Thursday, July 31, 2014

Four Year Strong Skips With History

Four Year Strong
From the very first track, What's In The Box, it's clear Four Year Strong wants to fire up their 5-track EP like a full length. It's a big, explosive opener to showcase their unapologetic melodic-hardcore-pop punk juggernaut in a song that plainly states their drive.

What's In The Box is about relentlessly pursuing an artist's vision regardless of any pushback and punches. Those things, they promise, will only make them stronger. It's compelling as a tightly written, sharply delivered composition, but what truly makes it stand out is that the band delivers it as convincingly as they could have ten years ago.

That's largely the point. Dan O'Conner (guitar/vocals), Alan Day (guitar/vocals), and Jake Massucco (drummer) might not be young punks from Doherty Memorial High School anymore, but they can lay down an onslaught of noise. Joe Weiss (bass) too, of course. What's In The Box is everything anyone might expect from the Worcester foursome since the departure of Josh Lyford.

Go Down In History shaves years off Four Year Strong.

Along with the opener, title track Go Down In History epitomizes the band's relentless determination to make their mark. They pursue it with their eyes wide open. The lyrics grab hold of the concept that all our days are numbered so we have to make them count. There isn't time to waste looking back.

The message is rock solid optimism that the best is ahead. And they deliver those lines perfectly in the most anthemic track on album. Even people who see Four Year Strong as a more pop punk band will note that they've broken away from the hallmarks of the genre. They're too busy living to whine about anything.

As good as Go Down In History is, the best track on the album leans even more on melodic hardcore. Tread Lightly is a take-on-all-challenges track that catches the band between heartbreak and another breath. It's in those moments, when someone has dragged you down, that you recall all those people who have always stood behind you.

Tred Lightly is the most intricate composition in EP, with 90 degree turns held together by the melody and soaring chorus. It will easily be added to the short list of best songs ever written by the band. There isn't a stitch that could be improved upon.

Living Proof Of A Stubborn Youth and So You're Saying There's A Chance... fall right line with the rest of the EP. Living Proof is some poignant and upbeat wisdom from someone looking back on their life. It's a refreshing take on hindsight being 20-20, with an authentic twist. Four Year Strong takes pride in the fact they've survived but some steps on the path they took might be best avoided. You can't get more honest than that.

You're Saying There's A Chance... is a brilliant call out from Dumb And Dumber. Without the context of the film, someone might find a bit of envy in the tone as O'Conner and Day call out the challenges that anyone in the audience might be facing and then saying they would love to have that once again. But within that context, it takes on the shape of a shake-off song with the most memorable lines a nice bit of soaring sarcasm. Take your pick. You'll want to sing along anyway.

Go Down In History By Four Year Strong Pushes 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

More than anything else, Go Down In History positions the band and its new label to take these five tracks on tour for a few months before heading back into the studio to produce a proper full lenghth. There is no question that Four Year Strong has the chops to make it as a foursome rather than replace Lyford outright.

Go Down In History by Four Year Strong is available on Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes. For a little more, Go Down In History is also available as a CD from Barnes & Noble. Facebook lists tour information.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Black Angels Do Clear Lake Dives

With the band still looking for a hook as strong as Phosphene Dream, Austin-based The Black Angels found renewed inspiration by visiting a new sonically-charged location. Clear Lake Forest casts a bigger blues influence on what has become an expectant recipe of psychedelic relapse rock.

"After roaming through the Indigo Meadow, the time has come to journey to Clear Lake Forest," says Christian Bland (guitar/organ). "Where seven tales of diamonds, executioners, and other strange occurrences await underneath the crystal waves lapping in the lake."

It's in these stories that Bland, together with Stephanie Bailey (drums), Kyle Hunt (bass, keys, guitar), and Alex Maas (vocals), reimagine the more sinister side of their music. An Occurrence At 4507 South Third Street, for example, slowly swells from its organ-driven pulse into a flickering glimpse at the life of a gunfighter or criminal as he hangs from his neck until dead. Or something like that.

Clear Lake Forest is hazy, unsettling, and submergent. 

Clear Lake Forest stands out as an EP for its aim to make almost all seven tracks sound as if they were inspired by something seen an inch or two beneath the waterline. Peering into the silt-laced water, you can sometimes see remnants of the past trapped underneath the surface but without any real certainty.

The only way to know whether your eyes are playing tricks on you or not is to reach in and grab hold of it. The feat would be easy enough to do if not for that nagging sensation of being trapped.

Linda's Gone is an eerie and somewhat quirky ditty about a country bumpkin who follows her dreams and makes the move to the city. She doesn't have much of a chance to make it, quickly slipping into prostitution and drug abuse until there is nothing left of her.

The writing isn't nearly as a overt as that on any track and, likewise, not every track is as desperate or as murky. The Flop is considerably more fun. It provides a respite of sorts to mark the center of the EP and give it some heart.

Other tracks that give another nod to the more playful side of the sixties include the opener Sunday Evening. Under the guise of being a sticky sweet bubblegum melody, Maas hints at the afterlife and why it doesn't make sense to be afraid of it. The subtle touch of surf rock makes it perfect.

Tired Eyes and Diamond Eyes carries forward more carefree and inviting with its transportive powers. You can't help but to feel like being part of the hippiedom that inspired the sound. In more ways than one, it is these tracks that provide the lure for darker, more hypnotic material.

The Executioner would quality if it wasn't the weakest track on the album. Other than a possible link to An Occurrence At 4507 South Third Street, the reverb blots out too much of the music. It's a bit of a mess, despite the riveting consequence of lyrics before being blown out in the echo chamber.

Overall, there are times when the connections between Clear Lake Forest and the artists that inspire The Black Angels are too evident. But that is largely forgivable as the band bounces back from the lighter fare of Indigo Meadow to create a brilliantly textured mini-concept album.

Clear Lake Forest By The Black Angels Dives 7.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The darker, more haunted soundscapes remain the most compelling contributions to the band's repertoire, even if tracks like Tired Eyes and Diamond Eyes will receive the most play time. Both are a bit drug induced, but the guitars and harmonies make up for it. They both represent the "do what you want" part before the band starts dishing out some deadly consequence.

You can find Clear Lake Forest by The Black Angels on Amazon or download the EP from iTunes. The vinyl LP has been out longer than its digital counterparts. The vinyl edition of Clear Lake Forest can be picked up at Barnes & Noble. For tour dates, find them on Facebook.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cynthia Bond Exhales The Novel Ruby

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
When 30-year-old Ruby Bell returns to her hometown in East Texas, she unexpectedly resurrects all the ghosts and demons of her childhood. There, in Liberty, townsfolk cling to a sheltered social order and existence, the wounds of racism and slavery remain divisive and unhealed, and a small group of otherwise righteous men still sneak off into the woods to practice the darker arts of their ancestries.

Although considerably stronger than when she left, the confrontation of her past turns out to be too much for her. And as the memories come flooding back, Ruby is left incapable of distinguishing the fantasy from reality or the  past from the present. No one is wiling to help her. If anything, the town seems poised to destroy her for having the audacity to escape to New York City in the 1950s.

There is one exception. Ephram Jennings still remembers Ruby as the young and beautiful girl who stole his heart. He alone becomes determined to protect her from a town that wants to destroy her.

Ruby is a love story stretched taut over a story of survival.

Ruby is not for the feint of heart as it rumbles along to tell a transfixing and cruel tale. Even if the primary protagonist is more Jennings than Ruby, the story belongs to her. Whereas he is the son of a backwoods preacher and seemingly the only person in the all-black town of Liberty to have retained a sense of naivety and nobility, she is the survivor of explicit and inhuman child abuse.

As a result, he is only one who is unwilling to shun Ruby, and is eventually compelled to save her despite placing himself at great risk. Most townsfolk see this newfound relationship as the work of the devil despite a seemingly endless parade of people who are anxious to exploit her abuse.

East Texas
As the antagonists in the novel are larger than any one individual, Ruby and Ephram must face the torturous personal experiences of her past, the threats of physical and mental abuse in the present, and the ever-present essence of an ancient and destructive spiritual force that has set its sights on her soul. These three painful threads are then woven together so tightly that it is often difficult to feel where one ends and another begins.

For the most part, author Cynthia Bond tackles the difficult subject matter especially well. The novel is particularly powerful and devastating in that the victims aren't seen as worthy of being saved but rather deserve to be punished and exploited. In making it so, Bond captures the internal conflict that many survivors have a difficult time expressing and makes it real. It manifests itself in physical abuse, mental ignorance, and a spiritual battle between lost souls and the Dybou (devil).

Where the novel sometimes slips away is in its craft. While Bond is adept at developing well-drawn characters and has a flair for descriptive writing, she allows the exceedingly dark storyline to manage her. It plods along, making the same point over and over until the rhythm of it is circular and hollow.

A few more graphs about author Cynthia Bond. 

Cynthia Bond
There is an unmistakable authenticity that Cynthia Bond brings to her book. Her own history of abuse informed the novel as did meeting an amazing woman who had suffered unimaginable degrees of abuse during recovery. Later, Bond began to teach writing to homeless and at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles and discovered many survivors have the same or similar stories much like some family members have similar stories related to racism and the harshness of small town life.

Her mother inspired Liberty, having grown up in a small, all-black town in East Texas. And as Bond and her sister grew older, her mother would tell them stories that revolved around the scars of her body. They began to think of them as chapters.

Bond attended Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and then moved to New York and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She then founded the Blackbird Writing Collective in 2011 after becoming a PEN Rosenthal Fellow. At present, she teaches therapeutic writing at Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment Center.

Ruby By Cynthia Bond Breaks 3.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the novel is worth the read (despite its more explicit content), it's cumbersome in that Jennings is the only redeeming character and the primary protagonist in a story that doesn't belong to him. The mechanism might help us understand helplessness, but it doesn't necessarily endear Ruby to readers.

Ruby: A Novel by Cynthia Bond can be found on Amazon. The novel is also available for iBooks and can be downloaded as an audiobook on iTunes. Bond narrates her own novel.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Drenge Drenches A Self-Titled Debut

Some people might expect a bigger blues influence to come out of the tiny village of Castleton in Derbyshire, England. But they would be wrong. What the Loveless brothers decided to do instead was lean on grungy guitar riffs and distorted psychedelic rhythms to produce their post-grunge sound.

Then, after picking up a small following last year, the band gained some surprise attention when Tom Watson, a member of parliament, endorsed them in his resignation letter. "...And if you want to see an awesome band," he concluded. "I recommend Drenge."

The plug earned them an early listen, even if Eoin Loveless (vocals/guitar) and his brother Rory (drums) were already well on their way with a five-track set slated for iTunes Festival: London 2013. Along with the festival, their label had already queued up a two-track teaser, Bloodsports/Dogmeat.

The self-titlted debut Drenge ignites some post-grunge interest.  

As Bloodsports and Dogmeat were both released stateside (and reviewed) in January, either track makes for a great place to start the album. The first is a post-breakup monotony song that languishes on the idea that she either needs to come back or someone better come along before the trance is broken. Dogmeat is a cleverly callous attack on being underestimated.

Not surprisingly, Bloodsports and Dogmeat are two of the strongest tracks but they are far from being the only tracks. Backwaters is a loss of innocence track, laced with quiet desperation to hold on to those few things in life that don't require wrecking something else. (The video doesn't do it much justice.)

It also uncovers the band's predisposition to balance the beauty, brutality, and sense of being trapped in a small town. The album opener, People In Love Make Me Feel Yuck, does the same. Aside from being a languishing garage rocker that hints at not wanting to give up on pre-adolescence, it touches on the expectation to fall along with everyone else.

It's pretty clear that the Loveless brothers have no intention of following along. They are more likely to head in the opposite direction of everything. Sure, Gun Crazy might allude to allowing someone to like them, but other tracks lean more toward rejection than attention. I Don't Want To Make Love To You amplifies an uncensored push off that borders on revulsion.

There is also some unbridled aggression on the crackling racket of I Wanna Break You In Half. The angst is rock solid, even if the internal fuming here doesn't sound like anything literal. I Wanna Break You In Half feels much more in line with stomping your feet on the inside, not outside.

Face Like A Skull resurrects grunge in all its glory. Nothing is one part rage and one part temptation. The under covered and somber Let's Pretend will roll around in your head for more than eight minutes. All of them, Eoin says, were written when he was unemployed and bored out of his mind.

The album closes with Fuckabout, which remains one of my favorite tracks on the album. It opens with a brilliantly subtle melodic open before the band crushes its ability to quietly contemplate self-doubt and existence. The track might still be about small town boredom and being a slacker of sorts, and it touches a nerve for anyone who has felt momentarily dazed by life.

Self-Titled By Drenge Drenches 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The initial Bloodsports and Dogmeat release was a solid pairing from a band that has a very real potential to go places and the album reinforces that notion. Drenge is the real deal among post-grunge bands that occasionally entertain a garage rock sound from the nineties.

You can find the self-titled album Drenge on Amazon. You can also download any of the tracks from iTunes or find the vinyl issue of Drenge at Barnes & Noble. For concert dates, find the band on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Homeless Gospel Choir Gets Young

The Homeless Gospel Choir
The Homeless Gospel Choir truly doesn't fit the classic definition of an organized group of singers, typically one that performs regularly in public. It's inexplicably a choir of one person who will likely never sing his songs between the altar and nave, even if his lyrical tenacity might resonate there.

Derek Zanetti is an amazingly talented lyricist who uses his skills to write social commentary with a folk punk flair that packs a punch for its unadulterated hardline look at the way things are today. His ability to do so carries such impeccable clarity that his label's boast that this is the Woody Guthrie of the post-hope / pre-apocalypse world rings so true that it stings at times.

His sophomore album rips across ten tracks of blistering criticism about almost everything, including himself. Because, if this album is anything, it's also a personal look at the world through the eyes of someone who woke up in their thirties and discovered there wasn't anything out there worth pursuing.

I Used To Be So Young is deeply cynical and brutally honest.

While some people might mistake his path as apathy, Zanetti is anything but as he lays out charges against greed, privilege, and complacency. At the same time, he delivers it all with hard truths and humor, a wit that rings out the societal standards like dirty dish water.

Opening with Armageddon, Zanetti sizzles over his nation's latest infatuation with The End Of Days and does so in such a way that he doesn't take sides. The track expresses as much distaste for the media that feeds the fear as those who eat it up as a call to action.

“Armageddon is in reference to the anxiety, and fear that comes along with always thinking the world is going to end,” adds Zanetti. “These 'doomsday preppers' spend more time worrying about death, and not enough time living. And I think that is both funny and sad.”

He expresses the same feelings about Black Friday, a song about the country's most grotesque displays of consumerism. He was inspired by a real life story about a throng of holiday sales ads that were interrupted by a woman who was trampled to death in a department store. Immediately following the story, the bombardment of commercials resumed until the next segment.

The point was further driven home by a video made up of news footage that accompanies the song. It dances eloquently between beauty and barbarism, want and waste. A similar theme is struck in Holiday Song (originally written three years ago or so), which dares people to see both sides of consumerism, such as a diamond signifying sometimes considerably different things between the person who purchases it and the person who digs it up.

Capitalismo is especially poignant too. It lays out the case that casting off the chains of materialism might be a noble effort in that we generally go out the way we come in — naked, afraid, and crying. But not everything in his arsenal is necessarily whimsically heavy. Some of it is just whimsy.

Musical Preference is one such number when Zanetti takes time out to explore how we all connect to music. He elevates some musicians while disparaging others, usually drawing the line between those who are popular and underrated. It's doubtful that he counts himself among the latter camp, however. The vibrant Some People takes at least one or two jabs at himself as a one-man band.

There are plenty of other tracks that are worthwhile. Untitled, Slow Down The Time, and Don't Give Up reveal the album is as sonically important as it is for some ideologies. Zanetti is a solid songwriter even when he drifts away from sarcasm.

I Used To Be So Young by The Homeless Gospel Choir Rips 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While it is difficult to agree with every observation jotted down by Zanetti because he occasionally mistakes his selectiveness as objectivism, the album still soars as a thought provoking and challenging commentary that touches on truth. He then weaves it all together into such a convincing but unpretentious manner that it's impossible not to appreciate every inch of it.

I Used to Be So Young by The Homeless Gospel Choir is available on Amazon. You can also download the album on iTunes. For upcoming shows and appearances, follow him on Facebook.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Trampled By Turtles Tames Up Wild

Trampled By Turtles
Not every album put out by Trampled By Turtles is going to be as resounding as Palomino, which helped make bluegrass cool. But then again, Trampled By Turtles isn't really bluegrass anymore.

The five-piece from Duluth, Minnesota, has migrated well away from its roots and into a indie folk-pop territory. On their seventh studio album, Wild Animals, the wildness is confined to two tracks, with one being the speedy but untextured Come Back Home. While it's not nearly as dynamic as previous speed-picking compositions, it does retain a homespun comfort that is more frequently found on their slower alternative folk meanders.

The balance of the album is slow tracks, slower than any previously released album. As such, it requires new listeners to appreciate that this album augments the body of their work more than it acts as a standalone addition. In focusing on accessible song craft, not every track has the same spark.

Wild Animals plays out mostly like mellow meadow music.

It's apparently clear the wild animals that the title track alludes to are not ferocious. They move though the stillness of nature instead, felt more than seen. And as frontman Dave Simonett tells it, it's an intentional effort to stay connected to the simple animal side, a part of them that lives off the earth, hunts game, and worships the stillness once found in the trees and mountains that surrounded them.

"When I lived in Duluth, I think I took connection with uncivilized nature for granted. There, I had to drive 20 minutes and I was in the middle of nowhere, and I did this almost daily," he said. "This was a very important ritual for me. Solitary time in a nearly untouched landscape is my version of church, so I think there is a bit of loss of religion in a lot of my work these days."

To recapture that connection, Simonett says they wanted to capture the quiet intensity of being alive, bringing in their universal appeal to something more personal. It's also the first time in four albums that the band recruited a producer — Alan Sparhawk (Low) along with engineer B.J. Burton (Poli├ža, Megafaun, Volcano Choir) out of Pachyderm Studio (Nirvana, The Jayhawks).

Tracks like Are You Behind The Shining Star capture the simplicity of the album. There is an innocence and naivety from what Simonett and company remember from their earliest beginnings about ten years ago. It's mellow in its melody and meticulously crafted with big-world contemplation.

As solid as the song is, the more visceral tracks dismissed by some reviewers as uninterruptible deliver more satisfaction. Repetition is a hazy and impeccably authentic and reflective glide. Winners is another well-paced folk song that conjures up memories from what now seems like past lives.

Western World partly breaks the band out of the slow and steady pace of Wild Animals, with some fast fiddling and fingers creating a fountain. Rather than match the fiery pace, Simonett brings down the vocals to an eyes-closed deep thoughtfulness that characterizes much of the album.

Aside from Simonett, Tim Saxhaug (bass), Dave Carroll (banjo), Erik Berry (mandolin), and Ryan Young (fiddle) have never sounded better. The slower pace has helped maximize their precision as players. Their intuitive ability to compliment each other's talent is unmistakable too. They've stayed and played together longer than most.

"From the earliest times we started playing, there has always been a real hard-to-define quality about our chemistry, something special," said Berry. "It’s been a treat to find that more than ten years in we still can turn new corners, at least new-to-us corners, together in the way we approach a song or a sound and still with that quality. That something that makes us, us."

Wild Animals By Trampled By Turtles Turns 4.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Along with the above mentioned songs, give Lucy and Nobody Knows a listen. While not as strong as some of the other material on the album, both tracks feel like personal glimpses into the past lives of these indie folk players. Fans will find them especially appealing.

You can find Wild Animals by Trampled By Turtles on Amazon. Wild Animals is also on iTunes and readily available to order as the Wild Animals CD from Barnes & Noble. While reviewers have been less than generous overall, fans of the band have consistently rated the album five stars.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Smalls Make The Same Mistakes

The Same Mistakes by the Smalls is a debut EP that can be summed up in two words: too short. The Same Mistakes only showcases five short tracks, with the shortest played out in under 40 seconds and the longest barely reaching the the minute mark. But there is something to make up for the length.

There are only about a dozen or so pop punk band fronted by women that are worth listening to, and The Same Mistakes is just long enough to prove Ashley Cadwallader has enough talent to be added to that list. She easily powers up the lyrics while maintaining the band's melodic-driven punk.

Add the still-obscure Los Angeles pop punk band to the watch list.

Cadwallader isn't the only person to lay down great vocals either. Both Billy Miranda (guitar) and Russell Ladia (guitar) deliver strong enough backing vocals that often rise up to create the illusion of a duet. In fact, it is often the counterbalance between male and female vocals that help the Smalls avoid sounding like just another pop punk band.

They use all three vocalists to great effect. In the video that highlights the EP closer Tired, the male backing vocals add some welcome depth as Cadwallader belts out her reluctant breakup vocals. It works even better when laid over the aggressive tempo held together by Gus Limon on bass and Brittney Rosales on drums.

Interestingly enough, neither Miranda nor Ladia deliver the final male vocal crush. The caped crusader is Dominic Padilla from Stanley And The Search. His band is more punk than pop punk and lends some needed harshness to close out the song and complement Cadwallader's toughness.

Still, the guys in the band do have enough chops to hold their own. Miranda turns Brand New into more of duet after Cadwallader leads off with some addictive melodic apathy. The opener might be less than 40 seconds, but it's surprisingly impactful. The verse, accompanied by the acoustics, serves up some solid songwriting in the shortest space possible.

Brand New is somewhat indicative of the band's roots too. Originally brought together by a " musicians wanted" ad, Smalls started as a duo with Cadwallader and Miranda, who immediately meshed after meeting up. The rest of the band came much later as the two struggled to find like-minded talents willing to let the melody be the hero but without sacrificing any frenetic energy.

The duo put out their own 4-track EP, Expecting The Worst, with Ladia tapped to play bass as a favor to his childhood friend. In fact, although not being circulated on every digital version, the acoustic Game Of Kings was part of the pre-band debut. It was also one of the most fiery compositions.

If you have a chance, give the acoustic and the original a listen. Game Of Kings is another relationship crush that centers around erasing the evidence of a relationship. Without that track, the best of The Same Mistakes is easily The Internet Is A Terrible Place And I No Longer Wish To Be In A Band. The Internet smack down captures the allure and angst of being in a band nowadays.

It also leans a littler closer to the hardcore presence that Smalls can almost pull off. After that, Guilt keeps the band soaring with its natural edge while We're Taking It Back sound fine but lacks some of the same substance as its companions. Still, there is a groovy guitar lick or two tucked inside Guilt.

The Same Mistakes By Smalls Bangs Out 6.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For an EP that barely breaks a sweat in under 15 minutes, The Same Mistakes packs a punch that just wasn't possible when the band only had three players and a friend. The five-piece lineup feels complete and we're hoping they hold it together while delivering some fiery live shows in LA.

You can download five tracks from The Same Mistakes on iTunes or find The Same Mistakes on Amazon. There seems to be a pressing pending.

For all six tracks, Negative Progression Records offers the acoustic Game Of Kings with a complete album download off a dedicated bandcamp page. For everything else, visit the band on Facebook.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Last Ship By Brinkley Revisited

The Last Ship
With the new television series The Last Ship by the cable network TNT moving full speed ahead, some people are surprised to discover that the original novel with the same name by William Brinkley had nothing to do with a global pandemic. It touched a different nerve fitting for the times.

The Last Ship novel tells the story about the captain of the fictional USS Nathan James (DDG-80) after a brief but deadly nuclear exchange between the United States and what was then commonly known as the Soviet Union. The outcome of that exchange was even bleaker than the television series premise, which has infected as much as 80 percent of the human population.

In the novel, it is a fair speculation to assume less than one percent survive. With no exceptions, the few survivors that the USS Nathan James discovers as it searches for any remnants of civilization are dead or dying — too sick and radiated to welcome aboard for fear of contamination. Such discoveries are only a sliver of what this novel is truly about. It takes an engrossing look at the hearts of humankind.

The Last Ship is a striking portrait of surrender and survival. 

While the television series delivers a more hopeful prognosis for humankind as its USS Nathan James is tasked with finding a cure on open water, the captain and crew of original story face a near hopeless situation. Surviving a post-nuclear world is not enough. The real enemy resides within.

After following orders to carry out a nuclear strike against the Soviet city of Orel and its nearby missile silos, the USS Nathan James receives instructions to break from general orders but does not receive new orders. The captain decides to reconnect with friendly forces in the North Sea and around the United Kingdom but encounters dense clouds of radioactive smoke instead. London is in ruins.

Eventually the ship makes contact with a Soviet Navy ballistic missile submarine, the Pushkin, and the two captains strike a deal. In exchange for food, the Soviet captain promises to locate fuel for the USS Nathan James and then rendezvous somewhere in the Pacific. Both captains are hoping to find an uncontaminated island where they can survive and possibly start over.

USS Nathan JamesWhile the plan is sound, not everyone on board the USS Nathan James is satisfied. Some crew members would prefer to risk running out of fuel and simply head home, regardless of what might be waiting for them. Their resolve is strong enough to risk the security of the ship.

Beyond a potential mutiny, the ever diminishing crew of the last ship faces nuclear fallout, psychological stress, and myriad individual motivations that do not necessarily reinforce the prospect of survival. At the same time, the crew must devise a plan to restart humanity against all odds.

Even so, the bulk of the novel is not driven by action but rather the perspective of the captain who shares details on naval command, nuclear warfare, the collapse of civilization, and various ethical and moral challenges that the crew is forced to make. It is engrossing despite dragging at times as Brinkley leaves no stones unturned.

A few graphs about author William Brinkley. 

William Brinkley
The Last Ship was William Brinkley's last novel, which was published in 1988. He drew significantly from his experience as a naval officer serving in the South Pacific in World War II. Prior, he had worked as a reporter for The Daily Oklahoman and The Washington Post before enlisting in the Navy.

He turned to The Washington Post after the war until being hired by Life magazine as a staff writer, correspondent, and assistant editor. He wrote and published his first book immediately after his tenure as an officer. He would go on to write seven more novels and one nonfiction book before committing suicide in 1993.

The Last Ship is the second Brinkley novel to be adapted for the screen. In 1957, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced his comedy Don't Go Near The Water as a film. Brinkley was a graduate of the University of Oklahoma.

The Last Ship By William Brinkley Detonates 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a novel, The Last Ship has considerable depth. It paints a complete picture of the captain as well as his perspective of every other member of crew he regularly engages. While Brinkley makes it clear that the captain's perspective cannot always be trusted, he strives to be objective and mostly honest.

The Last Ship: A Novel by William Brinkley can be found on Amazon. You can also download The Last Ship from iBooks. While no audiobook seems to be available at this time, the television series based loosely on the novel is partly available on iTunes. Barnes & Noble also carries The Last Ship by William Brinkley. Several have noted that despite what seems like a thin plot, the book spans 624 pages and mostly works nonetheless.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

French Style Furs Hang Exotic Bait

French Style Furs
At first blush, French Style Furs comes across as another contemporary indie band attempting to channel the briefly abused sub genre of New Wave pop-rock that emerged in the late seventies. But the more you dig into their debut, the three-piece proves there is something bigger happening under the hood.

For starters, French Style Furs isn't an upstart but a side project launched by Nathan Willett and Matt Maust (both of Cold War Kids) and their long-time friend Nathan Warketin (We Barbarians). And, more importantly, they stick more to the darker and arty post-punk than the idealist synth pop that overtook it by the late eighties (and indirectly created the need for grunge to refresh rock and roll).

In remaining true to the ethos of complex written music and lyrics, French Style Furs creates a tapestry of richly moody and occasionally agitated songs aptly titled Is Exotic Bait. In doing so, they meld experiences from their respective bands, reboot a largely vintage sound, and carve out a new identity.

Is Exotic Bait by French Style Furs shakes up some spontaneous creative urgency. 

The crux of the creative brainstorm was to use the poetry of Thomas Merton as the lyrics. The idea came from Willett, who has maintained a long-time fascination with the mystic and monk. He is well known for his writings on social justice, pacifism, and comparative religion. Willett was especially interested into his thoughts on Eastern religion, but Merton wrote about many topics as a writer and poet.

It is the sense of mysticism, perhaps, that gives the album a murky grayness at times. Turn Or Burn is one of them. There is brooding, contemplative quality to the track as it rolls along with a restrained intensity that some Cold War Kids fans will find immediately familiar.

Perhaps what is even more interesting to me is that Willett didn't even drop in the lyrics until after Maust and Warkentin had laid down bass and drum tracks. He showed up with a large book of poems and the trio began spontaneously bringing the varied elements together and recording it all as they went.

Along with their own work, they also invited Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits) to play percussion on Solitary Life; Haley Dekle (Dirty Projectors), Zina, and Marika Dahlin to raise the reach of Man the Master and Bloodstream, and Nick Kinsey and Wyndham Boylan-Garnett (Elvis Perkins in Dearland) to fill out Clairvaux Prison with some unique horn arrangements.

Clairvaux Prison, which closes the album, crosses social commentary with a sense of self-exiled isolation. It also bears the name of a historical monastery that was rebuilt into a high-security prison.

While not everything on the album slow burns and smolders, one of the biggest standout tracks is Miami U R About To Be Surprised, which creates a sort of intellectual seduction as it plays out in swirling curls of smoke. It's an artistically wrought thought piece with some beautifully hypnotic foreshadowing. You'll also find the title lyrics tucked deep inside.

Other standouts from this addictive abstract include the faster paced and upbeat opener 3 Friends, the frantic musical collage of All The Way Down, the staccato fuzz of (World In My) Bloodstream, and wildly captivating vocals and swaying horns that come together tightly in Solitary Life. While all of these tracks reside on the top of the album, Is Exotic Bait isn't all front loaded.

Turn Or Burn rounds out the bottom half, along with the sparsely decorated beat-driven commentary of Man The Master. Some of the other tracks like Ambassadors Of General Electric and Christmas Card don't have the same chemistry even if they are kind of snappy. What they deliver to the album instead is another dimension to what almost feels like a happy accident at times.

Is Exotic Bait By French Style Furs Snakes Around 7.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Another talent that deserves props on the album is producer Nick Launay. He has long been known for his production work with talents like Nick Cave and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. He does an exquisite job bringing in lessons learned from both early influencers.

Otherwise, the only other bonus worth mentioning is that Maust created the cover art. If you are unfamiliar with his art, make it a point to check it out. It will give you another reason beyond his bass to love his work.

Is Exotic Bait by French Style Furs is available from Amazon. It also dropped on iTunes for anyone who wants to download it there. You can also find the vinyl LP of Is Exotic Bait by French Style Furs on Barnes & Noble.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Jeen O'Brien Blows Out Like A Tourist

Jeen O'Brien
The first time I was introduced to Jeen O'Brien, it was as a member of Cookie Duster. The band plays a certain brand of vanilla pop. It clearly has talent, just not the kind of tunes played around here daily.

Her solo work is all together different. It shows off a diversity that comes from being a singer-songwriter who splits her time writing for bands like Great Big Sea, Serena Ryder, and Martin "Doc" McKinney and producing music for commercials and television programs (including the theme song for the cult cartoon Ruby Gloom). Her life is music.

Chances are that you've heard her work and never knew it. Or maybe you heard dozens of compositions without ever knowing the connection. Expect to hear a whole lot more from her.

Tourist is an indie pop-rock sampler set, mostly unmarried to any one sound. 

For commercial songwriters, surrendering personal style for someone else is considered an asset. But for a recording artist, it presents a different kind of challenge in that it makes locking in an identity so much more difficult. When you can sound like anything, it's harder to pin down the sound that's you.

This challenge is ever-present on Tourist with her repertoire bouncing back and forth between indie pop, indie rock, and alternative. The album might have been written with a beginning, middle, and end in mind, but it's difficult to hear it while Jeen explores everywhere her career has taken her.

Much of the music, she says, was conceived and recorded in an attic. But even so, she never wanted to release the material as a bunch of singles. There is a story here, even if her versatility makes it harder to hear. Give it time to settle in as the album opens with Buena Vista.

Buena Vista begins as an expectant alternative rock song that slowly introduces a pop infusion in the post-chorus verse until the tone of it takes over entirely. Somehow it all works, partly because she brings back the alternative open to anchor the track in the closing seconds. But at the same time, the opener is much like the album in that you'll find favorites only to hear her drift away from them.

No Fade is a jarring change up on the first listen with its indie rock open and poppy chorus, but it also gives the album its legs. The stripped back composition feels a bit familiar while it makes a point. Jeen can take her music anywhere, which she does again in the folksy lullaby Backyard.

On first listen, it doesn't feel like Backyard fits the album until you consider the lyrical breakdown. It tells as much about her as an artist as it does her art. Some of her songs have an edge, but mostly she follows her heart while longing for sunshine or dreaming of the best that a big city offers.

For the balance of the album, she settles into an indie rock verse with pop choruses that effectively balance her dueling musical muses. The exception is the lullaby closer Orange, a light easy listening folk pop ballad with a piano accompaniment. It's a beautiful piece, out of place or not.

For standouts, listen to the lyrical wisdom of Everywhere I Go, the plunky opening notes of Golden, and the solemn undercurrents of Summertime. Hole In My Heart and Way Up are as different as any two tracks on the album, with the latter being grittier than the buoyancy of her poppier numbers.

Tourist By Jeen Travels 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although Jeen and her debut solo album Tourist feel mildly confused at times, Jeen O'Brien does a remarkably great job at breaking the confines of closely aligned genres to create something wholly original. Tourist is an exceptional debut that expresses the wildly diverse talents of a singer-songwriter who has stood behind the scenes for far too long. Guest appearances included Great Big Sea on track 6 and Brendan Canning (Broken Social Scene) on track 10.

You can find Tourist on Amazon or download it from iTunes. For more news about Jeen and possible appearances, find her on Facebook. What you'll find is that Jeen is one of the original cool kids. It's rightly time she was recognized as such.

Friday, July 4, 2014

David Ignatius Digs In The Director

The Director
Most businessmen would never cross the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States by refusing to turn over data on individuals without a court order, but Graham Weber is not most businessmen. He is a self-made billionaire with a blue collar background and still values liberty.

When Weber wins his case, the President of the United States capitalizes on the man's notoriety among privacy advocates. He appoints Weber as the new director of the CIA and gives him a directive to clean out all old ghosts and bring the agency up to date. Easier said than done.

The Director teeters between covert thriller and espionage procedural. 

As an outsider, Weber begins to familiarize himself with the CIA and its newest challenge to remain relevant in a post- WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden world. On one hand, an open digital world makes covert operations and clandestine operations that much at risk of becoming public. On the other, digging deeper into big data and secretly hacking suspicious individuals in the name of national security seems to be the only way to maintain an illusion of security.

Almost immediately, Weber feels the weight of the scales that attempt to balance liberty and security despite his personal belief that liberty truly is indivisible. You either have it or you do not.

As if his new challenge isn't enough, someone else decides to set his agenda in Hamburg, Germany.  A young Swiss hacker named Rudolf Biel walks into the American consulate seeking protection. He says the agency has been hacked and has a list of agent names to prove it.

Hamburg base chief Kitten Sandoval decides to play it walking by the books. She offers Biel protection while she contacts the new director through proper channels but will not allow Biel to stay overnight. Biel scoffs at the offer and insists the agency can't protect him. He leaves, promising to return in three days.

By the time the message makes Weber's desk, he turns to James Morris, the young and ambitious CIA Information Operations Center director, to find Biel. Morris insists that one hacker finding another will be easy, but Biel turns up dead nonetheless. It seems he was right. There is a mole inside.

Without any clear allies, Weber attempts to adjust his business instincts to work inside the maze of deception and double dealing that encompasses not only the agency, but also the federal government itself. Every agency, it seems, has invested decades into developing inter-agency assets to play out their various political incursions all over the world. The only rule anyone abides by is don't get caught.

As the outsider, Weber methodically starts to build his own trusted circle in a world where no one can be trusted. He has too move fast to do it too. Whatever Biel tried to warn him about is being fast-tracked toward a conclusion that could bring the entire national security system crashing down.

A few graphs about author David Ignatius. 

David Ignatius
As a American journalist and novelist, David Ignatius has a knack for building political commentary into his fiction. Sometimes this works in his favor and sometimes it does not. In The Director, it mostly does in painting a complete portrait of the American intelligence agency that spans its storied past and speculates its near future while carefully balancing the risk of independent hackers robbing people against the ricks of big government snooping into everything.

Where the novel lacks for some espionage thillseekers is in the limited physical thrill. This isn't a Cold War spy novel with exotic locations and James Bond gadgets. On the contrary, much of it plays out in cyberspace and in the hallways of the intelligence community. It's mental muscle, not physical.

As a journalist, Ignatius seems to match his protagonists' views. He has been criticized for being both critical for and defensive of the CIA and national intelligence. He was raised in Washington D.C. before leaving to attend Harvard. He graduated cum lade in 1973 and was awarded a Frank Knox Fellowship from Harvard University and studied at King's College, Cambridge University.

The Director By David Ignatius Spooks 6.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As a thriller, The Director tends to be slightly too obvious for its own good and often too passive to capture the kind of tension people are looking for in a spy novel. But as an espionage procedural, The Director does find more lift in weighing very relevant issues within the intelligence community while creating a tension of a different kind as he reveals just how exposed everyone is online. It's well worth the read for anyone who ever wonders if there is a ghost in the machine.

The Director: A Novel by David Igantius can be found on Amazon or downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook, available on iTunes, is read by George Guidall. Guidall sounds like a natural fit for Weber and gives the book an edge with his reading. You can also order The Director by David Igantius from Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Underground Youth Slams Sadovaya

Named after a street in Saint Petersburg where frontman Craig Dyer once lived with Olya Dyer (and where the album was written), Sadovaya is as the fourth lost gem to be released by The Underground Youth. The name of the album is also shared with a station on the Frunzensko-Primorkshaka line of the Saint Petersburg Metro, which is especially fitting given the nine-track lineup.

Most of the tracks are inspired by Russian novelists and poets. Craig Dyer was introduced to them — writers like Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin — at the same time he was listening to Soviet-era post-punk bands and taking in films produced by the Russian cinema. The result is visceral journey that is out of time as much as it is timeless.

"The sound of the album has a raw quality that I was never able to recreate," said Craig. "There's a genuine naivety to the recordings that makes it my most visceral, personal record."

Originally released by Fuzz Club Records with a mere 400 white vinyl copies and special edition 100 midnight blue copies, the limited edition offering sold out immediately. The gatefold cover and silkscreened artwork made the album as much a work of art as the music.

Although the Manchester poet band has expanded to become a four piece, the core work of Olya's driving beats and Craig's sparse and sometimes cryptic lyrics and guitar remain at the center. Simply put, they have come a long way since Craig started as one-man home project. And yet, the intricately psychedelic meanderings have never lost their authentic DIY attitude for DIY commercialization.

The mix is prefect too, drifting back and forth from the warm and soothing drench of the reverb of his hollow-body guitar to tracks that feel more mildly ferocious as they build into a noisy wall. It makes for some memorable shows, breaking a numb buzz into something that rocks at its core.

Morning Sun is one of the best tracks on the album as it almost captures an American fifties rock influence pushed through a Russian post-punk filter. It's a dizzyingly restrained number with the video alluding to both the mental and psychical duality of Russia. At the end, Olya contemplates whether she should live fast and die young with a meditative boredom. It's pitch perfect.

Morning Sun is the only the beginning of what amounts to the band's best album. Heart On A Chain keeps that later fifties Cold War spirit alive with contemplative doo-wop vocals that sound as if an old broadcast is being picked up from the past on a vacuum tube radio.

The lyrics are a love song of sorts. Craig dotes about his girl and the chain he wears for her. She might be out of reach, but her hold over him isn't. The track makes for an excellent setup of the American dream, a gangly and bangly percussion-driven odyssey as beautiful as it is ugly.

On The Floor carries on with the consistent transistor-like buzz overshadowed by Craig as he delivers a mesmerizingly lustful rocker. Revolution Revisited breaks in a different direction with a deeper, significantly more sorrowful tone to tell his folktale of change. Lost Recording brings to bear Craig's poetic undertones about love and acceptance within a murkiness that can be difficult to cut through.

Sadovaya, the title track, is an amazingly repetitive instrumental drone and the longest in the lineup. It conjures up blissful days that never seem to change or perhaps a moment frozen in time. It's monotonous, but not in a way you want it to end. The change of tempo once Art House Revisited starts up is all the more welcome. So is the acoustic rarity of Your Birthday Song, which is one of Craig's dreamy best.

Sadovaya By The Underground Youth Rivets 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As far as reverb-heavy shoe gaze psychedelic rock goes, its hard to imagine anyone better. Craig Dyer an company have created something that transcends time, space and international boundaries. It's the kind of album that deserves a listen consisting of play, ponder, repeat. All day works.

You can find their earlier album, The Perfect Enemy for God, on Amazon or  download Sadovaya by The Underground Youth on iTunes. You can also find the album at Fuzz Club Records. For more information, look for them on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Flashlights Shine On Bummer Summer

If you have never heard of the Flashlights, you're not alone. The startup band that is trying to break out of Brevard County, Florida (somewhere south of Daytona Beach), still sports a tight touring radius. They still travel light in a tightly packed van. They still crash on open couches after the show.

Part of the reason is that it took some time for them to find the right hook. Singer-guitarist Terry Caudill originally started the band as a solo acoustic act in 2007 before tapping the local punk scene for talent. The lineup eventually included Tony Oriza (guitar), Will Powell (bass), and Melissa Hopkins (drums).

That was good enough to put together a decent, somewhat forgettable album in 2011, but the band still needed another push. Last year, they found it. Scott Hutchison and Andy Monaghan of Frightened Rabbit stepped in to help them produce a solid sophomore album, light years ahead of their debut.

Bummer Summer is breakout album about life and stuff.

If the first eight years gave Caudill and company anything, it was enough living to write something relevant. The experiences they've accumulated over the years are just what you might expect — dead end jobs, lousy living conditions, hangovers, and heartbreaks. And nowadays, Caudill has the heart to share it.

The first track to be released off the album, Don't Take Me Seriously, was released as a campy parody of a Japanese variety show loaded with Pokemon-like costumes and cat references. The opening host is a little bit grating on the front end but the band more than makes up for it after the first 40 seconds.

Close your eyes when you give it a second listen. It takes on a new tone and texture without the visuals.  Caudill has a knack for delivering guitar-pop and punk with a certain joyful sadness as he confesses that "of the time, I feel like I'm no one."

Along with Don't Take Me Seriously, give the opener Failure a good listen. The composition may be familiar, but the lyrics shine through with Caudill calling for a girl to come back into his life because she was the only thing that stood out in it. It perfectly hits that celebratory sadness mastered here.

If you're getting a sense that there is ample self-loathing and navel gazing on this album, you would be right. Yet, Caudill and company really ratchet it up with an authentic sense of desperation. It's as if the band knows that they are running out of chances to make this work.

It there is any truth to the speculation, they needn't worry much. Bummer Summer works. Some of the best standout tracks that deserve a listen include the tentative touch-and-go relationship tackled in Best Friends, the painfully slow and restrained lament of Islands, and the title track Bummer Summer, best summed up as a song about how we change. The acoustic, April 24th, is also worth a listen.

Bummer Summer By The Flashlights Light Up 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the stories are clearly different as Caudill takes on seasons of change and difficulties, there is a common theme that he carries throughout the album. When relationships carry too much weight in your life, they hurt twice as much when they go bad and you feel twice as lost when you lose them.

The Flashlights are currently booking singular gigs and festival appearances. If you have a chance to see them live, don't hesitate. Caudill croaks a little more without the help of studio staff, but the band has a great presence as whole. Expect great things from them ahead. Bummer Summer rocks.

You can find Bummer Summer by the Flashlights on Amazon. You can also download the 10-track album from iTunes or order a Bummer Summer CD direct from Barnes & Noble. Find more news on Facebook.