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, 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 and hear why The Choir has been so influential to so many bands.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Music Review - Daniel Amos - Doppleganger Reissue

I remember it as if it were yesterday. The little experience I had with Christian music involved Russ Taff, Michael W. Smith and Whiteheart. Then came a wacky satirical band called The Swirling Eddies whose music had depth beyond typical novelty albums. I joined their fan club (got me a tube of Swirling Eddies toothpaste!) and found that they used to be a band named Daniel Amos and so ordered a cassette entitled Doppelgänger. My first clue that I had strayed far from the path of safe, youth pastor approved Christian music was the opening track, “Hollow Man”, which found lead singer Terry Taylor singing and speaking cryptic words over a song being played backwards, the forward words sometimes mixing with the backwards words to add further discomfort to the listener. Very weird yet very intriguing… and is that a T.S. Elliot reference? The next song, “Mall All Over The World” starts with bassist Tim Chandler attacking his instrument in a frenzy of slapped, popped and punched notes. New wave stabs of keyboards joined by razor guitars soon enter as the song progresses to a disjointed rock song and the lyrics take jabs at a consumer culture, drawing an analogy between indoor malls and a warped view of heaven. The twitchy “Real Girls” laments how people have degraded to one-dimensional images while the hyped up 50s rock of “New Car!” takes a swipe at the Prosperity Gospel by setting the song in a game show. The aggressive “Youth With a Machine” is a personal favorite with a killer off-balanced yet melodic bass line that undergirds lyrics that are typical of the album, words that require intentional dissection to understand (“Wild grid of noise chants "Life is negation" / He's drowning in echo / Amid the stained glass towers / Dead the innocent? / Gone the hour? / He needs you now, now more than ever”). “The Double” is another rocker, built upon a ratty guitar riff and wide melodic leaps that musically illustrate lyrics concerning the bifurcation of physical body and spirit. Side two seems aimed more at the church. The frenzied, ballsy “Memory Lane” is packed with zany guitar fills and convicting lyrics of “It’s another flat testimony / Inflated with emotional gas/ The truth never changes / But shouldn’t you?” “Angels Tuck You In” looks at the near worship of angels and “Little Crosses” turns its gaze at the trend of wearing crosses as jewelry but having no effect upon the wearer. “Autographs For The Sick” falls under the category of “What were they thinking?” If I had to make a list of the top ten most confusing songs I’ve ever heard, this one would certainly be on it. “I Didn’t Build It For Me” is a bouncy, energetic song that tumbles over itself in its eager glee to reveal itself, again with an amazingly fun bass line. “Here I Am” is a meta-song which concerns the disconnection that occurs in what is supposed to be a very relational faith, connecting with fans “By way of stereo / Making minimal contact” and “Attending Sunday service (it’s crowded so I watch it on the TV in the foyer)”. As with the other songs, the lyrics are thought provoking, perhaps a bit heady, but always couched in humor. At a time when Christian music consisted of Amy Grant, Sandi Patti and The Gaithers, Doppelgänger by Daniel Amos was a subversive shot across the bow. “Dark” and “edgy” are overused terms these days but they were new back in 1982 and certainly were not ever associated with Christian music. One look at the creepy cover, though, and you knew Doppelgänger was going to be breaking a few rules. Out of print for over a decade, the band has finally reissued this landmark album and did a right good job. You get a remastered version of the album, a second CD of live tracks and remixes plus a 24-page full color booklet with period photos, extensive notes and lyrics. As with many albums, the low-fi version is available on a popular video web site. Be brave and take a listen but be prepared to part with your money after you join the fan club.

Music Review - Daniel Amos - Dig Here Said The Angel

I just happened to listen to this album earlier today, plus it's still on my MP3 player. It doesn't get much play but when it does I surely dig those amazing bass lines!

It’s been over 10 years since the last Daniel Amos album. Not that lead songwriter Terry Taylor has been sitting on his duff – what with his alt-Americana band (Lost Dogs), his quirky rock band (Swirling Eddies), various solo albums and composing music for TV and video games (Neverhood and Catscratch, to name a few) – he just hasn’t had the time. But when a Kickstarter campaign tripled the goal amount, his schedule magically cleared up.

The result of “getting the band back together” is Dig Here Said the Angel , a brilliant and joyous exploration of the theme of his own death. Oh, he’s a wily one, that Uncle Terry! “Forward in Reverse” opens with Mellotron flutes that are soon joined by military snare drums and shimmering guitars; from there, it morphs into a plucky parade of horns that become ensnared in a flanged swirl of orchestral strings. Keyboardist Rob Watson pulls out all the stops, adding realistic strings, timpani, harps, pianos, horns and all manner of tasty touches to make each song a wonder of surprises, no extra charge.BR>

The upbeat rocker “Jesus Wept” has one of my favorite lines on the album, “I found my masterpiece in a discount bin,” and also features an oddly disconcerting wobbly guitar sound – or is it an organic keyboard? Not bad for a song about how many of your friends have passed on. The title track is an epic with crusty low bass that bubbles up like a tar pit, reflecting upon its oily surface the light guitar figures that glitter like stars in the heavens. Bassist Tim Chandler cuts loose on this album, and his imaginative, unorthodox style, which can turn a simple folk song into a tension-filled bar brawl, revels in fuzz and a dominant place in the mix.BR>

Offsetting the lush orchestral rock of the first “side” is the stripped-down punk rocker “Now That I’ve Died,” with lyrics from the perfected afterlife like “I’m never cynical (but still a little sarcastic).” A personal favorite is the Jerry Chamberlain-penned power- pop gem “Waking Up Under Water,” a dark song full of gigantic guitar hooks that give way to timpani, strings and horns for a modern “Kashmir” feel before adding in a bizarre Middle Easter guitar sound, compliments of Greg Flesch, whose wildly inventive, yet melodic guitar figures will give me months of enjoyment unwinding and understanding. Of course, I have to mention drummer Ed McTaggart who manages to bring freshness and vigor to the aging art form known as rock n’ roll drumming, nowhere more so than on the Lennonesque closer “The Sun Shines on Everywhere” where Taylor unveils yet another lush anthem graced with a stunningly gorgeous and melodic guitar solo. One last extra touch to mention is the brief appearance of “Penny Lane” horns in the final seconds of the album, a sly wink and a final ray of hope against a normally dark theme that permeates the album.BR>

In a recent interview Taylor said that this band is basically “accessible 60s pop ... but eccentric.” But it’s so much more. It has humor, lyrical paradox and intelligence and is very human. Plus it’s just danged good. Dig Here Said the Angel is an album that has quick appeal but a depth both lyrically and musically that will certainly be calling me back well into 2014.

Music Review - The Winery Dogs

This band played their final show of their tour here in Fort Wayne and I hear it was incredible.

“Elevate,” the first song from the self-titled debut album of “supergroup” The Winery Dogs transported me instantly back to Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. Singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen’s smoky voice is strong and commanding, leading to a powerful, bright radio-friendly chorus that has background vocals that, well, if they aren’t intentionally trying to emulate Van Halen they must have been in the bands subconscious. The mid-song bass solo, however, is a dead giveaway that this isn’t some cheap knock-off band. No sir, that’s the genuine Billy Sheehan making the kind of ruckus that only he can. And who is that keeping up with this proficient duo without breaking a sweat? It can only be ex-Dream Theater member Mike Portnoy, probably only using his left hand. Fortunately this killer song isn’t the only winner in a sea of dogs. Sorry… couldn’t resist. “Desire” showcases an intense groove, a guitar and bass passage that would be at home on any Steve Vai album, and impassioned soulful vocals. Listen to this song and you’ll be reminded of the power trio helmed by Hendrix. THE Hendrix. Not his cousin Melvin. Another strong offering is “Not Hopeless” which mixes Grand Funk Railroad with high-octane Mr. Big, throwing in a bit of technical wizardry to keep your interest but not to the point of distraction. In fact, like classic Van Halen, this album is about the music first and foremost, though the occasional head-turning shows of testosterone are not frowned upon. Neither are power ballads (“I’m No Angel” and “You Saved Me”) and apparently neither are songs populated primarily by Hammond organs and piano (“Regret”).

What could have been just another throw-away side-project album is instead a pleasing find sporting songs that appeal to technical musicians and casual listeners alike. While Sheehan’s involvement is obvious (dizzying bass parts take a bow in nearly every song) the album is primarily the work of Kotzen, both in the bluesy classic rock songwriting, the vintage yet energetic guitar rhythms, and the expressive vocals. These fellows squeeze the power trio format for all it’s worth, truly combining to form something greater than the sum of its parts. I’d ask when the next Winery Dogs album comes out but that would be whining.

Music Review - Pinnick Gales Pridgen

One of the best concerts I ever attended was King’s X with The Eric Gales Band opening. With the release of Pinnick Gales Pridgen it’s like I’ve stepped into an alternate universe and was able to view both acts at the same time… without pharmaceuticals!

As the name might suggest, this power trio is comprised of Dug Pinnick of King’s X, Eric Gales of, well, his own band and Lauryn Hill and last, but not least, Thomas Pridgen, ex-Mars Volta. Sometimes these constructed side projects come across as a bit uninspired but in this case these three gentlemen absolutely click, forming a molten blend of “old school” bluesy rock with plenty of soul that nods at the vintage without sounding like a throwback. Smokin! I’ve not heard Pridgen before but plan to hear more from him soon. The man completely attacks the drums with a powerful intensity I haven’t heard in a long time, like he’s exorcising some inner demon, the stellar “Hang On, Big Brother” being a prime example. I’ve written before about Dug and his thunderous bass and commanding vocals and this album does not deviate. A lesser guitarist would shudder in his presence but Eric Gales is no ordinary guitarist. If you’ve not heard the man, and consider yourself a lover the six strings, you owe it to yourself to check out his chops, both in riffs and as a soloist. Comparisons to Lenny Kravitz, Hendrix, and Slash are not out of place. I was impressed by his first album, cut when he was barely sixteen, and he’s only improved in the interim. Sure, there are more technical players out there but few are as passionate. For proof you need listen no further than their cover of “Sunshine of Your Love” or the jam sections of “Been So High” and you’ve become a believer. And speaking of jam sections, this album contains a rarity these days: mistakes. Yes, there are a few instances where you’ll catch one of the members being less than perfect but the passion is so spot-on that fixing it with an overdub does the song an injustice. It’s that kind of music.

The producer, the legendary Mike Varney, had an apprentice who tried to bring an auto-tune module into the studio while they were recording and it melted on the spot, ruining the carpet. No lie. Every time I listen to this album I hear something else to like and I’m not normally a fan of Dug’s solo projects. Highly recommended for those of us old enough to remember how real music is made.

Music Review - Freak Kitchen - Cooking With Pagans

Not nearly as good as Land of the Freaks, which I listened to for almost a year, still it's not too bad. Except for the potty mouth language. Naughty noo-noo!

There satirist has always played an important role in society, making us realize that the water around us frogs has become dangerously close to boiling. Often this is done by exaggerating observations about the world to ridiculous heights. But what does one do when the world is so messed up that yesterday’s exaggerations are todays reality? You write a song titled “(Saving Up For An) Anal Bleach”, of course.

Yes, only Freak Kitchen, a Swedish band with a penchant for singable pop melodies and violent guitar-based rhythms could have written such a song. The lead guitar riff is head-banging good but with a few progressive metal turns to keep you unbalanced while Mattias “IA” Eklundh, the mastermind behind the band, sings of modern maladies such as “Tweet tweet all day long / Desperate to belong / I’m not sure I even do exist / If it ain’t on Instagram”. The topic of the desperate celebrity is given the treatment in “Freak of the Week” with lyrics packed with so many buzzwords (“Wiki-leak”,”1040p”, etc.) that in a few years college professors could use it to study the era. That is if the music wasn’t so aggressively good with insane stunt lead guitar noodling and manic riffs. Generally college professors don’t go for insane noodling. “Ranks of the Terrified” is another frantic flurry of notes, filling its three and a half minutes with thousands of hand-tapped notes. However the music of Freak Kitchen, while technical at times, always places the melody first. That’s what I like about ‘em. That and their wicked sense of humor.

I must admit that I also like their penchant for thick walls of groovy guitar riffs. “Professional Help” totally crushes with a low riff designed to turn concrete buildings instantly to dust as does “Come Back to Comeback” which concerns your favorite (constantly retiring) band. Yes, “nostalgia was so much better before.” The single, “Sloppy,” is also heavy on the riff department, though this time they add in a bit of blues and stuttering vocals. Concerning the current trend of giving up our rights “for the greater good” of protection from the bad guys, the band concludes “The truth of the matter is that everyone / Is getting seriously corn holed.” This band pulls no punches and seems to relish singing “Coooooorn holed.” Watch the video. It’s catchy and repetitive. You can hate me later when it gets stuck in your head.

Regardless of the state of the world sometimes it’s nice to indulge in the standards, such as when Freak Kitchen covers Benny Goodman’s “Goody Goody.” Yes, it’s as cracked and unorthodox as you might think. It also has just one of many fine examples of Eklundh’s whackily inventive solo style found on the album, Steve Vai with a wicked sense of humor perhaps. A final favorite is “Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan”, a mid-tempo ditty with a dark, threatening atmosphere filled with Indian hand percussion. The song is based on the novel of the same name, not that I knew such a beast existed before this album, where Sweden is colonized by India. A moody song, that’s certain, but what I really enjoy is near the end where he sings “Wear a helmet / Head is not replaceable / Only one head per lifetime.” Stuff like this just makes me grin like the goober that I am.

Freak Kitchen is just what they sound like: freaky. The songs on Cooking With Pagans take ingredients from a broad array of cookbooks, most notably pop, progressive metal, doom, and world music. It’s not for the weak of heart or those with faint taste buds but it’s a feast for someone bored with burgers and fries.

Music Review - The Swans - Public Castration Is A Good Thing

With a title like this you're not gonna get bubblegum pop! While you might be thinking punk it's actually experimental metal. Right now I'm listening to sound samples on Amazon and hearing much that is unusual. I traded my two Swans CDs, which I received free to review, for a few bottles of small-batch pop bearing a skeleton on the front. They were supposed to make your urine change colors but didn't. Yet another of life's little disappointments.

Imagine slowly being crushed to death in the cogs of a relentless, overwhelming machine where the noise of your own tortured demise mingles with the grind of the gears into the oily blackness until darkness and annihilation overcome you. Such is the music of The Swans. Released for the first time on compact disc, this two disc set contains music from their most brutal and violent era, encompassing the albums Cop, Young God, Greed, and Holy Money into two and a half hours of minimalistic, slow, grinding rhythms and loveless lyrics that could only have been written by a psychopath at the bottom of a wet, lifeless, black pit. Just one example from the song "Job": "Cut off the arms/Cut off the legs/Get rid of the body/Pus, poison, sh*t/Get rid of the body". While such gothic anarchy is not my usual brew (in fact, a full listen to both CDs left me depressed and with a ball of angst in the pit of my being), the production is well done and the music has many interesting facets. These mid-eighties excretions were easily the precursor to the music of Nine Inch Nails and The Melvins. I asked "once-a-punk" friend Troy Johnson to listen to these discs as well (which resulted in equal depression and tummy ache) and he found similarities in Ministry and the later music of Black Flag. He also found the slow, drudging death march style similar to defunct Fort Wayne band Culture War. This music is dark, hateful and impossibly intense. Your kids will love it... it makes Nirvana look as upbeat as Hanson.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 1999.

Music Review - The Swans - Cop: Young God Greed: Holy Money

There's something about this music that haunts my memory. I don't care to listen to it again, but it was certainly unique. There are shades of The Swans in verses of the most excellent "Sleep Is Wrong" by the more excellent Sleepytime Gorilla Theater, but they did it up in style.

Imagine slowly being crushed to death in the cogs of a relentless, overwhelming machine where the noise of your own tortured demise mingles with the grind of the gears into the oily blackness until darkness and annihilation overcome you. Such is the music of The Swans. Released for the first time on compact disc, this two disc set contains music from their most brutal and violent era, encompassing the albums Cop, Young God, Greed, and Holy Money into two and a half hours of minimalistic, slow, grinding rhythms and loveless lyrics that could only have been written by a psychopath at the bottom of a wet, lifeless, black pit. Just one example from the song "Job": "Cut off the arms/Cut off the legs/Get rid of the body/Pus, poison, sh*t/Get rid of the body". While such gothic anarchy is not my usual brew (in fact, a full listen to both CDs left me depressed and with a ball of angst in the pit of my being), the production is well done and the music has many interesting facets. These mid-eighties excretions were easily the precursor to the music of Nine Inch Nails and The Melvins. I asked "once-a-punk" friend Troy Johnson to listen to these discs as well (which resulted in equal depression and tummy ache) and he found similarities in Ministry and the later music of Black Flag. He also found the slow, drudging death march style similar to defunct Fort Wayne band Culture War. This music is dark, hateful and impossibly intense. Your kids will love it... it makes Nirvana look as upbeat as Hanson.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 1999.

Music Review - Paul McCartney - Standing Stone

I still can't bring myself to waste an hour listening to this again... I just remember it as one big mess. I was being overly polite in my review, an early one at that, and I didn't want to slam Sir Paul too badly. Now I don't care.

"Standing Stone", Paul McCartney's second large-scale classical work, is a symphonic poem of epic proportions based on a Celtic legend written by McCartney himself. McCartney freely admits that he cannot read or write music and has never had any schooling in the "rules" of classical music. In order to give form to this piece, he decided to create his Celtic story of the origins of mankind and the mystery of human existence upon which to drape this symphonic work. For those wanting to read this legend, be assured that it is included in what is perhaps the thickest set of liner notes I have ever seen with a compact disc, including the composers thoughts on the piece as well as a brief history of the first performance and a few sketches Paul made while writing his poem. To get the music in his head into musical notation, he played or sang each part into a computer which would recognize the note and then create the written musical notation. And the result? As a long-time Beatles fan, I really wanted to fall in love with this piece. However, the lack of a strong central theme in a piece this long (over 74 minutes) and the hodge-podge of influences and styles ranging from Holst to Ives to gypsy themes to minimalism left a lot to be desired. The huddled masses, however, feel otherwise as this piece has been #1 on the Classical charts all winter. I am not trying to say that the piece is completely devoid of substance. Much the opposite, as trademark McCartney melodies are skillfully woven into the fabric at many key points. The more I listen to the piece, the more nuances I uncover, and the more I like it.

The symphonic poem opens with a dissonant crash of randomness, a primitive rainstorm signifying the creation of form out of chaos. One doesn't have to wait long to hear the first of many beautiful melodies, this one played by a solo horn portraying the beginning of life. Continually layered over the piece is a full chorus, though except for a short section near the end, this chorus provides mood and texture but does not sing words. Overall, the first third of the piece is energetic and exciting as it depicts fire and the beginning of life. The tempo is mostly upbeat and it is easy to hear McCartney being excited about the creation of a new orchestral piece, bringing his Celtic legend to life. The second third drags along with only a few good melodies and a double helping of still, near-silent expanses, almost as if the composer was unsure of how to bridge the gap between the beginning of his story and his clearly perceived conclusion. However, the final section is back in mood with the first, portraying a rustic celebration and dance complete with peasant tunes and jigs, filled with an abundance of memorable melodies that could only have written by Paul McCartney. Overall, an impressive and massive (albeit inconsistent) undertaking for someone who has never studied composition and a worthwhile addition to the musical library of any Beatles fan.

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, March 1998.

Music Review - Wolf Hoffmann - Classical

Many of us have heard it, some heavy metal band tromping through a classical piece like Ride of the Valkyries or Hall of the Mountain King with about as much finesse as a drunken elephant at a pottery fair. Then along comes Wolf Hoffmann, guitarist of the former 80s metal band Accept, with an entire CD of popular classical pieces arranged for electric guitar. Disaster in the making? From the very first spin of this CD, I have to admit that I was impressed, not only with his technical skill but with his obvious understanding and respect of this music as well. Instead of attempting to play the pieces exactly as written, Hoffmann has arranged each piece into a new creation, keeping the melody intact but often rearranging the underlying chords and/or feel of the piece. In fact, the album could have been called "Variations on a Theme By..." For instance, in Hoffmann's capable hands, Beethoven's Fur Elise becomes a smoky blues number complete with Hammond B3. Habanera from Bizet's Carmen Suite No. 2 (just one of three Bizet pieces covered) is filled with a number of scorching melodic guitar solos backed by the impulsive Bizet melody. And yes, he does a version of Hall of the Mountain King, though not without some initial reservation. Hoffmann's concept of this metal standard is to take it into an R&B mode, more rock than metal with Grieg's theme dueling with a sizzling rock guitar. Other pieces include Pomp & Circumstance, Arabian Dance from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, and an abridged version of Smetana's The Moldau. Again, I must state how impressed I was with how tastefully these pieces were arranged and carried out. The guitar playing is immaculately clean, many times more like a classical guitar in style but on an electric. Distortion is used judiciously to color, not to cover up flawed technique. In addition to electric guitar, Hoffmann adds bass, piano, drums, and orchestral percussion, in various combinations. By rearranging these pieces instead of just doing "cover" versions, Hoffmann has made one of the best bridges between "serious classical" and "popular" music that I've heard in years. Adventurous classical music fans and guitarists would do well to add this to their collection!

Get this CD directly from the artist at

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2000.

The Bestest Books I Read in 2014

Crikey! Has it really been over two months since I posted? Like it matters. But for some reason I feel like writing and so here goes...

The Bestest Books I Read in 2014

What? No music best of? Maybe later, tater. According to my dorky database, I read a total of 33 books in 2014, down from 37 in the two years previous. 2007 was a banner year at 53 with 51 in both 2008 and 2009. In 2003 I only read eight books, or rather I started the database in 2004 and had to recall what I read and we all know how bad my memory is. Who knows what gems I forgot to catalog? Now turning to our ten day forecast...

I just loves me to read. And write. There's no money in writing, or reading, so I can't support a family that way and instead sit in a windowless office staring at a monitor for eight hours a day. Not straight, mind you, 'cause I share an office with a guy who feeds every two hours on nuts and chips and cups full of ice ("That cup isn't going to magically refill there, buddy, so you might as well throw it in the trash.") Then my misophonia kicks in and I take a walk. That's probably good 'cause nine out of ten taxidermists say that sitting too long causes hemorrhoids.

My wife loves to read but rarely gets to. I read almost exclusively during my lunch break because at home I serve as a jungle gym where small children climb on me. I like being a jungle gym but it's easy to lose your place on the page when you're trying to "Daddy, look at this" every minute or so. My two older daughters love to read as well, which I really like. Except when they read two or more full novels in a day. That's when you know you have a problem.

Of the books I read this past year, eighteen were non-fiction and fifteen were fiction (again, from the database). That's a decent balance, methinks. Reading fiction is a much needed mental escape, especially if you don't watch much TV or movies, but like TV and movies, too much fiction and you should probably start looking into what you are trying to avoid. I should probably read more fiction, though, 'cause life is hard. Sometimes a month or so goes by and I'm finding myself to be really grouchy or irritable and I realize that I haven't read a novel in a while. It's good medicine, mate.

But non-fiction rocks as well. It's the best kind of continuing education. Read ten novels and you've been entertained but not really much better off (unless they are well researched historical novels). Read ten non-fiction books and suddenly you're ready for Jeopardy. Well, perhaps not but at least you've hopefully challenged your thinking a bit.

Three books top my 2014 non-fiction reading list, all of which can cause a shift to one's thinking. The first is Seven Experiments That Could Change The World by Rupert Sheldrake. These are experiments that nearly any one can do that seem to turn accepted knowledge on it's head. You know, those things that we were taught in school that everyone takes for granted. For instance, how do homing pigeons home? A number of theories have been put forth over the years but despite some scientists saying that know, they really don't have experimental, repeatable proof of any theory. Another interesting tidbit is that constants such as the speed of light or the force of gravity are not constant. For instance, during the almost century that we've been able to measure the speed of light it has changed. Not gotten more accurate, but actually changed. For instance, it was measurably slower during the 1930s and 1940s by almost every measurement around the globe. Sheldrake also fills us in on how scientists treat data, throwing out measurements that are outside of what they expect, calling them errors, instead of looking into why the measurement is not what they expect.
The other two books are by L.A. Marzulli. On The Trail of the Nephilim is packed with photographs of impressive architectural stonework in South America and elsewhere, postulating that these engineering marvels (many of which we still cannot replicate) were constructed by super-intelligent ancient man. Or ancient giants (nephilim) and then goes on to give archeological proof. The other book, Cosmic Chess Match explains that age old question of how a loving God could tell Isreal to wipe out entire groups of people in the Old Testament. In a nutshell, in Genesis God tells Satan that Eve's seed would crush his head and so Satan begins to try to corrupt Eve's seed. Hence the giants in Genesis 6 and the need for the flood to cleanse the earth of corrupted DNA. Also hence the mixed-race genetic corruption of groups of people that Israel had to destroy (and notice, God didn't tell them to wipe out every city in the promised land) and the report from Joshua and Caleb that they appeared as grasshoppers compared to the current occupants. I and others would also postulate that the coming trans-humanism (altering our DNA and that of animals and food) is yet another attempt at corrupting the "good" that God has made. It's pretty freaky stuff but Marzulli has things well documented and logically presented.

As far as fiction, an early enjoyable read was Flight of the Shadows by Sigmund Brouwer. He's married to a Christian music artist and while there was a strong current of morality in this book, it would fail the "Chistianese" test of most bookstores. It was also a sequel of which I was unaware. Elysium by Keith Robinson was a smash and a blast, being the best apologetic-science-fiction that I've read yet. Published in 2013, I'm hoping that Robinson is hard at work on the next book in the series. Another good one is The Resurrection by Mike Duran. Part thriller, part character study, this book focuses on a small town that experiences a resurrection of a boy and how this affects people, from the lady who laid a hand on the boy in his casket before he rose, to her family, friends and pastor, to the people in the town who think she has a gift from God. Good stuff, there. Also in the "Christian-Thriller" genre, and quite possibly the best book I read all year, is 3 Gates of the Dead by Indiana's own Jonathon Ryan. Fast-paced, gritty and faith-based, this one takes place in Ohio and incorporates the occult and nephilim-built mounds. Impeccably written but probably not one you'll find on the shelves of your local Family Bookstore as there is some language (though The Resurrection has no such issues). The sequel is due out this spring and my bank account is itching.

While I didn't intentionally seek out Christian books, they certainly do seem to top my list. One that earned a solid ten is by none other than Donald Westlake. What I Tell You Three Times Is False is the third book written under the pen name of Sam Holt. Apparently Westlake wanted to know if his books sold because of his name or if they were actually good and so he started yet another pen name. He was outed after the second book and decided to just have fun with the whole concept and in the process wrote a book that is an immensely enjoyable read. I write more of this book here.