Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Demo Sweat #1

To half the posts I write I end up attaching a subtitle explaining how it's possibly the first in a series, but today I can speak with confidence. There will be another column with my first reactions to Austin bands' online demo recordings tomorrow. I promised that I would listen to the music of everyone who responded to my craigslist ad, and I meant it. The trouble is there's only so much new music that a person can listen to in one day and still maintain open, objective ears. I hit that point about an hour ago and in fairness to the many, many groups who sent me e-mails after 3:30 this afternoon I'm going to return for a second installment of the project tomorrow.

Before I start dropping links, let me make a few generalized statements. First of all, I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know how many e-mails I would get nor how well-recorded any of the songs would be. In both respects, I'm pleasantly surprised. I was not expecting to hear so much promising and genuinely original music so soon after moving to Austin. One of the things I already much prefer about my new hometown to my old one is the casual, pragmatic multicultural atmosphere here. Bands in Austin are bound to have wilder and more intriguing combinations of influences because Austin musicians themselves have such varied backgrounds. That's so cool. I want to hear something I've never heard before every day, and I want to hear something old in a new way each day too. Those experiences are right at your fingertips in Austin if you take the initiative in seeking them out.

But from a band's perspective, it's a real challenge standing out in a town that is lousy with live performances every moment of every day. What is it that makes the difference between languishing in obscurity and headlining tours? It's almost never solely contingent on how good your band is. I'm a huge fan of a band from the early 90's, Chicagoans called Number One Cup. They made two albums that I still listen to all the time even today. But they didn't tour enough and they didn't stay together long enough and they're now completely forgotten, which is a shame because I really wish some label would reissue Possum Trot Plan and Wrecked By Lions on vinyl. They had some early success -- a hit single in England, even -- but they never built on it.

I never understood why back in the day, but I'm older and wiser now. Their label was in Seattle but the band was in Chicago; they constantly were firing bass players so they didn't play live enough and when they did they weren't as good as they could be; most people in their hometown had no idea who they were. Number One Cup was a billion times better than Urge Overkill or Fondly or Kill Hannah or Filter but they didn't play the game the right way. They assumed their songs would speak for themselves and that only works if all you want in the way of fans is hopeless obsessive record nerds like this journalist.

A few -- too few -- of the folks who asked me to give their music a listen understand how to set themselves apart. Rich Restaino wrote me a whole little biography of himself and his work that made me feel like we have something in common (we're both former newspapermen) and predisposed me to find a new musical friend through his urban, rhythmically sophisticated pop cabaret pieces. Because Rich spent time showing an interest in my work, even flattering my dearly-beloved proper grammar, I spent more time listening to his music and reading some of the things he has to say on his MySpace page than I might have otherwise. Thoughtful people don't become so overnight, and I could tell right away that this was a good guy to know. His piece on SXSW (not this year's, but the points are more relevant than ever) is a must-read. Rich, you're good people, and "Ronnie Got Free" is wonderful satirical songwriting in the 70's UK tradition we both love.

Alex Salinas, the drummer for Glafiro and Solid Ghost, is another guy whose enthusiasm and passion for his music is contagious. "We recorded the album The Days Between here in Austin with one determining factor," he wrote me. "No digital, no [gimmicks] or tricks. Luckily it rained outside while we were cutting the tracks so that helped add some of the darkness that I think will be a staple in our sound to come." I mean, how can that not make you curious? Luckily Solid Ghost's music delivers on the buildup. Ariel Sauceda's masterfully fluid bass playing demands your attention, and the analog recording reproduces it in gut-busting detail. Salinas and singer/guitarist Glafiro Benavides are very good at leaving space in their parts to create an ethereal quality no amount of digital postproduction can rival. I wish the lyrics were as successful at painting pictures in the listener's mind as the trio's tight instrumentation, but the sound here is very assured for a new band.

And with Salinas as pitchman, they're bound to go far -- he's already written me back with the surprising information that Sauceda's only been playing the bass for a year. That kind of interaction between listener and band is the linchpin of creating a devoted following. The more I know about how Solid Ghost came together, the more I find to listen to in their music. It makes sense that their bassist would have played some guitar before settling on his current instrument -- most great bass players are listeners first and foremost. Guitar players listen to themselves, drummers keep an internal meter and play to that. But bass players have to find the line of best fit that runs as near tangent as possible to everyone else's part. Perhaps that's why so many great musical maximalists -- Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Nick Lowe, Willie Dixon, Charles Mingus, Bill Laswell -- were bass players.

So much for the gifted networkers. No offense to Rich or Alex, but the only band I listened to today that I would sign this minute were I a record label is the Anti-Scene, an almost casually mind-blowing quartet that mixes brutal double-kick blast beats, backing vocal wails and accents employed like 80's break music, hefty lyrical credentials and varied, ill flows, and a live group sound that shifts on a dime under the MC like a DJ swapping records. You can hear elements of TV on the Radio, poppier rap-metal like Phoenix's better-than-you-think Chronic Future, consciousness rap like Dead Prez, and live hip-hoppers the Roots, only the Anti-Scene are better I think than any of those bands, because they can do all that they do and more still. Their songs are never predictable, Willie Barnes II is a thoughtful and authoritative rapper and a great singer, and they've got a message that their core audience really needs to hear. Reggae toasting and heavy metal basso profundo one right after the other? Why the hell not? I can't wait to see this band on stage.

As for those bands neither friendly enough to give me a reason to give them a lot of attention nor obviously excellent enough for the music to stand on its own merits, they fell into a few different groups. Those operating in more obviously commercial genres -- dance singer Tomas Corbalan and country-rockers Wynn Taylor and The Jeremy Miller Band -- probably don't care that their music is formulaic; formula is what sells. There are some very obvious pitfalls that each could stand to be more aware of: the immediately fraudulent-sounding use of AutoTune when it comes to our pop singers and I-V-IV tunes about dirt roads in the case of the Nashville guys. Taylor's less polished, scrappier-sounding "Dimestore Radio," with its more personal-sounding lyric, is the one bit of real artistry I found in this group.

Box of Baby Birds show individual musical mastery in their mostly one-man symphonies of layered instrumentation, but that sort of thing has been done to death recently and the songs lack the spontaneity and collaborative payoff of real group music. The Demon Hlatus likewise is amusing himself with his lengthy, ambient recordings of digitally altered found sounds, some sort of (implied, at least) narrative must be introduced in order for many others to follow the joke. Scorpio Rising must be a pretty freaking good party band if their recordings are to be believed, they synthesize a dozen different styles of dance music from the 70's to the 90's. There's nothing revolutionary about them but I imagine that they get crowds moving and their well-produced tracks show off all three musicians' talents in the best possible settings.

The world probably doesn't need any more Texas garage bands but here's Lies a Bloom. anyway; I like their varied songwriting (the 6/8 "Attractive Distraction" particularly), evolved dynamics, and way-above-genre-average lead and backing vocals. The Fever Dreams are looser and more ambitious. Their show fliers and the artwork accompanying their songs display a distinct and intriguing aesthetic that the songs meet the challenge of; I wish only that the vocals were less affected. The live track represented ("The Beginning") is tighter and further out than any of the studio recordings, which is a very encouraging sign.

Austin boasts a lot of talented and underexposed bands still perfecting their sounds; every one that I mentioned above has some worth and people of different tastes might have totally different reactions than I. But it also has a lot of people who are completely clueless. Lucas Cook's songwriting is so underdeveloped that his every riff invites plagiarism lawsuits. Done Deal are another in a long line of indistinguishable rock-rap fusion bands whose music is sloppy and unfinished and whose lead rapper delivers rhymes that a fourth grader would find immature. The singer of The Melodic Drifters' unshaded Michael Hutchence impersonation is in very poor taste indeed (and the band's terrible meter indicates that they need to practice more, too). And I can't even think of anything to say about Camero Jones. Just follow the link, I guess.

I received a ton of e-mails today, clearly. Some bands shot right up the ranks of my favorites in Austin, many I'm sure I'll never hear from again. But every single person who wrote me, at the very least, put a sentence or two in their message to say who they were, that they had read my post, and that they would very much appreciate any feedback I had to offer. Except for one. This guy just sent an e-mail with a link and no text. In that spirit, I will offer no comment whatsoever, merely pass on the link. You folks will just have to follow and form your own guesses as to what my reaction might have been.


  1. What riff hasn't been done? What 'big time' real life blogger, goes looking for artist to rip apart on craig's list? Tell us about your music career? Broken back playing shows? Sweat so much you fried out the electronics on your guitar? I doubt you've ever played more than one show in a week? Where is your experience based on? Is it from writing, playing and working in the music biz? Or does it come from reviewing video games earlier in the year?

    I get on craigs list to see what musicians are talking trash on eachother, I know my songs aren't radio ready, I just wanted to see what a no talent hack had to say about them!

  2. OK OK you get on here to trash artist you find on craigslist WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DUMB ASS

  3. Thanks for the nod, Westy. I haven't forgotten my promise to send you a CD, but I don't get to the post office as often as I used to. We do have a show this Thursday, 10/29, at Trophy's on S. Congress. If you come by, I have one with your name on it. We're also in the middle of recording new music that builds on what we do well but takes it other places. I'm looking forward to unleasing it upon the world.

    Rich Restaino