Friday, June 27, 2014

Earth Awakens Sets A Stage For Ender

Set nearly a century before Ender's Game, Earth Awakens is the third installment of the First Formic War trilogy by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston. The series tells the story of first contact between humans and aliens, beginning in the furthest reaches of the solar system and concluding in near orbit around Earth and on mainland China.

As much as the story is a science fiction prequel, it is also about the transformation of four protagonists, some of whom play prominent roles in future shorts, stories, and novels. They include the Venezuelan free miner and mechanic Victor Delgado, corporate raider and heir apparent Lem Jukes, the insightful 8-year-old Chinese prodigy Bingwen, and the half-Maori New Zealander military operative Mazer Rackham.

At the same time, the co-authors still leave room to develop supporting characters. Imala Bootstamp expresses her independence despite her obvious affection for Victor. Rena Delgado is slowly accepting her role as the matriarch of the Delgado family. Ukko Jukes walks a thin line between being the stereotypical near-omnipotent puppet master and a misunderstood interstellar visionary and entrepreneur. (Most people assume the stereotype rings true, but Lem is not a reliable narrator.)

The conclusion wraps up the trilogy tightly. The end. 

As the conclusion to the trilogy, there are far fewer surprises than in the first two books. And in an attempt to maintain continuity between the novels and graphic novels, Johnston takes fewer liberties with the story. There isn't enough room to do it, creating a relatively brisk place to align the events and characters with the greater Ender universe.

While there is nothing wrong with that, some readers will find the third book to be overly predictable despite the well-written, realistic descriptions of war and numerous philosophical inquiries into the moral and ethical execution of it. Still, Johnston and Card offset the rigid timeline with characters worth caring about.

Bingwen easily becomes a favorite as an innocent and super-intelligent child that is the hallmark of those who will eventually be recruited into the future Battle School. Lem Jukes undergoes a partial transformation from a ruthless industrialist struggling in the shadow of his father desire for his own successes into a man who is willing to place his home planet over profits. Victor and Mazer transpose each other's transformation with Victor becoming cooler and Mazer warmer as the result of their respective experiences. People learn different lessons from the same experiences.

Most of the action plays out against a surprisingly short timeline. As Lem Jukes works to ensure Victor and Imala may find a weakness in Formic defences, Bingwen and Mazer bide time in war torn China, where the bulk of the terraforming and mass extinction is taking place. It isn't until after a rogue mission to the Formic ship that the story lines find their natural convergence.

Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston wrap up Act I.

While Earth Awakens is weakest installment, it is also the tightest in that it required the most discipline to complete. The story evolves and concludes the way it does because there is only one way it may conclude. That in and of itself most fans will find satisfying, especially those really wanted the trilogy to remain intact without the year-long wait between publishing dates.

Where Johnston and Card excel in the telling of this installment is in solidifying our empathy for Bingwen, appreciating the dual complexity of Lem Jukes, and placing Mazer on the pedestal he will eventually ascend to in his career. In some cases, the foreshadow into the Second Formic War could not be made more clear.

Earth Awakens By Orson Scott Card Orbits 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Earth Awakens is a necessary installment in the greater universe of Ender's Game. As such, it accomplishes what it set out to do but without the tension brought to bear in Earth Afire or the mystery of man's first steps toward the stars in Earth Unaware. The novel make a bigger impact as part of the trilogy than it does as a standalone. It's the perfect launch point for what's next.

While this trilogy is complete, Johnston confirmed last year that he will be working on a second trilogy focused on the Second Formic War. The completed manuscript is due this year, placing it on track for an early 2015 release date. Johnston and Card are likely to enjoy more freedom in writing it.

Earth Awakens (The First Formic War) by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston is available on Amazon. Earth Awakens is also available for download for iBooks or as an audiobook via iTunes. The narrators of the audiobook include the same cast as the first two novels, making for a lively and entertaining production. You can also order Earth Awakens by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston from Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

My Goodness Makes Shiver And Shake

The Seattle duo that shook things up with their self-titled debut three years ago recently took time out from a heavy touring schedule to release a sophomore album that is every bit as gritty as that now hard-to-find first release. The new album, Shiver + Shake, is a timeless take on blues-infused rock with all the ferociousness of a punk band.

Although the 13-track mountain of new goodness feels more thoughtful, it still retains the natural brashness of this memorably eclectic indie band. Guitarist Joel Schneider serves up unfettered vocals over relentless guitar work. And drummer Andy Lum has taken over for Ethan Jacobsen to lay down a long series of mind-blowing percussive romps in the spirit of his predecessor.

My Goodness was originally started by Schneider as a side project to his other electrifying alternative rock band, Absolute Monarchs, which released a full length in 2012. Schneider powered up vocals along with bass and keys in that band. He plays a heavy guitar and infuses more blues in this one.

My Goodness is potently loaded rock and roll.

The album name, Shiver + Shake, pays homage to the two sensations Schneider shoots for across the album. He aims to make everyone shiver and shake and, mostly, he does exactly that. Even on the more temperately mellow album leader Cold Feet Killer, Schneider frequently titters into either of those extremes.

Cold Feet Killer is one of the first songs that Schneider had ever written with an acoustic guitar. He wrote it with an open G and occasionally played it while on the road. It wasn't until recently when the track was rearranged and rerecorded that it began to feel ready for the record. 

Rearranging material has become a cornerstone for Schneider's creative process. He doesn't necessarily structure the composition on his own but rather brings in a chorus and verse that he arranges with Lum until it begins to feel right for the band. When blasted through his Fender Twin Reverb amp and his custom built Verellen amp at the same time, the tone become something no one else owns.

It's especially distinct on impossibly big bluesy tracks like the opener and title song, Shiver + Shake. As one of the rawest songs on the album, Schneider and Lum encapsulate the duo sound as stripped back and bass loaded. Schneider sneaks in some bass and keys to give it a fuller band sound. 

Schneider also gives ample credit to Lum, who he says has a solid meter while being able to balance both the technical precision and natural groove of the percussion needed. His influence also seems to give tracks like Sweet Tooth, Back Again, and Hangin' On a mellower and more polished sound overall. He says it is more indicative of the how band should sound versus the fiery abandon that struck chords three years ago. 

For anything that fiery, skip down to Check Your Bones when Schneider starts to snarl the verse and Lum tightens up on his rolls. A singular vocal reverb somewhere inside hints at a slight sixties psychedelia. The blistering pace of it is everything anyone remembers about the debut, even if it is amazingly balanced with the contemplative confessional Bottle as a folksy followup.

My Goodness bounces back again with the relationship reconstructor Letter To The Sun, big bass-heavy blues rock track Say You're Gone, and the squalling head-pounder C'mon Doll. Those three tracks together, along with Hot Sweat, will remind anyone that Schneider generally leans heavy despite the rock lullaby Lost In The Soul. It's the shiver after so many shakes. Play on. 

Shiver + Shake By My Goodness Grabs 8.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Listening to Schneider progress with a new bandmate shows plenty of the promise for a side project that sounds increasingly permanent. While the wild abandon and brashness of the debut will be missed by anyone who appreciated that sound, he retains just enough of it with Lum to remind everyone that it hasn't left. He just wants to lay down more diversity in the offering. Perfect.

You can pick up Shiver + Shake by My Goodness on Amazon or download the 13-track album from iTunes. Check Barnes & Noble for the upcoming vinyl release of Shiver + Shake. Touring information is expected to be released soon on Facebook.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Haley Bonar Soars Over The Last War

The wistfully twisted indie pop/rock/alt country singer-songwriter Haley Bonar has evolved a little more on her new album Last War. This nine-track outing does what other releases have not dared to do for years — lift her strangely dangerous duality to a new elevation.

It works. Sure, Bonar's ability to be both instantly pretty and infinitely rough is part of the magic that has always made her a memorable artist. Her often haunting vocals are uniquely capable of transforming otherwise ordinary stories into bleakly told folk tales.

In fact, this is why she was discovered at an open mic event in Duluth, Minnesota. Back then, she was only a 19-year-old who had already traded in a one-album teenage recording career to become a full-time college student and part-time waitress. Alan Sparhawk changed all that. One week later, he paired her up with a drummer and a Honda Civic so they could open for Low. And now?

The story has been told, but it doesn't get old.

Nowadays it's nearly impossible to think of Bonar as a young breakout artist, given all the songs that make up her catalog and all miles she has logged on tour. And yet, there is something exceedingly fresh about Last War. It might even be that Bonar has finally reached that place where an artist cares less about what people think and more about the mark they want to make.

Starting with album opener Kill The Fun, Bonar lays down one part charm and another part mystery as everything she has been taking for grated in her relationship starts to wind down. The relationship feels too heavy, coming close to its natural ending. But she wants to wind it up again, and acts on it.

Kill The Fun has all the bookmarks of being a timeless folk-pop tune. The composition is poppy and upbeat while the lyrics are tempered and bleak. They aren't so bleak that she is ever willing to give up on anything, but there is this ever-present sense that something thrilling needs to be done.

She follows this up with No Sensitive Man, a near New Wave throwback that lays out the ideal of a sensitive man as she blows holes in the imagery of it. In the second verse, she writes about the opposite, explicitly stating that if they don't have the fight that doesn't mean she'll make up for it.

Cut mostly from the imagery of a forest fire and its use as a metaphor for a burning relationship, Last War conjures loss that Bonar shows us by soaring over and above the wreckage. There is a tenderness to the track, a mood she attempts to retain in the comparatively lighter Heaven's Made For Two. It doesn't work out nearly as good as one might hope, but the experimental elements save some of it.

From A Cage adds real backbone to the middle of the album. Lyrically, it's the best bit of folk writing on the release. Musically, the composition is simple and the addition of Justin Vernon on backing vocals blends in brilliantly.

Among the last tracks, give the quasi-confessional Bad Reputation a listen for its authenticity and the whispered lament Eat For Free a listen for its painful inevitability. Woke Up In My Future and Can't Believe Our Luck are fine songs too, but fall just short of delivering a composition to carry the lyrics to be essential.

Last War By Haley Bonar Takes Off At 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Haley Bonar has a dizzying sense of folk pop with punk and rock influences in her writing. What makes this combination so striking is she creates an unparalleled level of intimacy across the entire album. It's bleak, hopeful, and calming all at the same time.

Last War by Haley Bonar can be found on Amazon. You can also pick up the album from iTunes or order the vinyl edition of Last War by Haley Bonar from Barnes & Noble. Visit her website for upcoming show dates and other news on Facebook.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Anthony Doerr Turns On All The Light

All The Light We Cannot See
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is two extraordinary stories that eventually converge in World War II. The first is about a blind French girl. The second is that of a young German boy.

Marie-Laure LeBlanc lives with her father in Paris. He is employed by the Museum of Natural History as a respected locksmith until the German army advances on Paris and they eventually flee to Saint-Malo.

Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives with his sister in a German mining town. Werner, who is especially gifted with building and fixing electronics, is eventually recruited to a strict and often brutal academy for select Germans to become Hitler youth.

All The Light We Cannot See ignites the human spirit.

Marie-Laure is enchanting as a blind girl who slowly learns how to navigate around Paris by studying a miniature of her neighborhood and practicing how to find her way home. Her success at it quickly becomes her greatest sacrifice as she and her father must flee from the advancing German army in order to protect one of several dozen treasures that had been held there.

After discovering their escape route to the United Kingdom has been cut off, the two turn toward Saint-Malo in the hope of finding shelter with another relative. It isn't long before her father starts to build a model of their new home until the Germans arrest him for suspiciously measuring buildings in the area.

In what seems like an entire world away, Werner has grown up never being exposed to an enlightened city like Paris. He is being raised in a poor German mining town where he is expected to become a miner like his long dead father.

All that changes, however, when a German officer notices Werner's gift for engineering and recommends him for a military academy, assuming he can pass the majority of the racial purity tests. Once he does, Werner must simultaneously demonstrate his gift for engineering while appeasing the more militant physical expectations of the brutal and unforgiving military academy.

The two protagonists, Marie-Laure and Werner, are destined to cross paths in the German occupied town as she assists the French underground and he becomes part of a special unit to detect insurgents. Despite these surface differences, however, both embody the essence of the title — a brilliant and heroic purity of the human spirit that is not readily visible to the outside world.

There is no way to expect what will be from the start as Doerr introduces them at the pivotal point in their respective histories. They have not met, but are both attempting to survive another round of Allied bombings, with Marie-Laure hiding in her uncle's deserted house and Werner trapped in the ruins of a hotel some five streets away. And it is from this moment that Doerr resets time to tell how they have both found their way there.

A few graphs about author Anthony Doerr. 

Anthony Doerr
As Anthony Doerr seems to hit his stride in this remarkable book about two children who grow up in a literal and figurative world of darkness, All The Light We Cannot See becomes something much bigger than its story. They are charged with finding hope out of the horror or perhaps pinpricks of light within the vastness of dark.

Doerr also seems to be hitting his stride in his career as a writer. The author of five books (two novels) and winner of four O. Henry Prizes (among many others), the Boise, Idaho, resident continues to write increasingly captivating books that touch the heart. He was born in Cleveland and majored in history at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, before earning an MFA from Bowling Green State University.

All The Light We Cannot See Shines 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Doerr does an exquisite job in developing a world of contrasts around his two primary characters. Despite their varied conditions, it becomes increasingly clear that it is not our circumstances that make us who we are but the choices we make in those circumstances that will.

All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel by Anthony Doerr can be found on Amazon. You can also download the novel for iBooks or the audiobook on iTunes. The audiobook is narrated by Zach Appleman, who succeeds in making the narration as enveloping as the book itself. You can also find All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Felice Brothers Find A Favorite Waitress

The Felice Brothers
After losing founding member Simone Felice and drummer Dave Turbeville two years ago, the Felice Brothers have been busy searching for a new sound to match their lineup. Favorite Waitress seems to catch them in mid-transition with more Americana and less alternative country.

Overall, the album puts them on the right trajectory despite its unevenness. The production itself is polished, but some compositions take on too much swagger for their own good. Even so, there are plenty of gems to mine from Favorite Waitress, which will leave some wondering if a tighter album with fewer tracks might have been the better bet after regrouping with a new lineup.

Favorite Waitress is split between gems and stones. 

The new lineup — including Ian Felice (vocals, guitar), James Felice (accordion, keys, vocals), Greg Farley (fiddle, vocals), Josh Rawson (bass, vocals), and David "Esta" Estabrook (drums) —isn't the only first for the Felice Brothers. This album is the first produced in a proper studio.

After working for more than a year on material, the band mined through a demo list of a hundred songs and knocked the entire album out in week with the help of long-time producer and collaborator Jeremy Backofen. Mostly they focused on trying to capture a five-piece minimalism, which comes across nicely on several tracks.

The lead promotional track, Cherry Licorice, is one of the finest. The playful song washes away any youthful hardships with an exuberant taste for licorice and love for life. It's made even more captivating with the lyrical video put together by Rawson.

The paintings in the video were contributed by Ian Felice. The entire track also takes on new meaning as the lyrics don't always match the words or include nods in different directions with some creative spelling. But even without the added niceties, Cherry Licorice is one of the album's essential tracks.

Along with that, the opener Bird On Broken Wing establishes that the Felice Brothers are master storytellers. Even the ambient noise in the background seems to add something to the track, a straightforward acoustic that the band dedicated to the memory of Pete Seeger.

Other times, the lyrics get carried away with themselves. Meadow Of A Dream hangs in there before collapsing on a few lines that would have been better left out. Lion doesn't necessarily get the album back on track either. It comes across more as a folk filler, waiting for something better.

That something better is Saturday Night, a croaking slow burn with an indifferent and casual melody. Felice sings it with conviction, describing some magical time when anything can happen in life. It doesn't even matter what the outcome might be when you walk into a bar with "a couple bucks in your pocket and head full of teeth that could use loosening."

After that, give a little more attention to Katie Cruel, a rewrite of the American folk song with Scottish influences. The lyrics don't borrow anything from the original song but rather recast Katie Cruel with a few clues that help lock in its origins. No Trouble is a triumph in its sentiment. Chinatown includes a welcome experimental tone to it. Woman Next Door is a fun dance hall rocker before the band closes with Silver In The Shadow (which tries too hard to be an epic closer).

There are clearly enough tracks and diversity to make Favorite Waitress a satisfying album, but some might wonder if it would have been a bit better had some tracks been surrendered in the studio. Still, some might make the case that all it lends to the spontaneity and nonconformity of the band too.

Favorite Waitress By The Felice Brothers Rings 5.3 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Since the band first came together as an upstate New York outfit bound for New York City, there has always been an authenticity to the Felice Brothers that makes them listenable alongside bands like Dawes and Deer Tick. If anything, Favorite Waitress makes this case even more so.

You can find Favorite Waitress by the Felice Brothers on Amazon or download select tracks from iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries the vinyl edition of Favorite Waitress. For touring dates, visit the band on Facebook. There is a heavy schedule of Midwest and Southern showrooms before the band breaks for the United Kingdom in August.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Tiny Victories Haunt Up Everything

Tiny Victories
When the Brooklyn-based Tiny Victories came together to produce their debut album Haunts, the duo reached down deep into their memories to find familiar ground. They wrote about people they used to know. Rooms where they once lived. Streets they used to walk down.

In doing so, they distilled the murkiness of memory into music, populating 11 tracks with ghosts and other transparencies. They seem to be everywhere, lurking in heads and especially in our hearts.

Haunts is a compendium of love and loss.

Underscored by dense and sonic synth landscapes, purposeful percussion, and steady soaring vocals, Greg Walters and Cason Kelly have captured what is best described as twilight — those hazy minutes when the day is neither new nor done. The ghosts of it are still all around, shaking chains and making sounds.

The opening track says it plainly enough, walking the fine line between lamenting the loss of it while celebrating the experience of it. Drinking With Your Ghost is one of the most focused compositions the duo has laid down since coming together as a band.

The video, produced by Icarus Pictures under the director of Brian Levi Bowman, reinforces the intricate uncertainties of the album. No one can truly be sure whether Walters is feeling solemn or solace as he wanders along with the memory of an old flame.

The second track, Scott & Zelda, changes up the tempo and tone, creating some epic percussion fills and intertwining synths. In this case, the ghosts are only from their pasts but conjure up images of the Fitzgerald couple. The track is brilliantly modern with only a nostalgic nod.

The sentiment doesn't change with Systems. Walters and Kelly revel in rehashing the past, recognizing that all those small failures are really part of a bigger system with tiny victories. What's remarkable about the track is how the duo acknowledges the pain of it but retains a hopeful tone.

In doing so, Walters and Kelly attempt to make sense of everything in their lives. And in that way, it's not much different from what they used to do before they turned to music. Cason was helping inner city kids through social work. Walters had been working as a foreign correspondent based in Moscow.

"Journalism and music are both ways of making sense of the world," Walters says. "Journalism looks outward at what's happening around you. Music explores your inner life."

While neither of them would trade their occupational experiences, both admit to feeling burned out and looking for something new. Given that each of them had been part of other music projects, the prospect of starting a band and pushing further than they had ever gone before made sense.

Other standouts from the album include the brilliantly written Austin, TX; the buoyant chord progression of Let It Burn; and the more tragic track Justine, which is one of the bleaker moments of the album. It makes for a better closer than You're Gone, which doesn't work as well instrumentally (despite more stellar lyrics).

All in all, it seems, when the band breaks for heady and emotive concepts (Scott & Zelda), they hit more peaks than isolated experiences or bigger, broader compositions. It's just the other tracks are much more convincing that this a band to watch out of Brooklyn.

Haunts By Tiny Victories Beats 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

With the best of Tiny Victories being bleak, almost punkish vocals over soaring synth and drum work, Walters and Kelly have clearly carved out a sound that is well worth a listen. As they continue to build on architecture that defined their early days, Haunts is the break this band needed from last year's EP.

You can find Haunts by Tiny Victories on Amazon. The album is also available for download from iTunes. For an alternative CD source, visit independent reseller f.y.e. For more updates on the band, visit their Facebook page.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Peter Heller Bristles With The Painter

The Painter by Peter Heller
When celebrated artist Jim Stregner abandons his home in Santa Fe for a fresh start in the valleys of Colorado, he pins his hopes to the notion that his love for painting and fishing will be enough to conquer alcoholism, a gambling addiction, and a predilection for violence. For the most part, they will.

With the support of 28-year-old Sofia, who agrees to model for his latest work — An Ocean Of Women — he believes he might have a chance. He came to Colorado only four months ago, another chance to put a past he could never escape behind him.

His marriage fell apart after the loss of their daughter. He will never get over it. He blames himself for not being able to protect her despite serving prison time for beating a man who once leered at her. In fairness, the man did more than that. He practically taunted Stregner into action.

Jim Strengner is a reluctant and remorseful hero. 

When he keeps to himself, Stregner is genuinely likable. He has a sense of humor, even if it leans dry. Affable might even be the right word when he isn't counting his losses. He paints, fishes, and makes every effort to move on with a life he never wanted. Most would say he is wildly successful at it.

On the surface, he is exactly what most people want him to be. He is a reclusive and somewhat renegade artist who paints well outside the mainstream. His work is striking in character because he is unafraid to paint what he feels — dark and haunting works with layers of meaning.

Fly Fishing Colorado
His life might have continued on that way had it not been for a random roadside encounter with Del Siminoe. But when Stregner sees Siminoe whipping a horse into submission, he can't help himself. Stregner steps forward to stop it and the blind rage he keeps otherwise bottled up escapes.

The Painter is a profile of a gentle, introspective soul with a dark side that can only be drawn out through provocation. He doesn't mean to do it, but he kills Siminoe on the road and attempts to cover up the crime. In doing so, Stregner finds both allies and adversaries as he attempts to find peace again.

As law enforcement closes in with their investigation into the murder, other interested parties make it known that justice is much more likely to be dispensed in the wilderness than in a courtroom. On his side are a handful of people who would do almost anything to protect him from another prison sentence.

A few more graphs about author and adventure writer Peter Heller. 

Peter Heller
The Painter is the perfect follow up to The Dog Stars in that it brings the work of Peter Heller into a contemporary setting as opposed to the experimental post-pandemic world that encompassed his debut. While the present day setting keeps everything simpler for Heller, he manages to adapt his newest character portrait into a superbly written cross-genre near-thriller.

Heller once again uses nature to ground his unassuming character, making him even more likable despite his flaws but otherwise manages to sketch someone who is cast headlong into the infinite grayness of wrong and right. In his debut, Heller walked a similar path with the cause being the dramatic breakdown of civilization. This time, the cause is one man's ability to demonstrate self-restraint against a civilization that allows evil to co-exist within its borders.

The Painter By Peter Heller Frames 9.5 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While some readers might be feeling amiss by the ending, most will discover a richly considered story about a killer who deserves our sympathy for wanting to do the right thing and is ceremoniously punished for it with the wrong outcome. When combined with being naturally fallible and debilitatingly remorseful, Stregner becomes a contemporary anti-hero who has hoped for a life that has become increasingly rare and out of reach.

The Painter: A novel by Peter Heller is available on Amazon. You can also find the download available on iBooks or as an audiobook on iTunes. The novel is narrated by Mark Deakins, who also helped bring Heller's debut protagonist to life in The Dog Stars. This time, Deakins manages to draw out a much more confident though self-loathing protagonist within The Painter. The Painter by Peter Heller is also available through Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Rival Sons' Great Western Valkyrie

Rival Sons
There is one thing to say about the latest bleating blues rocker put out by Rival Sons. The 70s-style rock infusion, psychedelic drifts, and heavily-clad guitars combine to create their biggest and baddest studio effort.

Joining Jay Buchanan (vocals), Scott Holiday (guitar), and Michael Miley (drums) is newcomer bassist Dave Beste and, in the studio, Ikey Owens on keys. The result is something that sounds more personal, as if the band collectively decided to roll up their sleeves and be themselves for a change.

One might even say their band of blues rock benefitted from the fresh bass, encouraging Holiday to expand his approach on guitar, Miley to lend creativity to his drum work, and Buchanan to bring more moodiness in on the pieces where it mattered most. Think of it like Rival Sons evolved.

Great Western Valkyrie wails and howls over psychedelic blues. 

Electric Man might have been circulating for months now, but the opening track is still a testament to everything the band was trying to accomplish on the album. It's a fuzzed-out bluesy rocker that brims over with simplicity and self-confidence with only a few subtle and free-spirited arrangements.

Open My Eyes matches the stylings but not the simplicity. Lyrically and musically, the track adds even more muscle and intricacy. The track itself is about being your own person, regardless of the consequence or circumstance — even if that is only part of the story.

Although the verse makes note of a few envious onlookers, the chorus calls for something different. As Buchanan wails for "somebody to open my eyes," it becomes clear that one man's talent is another man's curse. After years of hardship, a rest from whatever tempest would more than welcome.

If there is any theme to the 10-track album, it's likely found in the balance of those two blues rockers. Most of the tracks find their reverence in being strong, self-aware, and willing to accept whatever hardships come knocking at the door. Good Luck, for example, is a breakup with a shrug track that underscores the take-it-as-it-comes attitude.

Things take off with the third track, Secret. Anyone who appreciates old-school, groove-driven, bass-heavy rockers that are underpinned by soaring vocals and organ will be smitten by it. In contrast, the slowed down and solemn Good Things balances the blues funk vocals and scorching guitar accompaniment that answers Buchanan more than it supports him.

Rich And The Poor follows suit with a slower pace, but the entire track is considerably more smoky and surreal. The track is an interesting departure from the rest of the album, giving the the entire LP a lift with an unexpected Spanish-Western informed folk tale. Belle Starr follows, even if it feels forgettable with Rich And The Poor and Where I've Been as bookends.

Where I've Been is an especially poignant moment for the band. The track adds a splash of country to make a convincing elixir. At six minutes, only the closer Destination On Course aims for something epic. Picking between the two, Where I've Been is the stronger of the slow burns.

Great Western Valkyrie By Rival Sons Screams 8.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

All in all, Great Western Valkyrie is an inspiring odyssey of muscular rock and roll and blues-weathered ballads. The best tracks teeter between bash-and-crash rockers like Electric Man, Secret, and Open My Eyes and heartfelt smoldering tracks like Rich And The Poor and Where I've Been. After those tracks, look for Play The Fool, Good Things, Good Luck to shake it up.

Great Western Valkyrie by Rival Sons can be found on Amazon. You can also download the album in entirety on iTunes. For the CD or vinyl release of Great Western Valkyrie by Rival Sons, visit Barnes & Noble. For touring updates, visit the band on Facebook.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Catfish And The Bottlemen Play On

Van MaCann
Hailing from the Welsh seaside township of Llandudno, Catfish and The Bottlemen have been busy in the United Kingdom. They've already earned considerable airtime on British radio. They've already played at festivals in Reading and Leeds. They supported Little Comets and The 1975 on a tour and recently headlined an abbreviated tour of their own.

It has taken some time, but their old-fashioned approach to the music industry is paying off. According to The Guardian, they played 100 shows in 18 months at solid venues. And with each and every show, their confidence as a band has grown along with hundreds and thousands of fans on both sides of the pond.

Better yet, the band has done all this without seeking a hipster pedigree of reviews and interviews. While they've agreed to a few here and there, they've mostly let their music do the talking — a deeply thought out garage rock sound. It's so thought out that the band readily rejected their first single.

A growling garage rock introduction. 

They originally recorded Homesick as a demo and the label felt it was strong enough to release it as their first single. While frontman Van MaCann didn't object, he is happier with the track on the EP.

The track is a stripped back confessional with a plunky guitar open that explodes into its chorus. The second verse changes its mix, powering up the quieter vocal introduction to tell a story about miscommunication and breakups. Throughout it all, MaCann displays a riveting confidence.

The lyrics, simply stated in a poetic staccato roll off effortlessly. "I got misled. Mistook. Discard," opens MaCann before the balance of the band — Billy Biddy (guitar), Benji Blakeway (bass), and Bob Hall (drums) — make an immediate impact with a composition that plants one foot in rock and the other in alternative.

The second video, a lyrical featuring random clips of early Ewan McGregor, earns the band a stunning cred for creativity beyond the music. The brilliance of the video is underscored by its rollicking instrumental whip.

The lyrics aren't nearly as wasted as some might think on the first pass. They work hard to lay down "Kathleen," a simpatico who lifts people up with a carefree attitude that quickly twists itself into a front. The subject of the song has both a dark side and the independent resolve to change it all.

The first EP released stateside includes Rango and Pacifier. Rango is the better of the two tracks, even if the bulk of it is much more straightforward than either Homesick or Kathleen. It too is a relationships-aren't-easy track about yet another girl. The highlight is the climatic finish, with its blistering reverb and fullness.

The last track, Pacifier, is the most radio-ready installation. It sounds solid and include ample push-pull boy-girl lyrics from MaCann, but without ever finding any ground to grind out as their own. It's worth a listen, but only after turning up and tuning into the other three. And then, even then, it leaves with a letdown in comparison.

Kathleen And The Other Three Roar Along 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

It's easy to be bullish about Catfish and The Bottlemen, one of several bands from United Kingdom that keep breathing new life into rock and roll. In this case, they play it right with just enough styling to make their own take on the music.

You can find Kathleen and the Other Three on Amazon or download the EP from iTunes. Also check out their newest single, Fallout, if you have a chance. The new single is as sharp as anything on the EP. For fans in the United States, there is five-track UK issue call The Beautiful Decay to check out too.

The band is currently touring in the United States before heading back to the United Kingdom in June. For tour dates, visit Facebook for the latest information.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Josh Malerman Closes The Bird Box

Bird Box by Josh Malerman
If you can suspend your sense of disbelief and accept the unimaginable, Bird Box by Josh Malerman will leave you mesmerized from start to finish. This gripping cross-genre thriller imagines the rapid collapse of civilization caused by a dimensional rift that allows new entities into our plane of existence.

Or, at least, that is what most people surmise. The only people who have seen them do not survive the sight of them. A single glimpse, even for a fraction of a second, will immediately drive someone insane. And, once afflicted, most set out to kill anyone within arm's reach before taking their own life.

The result is story that works across several layers of terror. Handfuls of survivors huddle together in homes with the blinds of the widows drawn shut. But even with their resolve to never peek outside, they have no choice but to remain vigilant and wary of anyone who allows their curiosity to grab hold.

In the dystopian land of the blind, a one-eyed man is a threat. 

When the strange and unforgiving events that bring down the world begin, Malorie is nothing more than a free-spritied young adult who lives with her sister in a modest rental that neither has bothered to decorate. Her biggest worry is missing a period, which is why she secretly purchased a test kit.

Had this not been the case, she would have been glued to the television much like her sister Shannon. Somewhere in Russia, a man was riding in a car being driven by a friend and asked him to pull over before attacking him. He, like several other people before, saw something before snapping.

It wasn't an isolated incident. There were others: a woman who buried her children alive, a man who attacked a filmmaker, and a woman who tried to bite as they ran by. All of them had been described as stable and sane before they saw something. Whatever it was, it was the last thing they saw sane.

Malerman reveals it all as he slowly pulls the gauze over the reader's eyes rather than removes it. At the same time he tells the story of how Malorie survived the collapse of everything, he tells the story about how she is surviving years later with not one but two children under her supervision.

With nothing left to lose, they are about to embark into the wilderness with nothing more than blindfolds for protection. The children, who she had raised on her own for years, are among the only survivors of her first sanctuary. Knowing something happened to the rest, whether they fled or were dead, is largely what generates the claustrophobic dread that permeates most of the story.

A few graphs about author Josh Malerman.

Until recently, Malerman was better known for fronting the Detroit rock band The High Strung. The band, which had toured for years and earned ink in Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, still gets together to produce music and play gigs. The only thing that has changed is that their frontman has a new ambition.

Josh Malerman
He would like to be known as a Michigan horror author, especially because he loves the state despite decrying it is as a kaleidoscopic, frightening place. Fueling his imagination isn't all fiction either. As a singer, Malerman has seen his share of basements and cemeteries, band vans and underground playgrounds. All of it seems fitting for a band member, but a bit more bizarre when you step back.

Bird Box is a remarkably strong start to carve out some turf. All it requires is a small suspension of belief before you roll with a protagonist who feels especially less prepared to survive than anyone around her. It often feels like her guilt alone keeps her going.

Bird Box By Josh Malerman Shuts Out 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Bird Box is a well-crafted and taut thriller. Whereas most horror stories succeed in creating suspense because characters do  things wrong, Bird Box succeeds in its overwhelming sense of dread because there is nothing any character can do right. Every action or lack of action comes with a risk.

Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman is available from Amazon. You can also download the novel for iBooks or the audiobook for iTunes. The latter is narrated by Cassandra Campbell, who excels at transforming Malorie from a carefree and helpless girl into an overprotective but persistent young mother surviving the best she can. You can also find Bird Box by Josh Malerman at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Orwells Take On Disgraceland

The Orwells
With a couple more years under their belts and a bigger label, The Orwells find being outcasts is easier as teens than young adults. When you've finally signed on to being one of the popular kids, everything produced begins to feel like an apology as opposed to the authenticity that gets you there.

The result is kind of a crazy paradox where everything sounds better but that doesn't necessarily mean that everything is better. Disgraceland is about being inadequate and left on the sidelines because it isn't always easy to enter society when you start out as a reject from high school. Except, they really aren't.

Two years ago, they sounded like older souls projecting what it might be like right around the corner. And now that they are, it doesn't have the same harsh wisdom. It's just sad, even if it sounds all right.

The Orwells started out as an alternative to sports.

When The Orwells debuted two years ago, they already had three years under their belts as a backyard band started in middle school as a means to get girls. Nowadays, the passion has fizzled out for purposeful punk-induced vintage rock. It's bigger, bolder, but maybe not as honest. It's hard to say.

The Righteous One is less about anything than the experience of being there. The track itself comes across like overly polished garage rock backing the carefree lines of being somewhere but too messed up to really care where. It's a big contrast to some of the headier writing on their debut.

Dirty Sheets covers much the same ground. It's a song about touring, being a mess, and putting women on a pedestal until the sun comes up. When it does come up, it's time to slink out before someone wants you to play the name game. It's pretty clear that would be too much for this crew.

Patriotism is too much too. As part of the stay-on-the-fringe persona, The Orwells belt out Who Needs You, a sixties-inspired anti-draft ditty that sounds good but feels out of place in an era where the armed services turn more people away than they recruit. The expectation is a bit overblown.

It's all right to some degree. Disgraceland is a party album, with the better songs feeling a bit more authentic like Southern Comfort, which touches on what it feels like when you become one of the older people at the party. It becomes a bit more uncomfortable when you don't know the newcomers.

It also becomes a bit more uncomfortable with the singularity of tracks like Bathroom Tile Blues, Gotta Get Down, and Blood Bubbles. The tracks all sound different but they mostly recast the same theme. It essentially becomes a bit tired. Thank goodness for Norman and North Ave., which aren't necessarily as good musically but do allow the band to stretch their legs a bit more.

North Ave. is a nostalgic teen wisdom track that feels like the last few empty pages of a high school yearbook. Norman, in contrast, is a sentimental party song gone bad and pleading for forgiveness, especially from whatever women he wants to be accepted by while nursing that hangover.

All in all, Disgraceland is decent album that takes the band in the wrong direction. It can be simultaneously appreciated in small doses and loathed for abandoning what could have been a better progression from the DIY vibe of their introduction tracks like Mallrats and All The Cool Kids.

Disgraceland By The Orwells Lays Down 4.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The band still benefits from Mario Cuomo's vocals and the continually improving talents of a five piece with all their original members. They're not nearly as sloppy as they used to be (even if you wish they were), but most people agree that their stage presence is intact (no matter what happened on Letterman). Fans will love it for awhile even while critics give it a lukewarm reception.

Disgraceland by The Orwells can be found on Amazon. You can also download the sophomore album from iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries Disgraceland by The Orwells on vinyl. For tour information, visit Facebook.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Haunted Hearts Has A Initiation Debut

Haunted Hearts
Not everyone will get the hazy debut album by Dee Dee Penny (Dum Dum Girls) and Brandon Welchez (Crocodiles) and that's all right. The music made by the husband-wife duo isn't meant for everyone.

At its core, the duo idealizes the old art-sex-drug scene of New York City in the late seventies and early eighties in a style sensationalized by bands that existed in that era. They do it with artistic perfection, except Penny and Welchez don't really sensationalize it. They play it like it is being transmitted through time to anything with vacuum tubes.

All the while, you will hear influences from both of their bands, creating a richly shared landscape that is one part Dum Dum Girls and one part Crocodiles. It's both delicate and brutal, even if it never really climbs its way out of the art they wanted to make. Think of it that way to make it really stick.

Initiation is like listening to an imperfect distorted memory.

Initiate Me opens up the album with short and choppy meandering anchored by lyrics that are nothing short of submission. Penny chants "initiate me" with increasing abandon while initiating someone to make her into anything they want her to be.

It was recorded by Jon Greene at Electric Orange Studios in San Diego, mixed by Jorge Elbrecht (Ariel Pink/Violens) at Static Recording in Brooklyn, and mastered by Joe La Porta at Sterling Sound in New York City.

There is no guess work what it's all about. From the very first track, it's about sex, love, and debauchery. Except unlike most musicians producing lo-fi pop-rock today, they initially avoid too much fervor over the content. They present it as casually as someone might show off an old car.

At the same time, like many of the tracks, what makes most of the music interesting is listening to both musicians simultaneously toning each other up and down. Johnny Jupiter is no exception.

As the lead promotional track off the album, Haunted Hearts revives the surreal television series from the 1950s that likely aired on New York late night television in the decades that followed. Like some of the programs produced in the 1950s, there is an unnaturalness to it. It's trippy with the album's consistently creepy casualness.

Up Is Up (But So Is Down) captures the confusion with heart sunglasses, disco balls, fur coats, and a spaced-out synth-pop pulse that the art factory might have loved. Whereas Initiate Me is about submission, Up Is Up (But So Is Down) is about permission to be anything or anybody or any way.

The post-punk Something That Feels Bad Is Something That Feels Good falls along much the same thinking. There is permission, except this time it is given as equal trade. Someone can tie you up but only if they let you tie them down, as it were. And the duo does it all with a dispatched innocence.

The balance of the album drifts away from the listlessness of the first four tracks with enough conviction that it almost feels like two distinct EPs rather than a sharply written but short 8-track LP.

House of Lords is a heavier psychedelic synth-pulse reliant track. Love Incognito is an eighties throwback, written with significantly more grit. Strange Intentions seems to originate more from the Welchez side of the collaboration and Bring Me Down would be a depressive ballad of sorts if it wasn't produced with such meticulously light vocals from Penny. Her contribution, even as a duet, makes it closer soothing as opposed to sentimental as Welchez sings it.

Initiation By Haunted Hearts Beats 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Scale. 

Initiation deserves more than a single play to appreciate some of the finer details locked inside the tracks. Better yet, it might pay off to give each more space between songs. As fate would have it, most of them sound better when they are isolated from the album.

Initiation by Haunted Hearts can be found on Amazon or downloaded from iTunes. You can also order Initiation by Haunted Hearts from Barnes & Noble, which would only add more warmth to an already cozy collection. For tour schedules, visit Haunted Hearts on Facebook.