Friday, March 29, 2013

Solex Maps Out Sound Of Netherlands

Amsterdam-based performing artist Elisabeth Esselink has a new amalgamation of garage pop and indie electronica coming out of the Netherlands. The new album, Solex Ahoy! is still inspired by her desire to cobble together found sounds and spontaneous collaborations but has also taken on a new shape.

If there is something new about this upbeat and erratic album, it's that the 12-track recording session plays like a road map of regional sound, even though Esselink and Bart van Poppel used waterways to get around. Right on. The pair transversed the twelve provinces of the Netherlands by boat.

As they did, they made various random stops during their watery romp, asking various musicians to climb aboard and improvise a tune representative of the surrounding Dutch countryside. What came out of the recording sessions were surprisingly cohesive tracks that pay homage each province despite the often perilous waterways.

Solex Ahoy! celebrates the spontaneity of sound. 

At each and every stop, Esselink wrote down something in her diary about the trip and the music that came tumbling out of it. On one of the best tracks, Gelderland (a.k.a. Wooden Shoes), she writes down how she met former fish shop owner Henk Landkroon in the predominantly rural and open space province that can be hard on people who work it.

"When he had to stop working because of back problems, he focused entirely on the accordion," she wrote. "Henk is a genuine brandied raisin and only performs in full costume. That means in keel and wooden shoes."

In Nijmegen, Esselink recorded two guitarists, Jasper Konijnenbelt and Wout Kemkens. The tune is motley and meandering, not unlike the region where it was recorded. To get a glimpse of how diverse the various tracks are, check out what came out of Groningen.

Groningen is a track that was originally called Pigeons because it represents the chaotic nature of sailing through the Netherlands. You never know when you might get hung up at a bridge or a lock before reaching your destination. Esselink and van Poppel got stuck near a spooky deserted factory.

"Right after we had dropped the anchor, a black car drove by and a plastic bag with two dead pigeons was thrown out of the window," she said. "The bag got torn and one of the pigeons landed in the water and the other one got stuck on the bridge. We were astounded! Who on earth does such a thing."

The story Esselink shares on YouTube about this story gets even crazier as the two of them find out that carrier pigeons are often used for drug transportation and competing pigeon fanciers do some horrendous things to the animals. Did it color the recording of Annemarie de Bie, Martijn Versteegh, and Andre Dobbe? Maybe. There is a bit of the caper in crafting.

A couple graphs about Elisabeth Esselink and Bart van Poppel.

Esslelink originally fronted Sonetic Vet, an indie band formed in 1992. The band broke up in 1997 and rather than look for a new outfit, Esslelink decided to create music out of snippets from albums she could not sell in her Amsterdam record store. Later, she expanded her work by secretly recording dozens of live performances and then cutting them together to make Pick Up in 1999.

Although Solex Ahoy! is considered her solo project, she often solicits the help of other musicians. This time it was van Poppel, a musician and indie music professional.

Together, they turned their adventure into a chronicle of 12 provinces with 12 songs and 12 stories that are not only captured as an album, but also 12 films, most of them spliced together footage from their trips. My personal favorite is Overijssel, with a hint of Dutch vocals (sort of).

Solex Ahoy! Hits 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Overall, the tracks come close to the feel of improv jazz clubs but with a much heavier indie rock influence. Mostly, they are runaway jams that are carry cohesive coolness. None of the tracks necessarily stand on their own. They work best as an entire odyssey.

Hit play and walk away. Solex Ahoy! The Sound Map of the Netherlands is available on Amazon. You can download it from iTunes. You can also keep up with Esslelink on Facebook.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Richard Hell Is A Very Clean Tramp

Richard Hell
Richard Hell is probably best known for his contributions to the punk rock movement of the early to mid-70s. He was a singer, bass player, and songwriter in the bands Television, Heartbreakers and Voidoids.

His was a “deliberately calculated style,” which included ripped up clothes, strategically placed safety pins, and hacked up hair. It’s the same style adapted by the Sex Pistols and appropriated by a wave of disaffected teens and young adults who just wanted to be different.

But Hell was much more than an image. 

He was and still is a smart and literate writer capable of great depth and perception. I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp is Hell’s autobiography, and it is at times depressing, amusing and sad. It’s less a coming of age story than a recounting of what was and what might have been.

Hell is a bit self-absorbed, does plenty of name dropping (Dee Dee Ramone, Allan Ginsberg, Sid Vicious, Patti Smith), and seems to relish in describing all of his many conquests, often in more detail than seems necessary. But perhaps that is part of his charm.

Hell entered the world as Richard Meyers, the son of academic parents who had met at Columbia University. Hell and his sister grew up in and around Lexington, Kentucky, the typical suburban America of the 1950s.

“My roots are shallow,” Hell writes. “I’m a little of jealous of people with strong ethnic and cultural roots. Lucky Martin Scorsese or Art Spiegelman or Dave Chappelle. I came from Hopalong Cassidy and Bugs Bunny and first grade at ordinary Maxwell Elementary.”

Although he grew up “ordinary,” Hell worked hard to be anything but. He frequently ran away from home and he recounts in great detail his youthful plans, exploits and ambitions. Surprisingly, he barely touches on the unexpected death of his father, Ernest Meyers, who died in 1957 when Hell was in elementary school. Meyers’ untimely death would eventually uproot the family.

A few years later, Hell met Tom Miller at a prep school in Delaware. The two became fast friends and eventually made their way to New York City in 1967. Both tall, gangly and extremely smart, the two shared an apartment, worked together and wrote together. After struggling with minimal success to make their way through poetry, the two turned to music and formed the band Television. Miller changed his name to Tom Verlaine.

As time went on and Television found some success, Hell and Verlaine fought constantly, and Verlaine became increasingly resentful and critical (and maybe jealous) of Hell, which tore their friendship apart. Hell left Television to join ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and, later, founded the Voidoids (which included Marc Bell, later to become Marky Ramone).

A thread woven throughout Hell’s story is substance abuse.

Richard Hell by David Shankbone
From drinking codeine-rich cough syrup to becoming a full-blown heroin addict, Hell’s addictions seemingly derailed any chance he may have had for the success he envisioned. He was, at times, a literate junkie and a man hitting rock bottom.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp chronicles Hell’s life up until 1984, when he retired from music. Now, he has been a writer for far more years than he was a musician. He has written the novels Go Now, Godlike and Hot and Cold, which is a collection of essays and lyrics, and his work has also appeared in Spin, GQ, Village Voice and the New York Times.

Having read and loved Go Now and Godlike, it seems that Hell’s strength is in writing novels and prose. That’s not to say that Clean Tramp isn’t good, because it is. But there is a depressing and defeated element throughout, and maybe a trace of bitterness and irony.

I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp — An Autobiography By Richard Hell Bangs 6.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Hell’s story is a must-read for fans and students of the punk movement and its earliest days. No matter how uncaring Hell can be at times, you can’t help but to like him.

I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography by Richard Hell is available from Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble. Recently, it was also released on iBooks. Harper Collins maintains his signings list. For everything else, visit his official site.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Cave Singers Squint To See Naomi

The Cave Singers
While it's easy to frame up Naomi by The Cave Singers as an expectant fourth album that plays mostly to its slowest niche, doing so sells some of its subtler elements short. There are a few gems amidst an album made of mostly sunbeams.

Sure, the band seems to have given up some grittier qualities that accompanied its neo-folk beginnings on Invitation Songs or the wildly trippy brilliance that accompanied No Witch. There have been other changes too; Phil Ek signed on as producer and Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes) signed on to play bass.

When you consider some of most recent albums produced by Ek, including Heaven by The Walkmen, Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes, and Fear Fun by Father John Misty, his influence feels even more pronounced on Naomi. He tends to help bands craft songs and ease up their instruments.

The Cave Singers stay true to a couple tunes on Naomi.

While there is plenty to like about the chemistry and composition of the 12-track album, the best tracks still have more bite like the some of the band's previous releases. The best track to collect is It's A Crime. It carries some of the twang that makes frontman Pete Quirk so addictive of a listen, especially when it's played live.

The angst in the track is media feeding your girl fear, contrasted with a stripped back trash guitar riff. The studio version plays the same, but without as much cracking passion as Quirk puts on stage.

This is what almost makes the entire album misleading as Have To Pretend plays different live too. They all do. It's part of who Quirk is as a singer. He gives back much of what the audience gives him.

And then there is the poetic cadence in the music, sheets of lyrics that almost never repeat. No Tomorrows is just one example as Quirk searches for the quiet resolve somewhere in between losing someone and realizing that it will be all right. Canopy plays the same way with a different message. There is a sense of atonement in the tone and a resolution in knowing that everything will be fine.

The irony is what makes the album work makes it not work for reviewers. 

It's really difficult to call Naomi a great album because it only comes across as a good album. And yet, more accurately, it is a great album that only masquerades as a good album because the arrangements don't feel dynamic enough to challenge Derek Fudesco (The Murder City Devils) on guitar or Marty Lund on drums. Even Quirk is restrained in order to make the fuller sound that Ek albums frequently find.

The Cave Singers
The idea was likely to showcase the lyrics alongside the familiar structures because the album is a celebration of the beauty found in the every day — addiction, car ownership, fireworks, tree houses. So with the exception of the addictively classic It's A Crime or Paul Simon reminiscent song Shine, most the album relies on simple melodies and hooks and deeply wrought lyrics.

If previous albums explored the dark, this one explores the light because the band wanted to make their music a cure as one lyric line suggests — I'm done with sorrow, don't need to follow. And by that self-defined measure, the album does work. The only downside is that you have work to hear it that way.

Naomi By The Cave Singers Follows 3.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The album was named after the farthest star within sight. They chose her to be their fictional muse, a quiet reflection that hopes to make miracles out of the mundane. It does that, even if the other side of the coin suggests there are only two ways to listen to this album — on a still day just before or after the rain when you're alone or interwoven with the last three albums by The Cave Singers to mix it up.

Give a couple tracks some time and you might find a few that are timeless. They were meant to be that way, with Quirk and company taking months to write them and one month to record them. You can find Naomi on Amazon. It also available for download from iTunes or on vinyl at Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

AnyForty Makes A Five-Year Statement

Five years ago, AnyForty opened up shop in London with the hope of inspiring the UK streetwear scene with various artist collaboration projects. The original idea began a few years prior when Alan Wardle received a pirated cassette tape of NWA's Straight Outta Compton when he was 12 years old.

It was the original cassette that begin his obsession with U.S. hip hop culture. It became especially prominent after he picked up his first full-time job. It was costly to stay current with big brand names.

"I’ve had a 13-year design career behind me. Ten years in editorial design, working for magazines such as Max Power Magazine, PlayStation and Computer Arts Projects," he told SQ magazine last year. "The last two years of my life have seen me balancing AnyForty alongside freelance work."

Hearing Wardle say it, it wasn't easy. It took him some time to work into design. And even after scraping together enough money to attend an art and design college, it was a few years before he really took in what his professors were trying to teach him. Before that, he says, he was a dickhead.

A new line of AnyForty streetwear is sharp this spring or summer.  

Few people would say that about him now. In fact, the newest line of designs being displayed at AnyForty does something that many streetwear concepts do not. They transcend hip hop and start to encompass a bigger indie scene, with shirts that play to punk and rock as much as hip hop.

The crux of the concept is simple enough. AnyForty put out a 12-series collection of designs (two of them as in-store exclusives). The designs were purposefully bold as a celebration of its five-year anniversary. According to the AnyForty team, it is all about the blood, sweat, and hard work.

Some of the designs that stand out include an ode to Greek mythology by Vanilla BCN. According to Rick Nunn, they wanted to join Escher with Greek gods to makes truly memorable shirts. The art is powerful, which is why it is included as the hero shot above.

Although the entire series of twelve is worth checking out, two more standouts from the collection include another by Mr. Gauky and another by Niark1. Both designers have considerable talent, and their involvement with AnyForty is appreciated because it makes art accessible.

If you have never heard of either artist, Niark1 is Sebastien Feraut, a French graphic designer based in Paris. He is equally comfortable with computers and brushes, making crazy universes and geometric shapes. The AnyForty pick is a favorite.

Mr. Gauky is somewhat the same, an artist who seems comfortable doing it all. He takes on jobs that range from illustration to 3-D modeling. Although he spent much of his youth on a skateboard, he eventually turned his character art into a career after one of his friend's mothers (an art teacher) convinced him to pursue an education in art and design.

Other designers that stand out in this collection include Tom Mac, Richt, Mr. Bowlegs, and iLK & Gorey (among others). All together, it makes a statement for streetwear in that it takes it well beyond its hip hop roots and right into modern art.

AnyForty Makes A Five-Year Statement At 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

As a long-time fan of European streetwear that is less likely to be found stateside, I have a special appreciation for the artists highlighted at AnyForty. In some cases, they have taken a style that began in the United States and made it their own (if not global). It's part art, part fashion, and always smart.

You can find most designs from AnyForty at Urban Industry, with the exception of in-store exclusives. For everything else, visit the shop direct. With the exception of the Blood, Sweat, and 5 Years design (which is an anniversary shirt), the balance of the collection is a striking mix of art from some remarkable artists around the world.

Monday, March 25, 2013

There Is A BRMC Specter At The Feast

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Fueled in part by the tragic death of bassist/singer Robert Levon Been’s father Michael Been (The Call), Specter At The Feast is arguably the most ambitious Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) album in recent history and the first in three years. Some tracks stand with and sometimes eclipse their earlier work, opening what appears to be a new chapter for the band.

The album itself took two years to produce, with the band frequently taking breaks between recording sessions to tour South America and play their first shows in South Africa and China. Late last year, they booked a three-show tour in California as a foreshadow to the anticipated release. They sold out at all three venues: Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and San Francisco.

Specter At The Feast digs into the human experience. 

As most BRMC fans know, Michael Been was always supportive and involved with the band. He mixed the band's Live In London release and worked as a sound engineer on tours. It was on tour, at the Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium, that he suffered a fatal heart attack. Since the tragedy, Robert Levon Been has played with The Call, filling in for his father at reunion appearances.

The first single released ahead of the album is also telling of the band's love and loss. Rather than launch the album with new tracks, BRMC covered the hit song Let The Day Begin by The Call. Released in 1989, it was the biggest crossover hit that The Call enjoyed during its 20-year history.

Known for its insistent bass and driving guitars, Let The Day Begin fits BRMC today as much as it did The Call three decades ago. The band was generally considered underrated, largely because The Call dismissed following the cult of personality that influenced much of the music made in the 1980s.

The same can be said about BRMC, except that this band came together during a decade that was looking for something different. Formed while alternative rock was in decline, Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes (The Brian Jonestown Massacre, 1998) set their sound apart.

They seem to have done so again with the release of Specter At The Feast, even if not everyone will appreciate it. The album, with 15 tracks and an hour play time, traps the band into some repetition and isn't always sure where it is going with stripped back arrangements and varied influences.

However, the more you listen to the sometimes listless and sometimes grief-stricken meanderings of Been, Hayes, and drummer Leah Shapiro (Raveonettes), the more songs like Lullaby, Sell It, Hate The Taste, and Fire Walker (once the bassline kicks in) rise to the surface. Other tracks, like Returning, need a little more attention before they stick.

It's inside the lyrics that the track captures the juxtaposition that the loss of loved one stops us cold and carries us on at the same time. They are gone, and yet somehow with us with every step forward. The song is surreal and sober, sad and comforting. The same can be said about the album, tittering back and forth between heavy and mellow, pedestrian and fresh.

Specter At The Feast By BRMC Haunts 6.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Had BRMC shed a couple tracks, sticking with more mellow or heavy songs, there might be less criticism on the front end. But give it some time and some reviewers might find themselves backtracking on some finer points. There is no doubt that this album has all the markings of a great live set, with plenty of room for the band to pick up on whatever moods it wants.

Specter at the Feast by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is available on Amazon. You can also download it from iTunes or order vinyl from Barnes & Noble. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is currently touring Europe with plans to return stateside in May. Check Facebook for the most recent show dates. They also have a 6-part video short series worth checking out on YouTube.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Arc And Stones Debut A Brooklyn EP

Arc & Stones
Although Brooklyn-based alternative rockers Arc & Stones just recently came together last year, their new 5-track self-titled EP opens with plenty of promise even if it doesn't have a New York vibe. The music is alternative rock, with a Southern rock twist.

Some of these Southern influences come out of where three of them met. The band might have formed in New York, but it was only after Ben Cramer (guitar) called former college classmate Dan Pellarin (singer, rhythm guitar) to join him and Eddy Bayes (bass) in Brooklyn.

At the time, Pellarin was still in Florida, where the three had met at the University of Miami. He was trying to launch a solo career, something both Cramer and Bayes had tried to do in New York a year earlier. And this is an aspect of the band that is especially unique. They sound better playing together.

Arc & Stones is a Brooklyn upstart that deserves attention. 

The fourth member to join the band was drummer Joey Doino. The band found him on Craigslist, lightning that they have all said is unlikely to ever strike twice. It was part luck and part fate because the four immediately hit it off musically and personally.

The rest of the story, however, doesn't have much to do with either. Knowing they needed a demo that venues and labels could listen to, the band set out to record an EP capable of capturing five different aspects of their music. Once they knew what they wanted to record, they set out for Atlanta to work with Cramer's long-time friend Jeremy Griffith (Singing Serpent Studios).

The opener, Silence, is arguably the finest track on the album. It represents the band's most cohesive track, a mid-tempo healing after heartbreak rocker. Mostly it plays like a straight up rock song, with some melodic ballad elements that showcase all the members but Pellarin in particular.

Silence is followed up with Say Goodbye. It's a rock ballad, with a few more hooks and plenty of room for instrumentals. Cramer stands out in the track, but Doino's sticks establish an exquisitely crisp presence to his credit and some smart mixing. It's a good song that mostly holds up before becoming a bit muddled in its own climatic atmosphere. The end saves it.

Placing Let Me Down immediately after Say Goodbye might not have been the best choice. It mostly resembles Pellarin's solo work with some new maturity. Where it works is that it expresses his range. Where is doesn't work, for me, is that it soft pop sounds less like the band and more like a solo track.

Arc & Stones
She's Mine brings up the blues rock, which plays well to Cramer's influences. He grew up in the South, and says he has always been influenced by the richness of it. Anyone can make the case that Pellarin has the pipes to carry it. The better track, lyrically and cohesively, is Rise.

The fifth track, much like the first, stands out as a solid single that makes it feel like Arc & Stones was founded when the original trio met years ago and not a few months ago. The guitar work in Rise also stands out, putting it on par with Silence in terms of a well-crafted rock song.

Arc & Stones' Self-Titled EP Clears 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

In considering the entire album, Rise and Silence are the must-have tracks. But if you think this band has potential, then supporting them by purchasing the EP is a great investment. It helps new bands get things done and this one is anxious to start work on their full length.

Arc & Stones EP is available on Amazon. You can also download the EP or select tracks from iTunes. The band is currently booking additional shows in and around New York. Most recently, they had an opportunity to open for the classic rock band Kansas.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Extinction Puts A Near Future In Peril

There are always different ways to spin the near future and the one picked up by author Mark Alpert is as frightening as it is intelligent. Picking up on continuing advancements in real-life surveillance and cybernetics, he revives the well-trod story of artificial intelligence becoming a threat to humankind into something new and not far off.

The artificial intelligence that gains sentience in Extinction isn't all machine. It's part human too.

Protagonist Jim Pierce understands some of the science behind it. The retired National Security Agency (NSA) agent and ex-Army Ranger became a prosthetic engineer after losing his wife, son and an arm in a terrorist bombing. After retiring, he went on to become one of the leaders in prosthetics that link to the central nervous system, allowing bi-directional communication between the device and the brain.

The factual counterparts to Alpert's thriller aren't necessarily far off. Not only is Pierce's arm a tangible innovation, but so are the artificial retina prosthetics included in his book. The surveillance system that ushers in a new sentience is also grounded in fact. It's based on hybrid insect micro-mechanical systems said be under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Alpert then takes a slight leap forward by allowing another government (with fewer ethical constraints) to tap the processing power of the human brain to enhance its hybrid insect surveillance system. It's in the ethics and, perhaps, the lessons where Alpert makes his mark.

"It's a future period which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." — Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Now 

By asking questions similar to those asked by Daniel Wilson in Amped but with China's perceived lack of ethical conscious as suggested by Robin Cook in Nano, Alpert covers a surprising amount of ground in this cyber thriller with globe-trotting adventure elements. The questions he asks are frightening.

He wonders if healthy people will covet prosthetics. He wonders if government is already overstepping ethics with hybrid insect micro-mechanical systems. And he wonders if the promise of a human-powered super computer were within reach, whether today's super powers could resist temptation.

Where Alpert succeeds especially well is not by asking what it means to be human, but by operating on the notion that technology-enhanced humans or human-enhanced technologies is the singular line we might not want to cross. As he points out in his end notes, the development of brain machine interfaces with one of the momentous trends in science. He is also right that many of these technologies will be realized outside of the U.S. and explicitly developed to curb dissidence.

A couple graphs about author Mark Alpert. 

As a contributing editor to Scientific American, Mark Alpert has extensive experience in explaining complex scientific ideas and esoteric concepts like parallel universes into easily understood and concise summations. He uses this same skill set to breathe life into his fiction, which is largely based on weaving together cutting-edge technologies into fast-paced thrillers.

Although he had sold shorter fictional works starting in the 1980s, his first novel wasn't published until 1998. Final Theory was the story of Albert Einstein and the historic quest for the holy grail of physics, also known as the Theory of Everything. Extinction is his third novel and perhaps the closest to reality in that it parallels so closely to issues and dilemmas lurking just beneath the surface of society.

Extinction By Mark Alpert Connects At 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There is no doubt that Extinction is an entertaining read despite the duality of the writing, even if Alpert tends to come across more authentically when he describes, analyzes, and questions the science. Conversely, his action sequences and aloof relationships sometimes play much less mature in comparison (but not enough to spoil the greater story).

Extinction: A Thriller by Mark Alpert is available at Amazon. You can also order the novel from Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks. The audiobook version of Extinction is readily available at iTunes. It features Todd McLaren as the narrator. He provides a good read that is easily listenable, but doesn't necessarily breathe any additional life into the story.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Earth Rocker Gets Grounded By Clutch

There is something undeniably grounded about Earth Rocker by Clutch. The relentlessly tireless Germantown, Maryland, metal band that formed in 1990 presses stoner rock, post-hardcore, metal, and grunge into a sometimes muddy but mostly straight up hard rock album.

It's the band's tenth studio album and they feel good about it. It's tight, efficient and capitalizes on the jam aspects of the band, which they were able to map out well in the studio while still giving themselves plenty of room to improvise on stage. They are not softening. The play is more solid.

“Overall, we wanted the album to pick up the pace a little bit,” says bassist Dan Maines. “Songs developing at a faster tempo led to a very straightforward songwriting approach.”

Some of it is even indirectly influenced by Motorhead and Thin Lizzy. It was while touring with those bands that Clutch began to understand the dynamics of timeless heavy rock and apply it to their own experiences. According to guitarist Tim Sult, the songwriting happened around both tours and influences from both bands sank into the writing.

"Maybe people expected us to go more acoustic or bluesy, but this album showcases a riffs-in-your-face kind of style," Sult said. "These songs ended up being faster and a bit more rocking."

Although plenty of attention has been lauded on Earth Rocker, the title track and leader off the 11-track album is laid back in comparison to much of the album. But even if it does sound like a warmup, it still sets the tone of the album. Lyrically, Earth Rocker is all about the band but also dares people to take charge of their lives too. Nobody needs validation from someone else.

Earth Rocker is a straight up solid song, but didn't excite me when it was released as a single. The rest of the album is different. After Earth Rocker, Crucial Velocity knocks it up another gear and the band finds exactly what they want the album to be by Mr. Freedom.

Mr. Freedom is an anti-political riff-heavy track that strikes at citizen pandering and propaganda, people who exploit tragedy with legislation and empty promises. Clutch won't have any of it. And if you don't believe it, then D.C. Sound Attack smacks of sounds that any Earth Rocker fan will be familiar with and showcases drummer Jean-Paul Gaster's lock-tight percussion.

The rest of the album chugs along at an ever-increasing furious stride, with bits of riffs and solos tucked deep inside most songs. One of the few exceptions is the bluesy brooder Gone Cold. It's there that Clutch drops everything down with a drawn out weariness that takes advantage of the smokiness in singer Neil Fallon's voice.

Earth Rocker is an amazingly timeless jam-heavy dream.

Unto The Breach starts big and then barrels along with what some call hobo poetry and unique vision. Oh, Isabella is the longest track, using the time to balance Fallon's power with some psychedelic rock sections that play well to the band's ability to jam.

While some people might find The Face a bit stronger overall, it's songs like Oh, Isabella that give Earth Rocker an instant classic heavy metal feel. But that's not to say there is anything missing from The Face. It's one of many (if not all) must-have tracks off the album. Its climatic finish is perfect.

All in all, the crazy thing about the album is that it feels grounded without much of a theme or center. It's mostly tied to dreams and visions, but most of it skips along time and space with bits of the past, present, and future all interwoven — from medieval halberds to present-day politics to robot loves.

Earth Rocker By Clutch Shifts 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Fallon has said that the biggest difference in the recording session this time was that they didn't shy away from last minute overdubs. On the contrary, they had fun with them. The spontaneity of it breathed new life into several tracks before the deadlines caught up with them. It's also tighter and faster than any album before it, proving that this band has no intention of slowing down.

Released by the band's label, Weathermaker Music, Earth Rocker doesn't disappoint. The best of the album follows the first two tracks, but the album is worth every inch. Earth Rocker is up on Amazon. You can also find it on vinyl at Barnes & Noble or download it from iTunes. Clutch is already on tour, playing the West Coast in March. Show listings can be found on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Tesslor Returns To The Vacuum Tube

While still looking forward to the day that a Bluetube Audio Vacuum Tube Amplifier is available, there are still several ways to hear the warmth of yesteryear vacuum tube audio. One of them has been on the market for some time. And although it might not have the same attention to detail, it comes close.

It started with a little company called Vacuum Tube Valley, which was owned by the late Charlie Kittleson, and eventually migrated to a Chinese-based Tesslor. While there seem to have been a few bumps during the transition, Tesslor is owned by someone with an equally interesting backstory.

Zeng Dejun is well known in China for researching and developing a hi-fi vacuum tube speaker that received several international awards. Almost all of his work is influenced by the vintage vacuum tube radios of his youth. He might have even worked with Kittleson, being they were fellow audiophiles.

The Tesslor Stereo is a surprisingly simple, elegant design with brilliant sound. 

First and foremost, Tesslor-USA is the U.S. distributor for Tesslor classic tube products. Even so, the quality of the work hasn't changed overall. The inspiration for the Tesslor Stereo is still reminiscent of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

No, it's not exactly like an old Grundig, Lowe and Nordmende vacuum tube radios, but it comes remarkably close. It also doesn't come encased in real walnut or cherry wood like Bluetube amps will, but the medium-dense fiberboard is pressed and painted with a matte finish reminiscent of the 1950s.

There is a lot to like about the stereo despite only having a single auxiliary audio input for a PC, CD, or MP3 player. The beauty of it is found in the warmth of the sound and the soft glow of the tuning dial. It also includes a magic eye tuning aide, which is basically a light bar that becomes solid on each station.

The difference between vacuum tubes and transistors.

Some people might argue that great sound is in the ear of the beholder, much like the debate that sometimes revolves around vinyl and high quality digital. The case can easily be made that vacuum tubes aren't very efficient and produce significant heat. And yet, many musicians in the music industry still love vacuum tube amps.

The only way to really describe it is in the warmth of the music, but some people might call it more natural instead. Either way, it is more satisfying to listen to. So much so that when I was first introduced to vacuum tube sound when I was older, it made me stop and listen to the music.

In terms of every day, I'm much more inclined to listen to music on my Sonos wireless system. But the vintage warmth of the audio, even if it is being played from an iPhone or iPad, makes for a nice change of pace, especially with blues, vintage rock and some indie rock on the playlist.

One of the only oddities I experienced was a lacquer-like smell the first few times I gave it some play time. The cause can likely be traced back to packaging the unit before the paint or other chemicals had time to set. The heat from the vacuum tubes will help the smell dissipate faster, but I don't recommend breathing in any fumes if you have the same experience. Play it by a window the first few times.

The Tesslor R-601S Scores Vintage Big At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Vacuum tube amplifiers, speakers, radios, and stereos clearly don't represent the future of music, but they do represent a style of sound that helped move it along. The fullness and hum of a vintage stereo is unique, something to play on warm mornings and cold evenings, especially if you have a fireplace.

The Tesslor R-601S Stereo can be found on Amazon. You can also find the Tesslor R-601 Classic Tube AM/FM Radio there. They retail for about $200 to $300. The radio also has an auxiliary mode.

While I haven't seen the latter first hand, the only difference seems to be the number of speakers. If you prefer, you can also order either model direct from Tesslor USA. You will likely need a 3.5 mm stereo to mono adaptor, aux input cable, or whatever adaptor works best with your MP3 or component.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Airborne Toxic Event Tells Secrets

The Airborne Toxic Event
Indie rock/pop band The Airborne Toxic Event have had their share of hardships and successes since coming together seven years ago in Los Angeles. The band itself was forged out of pain, with singer-songwriter Mikel Jollett's intense songwriting driven by being diagnosed with a genetic autoimmune disease, his mother being diagnosed with cancer, and a breakup with someone he had once considered a soulmate.

Even so, it would take some time before anyone would hear these songs. Daren Taylor (drums) and Jollett would spend the summer rehearsing the material before the duo eventually added Anna Bulbrook (viola, keys, tambourine), Noah Harmon (bass), and Steven Chen (guitar, keys) to complete their lineup.

Two years later, The Airborne Toxic Event released its 2008 debut that earned reviews on either side of extreme. Although the band defended itself against criticism, it wasn't long before they learned breakout debuts are difficult to maintain. Their sophomore album seemed to trade out indie for mainstream.

The Secret EP hints at a return to the band's indie roots.

Although the dynamic instrumental arrangements are even bigger at times on the recently released The Secret EP, the lyrical depth and resonating vocal power foreshadows what will likely be a brilliant third album. Set for release sometime in spring, Such Hot Blood is their first effort with three-time Grammy Award-winning producer, engineer and songwriter/musician Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Cold War Kids, Tom Waits).

Although the first single to be released was the contemplative acoustic single Timeless, it's the rest of the four-track EP that strikes all the right chords. The Secret is a bristling relationship song, telling the story of a wayward soul driving around with nothing to do except imagining his former lover with someone else. The angst of it is caught in this fan captured video.

Aside from lyrics that take a nod from the band's biggest hit, Sometime Around Midnight, The Secret captures the compositional maturity of Jollett and his bandmates. There is an anthemic quality about the song, but it remains largely inventive in recapturing its indie roots.

The Storm puts the band on the opposite trajectory. It's mostly about reconciliation and maybe the realization that the person who sticks around deserves better than someone who runs away. With its pronounced guitar, backed by equal parts bass and percussion, The Storm can be cast as a sharply polished one-off rock ballad or dynamic pop anthem. Your choice.

The Airborne Toxic Event
The fourth track, Safe, sticks the emphasis on shaky relationships. It also takes advantage of Bulbrook, bringing her out of backing vocals for a moment. Her viola also stands out in Safe more than any other song too. But equally more memorable is that Safe stands out as the most layered track of the four, particularly in the chorus.

Although an easy target for criticism, The Airborne Toxic Event puts some serious distance behind the notion that it might get too wrapped up in developing a persona instead of composing solid music. It might even be why the band or the label decided to put out an EP so close to the album's release. The EP might push off any pre-emptive negatives.

With the possible exception of Timeless, the band does a fine job straddling the sometimes hard line between alternative rock and pop, indie and mainstream. But it doesn't much matter as long as it sounds right. And mostly, The Secret does.

The Secret EP Sweeps 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although relationship theme tracks might feel tired across a whole album, these four tracks by The Airborne Toxic Event (a.k.a. TATE) feel a bit more timeless in capturing it from four different perspectives. There is an earnestness, angst, hesitation, and abandon served up in just over 17 minutes.

The Secret EP by The Airborne Toxic Event is available at Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes. Keep up with the band on Facebook for release and tour information.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Replacements Play Songs For Slim

Slim Dunlap by Robert Matheu
There is more to the 5-track EP, Songs For Slim, than meets the ear. It's an innovative charitable event and a good will pick to benefit one of the best punk and alternative guitarists to hail from Minnesota.

As many people know, former Replacements guitarist Bob "Slim" Dunlap (who took over for Bob Stinson in 1987) was hospitalized last year after suffering a stroke. He was in the hospital for nine months and the general prognosis is that he will likely need round-the-clock care for the rest of his life.

Songs For Slim was devised to raise money for Slim and his family by having various artists cover his songs. All of these covers are then being produced as a limited edition series of split 7” vinyl 45s. The auctions themselves have become a resounding success and picking up the 5-track EPs help too.

The second Songs For EP comes from The Replacements.

After the first limited edition put out by Steve Earle and Craig Finn, several members of The Replacements stepped up to put out their first reunion release since 1991. Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars pushed the initial fundraising efforts to more than $115,000.

The EP itself, Songs For Slim by the Replacements, can stand up to virtually any review criteria too. Busted Up has a rock and roll throwback beat to warm up the EP. It's an important track because Slim wrote it and Westerberg delivers. Radio Hook Word Hit is also written by Slim, but this time delivered exclusively by Mars with a lo-fi vibe.

The covers kick the EP up into high gear, starting with a cover of a Gordon Lightfoot song. I'm Not Sayin' is the point in the EP where everybody wishes The Replacements might make the reunion stick.

Although unlikely, there is no question that they came together for the EP and its purpose. Lost Highways, which the band picked to give the EP even broader appeal, is a Leon Payne song made famous by Hank Williams. And then the album concludes with a Everything's Coming Up Roses, which brings in the campy and coarsely sung Broadway tune written by Stephen Sondheim. It cracks at times and works because of it. It's a test and triumph all at the same time, beautifully summing up the work.

Like all proceeds associated with the limited edition series, it benefits the Slim Dunlap Fund. There are more ways people can help too. There is a Songs For Slim store powered by Merch Lackey, where T-shirts, wristbands and necklaces are being sold to raise more funds for Dunlap and his family.

The Songs For Slim legacy is unfolding for good.

Upcoming news associated with The Replacements release includes a commercial 12” vinyl version of the Replacements EP that will be released in April. (It's different than the limited edition auction edition.) But also in the works is the release of the third Songs For Slim release, which leads off with Lucinda Williams covering Partners In Crime, which many people consider a Slim signature song.

She previewed the song last month and our understanding is that her soulful take on it absolutely dazzled the Minnesota audience. There are other heavyweights who are contributing too. Tommy Keene and R. Walk Vincent have picked up Nowheres Near, a brutally honest song that Slim wrote about chasing the brass ring. It's a split that people won't want to miss.

"It's embarrassing, but I really do appreciate everyone’s hard work and kindness," said Slim about Songs For Slim, but only because his life feels out of his control. "It's truly touched my heart, all the help everyone's given, and there's just no way I can feel worthy. My only problem with the records is that I wish I'd written better songs; every one of those people has written better songs than I have."

Songs For Slim 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.

Originally, the Songs For Slim EP by The Replacements was slated for a standard music review until it became obvious it couldn't be scored. There is something undeniably touching and profound when people who have worked together in the music industry can reunite, record music, and raise funds for someone who has fallen on an unexpected tough time. It's an inspiration for other artists.

If you want to help, you can download the EP from iTunes or look for Songs For Slim from The Replacements on Amazon. The Songs For Slim site lists dozens of other ways to become involved, including donations to FundRazr set up by Dan Baird and a dedicated Facebook page.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Time Out Of Joint For Philip K. Dick

Joint Out Of Time
The title of his 1959 novel Time Out Of Joint not only described the plight of protagonist Ragle Gumm, but maybe the author as well. Philip K. Dick was always writing beyond the imagination of his era.

Nowadays, his book might almost feel like a commonplace exploration of living in a simulated reality when set next to films like They Live, The Truman Show or Matrix. But in 1959, the concept was fresh, asking a philosopher's question within the context of the science fiction setting.

What if the world you lived in was mere illusion for a somewhat sinister purpose? 

For drifter Roddy Piper, it was aliens. For Truman, it was television viewers. For Neo, it was machines. And for Ragle Gumm? That is what Dick uncovers with his classic tale of perception and reality.

All Gumm knows is something doesn't feel right with the world. But it's hardly worth noticing on most days. He lives in a quiet American suburb. The year is 1959. And he has an odd but interesting occupation as a professional contest winner — the longest-running winner in local newspaper history.

There is only one problem or perhaps several. Nobody has ever heard of Marilyn Monroe. Nobody seems to own an AM/FM radio. And the Tucker automobile is in full production. If that wasn't enough, Gumm and his neighbors are confronted with another absurdity. Sometimes things just disappear.

It might even be explainable if it weren't so obvious; momentary bouts of absentmindedness or deja vu don't usually come with notes describing whatever thing somebody left behind. But then again, messages intercepted by a crystal radio set don't usually mention contest winners by name either.

Gumm isn't the only one to raise an eyebrow. His brother-in-law Victor "Vic" Nielson believes him. So does his sister and nephew. His neighbor, Bob Black, would rather not. And Junie Black doesn't have time to understand it all. All she wants is for Gumm to tell her to leave Bob once and for all.

This is how the novel starts and it begins especially strong, capturing the character of the era when it was written. It makes sense it would. Dick was writing about his time or at least the illusion of it. As the plot develops, the stylish and slick setting of an ultra hip 1950s begins to fade away for a bleak future.

The real-life author who started to question consciousness. 

For Dick, Joint Out Of Time helped him find some mainstream success, which might have been the beginning of his end. The story itself came to life when he reached for a light cord that wasn't there, much like Gumm's brother-in-law does in the book.

Phillip K. Dick
The unsettling experience, especially after Dick learned that a light cord was never there, convinced him that he might be subconsciously aware that there are alternative worlds. But like Nielson, there could have been other explanations as well. It could have been a hallucination. It could be a breakdown.

Not everyone is a fan of the story because it has some classic elements. But where it shines, despite its slow middle, is in delivering authentically believable charm, several ethical dilemmas, and an early attempt to let science fiction creep into the story instead of forcing itself on the suspecting reader.

Dick's work didn't attain true mainstream success until after he was gone. Since then, however, his stories have become film favorites. As more attention was given to the man behind so many great stories, his children have endeavored to create a permanent resource for loyal fans.

Time Out Of Joint By Philip K. Dick Ticks 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Time Out Of Joint may not be one of the most memorable novels, but it remains an important early work. It explores themes that continue to appear in other shorts and novels. If you can forgive the middle and focus on the soft science fiction start and harder science fiction finish with a few Twilight Zone like twists, Time Out Of Joint is a quick read, easily finished in an afternoon.

The latest reprint of Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick is available from Amazon. You can also order the novel from Barner & Noble. The book can be downloaded from iBooks or as an audiobook read by Jeff Cummings from iTunes. His ability to foreshadow post-modernity has also been noted by several philosophers, including Jean Baudrillard, who claimed our current society has replaced reality with symbols and signs, which casts the human experience as nothing more than a simulation of reality.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wildlife Put Out Their Hearts To Break

Five years ago, Wildlife put out a little heard EP to help promote themselves while they toured. It was a step up from their idealist start, with singer/guitarist Dean Povinsky and original guitarist Darryl Smith leaving Kingston, Ontario, for Glasgow, Scotland, to start a band three years prior.

Incidentally, the EP was never released in England. After returning to Toronto with a little less naivety, a little more experience, and a greater appreciation for home, Wildlife rediscovered an increasingly dynamic music scene inside Canada.

The band was better rounded too, as Povinsky was joined by Graham Plant (guitar, vocals) Derek Bosomworth (bass, vocals), and Dwayne Christie (drums). Tim Daugulis (keyboards) joined in 2009.

Within two years, they signed with Easy Tiger Music to set down their debut album. It took another three before the band would have time to step back into the studio again, this time with producer Peter Katis (Interpol and The National) for part of the album; and Gus Van Go and Werner F (The Stills, Hollerado) for the other part.

Wildlife wear their hearts on their sleeves for a change. 

With a new album entitled ... On The Heart, Wildlife could have taken this sophomore outing in almost any direction. Fortunately, they mostly avoid the sappier sentiments and play to its passion, good and bad. The first six tracks on the 12-track album retain an indie rock vibe before the pop tracks soften it all up.

Right. Just as a heart has a right and left side, so does the album. The right side is a little darker, beginning with the opener If It Breaks. Povinsky, who is often identified by his youthful experience, perfectly captures a rare combination of uncertainty and sadness in the short span of a 2:20 introduction.

While not much of a song, it strikes all the right chords before the more primal Born To Ruin. After opening with a reliance on percussion, Wildlife lays down one of the best songs on the album.

By the third track, it becomes exceedingly clear that ... On The Heart is a many layered album. Bad Dream is a broken heart love story, the price people play for falling in love too young or maybe the first time. It's arresting as much as it's engaging, even when Wildlife slows the pace for Don't Fear and the teaser, one-minute atmospheric Arrythmia.

The bottom half of the album slips a bit, with the band sneaking in some atmospheric arrangements reminiscent of the pop scene three decades ago. It doesn't necessarily miss, but definitely leaves behind some indie sensibilities for something more commercial at times. Guillotine feels much the same, but with infinitely better lyrics, as does the rest of the album.

While the bottom half will perhaps appeal to a pop crowd, the distinction does play to the notion that producers can have a tremendous impact on a band. Although Katis had some final influences on the mix, the overall album does exactly what Povinsky says it does.

"It answers a lot of questions Strike Hard, Young Diamond asked, and presents new ones," he said.

Perfectly said. Although Strike Hard, Young Diamond was well received, many reviewers asked if Wildlife could settle down into a sound. ... On The Heart proves they can, narrowing the direction down to two paths. The question that remains is which path will they take if they take one at all.

Personally, I lean toward the indie rock influences in the top six tracks because the band has the talent to keep their music instrumentally interesting. It's the finesse that makes their music memorable, even if Povinsky is strong enough to carry a pop band with his lyrical and vocal talents as Guillotine, Bonnie, and Lightening Tent prove. It's good indie pop, but not as strong as tracks like Born To Ruin.

Wildlife Takes On The Heart With 5.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Had the entire album carried the strength of the first six tracks, this album would have rocked even higher. Even so, ...On The Heart is decidedly dynamic in that Povinsky and Wildlife set out to pay homage to the heart, exploring every airy elation and dark corner of passion. In that, they succeed.

On The Heart by Wildlife is up on Amazon. You can download On The Heart from iTunes. Their next show in Toronto is right around the corner. Visit Facebook for upcoming tour dates and expect more from the band. They have potential in either direction, even if we have our preferences.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hotel Lucia Has Surprises In Portland

Hotel Lucia
Portland architecture has always been mysterious to me. Much of it is a hodgepodge of old and fresh, historic and modern, classic and period trendy. Some of this is misleading because the city almost always leans new on the inside.

The Hotel Lucia is like that. On the outside, the hotel is a historic landmark of sorts. It was opened as an extension to the Imperial Hotel in about 1908, which sometimes causes confusion because both it and its neighbor, Hotel Vintage Plaza, can make the claim to have been the Imperial Hotel.

But unlike its former parent, which is now owned by Kimpton Hotels, Hotel Lucia made the move toward a more modern interior decor with Provenance Hotels. It happened a little more than ten years ago when another hotel group bought the extension and remodeled it into a standalone 127-room boutique. And the look of it today is punctuated by the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist David Hume Kennerly.

An unassuming stylish stop in the heart of Portland. 

Not everyone knows the name Kennerly, but some people know his work. An Oregon native, he won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for the photos he took in Vietnam.  Of course, these aren't the photos you will see in the hotel.

Instead, they have a collection of prints that include Ansel Adams, Jodie Foster, and Ronald Reagan. Taking them in, it immediately becomes clear that Kennerly had/has a talent for capturing portraits as much as photojournalism and landscapes. In fact, this is one of the reasons he has been given access to so many U.S. presidents, starting with President Richard Nixon.

Hotel Lucia
It is these photographs that also lend well to the look of the hotel. It's hip with a neo-retro look: clean lines from the 1950s, an earthy tone from the 1970s, a spaciousness from the 1990s, and expected upgrades from the 2010s. This might sound more eccentric than it is, but all of it somehow comes together seamlessly.

What else do you need to know? The rooms are smallish, but the beds freakishly comfortable. The staff doesn't exhibit any stuffiness, which reinforces the general feel of casual luxury. And the location, it's nearly perfect.

The nearby attractions are made readily accessible in downtown Portland. 

Many of the best attractions are within relatively easy walking distance of the hotel, which is centered in the heart of the downtown shopping district, five blocks from Pioneer Place Mall, eight blocks from the Portland Center for Performing Arts, and nine blocks from Portland Art Museum.

Add the museum to the must-see list. Opened in 1892, it has amassed more than 40,000 works of art. It frequently attracts international exhibitions and generally had a flair for contemporary art. Just a few years ago, it enlarged specifically for modern art and also includes NW Film Center.

Portland Penny Dinner
In terms of shopping, the two most notable stops (besides Nordstrom) are the Pearl District and Powell's Books. The Pearl District because it is the best known arts and culture hub in Portland and has been since the 1990s. If you happen to be visiting during the first Thursday of the month, sign up for the gallery walk via First Thursday. Powell's Books also deserves some time as one of the largest independent book stores in the United States. Make sure to check for upcoming events before you visit.

In addition to shopping and other nearby sights like the Japanese Gardens and Museum of Science And Industry (home of Mythbusters), Hotel Lucia is has plenty of dining options nearby. Both of its restaurants — Imperial and Portland Penny Dinner — are operated by acclaimed chefs Vitaly Paley and Benjamin Bettinger. Make it a point to have a breakfast sandwich at least once at the Portland Penny Dinner.

Hotel Lucia Makes More Of Downtown Portland With 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While not as playful as its sister hotel, Hotel Deluxe, Hotel Lucia is a perfect location for anyone who wants to take in more of downtown Portland. The room rates are reasonable, the staff is friendly, and the packages are frequent. The only price for staying so close to everything is that some rooms pick up the sounds of Portland nightlife (but only if you aren't part of it).

Portland itself is especially cool in the summer (temperatures rarely reach 80). The summer months also see a little less rain than other other seasons. For hotel and airfare comparisons, start with the top travel deals at Portland is frequently discounted and was named by some travel sites as one of the best destinations last year.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The White Buffalo Joins A Highwayman

The White Buffalo
Anyone who has ever watched Sons Of Anarchy, a television series about a motorcycle club operating out of the small town of Charming, has likely been introduced to the immeasurable talent of singer/songwriter Jake Smith a.k.a The White Buffalo. More than one his songs has been used on the show, usually recognizable as a smoldering and contemplative slice of country folk rock.

Although his repertoire is much more varied than the even-paced Americana country and folk rock picked for productions, most of Smith's songwriting centers on personal journeys. He likes to write songs that show snapshots of life, a glimpse into a bigger picture of someone's life.

Even on those rare occasions when he covers a song written by another songwriter, Smith leans toward the same. His newest single, the second released since November, is no exception. Although he has covered Highwayman during his live performances for years, this is the first time he recorded it.

Highwayman finds a new incarnation for another generation. 

The song itself is one that no singer need take on lightly. It has a history. It was one of several catalysts that sparked a battle between Glen Campbell and Capitol Records. It was the song that sparked the supergroup The Highwayman with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. And it paved the way for one of the most underrated rock songwriters, Jimmy Webb, to receive recognition with a Grammy Award in 1985.

It was originally written in 1977 after Webb had a dream about being an English highwayman in his London suite. When he woke up, he immediately began composing a song about it. As it took shape, the lyrics slowly began to shift from a story about a man with a black cape and pistols into something else.

Smith delivers the time weariness and wisdom of the song with near flawless perfection. You cannot find a better rendition of his cover than the new studio recorded single, but this live version from two years ago cuts very close.

As you can hear, Highwayman isn't just a story about a man, but the incarnation of a soul who exists in four different places throughout time — a highwayman, sailor, construction worker, and starship captain. The four voices were what originally attracted The Highwaymen to adopt the song, even if Campbell had passionately persuaded some of them to cover it before.

With each singer taking a verse, Highwayman has four distinct voices for four highlighted incarnations, even if Webb wrote lyrics for one soul to possess each and every story. In fact, anytime someone sings the song as a solo artist, including Webb, it has a very different feel than when those four legendary talents took it on as the name of their supergroup. This is how it sounds in the hands of the writer.

In comparing Smith to Webb, specifically, Smith clearly makes the cover his own, delivering a deeply passionate rendition that honors the original while giving it additional weight. Although composed on a piano, the potential heaviness of it is made clear by Smith's weary voice and warm guitar.

Often joined by Tommy Andrews (bass) and Matt Lynott (drums) to lay down folk rock albums, sometimes with a touch of country, Smith continues to double down on demonstrating how much he has grown as a performer. You can learn a little more about him from an earlier review of his album Lost And Found. The band has been around since 2002.

Highwayman Transcends Once Again At 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There is almost nothing better than to appreciate the power of a song as it evolves from one decade to the next. The White Buffalo makes it modern again, but not without giving it a twist of timelessness. For anyone who likes the White Buffalo, The Whistler - Single is another single that deserves a listen.

You can find the Highwayman by the White Buffalo on Amazon or as a download it from iTunes. You can find earlier versions, including the one by The Highwaymen or Jimmy Webb, from the same outlets. For more from the White Buffalo, including tour schedules, visit them on Facebook.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Alex Berenson Traps The Night Ranger

The Night Ranger
Alex Berenson hits on a fear that cuts deep into the psyche of international aid work and tourism. His novel, The Night Ranger, tracks four American students who decide to spend their first few months as recent college graduates at a Somali refugee camp near Dadaab, Kenya.

The work is hard. The conditions are filthy. The heat is unbearable. So when Scott Thompson suggested the four of them escape for a few days to the island town of Lamu, there was little resistance. Besides, Thompson, whose uncle oversaw the relief group, had arranged all the transportation.

If anything, escaping for a few days after 12 weeks of work sounded like one of the reasons Gwen Murphy had agreed to to join her boyfriend Thompson anyway. After their volunteer service, they intended to take a safari. Her friend Hailey Broder, who wanted to pad her med school application, was all for it too. And Owen Broder, who Murphy suspected had a crush on her, was equally anxious too.

Not one of them will reach their destination.

When the foursome and their guide reach the camp's guardhouse, one of the guards mentions that the Kenyan police have set up a roadblock between the camp and Dadaab. He suggests an alternate route, an unpaved road that might even be a shortcut. It was a shortcut, but not to Garissa, Bakafi, Mokowe or any town that would lead to Lamu.

When they wake up, all four of them are bound and hooded. Their captors immediately tell them not to expect food until they prove they won't be any trouble. Water, on the other hand, is conditional. As long as they don't talk, they will be given just enough to survive until they are properly ransomed.

At least that is what the kidnappers expect to happen. What they don't know is that one of Murphy's schoolmate's father is a former CIA agent named John Wells. And Wells will do almost anything to earn even the slimmest chance to reconnect with his estranged son.

Anyone familiar with author Berenson will know the name as The Night Ranger is the seventh book in the John Wells series. However, unlike other operations, this one doesn't take place in the more familiar Middle East and China nor is it sanctioned by by the CIA. Wells will be operating alone.

It's this unfamiliar setting that also makes The Night Ranger well-suited as a late series introduction to Wells. The story stands on its own, recasting Wells as a retired CIA agent who is struggling to put his life together while attempting to manage an adrenaline/mission addiction that comes with laying your life on the line.

A couple of graphs to introduce author Alex Berenson. 

Born in 1973, Alex Berenson grew up in Englewood, New Jersey. After graduating high school, Berenson was admitted to Yale University where he earned degrees in history and economics before deciding to become a reporter.

In 1996, he joined the Denver Post. Three years later, he accepted an offer by the New York Times. It was working for the New York Times that gave him the opportunity to serve as a correspondent in Iraq, which provided his inspiration to write a debut novel.

Like many journalists, Berenson has a crisp voice and no-nonsense but occasionally cynical style. This especially comes across in his portrayal of the kidnapped students, who often come across as aloof and spoiled narcissists. Much more interesting is Wells, whom Berenson knows so well, and Little Wizard, a Somalian bandit leader that intercepts the original kidnappers in order to claim any ransom.

In fact, it is through Little Wizard that Berenson may reveal where his own empathy can be found. While cold blooded, Little Wizard is surprisingly resolute in his desire to be honorable. In making him this way, Berenson casts a light on the plight of the Somalians, first as refugees and then as militants.

The Night Ranger By Alex Berenson Steals 4.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sometimes Berenson writes too tight for his own good, creating the impression that his characters are clipped or uncaring. Maybe they are in some cases. But otherwise, he excels at making foreign worlds accessible, filling his fiction with details that add cultural depth into the conditions and culture of countries like Kenya and Somalia. This alone makes his work worthwhile reading.

The Night Ranger by Alex Berenson is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble also carries The Night Ranger. It can also be downloaded for iBooks, which carries a free short story preview. Even if you have the book, get the preview. It includes the untold story of the kidnapping.

The audiobook, which is narrated by George Guidall, can be found on iTunes. Guidall is especially good at capturing the voice of Wells and Little Wizard, two men who develop a respect for each other despite fate positioning them on opposing sides.