Liam Finn – FOMO

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Liam Finn, the son of Split Enz/Crowded House’s Neil Finn, released his solo debut album in 2008, an energetic (almost frenzied at times), beautifully crafted and extremely tuneful work in which he played almost all instruments.  Given several years to follow this up, one wonders if there would be a sophomore slump (discounting his underwhelming 2009 joint EP with Eliza Jane). 

There’s good news all around.  Again, he plays almost every instrument, his pop sensibilities remain intact, he hasn’t run from the specter of sounding like his father (listen to “Real Late” and “Chase the Seasons”), and while including a diverse mix of songs, he doesn’t run quite as far to the extremes as on his debut.

The CD starts off with the fairly restrained keyboard driven “Neurotic World,” in which he sings in a lower-than-usual register, immediately laden with instrumental embellishments that dance around a catching melody.  

Change the beat, vary the topic, add self-accompanying Beatles-ish harmonies, and each song plays to his strengths.  This is about as accessible as “indie-music” can get, yet altogether unlikely to find any mainstream radio interest.  If you’ve listened to the radio, that’s praise for this CD.  And lest anyone should think this is dull, plaintive pop, Finn remains very unconventional in the shifts within the songs – pushing a rock edge, an experimental flourish, or following a different track because his voice allows him the flexibility. 

Overall, I’ll play much of this CD for a season.  Not everything works to my ears (“Roll of the Eye,” “Jump Your Bones”) but everything is so well put together that I’ll look forward to his future releases.  Something truly special will one day come from this artist. 

For the high praise, the 3 star rating may seem rather flat.  However, I’m subtracting a half star for including a CD booklet that doesn’t include lyrics.  Kids these days…

Recommended Songs: “Neurotic World,” “Don’t Even Know Your Name,” “Cold Feet,” “Real Late”

3 of 5 STARS



Close your eyes and listen – the video is lame.  This is the most straightforward of the songs on the CD.

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X-Men First Class


The good news is that sequels, per se, don’t have to be tired re-treads. As the 4th outing of the X-Men series, X-Men First Class is the “Origins of Superheroes” episode that predates the preceding films, not including the backward traveling “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Within, we see how Charles Xavier becomes the default leader of the more kindly disposed mutants, and we see how “brother” Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is drawn to the dark side. If those names are not familiar, this movie wasn’t made for you. On the other hand, you might just enjoy it more.

Set primarily in the early 1960’s, the movie has a retro feel that adds a visual charm, and the recasting of central characters in their younger years generally works. In particular, I liked James McAvoy’s exuberant Charles Xavier, a lively and hipper imagining of the matured, enigmatic Professor X played by Patrick Stewart in the preceding movies.

Some other observations:

1) Marvel Comics (Spiderman, Iron Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four) stands apart from DC (Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman). When it comes to superheroes, Marvel excels at exploring the “why” behind its characters’ actions, rather than simply jumping between the inevitable good guy vs. bad guy battles sprinkled with humor. What’s the motivation? It matters, and this film provides the background for the central characters that carry the franchise.

2) Superheroes should have fun. Sure, they can get caught up in relationship dramas, suffer “woe is me” depression, and generally bicker with whoever is about, but at some point, the use of their powers should be a joyous exercise of their unique gifts. Here, an X-team finally seems to enjoy themselves.

3) Political correctness abounds. The prevailing “Mutants vs. Humans” tension is nothing other than a (literally) dressed up reminder that majorities should be sensitive to minorities, if not appreciative, and (even) welcoming.  Compared with the plainly obvious racial “duh!” of Pocahontas or the “don’t judge a book by its cover” message of Shrek, X-Men at least offers its characters with interesting makeup and nifty special effects, even if one unfortunate character is burdened with mosquito wings and spits fireballs. She deserved the swat.

4) Kevin Bacon… really? Sure, he plays a bad guy. But the problem is that he’s playing. He’s still the likable dude from Footloose and Tremors, cast against type. As Sebastian Shaw, he’s not even 1 degree from himself. Meh.

That said, the weight that tends to ground X-Men First Class is not the fault of the writing or the actors involved. It’s similar to a movie based on a book that you’ve read. You know who’s supposed to be the good guy, and you know who’s supposed to be the bad guy (or girl).  As a result, the characters are not riddles to be solved, just known entities that will be explained. There’s no mystery to it.

3 of 5 STARS


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I’m keeping up with a good number of developments in the music industries these days – the “iCloud,” the death of music subscriptions, Kickstarter, Pandora, Slacker, Spotify… whatever.  CD stores are dying, radio stations play pre-programmed drivel, and Idols reign rather than musicians.  In the internet age, when we’re swamped with mass communications, it’s getting harder and harder to find music I like.  And buy it.  In a CD package (…he said knowing his backlog of CDs to review is growing).

I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to buy CDs, or whether I’ll have to buy .mp3 or other digital formats, or whether I’ll just rent the access to music and it will play on whatever device I happen to have handy.  

Research is a edifying, guessing is fun, and luck is a blessing.  And so it happens that I decided to check out the new (free) Apps in the iTunes library to see what’s catching the popular buzz.

Songkick Concerts?  Hmm.

Get 100,000 concerts in your pocket!  Songkick allows you to track your favorite bands so you never miss them live.  The app will scan your music library and create a personalized calendar based on your bands and your location.

Well, now.  Okay.

[connect iPhone, download app, install, disconnect iPhone, then forget about the App completely until lunch the following day].

What an App!  Songkick delivers the utility of its concept while maintaining ease of use, which should be the goal of every App developer.

Songkick quickly scanned the couple hundred artists I have on my phone, filtered content to the Atlanta metro music scene, and built the following lists, each in an intuitive graphical interface: 

  • A chronological list of all concerts for “my artists” in the Atlanta area.  You can bookmark those to a separate list for those you plan to attend.
  • A daily summation of all concerts at all venues in the Atlanta area by day and location, including small bars to which I’ve been and others of which I have never heard.  Got a friend coming to town and looking for a show?  Handy, indeed.
  • A “What’s New” list of  “my artist” concerts that have been added within the last 36 hours.  I was alerted to a Lindsey Buckingham concert a day before it hit any of the local media announcements, including the Ticketmaster newsletter.  (Sorry Lindsey, you’re not worth $45 for the cheap seats… never mind the junk fees).
  • An editable list of all the artists that it pulled from my phone.  It even places labels on artist names to indicate those currently on tour.

Songkick also includes maps to the venues and links to purchase tickets.  Now, if only it made the concerts cheaper…

This site gets a tidy sum of hits daily, and it’s fair to say that I’m not sure who my audience is. But if you’re drawn here for anything music related, get Songkick (also available for PC and Mac on the web).

5 of 5 STARS

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Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

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Fleet Foxes, the band’s self-titled 2008 debut, struck me as a beautiful work of music, timeless in its styling and absorbing in its vocal harmonies. That’s not a common thing when considering the landscape of popular music. Their recent concert echoed everything I like about them, even validating that what I heard is authentic rather than studio wizardry. I had heard Helplessness Blues, their second album, before the concert, but I hadn’t really listened. Sure, it was good. But would it draw me back? Would particular songs speak more loudly than others? Would only one or two choruses really catch my ear? It takes time to fully absorb some music, and, often, those albums eventually become favorites.

Such as this. 

Robin Pecknold admitted that most of these songs were recorded in 2009, but the band re-worked them in 2010 because they weren’t satisfied. I’m not sure why – I haven’t heard what was left behind. I can say that this CD was worth the wait.

The band continues with their “timeless” approach – guitars, mandolins, dulcimer and other acoustic instruments common to 1960’s folk-pop, Appalachia, or English folk music. But, they’ve also subtly moved ahead. Throw in a Tibetan singing bowl, a Marxophone, and an unsettling bari sax expression, and, yes, the band is growing stylistically. The songs on their debut were simpler in that each held a distinct form, and its pace was fairly even. Several songs here are lengthier, with instrumental breaks or changing rhythms (if not styles). In fact, as acoustic music goes, much of the music could be described as muscular. As a result, the tempo varies nicely throughout, making the entirety an enjoyable listen. There’s not a single song that I’d prefer to skip through; each has its charms.

Beyond instrumentation, another difference is that Pecknold takes lead vocals more frequently. The group’s harmonies remain, but they often are used to either shape the melody or accompany his lead, rather than present themselves as a single voice. When it comes to the actual words, well, it’s easy to get lost in the musicality of the whole, such is the musical nature of their harmonies. The lyrics read more as poetry than the scribbles of song, and they don’t prompt a particular emotional response on their own. However, read the lyrics while listening to the Pecknold, and one realizes how much he brings to the translation. Themes include the awareness of aging, the search for meaning, finding tranquility, the loss of relationships, and aspiring to be better than one is today. Mix those in amidst motifs of sun, water, and… apples, throw in harmonies... it’s Art.

I have no particular songs to recommend because I recommend the entire CD. And if you should get lost in what, to some ears, might be an old-fashioned sameness, I’d suggest you play it louder. It’s worthy of your attention.

5 of 5 STARS

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The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

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While on vacation at the beach, I read a book. That’s not to say that I had an iPad or a Kindle on the beach, but rather I read a paperback book in the air-conditioned comfort of the home in which we were staying. The electronic reading age is coming my way, I’m certain, but for now, flipping pages and inserting a bookmark “feels” like reading a book.

The book was, as listed above, The Name of the Wind. My wife recommended the book highly, as it had been recommended to her. I read the first 5 or so pages whilst otherwise making my way through the Sinatra biography, and I recognized quickly that the opening scene and writing style qualified as “something to set aside until I can really devote time to it.” At the beach (house), I did just that.

It’s probably improper to sum my opinion before getting to the review, but what the heck:  This is the book that every fantasy reader deserves.

Sure, there’s good guys, bad guys, swords, magic, and the odd creature. But it’s not derivative of The Lord of the Rings (a model which many writers find hard to avoid), and it doesn’t attempt to cash in on popular subgenres (dragons, vampires, faeries, etc.).  That’s good, in my opinion.

The book presents an established hero, Kvothe, who carries with him legends of great deeds and, apparently, deeds gone wrong.  Also, there is a hint of an ill-wind heading his way, but we never find out what that is.  Why?  Because if the author does lean to established fantasy traditions, this is the first book in a trilogy.  It doesn’t make this book any less enjoyable.

So, what then?  The arc of the story isn’t made clear.  Now subtitled “The Kingkiller Chronicles,” we’re not even introduced to a king.  Instead, this is a coming-of-age story, told in our protagonist’s own words.  They speak of a very observant, clever and humorous person, which is to say that Patrick Rothfuss, a first time author, is likewise gifted.

Understanding that Kvothe is a hero currently struggling to be ordinary, we’re given a major glimpse of what, in super-hero terms, we would call “an origin story.”  There’s no bite from a radioactive spider here.  Instead, we’re told of how “the legend” that to whom we’re briefly introduced is undergirded with the realities of a very unusual and difficult teenage life. Kvothe is human – bold to the point of overconfidence, clever but foolish, romantic but naïve.   Still, the author builds an incredibly entertaining story while presenting a fantasy world that is grounded in reason and reality.  We understand the character’s progress through death, loss, poverty, hunger, friendship, humor, love, courage.   The truth behind the legend is revealed, even if accidental or evolved over time. 

If comparisons to other works must be made, there is

  • Harry Potter - much of the story takes place in a university setting (a very satisfying middle between reality and the exaggerated gee-whiz of Hogwarts) and,
  • Ender’s Game – did I mention smart and clever (but without Ender’s guilt complex… (so far))?  Throw in a bit of the Bean character as well.
  • The Wheel of Time – Sure, I love the series, but this is opposite of that overly long work.  Descriptive narrative is included, but it doesn’t consume 90% of the book leaving 10% of character action.  Just the opposite.  Thankfully.

When reading books, I’m always looking for something that I didn’t know, or a really good quote, or something philosophical previously unconsidered.

“You see, there’s a fundamental connection between seeming and being… We all become what we pretend to be… It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head.  Always.  All the time.  That story makes you what you are.  We build ourselves out of that story.”


5 of 5 STARS

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