Friday, July 31, 2015

Review - Youth Choir - Voices In The Shadows

There I was, all keyed up to review Shades of Grey when my pre-writing research rudely reminded me that this was not the recording debut of The Choir. Yes, I forgot an entire album, which is a pretty good indication of the impression Voices in the Shadows made on me.

Recorded under the name of Youth Choir, Voices in the Shadows was produced by some guy named Thom Roy (or Roy Thom) who has since disappeared into his own shadows. In addition to the name difference, drummer Steve Hindalong was on the fence between joining this band and continuing with another band named “Lucky Stiffs” (which included future Choir bassist Tim Chandler) so he didn’t play on the album, although he is credited as having done so. Instead drum duties were handled by a drum machine. I’m sure it made sense back in 1985 but the lack of a drummer’s sensibilities and finesse and inventive chops definitely gives the rhythm section a kind of generic blandness. And speaking of generic, there’s bassist Mike Saurbrey who appears now and then on Choir albums when Tim Chandler is stuck in the potty with roadside food illnesses. I have nothing against Mr. Saurbrey or his playing (except that he reminds me painfully of myself in the following description) but consider this: Mike: capable but unremarkable bass lines, looks like just some guy up on stage. Tim: crazily inventive melodic monster bass lines that add tension and depth to the songs, amazing stage presence. No contest! And then there’s the lyrics. Future albums had Steve Hindalong writing most of the lyrics and the man has a poetic way with words that brought acclaim to this band. This time out guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Derri Daughterty wrote the lyrics. As far as they go, they are decent but nothing spectacular, focusing on hopeful optimism not tainted by doubt and “who will help the children”, a subject that was quite en vogue at the time.

So what’s good about this platter? In listening to the album again for the first time in a decade I’m impressed with the quality of the songwriting and the vocal melodies. Sonically it’s a pretty good engineering job so kudos, Thom (or Roy)! However the standout feature of this debut album is Derri’s guitar playing. While not yet fully developed, one can hear the influence of British bands that will be explored more fully on later albums and on “Another Heart” one gets to hear the chiming, floating, ethereal playing style that will later become a huge part of the signature Choir sound. But at this point only one of the four players is in place so it really is a different beast than the band that will become THE CHOIR. Overall, it’s much better than I remembered (or didn’t remember). If the unvarying programmed drums were replaced with a real drummer this album would improve dramatically, possibly becoming a great example of upbeat 80s Brit-rock. Another standout is the pure eighties keyboard sounds! For the most part, keyboards were dropped from the bands later albums, except for when played through the lyricon of Dan Michaels. Oddly, no one is credited at playing these magnificently vintage tones.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review - Atomic Opera - For Madmen Only

Encouraged by my pal's postive review of Atomic Opera's For Madmen Only I harkened back to the days of my youth, remembering how the album was decent but not great, and decided to give the album a refresher spin to see if my opinion had changed. In referring to my handy-dandy-uber-dorky database to find which backup DVD contained the album, I noticed that I had given it a seven, while giving their two subsequent albums (Gospel Cola and Penguin Dust) only fives. Hmmm...

The first two songs make the album. "Joyride" and "Justice" are two very hooky metal-pop songs that managed to creep into my brain now and then over the years. I had forgotten how the guitars are especially beefy, chunky and thick, like a good salsa. This is good stuff, Chester! But as the album wore on the guitar tones didn't change and there were very few melodic hooks, which is why I couldn't remember any songs other than the first two*. About halfway through I started to check to see how much of the album was left... never a good sign. And nothing personal but the vocalist has a generic voice that is nearly bereft of any kind of distinguishing characteristic, which also doesn't vary. I feel bad saying that because I'm sure he's a nice guy and all. It's actually a very good, strong voice but just not very textured. It was also about halfway through that I started to develop ear fatigue from the compressed production. Crunchy walls of guitars are great but ya gotta let them breath!

I'm not saying that the only redeeming quality of For Madmen Only are the first two songs. There are many strong points but not enough or of the right kind to make the album with me. For instance, the start of War Drums makes me think of the Spinal Tap song "Big Bottoms," which is neither a good or a bad thing. Some of the songs vary from the typical 4/4 meter, which is usually good, but doesn't develop this change into anything memorable. The lyrics are intelligent throughout and of a Christian inclination, without being overt. A favorite is from the song "Blackness" where he sings "We all wanna change the world / We don't wanna change our minds." I'm sure I turned this towards "the unsaved" back in 1994 but I've since seen that the church is equally blind and sheeplike, no longer looking once they've found what they're looking for. The album ends on a strong note with the nearly ten minute epic "New Dreams", a trick which producer Sam Taylor was fond of making King's X do on their earlier albums. In fact, "New Dreams" sounds a bit like King's X guitar tones, though with a bit less character, and having enough variation within itself and from the preceeding songs that it was quite enjoyable. Oh, did I fail to mention that Sam Taylor produced this album? It's probably why I even picked it up in the first place. It might also have been the last time I picked up an album based on this guy's name.

I think I'll stand by my rating of seven, though I'm tempted to drop it to six. 2.5 songs does not an album make.

* Two extremely good songs and the rest just kinda meh, somewhat like Jet Circus from the same era. STEP ON IT!

Friday, January 23, 2015

mPerks - How to Game The System

Gather ‘round children and Old Man Hoffman will tell you how to save big money using Meijer’s mPerks program! But first some back story ‘cause I’m just as narcissistic as the next guy.

My wife and I started shopping at Meijers in earnest when the neighborhood grocery store (Scotts, which has been bought out by Kroger) was closed due to structural problems. Before that we were just casual friends. The nearest Kroger was twelve minutes away but Meijer, which was less expensive, had more organic items, and had an entire store of non-grocery items as well, was just a few minutes further.

And so began once-a-week (instead of multiple times when we realized that we needed something) grocery shopping. We saw signs about Meijers mPerks program but figured it was similar to Kroger’s e-coupon program, which we didn’t find very useful. A few times Melynda would have a checker tell her “You could save a lot of money if you used the mPerks” while scanning yet another $200+ grocery cart but we foolishly didn’t look into it.

Until that fateful day (yeah, so I’m being overly dramatic… sue me!)

I logged in and signed up with my cell phone. What in tarnation? Save ten bucks after spending $100?!?!? Save $5 after buying $25 of produce? And we have four weeks to do it? We buy at least that much produce in a single trip! It didn’t take long to set up a second account under my wife’s cell phone number with the same “coupons.” Then we started kicking ourselves for all the hundreds of dollars we had thrown away over the years for not taking advantage of these amazing deals. It turns out we were a bit premature in our kicking.

If you go and spend $200 and your “coupon” is for $10 back for $100 spent you don’t get $20. You get $10 and the credit for the other hundred bucks vaporizes into the internets.

TIP #1: Have more than one mPerk account. This way you can ring up multiple purchases on different accounts and get credit for them. In the above example you put $100 on each of two mPerks accounts for double the rebate. Yes, it makes things more complicated and you end up segregating your grocery cart (“Let’s see, I have $15 left to spend on Frozen Foods on mPerks account A to get the credit but I’ve already used that “coupon” on mPerks account B so I need to make sure everything frozen gets put under account A”). Trying to mentally juggle two accounts while shopping with small children is, in video game lingo, Expert Level difficulty.

Another thing to note is that unless it’s a special deal (see below), you don’t get credit for your purchases until twenty-four hours later so I can’t earn $10 on my card, log onto the site with a smart phone to sign up for another “coupon” and walk back into the store to buy more stuff with it. Nope… you have to come back the next day. Or in our case the next week. That is the genius of multiple accounts.

The funny thing, though, is that when we logged in after our initial trip we saw that the coupons had changed. Instead of get $10 back after spending $100 now it was get $7 back after spending $150. Hmmm. I knew it was too good to be true. Still, that’s nothing to sneeze about and $7 is $7 we would have spent before. The next time it was $10 for $225. It kept going up. As you would expect these rewards are customized to each account by some computer algorhythm. Most of the grocery shopping goes on my wife’s mPerks account so at this point in time, she has an offer for $10 off $400 of purchases made in four weeks while my account is for $10 off $275. What can I say? The computer likes me. Offers for money off produce (which we buy anyway) have been gone for many moons and instead we have offers for toys or footwear (which we don’t usually buy) or $7 back for buying $90 of frozen foods. That’s a lot of Smiley Fries, kids, and in the rare instance where we hit the frozen goal it’s because something (or somethings) were on sale and we stocked up. At this point mPerks is still worthwhile but since we don’t spend $800 a month in groceries (thankfully) we usually only get money back on one account, usually about $15 per month. It’s free money without doing the whole extreme coupon thing. I don’t know if the amounts will eventually settle to our monthly spending or if they will continue to increase to the point where they are insanely unreachable ($10 for spending $1000!) Is it possible that the amounts will decrease if we don’t use the card? I smell an experiment!

I realize that I forgot to mention how you get the money back. No, it t’aint a check like Mendards does but rather it’s a credit on your mPerks that expires in about one month. The next time you shop it will ask if you want to use this credit, which adds another level of complexity. If your month is almost up and you’re going to be close to your goal do you want to risk not hitting that goal by cashing out your rewards? It’s just a complicated numbers game, I tell ya! For a logic dork like myself it’s a nice mental problem to figure out. My wife has enough on her plate so it’s a headache to her. One thing which Meijers appears to use strategically is a coupon printer at the checkout. Back before we used mPerks and we spent over $250 we would get about a dozen useful coupons. Now we can go months without getting a single coupon. I may be paranoid but I think they also track my credit card because I would get coupons on Trip C for things that I purchased on Trip A. How did it know?

Tip #2: Have even MORE mPerk accounts. You can set up an mPerk account without a cell phone though I don’t know if they check to make sure you don’t have any other accounts. An easy thing to do is to purchase a $20 Tracfone at Dollar General (or wherever fine Fones are sold) and set up a new mPerk account. Yes, it could get complicated having three accounts but based on our earlier experience, you would earn that $20 back in less than a month. It would then take a few months of regular shopping to have the mPerks account start offering you crazy deals ($7 for $400) and perhaps by then your first card will be making more reasonable deals (if they do such a thing… see experiment above).

Other deals are their Baby and Pharmacy programs. For the Baby one, you earn $10 for the first $100 of baby things (diapers, etc). For the next ten bucks, though, you have to spend $200. Then $300. And on and on it goes. There isn’t a four week time limit on these, which is mighty gracious of them Meijer’s folk.

In addition to the usual e-coupons are the occasional mPerks special deals. These are listed with the coupons and you have to clip them and log onto the web site often to grab them when they are offered. The most recent offer was $5 back on a single $75 shopping trip made during a three day window. The nice thing is that the offers stack. For example, if you had an offer for $10 off $200 spent overall, an offer for $7 off $50 in frozen foods and one of the special $5 back on a single $75 shopping trip, every dollar you spent on frozen foods would apply to all three! Every dollar you spent on non-frozen foods would apply to the $200 overall and the $75 single-trip. In this case I split our usual weekly trip into two mPerks accounts so we got the $5 off a single trip on both for a grand total of $10 saved.

Uh, so that’s about it, I guess. Have multiple accounts and do lots of mental financial juggling.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Music Review - Willy Wonka Soundtrack

Long before DVD, camcorders and VCRs, my brothers and I would impatiently wait for the networks to show Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And when that magical night would finally arrive, my dad would pop lots of popcorn and the entire family would converge in front of the TV for a healthy dose of magic and childhood wonder. I own the video now but without the weeks of anticipation, it's just not the same to pop in the cassette on a whim.

Now I can pop in the CD on a whim as well and I am reminded how my brothers and I would listen to records of Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and even The Rescuers, using our imaginations to fill in the things our eyes couldn't see. Listening to this CD takes me back to those days in a way the video can't, crowded around the TV, screaming for justice that Pete was in my way or that Chris was hogging the popcorn bowl. All the songs are here, from the opening musical number where the candy would flow across the screen like a river to The Candy Man (who my brothers and I would emulate by climbing up on the counter and toss down candy to the others). There is even the song by Charlie's mom, Cheer Up, Charlie, the only part of the movie that bored us kids (to this day, we fast forward through this song). There is the wondrous Pure Imagination song, the bizarre poem recitation while on the boat, and Veruca Salt belting her way through I Want It Now. And we can't forget the Oompa Loompas, can we? Every song by the these pointed-panted fellows is fully represented (four in all), guaranteed to tumble around your brain for days after hearing them. At the beginning of many of the tracks are snippets of dialogue or sound effects from the movie that work quite well into drawing you in to this magical fantasy land where you can eat dishes, float through the air (and then burp gleefully), or swim in a chocolate pond. With this CD, I found my golden ticket to hours of imagination, memories, and fun!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 1999.

Music Review - Danielson Famile - A Prayer For Every Hour

I recently listened to "Ugly Tree" with my six year old daughter nearby. I laughed so hard at it's absurd vocals that she asked if it could be put on her MP3 player. Here's praying that I haven't warped her for life.

I'm currently suffering from lack of sleep, balloon-head compliments of cold medication, and the kind of artificial buzz one gets from downing a quick can of Mountain Dew. It is from this unique combination of mental vertigo and alacrity that I am finally able to fully appreciate A Prayer for Every Hour, the first album from New Jersey's Danielson Famile, originally released in 1995.

Started as a Rutgers BFA thesis project, Danielson Famile is an actual family with Daniel, the oldest child, serving as the chaotic bandleader. Daniel writes the songs, sings (sort of), plays guitar, and leads his siblings in performing the twenty-four songs on this album. The concept of the album is that one should listen to one song at the beginning of each hour for maximum effect.

Their sound is wholly unique and will either drag you in or send you screaming for aspirin. Succinctly, it's the gospel muppets on crack. Daniel sings in a squeaky falsetto voice that demands your attention, piercing the misty haze of your mental doldrums. Musically there's the angular changes of the Pixies with elements of Heavy Vegetable, Chris Knox, and Pere Ubu, all played with approximate rhythms and "whatever is on hand" instrumentation. Some songs, such a "Nice of Me" and "In The Malls Not Of Them" have a Violent Femmes Hallowed Ground-era feel, being dark, sparse, edgy and almost creepy. "What To Wear" begins with a cappella "Row Your Boat" before jumping into pan flutes, distorted guitar, and doubled squeaky vocals. Very few follow accepted songwriting formats and all rhythms are approximate, leaving the listener constantly unsettled.

The other unique aspect of this band is their odd combination of such avant-garde music with a Christian worldview. "Like A Vacuum" opens with "If I were a tree/ My branches would be broken / But my roots would be so deep / I'd be sucking water like a vacuum" and later changes to "I may be silly but I laugh more than you", ending with deranged laughter (and he laughs as strangely as he sings). In "1,000 Push-ups" he squeals "I spoke to God and told Him I screwed up again / He said, "Dan, give me ten push-ups." All of the lyrics follow in this heartfelt, innocent, off-kilter vein, which is why I'm fairly certain you won't be singing these songs in church anytime soon.

As if the music wasn't deranged enough, this re-release contains a second CD containing four videos. Sweet mother of God, are these videos whacked! Sporting the same low-fi, DIY ethic as the music is a roughly animated tutorial on how to use the first CD, narrated by a piece-mail horse that screams as he's dismembered and reassembled into a clock. Priceless. There are also two videos of their first live performance and a concept video for "Heads in Da Cloudz" that is so low budget that it can't even afford an analogy. The music of Danielson Famile is fun, whacked, original, and real. It's home schooling gone very, very wrong.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2002.

Music Review - Tonio K - Rodent Weekend

Oh, Mr. Tonio K... how I want to like your music. You fall into a group of musicians whose music I like and they all seem to speak highly of you, but your music just doesn't make my heart resonate. It's nothing personal.

Tonio K is one of those artists I had heard a lot about but had never actually heard his music. Thus it was with great anticipation that I listened to his latest release, Rodent Weekend, a collection of odds and ends that never made it onto his earlier albums from the past twenty years. Overall, I can say I was disappointed, though the songs do tend to grow on me with each listen.

Considered one of the music industry's most successful songwriters, Tonio K penning the most played song of 1993 ("Love Is," recorded by Vanessa Williams) and has placed songs with Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, and Al Green. His predominant style is Stones-influenced, bluesy rock (my tastes run more Beatles, which may account a bit why this CD did not click with me). The earlier songs on the CD especially sound like J. Geils Band rip-offs, with "I'll Wait Here" sporting the main riff from Geils' "Love Stinks", albeit modified...slightly. Most of the songs are lyrically humorous and caustic. The opening song, "The Funky Western Civilization, Phase II" is replete with such lines as "Let us continue to exploit and abuse one another" and "Mars Needs Women" intones "you should apply." "Fools Talk", "New Dark Ages", and "Los Gringos" form a nice trilogy, having almost the exact same sound and feel, although "Los Gringos" is sung entirely in Spanish and is about the luxury of having indoor plumbing. Perhaps the best cut is the sarcastic "I'm Supposed to Have Sex With You" where Tonio K is backed by the band Daniel Amos with David Raven's solid wall of drums. Originally recorded for the 1987 Carl Reiner film Summer School, the song received major airplay in New York and L.A. but by the time the record company released the single, the buzz had passed. Numerous listens to this album find the songs to be well written but there is something lacking in the presentation, something off in his voice or the sound of the guitars. If only he could find and correct that "something" he'd make millions for sure!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 1999.

Music Review - Bluberry Hurricane - Cheap

More of the same Harrison-like goodness. I might have to dig this one out again.

A mysterious wah guitar and light drums introduces Cheap, the second release from local artist Kevin Hambrick who records under the name “Blueberry Hurricane.” As on his 2001 self-titled debut album, Hambrick plays every guitar and every bass, sings every vocal part, and hits every drum (although he does allow fellow Big Red & Rojo member Kyle Stevenson to record and mix the collective tracks). Once again Hambrick weaves a tasty tapestry of songs that borrow elements from the 60s and 70s while adding in a flurry of experimental sonic textures, all coagulating into inventive retro-ish rock/pop songs.

The aforementioned first track, “Knockin’ On The Door (Again),” pits a relaxed Lennonesque melody against a driving bridge, all with some nice vocal harmonies. Like a moody ode to “Savoy Truffle,” “Marigold” is hijacked by a really cool fuzz bass that rumbles through the song like a deranged grandmother (sans teeth). To continue the George Harrison feel is “Feel Me Try,” with vocals that sound as if they came right from the great dead one’s mouth and some great guitar work. Changing gears is “Potion,” which consists of acoustic guitars, Crosby, Stills and Nash vocal harmonies, a catchy, folksy melody and nothing else — clean, simple and memorable. The intentionally lo-fi vocals on “Epidemic” give this jaunty song of love lost a nice 40s feel while the chiming guitars and two-part vocal harmonies of “Much Too Long” remind the listener of the classic songwriting of Jim Croce.

The acoustic stand-up bass and fuzzy guitars on “Evening Of Delight” are yet another sound in the tool belt of this creative artist. The album ends with the lighthearted “Go To Bed,” a short acoustic song sure to bring a smile to your face.

Unlike the last project, which was recorded at Soundmill, this one was definitely done on the cheap. While the artwork is exquisite (as is his website at www.kevinhambrick.com), it’s obviously a computer printout over a CD-R. Sound-wise you can also hear the limitations of whatever equipment was available at their home studio, but it’s not such that one is distracted from the content of these wonderful songs. These nine arty songs are available at the artist’s web site and at Wooden Nickel stores at a nice, Cheap price.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2002.