Monday, March 31, 2014

The Avant-Garde Vincent Van Gogh

Holland-born artist Vincent van Gogh may have become one of the most recognizable artists of his age, but it took several decades before his art would take a turn toward the avant-garde. It wasn't until his thirties that he would move to Paris and meet other disruptive artists like Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrc (among others).

Before then, well into his late twenties, van Gogh worked as an art dealer with his uncle. And while he was initially happy and successful with the business of art, he unexpectedly lost interest in it. For him, the profession lacked the sense of purpose that he craved. So he turned to theology instead.

It didn't take long before he found it wasn't a good fit there either. Despite his enthusiasm as a missionary, he failed several program exams and felt his development as a preacher had stalled. Although he was successful as a missonary, the church rejected his practices to embrace poverty and live in the same impoverished squalor as the coal miners he served.

His empathy for the world around him became an art form. 

When van Gogh left the church embittered, he turned toward art as a remedy for his discouragement. He began simply by drawing the poverty around him. And while some historians see this shift as a rejection of faith, his art became central to religious expression and self-reformation.

He painted everyday life, with an aim toward capturing the human soul as he saw it in families barely getting by, a beggar in the street, a peasant girl who feels compassion for a distressed and underfed cow. From simple drawings, he expanded into paint and eventually enrolled in the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.

His first major work, Potato Eaters, represents the cumulation of his work after five years. But despite how great his work would later be seen, the world had little interest then.

Van Gogh might have continued on like this if it wasn't for his brother. Theo van Gogh encouraged him to give up the dark, earthy tones of poverty and pay attention to the growing interest in Impressionism with its bright and vivd colors. The next year he would move to Paris.

It was in an art colony after Paris where he would make his famous works. 

His transformation in Paris was profound. He applied his paint thick. His brush strokes became big and bold. His approach was literal in that he painted everything around him. But it often sought to capture something else, an attempt to look behind the veil of his terrestrial journey.

It seems somewhat remarkable and yet impossible that van Gogh would only produce about 900 paintings over the course of ten years. Many of them were shown. Most received positive reviews. Almost none of them sold.

Even when he retreated with his friend Gauguin to an artist colony in Arles, his most productive and creative period was marred by his physical decline and mental illness. While some attribute his mental state to the work he produced, it may be related to his steadfast belief that he was nearing the end of his earthly journey. He frequently said he was compelled to paint but his utter surrender to the work would also aggravate his mental condition.

In the end, he chose to run toward the finality of existence rather than walk to it. Some might even speculate his early paintings suggest an old man might reach the stars was a only foreshadow to his later work, which shows the same idea from a dizzying and new point of view — his own.

The Work Of Van Gogh Bends Time At 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It took neatly 20 years after his death that the world would rediscover what an artistic genius van Gogh had become. Most people who admired his work would never meet the man. He was never invited to attend his best shows. They were all held in memorial.

Today, his work is housed in museums all over the world. One of the most famous is the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which has managed to assemble a permanent collection of more than 200 pieces. Another amazing site to visit is Vincent van Gogh - The Letters, which includes all of his letters to his brother and artist friends. It's an amazing collection that took more than 15 years of research. You can also find an impressive collection of van Gogh prints as part of the vintage wall art collection at

Friday, March 28, 2014

Wolfmother Earns Its Big New Crown

In what some are calling the biggest surprise LP of the year, New Crown is a reasonably riveting and undeniably raw psychedelic rock album punctuated with enough punk to to rattle your teeth and heaviness shake your bones. The album is just enough to give Wolfmother some badly needed new life.

Whatever anxiety and trepidation Andrew Stockdale felt about carrying on the Wolfmother banner after the departure of Chris Ross and Myles Heskett seems to be gone. New Crown seems to suggest that he has finally found his groove with long-time bassist Ian Peres and drummer Vin Steele.

The new lineup has been crowned. Long live Wolfmother. 

Given it has been five years since the release of Cosmic Egg, with barely enough bits and twists to keep the dusty genre alive, it was anybody's guess whether Stockdale could shift his creative energy enough to tap the talents of his new bandmates. New Crown puts all that to rest.

Sure, there will be plenty of remarks from critics who will continue to call the work a rehash of the sixties and seventies, but the sound isn't as irrelevant as some would have you believe. While it might be true that Wolfmother never seems able to give its music the muscle it truly deserves, the band still manages to move things forward as a relaxed throwback.

Fans will likely find the album is a better pairing with the debut than the experimental commotion of Cosmic Egg. Some will even hint at grunge and blues rock influences, but that doesn't really capture what is going on here.

Breaking out with How Many Times, Wolfmother snarls and bangs its way through the first track. Never mind that the opening riff doesn't feel right or that Stockdale doesn't always sound like he is keeping up with his bandmates. The charm of the noise they make is the first-time feel that it has throughout.

Wolfmother follows it up with Enemy Is In Your Mind, which is about as close as they get to their debut sound. Like much of the album, the lo-fi feel and muddy distortion are cranked up as much as possible, intentionally giving the track the lowest production value possible.

Aside from the several blatant missteps as the band apparently grows too tired to finish out the four-minute track, Enemy Is In Your Mind does introduce Heavy Weight, which is a big, nonsensical, and mind-numbing slow motion stadium shaker.

Better tracks to dial up first include New Crown, which gives away the band's best Hendrix vibe, and My Tangerine Dream, which doubles down on the summer of love. Other tracks like meandering and confused Tall Ships or the travesty that is Feelings are better left off your sampling list.

I Ain't Got No isn't much better with its ridiculous lyrics and busted mix, but is marginally more listenable only because it becomes amusing as an accidental lampoon of the genre. The song puts Stockdale in the lobby of a hotel without a reservation. He tells the hotel staff what's up or something.

Not for anything, this is exactly why Wolfmother is still around . Even when their tracks fall short, like She Got It, they somehow schlock it up so much that every cringe or silly lyric makes sense. The trade off, of course, is that it is sometimes hit and miss. Radio saves itself but I Don't Know Why is absolutely awful.

New Crown By Wolfmother Crashes 2.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

If you are still reading this review and wondering why New Crown even made the review cut, there is only one way to sum it up. The band doesn't take itself too seriously these days. They play on stage just like they play off stage — somewhat sloppily while they have a good time.

If you listen to tracks like New Crown, My Tangerine Dream, Heavy Weight, Enemy Is In Your Mind, and even the grammatically challenged I Ain't Got No, you might have a good time too. New Crown can be found on iTunes where it received 4.5 stars from fans. The album isn't listed on Amazon, but you can find Wolfmother's debut there. Meanwhile, the band has booked a smattering of shows in Australia, Mexico, Russia, and the United States.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Extraordinary Things From Hoffman

Museum Of Extraordinary Things
With throngs of thugs and bootleggers and businessmen and idealists, New York City was a wonderment at the turn of the century and its playground was Coney Island. It was there, an island made increasingly more accessible by steam railroads and later subways, that all of New York turned out to have good time.

The best part was its location. Coney Island was just close enough to be convenient but just far enough away to be called a vacation.

Of course, not everyone saw it that way. For one young girl who would go mostly unnoticed during the off season but always attract crowds of curious onlookers during the on season, the wild and lively heart of this island was something else. It was her prison.

Coralie Sardie was a mermaid. And she wasn't just any mermaid but the daughter of the sinister impresario behind the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a freak show filled with artifacts and performers intended to thrill the masses — the wolfman, the butterfly girl, and the mermaid.

The Museum Of Extraordinary Things takes a toll on ordinary lives. 

The novel is a great escape of sorts, but not just for its readers. It is an escape by two very different protagonists in an emergent New York City that is both stunning and strangling to the unprepared.

The first of them is Coralie. Shortly after she was born with some extra webbing between her fingers, her father began the long and arduous exercise of training her to hold her breath for long periods of time, withstand cold water, and swim like a fish.

When combined with proper stage makeup, lighting, and the benefit of a tail, she was nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. So it was there, for hours and hours every day, Coralie would live in a tank of cold water, surfacing just ever so slightly to grab a breath of air from a small hidden hose.

The other protagonist, Eddie Cohen, is also trapped but in a much different way. He is the son of a Russian immigrant and expected to become a tailor's apprentice in a Lower East Side Orthodox community.

Even after he runs away to become a professional photographer, he still sees himself as somehow permanently linked to his past. The psychological confinement of who he is, or who he was, is as real as the psychical one that Coralie must endure.

All of this begins to change when Eddie photographs the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As he is sucked into the suspicious disappearance of a young woman, he is eventually led to a chance encounter with Coralie as a young woman as opposed to a mermaid. When they meet, both of them come to represent the allure of a fresh start far away from their dubious and demanding roles.

A couple of graphs about author Alice Hoffman.

Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City in 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Later she would attend Adelphi University and receive a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center. Her first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of 21.

Since then, she has become a distinguished novelist, writing both adult novels and books for young adults. Despite the age of one protagonist, the Museum Of Extraordinary Things best fits in the former category. Its strengths lies in the historic details (but not always the vividness of New York) and well-defined characters who attempt to find their place in the world.

The Museum Of Extraordinary Things By Alice Hoffman Sneaks 5.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although her characters spend much of the novel trying to discover where they fit in the world, it is almost uncanny at times how sure they are of who they themselves are. There are some challenges in her storytelling, especially any time she retells old material with new details as the book progress.

Fans will mostly find what they are looking for in Hoffman's latest novel, elements of quirkiness and mystery exist even if some of the details drown out the best of it. You can find The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel by Alice Hoffman on Amazon, where readers give it 4.5 stars. The Museum Of Extraordinary Things received 4 stars on iBooks. The audiobook, read by Judith Light, Grace Gummer, and Zach Appelman can be found on iTunes whereas a hard copy can be ordered from Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

There Are 27 Ways To Desert Noises

Desert Noises
“We knew each other from playing around the area, and then it kind of got out of control from there. We didn’t really choose to be in this band. The band chose us.” — Kyle Henderson

There is more fact than fiction in the explanation offered up by the frontman of Desert Noises, an addictive new indie rock foursome hailing from the unlikely cityscape of Provo, Utah. Almost everything about the band fell together, including its name.

Henderson said the name came to him in a dream and he quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper. He had some paper bedside because the occurrence is common enough. Many songs, he says, are teased out of dreams — the same ones that inspired him to leave behind being a business analyst for a multi-million dollar skin care company and his wife. From there, the rest just seemed to fall together too.

Desert Noises makes an escape and invites everyone along.

When Henderson set out in his van three years ago, he wasn't alone. He was joined by bassist Tyler Osmond, guitarist Patrick Boyer, and drummer Brennan Allen. For the past five years, the four of them have spent the better parts of their days writing and road-testing songs for a proper re-debut.

They eventually cobbled together enough material to work with producer Nick Jodoin (Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) at Sonic Ranch Studios in El Paso, Texas. The theme centers mostly on what the four of them had done — found 27 ways to leave behind everyone they knew to become a band.

The live session video, captured last year as part of the Provo Concert Series, shows off the softer, more contemplative side of the band that has become heavier and darker since their self-titled debut EP in 2009 and first full length in 2011. The track, called Angels on the album, also makes it apparent that the band isn't afraid to wear some influences on their sleeve.

The opener Grandma Looks plays the same way. It starts as a road trip track before dipping into a Grateful Dead jam. It's their proclivity to thread contrasting transitions from radio-friendly Americana to psychedelic rock and back that makes their music as addictive as it is unpredictable.

The Grateful Dead isn't an exclusive nod in the album. The band cites everyone from Tom Petty and Led Zeppelin to Mumford & Sons and Tame Impala as mix-worthy influencers. It is often how they weave all these elements together that creates a uniquely listenable sound.

Additional highlights from the sophomore album 27 Ways. 

There is no real order to find the most memorable tracks on the album. Out Of My Head is vibrant start, with its folk rock drifter sensibilities. Mice In The Kitchen blends together alternative pop-folk undertones that are both haunting and longing for freedom at the same time. Follow You Out is a brooding rocker that catches Henderson in between the breakup and the escape.

Way down the listing is a slide blues ditty that adds an impromptu bounce to the album, even if it only lasts a mere 90 seconds. What The World Made takes on a country-rock vibe that hints at hitting rock bottom even if it never convincingly captures it. Elephant's Bed is a slow burner with some beautifully composed acid rock undertones.

The other tracks mostly hold up. Run Through The Woods aims to explain the need to run away from everything while Shiver, one of my least favorite, has all the right lyrics but with a pop vocal twist that doesn't play true to the sound established on the rest of the album.

27 Ways By Desert Noises Stomps 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

This sophomore outing by Desert Noises plays particularly well for people who have an eclectic sense of music. Everyone else will have to pick and choose from what they've compiled here.

It might even explain why the band has received some respectable ratings but from only a limited number of fans. They receive 5 stars for 27 Ways on iTunes. 27 Ways remains unrated on Amazon. You can also order 27 Ways by Desert Noises from Barnes & Noble. For touring schedules, visit Facebook.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Alamo Gives Up Its Historic Ghosts

The Alamo
Not everybody believes the Alamo is haunted, but most people know it's one of the most haunting places in the nation. The atmosphere that shrouds it is thick with historic significance. This was the site now recognized as one of the most significant battles that ever took place in Texas.

More than1,800 Mexican troops under the command of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had encircled and placed the fort under siege for more than two weeks. Inside the mission-turned-fort, about 200 Texan defenders, under the joint command of Lieutenant Colonel William Travis and Colonel Jim Bowie, were poised to repel them.

The Alamo may have fallen in the early morning hours of March 6, 1838, but their fate came to symbolize the courage and sacrifice that some men are willing to make for freedom and independence. Because of them, the memories of Davy Crockett, Bowie, and Travis would embolden the Texan Army under Sam Houston and its memory played an important role when it was annexed by the U.S.

The Alamo remains one of the most visited sites in Texas. 

More than 2.5 million people each year visit the 4.2-acre site located in San Antonio. Entrance into the open complex is still free. Its operation and educational programs are paid for by private donations and gift shop sales. The hours of operation are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., daily with hours extended to 7 p.m. during the summer.

The newest exhibit focuses on Tejanos, which honors Tejano defenders and reminds visitors that the Texas revolution was not a fight between Texans and Mexicans but a fight for liberty over tyranny. Their letters, documents, and artifacts tell the story. They wanted freedom as much as many Texas immigrants from Ireland, England and the United States.

Two structures capture the spirit of the past, slightly altered.

This new exhibition is held in the Alamo Shrine (or church), which is what most people consider central to the site. It was the structure originally built as a Spanish mission between 1755 and 1793. Despite its longevity, evidence suggests that construction was never complete.

The Fall Of Alamo
Still, the shrine seems to be the center of reverence that people feel while visiting the Alamo, especially after they learn that the artillery position on the roof of the church was the last to fall during the battle. Only 13 men remained at the end. They died defending the church to the last man.

The building as it exists today imagines the Alamo as different than the one the defenders held. Most notably, the east wall was lower than the other walls and a ramp of earth had been piled against the inside of the wall to accommodate a cannon. Some modifications were made in the 1920s.

The second most historic building is the long barrack, which was a two-story building where many members of the garrison retreated for a last stand. The west wall of the barrack is original while two inner walls were constructed in 1913. The inner walls, however, do match the original foundation.

The other buildings, such as the Centennial Museum (Gift Shop) and Alamo Hall, were added later. They would have fallen outside of the original mission, behind the church. The historic site itself would have extended west of the modern Alamo entrance and crossed directly over Alamo Street and East Alamo Street to the Crockett Building and north to the post office on Houston Street. There is an interactive map on the site that puts this into perspective.

The Alamo In San Antonio Takes 8.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Even before the battle of the Alamo, the site was well regarded. When French naturalist Jean-Louis Berlandier visited the site in 1828, he described it as "an enormous battlement and some barracks are found there, as well as the ruins of a church which could pass for one of the loveliest monuments of the area, even if its architecture is overloaded with ornamentation."

Today, some of those ornaments include the rounded roofline of the mission, which has come to be know as a symbol of liberty unto itself. You can place reservations in San Antonio by visiting top travel deals at Several other travel deals are listed across Texas. For a fictionalized account of the battle, The Alamo (1960) remains the best theatrical rendition.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Pretty Reckless Is Going To Hell

Taylor Momsen
Four years ago, not everyone was convinced that Taylor Momsen could remake herself into a rock star despite a few riveting reviews of her debut. After she hit back, no one ever says that anymore. Now there are plenty of people who want to follow her down.

Despite its boring and unambiguous title, Going To Hell, and relatively explicit but not so erotic cover, The Pretty Reckless have put out a walloping new album for anyone who misses classic anthem rock. From the opening notes to the acoustic retreads that round the album up to 14 tracks, almost everything about this album feels like it could have been cast in the eighties. 

It's fully composed and throaty rock — the kind that many rock bands composed when they had "arrived" and could finally start turning out mature music. And Momsen, who has always come across as an old soul, clearly sees her 20s as the point where she has reached it in her music career. 

Going To Hell is wildly accessible rock, good but none too reckless. 

Although it feels like they've produced considerable more, Going To Hell is only a sophomore outing for The Pretty Reckless. Nonetheless, it will go down as an album fans love and critics question because it turns the burning recklessness of their early work into something much more polished and mainstream. 

Never mind the seriousness of grunge or heady confessionals of indie rock-pop, The Pretty Reckless are clearly aiming at a new generation of troubled teens in need of danceable rock stomps. If there is any other there, it's very clearly a Catholic guilt album that gives permission to give up and have fun. 

Follow Me Down is a heated sexual rebellion song that offers up a pretty blatant message. After nights and nights of putting off whatever was the source of her sexual tension, she gives in and finds out that all her trepidation was for naught. She's not only alive, but also finds sweetness in it. 

The track Going To Hell is equally blatant in its assessment. The riff-laden rocker has Momsen tell it straight. She accepts where she is going for everything she has done. And as it turns out, she is not the only one who thinks so. 

Heaven Knows is one of the best tracks on Going To Hell in that Momsen has never sounded better. She lays out the full range of her vocals with a blues-infused rocker that conveys a glimmer of sadness for everything that it going on in this album. 

Simply put, Heaven Knows is about those above already knowing we won't measure up. It makes them sad. But there is no way to stop it because they belong way down below anyway.

While those opening three are getting all the attention, it's the balladry of House On A Hill, melody of the sweetly short Dear Sister, and casual contemplation of Burn that really make this album. All three tracks demonstrate that Momsen is a serious talent who has only just begun to tap her depth. 

In contrast to some of those sleepers, Why'd You Bring A Shotgun To The Party and Fucked Up World really play to the epic level of commercialization Momsen needs to pay the bills. Those tracks are party rockers like the first three, along with Sweet Things, and will get plenty of play time. There is nothing wrong with that, except they tend to overshadow some of her more subtle contributions like  Waiting For A Friend. 

Going To Hell By The Pretty Reckless Smashes 6.3 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Fans of The Pretty Reckless will no doubt grow tired of reviews that don't give the same props Momsen received for her debut. There is no way around it. Going To Hell comes off over commercialized because it plays to the audience of popularity despite evidence that Momsen doesn't have to. 

Like most review sites, fans are driving up the ratings on music outlets. Going To Hell by The Pretty Reckless is entrenched with 4.5 stars on iTunes. On Amazon, Going to Hell - Deluxe Edition has received 5 stars. The Pretty Reckless can also be ordered as a CD on Barnes & Noble. See the band's  Facebook page for tour dates.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Girl With A Clock Heart Ticks Along

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart
George Foss is a 40-something literary magazine employee who is settling into the notion that his best years are behind him. He never took the world by storm. He never had a permanent love interest. He never did anything remarkable and nothing extraordinary had ever happened to him. 

The only time he came close was years ago in college. There was one girl who captivated him. She was involved in a murder and abruptly disappeared from his life. He never saw her again — until she inexplicably shows up at a neighborhood pub.

After overcoming the immediate shock of seeing her, Foss discovers that she has sought him out after all those years. She needs his help and had nowhere else to turn. The men who are looking for her believe she has stolen a considerable amount of money in diamonds.

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart ticks along with a few skipped beats. 

There are moments in The Girl With A Clock For A Heart reads likes magic and other times formulaic, which explains some of the mixed review. On one hand, Peter Swanson has written a clever Hitchcock-like story that wants to be more. On the other hand, he sometimes takes shortcuts by making the protagonist too much for his own good.

The best of it delves into the philosophical meandering about whether people are tied to their roots or able to reinvent themselves on a whim. And even if they are able to assume a new persona, one wonders if they can truly shed the past or if it is part of them nonetheless, waiting to entrap them in the same outcomes.

The less appealing aspect of the story is the sudden shift of Foss from being a deserving patsy of sorts into someone who suddenly has the gauss pulled off his eyes. It is Foss who suddenly becomes aware and puts all the pieces of the puzzle together for the investigating officers.

Come readers will no doubt cheer while feeling let down at the same time. They'll cheer as the threads are all quickly and conveniently tied up. They'll feel disappointed because the protagonist seems like the least likely person who could explain it. It's not that he is dumb, but Foss is dumbstruck from the moment he first sees her to the last moment he sees her.

Despite this shortcoming, the novel more than makes up for it in other ways. Swanson creates the right tone and atmosphere for a novel noir about a man who is swept away from the everyday trappings of life and thrust into a dizzying and life-threatening mystery. His ability to layer lies, cheats, and deceits has remarkable depth.

A few more graphs about author Peter Swanson.

Peter Swanson
Peter Swanson has degrees in creative writing, education and literature from Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College. But ironically, none of them dealt specifically with novels. The bulk of his storytelling ability came from a screenplay writing workshop that focused on plot elements.

He has also written several short stories and poems that have appeared in numerous magazines such as Atlantic, Mysterical-E, Vocabula Review and Yankee Magazine. Poetry was one of his passions, but he hasn't written nearly as many poems since turning his attention to mysteries and thrillers. He has completed his second novel.

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart Ticks 5.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While Swanson rightly believes that it takes a great plot to drive a story, he does so at the expense of his character development. His characters are often too busy doing things to ever appreciate their motivation or really get to know them. Only time will tell if the screenplay will help fill in those missing links.

The Girl With A Clock For A Heart: A Novel by Peter Swanson is available on Amazon.  The Girl With A Clock For A Heart can also be ordered from Barnes & Noble or downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Paul Boehmer, who brings a vintage matter-of-fact vibe to the story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

I Am The Avalanche Has Wolverines

I Am An Avalanche
Given that Brooklyn-based rockers I Am The Avalanche has only produced three full-length albums in the ten years they've been together, Wolverines couldn't be just another release for the band. It had to their best release.

Most people will agree that it is, even if the progression smooths out some of their post-hardcore edges. I Am The Avalanche has truly put out its most cohesive album — the ten best tracks of 13 that they laid down in the studio.

It is everything they are touting— a tightly woven, cohesive album that truly captures the sound they wanted to produce with confidence. The album has a message too. The band chose Wolverines as the title to serve a metaphor for their own perseverance, a consistent theme throughout the album as they recant personal trials and triumphs.

Wolverines is a witness to their weathered post-hardcore sound. 

Many of the trials are personal too, torn from the pages of founding member and frontman Vinnie Caruana's life. The most obvious is The Shape I'm In, which addresses a serious back injury he endured. The herniated disc left him bedridden and in agonizing pain for about three months.

The painkillers and Hurricane Sandy proved to be a near deadly combination for the singer, who slipped into a stupor. It isn't the only place that the hurricane creeps into the album either. Where Are You? captures how people felt in the aftermath of the devastation. It's brutal but not nearly as personal as the song the band teased out as an album promotion.

The video was shot in Brooklyn, incorporating some neighborhoods not far from where the band lives. It captures not only the frustration Caruana felt by being controlled by his medical condition, but also the way Brooklyn felt in the wake of the storm. There is adversity but you know he never gives up.

The album opener, Two Runaways, carries the same energy while breaking away from more introspective lyrics. The track tells a story instead about two hard knock kids who make a break from their life by relying on each other. Caruana makes it clear they have heart and maybe that is all they need.

It sets an excellent pace for the album, especially with 177 following. It's another spirited story track, with the emphasis on staying put and sticking it out regardless of the consequence. The tune will become a contender for one of the best tracks on the album over time. It will be brilliant live.

Young Kerouacs, which channels some of the wanderlust of early Jack Kerouac, is an even-handed song about friendship. Wolverines twists one of the worsts days into one of the most anthemic tracks. Anna Lee is the heartbreaker of the bunch, with Caruana devastated but accepting of what was lost.

"I think it's our most well thought out and least rushed record," says Caruana. "Time spent at rock bottom and also feelings of personal triumph have shaped what I feel is the perfect record for us as a band and for our supporters as well."

Wolverines By I Am The Avalanche Rocks 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

There aren't any bad tracks on the album even if some arrangement similarities begin to feel slightly overtaxed by the end of the album. That would be problematic for most bands, but listening to Caruana, Brandon Swanson (guitar), Brett "The Ratt" Romnes (drums), and John Oliva (bass) never becomes too tiresome. The time they took to create it was obviously well spent, with additional props to The Ratt for producing it.

You can find Wolverines by I Am The Avalanche on Amazon. The album, Wolverines, is also available from Barnes & Noble or you can download it from iTunes. I Am The Avalanche is currently on tour along the East Coast and Midwest. They also plan to hit the West Coast before their European tour in May. Visit Facebook for a complete schedule.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Amazon Brings A Smile And Good Will

Jeff Bezos
While still under a year old, it's hard not to smile about the Amazon Smile program, an online philanthropic effort that invites online shoppers to pick the charity of their choice. Once selected, Amazon will automatically donate .5 percent of all eligible purchases made by that shopper to the nonprofit they pick.

There are almost a million charities, schools, and nonprofit organizations to choose from — enough that it is impossible to list them all. The easiest way to find a specific nonprofit organization is to use the Amazon Smile search tool. You might be surprised by some of the organizations you'll find.

In giving the good will effort a test run, I found several local nonprofit organizations that I assumed would be too small for the program. The difference between being included or not is largely up to the organization. Amazon Smile has guidelines for eligibility, including inclusion on GuideStar.

How charities enroll in a program designed to raise revenue. 

Once an official representative of an eligible organization verifies that their nonprofit hasn't been enrolled, all they have to do is complete an administrator account and accept the terms of service. Once Amazon is able verify the organization's email, bank account, and eligibility requirements, the organization will be added to the program.

Amazon Smile
Amazon also asks that the program be listed by GuideStar, which gathers information about every nonprofit organization's mission, legitimacy, impact, reputation, finances, programs, transparency, governance, and more. Many organizations are listed on GuideStar but may not have had their reports updated. Any nonprofit can update its report for free.

Report fields are labeled blue, bronze, silver, and gold. Blue fields can be updated immediately. All other colors require varying degrees of confirmation. Updates are usually completed in 24-48 hours.

The important thing to remember is that GuideStar isn't a charity watchdog or evaluator. All it does is collect and organize information so donors have a better understanding of an organization, which is why Amazon Smile asks organizations to be listed before releasing any funds raised by purchases.

Amazon Smile Spotlights Several Organizations You Know. 

Although there are almost a million charities already listed, Amazon Smile does spotlight several well-known organizations. Here are five currently spotlighted.

American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. It is also becoming one of the biggest suppliers of blood in the nation.

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. It has more than one million members and has protected more then 119 million acres of land.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is leading the way the world understands, treats and defeats childhood cancer and other deadly diseases. No family that turns to this hospital ever pays for anything.

Charity: Water is a nonprofit organization that brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. It was featured as a good will pick last year. is leading the effort to bring computer programming education to every student in every school. It places an emphasis on the idea that anyone can learn these valuable skills.

While .5 percent might not seem like much, it adds up via Amazon. If everyone participated by selecting a nonprofit organization, then Amazon would contribute an additional $400 million to charities every year.

Amazon Smile And Whoever You Want Is A Good Will Pick From Liquid Hip. 

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

Amazon might be a big company, but its heart is in the right place with Amazon Smile. While most corporate giving programs funnel a portion of consumer purchases toward nonprofit organizations, few allow their customers to help direct their contributions or even remain visible to the organization.

This one does. And while not everyone is fond of the program, it still represents a step in the right direction. The more connected contributors are to a benefactor, the more likely they will support the organization behind .5 percent of their shopping purchases. And while the Amazon Smile program can't replace actual donations, it's a very clear way to give a little bit more (even if it is only $50 a year).

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Motorpsycho Sinks Behind The Sun

Not everyone gets Motorpsycho, and they often they produce music to ensure it. After establishing themselves as a bastion for progressive and psychedelic rock for decades, the band invested two years in composing the epic and complicated album The Death Defying Unicorn with Ståle Storløkken.

At a music grazing pace, the album is almost indigestible. But for anyone listening to it within the context of its narration, they will find a boy who is pressed into service aboard a ship searching for the holy lands. He is then taken on a richly physical and psychological journey until finding himself destined to be dinner on a boat in the middle of the ocean. The entire story plays out in two acts.

The album is overtly complicated but rewarding in its unique way, something that can always be said for the band. They have been known to infuse metal, jazz, post-rock, pop, country, and other styles into the mix since their earliest beginnings. Everything is experimental.

Their newest album is no exception. Behind The Sun is about getting back to basics, bringing back a harder edge to the music. They even recorded it back in their old haunt at Brygga Studio.

Behind The Sun is complexly beautiful progressive art rock.

Joining Hans Magnus Ryan (guitar), Bent Sæther (bass) and Kenneth Kapstad (drums) is guest guitarist Reine Fiske. And it's the addition of this second guitarist that influences so much of the sound.

This is the first time since Ryan and Sæther invited an equally talented guitar player to jam alongside them and it obviously dominates the album. There are double the riffs and occasional duels between the two. But that isn't how the album starts.

Behind The Sun begins with a much more accessible and dreamy tune, Cloudwalker (A Darker Blue).  The melodic vocals soar over sunny guitars and upbeat percussions that feel both antique and timeless.

The antiqueness can sometimes be pinned to the vocals, which have never been the band's strong suit despite their always delectable lyrics. It's the long, never-ending instrumentals that you'll get caught up in along with a robust and catchy psychedelic chorus.

Cloudwalker is followed up with the equally ambitious Ghost. The six-minute plus drone aims at creating an atmosphere with a minimalist bass and rhythm composition. All the while, Sæther seems to whimper his defeatist lyrics, which makes the slow crusher On A Plate all the more welcome.

Other standouts on the album include: Hell, Part 4-6, which is a progressive 12-minute plus powerhouse that sneaks in with quiet strings and synthesizers; KvæStor, which can be best summed up as an instrumental shred; and The Promise, which also epitomizes the band's ability to write music that is dug up and modern.

A couple of extra graphs about the heart of Motorpsycho. 

All things considered, Motorpsycho continues to win on more than perseverance alone. If you don't know,  the earliest rendition of the band came together in the mid 1980s when teenage metal heads Ryan and Sæther first met in high school. They often played together until parting ways at graduation.

The split, however, was only temporary and the two musicians would get back together in Trondheim, briefly adding Kjell Runar 'Killerkjell' Jensen, and forming the fledgling power trio responsible for the 1990 debut album in Lobotomizer in Oslo. Since then, the lineup has changed more than a dozen times, but always with Ryan and Sæther at the helm.

Behind The Sun By Motorpsycho Chomps 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Behind The Sun is considerably more dark and despairing than some of their other outings. For the better part of an hour, it drifts in and out of meticulously composed masterpieces and endlessly enveloping jam sessions. Even the last track, Hell, Pt. 7: Victim Of Rock (above), could be broken down for as long as they've been a band.

Behind the Sun by Motorpsycho can be found on Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes or order the vinyl Behind The Sun by Motorpsycho from Barnes & Noble. Visit their website for their European tour schedule.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Forget The Glass And Get A Helmet

It may feel like a lifetime since I gave up my Softtail, but there are seldom any days that I don't think about it. There are no shortage of enticements. Maybe it's only a matter of time before I get it back.

The latest enticement comes not in the form of a motorcycle, but rather the accessories. There are a dozen or so companies pioneering augmented reality technology, and one of them is specializing in head protection. And, truth be told, this helmet goes a long way in protecting more than your head.

Skully makes motorcycles a necessity. 

The Skully AR-1 is the first vertically integrated smart Heads-Up display (HUD) motorcycle helmet that will be made available for consumers. It includes a smart platform that is specially designed to enhance the awareness of the rider with advanced optics, cameras and sensors.

This includes some pretty exciting assets, such as a full 180-degree rear view camera that minimizes the need to take your eyes off the road to check your back before changing lanes. And while the rear view screen likely takes a little getting used to — given that it's set in the lower right corner — it's only on when you need it.

There are plenty of other displays that will capture your attention. The helmet sports GPS navigation, music and phone call interface, and traffic condition updates. You'll immediately get it in less than a minute.

Running down the list of its game-changing features does much more than sell the helmet. It opens new possibilities and sets a new pace for augmented reality. It goes beyond merely morphing a smart phone into another glass interface. It makes the future of augmented reality function specific.

The Skully helmet is equipped with a Synapse integrated HUD that provides advanced situational awareness. This enhances several important areas for awareness such as neat-future navigation and blind spot data. By providing these details to the rider, it's easier to stay focused on the road ahead.

Beyond blind spots, the helmet opens up new possibilities in keeping track of dangers just behind you. It's about time someone developed a crystal clear rear view camera for the helmet. Combined with GPS maps, the Skully helmet is like having a dedicated co-pilot that will never be distracted.

While the helmet itself has several dedicated functions, it does tap into your smart phone with voice control. The Bluetooth and Internet connectivity with a smart phone is pretty seamless. You can control your music, phone calls, and text messages. Or you can simply call up a new destination.

A couple of graphs about the people behind the helmet. 

The company was founded by Marcus Weller just last year. Weller, who was just recently a management consultant and industrial psychologist in the automotive and semiconductor industries, blended his passion for human-centered technology and motorcycles. It was a smart decision, moving him from assisting in the research of intelligent transportation systems at the University of Minnesota to bringing those concepts to life.

Along with Weller, Skully Helmets enlisted a team to round out its skill sets. These include co-founders Gary Iwatani (finance and operations), Mike Turquette (software development), Andrw Schirmer (design and engineering), Dipak Patel (heads-up display specialist), and Mitchell Weller (human resources). Go aheads and put these names on your watch list. We expect great things from them.

Skully Helmets Leap Ahead 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Skully Helmets have the potential to have nines written all over them if the company can capture the right price point and master quality production. At the moment, the Skully helmet is confined to beta-testing only and the waiting list (as you might imagine) is impossibly long.

If you want to take your chances to get in on the ground floor, sign up to see if you qualify to become an approved tester before the official launch in 2014. We'll update outlet links later this year, after the official launch of Skully Helmets. The company recently won the coveted SXSW Accelerator Award in the Wearable Technology category. It was well deserved too.

Rich Becker contributed to this review, particularly in his assessment of the emerging AR field.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Kandle Sings Herself Up In Flames

Montreal-based singer-songwriter Kandle Osborne is further cementing herself as a unique vocal talent to watch. She has an ability to blend blues, rock and theatrics to create some mesmerizing sounds, backed by instrumental arrangements that sometimes complement and sometimes clash with one another.

The images she creates while doing it with her friend Louise Burns and sister Carol Osborne are both visual and visceral. For long-time fans, In Flames is bittersweet in that it is sweetly experimental but also a bitter reminder of how much you might miss her as part of the The Blue Violets.

Kandle is back to set herself afire In Flames. 

As the daughter of 54-40 frontman Neil Osborne, everyone ought to known how versatile Kandle could be a a singer. On the 11-track In Flames, she demonstrates it with a variety of tracks that range from pop to doo-wop as if it came out of the 1940s (before becoming mainstream in the 1950s).

There is no better example than So Bad, which kicks off the album. Despite some rock undertones, the song magically transports listeners to the land of transistor radios and big, bulky microphones. The lyrics roll along with a somber request to be let down so she can move on with her life.

So Bad drifts right into the best-known track, Demon. The song stings in its storytelling with Kandle warning other women away from unsavory characters. She delivers the words so matter of factly, they sound all the more haunting as if sung by someone who is merely the ghost of a victim.

The stripped back acoustic version is almost more frightening in a higher key and significantly more subtle arrangement. Both versions are striking, but I almost find myself gravitating to the crispness in which she sings it in the video. The studio version, in contrast, is much smokier.

Not all of Kandle's demons are men. In Gimme A Pill, she uses her matter-of-fact approach to discuss drug addiction. She doesn't want to face reality anymore. All she wants is to escape the pain with another fix. There isn't any other resolution in the song, which makes it so unsettling and insistent.

Skip the next track, Oh Great, in favor of Control Me, which introduces yet another disquieting demon. Kandle creates some amazing imagery against an enemy best summed up as pride. Although drowning in despair, her character remains detached from the world and unable to show any weakness.

Not all of the album is so solitarily sorrowful. While Protector is sad, the subject matter remains well outside her control for the first time. Baby might carry the pain of a breakup but it also attempts to rekindle better days. Not Up To Me also settles into a dark and slow-burn resolution over things that someone else has done.

While some might find the content distressing if not depressing, there isn't any doubt that Kandle crafts songs with a potent dose of directness and honesty. She shares her feelings (and perhaps the feelings of others) without a filter. Few people are brave enough to write like that across an entire album.

In Fames By Kandle Burns 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

If In Flames existed in the vacuum of its own genre, the debut might start to eclipse some nines. But the truth is that it doesn't, making the album something of a must-listen while being simultaneously too dark for its own good. There isn't a fun song to be had. What isn't written to be sad still feels overtly  remorseful.

You can find In Flames by Kandle on Amazon. The album can also be downloaded from iTunes. The real question for many listeners will likely be how much to listen to in a single sitting before it becomes too chilling. I don't know. Find her tour schedule on Facebook.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Nick Cutter Eats Up The Troop

The Troop by Nick Cutter
With its initial premise not all that dissimilar to Parasite by Mia Grant, Nick Cutter once again makes us weary of problem-solution science without a conscience for consequence. This time around, a handful of scientists kick around a two-pill concept as the ultimate answer for weight loss.

Within an hour after swallowing a single pill, patients are able to shed as much weight as they want — 10, 20 or more pounds in the matter of days. As soon as they are satisfied, they can stop too many pounds from melting away with a second pill. It's about this simple: Two pills for the perfect you.

For anyone without the discipline for a diet, the promise of the two-pill solution might sound good enough to ignore the means behind the miracle. Or maybe the means won't matter. Even bioengineered tapeworms can overcome an image problem if proven to be the ultimate diet aid.

The Troop begins as claustrophobic horror at its finest.

Unfortunately, science tends to be a study in trial and error. And when one error escapes to the same island that scoutmaster Tim Riggs and his tight-knit troop of five have chosen for their annual excursion into the Canadian wilderness, there is no question it will end badly for someone.

The only question that remains unanswered is who among them might be most vulnerable. Will it be the popular and all-around athlete Kent, the natural born tough kid Ephraim, the easygoing but slightly overweight Max, the nerd by any measure Newt, or the unremarkable odd duck Shelley?

The Troop
It's anyone guess as the unexpected intruder stumbles upon their island cabin in need of help. Shockingly thin, disturbingly pale, and voraciously hungry, the man asks the troop to make an impossible decision — whether to cut other people or themselves should take precedent.

And then more than that, their story twists itself into a harrowing struggle for survival against the elements, an unknown contagion, one another, and something less seen but increasingly malevolent. Even as Cutter tends to give away his twists too early, there is always something else leering around the next corner.

It makes for a fine old school horror story with a few more layers before Cutter allows it to remorsefully descend into old school gore. Even as a short read, he sets a sense of fatality far too early in the story to keep any element of suspense and tension stirring.

A few more graphs about Nick Cutter a.k.a. Craig Davidson. 

Nick Cutter
Craig Davidson, who also publishes under the name Patrick Lestewka, is a Canadian author who first broke onto the scene with his short story collection, Rust and Bone, in 2005. He then went on to write his first novel, The Fighter, for which he himself underwent a 16-week steroid cycle to understand it and a fully sanctioned boxing match against Toronto poet Michael Knox at Florida Jack's Boxing Gym.

While continuing on with his literary fiction career, Davidson started writing horror under the name Patrick Lestewka. His first two horror novels actually predate his short story collection. Cutter is his most recent pen name, chosen because he sees The Troop as much more accessible to young adults despite gratuitous gore and torture elements.

Davidson also credits the book in part to Stephen King because he borrowed the structure from Carrie while attempting to draw upon King's uncanny ability to capture authenticity in adolescence. King himself read the book and called it "old school horror at its best." Our take is somewhere south of that as The Troop is never as frightening as it is before Davidson foreshadows the story to the point of becoming a spoiler at times.

The Troop By Nick Cutter Creeps 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Davidson a.k.a. Cutter clearly hits an underserved audience with The Troop, somewhat inflating its reviews on sites like Amazon and Good Reads with an enduring audience. In truth, the novel is good enough to share but not necessarily on the pedestal it has found for a gore hungry audience — not that his work is anywhere near the horror writers he grew up with but just as boringly detailed.

You can find The Troop by Nick Cutter on Amazon. The book The Troop is also available on Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Corey Brill who does a remarkably great job with the story, even when he has to toggle between the present-day story and past-tense reports that aim to tie everything together.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Royal Blood Comes Out Of The Black

Freshly formed early last year, Royal Blood is a two-piece band out of Brighton armed with bass, drums, and some mighty big amps that quickly fool everyone's senses into thinking they have more members. Their energy will do it too. Both bandmates have the same motto: They live to play live.

They also like to write about life, but without the same sentimentality of some people. Ask bassist/singer Michael Kerr what he writes about and he'll say the same as everyone — you get your heart broken and end up hating everyone for a while. As long as it's real, who really cares?

Certainly not drummer Ben Thatcher. Having known Kerr for so long, he is always on the same page, whether it is a rehearsal, in the studio, or the stage. Even so, they both see all this as just a warm up.

Out Of The Black EP is cut right from life.

The title track, Out Of The Black, was one of the first tracks to be put out by the duo. The track alludes to helping someone out of a bad situation only to be used by the person in return. It's a breakup song, but one made worse with the realization that whatever was felt might have been one sided.

Behind the scenes, the song came together while the pair were having a pint in a pub. After a few hours of table tapping and mouthing a main riff, they took it back to the studio to see what they could make out of it.

What makes the song memorable is its ability to make you wonder whether the pain of it came from the broken heart or the embarrassment of it. Maybe it's a bit of both. Nobody wants to feel played.

Out Of The Black is followed up by Little Monster, another song that hits unrequited love. But Kerr doesn't seem to care so much. The lyrics lay out that he is ready to prove himself affection worthy.

Come On Over is another courtship song with slightly more grit. Rather than pining away for the girl, Kerr can also be content at playing hard to get. His full-blooded vocals moan "I'm on a train to nowhere. I ran away to make you care."

The EP ends with Hole, another primitive, bluesy heartbreak track. While it doesn't have the swagger of Out Of The Black, it reinforces Kerr's commitment to share whatever he felt with the audience and Thatcher's relentless ability to do something more than keep time on the drums. He sets the pace.

For just over 15 minutes, the Out Of The Black EP rumbles along and gives everyone an immediate taste of what it might be like to see them live. Anyone who appreciates primal garage rock made all the more fiery with a duo making up for a lack of members, Royal Blood cannot be missed.

Out Of The Black Racks Up 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a band that can still freshly remember days when they only drew four people to hear them play, Royal Blood draws considerably more nowadays. It's not uncommon for them to pack a room beyond capacity wherever they play. Overall, it's pretty clear they have the right sound. Only time will tell whether their lives are full enough to always have more to write about.

You can pick up Out of the Black on Amazon. You can also download the EP on iTunes. The duo has more material up their sleeves, with many shows consisting of a seve- track set, sometimes more. They play this Friday (March 13) in Austin before heading back home to the United Kingdom and to make some European inroads. Check their schedule on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eleven Paris Adds Up Apparel Attitude

Eleven Paris
While some brands aim to add attitude to their lines with advertising, some brands just have attitude. Eleven Paris is like that. The 10-something brand was built by two friends as a Parisian prêt-à-porter.

It's well known for its minimalist spirit, indie references, sporty allure, and seasonal inspirations. Add attitude to the list because even some of the simplest graphic Ts range from playful to aggressive. One of their newest additions, in fact, saves the handlebar mustache from becoming cliched.

To do it, Eleven Paris puts the iconic mustaches on several pop culture heroes with nothing more than a finger. The design gives a contemporary lift to a concept that often feels  too pat for its own good. Elvis, Jepy, Moriag, and Micky are just a few well-known faces to receive the mustache treatment.

The classically creative nonchalance marks the heart of Eleven Paris.

Elvis Moustache
Naturally, all Eleven Paris Ts for women are fitted. They are made from 100 percent cotton. The design underscores the nonchalant vibe, feeling both carefree and purposeful at the same time.

Depending on the portrait to sport a mustache gives the shirt an entirely different generational context. Whomever is decorated with the legendary mustache borrowed from painter Dali adds an entirely different context. The entire idea, as introduced so long ago, is to bridge the world of fashion with pop culture art, music, film, and society in an immediate, playful and expressive way.

The method isn't limited to mustaches. Eleven Paris has succeeded in making playful statements using any number of images that begin to feel iconic. There are fox heads that flip the bird and vintage daredevils that two friends have labeled savages.

For something with more sophistication, try on some tops.

Laldo PrintAlong with its compelling T-shirts, Eleven Paris is known to feature prints with minimal repeating patterns. The Laldo Print is only one example; it's made with a cotton-linen composite. The top features a reinforced stitch and deep scoop neckline. Although So Jeans only carries the tank, the designers also extended the pattern to a half-sleeve blouse.

Conversely, when Eleven Paris does repeat, they do it intentionally and with style. These patterns are often busy — with one or to well-designed icons purposely drawn together for a simplistic bold statement. Some of favorites include a repeating rose that becomes stripes at a distance, a white lours print on black, and blue lours print on red.

Somewhere in between is a Mickey Mouse collage that can be easily mistaken for a random pattern at a distance. And if Mickey Mouse is part of your bag, make sure to search for the Mickey denim shorts. His little face is faded, but his head is positioned to look up at the wearer when she sits down.

A couple more graphs about the Eleven Paris founders.

Eleven Paris was a collaborative labor of love started by Oriel Bensimon and Dan Cohen in 2003. Both of them graduated from Esmod, which was the first fashion school ever established in France in 1841. What some say makes the school unique is its regard for fashion design and tailoring.

Even when the brand was launching itself into the graphic shirt arena (known for its high risk and dazzling returns) the secret to success was attempting to design a line that is cool and trendy while remaining accessible to everyone.

Eleven Paris Brings In Spring At 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The real beauty of Eleven Paris apparel is its ability to be be striking and subtle at the same time. All too often, American designers try too hard to find the edge and somehow lose it in the process. Eleven Paris keeps everything caustic, causal, and flattering. It's harder to find Stateside, but is ready for import.

You can find some Eleven Paris apparel on sale at United Kingdom-based retailer So Jeans. You can also find many designs direct. For contrast and comparison, visit Bloomingdales in the United States. While you won't find graphic Ts nearly as striking, there are a few designers who are on par with printed tops.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Drive-By Truckers On English Oceans

Drive-By Truckers
Drive-By Truckers might have had their share of lineup changes since Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley founded the band back in the late 1990s, but the original duo have yet to disappoint. Joined by long-time members Brad Morgan and Jay Gonzalez and newcomer Matt Patton, English Oceans is a deeply engaging album that rocks more than any previous outing.

The change in sound can be mostly attributed to Cooley. He contribued six songs to the album, giving it a refreshed pace as the band alternates between him and Hood.

"I don't think we've ever had a record where Cooley was as deeply involved in every aspect of the making of it as he was this time," said Hood. "With Cooley's writing, there's almost no precedent for it in our catalog. He came in with this stunning bunch of songs, full of this beautiful imagery."

Cooley, who hadn't written as many songs as he wanted to on the last several albums, said he took advantage of a long rest after the last band's last tour. He revisited his approach to songwriting and was able to produce six tunes he cares strongly about. It comes across in his confident delivery.

Made Up English Oceans is a stark and tightly crafted track that brays on about prideful men who imagine themselves bigger than they ought to be. They often act without thinking, rushing up to act even they don't really know if their nerve will hold out. The tie to Lee Atwater adds more depth. 

The track itself is a solidly written song, made even stronger when blended in with contributions from Hood. In fact, this is what makes the album so striking. While the artists worked independently, they were unknowingly creating material that complemented each other. 

The dynamic is memorable because it creates a back-and-forth flow that is unique to the album but not their shows. Alternating between singers has been a long-time staple of Drive-by Truckers. They just do it all the more better now. 

The Part Of Him by Hood captures the contrast nicely, accenting his much wearier voice that commands attention despite sounding so far away. The lyrics are less friendly, given that the song takes on politicians that can't be easily exorcised. It might be too cynical for some, but Hood makes it fun. He almost creates a sense of comfort in knowing that political scandals are part of the landscape. 

Aside from their political outings, Drive-By Truckers dig deeper into other subjects. My favorite track on the album is based the new novel by Willy Vlautin. Hood hits the right chords in illuminating the disquiet and desperation of American life during distressing times.

Other standouts include the rollicking opener Shit Shots Count, the stirring yet subtle co-dependence track When He's Gone, and the touching tell-all Primer Coat. The CD loses some steam around the mid-point. It doesn't pick up again unit the boot stomping First Air Of Autumn and closer Grand Canyon. 

English Oceans Rolls In And Out 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Fans of Drive-by Truckers will not be disappointed, with so many tracks featuring the band in top form. It's among their best in years. Even the songs that don't feel as lyrically vivid still sound great.

English Oceans by Drive-by Truckers can be found on Amazon. You can also order English Oceans on Barnes & Noble or download the album from iTunes. The band begins touring in mid-March, working their way up the East Coast before cutting across the Midwest. Check Facebook for shows.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Mary Miller Spends Days In California

The Last Days Of California
"The world is passing away, but those who do the will of God will remain forever." — Mr. Metcalf

Shortly after an American evangelist radio broadcaster predicts that Jesus Christ will return to earth in May 2011, he begins to earn millions of dollars in donations and a global audience. Never mind that he had previously and erroneously said the same thing two decades earlier. There are thousands of people who still want to believe him.

In preparation, many of them abandon their jobs, leave their homes, and give up everything they own to warn the world. Metcalf is one of those believers. Armed with thousands of pamphlets called "tracts," he takes his family on a pilgrimage from Alabama to California in advance of the Rapture.

The Last Days of California plays out as an earthly purgatory. 

The Last Days of California, as told by 15-year-old Jess, isn't a typical coming of age story. She experiences it with her family — dad, mom, and her 17-year-old sister, Elise — while living on the road in a reality one off from the rest of the world outside. For them, the world is going to end.

Knowing it to be true places a decidedly different slant on everything, especially for Jess. She finds herself feeling aimless and lost by the experience, uncertain of whether she should embrace the certainty of her father that it will happen or the certainty of her sister that it will not.

While her sister does do her father's bidding and passes out tracts at various stops along the way, Elise doesn't believe that the world will end. She also smokes, drinks, and maintains her interest in boys despite being secretly pregnant. And yet, at the same time, she finds some solace in knowing her secret will be safe if there is a Rapture.

Judgement DayTheir mother, on the other hand, is considerably more subtle, never truly expressing her faith with the same conviction of her husband and yet clearly steadfast in her devotion to him. She will follow him to the end of the world, even if the end of the world happens to be the sunny West Coast.

Knowing that the prediction will likely be a bust doesn't dull the story. There is a tragic totality in watching the family make some decisions based on the prediction, with much of the tension centered on how they might act if it doesn't happen or, worse, if it happens and they are left behind.

Still, while their reasons for this pilgrimage might feel alien, the road trip itself does not. The girls still fight over space in the back, their mother still lobbies for peace and quiet, and their father still maintains a delicate balance between fast food and insulin. In many ways, it is in this quietly desperate portrayal of a normal family on an abnormal mission that makes the story both darkly beautiful and tragically humorous.

A few graphs about author Mary Miller.

Mary Miller
Mary Miller has seen her work published in dozens of journals and anthologies, including McSweeney's Quarterly, Mississippi Review, and American Short Fiction. She is also the author of the short story collection Big World.

Prior to writing The Last Days of California, she garnered a Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas and the John and Reneé Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. The story itself was inspired by the predictions of Harold Camping, who believed the world was going to end in 2011.

While watching people abandon their families in preparation for the Rapture fascinated her as bizarre, she also wondered if they were really so different than her family. While she grew up in Mississippi with a sister and two brothers, she wanted to focus on the complicated female relationship between two sisters in the story.

The Last Days of California Drives Off 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Mary Miller has an exceptional gift in her ability to capture a scene and make it stick, largely because of her observant nature to pick out the right details and a complete mastery over her protagonist's internal voice. This is a story about angst, rivalry, and the self-doubt of teenage life, especially as parents begin to prove themselves human and fallible.

You can find The Last Days of California: A Novel by Mary Miller on Amazon. The Last Days of California is also available at Barnes & Noble or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Andi Arndt, whom truly embodies the spirit of Jess. The book is short and can be finished in an afternoon.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Dinosaur Pile-Up Tests Nature Nurture

Dinosaur Pile-Up
Leeds-based alternative rockers Dinosaur Pile-Up has seen its share of change ups since 2007 with founder Matt Bigland (vocals, guitar) and Mike Shields (drums) settled in as the band's core members. Jim Cratchley (bass) joined last year, adding to what some already see as a move toward mainstream.

Nature Nurture does have some mainstream qualities to it. The album thrives on big power pop-rock chords and huge riffs reminiscent of maturing Weezer-esque music. They are trying to make epic one-off rock music and succeed at it with plenty of precision and polish.

It is enough to make you wonder, at times, if the band is growing up too fast for its own good, giving up some of the material in between their edgier introduction and their much more purposeful stride today. It feels that way listening to Derail, but thankfully not the entire album. 

Nature Nurture marks a band looking to step over, with mixed results.

Opening with Arizona Waiting, Dinosaur Pile-Up puts its best foot forward with an anthemic rocker that could easily recast itself as classic rock. The track gives up some lyrical prowess in favor of feeling catchy but it works nonetheless. 

The band follows up with Derail, which is indicative of the pop songs Bigland has said all along that he wanted to write. It still has enough power to wake you up but doesn't necessarily kick you in the face like some of the band's early and more intense rockers. 

A much better rendition of the sound Dinosaur Pile-Up ought to be chasing around is Peninsula. Sure, there is something familiar about its "we party and play hard" message. But it also retains some of the band's alternative punk-infused lyrics, with Bigland chanting to "be what you want, say what you feel, do what you please, take what you got, do it forever."

The song might rub against that power pop notion, but it does so while preserving a rock edge. It's a great song, likely the best one on the 13-track album. It even helps carry Heather, a mostly straightforward cheat-and-break-up song that sounds good even if you don't care so much about it. 

The promise of an upstart relationship in Summer Girl is much more inspired. It carries a sun-drenched classic rock sound that will take some people back a few decades while still sounding fresh, perfect for any all-day beach playlist. Put White T-Shirt And Jeans on the list too. Even without having the same depth, the song perfectly rolls out some reminiscent relationship casualty. 

After White T-Shirt, Dinosaur Pile-Up drifts back and forth between rockers and power pop, with the rockers keeping the upper hand. The upbeat and energetic Draw A Line, low-noted drone of Nature Nurture, and the mellow chug of Should all measure up. Bruise Violet has its moments too. 

But those that rely too much on pop sensibilities like The Way We Came, Lip Hook Kiss, and Start Again have a much harder time holding anyone's attention. Other than a couple of cool lyrical lines tucked inside these tracks, the compositions begin to feel less familiar and more predictable. (The instrumental inside Lip Hook Kiss aside.) 

In sum, it leaves listeners with a lot to wonder about. Dinosaur Pile-Up could have been taken in plenty of different directions after Growing Pains. Nature Nurture sometimes convinces you that the band chose the right one and sometimes not. At the lowest points, I found myself thumbing back to older tracks like Mona Lisa, Hey Man, and My Rock 'n' Roll. I missed them.

Nature Nurture By Dinosaur Pile-Up Plows 5.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a band in transition, everyone wants to know where Dinosaur Pile-Up will end up. It's nearly impossible to say after listing to Nature Nurture. For every track that rocks, there is another that drags it down. The album isn't deficient per se, but sometimes it slides into the background. 

You can find Nature Nurture by Dinosaur Pile-Up on Amazon. Nature Nurture is also available on Barnes & Noble and can be downloaded from iTunes. The band is currently making its way around the United States. Keep track of their show dates via Facebook