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.

Music Review - Blueberry Hurricane - Blueberry Hurricane

No picture, kids. This is a local CD from so long ago that, well, my original review has disappeared off the interwebs. But in searching for an album cover pic I discovered that Blueberry Hurricane is "especially good marijuana." Hmmmm.... Good music, though.

Call it a hunch but I'm willing to bet that Kevin Hambrick, the lone creative force behind Blueberry Hurricane, has more than the national average of lava lamps around his comfy abode. From the moment the first note hits your ears until the last nuance of sound finishes vibrating your eardrum, you'll be immersed in a wash of retro late sixties sound. Hambrick's Lennonish voice only adds to this mystique, as does the vintage instruments and excellent period recording sound captured so perfectly by Soundmill Recordings. The opening song is a glorious train wreck of psychedelic Doors-induced vibe with lots of wailing, bluesy guitars. "Crying in my Sleep" was an early favorite with a George Harrison feel, double-tracked vocals, excellent fuzzy 60s guitar, and some dead-on songwriting. In "So Exhausting Being Me", Hambrick layers an effected vocal over a freaky reversed guitar track. There's a lot going on in this two-minute song with dueling vocals, keyboards, and heaps of lean guitars. "I'm Not My Music" finds Hambrick back in full Lennon-mode with such twisting lines as "I'm not my music/ The music is me/ And sometimes it's all that I have" sung with a very intriguing melody and some ballsy, blues guitar riffing. With it's irregular meter, adventurous use of rhythm, and intentionally rough edges, "Venice" reminded of the two early Zappa-era Alice Cooper albums, which is to say that I liked it a lot. "Goin Down" gets even stranger with a sparse mix of vocals, warbly guitars, and a backward something keeping beat. Good stuff, Maynerd!

My only beef with this album is the length. These ten pop gems add up to less than thirty minutes. Yes, they are thirty wonderful minutes, full of the same easy, experimental feel that was characteristic of some of the best music from the late sixties, but the album ends with you wanting more. I guess this is better than the other extreme and since he played every instrument on the album (my guess is that each two-minute song took many multi-tracked hours to record) such brevity is excusable. The songs are exceptionally well-written, full of catchy hooks and startling changes. Hats must also go off to Soundmill Recordings for so effectively capturing the authentic 60s guitar and vocal tones. For fans of psychedelia and good pop rock, this album is definitely worth the drive to a nearby Wooden Nickel Records!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2001.

Music Review - The Choir - O How the Mighty Have Fallen

The last few albums by The Choir have been tepid but it's albums like this that keep me coming back for when they are good, they are incredibly good.

I suppose I should open this review with a disclaimer: I’ve been a fan and champion of The Choir for about 17 years and recently drove down to Nashville with my dazzling wife to attend the CD release party for their latest album, O How The Mighty Have Fallen But I’m not above being objective, and when an album of theirs is irregular, as was their last album five years ago, I’m not afraid to state my opinion to the six people in my zip code who know about this band (all of whom coincidentally live at my address).

“So cut to the chase, dude! How is this album from a band we neither know nor care about?” Well, dear reader, the verdict is that it’s pretty durn solid! While the last one went from acoustic ballads to extremes of swirling studio noise, Mighty takes the middle road and sports a fairly consistent sound, that being a distinctly proprietary blend of dark and fuzzy space art rock topped with lyrics that are insightful, painfully human and mature.

The title track, a dirge for the fallen, opens the album with a bleak landscape of shimmering guitars cascading against spacey sounds, heralding in “new” member Marc Byrd who has been a Choir disciple for over two decades. “Nobody Gets A Smooth Ride” dramatically switches gears with the first of two more rock-focused songs, this one with bassist Tim Chandler’s loping, whimsical style fully evident. Summarizing the rest of the album, this song explores life’s gritty reality with lines such as “Every child will learn / How the asphalt burns / When he takes a sharp turn too wide,” which becomes the brighter chorus of “I’m really sorry the way things are going these days / Try to be careful, that’s all I can say.” The other “rocker” is the rousing “Fine Fun Time,” which revels in the joy of their lasting friendship amid jovial jabs, a foot stomping beat and Dan Michaels laying a brief but effective sax solo.

“Terrible Mystery” is a poignant relationship-ending song of simple strummed guitar enveloped in an aura of artful feedback. Buzzing guitars break through for an all-too-brief musical interlude in this song about the guitarist Derri Daugherty’s divorce that exhibits such lyrics as “And I don’t cry anymore / Only once in awhile / When I am alone” and “How I searched for the key / To unlock your guarded heart / And set your love free.” Immediately following is a contrasting love song from drummer Steve Hindalong to his wife, proving once again that The Choir write some of the best, most honest, love songs. “We Give We Take” is whimsical, sad, and sweet without being sappy, mixing snapshots of daily life into a larger tapestry. To wit: “Chicago might be cold / How nice the way you folded / Everything so neatly,” that becomes the bridge of “We give, we take / We build, we break / We stare at the moon and we sigh.” Chugging guitars lay bare the monotony of life, while sliding guitar adds whimsy, and sporadic vocal harmonies add the sparkle of love that occurs too rarely in married love.

The album concludes with two of the darkest songs, followed by a ray of hope. “How I Wish I Knew” is about the helplessness a parent feels when their child suffers from depression (“When I see you falling / When I hear you crying / When I feel you fading away / How I wish I knew what to say/ How I wish I knew what to pray”) while “Mercy Will Prevail” is a throbbing, pounding examination of the age-old question of how a loving God allows pain and suffering to exist (“I want to swear it’s true / But it’s hard to defend it. / I know it comes from You / And I don’t comprehend it”). Despite its low-key, resigned outward demeanor, this song has a passionate undercurrent that drives the song with the irresistible force of gravity. “To Rescue Me” is the peaceful, reassuring epilogue to the proceeding storm of doubt and gritty reality, showing that while not everything is peaches and roses, there are shafts of light that break through the dark clouds.

Quite a set up, eh? Can this album really be this satisfying or is the reviewer just a rabid fanboy? You can hear the entire album (and purchase it as well) from www.thechoir.net/newchoir and hear why The Choir has been so influential to so many bands.