Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Imperfect Birds | by: Anne Lamott

Imperfect Birds is the third book of Anne Lamott's contemporary Rosie Ferguson series, which I have not read with the exception of this latest installment. (It's one of those series you an jump in at any time.) I don't think I would have ever picked this up (or even knew it existed) if it wasn't required for one of my university classes which examines adolescent feelings and behavior even though Imperfect Birds is technically an adult book, for it tells the story of teenage Rosie as well as that of her parents while she spirals out of control. Rosie lies, steals, and takes drugs - and she is able to manipulate her mother Elizabeth for much of the ride. Elizabeth must confront some of her own emotional problems and find a way to stand up to her daughter before it's too late.

Imperfect Birds tries to tackle some big topics. Much like with any dramatic soap opera, it'll hold your attention whether you like it or not... The only problem is that it's just not very good. It's odd, really: Once in a while Lamott will have a line that I find exceptionally creative and truthful, but a number of my issues stemmed from the way it was written, the ways she chooses to tell the story. Much of the dialogue felt unrealistically descriptive, and once in a while she'd try to throw in teenage slang and it just didn't reflect how teens talk. It was awkward. (To provide a comparison, I think John Green replicates teen slang perfectly.) Plus, some descriptions in general were just awkward.

One thing I noticed right away is that there is no strategic reveal of character traits - we are told what each and every character is like from the get-go, leaving readers with little to figure out on our own and giving us a very slow start. (I feel like this would have been even more irritating if I read the previous books in the series.) The characters are not likable in any sense, but they aren't supposed to be. Unfortunately, though, it makes them easier to be frustrated with them than sympathetic - especially since I couldn't relate to much of any of them. They're all so troubled in their own ways, and as they mix and mingle they each become even more troubled. There's a lot of drama within these pages. But it also became apparent as I was reading that Lamott likes writing about little moments. This would be fine if it wasn't all she liked to write. Some of the biggest events of the plot that would surely contain a lot of drama are glossed over, skipped... I don't think I've ever read a book where this happened regularly.

The ending does not have the clearest of resolutions, which generally does not bother me as we are left with hopeful clues that Rosie will be okay with time. (Most of the time when books don't have clear resolutions we can figure it out or know enough to sort of formulate a couple different potential endings anyway.) However... this book just ended so abruptly. I don't mind it in terms of the resolution itself and wondering what may happen, but the exact placement just felt so off, like she would have at least needed a couple more paragraphs. It felt as though the story dropped off in the middle of a moment, but not in a strategic way at all.

Overall I just didn't feel like Imperfect Birds was very good. While it deals with some tough topics and there's enough overall drama to stay interested, the characters and the execution of the story just didn't win me over in the slightest.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Blue Pool EP | Vanessa Carlton

Much of the world has forgotten about singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton, who momentarily took over the world with the singles "A Thousand Miles" and "Ordinary Day" from her debut Be Not Nobody. "A Thousand Miles" can still be heard on the radio regularly, but for whatever odd reason, not a lot of people decided to stick with her. However, I am proud to say that I have not stopped paying attention to her in the past thirteen years. I have always been in love with her sophomore effort, Harmonium, and enjoyed some songs from Heroes and Thieves and Rabbits on the Run. Recently she has released the Blue Pool EP, a precoursor to her full-length album Liberman, which is scheduled for release on October 23.

Between Carlton's initial sound on Be Not Nobody and the popularity of other female singer-songwriters in the early 2000s, she fit in the mainstream music scene pretty well. Now, she fits into the indie scene, and frankly, I love it. Her music has held onto its reliance on piano and its peacefulness, but it has certainly evolved over the past thirteen years, and in my opinion, she's shown improvement.

The Blue Pool EP starts off with "Take it Easy," which begins with subtle synths before acoustic guitars and Carlton's light voice start to take their soothing toll on listeners. It's lovely and peaceful, but overall leaves the least amount of an impression on me. "Blue Pool," on the other hand, is without a doubt one of the best singles released this year. It's a perfect combination of dark and light, of loneliness and adventure, of cold and warm, and of newness and nostalgia. I often sing along to the lyrics to the chorus since they're so pretty: "'Cause the garden walls grow quick / Before you know you're outside of it / And the ivy's coming in / It's so beautiful if you can find it." The outro will leave listeners in a daze, for that final piano section is so gorgeous and dreamy. Carlton achieved perfection with this song, and I don't think I've loved a song by her so much since Harmonium.

The last two tracks on the EP are live living room sessions of brand new songs, "Operator" and "Nothing Where Something Used to Be." "Operator" immediately became a favorite alongside "Blue Pool." All it consists of is Carlton and her piano (in the living room), and that's all it needs. She sounds exactly the same as she does in her studio recordings, and sometimes when I listen to these living room sessions I forget they're live. The piano part is wonderful from start to finish, and lyrically, Carlton considers running away with someone: "Leave your house for a home." "Nothing Where Something Used to Be" is also quite beautiful, and there's something cozy about it that makes me think of winter.

Carlton's Blue Pool EP is a very tantalizing teaser for what's to come - overall I enjoy this direction more so than her work on Heroes and Thieves and Rabbits on the Run, and I hope I can say this again in October when we get Liberman. She's an artist that stays true to herself as she naturally evolves, and this mini release has some of her best pieces yet.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Hammerstep's Short Film Features Score by Amy Lee of Evanescence

Amy Lee of Evanescence has joined forces with Dave Eggar and Chuck Palmer to create another dark and beautiful film score. In the past they composed a score for the indie film War Story and released the music on an album called Aftermath, which I thoroughly appreciated. This time, they composed music for a project called Indigo Grey: The Passage, which is a short film by Hammerstep, a visually stunning dance group seen on America's Got Talent. The newly-released film features some lovely snippets from Aftermath, but the spotlight is on the new songs that Hammerstep dances to. Granted, the film is only seven minutes long - we don't have a lot of new material from the classical-contemporary trio, but what we have is pretty damn good. While Aftermath was very brooding, the music for this film was made to dance to and has more electronic influences; therefore, it has more of a sense of urgency.

"Resurrection," a song Lee fans may recognize from YouTube clips of her performance with her collaborators at Bluegrass Underground, is one of the most prominent tracks. Personally, I can testify that this is one of my favorite songs EVER, and I'm so happy we can hear parts of the studio version now. And of course, Hammerstep's choreography is always fun to watch. The concept is simple and appropriate for its tiny time slot - whether someone watches it for Hammerstep or Lee and the guys, they should be content with the final product.

Lee, Eggar, and Palmer have won the Moondance International Award for Best Score. Evanescence fans, be proud.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Favorite Covers of Books I've Read, Part 2

Top Ten Tuesday is a bookish meme hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week, bloggers were given the freedom to choose a list topic. About two years ago I shared my favorite book covers out of all the books I've read, but that was TWO YEARS ago. I've read a lot of books since then, and a lot of them have had exceptional covers. It's time to add to this list.

Top Ten Book Covers of Books I've Read, Part 2

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Across the Universe by Beth Revis

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 
The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Sailor Moon Short Stories 1 by Naoko Takeuchi

Black Spring by Alison Croggon
Revealed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast
The Rover by Aphra Behn

As always, let me know what you think of my list and feel free to post the link to yours. Have a great day!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Kings and Queens | Leah

Leah McHenry is one of the few solo artists of the symphonic and Celtic metal world, and she is known for being on the more soothing side of this genre's spectrum. I was swept away by the ballads on her little album Otherworld, and was thus excited for Kings and Queens, the next chapter of her discography.

The first track, "Arcadia," undoubtedly stands out as one of the best of the album. A male-dominated choir echoes in the beginning before catchy and intense guitar riffs blend with the choral vocals. This is definitely heavier than the material on Otherworld, but Leah's voice sticks to its softer quality and this general change prevails on most of the album. The intro, post-chorus, and middle eight are show-stoppers in their own right, with the intro and post-chorus being quite heavy and the middle eight being very epic and flowy as Leah's light voice soars: "A shining golden citadel, upon a hill / No empire shall overcome / Dreams never to be forgotten."

Kings and Queens gets even heavier (and darker) yet with "Save the World," and it's easy to hear the Eastern influences in this song, sort of like in Epica's music. There's a good chunk of double bass after the chorus (and I'm a sucker for some intense double bass) as Leah vocalizes a bit in the background - it's basically a moment of symphonic metal perfection. The chaotic beginning of  "Palace of Dreams" has a similar atmosphere, but unfortunately I can't love the rest of the song as much, until it abruptly ends in the same style it began... But that transition probably could have been much better.

Since Otherworld was such a mellow album I guess I didn't expect so many great guitar riffs from Leah, but there ended up being plenty of examples on Kings and Queens amid some of the more delicate sounds she mastered on Otherworld. Her first single, "Enter the Highlands," includes some of the heaviest riffs, and they aren't instantaneously catchy, but I mean that in a good way. I mean that in a "Requiem for the Indifferent" sort of way: It's kind of complicated and took a while to grow on me. Leah's going beyond the basic form. Yet, at some point, her vocal lines from this song kept getting stuck in my head; I especially struggle to get the multi-layered chanting out of my head: "Souls... souls... souls..." Leah's voice is also layered like a choir in "Remnant" and weaves with the guitars most memorably, and this one is also no stranger to great riffs amid synths.

Even though Kings and Queens takes on a heavier approach compared to Otherworld, Leah still makes room for softer moments. "Hourglass" and the acoustic version of the English-Irish ballad "Siúil a Rún" are rather beautiful, with "Siúil a Rún" being one of my favorites. As mentioned before, Leah loves her world influences, and I love how she weaves them into her music - especially this song. Kings and Queens features both an acoustic version of "Siúil a Rún" and a rock version, of which I prefer the acoustic version. Leah experiments with different cultural sounds most notably in "In the Palm of Your Hand" and "The Crown," but neither of those really stood out to me.

But the thing with Kings and Queens is that it's honestly taken FOREVER to grow on me. It seems that in every song I don't particularly like right away, I fall in love with one or two sections and before I know it I'm jamming to the entire track from start to finish. In fact, it's happened with almost all of the songs I've mentioned so far, save "Arcadia." Currently this seems to be happening with "Angel Fell" - that echoey harpsichord-type instrument is so haunting and that post-chorus is purely amazing; I bob my head every single time I hear it. So even though I may not love every single track at the moment, who knows what I'll think of them by the end of the year.

The point is that Leah McHenry has created an altogether impressive symphonic metal album. It isn't quite perfect, but any patient listener who appreciates musical complexity will find that there are some killer tracks on Kings and Queens. It surprises me how incredibly underrated she still is within this community - it's not like the fanbase of this subgenere is a stranger to underground music. (Plus, members of Delain worked on this album, so that should at least make their growing fanbase curious.) But once people stumble upon Kings and Queens, I'm sure they'll understand the appeal. Leah's got skills.