa Ines (an old Spanish Mission), Wildling Art Museum (American wilderness collection), and Mendenhall Museum (memorabilia).

Solvang Motorcycles
The Solvang Motorcycle Museum is a must see, with one of the largest collections of vintage motorcycles and rare European racing bikes in North America. The models range from a 1910 FN to other rare and modern machines, with an emphasis on racing cycles. The collection is owned by Virgil Elings, who has been collecting them for more than two decades.

While most people drive in from other cities, there are more than a dozen resorts, hotels, and inns in Solvang. The Hadsten House is an affordable favorite with an on-site mini-vineyard, day spa, and European-styled rooms with decorative fireplaces.

For those looking for a richer experience, the Alisal Guest Ranch is a 10,000-acre getaway for those who enjoy horseback riding, fly-fishing, golf and tennis. The resort provides access to the beautiful Alisal Lake.

Solvang, California Blanks 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Solvang requires ample planning to ensure the experience includes more than a shopping stroll. The area is a prime location for wine tours and scenic bike rides. While there are many activities year round, Solvang is best known for its Julefest in December and Danish Days every September.

While Solvang is a great place to stay when taking in the village, especially guests who visit during the town's seasonal outdoor theatrical schedule, don't discount the abundance of hotels throughout the Santa Ynez Valley. For details and booking information, start by comparing specials against top travel deals at Expedia.com. Many people plan day trips to the village, but there are more opportunities to explore for those who stay several days.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The BoneDevil Conjures Oshawa Metal

The BoneDevil
Rising out of Oshawa, Ontario, is a four-piece with a bent for cross-breeding folk rock and nu metal — and the beasts they produce in doing so are as heavy as you might expect. The BoneDevil delivers track after track of pummeling rhythm punctuated by dueling guitars and roaring, hypnotic vocals.

The music is hard and relentless, conjuring nods to dozens of no-nonsense metal predecessors. The writing is tight. The vocals are staggered. The guitar work frequently mesmerizing. The drums are pounding, occasionally panicked. And together, they create a groove that graciously restores faith in the genre.

Sure, BoneDevil lays down the schtick in their bio, telling a story about how The BoneDevil was entrapped for two thousand years before emerging from Mother Earth with a starvation so intense that it consumed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And then there is the title of their debut — Don't Be A Pussy! — which tries a tad too hard to get attention in the opposite direction. But never mind all that. They can play.

Their debut is a Wrecking Ball because it hits so hard.

Wrecking Ball is the second tune down on the 10-track track full length. For four-plus minutes, The BoneDevil effortlessly introduces its members with instrumental sections that take turns showcasing the talents of Abel Renton (vocals, guitars), Angus Hillier (vocals, guitars), Angel Valenciano (bass) and Chris Jackson (drums). The immediate takeaway is that this might be the real deal.

The band follows up Wrecking Ball with Burn The White House Down, a dizzying display of folk vocals interspersed with fiery guitar licks and big, recklessly descending notes designed to shake your bones with the right volume. It chugs and buzzes for better than five minutes.

Both tracks are more memorable than what the band chose to promote in advance of the album. They lead with the first track, Speedfreak, which draws a half dozen or so analogies related to being an adrenaline junkie. The songwriting isn't as crisp as other tracks, but the band still jams.

The video gives up something else about the band. As serious as they sound, they don't take themselves seriously. And perhaps there is an irony in learning it. They are good enough that they could take themselves seriously (without alienating their Pabst drinking draw). But that hardly matters because they would rather have a good time. And they do.

There aren't any bad tracks on the album. Standouts includes the riff-laden grooviness of Taffy Tornado, the playful barroom romp of Boomba, and the apocalyptic meanderings of Blood On The Stone. Further down the track list, The Emigrant Song smolders with equal parts glamour and gloom.

Marc Taylor's Blues is also a must listen. The track alternates between some familiar vintage rock and angry don't-judge-me blues-infused metal. The transitions are epic in that most bands could never make them work. The BoneDevil pulls it all off effortlessly.

The band ends on Laughing At The Sunrise, which also brings in some big, bluesy notes. It works as a wind up or wind down. Just don't expect to be put to sleep, even if it includes a full minute of ambient pinball noises.

Don't Be A Pussy! By The BoneDevil Digs 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For a band that almost broke up after releasing two 7-inchers and being teased with the promise of a record deal, The BoneDevil has found a whole new purpose in playing what they call rock'n'roll imbedded with thunder and lighting. There are moments on the album where it's easily agreed.

Don't Be A Pussy! by The BoneDevil is available on Amazon and can also be downloaded from iTunes. You can also hear an album sampling on band camp. Three tracks give up the lyrics. For their tour schedule, follow them on Facebook. The band originally came together in 2010. Expect some more heavy goodness from them.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stephen Hunter Hits Hot Springs Hard

Hot Springs
Before Bugsy Siegel could get Las Vegas off the ground, mobsters made Hot Springs, Arkansas, their favorite gambling getaway. The town had it all. Gambling halls lit up the night. The liquor was cheap. The sports book hummed away all day. And girls pretended to swoon at the feet of their marks.

All of it was illegal, but the men who ran the show had that under control. The long arm of corruption reached well past local police and all the way to a few state seats. Nobody could stop it. Hot Springs was red hot and Owney Maddox counted on making sure it stayed that way.

Maddox kept the town lively while making sure none of his New York or Chicago connections got pinched. The only raids that took place on his establishments were arranged weeks in advance — tiny favors for front page news.

But all that changes when one attorney sees his chance. 

Newly elected county prosecuting attorney Fred Becker sees taking down Maddox as a career maker. To do it, he brings in legendary FBI agent D.A. Parker (possibly inspired by D.A. "Jelly" Bryce, given his gift for sharp shooting) to assemble and train an unstoppable dream team.

Parker isn't the kind of man to take any chances. His first recruit is protagonist First Sgt. Earl Swagger, an ex-Marine and Medal of Honor recipient who doesn't know what to do with himself at the end of World War II. So despite Swagger's propensity to go on blackout benders, they want him to make sure their men understand military tactics over police procedures.

Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter
Parker hopes such a strong show of force will quell any resistance as they close down all the casino operations in Hot Springs. To do it, he outfits his Jayhawkers with body armor, custom .45 automatics, Thompson submachine guns, and Browning automatic rifles.

Swagger readily accepts the job, immediately feeling that this will give his life purpose again. His pregnant wife is much less amenable to the idea. After worrying about him every day during the war and now carrying his future son, she is terrified Swagger will get hurt or killed.

While Swagger promises her that he will stay out of the line of fire, it's not in his nature to play it safe. Besides, one of his men is a hot head. Another is investigating his past after he shows uncanny insight into a town he claims to have never visited before. And the prosecuting attorney they work for seems easily shaken by negative headlines.

A few graphs about author Stephen Hunter. 

Stephen Hunter
One of the brightest hard-boiled thriller novelists of his generation, Stephen Hunter originally broke into prose as a journalist. He graduated from Northwestern in 1968 with a degree in journalism and was then drafted by the United States Army. He served for two years.

After, he joined the Baltimore Sun in 1971 where he worked at the copy desk until becoming a film critic in 1982. He then moved to the Washington Post in 1997. It was during the 1980s that he first began writing fiction, but it is his Bob Lee Swagger series that captured real attention. Hot Springs introduced Earl Swagger, who is Bob Lee Swagger's father.

Hot Springs By Stephen Hunter Shoots Up 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

On the surface, Hot Springs and other Earl Swagger novels are adrenaline-driven page turners that cast good guys as good and bad guys as bad. But the best aspect of Hunter's writing is in its well-crafted precision. Hot Springs is a thriller, but it's his well-drawn protagonist with a haunted past  that makes the ride worthwhile.

Although originally published in 2000, Hot Springs has been rereleased and is well worth the read. It can be found on Amazon or ordered from Barnes & Noble. It is also available on iBooks, with the audiobook on iTunes narrated by Eric Dove. Dove does a find job with the read, but Hunter has a writing style that seems to play better on the printed or digital page.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Wolf Among Us Is Folklore Noir

If you like fairy tales that are black and seedy, nothing else compares to the recasting of the Vertigo comic series Fables. It's an interactive episodic story that retains the intrigue of, but breaks away from zombies, last year's serial interactive game The Walking Dead.

While The Walking Dead is still very much alive with Telltale Games set to release a second season for iOS fans (console gamers are already playing), there is a new sheriff in town thanks to The Wolf Among Us. His name is Bigby Wolf and his town is the Big Apple.

He doesn't police the entire city, mind you. His jurisdiction is largely confined to the back alleys and broken down buildings where fables go about their daily lives. None of them live happily ever after.

The Wolf Among Us from Telltale is all hard boiled. 

No, these are not the fables you are told as children. Any reasonably innocent veneers that might have been sported in their original stories are stripped away. The content is more mature.

The oldest brother from the Three Little Pigs mooches bourbon. The Woodsman who saved Snow White goes on benders. One of the flying monkeys from the Wizard Of Oz would rather slug down wine than get the job done. And your perspective? You play as the infamous Big Bad Wolf.

It's his job to somehow keep the peace as fables, fairy tales, and legends eek out a living in our world. Most of them exist in Fabletown, a sizable chunk of New York City. The fables themselves blend into the backdrop, using an enchantment called Glamour to make those that aren't human look human.

The last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves. They would rather humans (a.k.a. the mundane or mundys) not know that they escaped their home worlds to live here in exile. To help keep such order, Ichabod Crane serves as Deputy Mayor. Snow White is his assistant.

And then there is Bigby. He is a natural fit as sheriff for his preternaturally powerful senses. But there were several trade offs. Not all of the fables and fairy tales trust him.

They don't always believe that Bigby has overcome his dark past — even if they all agreed to start with a clean slate. Why would they? Most of them have already mucked up their reputations, finding it is easier to be bad than good in their new and marginal lives.

The back story comes from the head of Bill Willingham.

The original series source material was published in 2002 and based on a premise crafted by Bill Willingham. His story takes place after most characters from folklore and fairy tales are ousted from their homelands by a conquering force called The Adversary. Without homes, they found refuge in our world and then attempted to blend in.

Willingham originally received his break as a graphic artist and storyteller in the late 1970s. He worked for TSR, Inc. as a staff artist. Later, he gained attention in the comic world with his series Elementals, which was published by Comico.

Another quick graph or two to cover the game play. 

While the game play is very similar to The Walking Dead, there are some differences. The most compelling includes Telltale Games' continued attempt to break away from the linear nature of storytelling games. In this case, not only does what you do make a difference, but also when you do it.

Another significant change is the underlying psychological objective of the game. Whereas The Walking Dead often presented moral challenegs, The Wolf Among Us seems to balance itself between being a loner or part of a social group as Bigby solves a murder mystery.

The Wolf Among Us Transforms 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the first episode might seem short in terms of the game play, Telltale Games does a phenomenal job at moving interactive game stories forward. The illustrative work, story lines, and increasing adaptability to players choices continues to be outstanding.

For portable iOS platforms, The Wolf Among Us is compatible with iPad 2, iPhone 4S, and iOS 6. You can find all of the console and software offerings on Amazon (digital codes). Most players consider it a worthy successor to The Walking Dead. Not everyone appreciates the niche, but there is no question that Telltale has found a future in adapting graphic novels.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nai Harvest Adds More Than Whatever

Nai Harvest
After their successful debut album last spring, Sheffield-based grunge punks Nai Harvest are ready to follow it up. Their newest EP will drop next March. They have already managed to squeeze in studio time to record the title track.

Hold Open My Heart is the first single off the upcoming four-track EP. It includes a new indie edge that builds upon the band's emo roots. Ben Thomson (vocals, guitar) and Lew Currie (drums) have confirmed that it's how their sound will evolve. 

Hold Open My Heart is a bright spot on indie rock.

Recorded and mixed by Bob Cooper, Hold Open My Heart tones down the shouting and adds in distortion to give the track a grunge-like texture while retaining the band's brooding energy.

The lyrics are rife with sentiment. The song is essentially about what happens when love or friendship gets all mucked up. All we ever want is to keep those early and easy carefree feelings intact, but that never really happens. Once a relationship is ruined, we can't erase the bad or scoop out what ends up clogging up our heads. 

Thompson nails the vocals in lending sincerity to the song. The lyrics rightly capture how disappointing it can be when you can't joke around or playfully kick someone anymore. And since he can't get the bad out, he leaves the house or goes to sleep instead.

If the EP is an indication of their direction, expect this band to see a big return for the effort. While the track never makes a break from the debut LP, it does capitalize on what the duo does best. 

In essence, it takes the unique undercurrent of their sound and brings it to the forefront as opposed to letting it linger until after the midpoint in tracks like Sitcom Fade-In. The songwriting also provides a glimmer of difference too, moving beyond the vignette and into some deeper self-reflection.

Many of the tracks from the debut Whatever snuck up on fans just like that. They started off as emo songs but eventually broke away and into other indie, grunge, or punk influences. It often makes the music vibrant and unexpected.

If you missed the album, some of the best includes the head-spin in Quit Mackin', the outcast angst of Floor, and the reflective romp Twin Tweaks. All three of these tracks go beyond the retelling of a relationship and dig deeper to touch on the psychology and sometimes psychosis of it. The band has an especially empathic grasp on loneliness; Washy lights up how it feels. 

The music and arrangements are handled right enough to forget that the band is a duo, even if some tunes were originally written for a three-piece band. They originally had a third member, until Thompson and Currie learned they got on better alone. A third member, they said, felt like extra baggage.

They make up for the lack of a bassist by playing loud. Currie covers it well with percussion and Thompson leans on his guitar to create a sound as throaty as his vocals.

Hold Open My Heart Is A Fresh Start At 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale

By broadening their sound beyond emo, Nai Harvest has a head start on another great year. If there is anything that is especially telling about their latest evolution it is that they used to sound like an emo band on the onset. It's becoming difficult to cast them in that category. Now they sound like Nai Harvest. 

The new track, Hold Open My Heart, is up on Bandcamp. If you want to catch up with their earlier work, you can find Whatever on Amazon or download it from iTunes. Sheffield is in South Yorkshire, United Kingdom, for those who don't know. The band is touring the UK heavily in December. Check out Facebook for dates. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

ZIIIRO Gravity Times An Evolution

When Robert Dabi first came up with the idea to create a watch without hands or markings, he didn't know much about watches. All he knew was that he wanted to create a watch that would show the passage of time without anything more than minimalistic patterns.

It all began simply enough. He submitted a concept design drawing to Yanko Design. He called it Zero because it has no buttons or numbers. It was a beautiful concept, originally designed with a palate of seven colors.

Several tech and gadget magazines helped take the watch concept to the next level. Dabi found the support his needed. About one year later, several models and colors were ready to sell with a new name that was more reflective of the the spiraling minute and hour hands.

Gravity has come along way and now it has cousins.

As Dabi became more comfortable moving from his graphic design background into product development, Gravity began to take shape. The simplicity attracts everyone, with the continuous and barely noticeable movement showing the passages of time.

It takes some getting use to, just like the bracelet strap that hugs your wrist. Made of metal and silicone, it's comfortable enough. The trick is learning to appreciate that a watch doesn't need to be tied down or strapped on too tightly.

One nice innovation from the early design is the ability to change the close body with one of nine different colors. Likewise, the second generation watch, called Mercury, adds another element.

The face adds small hour markers around a stainless steel case. And rather than relying on the flexible cuff design, these watches strap on with a snap-up enclosure. The tapered mesh strap gives the watch a less sporty and more sophisticated look overall.

ZIIIRO is working hard to evolve design. 

After Mercury, ZIIIRO began moving in an entirely new direction. The Aurora uses two transparent gradient discs to tell time. The blue represents the hour and the yellow represents the minute. It takes significantly more time to get use to, but the design makes it worthwhile.

If the colors seem like too much trouble, then the Orbit moves back to the designer's minimalist roots. The watch display features two planets that exist on a single orbit, occasionally overlapping each other several times a day.

Like most watches made by ZIIIRO, both of these rely on a Japanese Miyota 1L-26 Quartz Movement with an accuracy of +20 seconds a month. They are also made with stainless steel and the face is protected by hardened mineral crystal. They are water resistant (3 ATM or up to 50 feet) but not designed to be submerged for any length of time or frequency.

The newest designs are worth looking at too. In fact, it is the ZIIIRO Eclipse that is my hands-down favorite. Rather than relying on planets to track the time, two poles slowly circle around the face of the watch. They are covered with a patented Swiss Super-LumiNova pigment, allowing them to glow in the dark.

I'm equally fond of the Saturn that uses an out ring of 12 segments and an inner ring of 60 seconds to tell time. It too lights up, but what I like best is that it was designed around the more formal look of the Mercury.

The ZIIIRO Gravity Watch Tells 6.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The ZIIIRO Gravity watch isn't necessarily going to be your prized timepiece like Invicta or Rolex. But it does make a statement for anyone with an appreciation for novel design and a sporty or sophisticated futuristic look.

While you can visit the ZIIIRO website for details, you can find most watches on Amazon, including the Mercury, Saturn, and Gravity. ZIIIRO also recently released an iPhone app that borrows elements of the original design. It's significantly busier (including a calendar and second sweep) than the original watch, but might make for a free fun conversation piece.

Friday, December 6, 2013

State Champs And The Finer Things

State Champs
State Champs are in an odd place. They could be pushing pop punk around but let the genre push it around instead. This might be all right because the band doesn't pull any punches, but let's be honest.

Almost every punch is above the belt, making this a cleaner release than the Overslept EP last year. The sound is so crisp some reviewers have called it a model pop punk album, which is partly why it took a few extra weeks to review it.

The Finer Things deserves to be reviewed, just not without a caveat of what could have been. The Finer Things would have benefited from the band's earlier grit. On the plus side of that equation, it does give frontman Derek Discanio a forum for his voice. He can sing.

The Finer Things is an outing that is fantastic and familiar. 

Some of the direction had to come from producer Steve Klein (New Found Glory) and maybe even engineer Sam Pura (The Story So Far, The American Scene). Both of these behind-the-band men know the genre well enough and how to make someone like Discanio ascend while retaining attitude.

Elevated is easily the most talked about track for exactly that reason. It's a memorable opener that sets the bar for Discanio pleading with some solid one liners against catchy, hook-laden musicianship. It's a great song and it sounds even better live in the tiniest possible venue.

Expect good times, even if Elevated is a disgruntled break-it-off song. Discanio delivers it all convincingly enough, discontent because he hasn't had a chance to plead his case. It's emotive, opening up and letting some weakness out.

As good as the song is, the lyrics in Deadly Conversation are easier to relate to. In this track,
Discanio turns the tables and takes charge as he comes to terms with it. He recognizes that the break up was painful, but doesn't brood about it. The break up is bad, he more or less sings, but not so bad when measured against life.

There isn't too much to hear in the next three tracks. While the chords in Hard To Please take a stronger texture, Discanio doesn't adapt enough to the instrumentation. It's listenable while also being a missed opportunity to push his diversity. Simple Existence almost falls in these three as passable.

It takes some time to reach Remedy, which originally appeared on Overslept. Listening to both releases back to back, I lean toward the original dirtier recording. But each version is good and different enough that owning both is a bonus.

It could have come out earlier, but anyone who enjoyed the EP last year won't be disappointed. The same can be said for the recast Critical. The new recording pulls out the vocals, making them significantly more prominent. Consider a coin toss between the two. Both are great tracks.

The bottom half of the album, from Remedy on, does everything you want the band to do. Nothing's Wrong has a sharply defiant tone and a smart chorus. Mind Bottled opens up possibilities of what might be next. Easy Enough ends with a note of empathy and resolution.

The Finer Things By State Champs Wins 5.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All in all, it's a fine label debut that will give the band more confidence to pick up where they started last year. It's also a great excuse to listen to their first self-produced LP in 2011 and self-produced EP in 2010. You'll likely find a balanced sound among the band members, giving Tony Diaz, Tyler Szalkowski, William Goodermote, and Evan Ambrosio a balanced distinction.

You can find The Finer Things by State Champs on Amazon. The album is also available from Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded from iTunes. Check out Overslept too. State Champs are currently booked with a heavy tour schedule. Check out show dates on Facebook.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Martin Cruz Smith Hunts For Tatiana

Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
When a fearless and subversive investigative journalist falls to her death from a sixth-floor window in Moscow, most people are ready to dismiss the case as a suicide. Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn't. These things happen in new Russia and it's often best to avoid extra paperwork or attention.

But investigator Arkady Renko doesn't see it that way. The same relentlessly inquisitive nature that made him an iconic investigator in contemporary fiction drives him to dig deeper. And it doesn't take long for him to find a series of audio tapes left behind by Tatiana.

The tapes don't necessarily contain any hard evidence, but they do offer Renko something else. He is transfixed by her voice as much as several horrific crimes that contradict the Kremlin. Tatiana was clearly working to uncover something that no one would want anyone to know.

An investigator procedural in a new and different Russia. 

Just as capitalism always risks descending into cronyism, so does communism. At least this holds true in Martin Cruz Smith's new Arkady Renko novel. The Soviet Union may no longer exist, but the new Russian Federation hasn't ushered in a new era of comfort and prosperity either.

As such, the environment can be even more treacherous for journalists who know too much. While the Russian Mafia may be motivated by different goals than their former Soviet counterparts, they can be equally dangerous to reporters as evidenced by Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Post WW2 Kaliningrad
Tatiana seems loosely based on Politkovskaya, except there was no question as to whether or not Politkovskaya was murdered. She was found dead near her apartment; shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head. The questionable circumstances for Tatiana, on the other hand, only serve to create another layer of resistance for Renko.

While he thinks there is a connection between her death and the murder of a mob billionaire, nobody is interested (with the exception of his friend Det. Sgt. Victor Orlov). Calling her death a suicide and closing the case is easier, safer, and keeps the intended message intact. People who dig sometimes dig their own graves, including investigators.

The investigation introduces a new Russia to Renko as much as readers.

Undeterred, Renko finds himself traveling to Kaliningrad, a Cold War “secret city” that became home to the Baltic Fleet in the 1950s after former German and Polish citizens were displaced. In 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this same city became an enclave isolated from the rest of Russia.

In the novel, it not only has the highest crime rate in Russia, but it also becomes a metaphor for its post-Soviet life. It's here that Renko learns more about Tatiana’s past and what she believed would become the fate of Russia's future. He does so slowly while simultaneously attempting to find out why a translator who happened to be in touch with Tatiana was plucked from the beach in Kaliningrad.

The only thing left of the man after he was abducted was a notebook filled with designs, stars and pictographs. Presumably, only the translator could read it. So even though Renko knows it could hold the key to his case, he can't easily decipher it.

A few graphs about author Martin Cruz Smith.

Martin Cruz Smith
The son of a jazz musician and nightclub singer who met at the 1939 World's Fair, Matin Cruz Smith was destined to move around as a child. Eventually, he pursued a degree in creative writing and became a journalist after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

He began writing fiction in the 1970s and has visited Russia several times for source material. He visited often enough that the Soviet Union eventually listed him among agents and provocateurs that citizens should avoid. He has written dozens of books, but his best known was the introduction of Renko in Gorky Park, which became one of the most talked about thrillers of the 1980s.

Tatiana By Martin Cruz Smith Plots 6.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While it isn't his best Renko story, Tatiana has all the precision of an unflinching espionage mystery-thriller. And what seems to make it work is that Renko attempts to follow in Tatiana's footsteps, adding his own investigative broodiness to her accounting of coverups and corruption.

You can find Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith on Amazon. The novel is also available from Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook on iTunes is narrated by Henry Strozier, who lends an old world tone to story.