For more about Allison and her books visit her website at For now, please relax and brace yourself for the occasionally coherent ramblings of Allison's mind.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Music Review: Little Known Bands You Should Know

Music is a big part of my life, probably as much as writing. I’m classically trained on two instruments and taking lessons on a third. More importantly, I listen to it voraciously.

I should disclose before we begin that my tastes tend to rest with lesser known alternative bands. Many happen to crossover into the Christian genre which tends to be a goldmine for small bands trying to make a start, but I listen to anything edgy with quality lyrics and musicianship. I like a good hook as much as the next person and a little screaming is perfect but not required. Not too much though. I need a melody. Other than that, I’m not picky and will latch on to anything well-done.

I also have a heart for smaller up-and-coming bands that deserve a chance. Here are some you probably don’t know, but should. Feel free to jump on the bandwagon while you can still get a seat.

After Edmund:
This band tops my list for several reasons. First of all, their sound is unique and addictive. They have it all: the lyrics, the hooks, the musicianship. They also are quickly making a name for themselves in the alternative world, even nominated for a Grammy.

But the icing on the cake is the fact that they have the humility and talent to back up their rising fame. They’re just plain good people you’d love. The closest I ever came to star-struck was my encounter with this band. Not because they act like the rock stars they are, but because they don’t. Not at all. You wouldn’t know they weren’t your long lost friends from junior high.
And don’t let the drums and electric guitars fool you. This is not a band that learned a few chords and stuck a song together. They put my musical training to shame. After one conversation with lead Mitch Parks while I was demonstrating my own instrument, it was clear that he was way over my head. I’d bet they can take on the best in the musical theory department.

“Clouds” is a song that I can only describe by saying it makes me jealous. I wish I wrote it. I wish that every time I hear it, which is often. It’s pretty much the perfect song. Darkly emotive, catchy, and a chorus that will blow you away.

“Backwards” is another gem. It’s one of those songs when you hear live for the first time before it’s out, you just have to smile because you know your favorite band is still serious about making amazing music. You can’t wait for the next album. You just have to hear that song again as it repeats in your head after the show.

If you like alternative with a twist, check out After Edmund.

The Almost:
If you prefer your less famous alternative a little more mainstream, this is the band for you. That is not a criticism in any way. That’s just shorthand to describe this band as bursting with catchy hooks and choruses. The album “Monster Monster” has been playing in my car non-stop for about a year. It’s now my four-year-old’s favorite record. He gets upset when I play anything other than “the Monster song” as he calls it. If you only want a taste, check out the songs “Monster Monster” and “Young Again.” That should tell you everything you need to know about this band that deserves every penny of our $.99 of support.

Balance and Composure:
If you really want to delve into the alternative world with a rising star, this is it. That’s not to say they don’t have hooks, but they don’t seem as concerned with following the traditional musical formula. Every song feels like its own adventure. It’s almost exhausting to listen to, but in a good way.

I know some of these band members personally and they have the integrity and earnest devotion to their craft that deserves every bit of their increasing popularity. I always love supporting musicians who are still in it for the love of music despite the fact that fame and money haven’t validated them yet. Like the others on this list, they don’t need anything else to validate their worthiness. They’ve got the love, the talent, and the benefit of being humble dreamers still in awe of their steady climb up.

Kimber Rising:
This is so not my usual genre, but I’m a fan of talent in most forms and these women could sing the crap out of a dictionary if they wanted to. They’re also amazing people you want as your friends. If you like catchy melodies, sick harmonies, and just listening to a song that makes you smile, check them out. I guarantee you they were smiling when they sang it. I’m sure there are times they aren’t happy and thrilled to be doing what they love, but not that I’ve ever seen or heard about.

There are plenty of other bands I could highlight, and maybe will in subsequent posts, but for now, this is a good start.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Movie Review: Country Strong (2010) – with bonus Public Service Announcement

I didn’t think I’d like this one. There was no reason I should. I’m already on record as not being a country music fan. In fact, I really don’t get that style at all. But alas, this movie may have converted me.

Ok, maybe not, but not only did I like this movie, I didn’t hate the music. I turned it on expecting to turn it off after a few scenes, but ended up watching the whole way through.

Sure the plot was a bit idealistic, but aren’t most movies? Isn’t that kind of the point of fiction? I was thinking about that the other day as I scoured reviews of books and movies. People’s main complaints seem to be the fictional nature of the fiction they’re absorbing. And yes, I know fiction needs to follow its own rules. And yes, I’ve been frustrated by writers and directors who didn’t. That’s not what I’m talking about.

In general, based on what I’m reading, people seem to be expecting realty when they encounter fiction.

“I’ve been to Mexico City. That’s not how you catch a cab.” I’ve been to Mexico City too. It’s enormous. There are probably dozens of ways to catch a cab. How do you know?

“Oh, no one would ever get discovered like that in the real music business.” Possibly. I’m sure it’s happened. It would be an extremely long, probably boring, movie if you watched the real way most musicians pay their bills.

“A doctor wouldn’t be allowed to do that in real life.” Probably not. So? If the hero dies in the opening scene, would you be happier?

Maybe I’m just biased because my own book was once described as “poorly researched” which I found to be an interesting assertion. As if the reviewer knew enough about the subject matter and my own biography to make that superior claim. I could write an essay defending myself, my research, and the fact that many of the details were autobiographical, but why should I have to? It’s fiction. Even if I didn’t know a thing about the subject (which I did), it’s not real. I made no claims it was. In fact, there’s a whole page in the opening making it very clear it’s not.

How about this movie: Protagonist wakes up, eats a bowl of cereal, takes an uneventful car ride to work, stares at a computer for 9 hours, drives home. Stops for gas. Eats a plate of pasta. Watches TV for two hours. Does a load of laundry. Goes to bed. Closing credits.

Even fiction about reality needs to have fiction to make it watchable. Fiction about reality takes the most fantastic and noteworthy parts of reality and mashes them together in a story. It doesn’t take the average day of the average person. Only the most incredible day of the average person. Or, more often, a combination of many incredible days of many incredible people spliced into one story about one person. It’s fiction. You can do that. We want you to do that.

Back to Country Strong. You already know the plot from the trailer. It doesn’t diverge much from exactly what you think it will be about, but I like Gwyneth Paltrow. We knew she could sing (Duets, 2000), act (plenty of others, not all gems though), and be just plain likeable. She’s one of those actresses that you don’t hate for being beautiful because she seems like she’d be a decent a person. She also seems intelligent. Whether she’s either, I have no idea, but she comes across that way here and in many other films I’ve seen.

It may not be the best movie of the year, but it’s definitely worth the time to watch it. I liked it more than I thought based on the subject and reviews.

Bonus Public Service Announcement:

Although it didn’t bother me (see above), this movie does make it seem like the path to success is a pretty easy one for musicians. Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester) went from a beauty queen nobody to recognizable star after a lucky break and few brief shows. The more common path is that of Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedlund) – years of hard work in local bars while working a day job.

Eventually a band or artist that works a bunch of local gigs may get picked up enough to tour, but even that is hardly the beginning of a rock star life. Most of the bands out there struggle and struggle, scraping together just enough cash to keep their van running to get to the next gig. Many can’t even make it without a spouse at home to help pay the bills or a bed in the basement of their parents’ house when they’re not touring. I’m not even talking about your neighbor’s start up garage band. I’m talking about those with a real shot who you would think have made it. Record deals. Tour managers. Agents. The whole deal. By the time everyone gets their cut, there’s not much left for them. Trust me.

This leads to my PSA.

Please don’t steal music from these people. I read a lot of “comment sections” on articles and message boards. I’m curious about public opinion and where people are in terms of their thought processes. It’s frustrating to read people whining about how these “multi-million dollar rockstars” should stop complaining about the $.99 they’re losing because of a ripped song. One less vacation home. So what?

You know what, there are some multi-million dollar rock stars out there. Most of them aren’t. You’d probably be shocked to know how little a lot of your favorite bands earn. I know first hand there are bands who had invites to the Grammys and are barely getting by. That $.99 may seem inconsequential but they’ve invested everything they have into writing and recording that song.

I was at a show recently and one of the bands I liked was literally wearing t-shirts for the band they opened for. Why? Someone broke into their van and stole all their clothes and some equipment. They were begging for their fans to buy a CD or some merchandise so they could at least get some clothes to finish the tour. That’s not an unusual financial situation for even a band you could say has made it.

Just give them their $9.99 for an album or $.99 for a song. If you like their music, the only way they can afford to keep making it is if we support them. That’s true of most art. People spend years putting together a book or an album or a movie.

End of Public Service Announcement. Enjoy your day.

Friday, August 5, 2011

July Movie Reviews: Best and Worst

Time for the July Movie review. July was more difficult than June, I have to say. I had a clear favorite and least favorite in June, but July turned out to be murkier. (Not to mention I didn’t watch many to begin with).  But since it’s “best and worst movie I saw” and not “brilliant film I’d recommend to the masses” I suppose I can muster support for something in the Best Category. The worst was easier, although I cheated.

Best Movie I Saw in the Month of July: Five Fingers (2006)

It was by no means an amazing film and I’m not even sure I’d recommend it, but I liked the concept and construction. I put the pieces together pretty early, but that didn’t change my appreciation for the exploration of this dark subject.

A pianist (Ryan Phillippe) is captured and tortured for information by an unknown party.

The plot twists in several ways that kept my attention, even if at times some of the scenes were slightly awkward. Still, my only major complaint, as usual, was the ending which had a few scenes too many in my opinion. I keep imagining what a punch in the face the director could have achieved if he’d scrapped those last scenes and went to black after the initial “big reveal.” Instead, the movie had to explain and preach at the end which completely removed us from the film. Maybe that was the point. I don’t know, but explanations and preaching are usually a big turn off for me (see my review of “The Experiment”).

I typically don’t have much patience for these types of political statement films, but the construction of this one worked as an engaging movie as well and drew me to the end.

Worst Movie I saw in the Month of July: Just Married (2003)

Technically I’m not sure I can choose this one as my worst. The category is “worst movie I saw in the Month of July.” That probably means I should have seen it. Since I only got through five minutes of “Just Married,” I’m not sure that counts.

I like some romantic comedies. I’m not against the cheesy formula and fabricated chemistry. It can work and has its place if done well. There are plenty of “cute” films that have a high re-watchability factor and are great for a diverse audience viewing. Not everyone wants to sit through an acclaimed Czech drama at a party.

I also like Brittany Murphy and was sad when she passed. She was fantastic in “8 Mile” and even “Clueless,” among others. I’m also not on the bandwagon that can’t stand Ashton Kutcher as an actor. I think he fits the types of roles he typically plays. Pretty face, goofy character. Heck, I even liked “What Happens in Vegas” more than I should have. Certainly more than I thought I would.

The problem is, Rom-Coms are based entirely on chemistry. You already know the entire plot the second you see the preview. You’re not watching to use your brain and be amazed. It’s all about the comforting formula and suppressed attraction of the main characters. Kutcher and Cameron Diaz had in it Vegas. I didn’t sense any at all in the little I watched of “Just Married.”

Who knows, maybe the chemistry built later, but the opening sequence of shtick comedy just didn’t do much for me. In their first few flashback scenes together I didn’t find their interaction cute or funny. I didn’t like either character. Zero chemistry is the death blow for these things. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for silly, I don’t know. But after five minutes I decided I had better things to do.