Thursday, August 29, 2013

Legend of Korra (Episodes 9-10)

(Catch up on previous episodes here)

Episode 9 opens with Korra still in the clutches of the now-revealed bloodbender Tarrlok. Taken from Republic City, Korra is being held prisoner inside a metal box somewhere in the mountains. Meanwhile, Tarrlok stages the scene where he fought Korra in order to frame the equalists for her disappearance. Fearing this to be true, Beifong breaks Korra's friends out of prison and decides they'd better find her before Amon gets a hold of her. Along with Tenzin, they discover an underground equalist base and soon learn that the equalists had nothing to do with Korra's disappearance. When they confront Tarrlok, his secret is uncovered. He uses his powerful bloodbending to fight them off and flees before being captured.

With nowhere to go and nothing to do inside her metal box, Korra has decided to concentrate on her mediating and hope she can lean something from the visions that creep in from time-to-time. In her visions, we see characters from The Last Airbender as adults. Aang and Toph have successfully captured a criminal boss named Yakone, who terrorized the city with his bloodbending. Shortly after Councilman Sokka sentences him, Yakone breaks free. It is only in the Avatar state that Aang is able to stop him, and then permanently takes away his bending, in the same manner as Amon. As it turns out, Tarrlok is Yakone's son, trying to get back at the council for what they did to his father, and complete his father's dream of running Republic City. This dream dies with the arrival of Amon to the country cabin. Impervious to Tarrlock's bloodbending, Amon walks right up to him and takes away his bending. When Amon's henchman go to retrieve Korra, she barely manages to fight her way out, but does eventually escape.

During Korra's recovery back on Air Temple Island, the previously established love triangle gets a little more tangled. Asami knows that Mako has feelings for Korra, even before he realizes he does, no doubt setting up more complicated feelings in the future. But any time to dwell on relationships is quickly cut short as the equalists attack Republic City, bombing it from above with Sato's airships. 

Soon all of the council members are taken and only Tenzin remains. Heading for police headquarters, he manages to get a communication through to the General of the United Forces before the station is attacked. Team Avatar is back together, and comes to his rescue as they fight off a fleet of megatanks and manage to save Tenzin, just in time to see several ships headed straight for Air Temple Island.

Beifong does her best to hold off the equalist attack on the island as she protects Tenzin's family while Pema is having her baby. In one of the best scenes of the episode, Beifong is aided in battle by the Airbending children, who fight wonderfully, if not a tad unconventionally. The peace doesn't last long however. More airships are headed for the island. Tenzin makes the decision to abandon the island, taking his family to safety. In their flight, they are pursued by Amon's airships and Beifong sacrifices herself in order to save the family. She bravely leaps from one ship to the next, taking it down much the way Aang did in the final episode of The Last Airbender

Korra and her friends retreat to Republic City's underground tunnels, unsure of what lies ahead. But help is on the way. In the final shot, we meet General Iroh of the United Forces, a firebender that bears a striking resemblance to Zuko.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

All Roads Lead to Elysium

Smart science-fiction has always been able to take important, and often controversial, issues and present them in such a way that the audience can view them from a different perspective. Just as he did with District 9, director Neill Blomkamp takes problems from our modern world and sets them in the nearish future, projecting them to their extremes. With District 9 he examined the anti-immigration sentiment that seems to be woven into the human fabric. This time he tackles the global disparity between rich and poor, and the ever growing police state designed to protect wealth and criminalize poverty.  

Elysium uses health care to encapsulate the entire discussion. In the future, the rich have abandoned a polluted earth in favor of their state of the art space station. While the working class is left on the surface to suffer brutal conditions and scrape by however they can, the wealthy live in a blissful utopia where they still play elaborate games like politics. They also have homes equipped with healing machines that can cure any sickness. This is the main reason people on the surface risk their lives to make the illegal journey. They know they will be caught and sent back almost immediately, but if they can get to a healing machine before then, it will all be worth it. 

The movie hits at the heart of the debate over healthcare that has been taking place over the past few years. Back when the first proposals for reform were made, and the ignorant masses took to town hall meetings, you heard a lot of "But America has the best health care in the world!" That statement is fractionally true. It may very well be the best, but only if you are rich. If you are working class, it's marginal at best. The debate then becomes about why things like medicine and care are treated like commodities, and why is one life more valuable than another simply because one has more money? 

The fact that the movie was able to turn these issues into a blockbuster action flick is a small miracle of its own. Forgetting the politics, Elysium holds its own as a futuristic Robo-Cop meets Bladerunner action thriller. The fact that it also makes people stop and think about what's happening around them is just a bonus. And while the movie may not have been a revelatory experience, intelligent film making like this is still rare these days and deserves all the attention it gets for showing the masses that social consciousness can be entertaining.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

Given that summer is coming to an end, I figured I'd use this weekend to look at some of my favorite releases so far this year. I find it's always good to do this around this time of year, because usually by the time December rolls around, the Fall albums have pushed a lot of these aside. So before your ears are lost in the wave of new sounds, here's some not-so-old sounds to make sure you check out. They are in no particular order. Enjoy.

Kurt Vile - Wakin On a Pretty Daze: The Philly native follows up 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo with another masterpiece of psychedelic folk. This double album plays like a mellow Dinosaur Jr. album washed in a haze of a lazy day. The entire album keeps a consistent groove throughout, making it almost feel like one continuous song. With each album, Kurt seems to improve, and he's well on the way to becoming one of the best songwriters of the moment. 

Samantha Crain - Kid Face: For the past several years, ever since I saw her perform live, Samantha Crain has been one of my favorite singer songwriters. Her voice is easily one of the best around and her songs tell beautiful stories. This is her third full length album, and first since 2010's You (Understood). On this album, there's a return to the gloom that hangs over her first EP, and which works phenomenally well with her voice. This is a powerful album and hopefully will finally give her the wider audience she deserves. Stand out tracks are "Taught to Lie," "Paint," "Kid Face," and "Sand Paintings."  

Cancer Bats - Bat Sabbath: Bastards of Reality: There are five Black Sabbath covers on this EP; "Children of the Grave," "Into the Void," "Iron Man," "N.I.B.," and "War Pigs." While they stay true to the original versions, the band brings their trademark energy to the songs, transforming them into slightly heavier tracks that flat out rock. Of course, I have a weak spot for covers, but this was fantastic.  

The Bevis Frond - White Numbers: Since 1986, Nick Saloman has been releasing his neo-psychedelic rock as The Bevis Frond. Criminally unknown here in the States, he ranks as one of my favorite songwriters of all time. There is a Neil Young quality to his work mixed with an indie rock sensibility. This is his first album since 2011's phenomenal The Leaving of London. Like that album, this is another double album of fantastic rock. There isn't a bad song among the 24 tracks, and the album ends with a 42 minute monster of a jam. No need to be familiar with his previous work, feel free to dive right into this one and work your backwards if you like.  

Beady Eye - BE: Their second album opens with the phenomenal "Flick of the Finger" and proceeds with two remarkable Monkees-esque psychedelic pop gems "Soul Love" and "Face the Crowd." The mild "Second Bite of the Apple" follows, but is buoyed by the amazing "Soon Come Tomorrow," a very Ride sounding number. There are a number of beautiful soft tracks like "Ballroom Figured" and "Start Anew" that are balanced with an appropriate number of rockers. Over the course of 17 songs, the band has finally found it's identity beyond Oasis. This doesn't sound like Oasis, it sounds clearly like a Beady Eye record. The band has moved on, and without Noel on board, the other members seem to be hitting their creative stride, quite impressive for musicians with such amazing careers. 

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats - Mind Control: As long time readers are aware, I absolutely love this heavy psych band out of London. Their last album was my favorite of 2011 and now this is poised to become one of my favorites for this year. While it lacks the manic frenzy of Blood Lust, it makes up for it with heavier droning riffs that harken back to Black Sabbath, yet keeps the relentless guitar and haunting vocals of a ghost hidden in the music. The opening two songs "Mt. Abraxas" and "Mind Crawler" set the tone from the beginning and it never really lets up.

The Flaming Lips - The Terror: This is the first true follow-up to 2009's spectacular Embryonic for the dust belt kings of neo-psychedelic indie rock. Much like its predecessor, it spins a darker mood and seems to sink inwardly deeper with every track in the same way as the best of Pink Floyd's albums such as Meddle. The wonderful thing about this record is how it captures the terror of feeling insignificant and yet manages to make it beautiful at the same time. "Be Free, A Way" is a real stand out track for me on album that feels much more like an entirety than a series of songs.

Kanye West - Yeezus: The long awaited follow-up to 2010's triumphant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Though Ye definitely kept busy between releases, releasing Watch the Throne with Jay-Z and showing up in a million other places. But for the first time since his last solo record, it feels as though the artistic innovator has returned. It would be so easy for someone of Kanye's stature to simply repeat himself and play it safe, which is one of the reasons why it's so commendable that he continues to push himself to give people something they've never heard before. This record, like his last, is the sound of an iconic artist given the space to experiment and succeed. Tapping into an industrial electro rhythm, he adapts his flow to fit the dark mood of this record, and still delivers insightful lyrics that continue to tear apart the culture of celebrity and wealth to reveal the sinister workings that lie beneath the surface. Quite brilliant.

Portugal. The Man - Evil Friends: Ever since their first EP in 2005, this psychedelic indie band has been releasing one amazing album after the other, coming one a year like clockwork. For the first time, there's been a two year gap between this new record and their last. The time off was well spent, because even though they have become one of my favorite bands of all time in just the short while they've been around, I must confess that 2011's In the Mountain in the Cloud was a bit of a let down. Well, with Evil Friends, they have erased any fear of a downward trend. This is definitely one of their best efforts to date, showcasing their catchy sound at it's best. Definitely one of my favorite albums of the year so far. 
The Icarus Line - Slave Vows: Back in 2004, this L.A. band released one of my 10 favorite albums of the decade, Penance Soiree and followed it up in 2007 with another great album. And that was the last I heard from them until this album showed up in July (though there was a 2011 album released that seems quite impossible to find). With only a few listens, it has rocketed its way up on my favorite albums of the year so far. There is something about their music that captures that seedy L.A. vibe, dark and dangerous and irresistible at the same time. Fantastic stuff. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Legend of Korra (Episodes 7-8)

(Catch up on previous episodes here)

In the wake of Amon's surprise attack at the pro bending championships, the arena has been shut down, forcing Mako and Bolin to find a new home. They take Asami up on her invitation to move into her father's mansion. Meanwhile, Chief Beifong raids one of Republic City's largest corporations and discovers they have been manufacturing the electrified gloves for the equalists. 

While spending the day at the Sato mansion with her friends, Korra grows to like Asami during a great Speed Racer inspired scene where they are racing cars on her father's test track. Things seem to be going well, until Korra overhears Mr. Sato on the phone and suspects of him working with the equalists. It seems he may have framed his rival, and that he is the real manufacturer of the weapons.

Korra goes to Tenzin and Beifong with this information, and as it turns out, Mr. Sato has motivation for supporting the equalist cause. It is revealed that firebending triads were responsible for his wife's death. Still, Mr. Sato denies the allegations, and even allows the police to search all his warehouses. When no evidence turns up, the investigation seems to be a dead end, until an informant reveals that there is a secret factory under the Sato estate.

Despite the riff it causes between her and her friends, Korra pursues the lead, and along with Tenzin and Beifong discover that there is indeed a factory where Sato has been producing robotic suits for Amon, made of platinum and impervious to metal bending. The whole thing turns out to be a trap.  Korra and the others are only able to escape thanks to Asami, who chooses her friends over the wickedness of her father.

The fallout is swift in episode eight. Beifong resigns in order to pursue Amon on her own terms, and Tarrlok uses the entire situation to gain more power in the city. The political intrigue is extremely well done. Tarrlok institutes measures to curb the rights of non-benders with restrictive laws that mirror ones that have been enacted in our own society to fight terrorists; holding them indefinitely and without proof. His actions put him even further at odds with Korra.

Korra is slowly beginning to understand her role as the Avatar, learning to listen to her visions and realizing her job is to stick up for those who can't stick up for themselves. This leads to a showdown with Tarrlok after he arrests her friends. Fueled by her new confidence, she nearly defeats him. Cornered, Tarrlok is forced to reveal himself as a devious blood bender. In flashbacks, we learn Aang had to face similar struggle, but it isn't yet clear what the connection is. What is clear by the end of the episode is that the new Avatar is in a lot of danger as she is now Tarrlok's prisoner.

(Sidenote: Episode 7 included two of the funniest Airbender Kids moments)

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fiction Friday (20)

Sometimes the right book just seems to come along at the right time. The book I most recently read is one such novel. I bought this book years ago at a Border's that was closing down. I walked out of that store with a stack of books nearly as tall as me, The Invisible Order being one of them. I was attracted to the book by the beautiful cover, and when I read the synopsis, I thought it sounded like a good book to read while researching a middle grade manuscript I was planning. When I abandoned that project several months later, the book lingered for years on my to-read shelf. Having restarted work on that manuscript in the past few months, I was once again drawn to the book and decided to read it. My instinct about it turned out to be spot on. It had the exact same feel that I was going for, and reading it really accelerated my progress on my manuscript. I was totally inspired and am pleased to share it with you. Enjoy.

The Invisible Order Book One: Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley
(Egmont, 2010)

Emily Snow is an orphan on the streets of Victorian London, trying her best to take care of herself and her younger brother William, when an unexpected encounter turns her life upside down. In a dark alley, Emily witnesses something she was never supposed to be able to see; a sword fight between two rival Faerie armies. She makes the crucial decision to help one of the injured piskies after the battle, a choice that puts her at odds with a secretive group known as The Invisible Order, whose task it is to eliminate the Faerie from the face of the earth.

Over the course of the next two days, Emily must free her brother from the clutches of a traitorous queen, break into the mysterious headquarters of the Invisible Order with the help of her street urchin friend Jack, face off against double-crossing enemies from all sides, and solve confounding riddles that just might save the world. I quite loved this book. The exciting plot, with all its intriguing twists, is extremely well thought out. And the characters, especially the tenacious Emily Snow, made the action that much more enjoyable to read.

In many ways, this book felt like a fantasy Dickens may have written if he wrote fantasy. It was pitch perfect in every way and I can't wait to dive into the sequel.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Legend of Korra (Episodes 5-6)

(catch up on previous episodes here)

After her showdown with Amon at the end of episode four, a shaken Korra has decided to take a leave of absence from Tarrlok's task force. Instead, she decides to distract herself by focusing on training for the pro bending championships with her Fire Ferret teammates, Mako and Bolin. 

The fifth episode centers around two love triangles that have been developing over the course of the season. The first concerns the three teammates. Korra obviously has feelings for Mako, while Bolin is head-over-heels for Korra. Meanwhile, Mako is conflicted between his feelings for Korra, and Asami, the daughter of the wealthy entrepreneur who is sponsoring the team. 

After their first tournament match, which the Ferrets win easily, Korra confesses her feelings to Mako. He tells her that he doesn't feel the same way, and then when she sees him kiss Asami, she realizes she's wasting her time. So when Bolin comes into the picture to ask her out, she agrees. And though they have a great time together, she clearly views him as a friend. Things become more strained when Mako accuses her of going out with Bolin only to get back at him. These strained emotions carry over into their second match. The two of them are obviously distracted, and it's only because of Bolin that they are able to win the match.

Afterwards, the situation becomes more messy when Mako eventually confesses that he does have feelings for Korra and they kiss. Naturally, this is observed by Bolin and he's heartbroken. In the third match, the two brothers are at odds, and Korra single handedly wins it for them, advancing them into the finals. The victory is enough to bring the three friends together again, setting up the dramatic turn of events in the sixth episode.

As the team is training, a radio broadcast is interrupted by Amon. He demands that the pro bending championship be cancelled, calling for an end to the worship of benders. If it is allowed to go on, he promises retaliation. Spooked by fears of escalating violence between benders and equalists, Republic City's council initially votes to cancel the tournament. That is until Lin Beifong, the metal bending chief of police and Toph's daughter, tells them it would be a danger to give in to Amon's threats and assures them that her team can provide security. I loved the way this storyline was handled, and how it directly relates to terrorism and security concerns in our own world. 

The match between the Fire Ferrets and the Wolf Bats is allowed to go on as scheduled. As it turns out, the Wolf Bats, three time champions, have bribed the refs and cheat their way to victory. Just as they are crowned, the equalists strike. Using electricity weapons, they are able to quickly neutralize the metal benders and Korra. Then Amon takes to the platform to make an example of the Wolf Bats, claiming that, like all benders, they are bullies who cheat and steal their way to glory. Then he takes away their bending, and declares that the equalist revolution has now begun. 

Korra and Beifong recover and try their best to stop Amon from escaping. They put up a valiant fight, but there are just too many of the armed soldiers and eventually Amon escapes into a waiting blimp. As the episode ends, it is clear that Republic City is now at war!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

It Never Happened That Way...

For every book you've ever read, chances are there are several versions of the story stacked away in the author's closet. I know at least there are for the books I've written. In some cases, there are entirely different novels with little resemblance except the main characters. That's the extreme however. Mostly there are just a handful of deleted scenes and alternative endings, much like the extras packaged for a movie's home release.

As I make my way through the second draft of the manuscript I'm working on, I just conquered a section where I decided to completely rewrite things. The action in the original manuscript was kind of a mess. Everything felt rushed, and it lacked the drama I had envisioned. That said, many of the plot points were right on target...they just needed to happen in a completely different way. 

As a much younger writer, this would've been an incredibly frustrating realization, enough to possibly make me abandon the project. I didn't feel that way at all with this story. I actually had fun writing the additional scenes, knowing I was sending the characters on a much better adventure than the one they'd been on the first time around. 

I'll admit that there's a part of me that loves those deleted chapters and dropped story lines. They're a way of holding onto a story even after the world gets a hold of it. As the writer, you're the only one who knows the events in the story hadn't always happened that way, making sure the first draft will always remain a secret you share between you and your characters.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

So this week I'm finally getting back into some more contemporary releases, while still revisiting some older albums. The cool weather has definitely put me in the mood for more introverted autumn music. Also, a productive week of writing also has me leaning to more atmosphere music. A lot of different genres on the list this week. Hopefully there is something you will enjoy.

Guilt Mountain - Tiger Hour: From the mind of Kate Larson comes this enjoyable little album of home recordings. It's everything you'd expect from a home recording, a talented singer-songwriter sharing personal and playful songs. You can find this album for free on the linked bandcamp page. I highly recommend it.

The Kooks - Konk: I've owned this album since its release back in 2008, but recently have been listening to it quite frequently. Following in the wave of UK acts like Arctic Monkeys, this Brighton band definitely has more of a pop sense to their brand of indie rock. The result is super catchy songs that harken back to the heyday of Britpop. I would suggest seeking out the edition with the included bonus album, some of the best songs appear as extra tracks.

Cream - Fresh Cream: Following their departure from The Bluesbreakers, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce went on to form Cream with drummer Ginger Baker. This 1966 debut album shows how they've grown beyond John Mayall's British blues style as they start to develop a more psychedelic hard rock style that will characterize their later work. A solid record that bridges two dynamic styles of '60s British rock music.

Rob St. John - Weald: I first discovered this Scottish indie folk artist on a trip to the UK back in 2008 when I purchased his limited release EP Like Alchemy. Three years later, in 2011, this full length debut was released. Last week I was finally able to get my hands on a copy and it's quite beautiful. There's a darkness to Rob's voice that creates such an amazing mood in his music. He's definitely an artist worth checking out.

Forest Sword - Engravings: When in the mood for electronic music, there really is nothing quite like it. Though I was into it for a long time, I don't follow it so much any longer, but every once in a while I will check out something new. Forest Sword got a lot of attention with his early EPs and this full length album is due out in September. As expected, it's very atmospheric without being overbearing or pretentious.

The Icarus Line - Slave Vows: Back in 2004, this L.A. band released one of my 10 favorite albums of the decade, Penance Soiree and followed it up in 2007 with another great album. And that was the last I heard from them until this album showed up in July (though there was a 2011 album released that seems quite impossible to find). With only a few listens, it has rocketed its way up on my favorite albums of the year so far. There is something about their music that captures that seedy L.A. vibe, dark and dangerous and irresistible at the same time. Fantastic stuff.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Legend of Korra (Episodes 3-4)

(Catch up on previous episodes here)

When I last left off the saga of the new Avatar, Korra had experienced her first boost of confidence stemming from her success with the professional bending team The Fire Ferrets. But in the world of Avatars, adversity is never far away. For Korra, the third episode of the show reveals just how sinister a threat she faces, and hints at how trying her journey will become.

The episode opens with some bad news for The Fire Ferrets. Having made the championships, the organizer of the league informs them that they must come up with a share of the prize money. Mako and Bolin have no way of coming up with it, and neither does Korra, who has never had need for money. In order to help the team, Bolin ends up taking a job with The Triple Threats, one of the many triad gang of benders that roam Republic City, using their bending gifts to extort others. These gangs, and the pro-bending promoter, are great examples of how Republic City is based on New York during the 1930's and 1940's. These are the kind of nuanced touches that the show, and its predecessor, have always done so well, and which transcend it far beyond being just a children's cartoon.

After a day of work, Mako grows concerned that Bolin has not returned and seeks out Korra's help to find him. They discover Bolin has been taken by Amon's equalist soldiers. As they engage them, we discover the true terror behind Amon. His soldiers have been trained in a technique known as "chi blocking" which can temporarily nuetralize bending. However, this is nothing compared to the real threat that is to be revealed when Korra and Mako infiltrate an equalist rally being billed as The Revelation. It is there that viewers first learn Amon's terrifying secret--his ability to take away a bender's power permenantly.

Though Korra succeeds in rescuing Bolin before it's too late, she is obviously traumatized by what she's seen. As episode four opens, she is haunted by the fear of losing her bending. This fear is strong enough to prevent her from joining Councilmen Tarrlok's task force established to put an end to Amon's reign of terror. Tarrlok eventually bullies her into joining, using the press to ambush her into making a decision. After a successful raid on a chi blocker training camp, Korra publically challenges Amon to a duel. Foolishly trusting his honor, she is ambushed by a squad of his henchman. Once her bending is disabled, Amon threatens to take away her bending, but lets her ago, claiming to have a more devious fate in store for her. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Keeping the Sky from Falling

If there were awards given out for "Most Improved Television Program," this season of Falling Skies would run away with the category. What started with much promise in its opening season soon was sidetracked by stalling plots, cliche characters, and a fair amount of poorly written lines that no actor would ever be able to pull off. Then something happened toward the end of Season 2, the show and the characters began to find themselves. The story stopped simply moving from place to place with the same results, and brought the 2nd Mass to a permanent settlement, Charleston. From that moment on, Falling Skies ceased to be War of the Worlds-lite and started to show signs of possibly becoming the next Battlestar Galactica.

With the final episode of the season having aired this past Sunday, I can safely say that while it's still not Battlestar Galactica it's getting there. The scope of the story expanded exponentially this season, wisely adding a new alien race and raising the stakes of each battles and subsequent victories. And while I've always felt Noah Wyle was the best thing about the show, his Tom Mason character was finally given the gravity with which to make the show revolve around. And Charleston grew to have the same sense of desperation and hope that the Galactica had, complete with its memory tree for lost family and friends.

The production value of the show has always been pretty high, especially for a basic cable program. That was never an issue. But with the washed grey pallet that the show was given this year, it added a gritty feel that had been missing. Certainly there were still weak hangovers from the past, but they were less bothersome this year than previous seasons. This is a perfect example of why new concept shows need more time to develop. I'm really glad I stuck with the show, I finally feel rewarded for it. If you were at all interested in this show at any point, but gave up...I recommend giving Season 3 a chance. It's proven itself to be one of the quality sci-fi shows on television. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

This week's list is a combination of newer releases and older albums that I've recently sought out. Most likely it will probably be that way for a while since I have such an abundance of albums collected that I've not been able to absorb. When this happens, I tend to ignore all but a few new releases. Especially with the Fall rush about to be unveiled, I want to make sure I've gone through what I already have. That said, there are still great albums on this list. Newer does not always mean better. Enjoy.

Neil Halstead - Oh! Mighty Engine: Founding songwriter of Slowdive and Mojave 3, two of my favorite bands, has released three solo albums in the last decade, this 2008 album being the second. It veers solidly into the folk genre, which is where Mojave 3 had been heading over the course of their last two albums, moving away from the dream pop sound that carried over from Slowdive. Like all his work, these songs are beautiful and poignant. At moments, it reminds me of early Belle & Sebastian, only less playful. Neil always has a way of reaching into the seriousness of reflection.

Psychic Ills - Dins: It's been seven years and seven albums since this 2006 debut from the Brooklyn neo-psychedelic band. They have since honed their craft considerably, but there is something to be said for this exploration of sound and all its looseness. Definitely the kind of album made for spending the day higher than high while sitting around a sunny apartment as the city goes on without you outside the window. I have a weakness for albums like that, and this is no exception. There's nothing on here that I haven't heard before, but it's also a sound I never particularly mind hearing again. A nice find if you come across it.

Holly Miranda - High Above the City: There isn't very much information on this collection of 20 songs, so I'm not sure if it was sold only at concerts, if it's a demo, or was self-released, but it dates from 2002, a full three years before the release of The Jealous Girlfriends first EP, and seven years before Holly's solo debut EP. (That's assuming the release date is correct). Regardless, this is a very nice album of acoustic songs, featuring only Holly's amazing voice and an acoustic guitar, which is far different from the lush beauty of 2010's The Magician's Private Library. I've seen Holly perform twice, both acoustic sets that feel very much like this album, so for me, it was great to finally find this after years of searching. Very personal, poetic songs, something I can imagine being a teenage girl's favorite record ever, luckily there's a part of me that connects with that idea as I'm sure my books have shown.

Amy Cook - Summer Skin: Released last August, this is the Austin based singer songwriter's sixth album. I was introduced to her earlier this year when I heard the amazing "Airplane Driver" on the radio and sought out this album. There's a definite country/folk vibe to this album. It reminds me of Elizabeth & The Catapult in some ways, Norah Jones in others. A good record that's easy to listen to, but nothing really groundbreaking.

Kurt Vile - Wakin On a Pretty Daze: The Philly native follows up 2011's Smoke Ring for My Halo with another masterpiece of psychedelic folk. This double album is one of my favorites of the year so far. It plays like a mellow Dinosaur Jr. album washed in a haze of a lazy day. The entire album keeps a consistent groove throughout, making it almost feel like one continuous song. With each album, Kurt seems to improve, and he's well on the way to becoming one of the best songwriters of the moment.

John Frusciante - Outsides: The newest EP from one of my favorite songwriters of all time, due out at the end of August, is a continuation of the experimental sound of last year's PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone album and the Letur Lefr EP. It contains only three tracks, all of which are instrumental, with the exception of a few lines on one track. The blending of guitar and electronic glitch is more seamless here than on last years' albums, showing that he's really perfecting this new sound, which is certainly an exciting prospect for future releases. The entire Side A consists of one 10 minute groove track called "Same," which is truly wonderful to listen to, and I've played it many times over the course of this week. The second side is two tracks which feel a little less focused, more like sketches than songs. An interesting piece that makes a nice companion to 2012's releases.

Legend of Korra (Episodes 1-2)

With the second season of Avatar: The Legend of Korra set to premiere next month, I've been re-watching the entire first season in order to gear up for one of the most anticipated returns of the year. It's been a while since I'd seen any episodes, so it's definitely been exciting to see them again. I figured perhaps there are some of you out there like me who may have let the story slip your mind for a bit, so I decided to do a viewing guide for those of you who don't have time to catch up on watching, or just want to hear my personal thoughts on the subject.

In the first episode, the show had the tall order of connecting the characters we'd grown to love over three seasons with those who were to become the stars of the story taking place three quarters of a century later. This was handled masterfully, connecting the past with the new by having Katara being a mentor to the new avatar as she trains. It was also wise to introduce Korra in one scene as a small rambunctious child, endearing her to the viewer before we ever see her as the conflicted teen she will be throughout the series. Even more than The Last Airbender, this show is about coming of age, featuring characters slightly older than the first series. 

The show wastes no time getting Korra to Republic City, the modern metropolis founded by Aang and the other characters we know from the first show. The city is far more modern than anything seen in The Last Airbender, but keeping with the style of the show, it still remains a mixture of contemporary and old world that makes it feel unique. We see the city through Korra's eyes, complete with all the wonder and disillusionment there is to find there. It doesn't take long for the viewer to piece together that a new set of conflicts is going to trouble the new avatar. The peaceful balance has been disrupted, and a riff has been growing between benders and non-benders who feel oppressed by the rule of benders. 

As for Korra's training, she is the opposite of Aang. Whereas he had yet to learn water, fire, or earth bending, Korra has mastered three of the four elements, struggling only with air. In the second episode she goes to live with Aang's grown son, Tenzin, an airbending master who is charged with instructing her in the final element. We also meet Aang's grandchildren, younger children who add an element of fun in every scene they are in. But living on the secluded island in the shadow of Republic City, with all its excitement and danger within sight, is not easy for a young avatar eager to prove her worth and set things right.

During her training, Korra is quickly frustrated by her inability to bend air. Growing impatient, she sneaks away to Republic City where she meets Mako and Bolin, professional benders competing in popular tournaments. It's clear that these brothers are soon to become her companions. Mako, the brooding one, and Bolin, the fun-loving one, make a good pairing with Korra. And when they need a water bender for their team, Korra fills in, despite being forbidden to attend such matches by Tenzin. However, as it turns out, the match is exactly what Korra needed for her first air bending lessons to sink in. The success of this encourages her to give training a more serious effort. And she's going to need the end of the episode we get a glimpse of the sinister Amon, and one look at that fearful mask and we know he's up to no good.