Thursday, February 28, 2013

Harry Bingham Talks To The Dead

Talking To The Dead
It's not the crime investigation being carried out in Wales that will captivate readers picking up a series debut by author Harry Bingham. The protagonist, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, is the more compelling mystery. She isn't like other detectives working the case. She suffers from a psychosis.

Sometimes it thrives on her, causing her to second guess herself. But other times she thrives on it, taking pride in her reputation for being odd, intense and unpredictable. Never mind that the latter quality often causes her chief to distrust her otherwise stellar police work. She knows what works.

From his perspective, however, it leaves him in a quandary. He never knows which Griffiths might show up — the hardworking sensible one who outperforms her peers or the reckless one that will ignore orders and police protocol to elicit a reaction, chase an unconnected lead, or risk her life.

That doesn't account for all of it. Griffiths has a hard time reading other people's social cues and frequently has to feign emotion. To hear her tell it, she relates to the dead better. While they don't really talk to her per se, she finds comfort in talking to them anyway and will even lie down next to them.

Talking To The Dead introduces an unforgettably flawed character. 

What makes Griffiths so captivating as a character is that she wants so desperately to be normal even though she knows that she will never be normal. She is afflicted with a rare but genuine psychological condition that can almost be confused with being a sociopath despite its core attributes being depression and psychosis.

It has a name and is defined in the back of Bingham's book, but giving it up here would spoil the best part of discovering an incredibly deeply drawn character. Suffice to say it is similar to a manifestation of depersonalization, but much more unforgiving. The fact that Griffith is a detective is compelling.

"Most mystery stories have tough, middle-aged men as their heroes — people of weight and substance," says Bingham. "I wanted the opposite. Fiona is a woman, she's physically small, she's very junior in rank. She works for the South Wales Police, which is hardly right there at the centre of things."

Given that it isn't in the "centre of things," it might be why the South Wales Police overlooked the two-year gap in her past after Cambridge. While most people assume she had a breakdown, her father's history with law enforcement helped her gain an edge. Besides, she almost immediately turns out to be a crack investigator, proving that almost anyone can eventually recover to lead normal and productive lives.

Except, Griffiths hasn't really recovered. As she secretly puts it, she is trying to return to Planet Normal. And although police work would seem like an odd place to find normal, Griffiths is drawn to it, much like the primary crime scene in the book.

The murder scene is grisly, but not necessarily unusual. A young prostitute has been murdered, apparently of a forced heroin overdose. Her young daughter was murdered too, a traumatic head injury. Although Griffiths is not initially assigned to the case, the police found a bank card that belongs to a affluent man who was killed in an plane accident a few months prior. He is tied to an embezzlement case she is supposed to be giving her full attention.

A few graphs about author Harry Bingham.

Although not Welsh, author Harry Bingham says he spent much of his childhood in South Wales. He loves it because Cardiff has what he calls a brilliant double life, one that thrives in a relatively new and provincial city despite much of Wales being a place of medieval castles and remote countryside.

Most of the book takes place in the city, but there is a sense of the old and new worlds in Bingham's writing. Originally a banker, Bingham eventually turned his attention to writing instead, opening a writer's workshop to help aspiring writers while penning dozens of contemporary and nonfiction work. He has also written for dozens of newspapers in the United Kingdom.

Talking To The Dead Digs Up 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There are times that the novel starts to lose some of the intense energy that the character Griffiths gives it, but that stands to reason. The crime and investigation is more about becoming familiar with her as a flawed heroine, always trying to do the right thing but always in jeopardy at the same time. That makes the occasional mystery and thriller a little less interesting compared to how she reacts to it along the way.

Even so, Bingham has proven to be as adept at fiction as nonfiction. Griffiths is easily a series to watch. But even without a series commitment, she is still well worth experiencing at least once. You can find Talking to the Dead: A Novel by Harry Bingham on Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks. The audiobook, beautifully narrated by Siriol Jenkins, is also available.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Junip Sets Itself Up In The Line Of Fire

Although the upcoming eponymous album by Swedish band Junip isn't due out until April, the early release of its first single is enough to pique interest in it as a slightly overdue studio session. The 6-minute track Line Of Fire poignantly questions every second of our lives and every choice we ever made.

"What would you do if it all came back to you? Each crest of each wave bright as lightning. What would you say if you had to leave today? Leave everything behind even though for once you're shining."

The lyrics alone would be enough to touch a nerve, but it's the bolder and fuller instrumental along with the shimmer in singer-songwriter-guiartist José González's voice that builds a convincing case. Line Of Fire might be the best song ever written and produced by the band.

The atmosphere is right. The pitch is perfect. The steadily incessant and comforting drone of it hums along with the contemplative pace that captures time as something infinite and fleeting all at once.

Line Of Fire burns as Junip's brightest moment. 

Every second of the sweeping track is memorable, especially as González leads the Gothenburg trio in a subtle and sustained ever-growing build. What begins as a lightly plucked guitar drifts into steady percussion by Elias Araya on drums and soft atmospheric synth work by Tobias Winterkorn on keys.

The krautrock repetition (or perhaps Ethiopian influenced repetition as Araya has described it) foreshadows exactly where the song is going even if it still feels unpredictable. It's nothing short of an accomplishment as a stunning alternative pop song — mysterious and memorable.

Much like the band suggested on Facebook, Line Of Fire plays best when you are sitting down, staring into the sparseness of the visual while taking in the fullness of the sound. It's somewhere about three minutes in when there comes a realization that this isn't the band that released the album Fields three years ago.

Sure, Fields was critically acclaimed and the temperament of the band is intact, but the album never really achieved the same emotional fullness or boldness of Line Of Fire. Much like the song asks, it seems Junip has finally stopped asking what might happen if they settled down long enough to write and record an entire album — something they have always wanted to do but never had time.

The long history of Junip tied together by short sprints. 

Given González has a successful solo career, it's easy to forget that he and Araya have been playing together since they were 14. Junip would come later, however, after they met Winterkorn almost 20 years ago and started talking about what they might play if they weren't going play hardcore. So they set their sights on 60s and 70s, with nylon strings and a Moog.

What they didn't have was time. Although the band was somewhat formed before 2000, they would never produce anything until much later. In 2005, they released an EP instead. And even since then, although Junip has become a priority from time to time, putting out material has been sporadic. Even with the release of Fields, some of it seemed half-baked despite all the praise.

If the upcoming album is anything like the single, this won't be the case. As much as Fields found the right sound, it took another three years for the trio find their soul. Line of Fire is solid, a true stunner.

Line Of Fire By Junip Soars With 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For even someone who is more inclined to seek out hardcore over Swedish folk kraut like me, there is every reason to give Line Of Fire a listen. From start to finish, the single delivers on the psychic soul, finding that exceptional balance between reflecting on how short it all was while finding peace at the end of it.

Line Of Fire was originally released as a single on iTunes (no B-side). You can also download Line of Fire from Amazon. The album will be out in April, which Junip will follow up with a tightly packed tour in May. The early tour dates are currently posted on Facebook. Your life. Your call.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Spring Skirts With A Carnival Twist

A-line dress
With springtime fashion right around the corner, many designers have put out some fashionable designs. But the one that some women are telling me to watch is almost surprising — the colors are bright, the patterns vibrant and the style somewhat redesigned retro.

Of course, not all of them are bright and indie pop cheery. There are a couple of designs that retain a more mature and muted look from the new Ferris Wheel line from Shabby Apple. And even if none of those seem to fit, the always interesting designer has plenty of darker lines.

When life feels bright, there's always Ferris Wheel. 

Much of the allure of these spring-to-summer skirts that add some West Coast spark is the emphasis on high waists that carry a classic glamour. The general idea is to bring up the waist and add some length to the legs, making some women look slimmer and taller all around.

What made the line really stand out are the colors. Most of them are bright and festive, creating a carnival-like feel much like the name of the line suggests. The Ferris Wheel line adequately captures the shoot location — these are boardwalk and amusement park designs that are casual and eye catching. The hero of the line‚ the Calliope skirt, makes the right the statement.

dirndl skirt
The Calliope skirt (above), as it is called, takes a standard A-line cut and then dresses it up with a tie sash, negating the need for a belt and adding a festive, exotic feel to the look. It's a little bit retro feminine, decorated with a multi-colored lemon print.

This isn't the only print that defines a line of skirts that brought in the waist before adding some flair around the hips. Some of the other colors are maybe a bit more sensible in solids or small checkers. With a little creativity, accessories could make the skirts look a little tougher too.
sun dress
Not everything about the new Shabby Apple line is about free-flowing skirts. The theme goes beyond a single cut to include dresses that feature a fitted bodice with full dirndl skirt or fitted dresses with trumpet skirts. The latter is one of my favorites, a throwback with a sophisticated disposition instead of so sunny.

The material for the style called Ocean Plunge is a bit different too. It's 100 percent rayon while the skirts are all cotton. The rayon likely gives it some sheen and helps the dress fit to the body. And it's easy to tell that the style was inspired more by the 40s as opposed to the 50s like the skirt. (Ferris Wheel also includes some blouses that fit nicely with Capri or skinny pants, reaching for the 1960s as well.)

A little more about Shabby Apple. 

This isn't the first time that Shabby Apple has caught some attention, mostly because the styles tend to find balance between femininity and feminism. Some people might find this an odd mix, but it really isn't once you learn a little more about co-founder Athelia 'CK' Woolley.

She was never a one-dimensional woman, but rather someone who had an interest in everything from dance and art history to neuroscience. Unfortunately, her decision to study dance was cut short as health problems forced her to return home right out of graduate school.

Fortunately, even after being diagnosed with Addison's disease and learning she would never dance again, her return home eventually reunited her with long-time friend Emily McCormick. She too was looking for an alternative career, maybe a business. After reading an incredibly simple book on fashion design and placing a fabric order, the two suddenly had a business.

The Ferris Wheel Line By Shabby Apple Shines 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

According to Woolley, she originally turned toward making a more vintage look because she had some curves and always felt older cuts fit her better. Today, a few years since the start of the business, Shabby Apple has become synonymous with modernized versions of these timeless vintage cuts.

You can find the complete Ferris Wheel collection at Shabby Apple. Materials and prices vary, with this collection being among the most modestly priced. The collection ranges from $38 tops to $98 dresses. The skirts themselves are a steal at only $55. The skirts, but not every design, includes a slip.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nico Vega Finds Some Fun And Fury

Nico Vega
Aja Volkman has been one of my favorite female rock vocalists ever since I was introduced to Nico Vega in Los Angeles a few years ago. Her vocals are remarkably versatile. She can turn up some natural huskiness and hammer home rockers or she can soften it all up for more indie pop numbers that have solidly carved out the band's niche in alternative rock.

Her bandmates have considerable talent too; Rich Koehler since the beginning in 2005, Dan Epand on drums for the last six years, and Jamila Weaver, who joined the trio as bassist just last year and added another dimension to the band's alternative sound.

There is a foursome of fury on Nico Vega's new EP. 

Since its earliest beginnings, Nico Vega has always been known as a hard-working band that earned attention after self-releasing songs and videos to gain label interest and fan exposure. They were even one of the first bands to try MySpace Records.

Nowadays, they have settled into a more traditional arrangement; a fresh relationship with Five Seven Music since last year. The match seems on par with everything fans have expected for some time now because there is still plenty to talk about inside their six-pack EP, Fury Oh Fury.

Although the title track is easily the favorite based on individual download sales, the relaxed and sometimes poetic rocker is only a sliver of what makes the EP a standout. It's a solid song with maybe some foreshadowing of what might be yet to come as Nico Vega tours with Imagine Dragons. (Volkman is married and has a daughter with frontman Dan Reynolds.)

The real power picks up on the second track, with Volkman belting out a revamp of a 2006 track that originally appeared on their album Chooseyourwordspoorly. Interest in the track was revived after the song was selected for a Bioshock Infinite trailer this year. And the revamp sounds as fresh as ever.

The Beast has always been a great chant-along song, with Volkman wailing with her full fury. This song is one of the reasons I started paying attention to the band. It might be a simple rocker, but Nico Vega has always been able to power it up as a primal, near classic rocker.

By track three, the band eases up on the rocker angst and lightens the mood. Easier is light years lighter than the opening track — so much so that it sounds a like a different band to anyone who has never heard them before. The better, lighter track sticks closer to their alternative rock influences.

Lightening is a lyrical love song of sorts, but carries a simple, solid chord structure donated by Justin Warfield of She Wants Revenge. While Nico Vega has always been about a three-way collaboration, Volkman said bringing in others form from time to time pushes them in different directions.

Not for anything, expect the song to progressively get rougher while on tour. After seeing the Lightening video, I couldn't help but to get the sense that the band feels a bit constricted with it — making it a prime target for embellishment. Volkman still insists she's not so into writing love songs (although she did write this one week before her wedding).

The two remaining tracks include the oddly cast We Are The Art and atmospheric Lead To Light. Neither really fits with anything that comes before on the album, which is part of what makes the EP so interesting. As much as it was written to reintroduce the band and make a personal statement that they are still in the game, Nico Vega has also made it clear that they'll do almost anything on their next album.

Nico Vega Skirts A Fury Oh Fury EP With 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Personally, I think the EP is brilliant with only a few weak spots to get the band up and running again. And who really knows what will happen as they tour around this year and see for themselves what people respond to. That said, I don't see this EP becoming a favorite among other fans, only because it is diverse enough that relatively few people will connect with all six tracks.

On the flipside, almost anyone can find one or two things on the EP to like, whether that might be indie pop, alternative, or something closer to classic rock. You can download Fury Oh Fury from iTunes or grab some of the Fury Oh Fury EP tracks from Amazon. Check out their tour dates on Facebook.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn Is Twisted

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Every year without fail, Nick and Amy Dunne celebrate their wedding anniversary with an interesting romantic twist. Presents are wrapped. Reservations are made. And Amy, clever as she can be, creates a scavenger hunt that gives a nod to each and every highlight they experienced during the last twelve months — a trail of poems and places where the couple can remember each special rendezvous.

It's sweet and somewhat corny, but the couple mostly enjoy it. They might even enjoy it more if Amy didn't make the clues so obscure. There were plenty of times in their past that Nick couldn't guess what might have been deemed important that year, putting their entire evening in jeopardy, the game spoiled.

This year, however, would be different. Nick wouldn't be the one to spoil the game because on the warm summer morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, he received a curious phone call from his neighbor. The front door of his house is open and the always indoor cat is wandering around outside.

Amy Dunne has disappeared on the morning of their anniversary. 

None of it really sinks in until Nick surveys the mess in the front room where the struggle had ensued. And then he does what any panicked husband might do. He immediately calls the area police, reporting the unthinkable — his wife might have been abducted. Correction. His famous wife has been abducted.

Amy is famous because her parents, two child psychologists, wrote an entire educational and semi-fictionalized series based on their only daughter's experiences. Then, in attempting to provide young women moral and ethical guidance, contrasted any number of distinctions between Amy's perfect choices and the less-than perfect choices of her peers.

Suffice to say, the insistent curiosity to transform a missing woman's case into entertainment is immediately heightened. And, much like any mysteries covered by the media, the husband survives only a day or two before being cast as an equally likely or perhaps primary suspect. In Nick's case, this holds especially true as he is caught either shell-shocked or smiling at the worst possible times.

The profile of a sociopath is picked carefully clean. 

As their two stories unfold, Nick in the present and facing increased scrutiny, and Amy's a few month's prior via her secret diary, a different kind of story starts to emerge — a troubling tale about how two New York writers landed in North Carthage, Missouri, after the magazine market started to implode and Amy's parents had to raid their daughter's trust fund after riding their book series too hard for too long.

While the couple might have weathered another a year in New York, they are disappointed to discover that the home Amy's parents presented them with was never purchased. It was another mortgage they could no longer pay. This reason, in addition to the condition of Nick's ailing parents, convinced him to head back home to Missouri, with Amy somewhat grudgingly along for the ride.

Three things become especially apparent as author Gillian Flynn peels back each increasingly tense layer. The Dunnes didn't really have the storybook relationship that most people thought they had. The only person left that Nick can really count on is his twin sister Margo. And the profile of a sociopath can be difficult to spot when they have the wherewithal to bury their dark hearts under a mask of desirability.

A couple graphs about author Gillian Flynn.

Gillian Flynn
Born to two community college professors in Kansas City, Missouri, Gillian Flynn was exposed to her parents' favorite subjects early — literature and film. Later, she would transition her early start into an English and journalism degree from the University of Kansas. It was at Northwestern University, where she earned her master's degree, that she decided against hard journalism.

Instead, she headed to New York City and landed a job with Entertainment Weekly as a critic. But despite her flair for film and television reviews, there was always something else lurking behind the scenes. Flynn was working on the novel Sharp Objects. Gone Girl is her third outlandish success.

Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn Twists At 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Most people who have piled on the decision to hate Girl Gone do it for the ending. It borders on inexplicable and comes across as nearly impossible. There are plenty of trappings tucked inside this psychological thriller but they don't make this story any less creepy or entertaining.

Capitalizing on the cultural fascination with missing persons crime scenes (enough to transform them into the closest thing to a television series), Flynn weaves a mesmerizing tale that makes two characters completely believable and unbelievable in the choices they make to sabotage what would have otherwise been a win-win marriage. That makes it work. Just know you might not like the ending.

Gone Girl: A Novel is available from Amazon or you can download it to iBooks. Barnes & Noble also carries the third novel by Gillian Flynn. You can find the audiobook on iTunes. It's delightfully and darkly done with two narrators, Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne. Their voices will keep you up at night.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Wet Nuns Pound Out An EP With Teeth

Wet Nuns
It was somewhere on the wilder side of Sheffield in South Yorkshire that singer-guitarist Rob Graham and drummer Alexis Gotts started to wonder whether a two-piece band could ever be loud enough. So the blues punk duo added a some more sludge metal decibels instead of a bass to find out a few years ago.

A few stiff and cheap drinks likely helped them out too, as the lively and often sarcastic English rockers seldom give up straight answers in interviews.The band name, they say, wasn't really picked. Instead, they secretly started 40 different music projects with stupid names like Orange Crockery and Wet Nuns, but the latter was the only one ever heard.

Turns out the story isn't far from the truth. They never really had a plan. They just picked Wet Nuns off a list of what they say were equally stupid names. And they never thought anyone would ever notice, especially in the smaller, tight-knit music scene of Sheffield.

Wet Nuns bangs out four furious tracks on Broken Teeth. 

A short time later, especially last year, people did more than notice. The band was being asked to open larger and larger shows, opening for acts as diverse as Broken Hands and Blood Red Shoes. And that, they say, is how they've evolved to make music today. 

Wet Nuns is largely about making music like the bands they like. But because the bands they like are such an eclectic mix, everything they make sounds louder, deeper, and harder than anyone who bookends them. It's even one of the reasons that they've started to take off. They reach a broader audience despite never being commercial. 

The lead-off song underscores that point. Broken Teeth is a powerful sludge metal track with the kind of teeth someone might expect from a steel town. The track truly showcases their talent, settling into a well worn groove. 

While the middle brings down some crash and thunder, the lyrics offer up little more than the opening line "I live my life with a taste of blood in my mouth." It also hints at the essence of the EP, which features two early tunes and two new tracks that capture their progression. 

All The Young Girls, which clocks in at under two minutes, is all about the guitar. It speeds along with confidence, pulling the percussion along for the ride. The song is one of the earliest releases, a little more stripped down when compared to the fullness they challenge themselves to produce as a duo today. 

The other song that has existed before is the closing track, Laura. It picks up some of their earlier sludge work and features growling vocals that have become smoother and more clear over time. The lyrics presumably fuse two great loves together — a girl and a guitar. 

The newer track, Feast, offers up something else. It is two minutes of blues meets metal and the result is a gritty mess of Americana hard rock that gives the band plenty of room to embellish during live performances. Either Gotts or Graham could make Feast into a staple for drawn out solo performances. Otherwise, it is the simplest of the four beasts they carved out for the EP. 

While I would have appreciated the band including last year's standout single, Heavens Below, to be included a bonus track on the EP, Wet Nuns is still proving itself to be deserving of last year's accolades. Sometimes bands don't have to be planned. They just need a couple of musicians to play.

Broken Teeth Prove Wet Nuns Chops At 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

As the Wet Nuns have gained additional traction as a band on both sides of the pond, it's clear they don't intend to let it go to their heads. They remain unpretentious, just hoping to get a few more songs under their belts and produce an album. With a little more luck, it will happen sometime this year. 

In the meantime, the four-track EP Broken Teeth can be downloaded on iTunes. You can also find the Broken Teeth EP on Amazon. Keep up with their tour dates on Facebook, including plans to visit the United States sometime this year and their very own "Detestival" in March.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Vintage Jukebox Recast For Digital

1946 Wurlitzer 1015
Although it's the 1953 Seeburg M100C Jukebox that turns 60 years old this year, the 1946 Wurlitzer 1015 predecessor is what most people associate with rock and roll. The jukebox — sometimes called the "bubbler"— has become as iconic as the 1940-50s soda and malt shops that once housed them.

More than 56,000 "bubblers" were sold in their first two years alone, briefly transforming the 100-year-old instrument manufacturer into the leading jukebox brand (until Seeburg eventually unseated it in the mid 50s). The bubbler might have held the lead longer, but Seeburg's 100-play offered more choice than the 24-play original.

Today, the Wurlitzer-inspired design doesn't have any technological limitations. The modern jukebox can hold as many songs as any smartphone because the USB connection opens up digital libraries. And if you don't have a digital library? The jukebox plays CDs or tunes in FM stations.

The Electrohome Kinsman is a reasonably faithful reproduction. 

Although not perfect, the full-sized 44-inch tall, 75-pound recreation does comes close to the original. Redesigned by Electrohome, a 100-year-old Canadian company originally known for portable phonographs and old wooden console television sets, many of the most iconic elements remain intact such as chrome accents (with volume controls) and neon lighting despite everything being modern.

Electrohome Kinsman
The neon lighting, for example, is upgraded. A separate remote provides for touch pad control over the lighting while the primary remote controls the jukebox. The lights can also be set to fade, change colors or strobe. Both remotes can be stored on magnetic panels.

Smart phones and tablets connect easily enough to both a USB charging port and AUX input, with most connections hidden behind a drop-down selection panel. The only connection that doesn't is a front facing earphone jack. (Although I don't see many people ever using that jack.) The built-in 40W speakers carry a surprisingly warm sound, well suited to rock and roll.

Another feature that doesn't get mentioned enough can be found on the back panel. For anyone who likes the look but wants an even bigger sound, the jukebox does have external speaker outputs hidden in back. Likewise, the jukebox has several surprise functions.

Besides playing music, this jukebox was designed to allow recording MP3s and SD/USB from the CD or AUX input. And while I didn't have a chance to try it out, it seemed good enough to get the job done. The FM radio controls can also act as an equalizer, with five preset sounds, namely classical, jazz, rock, pop, and flat.

Hands down, it's a splendid blending of everything new and everything old. It's also reasonably priced overall, a fraction of the cost it would take to purchase a custom-built reproduction or vintage restoration jukebox. In terms of the look and sound, it is the real deal for the modern listener.

Of course, if the price point still seems like a steep investment, there are other options. Desktop versions cost significantly less and have a much smaller footprint. They are more cute than functional but I found one that might measure up.

The Crosley iJuke is cuter than the classic floor model.

The trick here is to find the right one because Crosley produced several renditions of the scaled back iconic design. The best of them, called the Crosley iJuke Premier, has a paprika wood finish and an iPod dock set on dock in the front. It also includes an auxiliary input to work with other MP3 players and outputs for external speakers for better sound quality.

The external speaker output was a good idea as other editions of the iJuke seemed to struggle with sound quality. Then again, the iJuke was never designed to replace a Bose or comparable system. It was made for the vintage aesthetic, one for the iPod (and some iPhones) and one with a front mounting CD.

Overall, Crosley does a fine job with its vintage-inspired electronics. Founder Powel Crosley himself was an inventor who always thought two or three steps ahead of everyone else. After making an impossibly inexpensive radio, he re-imagined everything from turntables to automobiles, including one that got 50 miles to the gallon in 1939.

The Electrohome Kinsman Punches 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The Electrohome Kinsman is one of the best sounding, smartly designed and modernized jukeboxes on the market. Given that most working Wurlitzer originals and custom replicas start at around $12,000, Electrohome has done a fine job capturing the spirit of the original.

You can find an Electrohome Kinsman Jukebox at Amazon for around $1,500. If you are willing to preorder the Electrohome Kinsman Jukebox from ShopTronics, the manufacturer offers an extended warranty option. The Crosley iJuke Premier can also be found on Amazon (as well as the other models mentioned).

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Virginmarys Rock The King Of Conflict

We stumbled into the Virginmarys three years and two EPs ago. The trio from Macclesfield, United Kingdom, were great and getting better. They still are, with two distinctions.

People have actually heard of them. They have a complete album in circulation. All their hard work on the road, where they write much of their music, has continually paid off. With every new track, there is always something new to discover about the band. 

Usually it comes from what they choose to to infuse into their music. Sometimes it is grunge, with all its wicked sparseness. Sometimes it is the honesty of British rock celebrated in the 1970s. And sometimes it is the lively spikiness of punk, a little rougher than anyone expected from such a seasoned rock band.

The Virginmarys are a King Of Conflict. 

Maybe that is why the aptly titled release King Of Conflict, the sophomore album that eclipses their self-titled album and gives them back some of their best material — both new and reinvented from previous EPs. There is something renewed and reinforced this time around and rockers will love it. 

Even the fiery lead track, Dead Man's Shoes, which pays homage to unpretentious stylings of straight-up rock as only the blues-fed Ally Dickaty can play it, packs an old school style with some modern wrappings, which comes across loud in clear with every guitar solo.

What makes the recent successes of Dickaty and bandmates Matt Rose (bass, vocals) and Danny Dolan (drums) even more satiable is how often they've come close before. There have been plenty of people singing their praises over the past three years and now all of it seems to be paying off.

Part of me believed two years ago, and maybe more so today, that the real uptick in interest had to do with the band breaking away from vintage rock exclusively and picking up more energy that plays well to Dickaty's natural roughness. It's the very reason Just A Ride scored so highly when it was first released as the lead off for their EP in 2011. 

On the album, Just A Ride feels only slightly more smoothed out than the earlier rendition but with no less bite. It fits perfectly behind the ultimately raw rocker Portrait Of Red, where Dickaty exchanges  smooth vintage rock and punk roughness in big, heavy vocal heaves and blasts of climatic guitar, bass, and drums. 

Expect more power and ample carelessness when they play live. Sometimes they play a song like Bang, Bang, Bang with the swagger of vintage rock. Other times Dickaty can pick it up as a stunning acoustical. Or, if the band is feeling especially aggressive, it could sound like this live version.

It's precisely this level of versatility and veracity that makes the Virginmarys unpredictable and enjoyable. Even on the album, King Of Conflict delivers three of its 15 tracks as stripped down versions, including Bang, Bang, Bang and Just A Ride. Stripped down in this case generally means a quieter demo-like acoustical version with only some backing melody to give some additional structure.

Those three tracks are worth a listen, especially if you are ready for something closer to a ballad after listening to 12 brilliantly played power songs. With the exception of Out Of Mind, the album rocks hard from start to finish, pushing Virginmarys harder than they've ever pushed themselves before. When you listen to the album, give the less played Ends Don't Mend, My Little Girl, and Lost Weekend a shot.

Virginmarys Nail King Of Conflict To 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There is no question about it. King Of Conflict is the album we wanted to hear immediately following Just A Ride in 2011. King Of Conflict bridges elements of every rock and roll genre (including punk and metal) and somehow manages to tame some carefully crafted but always ferocious gold. 

King of Conflict [+digital booklet] by the Virginmarys can be found on Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes or order the CD from Barnes & Noble. The band is currently on tour in the United Kingdom with plans to land in the United States this May. Check out the tour schedule on Facebook.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Brooklyn Castle Checkmates Education

Intermediate School 318 (I.S. 318) is a junior high school in Brooklyn, New York, that has an amazing story to tell. Despite consisting of a student population that is below the poverty line, the school has won 30 national chess tournaments, more than any other junior high school in the nation.

Their story started several years ago when a small group of children started bringing in their chess boards after school to play. The late principal Fortunato Rubino decided it would be a great experience for the students to travel to a different state and attend a chess tournament. They surprised everyone. They won.

They continued to win for more than a decade. And they continue to win today. Last year, the junior high school became the first to win the High School National Champions and the win underscores what then 12-year-old student Alexis said about the game.

"Chess doesn't matter how how old you are, how young you are, or where you come from," he said. "It only matters how much work you put into and how many hours you study it."

But mastering the game isn't the end of their dreams. Many of the students look to chess as an opportunity to advance, earn scholarships, and have a better quality of life then their parents.

For most of the 85 students who are part of the I.S. 318 chess team, many of their dreams are within reach. One of them, Justus Williams, recently became the youngest ever African-American to become a "National Master." But even for the students at I.S. 318 who aren't on the chess team, the successes of their peers inspire them to study harder, work harder, and reach for their dreams.

Chess isn't the only after-school programs afforded to the students of I.S. 318. The school has built several such programs that engage kids after school, ranging from community service to music. They also have a successful baseball team.

The movie itself is harrowing because it chronicles the challenge that the school faced as New York, like many states and school districts across the nation, cut budgets that impact extracurricular programs, including chess. The school and students had to raise money to keep the program open and the dreams of many students alive.

The importance of after-school programs anywhere and everywhere.

As the film producers point out, organized after-school programs can make a tremendous difference in the opportunities for children. On the film's website, they cite several studies that reveal children who do not participate in after-school programs are three times more likely to engage in at-risk activities, twice as likely to skip school, and more likely to participate in criminal activities.

Even more important, after-school programs do more than reduce risky behavior. Students engaged in formal school programs (like chess or music or sports) are more likely to have higher test scores, graduate, and attend college. The reasons are three-fold. Students are engaged, enthusiastic, and develop the belief that they can succeed regardless of any socio-economic limitations.

In countries like the United States, as many as 15 million students (26 percent) are on their own after school. More than a million of these students are in kindergarten through fifth grade. But the challenge for those who become the highest risk students is that either there are no after-school programs, the programs are too broad and not focused enough, or parents are unaware of program availability.

Even more challenging, schools around the country continue to be plagued with budget cuts that jeopardize even the most successful programs like I.S. 318 as after-school programs are often first to be cut. And unlike I.S. 318, some school districts and schools are unwilling to put forth private fundraising efforts to save such programs or reallocate funds from non-vital administrative positions.

The I.S. 318 Story Is A Liquid Hip Good Will Pick. 

At least once a month, Liquid Hip highlights good will efforts undertaken by people with big hearts. We don't score them. That belongs to you.

We chose Brooklyn Castle because the story is an inspiring one that counters mistaken stereotypes.  Starting out in a family below the poverty line does not have to limit a student's potential for a better life. The students of I.S. 318 learn this through chess. You can see their story, Brooklyn Castle, on iTunes or you can order the film from Amazon. You can also visit this amazing school in Brooklyn.

There are dozens of paths that someone can take after watching Brooklyn Castle. You can find ways to help I.S. 318 continue its program or inspire other children through chess by learning from books like Thinking with Chess: Teaching Children (Ages 5-14) from Amazon. The producers of the film have also provided a start-up guide for after-school programs. While the guide doesn't address management, funding, and evaluation, it does provide a quick overview showing that it is possible.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Suppliers Are A Band To Watch

Ashtyn Beaudette
If there is one band that has been sorely under covered in recent months, it's the Calgary-based four piece led by the smoky and sometimes ferocious rock vocalist Ashtyn Beaudette. But that's all right. Expect things for the band to progress rapidly this year.

The Suppliers, who released a self-titled LP a few months ago (about a month before their website launched), have already slipped into the studio to start on a second album. Plans are also being made to tour again in March. They have committed to several dozen shows at home in Calgary.

The Suppliers are a new band out of Calgary.

Although the band had been working on an album for the better part of two years while playing plenty of local gigs in Calgary, their initial break came last year after competing in a radio station contest. The competition gave them additional exposure before they won an opening spot at the half-day outdoor X-Fest in Calgary, playing ahead of bands like The Joy Formidable, Silversun Pickups, and Linkin Park.

On the heels of the unexpected win, The Suppliers put out their self-released, self-titled album a few weeks later. The 13-track album, produced by band members Kirill Telichev (guitar) and Sean Friend (drums), is mostly a straight up heavy rock album with some punk underpinnings and blues textures. The latter are largely thanks to Beaudette's voice and Robito Cortez's distinctive bass.

The breakout song, Simple Man, is a pulse-quickening lure, catch and release number as Beaudette belts out her lyrics with a seductive huskiness reminiscent of Sarah "Sin" Blackwood (Creepshow). Her bandmates gallop along in time with her, creating a dirty back alley rocker that draws people in and pushes them away at the same time.

Not everything on the album is as quick paced or riveting as Simple Man, but there are several standouts as the album progresses. The best of them rely on the band hitting the instruments full force, powering through the songs as Beaudette draws upon her naturally aggressive attitude.

In almost every instant, it's her angst that becomes both the hook and the band's permission to play hard. Inside The Machine is good example. It's a big and pulsating rock number that eventually runs away with itself. As it does, the band finds more breathing room than on any of their more restrained compositions.

Rhyme Or Reason is memorable for much the same rationale. When Beaudette boils over with all the smoke and soul that she is capable of delivering, it's hard to ignore her near voodoo-infused vocals. Likewise, Your Time Has Passed plays up the guitars and percussion as she dominates the end of a relationship with a straightforward scolding. The track immediately following, (Going) Down, is too smooth for its own good vocally but the instrumental runs make up for it.

The Suppliers
Underrated tracks are Airplane and Wrong With Me. While they are not nearly as strong as the aforementioned tracks, both prove that The Suppliers have some diversity up their sleeves. What they don't do as well, it seems, is anything overly commercial or mainstream. Skip songs like Colours, In My Hands, and Strangest Places. None of them fully realize the band's potential, with the exception of a few glimmers of savagery (like the endings of Let Me Go and Strangest Places) that are too few and far between.

Overall, it's pretty clear that The Suppliers are still trying to find themselves as a band, perhaps because Telichev and Beaudette played together prior to 2010 and Cortez and Friend have known each other since they were 11. One early interview even suggests Beaudette and Cortez didn't hit it off.

The Suppliers Self-Titled Album Sees Smart Spots At 5.1 On The Liquid Hip Scale. 

Outside of earning more exposure outside of Calgary, The Suppliers have real potential as long they steer clear of those occasional overtly polished pop numbers. While that can work for some bands, this one seems to have an affinity for darkly aggressive or wounded and brooding. A few songs with deeper lyrics would be welcome too, but Beaudette is clearly capable of making a simple song sound strong too.

The self-titled debut by The Suppliers is available on iTunes. You can also find Simple Man on Amazon. You can also keep up with the The Suppliers on Facebook.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Robin Burcell Ticks Off The Black List

I tend to pass on character-based thriller series because many authors leave you high and dry, wondering about who is who because you haven't started with book one. That's not the case with The Black List by Robin Burcell.

Yes, The Black List is part of her Sydney Fitzpatrick series. Previous books in the series include The Bone Chamber and The Face of a Killer. I haven't read either, but found the third installment solid.

The Black List ticks off mystery, suspense, thriller, action, and adventure.

You don't have to be familiar with heroine Fitzpatrick to appreciate The Black List. The action starts out with a deceptively simple hook. Fitzpatrick’s sometime partner, FBI Special Agent Tony Carrillo, enlists her help for a personal assignment.

His soon-to-be ex-wife fears for the safety of Trip, her new boyfriend. Trip is nothing special. He's an accountant of admittedly limited skills, but he started noticing discrepancies in the books at the charitable organization where he was recently hired.

The charity is one of several that helps to resettle refugees from third world nations. When Trip brings it to the attention of a colleague in England, he starts receiving threats. So do all the people around him.

At the same time, there is a second plot that isn't personal. The FBI is attempting to track the whereabouts of Somali terrorist Yusuf Abasi. He is believed to have somehow snuck across the U.S. border and nobody knows where he is. What they do know that Abasi will eventually cause large scale chaos and mass destruction unless he is caught.

The simplest explanations do not always add up. 

As Fitzpatrick investigates the refugee charity, she discovers that things are deeper and much more far-reaching. It seems that the organization is linked to issues that jeopardize national security. But there are also abuses at refugee camps, and trace money from the U.S. government to the charitable organization and from the charity into the wrong hands. The problem is compounded because it is also a pet project backed by a very powerful and suspicious U.S. senator.

As an international thriller, the action plays out in the U.S., England and Africa with daring rescues, covert operations, and several shocking murders. All the while, readers are left asking whether there is a connection to refugee organizations and terrorists while discovering that Abasi is packing a Cesium 137 dirty bomb in the vicinity of the White House.

This is a big, sprawling suspenseful thriller with plenty of twists. It's also obvious much of it is fueled by the author's own concerns about national security and threats of terrorism on American soil. It's this passion for the subject that helps her expose holes in the illusion of safety. She makes it scary.

About a surprisingly experienced author. 

It also wouldn't be too surprising to learn that Fitzpatrick could well be Burcell’s alter ego. Sure, Fitzpatrick is free to travel the world on the FBI’s dime while Burcell has responsibilities that keep her grounded with family, but it is clear that Burcell imparts Fitzpatrick with some of her own expertise, which includes in-demand skills as a forensic artist.

The reason Burcell knows her subject so well is because she is also a criminal investigator in Sacramento County, Calif., former police officer, hostage negotiator, and detective. She has even worked undercover as a housewife, high school student, and hooker. The FBI-trained Burcell is also an expert in forensic art and fingerprints.

The Black List By Robin Burcell Uncovers 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

As the old saying goes, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. So where Burcell excels as a sharp writer is her ability to expound on her experiences but guide them toward believable conclusions. She also knows how to engage people with nicely complex characters and a penchant for the unexpected.

The Black List by Robin Burcell is available at Amazon and the paperback can be ordered from Barnes & Noble. The Black List can also be downloaded for iBooks for $1 less, making it an exceptionally affordable read. You can learn more about Burcell on her website or via Twitter.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Bronx Take IV From Los Angeles

The Bronx has always added some swagger to its punk, landing the Los Angeles band somewhere between rock and hardcore. Their latest effort is an exception. IV is clearly more rock than punk.

It's somewhat expected. After Matt Caughthran and company spent five years nurturing the band's Latin-infused and folky alter ego, Mariachi El Bronx, they've lost some early edge but not their heart.

Truth be told, it might have happened without a 5-year album break anyway. Listening to III and IV creates the immediate impression that this would have been the band's progression. They were already leaning toward rock in 2008 and the new release just completes the journey in the best possible way.

The Bronx lays down a rock revival with some punk tendencies. 

The band even seems more comfortable with the new distinction. A hard rock band with punk leanings is much more brash than a softening polar opposite. In fact, even as the album eschews most of the band's punk influences in favor of riff-based hard rock, the little they do keep is where it all counts.

On tracks like Ribcage, the best song on the album, The Bronx delivers everything fast and frantic that is much more indicative of their punk beginnings while still sounding fresh. It gives their new rock sound an overall sharpness, which is what many mainstream rock bands lack. But not The Bronx. They still know how to balance out their music perfectly.

Other tracks that matter, like Too Many Devils and Torches, simultaneously prove how versatile The Bronx can be. While Too Many Devils lays down a driving tempo, supported by big riffs and frenzied percussion against Caughthran's persistent wail, Torches drops a gear to deliver a quieter, lyrical melody framed by powerfully climatic choruses. They are impossibly different, but each distinctively good.

Between those two tracks, Pilot Light showcases Joby J. Ford and Ken Horne with a standout classic rock track, with only Caughthran's gritty scream to keep it from sounding like an overtly simple rock staple. Youth Wasted and Along For The Ride are better suited to that mainstream stereotype.

In those cases, Caughthran smoothly delivers straightforward anthem rockers that sound fine on the first pass but forgettable after several. Both are solid and might even be strong on someone else's album. But knowing The Bronx is better on the bottom half makes them (and maybe the first four) an exercise in patience. You have to wait for the album that is infinitely better from track five forward.

Even the power lament Life Less Ordinary is more interesting than any of their straight-up rock offerings. The track becomes a standout in its spareness while also carrying the strongest confessional lyrics on the entire album. It gives Caughthran something to croon about before an amazingly solid closing track.

Why the band broke from punk beyond playing live shows. 

When members Caughthran, Ford, Horne, Jorma Vik, and Brad Magers sit down to make an album nowadays, they are always looking for magic to help make it happen. Caughthran has often said that their albums tend to make themselves, taking on a life of their own after a couple of tracks.

That didn't happen after the band produced their third record (or maybe during it). They hit a wall. So rather than becoming an aging punk band that becomes progressively softer and uninspired, they took a semi-hiatus with an alter ego band (while still playing punk shows too).

IV was the first time in five years that the band felt ready to come back, but this time as a rock band with a punk edge. Interestingly enough, the band wouldn't even mind if their dueling creative pursuits would merge, but they still haven't figured out how to make that happen. The closest they've ever come is Life Less Ordinary, which could have been written as a Mariachi El Bronx song.

IV by The Bronx Riles Up Rock At 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Overall, IV from The Bronx is a solid rock revival for the band. There is no question it's strong enough to bring back some of their rock prominence. Right now, the band is playing sold out shows in the United Kingdom with plans to head to Australia in April. The band is also touring Mariachi El Bronx with a short run stateside in March.

Meanwhile, The Bronx IV is on iTunes or the album can be found on Amazon. You can also pick up The Bronx IV on Barnes & Noble. Ribcage, by the way, can be downloaded for a limited time free from the band's website. For show listings, check out their Facebook page.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Battle Of Gettysburg Hits 150 Years

Coming from the West Coast, I've learned that spacious is a word best reserved for older hotels back East. The Gettysburg Hotel is one of those, reasonably comfortable with an aging coziness. It was built in 1890, but the owners prefer to point to the 1797 establishment of the tavern it replaced.

Still, the tavern and the hotel that replaced it really have seen history, most notably after retired sheriff William McClellan bought it in 1809. It was this tavern named the Indian Queen and then renamed the McClellan House, that witnessed Union and Confederate troops swarm the town and then President Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address across the street at the Wills House a few months later.

Much later, the hotel would also accommodate another President. When President Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in Gettysburg, he used the hotel as a temporary White House. He and his wife were also among the last to stay before it closed down for almost three decades.

The Gettysburg Hotel is among the historic stops in Gettysburg.

Gettysburg Hotel
When the Gettysburg Hotel reopened, it was owned by Best Western, which tried to strike a balance between catering to modern travelers and maintaining some historic relevance. It falls somewhere in the middle, where it mostly wins with Centuries on the Square and McClellan's Tavern.

Centuries on the Square is somewhat reminiscent of the past for casual fine dining. The tavern is historic too, but not because of its namesake. The Van Tromp Bar was imported from England, which means authentic is more likely at Gettysburg College's Majestic Theater.

This theater originally opened its doors as the largest vaudeville and silent movie theater in south central Pennsylvania, as an annex to the Gettysburg Hotel. It has even been the unlikely site of several world premieres, including Federico Felini's Satyricon in 1970 and Ted Turner's Gettysburg in 1993.

Although restored 10 years ago to host live performances and feature films, the latter was at risk when Hollywood notified theaters, including independents, that everything would be converted to digital. Fortunately for this theater, a major fundraiser saved it.

Movies and theaters in Downtown Gettysburg aren't the only draw. Most people visit because the summer of 1863 transformed Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, forever. Over the course of three days, July 1-3, the Battle Of Gettysburg became the largest battle of the American Civil War and a major turning point as it marked the end of Gen. Robert E. Lee's advance into the North.

Today, Americans still look on the expansive memorial in remembrance and with reverence. The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties (dead, wounded, and missing), two to three times the amount of casualties suffered by Allied and German troops on the first day of D-Day during World War II. And this year marks an especially unique historic significance.

The 150th Anniversary Of The Battle Of Gettysburg. 

Civil War
Every year, re-enactments are held in July, commemorating the 150th anniversary of this historic battle. This year, between July 4-7, re-enactors from across the nation and around the world are gathering to create the largest such events ever staged.

The Gettysburg Anniversary Committee is expecting thousands more than the 13,000 who attended the 145th anniversary. These men and women will reenact several days of historic encampments and battles on 1,000 acres of farmland. Preparations began five years ago.

While the climax of the 150th anniversary runs from June 28 to July 7, Gettysburg celebrates its historic significance throughout the year. Every weekend from April to October, various places host living history encampments such the American Civil War Museum, General Lee's Headquarters, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

Along with these historic sites, Gettysburg has several additions planned to open this year and through 2015, such as the completion of the $15 million Seminary Ridge Museum renovation (complete July1). There are many other expansions planned as well, as Gettysburg will also highlight Lincoln’s famous speech during the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in November.

Gettysburg Hits A Historic Milestone At 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although my last visit to Gettysburg was five years ago, I can't think of a better place to pick on President Lincoln's birthday as Gettysburg readies for its 150th anniversary. While accommodations are likely to be tight, even with the recent addition of the Federal Pointe Inn, the anniversary is likely to be unforgettable as people find this location as place of healing as much as a historic battle site.

Among the first places to check out are the Gettysburg Hotel (where I stayed), the Quality Inn at General Lee's Headquarters, or the James Gettys Hotel. For a complete overview of travel accommodations in or near Gettysburg, start by comparing specials against top travel deals at Many won't be modern, but most make up for any inconveniences with charm and friendliness.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fidlar Just Wants To Have Fearless Fun

Called everything from skateheads to slackers, Los Angeles noise rock-punk band FIDLAR aren't always taken as seriously as musicians as they deserve. Plenty of it has to do with what they write about — drink, drugs, sex, and getting lost in the perpetual party landscape that is the City of Angels.

The rest of it has to do with something else. Their music sounds easy to make, even if they never carelessly toss it together. But that's only the surface. Somewhere in between the bombastic cries for cheap beer and cocaine, FIDLAR knows that the party life has a price. They're willing to pay it.

FIDLAR pushes off polarized opinions for good times.

Everyone has an opinion about everything nowadays. Enough so that many people are pissed off and angry about one thing or another. So it makes it all the more enjoyable to hear singer Zac Carper having his priorities right.

His conviction? He drinks cheap beer. So what if drinking 40 or so makes the morning painful?

Other bands can write about the same thing and it still doesn't work. The beauty of this sing-along is in the passion in which it's played. They play every song across their 14-track DIY album the same way.

Stoked And Broke both glorifies and horrifies the lifestyle. While the band chants up the 60s-style rock bliss of it, the song ends on a sour note. White On White is similarly tinged with somewhat of a social conscience. The music is ferocious old school punk, but the lyrics shuck off any government service.

No Waves carries the album further in that direction, making being used up by drugs into a carefree rock ditty. It's an amazingly infectious party song with an anti-indulgence message that feels good.

The lyrics also ring like the polar opposite of their first EP, titled DIYDUI, which solidified the band's party all the time image. It's only partly true. They did record their first EP in a party house and recording studio shared by bassist Brandon Schwartzel and Carper. And Elvis Kuehn and Max Kuehn are the sons of T.S.O.L. keyboardist Greg Kuehn, which only adds to the mystique.

But like many bands making their own way in California, FIDLAR draws a distinction between living in the moment and wasting your life. Not everyone seems to understand the difference, especially because noise rock and punk bands tend to play the party venues. But it's there on the face of it.

I suppose it's why I like the band. It's incredibly addictive music with dangerously dark lyrics. They aren't afraid to take a chance (fuck it dog, life's a risk). But they aren't stupid either. They know well enough that most bands go bust under the weight of too much booze and drugs. The music rocks.

Even when the band becomes a bit self-indulgent on songs like Max Can't Surf, the honesty overrides any gimmick of just getting drunk. Most of the music is mosh pit ready even if some songs are a bit sugary and slick at times. Beyond those mentioned above, start with Blackout Stout, Wake Bake Skate, and 5 To 9. They are all fine tunes that celebrate the lifestyle but snark the idea of it.

FIDLAR Sinks A Lively Self-Titled Album At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

More importantly, listen to the album two or three times. Almost all of the songs are smarter on the second pass, when you realize they aren't just singing about what you think they're singing about.

Most of the songs run somewhere about the two-minute mark, except the seven-minute beauty called Cocaine. The FIDLAR album is available on iTunes and you can also find the release on Amazon. Both stores carry it for about half of what most albums cost. If you haven't seen the FIDLAR tumblr, check it out. You can find the CD on Barnes & Noble.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Bernard Cornwell Turns Time To 1356

As the leader of a mercenary company of bowmen and men-at-arms, Thomas of Hookton has done well in Gascony since the Battle of Crécy. His men, known as the Hellequin (a.k.a. the devil's souls), have reinforced their reputation.

They are fierce allies while working for French nobles to settle petty disputes. They are dangerous adversaries while raiding the French countryside. They have also collected a small fortune, enough for most of them to retire comfortably.

Unfortunately for them, like most Englishmen in Gascony during the Hundred Years War between the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of France, Sir Thomas Hookton is still bound to service. His lord, William de Bohun, 1st Earl of Northampton, sends word that Thomas is to find a sacred sword that can tip the balance of the power in France from King Jean II to Edward, Prince Of Wales, once and for all.

Not all quests were led by knights; some were undertaken by archers.

When Bernard Cornwell first introduced Sir Thomas Hookton in The Hundred Years War, he was tasked to find the Holy Grail. This time, he must find the Sword of Saint Peter (a.k.a. la Malice), sacred because it was the sword used by Apostle Peter to defend Jesus from arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Of course, some say the sword is cursed because after Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant Malchus, Jesus criticized the act and told his Apostles not to resist. But the history of the artifact and the importance of faith in the middle ages are very different discussions. Possessing such a blade in 1356 would be akin to owning Cherubim or Excalibur. And to everyone, that meant an assured victory.

That is, it means something to everyone except Thomas. He doesn't believe the sword has any power beyond its ability to beguile men in the name of faith. But what he believes does not matter. He is still honor bound to his lord to locate the relic while settling a grudge with the Count of Labrouillade.

Cornwell reimagines multiple perspectives from the middle ages. 

Although Thomas is clearly the protagonist, Cornwell broadens the scope of the story by taking up the viewpoints on every side for the fray. Doing so creates an epic feel, providing some unique insights across standing, station, and heritage.

There is Roland, a French virgin knight who tries to understand chivalry in a era where honor is waning; Sir William Douglas, a Scotsman who hopes to capture the Prince Of Wales and force a ransom exchange that will free the King of Scotland; and the nefarious Cardinal Bessieres, the papal legate to the throne of France who has an ambition to be the next Pope. All of them are brought to life, as are common men like the young archer Sam and young friar named Michael and the noble men who decide their fates, Prince Edward and Dauphin Charles Vamong them.

Such striking contrasts both work well and distract from Cornwell's story. They work because it creates a complete sense of social and religious connections in 1356. They distract because it often forces the author to sloppily tie up loose ends. As soon as the dust settles, Cornwell sometimes unceremoniously reveals someone's fate with no more than a passing line.

Likewise, some of his supporting plot lines feel roughed up by the end. Even as important as the la Malice plot line seems to be, it becomes largely matter of fact in the Battle of Poitiers. The sword, like many characters, quickly gives up the stage to history.

Fortunately, history is something that Cornwell does well, especially in painting the Battle Of Poitiers as one of three great English victories during the Hundred Years War. After Prince Edward's outnumbered and under supplied army traps itself upon a hill, the advantage clearly belonged to the French. But by the end of that crisp September day, Poitiers would end as tragically as Agincourt.

A couple of graphs about Bernard Cornwell. 

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944 and adopted by a family in Essex. As soon as Cornwell could leave their care, he enrolled in London University and, after a stint as a teacher, joined BBC Television.

It was his work as a researcher that gave him a strong background as a historical writer. Ironically, Cornwell may have never became an author, but after he fell in love with an American and could not get a green card in the United States, all he could do was write. He has written several series since.

1356 By Bernard Cornwell Slashes 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

1356: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell is available at Amazon or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audio version, narrated by Jack Hawkins, brings the historic story to life. In many instances, comparing the written literary line to the interpretive enthusiasm of the narrator, it is Hawkins who makes it all better. 1356 can also be ordered from Barnes & Noble.

Although the novel loses itself in the Battle Of Poitiers, the standalone expansion of his Thomas of Hookton series is well conceived and entertaining. At times, you'll wish the world view wouldn't infringe on Sir Thomas' independent encounters and adventures.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Widowspeak Travels Around Almanac

widowspeak by samantha marble
The last time Widowspeak landed here with their self-titled LP, the similarities between Molly Hamilton and Hope Sandoval were quickly dispensed with at the open. But there isn't as much reason to draw out the comparisons on the band's sophomore outing, Almanac. Hamilton has increased her vocal clarity, giving her more distinction as a vocalist.

True, she is still the same soft-spoken, wistful singer. But Almanac is a bit more than an ethereal introduction. While the band is still as wistful as ever, they have jacked up the instrumental vibe along with Hamilton's vocal prowess. It's a masterful album, with a bit diversity within the mystery.

Almanac takes them on an original odyssey. 

The magic inside the album transcends the old Hudson River Valley barn where they recorded it. Although the album itself is cohesive, each of the 12 tracks play like individual discoveries to be unwrapped and savored for a spell.

The first track worth unwrapping in this case is Locusts. It's not the album's first track, but it was the band's pick to be released as a video in support of the album. The song is delightfully hazy, mildly distorted, and exceptionally exotic. The atmosphere the band puts down begs you to spin as it spins.

The track is dark and soaring like much of the album, working hard to envelop someone and escape with them for a little while. The opening track, Perennials, does much the same thing. The song might be about the temporary nature of things — that nothing lasts forever or gives us any reason when it leaves — but what you do with those minutes and seconds might matter.

Dyed In The Wool carries a classic rock vibe, but also showcases Hamilton's flair for idioms. She frequently tucks them inside of songs and then builds them with remarkable effect. Dyed In The Wool is like that, the penance for hurting a loyal friend. There are a lot of dark spots on the album, and Widowspeak makes each and every one of them beautiful.

The Dark Age is indicative of how strong of an album Almanac is from start to finish. It was also one of the first songs they ever wrote together, but recently reworked to better fit the album. Although it's probably the most straightforward rock song on the album, it is also one of the most haunting. It's about being in a bad place and wanting to stay there.

If there is one song that feels like a story, check out Ballad Of The Golden Hour. Although lower on the playlist, it pinpoints how the band has evolved from their stripped-back debut. Widowspeak has been able to keep its tense, low key, and lamenting tone but make everything bigger and sharper in the process. Golden Hour is about knowing you have to leave some things behind but the fear of leaving the wrong things.

Almanac has plenty of peaks and no real valley across 12 tracks. 

There aren't really any throwaway tracks on the album. Devil Knows is awesome for its mischievousness. Thick As Thieves brings in all sorts of instruments like organs, harmoniums, and autoharps to hum along and move along in your life. Sore Eyes is a crazy, optimistic apocalyptic number. And the Spirit Is Willing retains some of the 1950s influences appreciated so much in the debut.

The lead duo, Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas, have really perfected something special in Widowspeak and they somehow manage to always find the right people to help them do it. The fuller and more polished sound is partly due to producer Kevin McMahon. Willy Muse is also back with his bass and Kyle Clairmont Jacques laid down the percussion.

Almanac By Widowspeak Is A Whirlwind At 8.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Anything Widowspeak might have improved upon from their debut album is done. The band has grown into creating a much more diverse, eclectic, and interesting mix while retaining their dreamy pop, classic rock laced roots. If you ever wanted to hear a whispered album sound arena big, this is it.

Almanac by Widowspeak is available on Amazon or can be downloaded (with a digital insert) from iTunes. The vinyl edition can be found at Barnes & Noble. Keep up with Widowspeak on Facebook.