Friday, August 29, 2014

Nick Harkaway Claws Out A Tigerman

"If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of Fifty Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, the boy said, because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch." — Tigerman by Nick Harkaway.

Frenzy is precisely the right word to describe the atmosphere on the rapacious backwater island of Mancreu. On any other day, it might not be. But these days are different. The former British colony is sitting on a volcano poised to belch a mysterious and toxic elixir of chemicals into the atmosphere.

The international community, concerned for its own safety, is determined to do something. Their solution, expectantly enough, is to blow the entire island up. And while this idea might not work, everyone will feel satisfied that they at least did something.

It's the end of the world for Mancreu. And everyone feels fine. 

Except, not everyone. Sergeant Lester Ferris, who is acting British Brevet-Consul by default, has befriended a brilliant street kid with a comic-book fixation. He appropriately calls himself Robin.

Like many of the citizens of Mancreu, his fate is uncertain. Once the international community evacuates the island, the boy will need a new home. And the war-weary 39-year-old veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan sees himself as a candidate to become the boy's father — assuming he is an orphan.

Robin may need some additional help too. As the island's fragile society begins to break down in the face of a manmade doomsday, the multinational array of shady businesses that have parked themselves offshore are growing restless. Called the Black Fleet, this illicit collection of ships includes spy stations, arms dealers, offshore hospitals, money-laundering operations, drug factories, torture centers, and other nasty elements.

The societal breakdown and offshore urgency eventually collide when a gang bursts into a citizen's bar and shoots it up, killing Robin's friend Sholax. It is this event that kindles Robin's idea that what the island really needs is a superhero — one that he believes can be assumed by Sergeant Ferris.

While never intending to do much more than appease the boy he is beginning to love like a son, Ferris agrees to assume the identity of a superhero conjured up from the boy's imagination. At minimum, Ferris believes he can investigate the murder as Tigerman while following orders to do as little as possible and watch over the former consulate house. This passive plan fails outright and Tigerman not only captures the heart of Mancreu, but also the attention of the entire world.

A few graphs about author Nick Harkaway. 

Nick Harkaway
Nick Harkaway burst onto the literary scene when his first novel, The Gone-Away World, found itself in a seven-way auction between publishers. It was eventually won by Heinemann, which paid a £300,000 advance for the story about special operatives who are hired to perform a mission in an post-apoclypic world. He followed this novel up with Angelmaker.

He was originally born Nicholas Cornwell and educated at the University College School in Norht London. He studied hilosophy, sociology and politics and took up Shorinji Kan Jiu Jitsu. He doesn't talk about such as much, preferring to share more important information like enjoying Italian red wine, unlikely clothes, Chinese food, good-humoured anecdotes, Argentine tango, Swiss cheese, American burgers, carving skis, alpine snowboards, P G Wodehouse, Alexandre Dumas, and blonde human rights lawyers (especially the one he married). They have two children. He is full of win.

Tigerman By Nick Harkaway Punches 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Tigerman has an authenticity that slowly sneaks up on its readers as Nick Harkaway tackles parenthood, friendship, and loyalty under the guise of secret identities, heroes, and what it really takes to be one. Although contemporary, the tone has an expressly human and vintage quality to it. It is one of those rare books that someone reads and feels like a better person for having read it.

Tigerman: A Novel by Nick Harkaway is available from Amazon or can be downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is also available from iTunes, narrated by Matt Bates who brings the story to life by balancing the protagonist's pragmatism and boy's enthusiasm. You can also order Tigerman by Nick Harkaway from Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

J Mascis Is Tied To A Star

J Mascis
The resurrection of Dinosaur Jr. with I Bet On Sky sparked some speculation whether or not Joseph Donald Mascis a.k.a. J Mascis would ever get around to producing another solo album. Tied To A Star puts that question to rest with even more contemplative confidence from the soft-spoken artist.

Building upon Several Shades Of Why, his solid solo debut with Subpop Records three years ago, Tied To A Star is an intimate revision of his quieter side with 10 tracks that have all the heart of just happening to be around when Mascis picks up a guitar. Half the songs sound so spontaneous that you can almost imagine him smiling, "Hey, listen to this. It's something I've been working on ..."

It could be said that the album was almost approached this way. It was recorded and produced by Mascis and mixed by John Agnello at Bisquiteen in Amherst, Massachusetts. Some of his friends who turned out to make guest appearances include musicians Ken Maiuri (Young@Heart Chorus), Pall Jenkins (Black Heart Procession), Mark Mulcahy (Miracle Legion) and Chan Marshall (Cat Power).

Tied To A Star captures the quiet contemplation of J Mascis.

Don't expect too much roar from his guitar, drums and vocals on this album. While his brilliance shines through, almost all of it is handled as delicately as his interviews. The lyrics are laconic, the tone is soft and precise, the treatment is heartfelt and dreamy.

The lead track, Every Morning, recently appeared on Funny Or Die as a video featuring Mascis as a cult leader named Space Angel. The cast includes some great guest appearances too, including James Mercer, Peter Holmstrom, and Fred Armisen.

Although Every Morning has an upbeat tempo and crisp guitar work that stands out like a second chorus, the lyrics are not especially cheerful. In short, Mascis makes the case that it's a struggle to make it through the morning. Wide Awake, which was also released in advance of the album, is much more cheerful.

It opens with some amazingly gentle guitar work right out of the gate. The track paints the picture of Mascis waking up ahead of his partner and wondering about their life together. He's eventually answered by Marshall with a response that merely echoes him as the song matures into a duet. It's treated as a tender, private moment that Mascis compresses into the confines of a few minutes.

Much like both tracks allude to, Mascis has abandoned much of the minimalist nature of Several Shades Of Why and expanded his solo compositions to include texture. His guitar work remains the cornerstone of this album throughout. His tender and restrained vocals only lend a distant and often lonely uniqueness in comparison.

Heal The Star is probably the best track on the album, with both a signature strum and strained falsetto until the uptick toward the end. The instrumental Drifter captures what some mistake as a slacker sensibility. And Then and Trailing Off are relaxed indie rock numbers that will remind some people of Several Shades Of Why, except with much more musical depth than an acoustic alone.

There are some instrumental shifts and surprises on both tracks before Mascis eases into his closers. Come Down an Better Plane are thoughtful pieces, with the former being modestly hopeful.

Tied To A Star By J Mascis Rounds Out 7.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

Tied To A Star is exactly what someone might expect from a J Mascis solo album. It's not groundbreaking as much as it is a glimpse at his mastery of music. Anyone who appreciates his work will fall for this one.

You can find Tied to a Star [+digital booklet] by J Mascis on Amazon or download the album from iTunes. The vinyl edition of Tied To A Star is listed on Barnes & Noble. J Mascis is touring to support the album. For tour dates and venues, visit him on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Royal Blood Extends Reign Over Rock

Royal Blood
After the wildly successful 4-track Out Of The Black EP last March, Royal Blood was already primed for a sensational self-titled debut. But now, even better than being primed, the band lets it all loose.

The self-titled album Royal Blood adds seven more tracks to the original outing of four, with only the primitive and bluesy track Hole left out. Now the two-piece band from Brighton fires up a sound that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Michael (Mike) Kerr and Ben Thatcher rip away with heavy riffs, gritty grooves, and tenacious drum work. And no, it doesn't hurt that Kerr can wake up the neighborhood by playing bass like it's a six string.

Royal Blood is the real deal from Brighton.

Signature tracks like the big and meaty Out Of The Black, an unrequited love story tucked inside Little Monster, and grit and dirt of Come On Over remain standouts on the album. But along with all three of these beastly numbers, Royal Blood manages to bang out several more. 

Figure It Out takes on a much more classic rock sound. More than any other track on the album, it makes a convincing case that the Royal Blood is one part Jack White and one part Joshua Homme, with a splash of The Black Keys. It's a perfect libation for anyone who likes sweaty and relentless rock. 

Figure It Out easily takes its place along the EP rockers, except it breaks from the heart just a bit and aims a little higher. The explosive song can be easily be considered a coming of age track, hard lessons learned and then reluctant acceptance. Sure, it's still tied to relationships, but there could also be a broader meaning here. 

As for the rest of the album, the White-Homme-Keys comparisons don't hold up nearly as much. The balance of the tracks add more whomp and soul to their blues-rock than the bands to which they are most often compared. There is something originally massive about the band, which is why some reviewers see them at the forefront of a Brit rock revival. 

For every classic rocker like You Can Be So Cruel, Royal Blood couples it with something more beat-driven and soulful like Loose Change. It's harder to like the latter, but the overall theme is still intact. These long-time friends have a knack for new sounds without overdubs and studio polish. 

Some of the real winners being heard for the first time on this album include the deliciously mournful Blood Hands and the chug-friendly complainer Better Strangers. But even on tracks like Ten Tonne Skeleton and Careless that don't capitalize on the winning instrumental drone of Kerr and Thatcher, Royal Blood used those numbers to bust up any predicability on the album. Both songs also (Careless especially) have sections within that soar over an already high bar.

The Self-Titled Debut By Royal Blood Blisters 8.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although Royal Blood originally came together in 2012, their debut still marks them as one to watch. Hands down, they are one of the best breakout bands this year. And if you aren't sure why at first, give some of the strongest tracks a listen again for what can only be described a smoky ruthlessness. 

Royal Blood can be found on Amazon. The self-titled album can be downloaded from iTunes. The vinyl edition of Royal Blood is available at Barnes & Noble. For touring information, check them out on Facebook. On the quick, they are currently completing a tour in the United States before crossing into Canada in October. By November, the band will be booked up in France before taking on the rest of Europe.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Harrison Has The Spark And The Drive

The Spark And The Drive
Ask Justin Bailey who he most wants to be at age 17 and the answer comes easy. Nick Campbell is a genius in the garage, specializing on high performance rebuilds and modifications. He is one of the few men left who can hear an engine and then visualize every inch in operation, from the valves as they open and close to the crank as it whips through the oil.

As a rudderless teenager still smarting from the divorce of his parents after his father declared he liked men, Bailey was primed to look up to the mechanic. Campbell was strong, intelligent, and masculine — everything he wanted his father to be. The internship was a dream come true.

There was nothing more important to Bailey than becoming accepted by the crew, especially Campbell and his wife Mary Ann. And it doesn't take long before his admiration transforms itself into idolization. Bailey didn't just admire Campbell, but everything the living legend made his own.

The Spark And The Drive smolders with adulation. 

With such high expectations, it doesn't take long for events to chip away at his muscle car mechanic pedestal. He noticed it all, every little miss on an engine or careless cleanup. He was human too.

Not only is his mechanical talent losing its touch, but Bailey discovers very little of Campbell measures up to the ideal the boy had conjured to make a role model. All it takes is a tragedy to push everything over the edge. And as Campbell reels from the impact, Bailey steps in to console an increasingly distant Mary Ann until the empathy becomes affection.

ZL1 Corvette
While initially torn between supporting his mentor and embracing the woman of his dreams, Bailey begins to wonder whether Campbell deserves the life he had built in Connecticut. All of it — the reputation of the garage, the trust of his employees, the loyalty of his wife — seemed to be terribly up for grabs. It wouldn't take much to push everything over the edge.

It's a poignant and powerful story that transforms an isolated but intelligent teenager into a passive-agressive protagonist who longs to become the idolized version of a man who would do anything for him. But instead of being satisfied with the salvation this friendship might afford him, Bailey invents a one-sided rivalry between himself and a mentor who is blind to it.

A few more graphs about author Wayne Harrison. 

Before working as a corrections officer in Rutland, Vermont, Wayne Harrison was an auto mechanic in Waterbury, Connecticut. As a first-generation college student, he originally pursued a degree in criminal justice before discovering a passion for creative writing.

Wayne Harrison
Since, his short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. One of his stories was also recognized as notable in the Best American 2009. Another received special mention in Pushcart Prizes 2012. His fiction earned him a Maytag fellowship, an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and a Fishtrap Writing Fellowship. He also teaches writing at Oregon State University.

While his experience as an auto mechanic lends notable authenticity to the novel, it's Harrison's ability to convince readers to be sympathetic to Bailey that makes it so remarkable. By moving the story forward with objectively vivid detail and as an unreliable narrator, it's easy to become lost in the environment and accept one justification after another until agreeing with darkest of revelations.

The Spark And The Drive By Wayne Harrison Revs 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richer Scale. 

Along with his tenuous coming-of-age story that touches on loyalty, loss, and betrayal, Wayne Harrison captures a snapshot of an era when cars were held together by moving parts and muscle as opposed to computer codes and components. As all of it seems to slowly slip between the fingers of the men who work at one of the last classic high performance garages, so does their innocence.

The Spark And The Drive By Wayne Harrison can be found on Amazon. You can also download the novel from iBooks or as an audiobook from iTunes. The narration by Quincy Dunn Baker is impeccable, punctuated by his ability to capture the naivety of the protagonist and the gruffness of his colleagues. Barnes & Noble also carries The Spark And The Drive.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Beach Day Never Ends, It Echoes

Beach Day
While summer is almost a wrap for most people, Beach Day is just getting started. Their newest album, Native Echoes, doubles down on the ins, outs, and influences of girl bands in the sixties.

As a band that is more about the attitude than the genre, expect some heady attention to the detail. Sure, they were much more about fun than form when the band debuted last year. But this time out, Kimmy Drake (guitars, vocals) and Skyler Black (drums) are in a different place. This is much more than the recasting of The Black Rabbits. It's Beach Day.

Native Echoes is bottled up fun. Uncork it whenever.

Mostly, the Florida-based trio sounds re-energized. After a year of touring and stepping inside the studio with Jim Diamond (Sonics, Dirtbombs, The White Stripes), Beach Day was ready to reach beyond the confines of nostalgia and knock out ten revisionist tracks that fire up this decade too.

Even with the absence of former bassist Natalie Smallish, who left the band after the release concert of their debut, Beach Day has never sounded better. In some ways, it solidified the commitment of Drake and Black to play on and go out. It creeps in often on Native Echoes as passionate desperation.

Where you won't hear it is on Don't Call Me On The Pone. The video, which premiered in July, eases into the album much like their album last year with a lyrical twist that chastises a likely boyfriend for being predictable at best and boring at worst.

While Don't Call Me On The Phone is pretty standard fare for the band, most of the other tracks showcase something more. This is an album about friendships — those lost, found, and bruised beyond repair.

All My Friends Were Punks takes on the theme in the broadest sense, with Drake taking on a dense and reminiscent bent with her vocals and on the guitar. Think of it as a toast to those lost teenage years. She does the punk scene proud, despite the overindulgent hand claps.

Where the album truly picks up is later on in the track listings. After the lackadaisical BFFs track, Beach Day gets down to business with I'm Just Messin' Around. The tempo change couldn't come soon enough, even if it plays to pedestrian sensibilities. It's about driving around and doing stuff.

The bottom half of the album is even better. Pretty picks up the thumps better than I'm Just Messin' Around. It sounds like it should be played loud in a cruising convertible despite never mentioning words like car or ride or anything else. One might even be inspired to stand up and put their arms out (seat belt laws not withstanding).

All their swirling buzz numbers follow. The Lucky One, Fades Away, and Lost Girl are the best tracks on the album. Collectively, these three dial down the notion that Beach Day is only about the fun. Drake and Black can be contemplative too, even if they seldom get specific about it.

Sure, some people are going to focus on the fact that Beach Day still doesn't push themselves enough. Maybe. But there are some subtleties on the album to appreciate, like running a 12-string guitar through an Allen Gyrophonic speaker to make it sound like a synth. Does it matter? Yes and no but mostly yes.

Native Echoes By Beach Day Blows Out 7.4 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Native Echoes is another stepping stone for the duo that tours with a guest bassist. So give the band a little more time as it matures into something even better. And in the meantime? Run through the track list and dig into their standouts. There are several, especially on the back half.

You can pick up Native Echoes by Beach Day from Amazon. The album is also available for download from iTunes and Barnes & Noble carries the vinyl edition of Native Echoes. For something more, especially tour information, visit them on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Twin Peaks Bite Off The Wild Onion

Twin Peaks
While Sunken proved to be a promising debut from Twin Peaks, it is the band's sophomore album that turns heads and locks them onto any alternative rock playlist. Wild Onion is a dizzying mix of raucous garage rock and heavy pop with better songwriting and near perfect production.

Expect some punk influences too. While many alternative bands have been softening their sound, Twin Peaks has grown more confident and brash in the process. The 20-something four piece have clearly come a long way from dropping out of college and livening up the Chicago music scene.

Wild Onion by Twin Peaks packs in 16 tracks. 

Made up of Cadien Lake James (vocals), Clay Frankel (guitar), Jack Dolan (bass), and Connor Brodner (drums), the band originally came together in high school after James and Dolan played in several random bands together. Eventually they added Frankel and Brodner until they split for a short-lived stint in college.

The opening track off Wild Onion hits all the right notes of what happened to them. The psychedelically charged I Found A New Way celebrates coming of age with the awkwardness of mixing adolescence and a few totems associated with adulthood. The vibe is bright, the lyrics dark.

Of course, there could be a lot more going on in the song too. Twin Peaks is especially fond of metaphors and analogies, twisting songs like I Found A New Way into something else entirely.

Their more soulful Strawberry Smoothie, for example, spins some playful snow time into a blizzard that spirals out of control. The music matches the lyrics, with their energy whipped up into a frenzy of sludge and crunch.

With 16 tracks to add to their already buzzed-up set lists, it is pretty obvious that Twin Peaks wrote most of them to punch up their rollicking live shows. Wild Onion gives them plenty of material, albeit shorter tracks (with many clocking in under three minutes). Most of it plays out in two speeds, loud and frantic or slowed down and moody.

"The album deals with a lot of insecurities that arise when you’re growing up," says James, "It’s about adopting them and being vulnerable to let out the tunes. It ain’t ideal, but it’s sublime."

The tempo balance gives Twin Peaks a fresh mix during their live performances. If they sense the audience getting away from them, they can always break from the set list and punch everything up with lively numbers. If they already have them captivated, the band can dial down and sneak in something like Mirror Of Time, a near do-wop sixties number that climbs into your head and sticks.

The only time it doesn't work too well is when the band becomes too atmospheric. Tracks like Strange World shake off the expectant balance. Wispy is not the best sound for them. Fortunately, Fade Away brings everything back down to earth with a furiously punk drum beat and bass open.

It sets up the quirky Sweet Thing and Stranger World experimentation well enough while Telephone might push the pop too far. Sure, the track on its own it good. But the sheer sharpness and power of fan favorite Flavor seems to bury it.

Along with some of the tracks mentioned above, give Ordinary People, Hold On, and Mind Frame a listen. The latter lands right on the line despite being the album closer, but it still sounds good.

Wild Onion By Twin Peaks Bites 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

After a few more passes on the album, it almost felt like Twin Peaks is using Wild Onion to test out a few directions. Technically, they could take any of them and still come out on top even if our ears lean toward the more purposeful punch and buzz numbers alongside their slower psychedelic tracks. But then again, it doesn't really matter so much on an album with 16 tracks to mix any way you want.

You can pick up Wild Onion by Twin Peaks from Amazon. You can also download the album from iTunes. The band might have recorded what some might call a double album, but the price point is less than most standard-sized offerings. For the vinyl edition of Wild Onion by Twin Peaks, visit Barnes & Noble. Look for Twin Peaks tour times on Facebook.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ark Royal Charms As A Sci-Fi Campout

Ark Royal by Christopher Nuttall won't find fans in everyone. The story is straightforward. The characters are cutouts. The aliens are expectant. The tone is made-for-television military space opera.

And yet, despite several cliches and leaps of faith, Nuttall manages to wrestle what for other authors would be a cliche action story that crosses vintage military naval fiction and colonial adventurism into something surprisingly engaging as it skips along the surface of something infinitely grander. It isn't even hard to imagine why so many people seem to enjoy its predictable fun. It smacks of nostalgic sci-fi pulp fiction.

Ark Royal revives classic British adventurism in space. 

The novel takes place in a far future when humankind has mastered interstellar space travel and set out to colonize new worlds on distant stars. This technological leap has also ushered in a new era of nationalism, with several countries vying to colonize entire worlds in their own image.

Despite it all, expansionism has been relativity tame. With the exception of a few skirmishes between competing interests, the evolution of interstellar empire building has been peaceful. There seems to be enough space for everyone until the inevitable finally happens. Humankind makes first contact.

In this case, first contact comes in the form of an amphibian-like humanoid race that is strikingly similar, albeit slightly more advanced, than humankind. This advantage, however, is more than enough to devastate modern starships, which had been increasingly built for speed and not brute force.

There is one exception. The Royal Navy has preserved an interstellar super carrier, Ark Royal, a historic relic with solid-state armor and an outdated weapons system. Once the pride of the interstellar navy, she now floats in permanent orbit around Earth and serves as a dumping ground for officers and crew that the navy wants to keep out of the public eye, including its alcoholic captain.

In an act of desperation, the navy orders Ark Royal into active service. At her helm, Commodore Sir Theodore Smith leads a rag-tag team of reservists and the dregs of service against a superior enemy aboard a ship that will remind many readers of the seventies military space opera Battlestar Galactica.

The most admirable qualities of the book are its naive enthusiasm combined with some well though out world building. The weakest can be found in its character development and insatiable urge to shrug off conflict, internal or otherwise.

The captain, for example, is an alcoholic. He vows to stop drinking until after the war. For the most part, problem solved. A star fighter pilot learns that her lover has been killed aboard another carrier. She has an affair with a superior officer. Problem solved. The first officer has been asked to spy on the captain. He does with a perfectly appropriate amount of reluctance. Problem solved.

A few more graphs about author Christopher Nuttall. 

It's easy to admire Christopher Nuttall. He often describes himself as a product of his time, born in Edinburgh and shaped in part by what he read — science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers — and the socio-political atmosphere of the United Kingdom since 1982. After studying to become a librarian, Nuttall worked odd jobs while writing alternate history stories until an unlikely thriller changed his life.

It wasn't anything dramatic, he says. It was simply a novel about a protagonist who missed his chance to change his world. And it was the combination of this message and his realization that he could have written a better book that inspired him to try.

After writing his first manuscript in 2005 (which was rejected by publishers), Nuttall received permission from John Ringo to expand upon the author's Posleen universe. It was enough to catapult him toward writing approximately 30 novels, some with publishers and many self-published. Today he lives in Malaysia and writes full time.

Ark Royal By Christopher Nuttall Transverses 3.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As one of his self-published works, Ark Royal is not without challenges. It could have benefited from better editing and, as mentioned, Nuttall shies away from making his characters suffer. But Ark Royal does a fine job doing what it set out to do. Nuttall is imaginative and writes with a charm that conjures up the adolescent escapist in the people who enjoy his Ark Royal series.

Ark Royal by Christopher Nuttall is available from Amazon. The audiobook, narrated by Ralph Lister, eliminates any printed errors while breathing additional life into the characters. It's especially entertaining for anyone who enjoys a nostalgic space opera. It deserves more merit than you think.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Spider Bags Writes A Frozen Letter

Spider Bags
Frozen Letter is full of firsts for the raucous rock band Spider Bags. It is the first album out with Merge Records. And it is the closest frontman Dan McGee has ever come to making the record he set out to make.

The band started recording in late June last year with McGee hoping to lay five tracks down and then finish it up later in the year. All that changed when his wife told him she was pregnant. If McGee wanted to be freed up for the birth, the band needed to wrap at least eight.

So Steve Oliva (bass) and Rock Forbes (drums) took to sleeping at the studio to get it done. At the end, it was pretty impossible to tell which five tunes McGee came into the studio with in his head and which three were composed off the cuff.

Frozen Letter is a sonically nimble album with overwrought vocals. 

Back With You Again In The World kicks things off with a late fifties du-woppy groove. McGee brings his best relaxed vocals, easing into the album like the jazz-anointed rock and roll playing in the background from a big and plush wingback chair. It's gripping and comfortable, start to finish, while teeing up the bouncier Japanese Vacation jangle to liven everything up.

Chem Trails starts with a juicy kiss before McGee and company unleash a trip worthy and blistering onslaught of distorted spooky-dom. The analogy of becoming zombified by chem trails works perfectly with this freakout ditty written by McGee.

The video makes the moment even more fun thanks to director Jonny Look and producer Chris Mast. As a head melt garage rocker, there really won't be any better produced this year. It's all good fun.

According to McGee, Coffin Car really kicked off the creative process and gives the album its name.  He imagined picking up an old refrigerator magnet out of the snow, making it feel like finding a buried treasure from yesteryear. That is the point of the album too.

When McGee started writing it, he wanted to make an album that sounded like someone was playing a stack of found singles from the seventies. It's one of reasons that even the occasional fifties influence sounds filtered by another era. Tracks like Summer of '79, for instance, finds its home in an era that would have likely paid homage to it (right up to the bass-heavy transition anyway).

Where Frozen Letter works overtime is in how the songs interrelate so well together. After recording a few records, McGee says it's one of the most important lessons to learn. People identify with songs that relate to each other and the rest just fall through the cracks.

"You can’t just put all your best songs on a record, because it just doesn’t work that way," McGee told AudioFemme in another interview. "People don’t hear it that way."

Although the front half and the back half almost sound like two sides to a record, McGee does manage to preserve a continuity if not the pace of a perfectly addictive and gripping album that is hard to turn away from. And with eight new tracks in the arsenal, Spider Bags will likely light up their live appearances with a 50-50 split between the new material and what have become classic fan favorites.

Frozen Letter By Spider Bags Ramps Up 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

For a band that started out as a long distance relationship between friends who occasionally played together, the band and its lineup have finally solidified into something that feels permanent. While McGee will always be at the heart of the band, it seems like Oliva and Forbes are making themselves right at home.

It only makes sense. After two albums, several singles, and playing as the backup band to North Carolina bluesman Reese McHenry, Spider Bags has come together nicely on the psychedelic landscape.

You can find Frozen Letter on Amazon or download the 8-track recording on iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries the vinyl edition of Frozen Letter by Spider Bags. Visit their Facebook page for upcoming engagements. See them live. It's worth it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gaslight Anthem Gets Hurt Sometimes

The Gaslight Anthem
New Brunswick rockers The Gaslight Anthem have returned with their highly anticipated fifth full length. The 16-track monster, Get Hurt, opens with an anthemic evenness before pushing the band ttoward a stripped back and raw rock n' roll as the album progresses.

It feels all together heavier and more intimate, with a wildly diverse range of influences. Whether you hear folk, punk, Americana, or something heavier depends largely on where you drop the needle. For added scruff and roughness, drop it on the bottom eight before the top eight.

Get Hurt is a growler from The Gaslight Anthem. 

If you get the sense that the album wants almost desperately to be depressingly epic, there might be some truth to it. Brian Fallon (vocals, guitar) and his wife of 10 years divorced. He poured plenty of the emotions he felt into the album, knowing not everyone would like it.

The title track, Get Hurt, is no exception. It's tied directly to the pain of divorce and the bittersweet opportunities to change that present themselves. Anything is possible when nothing ties us down.

Incidentally, the last verse steers the state of things away from depression. Fallon guesses at all the reasons why things fell apart in his relationship. Any of them are plausible. We don't always know.

As the title track, Get Hurt is unquestionably the most accessible and commercial. The opener Stay Vicious isn't as it teeters between indie pop and heavy handed rock. It's not an easy song to like, despite brilliantly splitting how people feel at the front end and tail end of a relationship.

Expect the top eight to carry the most polish. Only Rollin' and Tumblin' and Helter Skeleton hint at the idea that this band once debuted as a badass punk-infused basement rocker. And while there is nothing wring with smoother stylings from Alex Rosamilia (guitar), Alex Levine (bass), and Benny Horowitz (drums), I've always liked their edge better. Their Get Dirty EP is still a favorite.

Overall, the album kicks it up a notch at Selected Poems where Fallon does a fabulous job transitioning the entire track from a blissful rocker to a bluesy wake up. The band follows it up with Ain't That A Shame, which brings to bear a tenuous and catchy chorus that makes his love a plague.

Break Your Heat is a breathtaking album ballad, heartfelt and introspective. Sweet Morphine pines away for the loss of one thing you on which you can rely. Mama's Boys breaks the band down into a barroom foursome. Both Halloween and Have Mercy provide a surprising wrap up to the album with the former picking up some punk influences and the latter ending on a soft-spoken and apologetic goodbye.

Some critics were quick to say that the music felt like it was written from the outside in and that might be a fair assessment. But then again, Fallon has never struck me as someone who breaks down and writes from the inside out. He is much more inclined to look at everything objectively and then pinpoint whatever emotion or hurt that feels most universally true.

There are some trade offs in taking such an approach, but it often results in giving some of the songs on this album a very classic feel. By classic, I mean that some of them are occasionally reminiscent of eighties adult contemporary. Is that bad? It depends on your perspective, which is probably why I lean toward the bottom eight.

Get Hurt By The Gaslight Anthem Wrangles 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the album has some pedestrian undercurrents, The Gaslight Anthem  assembles enough solid material to make Get Hurt worthwhile. With 16 tracks, it ought to be easy enough to carve out 8 or 10 of them.

You can find Get Hurt (Deluxe) by The Gaslight Anthem on Amazon or download it from iTunes. Barnes & Noble carries Get Hurt by The Gaslight Anthem on vinyl. For touring information, visit them on Facebook. The album was recorded at Blackbird Studios in Nashville with producer Mike Crossey (The 1975, Arctic Monkeys, Jake Bugg).

Friday, August 8, 2014

James Lee Burke Wayfares A Stranger

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow captured the attention of the American public during the Great Depression. And at age 16, Weldon Avery Holland was no exception when Bonnie and Clyde happened to drive through his grandfather's farm in the spring of 1934.

While Weldon had no love for them as outlaws, he envied their audacity to defy convention and change their fate rather than accept it. If he could muster a similar strength, there would be no question what he would do. He would convince them to rescue his mother from a mental institution.

But Weldon, as taken by the outlaws as he was, never has the chance to solicit their help the first time. His grandfather, retired lawman and struggling rancher Hackberry Holland, asked them to move along. They oblige, but only long enough to return and tempt Weldon into the woods.

Wayfaring Stranger is a sweeping historical epic.

The second encounter might have proved fatal for Weldon Holland had Parker not intervened. She asks him to pretend they never met, but imagination is not enough. His grandfather confronts them and Weldon takes a shot of their car as they drive away. Later, however, he would grow to think of Bonnie as his first real love.

He would meet his second real love, Rosita Lowenstein, a little more than 10 years later after he and his sergeant Hershel Pine barely survive the Battle Of The Bulge. The two men find Rosita abandoned and left for dead in an extermination camp. The three of them manage to walk out of the Ardennes together.

The bond between them is inseparable, even if they are briefly separated after reuniting with the Allied lines. Hershel pledges to make Weldon a partner in an oil pipe company. And Weldon convinces Rosita to come back to Texas with him, where the two men intend to make their fortunes.

It's in Texas that James Lee Burke lays out his epic story of a plaintive soul on a journey through life as the reward for surviving the war is cut short when they meet millionaire and former Marine aviator Roy Wiseheart and his anti-Semitic wife Clara. Although Wiseheart makes himself out to be an ally, his wife takes exception to Rosita for her heritage and Hershel's wife, Linda Gail, for catching the eye of her husband.

Burke manages to capture both the promise and the plague of the American dream in that it invites both honorable underdogs and unscrupulous elitists to the same table. In doing so, however, there is never any guarantee elitists will like it. They are just as inclined to shake someone's hand to buy someone's ingenuity as they are to bite it and then take what they want. Their resources are deep.

A few more graphs about author James Lee Burke. 

Although Burke's fascination with allowing stories to circle back to the beginning may feel predictable to some, most will discover the Wayfaring Stranger as his finest work. As a historical thriller painted with the lush and vivid colors of the final frontier days and his proclivity to test the mettle of his characters, Wayfaring Stranger resurrects an American dream in all its glory and trappings.

The novel feels especially authentic as Burke has often said that he considers the Holland family to be the one that bears the most resemblance to his own. Some similarities are apparent. Burke grew up along the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast. While he earned bachelor's and master;s degrees from the University of Missouri, he has also worked as a landman for an oil company, college professor, and social worker.

Wayfaring Stranger By James Lee Burke Wanders 9.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Wayfaring Stranger is a thriller at its core, but a love story at its heart and a tale of perseverance in its head. As such, the story is both ambitious and beautifully told as it shares the life of a man who grew up and out of the American Depression. Simply put, it is an inspiration from a time when men were tough and women were cut from a different cloth as they faced challenges with nothing but each other.

Wayfaring Stranger: A Novel by James Lee Burke can be ordered from Amazon or downloaded for iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Will Patton, who is well regarded for the life he breathes into the work. Nobody could read this book better. Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke is also available at Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Owl John Is A Riveting Solo Debut Ride

Scott Hutchinson
Not everybody remembers it, but Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison started out as a solo artist. Even Frightened Rabbit was a solo project before Hutchison enlisted his brother Grant for his debut album, Sing The Greys. It wasn't until the band signed with Fat Cat Records that anything changed.

By the time Pedestrian Verse was released last year, Frightened Rabbit had grown to five members. Despite being one of the band's best efforts, made up of dark moods and darker deeds, Hutchison was becoming largely disenchanted with its direction and decided to take a break as Owl John.

Although this break includes guitarist Andy Monaghan (Frightened Rabbit) and Simon Liddell (Olympic Swimmers), the outing is clearly Hutchison. As he has occasionally noted, more members meant being less noisy and more anthemic. This isn't the case here.

Owl John is stripped back and indie rock raw. 

The debut album features ten tracks that open up Hutchison in ways Frightened Rabbit never could. Opening the album with Cold Creeps immediately sets the claustrophobic tone, which is significantly more pained than being alone. Even surrounded by people, the stress tightens up on him.

It's this unabridged look inside of Hutchison that makes Owl John such a compelling album. Even on shorter tracks like Hate Music, Hutchison outlines all the character flaws and labels carried around by John. He is everything from a homeless man and priest to a wino and a thief.

Hate Music rings with an unforgettable indie folk rock intensity. It's about a man who sees all his frailties and failings as unsurmountable. Everything he has done in the past has ensured how he expects to be put to rest.  If you have a chance, check out the recently released video too.

Red Hand, toward the end of the album, is considerably smoother in comparison. The song includes his all too familiar scowl, but remains surprisingly gentle given the suspiciousness and eventual disappointment that frames it until the end. There, Hutchison considers a resolution that whatever wrongs have been done don't really mean anything.

The reckless energy, always looming darkness, and well-balanced distortions mark most of the tracks. Don't Take Off The Gloves smacks of betrayal. A Good Reason To Grow Old whispers at wisdom. Stupid Boy is a self-deprecating confession that wraps up the album on a musical high note and a lyrical low note that almost apologizes for every other topic covered.

While Owl John is a departure from Frightened Rabbit, there are some anthemic glimmers on the album. Two and Songs About Roses soar as much as any compositions one might expect from the band. They're good tracks, even if it's easy to acquire a taste for the rougher edges found everywhere else on the album.

The brilliance of this album resides in how personal it is. There are reasons some people have likened it to a purge, even if there is something more elegant in the offering. Owl John offers up a rich diversity and independence that allows fans to see Hutchison again as opposed to the collective nature of Frightened Rabbit. In many ways, you might be surprised to find you like his solo work even better.

The Self-Titled Debut Of Owl John Reveals 9.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

As for Frightened Rabbit, the band seems to be getting along fine with the new lineup since Gordon Skene left over creative differences. The departure has given Simon Liddell a greater presence during live performances. Owl John has also committed to a few shows since the album release. Visit Owl John for details.

The self-titled debut Owl John can be found on Amazon or downloaded from iTunes. You can also find the self-titled album by Owl John at Barnes & Noble. While there is no way to know when Hutchison might start working on another solo contribution, there is no doubt this one will leave you wanting more.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

LA Font Pulls On A Single Teen Bazooka

LA Font
LA Font is one of those Los Angeles-based bands that people tend to stumble upon. It might have happened once or twice at SXSW or while the quartet was working as the house band for a comedy show in Los Angeles. It may have been while watching "House of Lies" on Showtime or tuning into KRDQ in Los Angeles. They just finished a month-long residency at The Satellite Club.

The point is that LA Font has been kicking around its 90s-style indie rock sound for a of couple years. They haven't hit it big, per se, but they do keep locking in these smaller wins along the way. It's just enough to keep them going, picking up a handful of new fans with every introduction.

The attraction, by the way, isn't exclusive to the audiophiles craving something from the past (although that could be part of it). It really comes from writing music that is honest and straightforward, with instrumentals contributing as much clarity as the lyrics.

Teen Bazooka/Motor Rally is a stunning 7-inch introduction.

Teen Bazooka probably won't blow you away as a single. It works its way in with much more subtlety. The band — Danny Bobbe (vocals/guitar), Jon Perry (guitar), Greg Katz (bass) and Harlow Rodriguez (drums) — plays it in a matter-of-fact fashion. Turning 18 is a quiet right of passage.

They capture the oddity of that moment, when almost everything from those high schools are about to be left behind and the future is blinding and bright with possibilities. It's one of the few times in life you can rewrite your life and set a new direction, marked by the moment your on top of the world and in the dark with someone.

As a double-sided singke, Motor Rally complements Teen Bazooka, opening with a laundry list of ailments like drinking and drug use before revealing the paradox between what families say and do. Bobbe doubles down on his criticism of the American way, where the aspirations families have for high school kids doesn't always add up or amount to much.

As Bobbe blows through some colorful characterizations of high school idealism without consequence (although he alludes to consequences), it quickly becomes easy to see that LA Font isn't just another band challenging old school indie rock. They are still keyed in to modern problems — issues that people sang about but never really solved in the nineties.

This time out, LA Font recorded both singles with Bryan Pugh at Swing House Studios. It was mixed by Josiah Kosler and mastered by Carl Saff. The production efforts reduce the tin that creeped into their first album on occasion.

Still, there is plenty to like from their album Diving Man. If the two tracks featured in this review aren't enough of an introduction, start with Collect The Dust, Sharks, and Sensation. The title track has some moments too, even if the unpolished production overshadows the potential of the song.

Teen Bazooka/Motor Rally By LA Font Drive up 6.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

This is one of those occasions where playing music loud enough to wake the neighbors really paid off. Perry was playing his synthesizers so loud that they woke up his neighbor. Rather than being pissed off, Bobbe shared a few chords and lines he was working on in his spare time.

The two hit it off and decided to start a band, bringing Katz and Rodriguez into the fold soon after. Although the band lists its home as Los Angeles, some fans like to be more specific. LA Font are part of a growing roster of bands that can trace their roots to Echo Park.

Teen Bazooka/Motor Rally is available for download from iTunes or order the vinyl from Kill/Kurt Records.The band is currently touring the East Coast in August, with plans to return to Los Angeles in later. Their album, Diving Down can also be found on Amazon. For details on the band's dispassionate annihilation, visit them on Facebook.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Palmer Takes On The American Mission

The American Mission
As a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service and currently serving as political counselor at the American Embassy in Belgrade, author Matthew Palmer is able to quickly and convincingly open a lens on the unseen world of American foreign affairs. It may even change some people's perspectives.

His debut novel, The American Mission, is fiction. However, having also worked on the secretary of state's planning staff, Palmer knows the job. He helped design and implement the Kimberly Process for certifying African diamonds as “conflict free." And it was his experience in Africa that provided the foundation for his mesmerizing political-advenuture thriller debut.

The American Mission strikes a nerve as informed fiction. 

After American Foreign Services officer Alex Baines jeopardizes his career by placing humanitarian efforts ahead of his orders in Darfur, a lifelong friend and mentor steps in to give him a second chance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Baines accepts the assignment from Ambassador Howard “Spence” Spencer, seeing it as the only real opportunity he will ever have to redeem his career.

Although familiar with the DRC, having spent time there while serving in the Peace Corps, Baines knows the new assignment won't be easy. His very first mission upon arrival is negotiating a hostage release from a guerrilla leader known as The Hammer Of God — a tenuous task given that Baines has spent the last three years denying VISAs in Conakry, Guinea.

African Mining
Palmer does an excellent job at using this negotiation to establish uncomfortable truths about the foreign services. Despite demanding $35 million in cash and the withdrawal of all United Nations forces and western mining companies, the charismatic and well-educated leader of The Hammer Of God strikes at the heart of the problem. Everyone wants to exploit the country's mineral assets, but few see the people of the Congo as anything more than in the way of profit margins.

Baines successfully negotiates a realistic exchange for the engineers and contractors working for American-based Consolidated Mining, but not before having a seed planted in his idealistic head. Consolidated Mining and the country's dictator, President Silwamba, do have a cozy relationship with each other.

As such, it means nothing to the president to grant mineral rights out from under the residents of Busu-Mouli, even if they have already opened and are operating a modest mine along the Congo River. Doing so will not only steal the mining operation away from the village, but will also force them to move so Consolidated Mining can strip-mine mineral sources for less than working with the villagers.

It's also bad news for Baines. The last time he weighed the moral and ethical balance between the indigenous people and American interests, it almost cost him a career. Now, there seems to be even more on the line. One misstep could cost him his life in a country on the brink of a revolution.

A few more graphs about newcomer Matthew Palmer. 

Matthew Palmer
Matthew Palmer continues to work for the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and occasionally shares bits of wit and wisdom from his post. On one occasion, he compared himself to Greg Brady as Johnny Bravo after being asked to serve as master of ceremonies for a springs award ceremony. When he asked why he was selected for such an honor, he was told he was the only American on staff who could pronounce Serbian names.

Palmer is well respected for his foreign policy and public diplomacy. He currently oversees a staff of twelve and advises the U.S. Ambassador on all aspects of Serbian relations. He originally earned a bachelor's degree in East Asian studies from Wesleyan University before earning a master's in Japanese studies at the University of Michigan and master's in national security strategy from the National War College. He also speaks four languages.

The American Mission By Matthew Palmer Strikes 7.7 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although sometimes predictable as a thriller, Palmer deserves high marks for eloquently laying out the challenges associated with work in the foreign services. It requires significant effort to preserve bilateral relationships while other parties, including other governments, work toward their agendas.

The American Mission by Matthew Palmer can be found on Amazon or downloaded from iBooks. The audiobook is narrated by Erik Singer who finds the sweet spot in portraying Baines as a willing fish out of water. The American Mission is also available at Barnes & Noble.