Thursday, October 31, 2013

Swellers Light Up Behind Closed Doors

The Swellers
A little more than a decade ago, Nick and Jonathan Diener invited a friend over to jam together for a few days in their Fenton, Michigan, home. By the end of it, The Swellers had put together a solid 3-track demo that they could shop around Flint, Michigan. Flint Local 432 booked them within a week.

Since, The Swellers have managed to remain mostly relevant in pop punk circles, producing several albums that were good enough to keep them alive but never establishing a clear trajectory. Surviving in such a state is never easy, especially given the number of label shake ups and line-up changes the band has endured.

The truth is that they almost didn't endure, which is what led to the DIY release of Running Out Of Places To Go and a seven-month near hiatus. The EP, released last year, gained just enough traction for No Sleep Records to take notice and give the band some new ground. The result is a short, compact album.

The Light Under Closed Doors is their best showing since Ups and Downsizing. 

The new album plays out at a surprisingly brisk pace, blowing through all ten track in less than half an hour. Most tracks play under the three-minute mark. The longest closes in on four minutes.

"This record feels a lot different than anything we've done,” says Jonathan Diener (drummer). “The way the songs were written, the way it was recorded, even the artwork all have this organic feeling about them. We went back to basics and let the songs and emotion do the talking for us."

What has changed is the sturdiness of the sound. What hasn't changed is the desperation of the band. And the biggest takeaway from the album is that The Swellers have found a second wind with the Diener brothers and Ryan Collins (guitar) and Anto Boros (bass). It's a sharply produced and punchy album.

The best place to start is at the top with Should. The track is a good foreshadow for the rest of the album. The lyrics are simple and honest, setting a show-opening pace for the band. This is followed up immediately by Big Hearts, which is considerably rawer in its vocals and instrumentals.

Skipping over Get Social, High/Low drops down into a more methodical pace, with some pronounced Weezer influences. Nick Diener had even sent the demo of the song to get on the Weezer cruise.

The song is sad and eerie, something the band was able to capture without a budget. Much of it was filmed in Fenton to accentuate the suburban imagery and fairy tale forests. It's also named after a side project that the Diener brothers were working on before circling back to The Swellers.

Knowing this gives the meaning a different spin. In total, four of the tracks were meant to kick off a new side project before they decided the material was really meant to help the band find new footing.

They find that with a bit more originality in the punkier Great Lakes State. This track, perhaps more than any other, convincingly delivers a real sound, as if the band simply stepped into a room and knocked out what was in their heads.

"The feeling of writing and recording our EP was incredible, so we wanted to do something similar for this record,” adds vocalist/guitarist Nick Diener. “You can nod your head through the whole thing. Marc Hudson  [Saves The Day, Taking Back Sunday] did an amazing job capturing what I feel is the first record that sounds like us in a live setting."

The Light Under Closed Doors By The Swellers Unlocks 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Also check out the underrated but lyrically-smart Becoming Self-Aware, alternative rock-orieinted Friends Again (We Can't Be), and settled closure of Call It A Night. The latter isn't great, but it's a great glimmer of personal for a band opening up a new chapter.

You can pick up the The Light Under Closed Doors by The Swellers from Amazon. The album can also be downloaded from iTunes or order the vinyl from Barnes & Noble. Another interesting update from the band reveals that they booked 46 shows in 44 days simply by letting fans invite them over to local venues. Pretty cool. Check their schedule on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sonos Creates Its Smallest Speaker Yet

Ever since Sonos emerged as the hands-down best wireless multi-room audio solution on the market, there has only been one barrier between it and a broader audience — price point. But even that has changed this year.

Sonos has developed the tiniest, cheapest wireless speaker yet. The new Play: 1 bookshelf speaker produces enough big sound for small- and medium-sized rooms for $100 less than any previous offer.

The new addition will appeal to those who always wanted to try Sonos, but were concerned about any investment. And, even more likely, the new Play: 1 is perfect for someone like me. I own the Bridge, Connect (living room) and one Play: 3 speaker (bedroom), but always wanted to add one to the kitchen.

Play: 1 speakers fill every corner with music.

Sonos didn't scrimp on the size of the design. The Play: 1 comes with two custom-designed drivers with dedicated amps. It's easy enough to integrate into any existing Sonos system or works out well enough on its own.

The rich, powerful sound is largely produced by a 3.5-inch mid-woofer and tweeter. They produce a surprising amount of sound, performing especially clear highs and decent lows despite the size. In terms of HiFi sound, the Play: 1 is every bit as good as its bigger predecessors (only smaller).

The real breakthrough, of course, is that the Play: 1 lets you access music from your music library or any music streaming services you might have. If the only device you have is a smart phone or tablet, then Sonos is the perfect solution, negating the need for attaching, docking, or otherwise tying up your mobile devices to play music in every room of your house. Every room with a speaker, anyway.

The first Play: 1 speaker doesn't come on its own (for now). It comes with the Bridge, which connects to any router with a standard Ethernet cable. The Bridge gives the speaker more portability because it frees it up from having to be connected to the router.

Simply put, the Bridge is what gives your Sonos system the ability to expand its wireless range throughout the house. According to Sonos, the Bridge is ready to handle up to 32 rooms out of the box (which is important to know because so many people have 32 rooms to fill). Suffice to say that once you have even one Play: 1 and the Bridge, adding more Sonos components will be addictive.

Some additional tips for serious Sonos fans.

What makes the Play: 1 perfect for me is that I've been putting off purchasing additional components until now. It makes more sense, especially because the Play: 1 can fill more rooms (and create the illusion that you have a much bigger system than you do). It's easy to mix in other products.

There are only a few limitations of note. You can pair two Play: 1 speakers for real stereo sound, but you cannot pair it with a Play: 3 speaker for stereo sound. In order to achieve stereo sound with a Play: 3 speaker, you need another one.

As part of a home theater system, Play: 1 is perfect for anyone who already has the Playbar component. The Playbar was specially designed for achieving HiFi sound from a television, with a nine speaker design. The Play: 1 works perfectly as rear speakers for surround sound.

While I don't own a Playbar, everyone who does seems legitimately impressed by it as a home theater speaker that also functions perfectly with music libraries and speakers too. That always was the point. Sonos is a system designed from the beginning to be as adaptable and expandable as you want it to be.

The Play: 1 Speakers By Sonos Sounds Off 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For a long time now, I've always considered Sonos the best alternative to Bluetooth speakers. They just sound better for all-around sound. While I would like to see some improvements to the iOS app (and I would assume Android owners feel the same way), it continues to raise the wireless sound standard.

The best place to purchase Sonos is from the company direct. However, other outlets also carry the speakers and components, including some at Amazon. As a closing note, it's also good to know that Sonos doesn't require iOS or Android products. It also makes a standalone remote.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Best Coast Sharpens The Fade Away

Best Coast
Bethany Cosentino and Bob Bruno have always put down the right lo-fi pop drone into Best Coast. Not this time, exactly. Fade Away abandons some of the fogged up cloudiness and sharpens up their prog rock leanings.

There is a maturity to the sound now, which makes sense given that the Glendale girl who used to have birthday parties at a bowling alley has grown up. She has been slowing down steadily since her twenties. You can almost hear it in the albums at times, as each one has matured along with her.

Fade Away feels like a natural progression as the duo slides around sub genres. The vocals are clearer and the instrumentals more substantial as they move toward a more sophisticated temperament.

Fade Away makes an even trade for Best Coast.

There is a trade off in sacrificing the spontaneity of garage rock and surf pop, even if the band has kept their fifties and sixties sensibilities about them. The album doesn't sound as if it was recorded with reckless abandon. It's well crafted, with a carefulness not associated with Best Coast.

There are times on Fade Away that this stand-up-and-tell-it attitude still comes out. Who I Have Become? is one of them. As the third track down the album, it's the first time Cosentino puts on an invitation to ease into the music and her unique brand of honest uncertainty.

Everything about that track rings true as Cosentino cruises across divides that separate her feelings from her life. She's not complaining, but recognizes that finding security in life is its own kind of prison. Bruno also buzzes up the foundation with an addictive, restless steadiness.

Who I Have Become? would have been a brilliant lead-off song for the album, but Cosentino chose I Don't Know How instead. The reason was simple and it's pretty easy to respect it. I Don't Know How sounds the least like Best Coast.

It was specifically chosen because they both love the vibe despite it being the one song that sounds the least like Best Coast. After opening with a folk-country flair, the track eventually breaks out of its slow-paced and somber one-two beat before crushing it as an alternative pop track.

I wouldn't be surprised to think that this song, slightly more than the others, is the one that Cosentino relates to the most. The reflective quality of the lyrics can be mesmerizing as she delivers a pitch perfect harmony that contemplates how she got where she is today.

The question of identity haunts the album throughout.

Everybody feels like that sometimes, and Cosentino feels like that more than not on Fade Away. Fear Of My Identity solidifies this ever-present theme of traveling along and eventually looking back in wonderment at how you got there. In this case, Fear Of My Identity is about expectations that others lay out for you. The recording is rougher, indicative of Best Coast's previous albums.

The balance of the album — This Lonely Morning, I Wanna Know, and Fade Away — are all solid tracks that underscore an effort to bring out the vocals and add clarity to the instruments. Of the three, Fade Away is the slowest and among the most moving.

That leaves Baby I'm Crying, which is a nicely produced near crooner. Of the seven tracks that deliver around 25 minutes of play, it is probably the weakest. The shame of it is that is has all of the right elements but the percussion's steadiness becomes a bit of a distraction. Still, the girl can sing. And that, along with her long-time musical partner Bruno, is enough reason to own the album.

Fade Away Drifts In And Over 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While Fade Away doesn't have the cohesion one would expect from an album of uncertainty, mostly because of the way each track drops in and out of certain feelings, it still creates a striking set for Best Coast. On one hand, Fade Away doesn't seem like an album you need to own beyond a few tracks. But on the other hand, it is impossibly difficult to separate out which songs those might be.

Fade Away by Best Coast is available on Amazon. You can also download it from iTunes or pick the vinyl up from Barnes & Noble. The album has received some mixed reviews, but Best Coast fans are thrilled with it. I wouldn't be surprised if it attracts some new listeners. For touring information, turn to Facebook.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Wenger Packs Are Functionally Tough

Wenger Zermatt backpack
About eight years ago, the family-owned Swiss company Victorinox took over Wenger, which was headquartered in Delémont. What this meant for Wenger is that it would remain a Swiss company, but step back from product duplication that had split the Swiss Army brand into two parts.

This effectively ended the 1908 compromise, which gave Victorinox permission to call its Swiss Army products "original" and Wenger to call its Swiss Army products "genuine." But beyond that, Wenger had the opportunity to refine some of its product lines, including daypacks and backpacks.

Wenger makes a superior Swiss backpack.

The 18-inch Wenger Zermatt backpack (above) is a good example. It combines functionality and style in a daypack, making it size adjustable to minimize any unneeded bulk. Along with the size adjustment, it is especially comfortable with padded straps designed to minimize sore shoulders.

Wenger backpacks have always stood out for their abundance of pockets and the Wenger Zermatt is no exception. The front pocket has a built-in internal organizer, making it functional for day hikes or, if you prefer, a good-sized laptop and its accessories.

Another important quality of the backpack is the airflow technology. Wenger manufactures most of its backpacks with a contoured shape to help minimize sweat. But beyond the shape, the super lightweight material itself is designed to minimize heat and friction.

The Wenger Zermatt backpack also comes with a built-in bungee cord, but I've only used it to tighten down the pack. There are custom zipper pulls too, making it one of the most versatile lightweight packs I've owned. It only weighs a little over a pound on its own.

At the same time, the backpack is durable enough to take a beating. The nylon thread might be lightweight, but it is made to take a sustainable amount of abuse, from the rubber loop zippers to the optional sternum strap for added security.

Wenger also makes a backpack specific for computer packers.

Wenger Valve backpack
While I prefer the more sport-minded daypack in terms of versatility, Wenger does make one of the better computer backpacks too. When you shop around, the bag you want to look for is the Valve.

The entire design concept of the backpack was to make it checkpoint friendly for people who travel with iPads, tablets, or 15-16-inch laptops. Along with specific storage space for electronics, the backpack has a file compartment that fits extra papers and documents, an essentials organizer with interior zippered pocket, and trolley strap that keeps the bag in place on a rolling suitcase.

The side water bottle pockets are mesh and the overall feel of the bag is durable. The only downside, when compared to my bag, is that this backpack does have some added heft to it. It weighs three pounds when it's empty (although I suppose the weigh is negligible when electronics are added).

A couple more graphs about Wenger.

Not everybody knows it, but Wenger is currently celebrating 120 years of service. And service is an especially good word because every able-bodied Swiss male is required to serve and remain in the army as a reservist until age 50. As a condition of preparedness, each soldier was and is provided a folding pocketknife as part of a mandate the originated in 1886.

For people who wonder about the compromise of 1908, it's simple enough to understand. Originally, Victorinox was the maker of the Swiss Army knife in the German-speaking canton of Schwyz but Wenger developed better mass production in the French-speaking canton of Jura. But nowadays, both companies are equally committed to designing high quality items that meet the needs of the Swiss Army and the world.

The Wenger Zermatt Backpack Stands Out At 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a backpack, the Wenger Zermatt meets every imaginable need for people who plan to do more than tote a computer around. It's a multifunctional bag that is easy to pack up and carry. But if you do need something a bit more checkpoint friendly than outdoors savvy, the Valve is fine too.

You can find the Wenger Zermatt backpack at the Swiss Army Depot. The same outlet also carries the Wenger Valve backpack for checkpoint-friendly commuters. The Swiss Army Depot has several other models as well, including the Zermatt backpack in black or gray. Amazon also carries a Wenger Computer Backpack, along with several other models. All are reasonably priced.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Deap Vally Serves Up Some Sistrionix

Deap Vally by Bryan Sheffield
It took a few extra weeks for the San Fernando duo Deap Vally to drop Sistrionix, but the delay didn't do anything to dull the ferociousness of their debut. Lindsey Troy (guitar/vocals) and Julie Edwards (drums) continue to expand upon the cult following they earned with live gigs in Los Angeles.

Since then, they've worked their way up to opening for bigger acts like Muse and the Vaccines before releasing their exclusive EP Get Deap!, which heavily showcased songs from the upcoming album. Around the same time, the band was also featured on a music compilation from the fourth series of True Blood (She's A Wanderer) and a more obscure music compilation called 1234 (Gonna Make My Own Money) put out by LOAF.

While Gonna Make My Own Money appears on Sistrionix, the compilation carries its own distinctiveness. It drones whereas the album version appears to be the punchier mix. The other compilation track, She's A Wanderer, did not make it onto the album.

The immediacy of Deap Vally is addictive but offers little diversity.

On the whole, the album is breaks some ground as a hard-hitting rock album heavily influenced by the big sound of blues. Where the duo does lose some luster is that the sound they make doesn't leave enough room for variation. Long segments seem like they are stuck in the same gear.

This isn't necessarily a band thing, especially because the band is known to break its material down into some interesting and mood inducing formats during live shows. But it does make the atmosphere considerably more one-dimensional than it could have been. Deap Vally has more depth than formula.

So much like the EP released last May, the dialed-down blues and amped up rock is primal enough to catch your breath along with your attention. The only real drawback is that it works best in smaller doses. In other words, most of the tracks can punch off a playlist, just not each other. There are exceptions, of course. And Baby I Call Hell is included among those exceptions.

As the second track off the album, Baby I Call Hell epitomizes the sound that the duo and Lar Stalfors (the Mars Volta, Cold War Kids) have put together. Deap Vally excels at delivering straightforward lyrics that lay down a toughness and dare every man within earshot to measure up.

Likewise, Bad For My Body doesn't directly address men but carries the same kind of seduction. Troy wails on and on about doing things bad enough that their mothers might blush. The percussion-heavy foundation drives the point home.

Of course, not every song from Sistrionix relies on seduction. The opener, End Of The World, is pointed social-political commentary that reminds everyone that life is too short for hate and war. In sum, it wouldn't make any sense to be hateful when faced with the end of the world so we might as well get along as if it really was the end.

Other standouts from the album include the riveting tribal-like yells of Gonna Make My Own Money, the smoothly paced rocker Lies, and the slow burn of Six Feet Under. Aside from those, Walk Of Shame is one of the more surprising outbursts on the album, clocking in under two minutes.

Other tracks like Creeplife sustain the sound but not the attitude. Your Love draws boundaries as opposed to issuing stalker warnings, but also does more to put up barriers than stick to the strong girl persona. Woman Of Intention also feels misdirected. Raw Material is much smarter, simply stating that if we are raw materials then it is our right to create ourselves however we want.

Sistrionix By Deap Vally Serves Up 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sistrionix By Deap Vally is a great get the weekend off right starter despite a few buzzkill tracks that get in the way of an otherwise independent rock girl smash. Maybe their material just works best when they are fighting for themselves or everyone as opposed to fighting against someone.

Sistrionix by Deap Vally can be fond on Amazon. You can also order the album from Barnes & Noble or download it from iTunes. The band is currently touring in the United Kingdom and will expand its European tour through December. You can find more play dates by visiting them on Facebook.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Khoury Casts Long Rasputin's Shadow

Rasputin's Shadow
Grigori Rasputin was neither a monk nor a saint, but even the Orthodox Church held him in high regard as a pilgrim. Aside from his knowledge and ability to explain the Bible in simple terms, he was well regarded by his followers as a psychic and faith healer.

It was these very powers that eventually led Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna to invite Rasputin to the royal palace. They hoped he could heal the hemophilia that afflicted their only son. From that point forward, Rasputin's influence grew to include the whole of the Russian monarchy.

Was this influence divinely inspired, darkly mystical, or a rouse made possible with a technological breakthrough of sorts? The world may never know. After his brutal murder, Rasputin became immediately enigmatic in that history cast him as everything from righteous minister to madman.

What if the power to beguile could be bundled for the modern era.

Rasputin's Shadow cleverly casts itself across an entire century as Russian agents in the present day seek to detain Leo Sokolov in New York City. They want to find him because he has a secret. He almost wants to be found because they already have his wife.

It seems the retired physics teacher from Russia has rediscovered something from the past, a remnant from his father who once followed Rasputin and understood at least some of the mysterious man's secrets. Now amplified for the modern world, Sokolov wishes he could undo his decision to pursue it again.

RasputinAs a weapon, his breakthrough will never be safe in the hands of anyone. The last time it was used on a grand scale, an entire mining operation became a death camp as the miners began to inexplicably kill each other to the last man. The scene was so horrific, it left the perpetrators stunned before blowing up the entire camp in an effort to hide the evidence.

A threat from the past reappears in New York. 

FBI agent Sean Reilly, still reeling from the effects of his son being brainwashed by a CIA mind control spook, stumbles onto the case after being dispatched to a suicide. Except the man, a Russian embassy attaché, never jumped out of a fourth-floor window in Queens.

This one call quickly puts Reilly on a collision course with international implications. As what originally appears to be a Russian conflict with American agents and law enforcement caught in the middle becomes a threat to national security, Reilly must find out who is behind it and how to stop it.

A few graphs about author Raymond Khoury. 

Raymond Khoury
After he was born in Beirut, Raymond Khoury and his parents emigrated to America after the outbreak of the civil war. He was only 14. Later, he would return to attend a university and study architecture. When the civil war broke out a few weeks after he graduated, he was luckily evacuated by the Marine Corps.

He landed in London and joined an architecture practice that led to investment banking. It wasn't until much later that he would write The Maid Of Buttermere (adapted from Melvyn Bragg's novel) and then The Last Templar as screenplays. After a stint as a television series writer, he turned to novels.

Rasputin's Shadow is a briskly paced thriller, split between Rasputin's time and the present day. The end of the Cold War also plays a prominent role in the storyline as Khoury frames up post-communist Russia as a relatively bleak trade from bad to worse.

Rasputin's Shadow By Raymond Khoury Covers 4.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The story is sharp and the pacing brisk, but the craft feels off at times. Some of this can be attributed to the past-present arrangement and switch from third to first person perspectives. When Rasputin's Shadow works, it is as a fictionalized historical thriller, with the thriller being mostly confined to the present.

Rasputin's Shadow by Raymond Koury is available on Amazon. You can also download the book for iTunes or find the novel at Barnes & Noble. The audiobook is narrated by Richard Ferrone, who does a particularly good job as Reilly, who dominates the last third of the book.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cage The Elephant Warps Melophobia

Cage The Elephant
Cage The Elephant isn't a band most people would readily expect to experiment themselves into an entirely new direction. But for anyone who wasn't convinced Thank You, Happy Birthday marked a transition, Melophobia recreates Cage The Elephant into a triumphantly fresh throwback sound for the here and now.

It wouldn't be all that surprising to think that this was the album Matthew Shultz wanted to produce three years ago. Sure, there are still some alternative rock elements ever present on Melophobia, but the thrust of it turns the creative dial back toward sixties garage rock and Brit pop with just a dash of punk.

Melophobia moves Cage The Elephant in a triumphant direction. 

The album took longer than most Cage The Elephant releases, with the band starting the creative process almost a year ago. While Shultz says that the album practically wrote itself, he also says the production was riddled with adversity. Even two months before the release date, he was still caught up in the post struggle of it.

"Part of me was very happy with it and part of me wondered whether it was just a mother's love," he said then. "There were also moments, because of all the things we went through, I couldn't stand the record."

Shultz doesn't have to wonder any more. With the album release days behind the band from Bowling Green, Melophobia has made its mark. The album is easily on par with if not better than anything the band has put out before, with Come A Little Closer providing a bridge between their old and new material.

The track, which was released in advance of the album, plays out like a post-argument lull after two combatants have said everything they have to say and are worn out by the effort. Shultz captures the moment effortlessly, matching painfully patient vocals to desperate lyrics that convey "I didn't mean to say all that" but without using those words.

"Come a little closer, baby," he beckons instead. "I feel like layin' you down on a bed of sweet surrender where we can work it all out."

Even more telling than that well-crafted track are the two that bookend it on the album. Spiderhead is a slightly paranoid sixties-styled garage rocker. Telescope is an easygoing space trip that strips away some of the trivial, meaningless, and routine of everyday mundane. It's engrossing and a casual uplift.

From there, the album gets groovy. It's Just Forever is a mildly twisted and almost satyrical stab at pledging eternal love. The song is punctuated by several lines belted out by the always brilliant guest Alison Mosshart (The Kills, The Dead Weather, and anybody who can nab her for one track).

The diverse sampling of sound continues on with the driving, sometimes surfy indie rockers Halo and Black Widow, the ease and sentimentality of the effects-rich Hypocrite, and the distorted snarl and grind of Teeth. The last track, Cigarette Daydreams, brings everything back down into a melodic daydream hum-along.

With only ten tracks, all of them tightly composed and capable of standing alone, Melophopia is over before you know it. And that's almost a shame because it's around the tenth song that you begin to realize Shultz (vocals), Brad Shultz (guitar), Lincoln Parish (rhythm guitar), Daniel Tichenor (bass), and Jared Champion (drums) just produced their finest album.

Melophobia By Cage The Elephant Soars 9.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Some people will likely ding the album for the abundance of ideals that make it all too apparent that all five members did significant work on their own. At the same time, that speaks to the beauty of the album. Any time a band spends five heavy touring years on the road, takes some time to invest in their individual lives, and then reunites with an ensemble of different directions, there is sure to be something surreal about the experience.

In this case, the experience plays out as an impeccably entertaining third album. You can find Melophobia by Cage The Elephant on Amazon. You can also find the LP at Barnes & Noble or download it from iTunes. The band will begin touring in the fall, opening for Muse (although some fans wonder if it's time that this band starts to headline). Touring dates can be found on Facebook.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sony Shoots In The Right Direction

Sony QX10
There are several manufacturers rethinking how cameras might remain relevant in a smart phone world. Sony is one of them, with two new lens designs developed to work with smart phones. All you have to do is attach them or not. With the NFC/Wi-Fi connection, they work together regardless.

The more accessible solution transforms your phone into an 18MB camera. The other transforms it into something comparable to a DSLR camera. The price difference between the two is steep, about $250.

I tried the former, but not the latter. Between the price points and where the product seems to be in its development timeline, trying the QX10 first felt like common sense. For the price that Sony set the QX100, the more advanced smart lens is competing with some standalone DSLR cameras.

The QX10 by Sony shoots better than bare. 

The long and short of the QX10 lens is that it is comparable to a mid-range point-and-click camera sporting an 18.9 megapixel sensor. This is significantly bigger than most built-in smart phone lenses. It also provides a 10x optical zoom with very little distortion.

Other bonuses include that it is equipped with Sony's image stabilization features, exposure compensation (+/- 2.0 EV, 1/3 EV step), and built-in white balance. It can also record MP4: 12M (1440x1080, 30 fps). The stereo speaker is built into the lens. Some people like the video better than the stills.

QX10 Smart Lens
The camera attaches to the smart phone via an embedded bayonet mount. The mount can be adjusted, accommodating most phones and cases. The grips are rubber so there isn't much fear of damaging the phone. Counting the mount, the lens extends about 1.5 inches off the back of the phone.

You can use the lens without the phone, but there aren't many physical controls or a viewfinder. With exception to the basic functions, the lens is largely operated by Sony's PlayMemories application. Mostly, it feels awkward unattached, like trying to line something up in a mirror. The one exception is when the lens is set on a tripod for a static shoot or, with proper planning, a nice self-portrait or shot with friends.

Overall, the image quality is largely better than the smart phone but not always on par with comparable cameras. I noted some overexposure issues on occasion. Low light shots were particularly muted.

The low light shooting was especially bothersome to me. The lens does not include a flash nor will it work with the smart phone light. One solution might be to turn the light on and then launch the application, but this won't work with an iPhone. The bottom line is that it is better, but I'm not sure it's always better enough.

Much like other reviewers have noted, it seems close to a stripped down Cyber-Shot DSC-WX150 with Wi-Fi. You see, the side-by-side specs look similar, but performance varies. This lens requires some patience. There is a delay between turing everything on and connecting to the smart phone, anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds after the initial setup, and the irritation of a lost signal or depleted battery.

The lens relies on Sony's PlayMemories application. 

QX10, white
Sometimes it's difficult to tell whether or not the performance is a hardware or software issue. The app itself is straightforward. There is a zoom toggle and shutter release (which can also be operated from the lens) as part of the viewfinder.

The settings include an autofocus, advanced autofocus (e.g., macro, etc.), and white balance. All in all, it's a point-and-shoot camera that, in terms of working with the iPhone, takes advantage of a tap-screen focus but not everything iPhone owners have become accustomed to. Sony seems to know it too.

It released the API and is hoping third-party apps will take an interest. Right now, however, even sharing photos to places like Instagram or Facebook means closing the PlayMemories app and then uploading the photo from the smart phone library (where photos are saved in addition to the microSD card in the lens).

The QX10 Lens By Sony Steps Up At 4.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The first time you see the QX10, it's hard not to become excited. It looks and feels like a glimpse into the future, one where smart phones are armed with an arsenal of hardware to make them even better. In that regard, the Sony QX10 is a step in the right direction even if the camera feels first generation.

As third-party applications become readily available, I expect the lens will become a hero for doing its primary job — providing better than smart phone pictures without requiring you to carry around another camera and accessories. Both the QX10 and QX100 come in black and white (and gold). Look for the Sony QX10 4.45-44.5mm Smart Lens on Amazon.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Pearl Jam Strikes A Lightning Bolt

Eddie Vedder
It's almost impossible to write a review about Pearl Jam without a biased lens. And it is perhaps that biased lens that has pigeonholed Lightning Bolt into any number of assessments that have everything to do with the reviewer (and sometimes the band) and nothing to do with the album.

So let's put everything into perspective and get the obvious out of the way. Lighting Bolt is not the greatest album that Pearl Jam has ever recorded. But Lighting Bolt is light years ahead of most albums.

The album is not an allegory for aging rock bands. Pearl Jam did not put themselves on cruise control. Eddie Vedder is in a different place as a singer-songwriter. And how much you love the album will likely depend upon if you are in the same place.

Lighting Bolt hits a dozen notes, many of them brilliant. 

Sirens is an obvious place to start as one of the first tracks to tease the album. Before Vedder ever added lyrics, Mike McCready wrote it two years ago after he attended a Roger Waters concert. This well-publicized point has driven some Pink Floyd references in reviews, all of which miss the point.

The point is that it is a classic alternative rock take on a power ballad. And as such, it's not a power ballad but a deeply contemplative piece about love and mortality. There is an overwhelming element of grace brought into the track once Vedder put words to it. McCready says he was almost brought to tears.

To get to Sirens, you have to move through the first three tracks. Getaway is all right, a track about tolerance that attempts to power out an opener. My Father's Son is an experimentally oddball track that strains Vedder's vocal ability. And that leaves the second song, Mind Your Manners, which is by far the better track.

It's this thrasher that became the lead single for the album in July. There are two things to take away from it: Vedder's signature smoky voice and Matt Cameron crashing on the drums.

Lightning Bolt almost feels like Pearl Jam rolled itself back an extra decade. It's a catchy track more reminiscent of the arena rock that alternative bands eventually challenged. If it comes across as too pat for a Pearl Jam fan, Infallible will elevate those expectations again. The song, which was co-written by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament (lyrics by Vedder), layers the instruments to create some splendid melodic depth with darker lyrics tied to fate and temptation. Nobody's perfect.

Other standouts on the album include Pendulum, which was originally written for Backspacer; Sleeping By Myself, which was originally released as a ukulele tune; and Future Days, which catches the band's world weariness in a time capsule. It's a brilliant way to close the album.

Yellow Moon and the other tracks are fine too. The back story that McCready championed Yellow Moon makes it more interesting. The track is clearly unique and most people will be glad that it made the cut. If it would have been cut, it wouldn't have been for the song as much as the tempo. The pace of the album swirls more than it trashes, with Yellow Moon adding to that mystique.

Some might say the album mostly finds the band sitting comfortably far away from its formative years, but I would disagree. The album isn't comfortable as much as conscious of their strengths. At the same time, there are plenty of places the band moves to push out with something more experimental. To be honest, it doesn't always work but it does work more than it doesn't. Risks are like that and I'm glad they still take them.

Lightning Bolt By Pearl Jam Strike 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There are no duds on the album, but there are some tracks that have a hard time keeping up with the best tracks. That isn't because the band isn't trying. It has more to do with stretching their creative legs. Sometimes that works and sometimes it conjures up memories of what one used to expect from alternative rock's favorite baritone. But that, as I mentioned before, has more to do with you then them.

You can find Lightning Bolt by Pearl Jam on Amazon or download the album from iTunes. Lightning Bolt is also at Barnes & Noble. Pearl Jam is currently on tour, working their way east to west across the United States. The band will kick off their world tour in Auckland, New Zealand, in January. Visit Facebook for details.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Almost Criminal Breaks Bad With Pot

Almost Criminal
Tate MacLane is brilliant. If he was like any one of a thousand other brilliant kids, his biggest hardship after high school would be choosing among the dozens of college and university scholarships offered.

Any of them would be happy to have MacLane. He was a prodigy, graduating from high school at age 14. In fact, this is almost exactly how it played out. He didn't think twice after receiving a long and glowing acceptance letter with the promise of a full scholarship until it didn't work out.

After being tossed out for socialization issues and burdened with a once-famous mother undone by trying to survive breast cancer, MacLane (now age 17) is supporting his mom and younger sister by working at a coffee shop in Wallace, British Columbia. His prospects seem grim.

For the past three years, he has dreamed about going back to school in Vancouver. He has even been accepted to attend the same school as the lesbian who caught his interest. This time around, however, he doesn't have the same kind of acceptance letter. It's much shorter, with no offer of tuition.

It all started in a coffee shop when a customer asked a favor. 

The favor seemed harmless, even if it was obvious. Randle Kennedy had an envelope for another customer and wanted MacLane to deliver it. Specifically, he wanted MacLane to deliver it to the woman on the other side of an aquarium shortly after he left.

"She knows I'm here, this is no surprise. No one's going to make a scene," he promised.

A little customer service can go a long way, especially when it's a test. Kennedy had plans for MacLane. He would come in when the lines were longest and always ask for the same thing — a macchiato with its tiny rosette of foam on a demitasse of rich espresso. His tips were always noticed.

His profession was always noticed too. As British Columbia's most prolific producer of boutique marijuana with strains to please the most sophisticated palates, Kennedy was always looking for new talent. MacLane seemed like a good candidate.

He was young, fresh faced and friendly. He was smart, decidedly sharper than anyone who would gravitate toward the profession on their own. And, even better, it was obvious the teen needed money.

This is how MacLane was introduced to the drug trade, even if Kennedy didn't like to think about it that way. He preferred to think of himself as an entrepreneur, someone who would be there at the right time and right place when marijuana eventually would become legalized in Canada and the United States.

He even had the goods to do it. He had strains that could deliver a light contemplative buzz or a mind-warping stone, even if his specialty was making medical varieties for patients with cancer and other ailments. But until that time, he still had to operate under the radar.

As much as medical marijuana earned the biggest profit, the real market was recreational usage. So Kennedy has to split his take with protection, a local biker gang. He has to pay muscle so he can get his product across the border. And he has developed an elaborate system of grow houses, where nobody knows too many people on the inside.

It was just the kind of operation a smart kid like MacLane could benefit from, earning enough over the summer to support his family and paying for his first year of tuition. It all seemed like a slam dunk, except one part. He never expected leaving the business would be harder than getting into it.

A couple of graphs about author E.R. Brown. 

E.R. Brown
E.R. Brown would go by Eric if he could, but then nobody would be able to find him as an author. Eric Brown is just too common (not to mention a better known sci-fi writer with the same name). Besides, he saves that name for his other life as a copywriter and business communicator, writing content for advertisements and annual reports.

As a debut, Almost Criminal stands out as a light crime noir with the whole affair decidedly more pleasant than what most people stateside would expect. Sure, the dealers and bikers will do bad things to people who cross them, but everyone is all smiles until they do. The writing is everything you want out of an entertaining read — direct, crisp, and lightly comical with well-drawn characters and believable events.

Almost Criminal Lights Up 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sometimes the book comes across as slightly too smart for its own good, meaning that MacLane can be logical to the point of aloofness as he feels more like a witness to life than someone experiencing it. This doesn't necessarily spoil the book as much as it keeps the tone light and charming. Almost Criminal is a fun and engaging romp across the lighter side of drug trafficking just north of the border.

You can find Almost Criminal by E.R. Brown on Amazon where it debuted earlier this year. The book is also available from Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is available on iTunes, but the narration leaves something to be desired. While Brandon Massey has the right voice, it takes an exceedingly long time to break away from a monotone delivery and feel like the character.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Red Fang Hooks Whales And Leeches

Red Fang
Red Fang is fun if nothing else. It's a mildly distorted sludge band that never takes itself too seriously.

They couldn't even come up with a title so they named it after a song on their debut album. They wish they had a cooler story to tell, but the name was as rushed as everything else about Whales And Leeches.

The time crunch to record mostly came about because the band was two months out from recording their third album when they first started writing songs. Since they didn't have much of anything on deck, they did what they always do. They write songs they like and hope everyone digs it.

For the most part, digging Whales And Leeches is easy to do. It might be less cohesive than Murder The Mountains, but it's no less heavy in their various tellings of somehow friendly death and doom (thanks in part to the voice of Bryan Giles).

Whales And Leeches becomes more enduring the more it is played. 

They waste no time setting the nighttime tone for Whales And Leeches, opening with a song that Aaron Beam stole back from his side project metal band. DOEN a.k.a. Dead Of Endless Night was inspired by the disappointment he felt over the movie 30 Days Of Night. He was right to write the song. The track is more frightening than the film.

Red Fang follows it up with the song Blood Like Cream, a track that conveys the nature of the band. They know the title is disgusting, which is why they left it intact. The song is about the pressures of family and work pulling people in two directions, with children becoming allegorical blood suckers.

The track is mostly hated by their wives and girlfriends. And yet, Red Fang manages to make it accessible with its riff rock, melodic lyrics, smart instrumentals, and a shout-out chorus.

Skipping No Hope and Crows In Swine, Voices Of The Dead delivers some solid pressure-cooker metal. If the track feels more throwback than usual, it's likely because they ripped the riff from one of the band member's previous lives. Specifically, it's a riff that David Sullivan put together in the 1990s.

They changed up it up slightly, but it still conveys the head banger mood the band enjoys laying down. It also reinforces the idea that they all felt frantic writing new material as Behind The Light is also built upon a riff that Red Fang has been trying to work in for years. It fits in right here.

There are several solid songs on Whales And Leeches, but the one must have is the big 7-minute doom metal track Dawn Rising with special guest Mike Scheidt (YOB). Their friend hits some crazy highs, and otherwise adds another layer to a compelling tempo steady track. The fact that it bleeds into the thickly atmospheric Failure is a bonus.

Red Fang makes the most out of mire.

The three tracks that wrap up the album — 1516, This Animal, and Every Little Twist — add dimension to the Red Fang repertoire. While 1516 maintains a somber distorted drone, there are some punk undertones at the core of the song. This Animal lends itself to the percussions managed by John Sherman. Every Little Twist is a perfect melodic chug finish.

The real gems on the album came on as after thoughts. Murder The Mountains, which wasn't released on the album with the same name, makes its studio debut as a bonus track. Along with that, Black Water recaps the side of Red Fang that everyone loves. Slow, methodic and melodic.

Whales And Leeches By Red Fang Rips 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Whales And Leeches isn't Murder The Mountains, and that's all right. Mostly, it lacks the persistent buzz of cohesiveness. Instead, Whales And Leeches comes across more like a bunch of songs. There is nothing wrong with that because it gave the band an opportunity to increase its repertoire. But it also gives off a slightly haphazard vibe that makes the album more of a stopover than something exciting.

You can find Whales & Leeches by Red Fang on Amazon. The album, with bonus tracks, can also be downloaded from iTunes. You can also find the album at Barnes & Noble; just keep in mid that the vinyl edition doesn't carry the bonus tracks (deluxe CDs do). Red Fang is currently on tour, cutting across the western United States. They will head to Europe in January. Check their schedule on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Charm Bracelet For Every Season

Pandora Autumn
There are dozens of different charm bracelets, but one of the most interesting and elusive comes from the Danish company Pandora. The charms themselves aren't attached by clasps. Each one is designed around a hole that slides onto the bracelet instead.

Not only are the bracelets attractive, but they are also designed to keep the charms secure. Unless the reinforced box clasp on the bracelet breaks, it's almost impossible to lose them. And, perhaps more importantly, the box clasps are works of art.

Almost all of them are made with sterling silver or gold, which will likely complement the charms that will eventually decorate them. They are also designed to complement a variety of bracelet styles, ranging from silver and gold to coiled leather and woven fabric.

Most bracelets are simple, with a single loop around the wrist. A few are more dramatic, coiling around the wrist twice or thrice. The additional wraps are especially nice for anyone who wants to build a bigger collection of charms. There might be cause for that; there are dozens of different sets.

The charms that make every Pandora bracelet unique. 

Pandora CharmEvery bracelet and charm starts with a discriminating selection process. The company only selects the best shapes and brightest, clearest stones. They are shaped and polished, set aside while each silver or gold ingot is shaped by hand to create a unique work of art.

The precision required to carve even one specialty piece requires hours of care. It requires a delicate hand to set and slowly carve out the ornate designs that now exceed more than 600 individual pieces.

Some are similar to clasp charms in that each one tells part of a story. A telephone booth from London, for example, could be part of a travel collection. A frog prince might represent someone's favorite story. Or it could mean something else. The entire collection includes designs that represent a variety of seasons, events, and interests.

While interesting and exquisite, these tiny little storytellers weren't the charms that initially attracted me to write something about these bracelets. The ones that I found to be the most striking are paves, round ornaments that can be mixed and matched for subtle or vibrant effects.

The details of each pave, whether decorated with semi-precious and precious gemstones or reliant on detailed carvings, make each charm unique. As such, each arrangement becomes unique. Unlike most charm bracelets, Pandora charms don't have to feel permanent — it's easy enough to slide different charms on or off depending upon the season or occasion.

A few more graphs about the history of Pandora. 

Pandora Detail
Pandora was originally founded in Copenhagen, Denmark, as a jeweler's shop by Danish goldsmith Per Enevoldsen and his wife Winnie. In addition to selling his own work, the couple would frequently travel to Thailand in search of jewelry that they could import.

They were successful enough to transform their shop into a wholesale company for other jewelers in Denmark. The wholesale business provided a strong foundation for the company, but Enevoldsen was anxious to start creating his own jewelry again. They hired their first in-house designer in 1987.

It would be another decade before the Danish company would gain international attention for its uniquely designed charm bracelet concept. By 2004, Pandora opened in the United States, Germany, and Australia.

The Pandora Charm Bracelet Shines At 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While it creates other jewelry, its charm bracelets remain the cornerstone of Pandora's work. The attention to detail is striking, right down to the chamber that slides onto the bracelets. One word of caution in regard to the jewelry: never use any cleaners that may remove the oxidation details designed as part of the charms.

You can find a large selection of Pandora charms and bracelets at REEDS Jewelers. The jeweler provides dozens of ideas and inspiration specific to Pandora. If you would prefer to browse, start with the bracelets and then visit an exclusive set of new charm arrivals, many of them discounted.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alter Bridge Builds Upon Its Fortress

Alter Bridge
Anticipation for Alter Bridge to produce a fourth album began almost immediately after AB III was released. Better than half the album hummed along, especially the darker, heavier sound. They had forever established themselves as their own band, clearly distinct from previous connections.

This time out, there is no half an album. Fortress is a continuation of an aggressive direction, with the band being conscious that this material plays better on tour. Of course, that doesn't mean Alter Bridge has abandoned everything else they've ever done. They balance experimentation with expectation.

Fortress is more collaborative and the resulting sound is more cohesive. 

The real distinction in direction was established early on with Myles Kennedy recognizing that Mark Tremonti has an affinity for writing metal riffs. So rather than trying to fit those riffs into whatever he brought to the table, Kennedy brought in more aggressive riff-ready tracks to match whatever Tremonti had brought along. The matchup was near perfect.

After the initial structure was complete, Kennedy and Tremonti turned the work over to Brian Marshall and Scott Phillips. Marshall, on bass, and Phillips, on drums, were able to flesh out their their always unique rhythm together, sometimes altering songs in the process.

This all worked really well. Kennedy and Tremonti have become a true duo as songwriters. Marshall and Phillips have become their essential filters. It's also a far cry from previous albums, with Tremonti writing most of the first, Kennedy writing most of the second, and the pair more or less splitting the difference on their last outing.

While this collaborative approach is not necessarily apparent on first track released in support of Fortress, Addicted To Pain still foreshadows a tighter cohesiveness. It's straight-up rock.

Relying heavily on guitar riffs and melodic choruses, Addicted To Pain is decidedly radio ready (one of only a few on the entire album). Bleed It Dry is a better first listen, with its percussion-heavy open and powered-up vocals. It earns its place as one of the best tracks, with the guitar solo exceeding anything Tremonti has contributed to Alter Bridge.

There is a lot to like about the opener too. Cry Of Achilles begins with an acoustical front before dashing ahead with more than six minutes of alternating rock-metal arrangements. It largely sets the pace for the album while it seals a captivating live show pace for Fortress.

Expect the power ballad about betrayal to get plenty of attention with Kennedy underscoring the emotive quality of the lyrics. Like many of the immediately popular tracks, Lover proves Alter Bridge has mastered the ability to play accessible rock as much as its metal influenced counterparts.

Still, it will be the harder parts of Fortress that will make it memorable. The metal leanings of The Uninvited and bottomless textures of the experimental cut of the title track Fortress put Alter Bridge in a different class of music.

In contrast, tracks like Calm The Fire and Waters Rising ease off just enough to retain their rock sensibilities. The latter also gives Tremonti a chance as a lead vocalist, further underscoring how Alter Bridge will become even more dynamic over time. And it will take time.

Although all four members will be busy touring with Alter Bridge in the immediate future, Kennedy, Tremonti and Phillips all have side projects. Tremonti might use an upcoming window in December and January to write some new material. Kennedy is also chipping away at some new material with Slash.

Fortress By Alter Bridge Stands At 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Fortress makes it exceedingly clear that there is a ton of life left in Alter Bridge. It is easily their most compelling album, one that demonstrates their growth as musicians who aren't afraid to take more risks. There might be one or two tracks that someone might call traditional Alter Bridge, but the balance is better, making Fortress their best album to date.

You can pick up Fortress on Amazon. The album can be downloaded on iTunes or ordered from Barnes & Noble. Alter Bridge is currently touring in the United Kingdom and across Europe. For more information about the band, visit them on Facebook.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Benefit Album Puls A Good Will Pick

Brent Puls
Sometimes when artists suffer tragedies, they're not prepared. A few months ago, we wrote about one of them. Bob "Slim" Dunlap suffered a stroke and dozens of musicians rallied to help him raise money in preparation for the round-the-clock care he may need for the rest of his life.

This month, we'd like to introduce another artist who found himself struggling after an emergency surgery left his family saddled with medical bills: Brent Puls. Even if you haven't heard of Puls before, there is a good chance you've heard him.

He is a former member of the funk jazz band Bumpus and glam pop outfit Grammar. He left the latter three years ago to set out on a solo career. He was busy booking gigs and putting out indie pop EPs when when a childhood ailment finally caught up and nearly killed him. He's been recovering ever since.

To help him through it, 19 different artists cobbled together a selection of songs, many of them never previously released, for the sole purpose of helping Puls get out of debt and back to making music. All the artists ask is anyone enjoying the album to kick in $10. The songs are worth that on their own.

Joe Pug kicks off National Endowment For The Brents. 

The compilation leads off with Hymn 101 by Joe Pug. The song originally appeared on Pug's debut Nation Of Heat EP. It's a classic folk rock song that captures the world weariness of a drifter, and the meanings he attaches to a lifetime spent trying to figure out life. If you've never heard it, here's a clip.

The powerful start does a splendid job foreshadowing the rest of the album. Many of the tracks lean toward folk rock. Following up Pug is singer-songwriter Susie Asado, lending the sparsely appointed Autobiography Of A Skyscraper from Traffic Island. The track is a perfect stop before indie rock/pop band Any Kind shares Lost Again, I Am, which was taken down to make room for their new album.

There are more surprises moving down the track list. Pat Sansone (Wilco) donated Birdy On The Moon from an album yet to be released. Rachel Yamagata donated the demo version of Fish, which had never been previously released. Jeremy Sisto (Six Feet Under) added the must-listen Just Cuz and Puls's old band Bumpus added Hi Tek to the mix.

Aside from better-known names, check crooner pop Clip Art, alt folk outfit Rivals Of The Peacemakers led by Alexandra Watson, and Chicago-based post bluegrass pickers Leadfoot. The latter's Jailhouse is a duet with Steve Haberichter and Nikki Giblin.

The balance is worth a listen too, with all of the contributors sharing Chicago as their common ground. It's a great indication of how tight-knit Chicago singer-songwriters have become, off stage as well as on stage. Their support has already helped Puls get back to writing music.

There could be a good reason Puls made On The Road To The Wilderness lighter than some of his earlier material. It fits the light at the end of the tunnel theme, but it isn't about his surgery. Puls decided to write about the end of a relationship, not as it happened but rather after you forget that there even was a heartbreak. The download is free, an unspoken thank you for everyone supporting the album.

The National Endowment For The Brents 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.

While we can't cover every artist benefit, the immediate and spontaneous support from all these artists seemed so authentic and touching that we thought it deserved some additional attention. In more ways than one, it feels like catching someone in the act of doing good and makes one wonder what they might do to help someone close to them too.

National Endowment For The Brents is on Bandcamp. All proceeds directly benefit Puls and his family. For an introduction to his indie pop solo work, check out Empty Ampersands by Brent Puls on iTunes. Start with the track Faster Than Light.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Kickdrums Out Loud About Atonement

Alex Fitts
Led by singer/songwriter/producer Alex Fitts, Brooklyn-based The Kickdrums continue to push creative boundaries with Thinking Out Loud. The new album expands upon the work that he and fellow producer Matt Penttila started, with Penttila taking a leave of absence several months ago.

The split has since opened up new opportunities for Fitts as a solo producer. He set The Kickdrums on a new direction, one that drifts even further away from genre conformity. And while the Cleveland native is quick to admit that this doesn't make things easy, he also isn't one to fear the road less traveled.

Thinking Out Loud catches a genre drift.

Not everyone will like the album for this reason. It skips around indie rock, dream pop, trip hop, and other genres. And sometimes Fitts samples what he picked up from one genre while working out a song set in another.

It all seems light years away from his days as a producer for Kid Cudi, 50 Cent, and Kanye West. While Fitts still showcases his knack for blending genres, he does so in a way that creates his own space. The title track does a brilliant job demonstrating it.

Thinking Out Loud, which was the first track put out in support of the album, opens with an airy instrumental with synth and strings before moving into percussion-led electronica but with crisp indie rock vocals. The lyrics are compelling, questioning life, faith, and everything.

The track is jubilant and harrowing, effortlessly alternating back and forth between the two. It's not the only track on the album to do it. But it does showcase Fitts's vision for composing music, writing lyrics, and playing an impossibly large sampling of instruments.

One thing that hasn't changed is how he lays down his music. He usually picks out a bass line and layers melodic key or guitar elements over it. But then he goes back and adjusts or changes the bass again. The approach gives him more freedom to play around while trying to hear what that finished product might sound like in his head. It's how, he says, that he has been reborn as an artist.

The balance of Thinking Out Loud is spun out nicely. 

Opening with Atonement, Thinking Out Loud eases into a beat-driven indie pop sound before Brave Raider shifts to an electronica foundation but with the same laid back, contemplative vocals. It ends with a chop, but is otherwise an easy favorite. Fake Guns is strong and more upbeat, but it doesn't really start soaring until after the first 30 seconds or so. It's as if Fitts needed the chorus to connect.

Can't Hide Love isn't my favorite. There is so much ebb to the bass beat that it detracts from anything else going on in the song. Fool Killer retains the pronounced beat, but Fitts does a better job getting over and above the music with his layered melodies. I Know opens with an experimental bop that will lose some people before they ever get to the meat of the song. Give it time.

Moving Sidewalks is growing on me as a genre crosser. The only down side is that it was easier to like some segments of the song than others. It will be interesting to see if people will give it a chance.

Skipping over the title track, the album ends with Echoes and Run Through It All. The atmospheric qualities of Echoes is a winner. Run Through It All has solid vocals but the lyrics aren't exciting.

Thinking Out Loud By The Kickdrums Bangs 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Some of those details might sound hypercritical, but they really aren't meant to be. As a whole album, Thinking Out Loud really highlights the depth of Fitts's talent as he assumes the reins of his band. It's clear that he hit a high water mark on what he set out to do, which means it's up to you to like it. Start with the sons Thinking Out Loud and Atonement and go from there.

You can find Thinking Out Loud by The Kickdrums on Amazon. The album can also be downloaded from iTunes. The Kickdrums are lining up shows to tour, including Fitts's hometown. Chris Wall and Jeff DiLorenzo will be joining him for live performances.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Javier Marias Temps The Infatuations

The Infatuations
Every morning before work, María Dolz stops by the same café in Madrid. She has her coffee and breakfast there, easing herself into another day in the publishing world.

She has to ease herself into it. Authors are known to have egos and often expect outlandish things from their publishers, like a couple of grams of cocaine. The request, of course, is for research purposes only.

Dolz might be indifferent to some authors, but she doesn't wear blinders at breakfast. She is keenly aware of the people around her, especially those who also make the café their daily starter.

In fact, there is one couple in particular in which Dolz has taken an interest. The pair seem to be the perfect couple, living an unblemished life that lifts the spirits. It gives Dolz hope, a glimpse into two lives that aren't subjected to the same routine and doldrums of her existence. Miguel and Luisa Desvern are perfect until the end.

The end is quick and brutal for Miguel Desvern. 

While it would be days before Dolz would learn it, the last time she would see Miguel Desvern alive was the last time his wife would see him too. Shortly after leaving the café one morning, he would be stabbed to death.

The next time Dolz would see him would be in the newspaper, where he would be laying in the street with his shirt half off. She wouldn't even recognize him with his more usual old-fashioned elegance gone, wiped away by the spontaneity of a mistaken attack. Later, she would imagine that he would have never wanted to be seen in such a way — the victim of an accidental murder in Madrid.

The Infatuations
If proximity alone breeds familiarity, then this might well explain why Dolz decided to approach Luisa Desvern after learning about the attack. In her mind, though significantly less than the wife, they had both lost something. Luisa Desvern lost her perfect husband and Dolz lost her perfect couple.

Strangely but not unexpectedly, Dolz learns that the couple had indeed noticed her as part of their morning routine. They even had a name for her. She was known as the prudent young woman.

But all that would change soon enough as Lusia Desvern befriends Dolz for a day, making her someone in whom to confide about the spiraling, out-of-control thoughts and feelings she had since his death. There are some days she mourns the loss. There are some days she wonders what he thought in the final minutes. And there are some days she wonders if she can ever be the same person again or if that person only existed as long as her husband was in the world.

The chance encroachment might have ended with that whirlwind awkward meeting, but Luisa Desvern invites Dolz home and introduced her to a few friends. One has a suspected infatuation with the widow, but that doesn't stop Dolz from dating him, a decision she later regrets after overhearing something about the murder of Miguel Desvern.

A few graphs about Javier Marias and his prose. 

Javier Marias
Although Javier Marias began writing at an early age and was only 17 when he wrote his first novel, it would take several years before his work gained significant attention. So he simultaneously entered the literary world as a translator and won a Spanish national award for one of his efforts in 1979.

The award began to open more doors, including his work as a lecturer on Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. And later, he continued to write until his work gained a foothold in the English market. The Infatuations, specifically, was published in Spanish two years ago before being translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

The novel itself is substantive, with Marias contemplating loss, life, relationships, and how quickly the past can evaporate from having any bearing on the present. But this doesn't necessarily mean the prose is always easy to embrace.

The Infatuations By Javier Marias Draws In 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Dolz, whose perspective tells the story after the fact, has a habit of adding what this or that or maybe this or maybe that might mean — often in mid-sentence to provide a look at her logical but rambling mind. As a character study, perhaps it works. But it also creates a barrier to appreciate some of the author's finer points. Its a great story that brushes up against an exhaustive subject, but expect to work a bit.

You can find The Infatuations by Javier Marias on Amazon. The novel can also be downloaded for iBooks or the book can be ordered from Barnes & Noble. The audiobook is narrated by Justine Eyre, who has the right voice but mostly delivers the book at one brisk speed. The story doesn't begin to even out until the end.