Friday, May 31, 2013

David Freed Strikes With Fangs Out

Fangs Out by David Freed
Cordell Logan isn't a typical flight instructor. He is a retired black ops specialist and reluctant private investigator — reluctant because he isn't a professional. Trouble tends to find and force itself on him.

He was forced into solving his first mystery when Arlo Echevarria, his former boss who stole his wife away, was murdered by a Domino's Pizza guy in Flat Spin. He is pushed into it again in Fangs Out, but this time for nothing as noble as winning over the affections of his ex-wife. He needs the money.

Fangs Out is a sequel with a little less action and a little more mystery. 

There are other reasons to accept the assignment from famed Vietnam War hero pilot Hub Walker in La Jolla. The job is unusual but sounds like a slam dunk. The way Logan sizes the job up, he'll have some extra time to rekindle a romance with his widowed ex-wife.

She lives in the area, which makes the title fit all the more. Logan is hot for a dog fight, one that leaves him just enough time to win over the woman he still pines away for. What he doesn't know is that the dog fight will come someplace else — unknown adversaries who intend to keep him from any prize.

The mystery itself starts just moments before Dorian Munz, the killer of Walker's daughter, implicates a prominent U.S. defense contractor instead. The press have a field day with the revelation. Munz gives them a motive. And the accused, Greg Castle, is Walker's best friend and his daughter's employer.

Walker wants his best friend's name cleared. If Logan can do it, the pending payday is $10,000. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Someone doesn't want the truth to come out. And shortly after Logan lands his beloved Cessna, the Ruptured Duck, in San Diego, he becomes a target too.

Cordell Logan is an enigma, a sarcastic contradiction. 

When Logan gave up his career as a contract killer for the military, he vowed to become a peaceful player. He now works as a civilian flight instructor with a single student. He follows Buddhism to the best of his ability. He rents a garage room from an 88-year-old landlady. And he owns a weight-challenged cat that pretends not to love him. It's not much, but he survives.

Fangs Out audio
There is something else about Logan you need to know long before you pick up the book. He never met a cliche that he didn't like and frequently spouts out one liners, even in the face of mortal danger. It's almost like an addiction and is patently distracting when tied to action, which there is much less of in this more cerebral and slow-burning cat-and-mouse mystery.

There is no question that author David Freed cranks up the wit and chronic sarcasm in an attempt to make his comedic mechanism intentional. Plenty of people will appreciate it but some not so much. The difference between Logan and other comedic characters is that nothing terribly funny is happening in the story. Logan merely makes insider jokes about everything and only he and the reader are privy.

Sometimes it works and sometimes it falls flat, making Logan one part humorous and two parts annoying. Not all of his annoying traits are caused by quips alone. He is a chronic whiner, which might even explain why so many people like him but nobody really respects him, not even his cat.

David Freed is fine storyteller who shares a passion for flight. 

David Freed
Even with the aforementioned shortcomings, Freed is an author that you want to cheer on. He is immediately likable, approachable and appreciates what it takes to build out a mystery cut from a film noir cloth. Never mind that the characters lean a little toward being cutouts. You can't guess at the end.

You also can't call every character a cutout. As impossible as it seems at times, the smugness isn't exclusive to imagination. Before becoming a novelist, Freed had worked as an investigative reporter, embedded journalist and with the U.S. intelligence community. Much like flying, being abuzz in sarcasm is likely a trait the character and his creator share.

Fangs Out By David Freed Flies By 5.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Fangs Out is an entertaining who-done-it noir mystery with a little less action than the Cordell Logan debut. Freed keeps it fresh and moving even as his reluctant modern day private investigator is grounded throughout much of the book. There is an evolution here and it will be interesting to see where it might head next.

Fangs Out by David Freed can be ordered from Barnes & Noble or you can find Fangs Out (Cordell Logan Mystery) on Amazon. You can also download the audiobook from iTunes. The book, read by Keith Szarabajka, recasts Logan with a more gravelly and less lively narration. While Szarabajka is fine, Ray Porter made the better Logan. Stick to print this time and keep an eye out for appearances by the author.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Uncle Acid Returns With Mind Control

Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats
When Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats set out to make a drug-drenched horrific sophomore album, they headed to a dilapidated barn. There, three members produced something as sensational as was it was sinister in Blood Lust, a solid second outing from a psychedelic doom metal band.

With the help of Metal Blade Records, the band has since devolved into "street creeps, burnouts and draft dodgers," making the music more mainstream and expected. They skipped the barn and headed into Chapel Studios to have the full benefit of electrical technology. And it all starts to make you wonder.

Uncle Acid adds another member to produce Mind Control. 

Although rumor has it that the third outing for Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats was big crime horror inspired, it doesn't always feel that way on Mind Control. Despite starting with the cult-cut imagery of brainwashers like Charles Manson and Jim Jones, the album is never scary or much of a novelty.

Many of the songs work, with Poison Apple kicking off the album a few months ago as a single. The track comes across as laid back and fuzzed out hippie music until the lyrics are deciphered from the vocals pushed down under the instruments. Poison Apple is a first person perspective of temptation.

The song is a seduction, with some heavy hooks and and mind-bending melody. The guitar work later wakes the composition up when the song needs it. But the only spooky moment is the chill inspired poetry whispered at the end of the garbage dump video put up by the band.

The whisper isn't on the album, but makes clear the other inspiration for the song. The lyrics are inspired by Manson, the whispered lines were uttered during an interview. His answer is said to imply he was a mind control slave. Uncle Acid isn't the first to allude to Monarch programming in music.

Although the album is a big change in direction, with less bite and more drone, it still has a story at the center of it. This time out, the grisly tale told by Uncle Acid is about a man who has murdered members of his cult and fled to find more weak-minded disciples. The story begins with the opener Mt. Abraxas.

The second half  is hard to reconcile after Blood Lust.

The downside is that the change in sound sends Uncle Acid further away from what caught everyone's attention last year and more toward the retro-metal acts that don't quite measure up to the few finest. In fact, the album becomes increasingly timid as it progresses. The mellow nature is meant to be mind numbing with Devil's Work closing the album on a note of lamenting awareness after some lulls.

Part of that lament for some listeners will be that the band drifted too far away from the hardness that made Blood Lust so powerful. Despite several decent tracks on top, Mind Control doesn't have the power or the energy to sustain itself as a standalone. The best bet is to stick with the opening tracks after Mt. Abraxas and cherry pick the album after Evil Love. Follow The Leader is a contender.

The only motivation to purchase the album would be to try on the band's intent. They wanted to create an atmosphere that recreates the half-aware head of a marionette. (Death Valley Blues isn't about the pop it plays like.) But mostly, it seems, the band would have been better off keeping any strings taut in action as opposed to trying to find the mindset.

Mind Control By Uncle Acid Whispers 4.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although not on the album, Under The Spell, is also a keeper. It appeared as the B-side to the single Poison Apple and best represents the sound that works best for Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats. As for the album, some of the drone has its moments but the band asks for too much to make it all work. Who knows? Maybe they felt the same way in the studio as everything was over-produced for a barn band.

You can find Mind Control by Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats on Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes or order the vinyl from Barnes & Noble. Otherwise, if this serves as your introduction to the band, consider Blood Lust first. Or make plans to see them live.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Chan Luu Puts The Bracelet In Wraps

Chan Luu jewelry
Vietnam-born Chan Luu and her parents had very different opinions of what she would do when she grew up. Even at a very young age, she showed a strong artistic side and was naturally attracted to form, shape and color. But her parents had other plans.

They were successful business owners in Saigon, and expected their daughter to become a merchant or maybe a doctor. They also wanted to get her out of Vietnam. Although the war didn't always reach them in the coastal city of Nha Trang, they took a rare opportunity to send her out of the country — from Hong Kong to Honolulu to Boston, where Luu eventually enrolled in Boston University.

In 1972, Luu graduated with a degree in business administration from Boston University, but her heart was still tied to art and fashion design. So she moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and studied at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Upon graduation, she opened a European clothing boutique in Rolling Hills Estates, but her own designs were put on hold until 1996.

Chan Luu creates some extraordinary and exciting wrap bracelets. 

Although the designs look simple at a glance, the intricacies become apparent on closer inspection. Something happens when Luu matches semi-precious stones, sterling silver, gold vermeil, and custom dyed leathers to make her wraps. They are both contemporary and bohemian, making them striking in casual or formal settings, all depending on the stones and what they accent.

wrap bracelet
The quality of every piece is equally important. The leather is hand dyed. The stones are hand cut. The combinations are carefully planned combinations: gold vermeil and pearls, rose gold nuggets and rose quartz, amazonite and silver nuggets.

Sometimes the stones are all the same color or same size. Other times they become progressively larger and smaller in waves or are laid out in a burst of diversity and contrast. But regardless of the shapes, sizes, there is always something artful and unique about each piece.

Some people tie these qualities to the designer's connection to nature. Many of her designs are inspired by world cultures and the looks they create within semi-precious stones in their direct vicinity. It makes sense, but few people seem to be able to combine them in such a way that Luu does.

A few more graphs about designer Chan Luu. 

Chan Luu
It wasn't always easy for Luu. In fact, there were many years it was hard. She had very little money, and split her time between work and school. And when the time came, she had to decide whether to retain her security (a sandwich shop that supported her at school) or the chance to enter the world of fashion with a tiny boutique measuring no more than 400 square feet. She stuck to her dreams.

Her own designs might have never happened but after being confined to bed because of a freak skiing accident, Luu started putting some beads together and making some fun jewelry. When she put the spontaneous designs into her boutique, they immediately sold. A few years later, a random idea to use hand-painted mother of pearl as a component led to a momentum that hasn't slowed since.

Wrap Bracelets By Chan Luu Tie Up 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

One of the best aspects of Chan Luu is the story behind the brand. If you ask her the secret to making jewelry stand out among other accessories, she won't hesitate to answer — every piece is fashioned with happiness. When she isn't happy, she stays as far away from designing as possible.

You can find a full collection of Chan Luu jewelry at Creative Contrast, a small team of creative visionaries and trend watchers who have made it their vision to bring the best of the designer world together in one place. In addition to their online store, Creative Contrast is based in Burlington, Vermont, and owns a boutique in San Diego.

As an alternative, Bloomingdales carries some select wrap bracelets from Chan Luu too. While the selection isn't as expansive, sometimes the store carries designs that can't be found elsewhere. In addition to some of the designs above, Chan Luu also makes a line of jewelry better suited for men.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The National Finds Some More Trouble

The National
There is no question that Trouble Will Find Me by The National is downbeat and subdued when compared to the 2010 release of High Violet. But the tempo hardly matters when listening the distinctive deep baritone of singer-songwriter Matt Berninger.

Formed in 1999 by a bunch of Ohio natives playing in Brooklyn, The National spent almost three years compiling material for their self-titled debut in 2001. What made the debut even more extraordinary was that Berninger, Aaron Dessner (guitar, bass, keys), Bryce Dessner (guitar), Scott Devendorf (bass, guitar), and Bryan Devendorf (drums) had never even played a single live show before releasing it.

The three-year investment, recorded with the help of engineer Nick Lloyd and and released on the Brassland label founded by Alec Bemis, paid off and the debut earned its place among the alternative underground. While the debut was a landmark beginning, it was only a beginning. The world-weary sound of Berninger and The National is light years ahead from where they started.

Trouble Will Find Me is an artistic collection of visceral tunes. 

Written almost immediately after the band had returned from a two-year tour in support of High Violet, the tone of the album was mostly set by guitarist Aaron Dessner, who would sneak into the studio with extreme sleep deprivation caused in part by his newborn daughter. He sent along dozens of musical fragments to Berninger for a listen.

“He’d be so tired while he was playing his guitar and working on ideas that he wouldn’t intellectualize anything," said Berninger, who says it's rare for either Dessner to send him anything unfinished. "This time around, they sent me sketch after sketch that immediately got me on a visceral level.”

The early work changed everything. The band hadn't even planned to record anything for a year or two, but quickly found a new motivation. Instead of feeling tense, everything fell into place and created a cohesion that takes the band someplace they never anticipated.

Although not the strongest song on the album (but close), Sea Of Love does capture the sentiment. All throughout Trouble Will Find Me are self-lacerating glimpses of indecision when big things in life happen. Love, life, birth, death, separation, depression can make you wonder how you ended up somewhere.

Don't Swallow The Cap touches on the same self-reflective theme and there isn't a better track on the album. That's not to say other tracks don't measure up. On the contrary, there is much to love about this shadowy series of self-destructive, addictive glimmers of uncertainty with everything one loves on the table.

Perhaps the most haunting thing about the album is best conveyed on Demons, which hits the hardest parts of the album. The lyrics reveal a depression-induced urban ennui. None of what is felt here is caused by a lack of friends or necessities, love or possibilities. It's self-induced loneliness, a paralyzing and unexplained emotion that takes hold.

Other magnificent and brooding tracks include the piano-laced Pink Rabbits, the escapism of This Is The Last Time, and the most uptempo tune, Graceless. But aside from these songs, suffice to say that the album plays best with all 13 tracks to complete it. It's also the only way to catch a few carefully planted nods to great artists and some tongue-in-cheek lyric lines that will make a few people smile in the sorrow of it all.

Trouble Will Find Me Abandons 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

One aspect I've always appreciated about The National is their honesty without being pretentious. They know who they are and that the troubles they sing about are reserved for people who don't have real troubles. The power of this band is their poetic and heart-wrenching images, along with an ability to emote it all through Berninger's vocals and the balance of the band's instruments.

Trouble Will Find Me by The National is available from Amazon. You can also find the album on Barnes & Noble and download it from iTunes. Although the band never intended to be touring again so soon, they have a huge tour starting up in June. Check for play dates on Facebook.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Contour ROAM 2 Makes For Video Fun

Contour Roam 2
While some people are still looking for Google Glass to be the revolutionary hands-free video camera, the innovation already exists. It's much more durable and versatile too because you don't need glasses.

While there is already a more advanced version on the market, the Contour ROAM 2 I own captures crystal clear high definition video footage and 5 MP still photos. The battery specs are impressive, with about 3.5 hours of battery life and an instant-on record switch to maximize it. 

So why haven't more people embraced the Contour camera? It mostly has to do with the way it is marketed. It originated as an adventure and extreme sports helmet mount video camera, but has become much more versatile as an everyday cam as long as you don't mind waiting to see the shot.

If you want to see the shot, you have to upgrade to Contour +2, something I don't own but have seen in action. The viewfinder relies on Bluetooth connectivity to a smart phone, which is still a bit hit and miss. It's something I'll circle back around to cover later in the review. The focus here is on what I own.

Designed for action enthusiasts, but fun for anyone with a little creativity. 

Although the Contour ROAM 2 bills itself as a hands-free camera, which it is, it can also be turned into a held held by attaching a hand grip (a.k.a.pistol grip) to the the tripod mount. With a little practice, it's easy enough to learn how to frame up your shots without a viewfinder (or use the laser alignment).

Most people, of course, don't buy the Contour ROAM 2 for handheld functionality. Most are interested in the mounts, specifically helmet mounts. Once the mount is attached, usually with adhesive tape, the camera slides right into place. It also pays to add a tether in case the mount comes off. 

Helmets aren't the only place to add the camera. They can be added to almost anything, including surfboards, which is why I picked one up. While I wouldn't keep it submerged for any length of time, the camera is waterproof up to one meter without an additional casing. Waterproof housing will extend that depth to 60 meters. One of the more creative promo videos adds in some fun.

Contour collects hundreds of videos with vignettes of what's possible with the camera. And although I know many people attempt to compare the Contour and GoPro, they really are two different kinds of cameras, with the Contour's minimalistic bullet shape giving it a slight edge despite the slightly better vid quality most associate with the GoPro. 

For example, although it's not the most comfortable shooting solution, Contour even makes a headband that you can use as a camera mount. And the headband doesn't even come close to the extent of mounting solutions that the bullet shape offers. It's also the tougher construction, in my opinion. I've seen one dragged from behind a motorcycle that survived with relatively little road rash.

There are plenty of places Contour can improve its offerings. 

The most frustrating aspect of the Contour ROAM 2 was learning that it isn't Bluetooth ready, which makes the Connect app released for the iPhone and Android useless. You need to invest twice as much for the Contour+ 2 to pick up what seems increasingly important to plenty of people.

As mentioned earlier, it's not the viewfinder that makes people want the Connect app to work better than it does, it's the ability to change settings. Once you set the Contour ROAM 2, you're stuck with the setting until you connect to your computer again. It's inconvenient, but not as bad as some people make it out to be. 

The Contour ROAM 2 Snaps 6.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The biggest thing I can say about hands-free and viewer-less cameras is that you stay connected to the action instead of the screen. Sometimes getting the perfect shot gets in the way of real life. The Contour, whether you have a ROAM 2 or invest in a Contour +2, makes video fun again because you don't have to think about it. Go. Do. Record. And play it back later. If you don't like the shot, go do it again. 

You can find the Contour ROAM2 Waterproof Video Camera and Contour +2 on Amazon. The Contour ROAM 2 also comes in black, red, green, and blue. For more tech specs, visit the site. Visit the iTunes App store for Connect if you already own Contour +2. Check the requirements and for the latest update information; the app is free. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Palma Violets Circle Half Around 180

Palma Violets
The musical partnership between frontmen Samuel Thomas Fryer and Alexander "Chilli" Jesson will be long remembered as one of the best beginnings of this decade. Along with keyboardist Jeffrey Mayhew and drummer William Martin Doyle, Palma Violets is a contender for releasing what will become recognized as one of the better debuts this year.

The smart and smarmy LP 180 does a brilliant job balancing the somber and sensational, mournful and mesmerizing. It's nearly impossible to stop listening to the 11-track album on one pass, especially as the tone, tempo and vocals are so richly varied that the grooves of any vinyl LP will be worn away before the sound ever gets tired.

Palma Violets set the bar as an alternative rock band to watch.

Although the four-peice from London formed in 2010, the band originally struggled to get a solid start. That all changed last year when they secured a residency at Studio 180, a cheap repurposed house in Lambeth that also inspired the name of the album. Surrounded by like-minded creatives helped as did a steady stream of fans who set out to share their indie discovery online.

Although easily cast as an indie rock band with some psychedelic tendencies, there are just enough pop sensible songs to make them a sharply drawn alternative band in the vein of the Velvet Underground and Vaccines without sounding like either. They rarely sound like anyone, except when the melody is so intended it's almost awkward, like the opening of Step Up For The Cool Cats.

It's intentional, of course. The majority of the lyrics woven together in that track are a testament to Neil Diamond (not the Monkees as some people try to suggest). They've added several inside jokes in plain sight inside the album and most of them work, even if the hidden track Brand New Song plays more like a show closer than anything precisely serious.

Although Step Up For The Cool Cats was this year's album teaser and Best Of Friends opens the album, the best tracks to listen to first are unceremoniously positioned as track 4 and track 9. Rattlesnake Highway is a grimy, upbeat rackety summer sound with plenty of fuzz and We Found Love drives the Velvet Underground comparisons home (considering one of the riffs feels like Sweet Jane) while the song breaks away from the verse-chorus trappings that pop always wants to tie itself to.

That's not to say Best Of Friends doesn't measure up as the lead in on the album. It only means that there are plenty more to hear beyond track one, which was clearly crafted to give their generation a convincing aging into adulthood theme song. On its own, Best Of Friend is great, given it contains equal parts right now and remembrance.

Ironically, the most interesting instrumental and vocal arrangements pop up in unexpected places. While Chicken Dippers isn't introduction material, it's one of several songs where Mayhew proves to be a bit of a hero alongside those deeply penetrating vocals. Tom The Drum is also an equally compelling number, somehow blending crooner sarcasm with Jim Morrison influences.

Last Of The Summer Wine is another confessional that takes on a much broodier tone than most of the album. If you download singles as opposed to the full album, include it among the immediate favorites like Rattlesnake Highway. Mostly though, 180 is worth an album download given the diversity, with Three Stars on one extreme as a mellow storyteller and the party favor Johnny Bagga Donuts on the other.

180 By Palma Violets Spins Around Half Circle For 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

All in all, 180 is a tough album to pin down in that the labels some reviewers have heaped upon them were a bit premature, but the down rating by other reviewers to compensate was deftly asinine. Without any pretense, 180 is a timelessly fun album that borrows a bit too much from the past to truly be a breakthrough album but clearly introduces a band that can convincingly play a range of alternative rock songs, with varied tones and tempos, that still sound cohesive.

You can find 180 from Palma Violets on Amazon. The album can also be ordered from Barnes & Noble or you can download it from iTunes. The band is currently kicking off its world tour, with plans to play a few shows stateside in August. You can check out their sporadic schedule on Facebook.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Soderberg Conjures Up A Crime Affair

The Andalucian Friend
Sophie Brinkmann was an unassuming single mother, almost lost within an uneventful life after being widowed. Except for her job and her son, there wasn't much left to tie her to the increasingly unfamiliar surroundings of Stockholm.

Even her home was beginning to look out of place amongst better kept suburban houses. All that would change quickly enough when she meets Hector Guzman. He has a certain charm about him and the pair make an immediate connection. But Brinkmann isn't the only one taking an interest.

Hector Guzman is the head of an international crime syndicate. 

Although his operation extends across Europe and into South America, the syndicate's territory is under siege. Guzman is under surveillance by a rogue division of the Swedish police. Another syndicate is working to lay claim to what the Guzman family had built over the years. And as the book moves forward, Brinkmann's old boyfriend takes an interest in him too.

It doesn't take long before a parade of malcontent characters quickly spiral out of control and become almost daunting, with everyone looking to twist their fingers around the newest mark. Brinkmann's son, most agree, would make the perfect pawn if she could be won away from Guzman. And if she can't be won away, then perhaps she and her son might make the right better target.

StockholmWhile it would be easy to say that this makes for a big and bold story out of Stockholm, the truth is that is takes some work to lock down the expansive cast and characters and layered plots threads. At times, the more appropriate descriptor slips from complex to convoluted, leaving behind a collection of beautifully penciled scenes with memorable characters.

Part of it has to do with the way Alexander Söderberg backs into every character introduction, sometimes making it difficult to discern which one will play a bit role and which one is important. Söderberg tends to give them all equal weight and prods an urge to race ahead to find those characters who are more readily familiar — especially Brinkmann who is caught in the middle of it.

When this technique is added to the tight, often terse writing, it becomes clear that Söderberg sometimes plants so many details from multiple points of view that any sense of mystery materializes out of technique and not the story. It might even be that as memorable as many vignettes make The Andalucian Friend, it's almost impossible to grasp the big picture early on in the novel.

Söderberg does make up for it is in his portrayal of physically wounded, psychologically pressed, and morally deficient people. The volume of them all has a purpose too. Söderberg obviously plans from the beginning to close out his debut with a body count and the epic network of conflicting empires all crash down around each other.

A few graphs about Alexander Söderberg as a new voice for thrillers. 

Alexander SöderbergAlthough Söderberg was being propelled a bit by the recent successes of other Scandinavian authors, most comparisons that have been made along the way aren't necessarily valid. Söderberg has his own voice, especially in way it sometimes drifts with stream-of-consciousness details that resemble shot lists.

It makes sense that he would write this way. Söderberg worked as a television screenwriter for years before trying his hand at a novel. Interestingly enough, he never saw himself becoming a writer. Writing was just something he did for personal reasons, sometimes spending an entire evening at it.

After Publisher’s Weekly dubbed it the "book of the fair" at the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair, foreign rights to the book and the forthcoming trilogy sparked a frenzied auction. The event marked a real boon for Söderberg, but one wonders whether the real win here will be some future screenplays.

The Andalucian Friend By Alexander Söderberg Hits 4.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Expect The Andalucian Friend to be a mixed affair for many readers, with the story better than the telling, the characters better than the composition, and shot lists sharper than the structure. But make no mistake, the book really shines when it shines. The Andalucian Friend is emotionally dazzling at times and deliciously grisly at others, even if some parts are stronger than the sum of it.

The Andalucian Friend: A Novel by Alexander Söderberg is available on Amazon. You can also find The Andalucian Friend at Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks. The audiobook, narrated by Gildart Jackson, can be a bit of a challenge compared to the printed word. While Jackson reads the novel clearly enough, he doesn't have enough diversity in his pitch or tone to carry so many characters.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kadavar Comes Back With Abra Magic

There is something unmistakably warm and authentic about the sophomore album from Kadavar, the follow up to their eponymous debut last year. Although some of the deep textures that heralded a return to the riff-driven, doom-like appeal of psychedelic rock are different, Abra Kadavar has a handmade feel.

Even the word handmade sounds right. The album was cut over the short course of two weeks around mid-December, with everything except the vocals and a handful of guitar solos laid down live by the trio from Berlin. So expect a few forgivable rough edges that will improve during live performances.

"We've tried to capture more of our live energy, which is why we've recorded almost everything together in one room with the amps turned up to the max," says Ted "Tiger" Tinski. "The songs are more diversified, the ideas feel more spontaneous."

Abra Kadavar almost plays like two EPs stitched together. 

The top half of the album plays like most people would expect from Kadavar, except with a crispness that the band says is closer to their stage sound. The effect leaves off a little meatiness but is no less addictive as Come Back Life eases everyone into the album.

Although written months before the video, Come Back Life foreshadowed the band's ill-fated adventures across the United States in March. Their baggage was lost, there was no room in Austin when they arrived for SXSW, and the '64 Ford Galaxie they bought to get around blew up.

The laid back road track fits while giving up the first glimpse of how psychedelic rock can sound. Christoph "Lupus" (formally 'Wolf') Lindemann effortlessly lands the vocals, unencumbered by any distractions since he had already recorded his guitar work and bassist Javier Mammut is right on the mark in giving Kadavar its signature sound.

The second track, Doomsday Machine, kicks up the tempo  with a tenacious and straightforward rocker. It's one of the best tracks on the album, not for breaking any new ground but for remaining grounded in a classic groove. Even the concepts are classic. It was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

The next two tracks progress in a similar fashion, tripping along into the bristling Eye Of The Storm and bluesy Black Snake before the album takes a progressive turn. Dust and Fire are deceptively straightforward as the band transitions to psychedelic space rock with Liquid Dream introducing the organ.

Rhythm For Endless Minds keeps the organ swirls and the band drops in some distorts on Lindemann's vocals, to an otherworldly effect. While the album feels finished on the magical Abra Kadavar, The Man I Shot provides an epilogue of sorts with a stripped back and readily raw composition. The tenth track also carries a seven-minute plus time stamp, which is more than enough time to get lost inside it. 

Abra Kadavar By Kadavar Casts A Spell At 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Kadavar does one better than retro rock by making progressive rock thrive with a vintage vibe. While there are some obvious nods to the era, the Berlin trio never feel like they are trying to recreate something as much as they are just making music. What's even more promising is the album feels like Kadavar is just getting started. 

You can find Abra Kadavar on Amazon. The vinyl LP can be ordered from Barnes & Noble or download the digital album from iTunes. The tenth track is only available with the purchase of an entire album, but that is how Kadavar plays best anyway — with every track stacked back to back. Better yet, see them live.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Girl Effect Is A Good Will Pick

There are two ways you can think about the 250 million adolescent girls who live in poverty on our planet. You can see them as statistics, victims who need us to provide for their well being day in and day out. Or you can see them for who they are — the most powerful force for change on the planet.

The gap between these two perspectives is profound, with one vision providing a path of dependence and another empowering individuals to awaken with a new sense of self-esteem. The rewards are different too.

If you can look past their present circumstances and see their potential, the outcome eventually becomes unforgettable — the day you know these individuals don't need your help anymore is the day they become too busy helping themselves, their families, and their communities instead. The only question that remains is how many can be reached today in order to transform the world tomorrow.

The Girl Effect is a bold idea to empower girls to improve their communities. 

Five years ago, the Nike Foundation in collaboration with the United Nations Foundation and Coalition For Adolescent Girls joined a handful of organizations that give young women a chance to make change. They even go a step further. They directly help lift these girls out of poverty and encourage more nonprofit organizations to develop more programs for girls and make other programs inclusive.

The goals are straightforward. When girls receive education, health care and economic investments, they have a better chance to break intergenerational cycles of poverty. But delivering on this idea isn't always easy. By the time more girls who live in poverty turn 12, their futures are beyond their control.

In some areas of the world, a 12-year-old girl is likely to face marriage by the time she is 14. She is likely to be pregnant by 15. And if she survives childbirth, she may turn to prostitution to feed her family and acquire AIDS/HIV in the process. And for some, as unimaginable as it sounds, it could be worse.

The Girl Effect aims to change that by ensuring a 12-year-old girl will see a doctor regularly by the age of 14. She stays in school at 15 instead of dropping out to raise a family. And by the time she is 18, she can use her education to become self-reliant and make choices for herself.

But in order to make something like this possible you have to see these individual girls differently.

While there are many ways The Girl Effect has influenced organizations, some of the work they do is direct through The Girl Hub. This collaboration between the United Kingdom's Department For International Development (DFID) and the Nike Foundation bring their voices to the forefront of policy, develop tools to inspire them and influence decision makers to implement better programs.

Such efforts are then concentrated in countries like Rwanda, Nigeria and Ethiopia, where girls receive family planning information, health care and education and safe places for support and inspiration. The differences even the smallest changes can make are profound. The change is real.

"Changing their aspirations and those of their communities, building their confidence and giving them access to information and networks, is critical," said Lindi Hlanze, an economic advisor for DFID. "We need to look at all of these things throughout the life cycle of a girl — it's too late to wait until they're adults."

And interestingly enough, it's not just about them. It's about our world. Closing the joblessness gap between boys and girls can increase a country's GDP by 1.2 percent in a single year. Increasing the number of girls completing secondary education can grow a country's economy by 3 percent. Providing women with the same access to resources could increase agricultural output in developing countries by 4 percent, reducing the number of hungry people by 100 million.

At the same time, the cost of dependence is eliminated. To help put this into perspective, the lifetime cost for girls who drop out of school is estimated at $704 million in the United Kingdom and $29.6 billion in the United States, annually. In some impoverished countries, the costs are proportionately more and nearly impossible to reverse.

The Girl Effect By The Nike Foundation Is A Liquid Hip Good Will Pick.

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

We chose The Girl Effect because it makes sense. If the cycle of poverty can be broken early enough with eduction and resources, countries can immediately reduce the cost of dependency and empower millions of young women who will make contributions to their families, communities and countries for generations to come. Simply put, it gives them the chance to turn victims into heroes.

There are two ways to give. You can provide for The Girl Effect Fund or any number of specific projects that have been developed by the initiative. All the funding is collected by Global Giving. Specific projects include programs in Cambodia, Cameroon, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Kenya, Myanmar, Sudan, Thailand, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hanni El Khatib Digs Deep In The Dirt

Hanni El Khatib
It has been a few years since the Hanni El Khatib had cobbled together enough tracks to put out an album. With the help of producer Dan Auerbach (The Black Keys), he rolled up his sleeves and finally did it. Head In The Dirt punks up Americana with a little more fullness, smoothness, and variety.

While some reviewers think of his material as a bit of schtick, it's only because they haven't seen the sometimes guileless but genuine musician lay down some chords in person. Khatib isn't an act. The San Francisco-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter has an obsession with Americana, circa 50s and 60s.

Head In The Dirt digs deep into punked up and stripped down rock. 

As the former creative director for a skateboard fashion line, Khatib has thrown himself all into his music. And sometimes that confuses people, who think the stories he sings about are necessarily about him.

Maybe that's even more true of Head In The Dirt compared to other outings. The sophomore album is clearly crafted as opposed to someone with his head firmly planted in the past. For me, that's perfectly fine. If there was one thing that was holding Khatib back from a broader audience, it was the singularity of his original sound.

On Head In The Dirt, Khatib breaks out of the rut that dominated his performances and tries on a smoother cool in between his usual grit and wildness. Family makes the case well enough. The video is a whacked out Japanese motorcycle fantasy that shows off how much Khatib thinks he missed by being born a couple of decades too late.

The campy naivety and reckless abandon of the track illustrates how Khatib isn't trying to make himself a character as much as he wants to sing about characters from a glorified and glamorized cinematic perception of two very cool decades. He blends in some real life experiences too, making it a mystery.

All along, Khatib has said he isn't interested in creating concept music as much as he likes to create a mood or a feeling. Sometimes it's wild. Other times it's exciting. But all the time it's simple and classic.

The title track, Head In The Dirt, leads off with all the expectant fuzz and funk you might expect. But by the time you break into the third track, Skinny Little Girl, it becomes much more clear that Khatib wants to expand his repertoire. The track is a more relaxed attempt at storytelling.

He used a similarly relaxed harmonic on Penny, which not only shows that Khatib can lay down solid lyrics but also how much influence The Black Keys have been since they've toured together. Khatib is clearly the kind of opener they want, even if we lean toward his more fiery work.

On Head In The Dirt, those type of powerful and primal step tracks are far and few between. Even the few that exist are tamer then pervious outings. Check out Save Me, Sinking In The Sand, and Nobody Move. House Of Fire is more restrained too, but Khatib comes across as if it takes a real effort to keep the lid on it.

Head In The Dirt By Khatib Hurts 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The first time I covered Khatib a few years ago, I made a note of mentioning that he is an artist by nature. Head In The Dirt proves Khatib still is, even if Auerbach seems to be whispering in his ear the whole time. On the plus side, the 11-track album breaks up Khatib's previous singular pace even if it might not be as raw as some fans have come to expect. It still rocks.

Head in the Dirt by Hanni El Khatib is available on Amazon. You can also order the album from Barnes & Noble or download it from iTunes. Khatib has a full touring schedule through the summer. For show listings and upcoming concerts, visit his Facebook page.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Robinson Comes Ashore For Island 731

There wasn't a unit in the Imperial Japanese Army more frightening than 731. During the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, this was the same unit that undertook ruthless and lethal experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war to advance chemical and biological warfare.

While the main camp was located in Pingfang District of Harbin, China, there were dozens of sites scattered across the empire's expansive wartime territory. And it is from this historical evidence that author Jeremy Robinson has conjured up a remote island in the Pacific to ask one terrifying question.

What if one site was never found in the aftermath of World War II? 

By setting Island 731 within the direct vicinity of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Robinson creates a story out of those incidents when Japanese soldiers left on small islands would survive two and three decades, never knowing that the war was over. Island 731 plays this out on a grand scale.

Shortly after discovering a floating refuse collection that spans 30 miles, the research vessel Magellan is caught in a raging storm and is almost lost as its systems malfunction. As the sun rises the following morning, the surviving researchers and crew members find themselves anchored in a lagoon on an uncharted tropical island.

Their sense of security and relief is quickly shattered, however, as some crew members begin to disappear. The remaining survivors turn to Mark Hawkins, a former park ranger and expert tracker, to put his primary skills to good use. He leads a small expedition into the densely forested interior.

Island 731 transforms a cautionary tale of vivisection by H.G. Wells into a freak show adventure thriller.

Please don't misunderstand me. Any comparison to the classic Island of Dr. Moreau is merely cursory and expedient. Whereas H.G. Wells had a noble intent in wanting to curb the degeneration and vivisection of animals at the turn of the century, Robinson mostly wants to entertain.

And that said, it ought to be no surprise that elements of mystery and morality are largely absent in this briskly paced action thriller. That isn't necessarily bad, but it does mean that sticking to the horrific and re-imagining nightmares at the hands of war criminals some 50 years after Wells has less depth.

Sure, Robinson does strum a few chords about taking responsibility for the actions of others at the beginning and at the end. But at the same time, one never truly gains any sense of linkage between the pollution problem and revived war criminal science. The story is too straightforward to make the case.

Suffice to say that first victims that Hawkins and his colleagues encounter are animals, creatures that have been genetically fused to manufacture something more lethal. Many seem to have their roots in mythology, mixing and matching hybrids like the legendary manticore. The deeper inside the island they go, the more grotesque the discoveries, deadly the adversaries and questionable the plot twists.

A few graphs about author Jeremy Robinson and his latest story. 

After growing up in the seacoast town of Beverly, Massachusetts, Robinson began a successful career as an illustrator. It wasn't until years later that he realized creating new worlds might be more fulfilling than illustrating worlds invented by other people.

The transition didn't happen over night. Like many authors, Robinson self-published his first book, The Didymus Contingency. It was republished a year later by Bard Publishing, which was the same year his second novel, Raising The Past, was published by Breakneck Books. Since, he has published dozens of books while continually trying to help would-be authors along the way.

Island 731 By Jeremy Robinson Cuts 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a straightforward action story with a near flawless hero to help others along, Island 731 mostly works. What doesn't work is the thin and unconvincing romance that develops as the characters are cast into an endless loop of discovering and escaping one monster after the next, each progressively harder to beat. In this case, the concept is cooler than the telling but the book won't put you to sleep either.

Island 731 by Jeremy Robinson can be found on Amazon. You can also find the book at Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by R.C. Bray, who does a fine job even when it amplifies how unaffected Hawkins seems by what he sees. Robinson is surprisingly accessible on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Deap Vally Goes Out Ferociously Deap

Deap Vally
With their debut album Sistrionix already slated for release in June by the San Fernando duo Deap Vally, Get Deap! is much ado about priming the cult following that Lindsey Troy (guitar/vocals) and Julie Edwards (drums) have earned. For the better part of a year, the girls have set live performances on fire by singing blues, playing rock and styling themselves after Thelma & Lousie.

The duo opened for bands like Muse and the Vaccines, getting a taste for bigger stages and demanding audiences. They did better than deliver. They made believers with their hyper-amped approach to rock and roll.

Get Deap! carries a bluesy groove back by amped up rock: rebel, release, reload.

With duo performances becoming increasingly commonplace in the space left vacant by the White Stripes, Deap Vally plays it straight. The music they make is all about pounding out guitar chords and crashing down on the drums. They beat their music to life as much as they make it.

Opening with the bluesy and brooding rocker Lies, Deap Vally sets the pace of the EP as ferociously primitive. It's so primal, it almost seems impossible that the two women met each other at a crochet class. Edwards was teaching it. Troy wanted to learn. It wasn't long after when one set of hooks was traded in for another.

Lies admittedly lands a little short on lyrical intent, but it almost doesn't matter the way Troy and Edwards deliver it. The theme of the song isn't hard to figure out. It's about retribution and punishment.

The second track follows with another number off the upcoming album. Gonna Make My Own Money, which was also released as a debut single, chugs back and forth as it casts its hypnotic spell over anyone looking for two badass women.

Both songs will also appear the upcoming album along with Baby I Call Hell, which will be due out as a single prior to the full length. The tracks, like everything they've released to date, were produced by Lars Stalfors (The Mars Volta, Cold War Kids). He has done a find job keeping the rawness real.

The bottom half of Get Deap! features exclusive EP tracks. 

While the top half of the EP is slated for the album, the bottom two tracks aren't listed on the upcoming album. End Of The World attempts to draw in the audience with commands. It's mostly about channeling the ever-present angst the girls put into their chords and drums into love and peace.

Sure, it sounds like a contradiction against the aggressive arrangements, but their anti-hate rhetoric feels right. Ain't Fair dishes out more of the same. With a little more crunch in the guitar and relaxation on the drums, the song mostly runs the EP out like a three-minute cool down after a 10-minute workout.

Prior to meeting each other, the two musicians were actively involved in other music projects. After listening to their respective CDs, they agreed to laid down a few tracks that revolved around the rebellious nature of rock and roll, pounding out every note as an addictively delicious release.

Get Deap! By Deap Vally Gets Down At 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There really isn't much mystery as to why Deap Vally has earned some buzz in anticipation of the upcoming album. Likewise, there won't be much surprise if, like the EP, there isn't much deviation from what some people have accurately described as a valley girl ripoff of the White Stripes.

Get Deap by Deap Vally is available from Amazon. You can also pick up the EP from iTunes. The CD is available from Barnes & Noble. The band is currently on tour in the United Kingdom. Visit them on Facebook for more event updates.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Grind London Flirts With Contradiction

Grind London
London-born Youssef Metwali has become somewhat of an enigma on the British "streetwear" scene over the last few years. As the co-founder of Grind London, an apparel line that transcends what some people call Tumblr brands, he works hard to immerse himself in that space where art and lifestyle meet.

The store itself was originally founded in 2008. The point of it was to develop a brand with its own roots and culture but continually infuse original concepts into it, year after year. Ask Metwali what it is all about and he might define it as a mix of United Kingdom cynicism and United States brashness. But almost all of it carries a sense of nostalgia too, nods to the past that pick up a grassroots vibe.

Pattern, print, or plain: Grind London stands out. 

The designs themselves are only part of the story. Metwali tends to take pride in every facet of production, personally sourcing every component. The majority of the cotton fabrics that the brand brings together come from Japan and the United States in order to ensure the perfect softness.

Then it extends to other details as well, including every button and every thread. And while the products are often manufactured in Asia, the whole of it is much more global. Grind London isn't interested in simply making graphic designs that can be printed on anything. They are hands on, daily.

Naturally, it didn't start that way in 2008. Like many brands, Grind London had a graphic shirt start. All that helped them stand apart then was that Metwali and his partner were dedicated to adding substance to the subculture. There is hard work behind something that looks effortless and sometimes fearless.

The graphic side of streetwear resonates on every level.  

One of the most successful elements of Metwali's most recent designs is the counterpoint concept. The commentary can be traced back to last year's Karma Drama T-shirts, which didn't give the cosmic connection a free pass. Metwali, who doesn't believe in karma, manages to make people think.

Custom Ts
The same can be said of some of the new designs. Designs like Enlightened and Merry Summer provide a point and counterpoint that fits as much as it contradicts. At the glance, someone might find offense but on the second pass you might find yourself asking something else like why not?

Perhaps a little less controversial and more straightforward is another T called Rulers Of The Wave. As a surfer, it had an immediate appeal not only because it was well designed, but also because of where the art falls and how it looks at a distance. The look is both modern and throwback at the same time. It gives the design roots.

The patterned prints are equally striking. Think Gonzo modernized. 

Grind London, which once put out a line called Hunter S. Thompson, has several patterns that are reminiscent of the era with a modern twist. Although not something I would normally wear, the cotton pinup girl shirt is a classic. Not only is the repeating pattern kept to a minimum, but the shirt also captures attention at a glance but then gives everyone a reason to look a little closer.

Heritage Print
There is nothing generic about it like the patterned shirts that inspired the design. The same can be said for the other print shirts too. The heritage shirt carries an unlikely hunter-farmer pattern. The parrot shirt (a.k.a. tropical pigeons) increases the repeating pattern, giving it a bold effect.

There are other patterns put out by Grind London this year too. While many of them were put out as shirts and shorts, some of them work better as shorts that can be matched to something more straightforward, like a graphic T. The best short, by the way, is the subtle brown tropical. Easily cool.

The Grind London Collection Hits 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Although classified as streetwear, Grind London has gone a long way in breaking out from the confines of the clothing genre. While still well known for its graphic Ts, which take Metwali much more time to design, some of the clothing lines' subtle patterns work just as well as shorts and even Oxford shirts.

All of the designs can be found at Grind London direct or you can visit Urban Industry, which offers free shipping in the United Kingdom and reduced shipping prices for international orders. If you are ordering from Urban Industry from the United States, don't forget to convert the currency.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Beware The Darkness Shreds Orthodox

Beware The Darkness
Sporting a slightly different look and settling into a relatively specific sound, Los Angeles-based Beware The Darkness is solidifying itself as a razor sharp rock power trio. Something here just works.

Coming off their successful Howl EP, the Southern Depression-era rockers shed some experimental meanderings for consistently dark and dirty rock and roll. While the album, Orthodox, leans on three of four tracks from their EP last year, there is plenty of new material that sets the band apart.

As an album, Orthodox splits itself between beautifully composed brooders that give singer/songwriter Kyle Nicolaides a stage to deliver his signature sorrowfulness and lively rockers that lift the band out of the murk.

Sure, there is some reliance on iconic sounds that will ring with an unapologetic familiarity but Nicolaides' lyrical work adds a freshness to the band's unmistakably vintage flair.

Orthodox glorifies the retread of refreshingly Seventies rock.

In a different decade, Beware The Darkness might have found its musical sweet spot between the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It's in these convincing compositions that Nicolaides and his bandmates — Daniel Curcio (bass) and Tony Cupito (drums) — effortlessly lay down easily accessible rock and roll.

But what makes the band a bit more interesting than a throwback band is the lyrics. Nicolaides turns to a long list of muses that include Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, and David Foster Wallace. It's from such deeply talented inspirations that he can create some memorable and heady melodies to wrestle with life and death.

The atmospheric rocker Ghost Town is an end-of-life tune about a weary and disconnected drifter hanging onto his last thread. There is an odd acceptance for whatever might come next, a quiet and unafraid Western-tinged hymn that dares death to take him. At the end, the dare erupts into a plea.

Ghost Town is the third track, following Sweet Girl and the album opener that has proven to be the biggest success for the trio. There is no question why it is the most referenced track in the band's arsenal; Howl is definitively primal (and tightened up on the album). Sweet Girl, on the other hand, is the most fun, albeit the most shallow track. It's a feel-good pine-away rock song about a girl.

In terms of rockers, along with Howl, check out the bonus track Be My Exorcist. The additional track reinforces that the band can rock as hard as it wants. It alone is worth purchasing the album. Here's a live fan captured piece of it.

There are several more standout tracks on Orthodox, with some of the best being slowed down and contemplative. These include the lazy ebb and flow of Amen Amen, the relaxed and melodic Morning Tea, and the blues-infused Hummingbird. All Who Remain is also worth a listen. It's about losing your favorite person on the planet. It's also the one of the more pop-oriented pieces on the album.

The other, End Of The World, was originally called Culture Bomb on the EP. Instead of sticking the track with its original post-modern paranoia intent, the band plugged in the most memorable lyric line. While I like the song better than my counterpart who reviewed the EP last year, it hints at the band's risk of becoming too theatrical, especially around its keyboard-reliant compositions.

Time will tell if this will happen or not. While the band would be better served with more urgent guitar-driven rockers, they have reportedly been looking for a keyboardist as a potential fourth member.

Orthodox By Beware The Darkness Shreds 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The album easily elevates the band, adding consistently to Beware The Darkness than their EP debut while proving there is more under the hood than loss and loneliness. Additional kudos to executive producer Dave Sardy (Oasis, Nine Inch Nails) and Greg Gordon, who shares the producer credit with Nicolaides.

Orthodox by Beware The Darkness is a nicely comped rock retread with some lyrical twists and refreshed arrangements. You can find the album on Amazon. The vinyl LP can be ordered from Barnes & Noble or you can download it from iTunes. Keep tabs on their tour schedule via Facebook.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Roger New York Wears A Bow Tie

The Roger
Earlier this year, I had a chance to take a return trip to New York City and stayed somewhere I never expected. While I prefer places that are tried and true most of the time, one of my friends suggested I stay at the recently renovated The Roger (not to be confused with the Roger Smith Hotel).

Given the boutique hotel located on Madison Avenue in the Flatiron District is new, the room rates seemed reasonable and the property was offering an additional special (valet parking and breakfast for $10 more), I readily agreed. After all, the Empire State Building is just a short walk from the hotel. So is Koreatown.

The location is great and renovations crisp, but it's the kindness that keeps you.

It's easy enough to tell that the hotel staff are trying to make a great impression. Everyone is helpful and especially willing to help — offering advice, accommodating special requests, and assisting with reservations at any of the nearby restaurants. While not everyone will think this is extraordinary, maybe expected, it was the authenticity that made all the difference.

Although you can hear some street traffic like most New York hotels, the rooms are quiet enough. If you are more sensitive to noise where you stay, it always makes sense to request a room with a view to escape any bustle near the ground floors. For me, it wasn't a bother.

The rooms feel open considering the smaller New York sizes, which has to do with the smartly but sparsely designed room. What I didn't care for was the color scheme. The whiteness makes it a little stark, mostly because some of the warmer accents don't work with the black and white base.

The Roger
Still, there are plenty of details that count. The linens are Egyptian cotton. The comforters and pillows are down for added comfort. Modern amenities that have become expected in recent years like flatscreen televisions and docking stations were present.

All in all it's comfortable enough, but it really it is the staff who make the stay memorable more than the hotel itself. They make you feel at home, which can't be said for all hotels. Having only 194 rooms helps. But what doesn't help is how some hotels are dropping room rates but then adding surcharges and point of sale items (even in the bathroom). It cheapens the experience.

Otherwise, if you can splurge for a room with a terrace, do it. The Manhattan skyline gives the hotel the charm it just doesn't seem to have on its own beyond the lobby or the The Parlour, which was designed by Anna Busta. It was her idea to blend old world and new, inspired by what was right outside.

The Flatiron District is an amazing blend of New York business. 

The area is mostly known for its famously triangular Flatiron Building and Madison Square Park. There is a different vibe in the area, creating the impression you are in New York City without being a tourist.

Like the renovations at The Roger, there is an ever-present blending of the old and the new. As a daytime destination, the old world architecture, modern public art, and eatery aromas capture the excitement of it. Shopping is eclectic, given how many design, photography, and clothing shops are there.

New York
If there is a must-do amidst a host of must-dos, visit the park for what some people call the best hamburger in the city. The only trick to getting one from Danny Meyer is having enough time. The line (which is longer in the summer) becomes something of a spectacle in and of itself.

The wait, much like I was promised, was worth it. The place you will be looking for is the Shake Shack, which actually began as a hotdog cart about 12 years ago. While I missed the opening, the annual public art installation probably helps (and a fully charged iPhone). This year's installation is artist Orly Genger's concept to frame all the lawns with red, yellow, and blue walls of hand-knotted rope. It's about 1.4 million feet of rope to give you a sense of scale.

Personally, I preferred the nearby nighttime attractions. All the lounges, clubs, and cabarets heat up. Make sure you visit the Flatiron Lounge for that crazy New York mixology, mahogany bar seating, and  jazz music. The bar, as a point of interest, was originally made in 1927. Frank Sinatra loved it too.

The Roger New York Gets Off The Ground At 3.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

While the review rating isn't as high as some might expect, the hotel is still cool enough to make our places list. All in all, if the art was more interesting (to add some warmth to the rooms) and the surcharge silliness was killed outright, it would likely land somewhere in the sevens. Seriously. Placing price tags all over hotels feels like forgetting to cut them off your clothes after shopping.

The location, on the other hand, is abuzz with new stuff. While I was in New York too early to see it, both Codecademy and Tres Carnes both opened. Fore more details and booking information, start by comparing specials against top travel deals at There are options.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Black Apples Peel Off From A Bushel

Black Apples
Last year, Los Angeles-based Black Apples peeled off more than 40 demos at Station House last year. That's about a bushel of music. But instead of releasing another album to follow up their self-released debut, the band hand-picked five to polish and put out an EP.

Overall, it's a pretty good mix with relatively few bangs and bruises. At the same time, Black Apples always leaves me with this feeling that they could be on everybody's radar if they just settled down long enough to unclench themselves.

As it stands, their new EP Tales And Truths never feels relaxed, but there are some tracks worth talking up. And as an upcoming artist pick, the Black Apples are well worth putting on the radar for their soulful and psychedelic presence.

Tales And Truths EP will give you what you came for. 

This is meant literally. Get What You Came For is easily the standout on the 5-track EP from the band that started in Los Angeles, migrated to Fort Collins, and then returned to Southern California.

The quartet is led by New York-born brothers Andrew (guitar, vocals) and Campbell (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) Scarborough and joined by Mason Rothschild (bass) and Jorge Balbi Castellano (drums). But the brothers are the center, having worked together as a band for the better of three years and much longer than that.

Last July, they even kicked up a Kickstarter campaign to finish what they hoped would be a second LP. Instead, the band cranked out a cool single called Cover Up. The B-side isn't bad either, but it does touch on why Black Apples teeter between success and surrender. They rock when they pick up the pace.

While Get What You Came For isn't necessarily a blistering rocker, it moves the band fully ahead so they don't get bogged down in the folksy doo-wop they sometimes gravitate toward. Along with Get What You Came For, check out Tales And Truths, which puts them at the edge of a too pouty pace.

Fortunately, Black Apples salvages the indie pop one-third of the way into the song when it picks up a bigger and better dynamic. It's a good tune (just not as good as the second track). In much the same way, the third track cuts it almost too close before becoming just spacey enough to save the song.

By Lions, Black Apples tries too hard. It slips into an indie pop beach song but not before making everyone wonder whether their choruses are too formulaic for their own good. Skip this track all together.

The last track on the EP ends on a good note. Although somber, Campbell Scarborough keeps his voice in check, keeping it lower and avoiding any stick. It might be mellow, but gives the album a nice smooth finish.

The Black Apples have more bite than the EP suggests.

Comparing the 5-track EP to their debut might even be fair, but giving it a listen adds a different kind of perspective into this band. Right from the second track, it's clear that the quartet was meant to be an indie rock outfit. Buffalo is a pretty amazing song, probably the best track that Black Apples ever produced.

Where The Wild Things Go, Arctic Cowboy, Diggin' Dirt, No, and Mutiny On are all cool tracks and styles that the band seems to be leaving by the wayside. Sure, the debut had some slower doowop drops too, but what made them more exciting was their contrast to the wildness. But more than that, it almost makes you wish the introduction happened two years ago.

Tales And Truths By Black Apples Bites 4.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although the band feels better when they share their wild side, Tales And Truths still manages to have a couple of cool tracks that add some contrast to their existing material. As an up-and-coming artist pick, the Scarborough brothers and their bandmates are worth a listen. A little momentum might do it for them.

The self-released Tales and Truths by Black Apples is available on Amazon. You can also download some tracks from iTunes. You can find out about any upcoming shows on Facebook. Their final residency show at Harvard & Stone was held on April 30 in Hollywood.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Frank Calabrese Jr. On Family Secrets

Operation Family Secrets
By his own account, Frank Calabrese, Jr. had reached a crossroads. There were two choices he could make. He could be a rat or he could be a murderer. He chose the former.

Operation Family Secrets: How A Mobster’s Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago’s Murderous Crime Family is the story of how Frank Jr. came to that crossroads and the repercussions that his choice would ultimately have not only on his family, but also on the very face of organized crime.

As Frank Jr. tells it, his multigenerational Italian-Irish family could have been like thousands of other middle class families in Chicago. However, some members of his family were also members of another family known as “the Outfit,” Chicago’s feared crime syndicate. Frank Jr.’s dad, Frank Calabrese, Sr., was far more than a participant. He was a central figure known as Frankie Breeze, a loan shark and a vicious hit man known to strangle his victims before slashing their throats.

Operation Family Secrets is a rare inside look at a mob family.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that Frank Jr. and his brothers desperately sought the attention and approval of their dad. But Frank Sr. was a complicated man and had many facets to his personality (perhaps even multiple personality disorder, as Frank Jr. suggests). There was his loving side, his abusive and controlling side and his vicious side.

At the age of 18, Frank Jr. entered the family business and began his own “career” of labor racketerring, exortion, loan sharking, and plotting murders. The Outfit’s way of doing business made them feared by other mobsters and a target of interest by the FBI. Eventually Frank Sr., Frank Jr. and Nicholas Calabrese (Frank Sr.’s brother) found themselves behind bars, convicted of racketeering. Father and son were sent to the same federal penitentiary in Michigan.

While behind bars, Frank Jr. had plenty of time to think — his proverbial crossroads. His father had lied to him time and time again, promising he’d take a step back from The Outfit, which of course he never did. Their dad never watched out for Frank Jr. and his brothers. And Frank Jr. says that he knew when they both got out of prison, one of them would end up dead.

Frank Sr. could have been free at 70, but Frank Jr. made a life-altering decision.

Frank Calabrese, Sr.
He wrote a letter to the FBI, saying: “I feel I have to help you keep this sick man locked up forever.” After that, Frank Jr. would wear a wire while having prison yard conversations with his father.

For six months, he was not monitored and he received no protection. Frank Sr. freely discussed details about his life of crime and it was those father-to-son conversations that toppled one of the most notorious crime families in Chicago history.

The Family Secrets trial took place in 2007, and Frank Jr. didn’t ask for immunity. Uncle Nick testified as did Frank Jr.’s brother Kurt, who painfully recounted years of his father’s threats and beatings. Frank Sr. never denied being a loan shark, but he vehemently denied being involved with any murders.

Denials aside, the evidence was overwhelming and Frank Sr. went down along with 14 members of the Chicago mob, convicted of a wide variety of crimes, including 18 murders. The case also helped to solve an additional 40 murders and is considered one of the most extensive mob-murder racketeering cases in the nation’s history.

Frank Sr. received a life sentence and died in prison at the age of 75. He had a history of heart disease and other ailments. Uncle Nick received a reduced sentence for his cooperation and testimony, but he also received a prison sentence for his role.

Frank Calabrese, Jr.
Frank Jr. worked in a pizzeria before becoming an author with the release of this book. Incidentally, he is not in the witness protection program. Co-authors and twin brothers Keith and Kent Zimmerman have worked on 16 books, including Hell’s Angel, the story of Ralph “Sonny” Barger. Co-author Paul Pompian has produced more than 50 movies and television productions, including Velocity.

With a cast of real-life characters with names such as Joey the Clown, The German, The Indian, and The Hook, Frank Jr.’s story gets a bit mired down at times due to the sheer volume of players. Things even out a bit once the setting moves to prison.

Operation Family Secrets: How A Mobster’s Son and the FBI Brought Down Chicago’s Murderous Crime Family By Frank Calabrese Jr. et al. Guns 8.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

In all, Operation Family Secrets is a riveting, gritty read that provides a truly insider’s glimpse into the world of organized crime. Although the book came out in 2011, interest is growing in the story. A movie based on the book is said to be in the works with Nicholas Pileggi (who wrote Goodfellas and Casino) signed on as executive producer.

The audiobook is narrated with just the right amount of grit (especially when he's doing Frank Sr.) by Todd McLaren, who has voiced more than 5,000 TV and radio commercials plus documentaries for Discovery and the History Channel. You can also find Operation Family Secrets on Amazon, order the book from Barnes & Noble or download it for iBooks.