Saturday, September 26, 2009

Demo Sweat #2

I'm feeling like everything I hear today has some spark to it, even though I'm usually pretty hard to impress. Perhaps it's because so many kind folks have written to compliment my writing (even some of the ones to whom I wasn't quite so generous). Perhaps it's the leftover buzz from discovering Buttercup last night. Quite likely it's the fact that very early this morning I finally took a break from streaming digital files and listened to Genesis Live and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway on vinyl, with headphones, in the dark. Genesis like Costello, the Beatles, and the Stones are my musical comfort food; I'm been listening to them all my life and wherever it may be that I'm calling my address, as soon as I put Exile or Trust on I'm home. Got to be vinyl, though. Bands: Send me vinyl.

Let's start the roll call today with a couple of veterans. Big Steve Dotolo is a lifer with a motor that won't quit; in addition to his solo work he plays with Diggin Up Grandpa (I love that band name). Big Steve plays bass, writes songs, and sings. Can you imagine that? A singer/songwriter who doesn't play rhythm guitar? It used to happen all the time in a place called the 70's, where I wish I lived a lot of the time: Nick Lowe, Richard Hell, Colin Moulding, the lefty guy from the Beatles, Sting if you like.... Let's all agree to a new rule. If you've posted an ad with the exact same wording in the craigslist Austin musicians section more than four times this month and no one has responded the last three times, you have to trade in all of your effects pedals and your e-bow for a P-Bass. No more playing with anyone until you can play at least the first two sides of Double Nickels on the Dime without either wrist cramping up. Anyway, Big Steve favors the no-BS approach of the good old days, with a singer shouting bawdy lyrics hoarsely and the band bringing it as a group. Can't wait to see this true believer tear the roof off of some unsuspecting joints.

Even more forceful, Dead Earth Politics play unfashionable, no-shortcuts metal, but with arrangements that have room for syncopated drums in addition to double-kick bludgeon, bits of humor, deceptively melodic doom croaking, and instrumental hooks all over the place. These guys have sick chops, the kind that emerge from listening to and absorbing way more music than just Sabbath through Slayer. Back in the day we saw musicians who could play brutal with their day jobs and jam out with John Zorn or an acoustic jazz quintet on the side. Nowadays, a lot of so-called metal acts only play in one key (and not all that well). Dead Earth Politics are not like that. Even at music's extreme fringes, arrangements with curveballs and nods to unexpected influences make all the difference between disappearing without a trace and being the standard bearers for everything that doesn't suck about your chosen genre in your home city.

Amanda Lepre is newer to Austin but most unlikely to remain obscure for too long; she's got real-deal heavy rock chops but also an expansive musical curiosity that takes in video game soundtracks, English folk, and the poppier hard rock of the 70's and 80's. Big voice, a distinctive guitar vocabulary that remains identifiable whether she's thrashing a flying V or strumming an acoustic, and I haven't caught her repeating herself even once so far. I could say a lot more about Amanda here but I know she's got a CD coming my way and I want to save some of my praise for that review.

The Daniel Adams Band are still in the very early stages of their musical development, as the low fidelity of their available recordings suggests. But I think they've got a real spark to them that's worth developing. Many of the same criticisms I've leveled against other beginner bar bands could apply here: the drum patterns on every song are the same, there's no dynamic changes, all the guitars just kind of strum away in unison. But all of those things can be improved. What can't be faked is original musical ideas, and although they're trafficking in an Americana area that's been much mined before (particularly in this region of the country) they can take the song themes and chord changes that fans expect to hear and create something out of them that's their own. What matters most at this point is that their instinctive songwriting sounds fresher than a lot of people who have been playing longer and the group sound is unified and tight (I might mention here that there is in fact no "Daniel Adams" in the band). Now they just need to work even harder to nourish their spark into a flame.

Perhaps a good starting point for TDAB might be checking out the music of Bus to Brooklyn, a band confident enough to play their music the way they hear it and not fussing over genre labels. After the first few bars of "Oh Serpent," you might think you have them pigeonholed, but then out of nowhere the drummer pulls out a thudding tom-tom beat that Danny Carey wouldn't sneeze at and you start hearing the chiming guitars and Jesse Felder's powerful vocals in a totally different light. Felder's got a great instrument, but I'd like to hear him apply more shading to his singing, as he does in parts on the ballad "Sorrow Song." Additional instrumentation on a few of their tracks shows that the band knows how to work with a producer without allowing him to overwhelm their core sound, an invaluable skill. It's a little bit earnest and broad at points, and Felder's tone is usually more expressive than his lyric choices, but this is radio-friendly modern rock that displays far more musicianship and originality than anything I've heard on modern radio lately.

Six Easy Pieces, a presently dormant project that Jeremy Miller's guitarist Sonny asked me to check out, ought to wake up and get back out on the boards. Their combination of technically dazzling, "commercial"-ish female vocals and surprisingly daring, innovative, and aggressive guitar playing is one that's all too rare. I mean, it's not as if there's no template for superstar bands where the singer is a beast and the guitar player is really idiosyncratic -- U2 have sold a few records in their time. Eugene Christopher are really far out, blending folk, at times nonstandard instrumentation, and thoroughly musical post-indie rocking out. The thing I like best about them is the vocals, which are delivered in an offbeat, sort of reggae-toasting (almost) style that's totally unexpected and quite brilliant. I wish the center held together a little better when they try to rock out, and I also would like to hear them shift modes within songs rather than doing a quiet one, then a loud one, and so on.

Finally, Woode Wood is a bona fide DIY inspiration. How do you get Twitter Nation to sit still for more than 30 seconds and appreciate the subtle refinements of your simple but thoughtful lo-fi folk and pop songs? Well, use them as the soundtracks to beautifully shot and edited short films that flow out from the songs' ideas in nonlinear ways. Here in a sea of musicians who expect folks to show up and immediately recognize their inherent genius is a guy who's humbly making works of genuine emotional power -- and sharing them on the vast wasteland of YouTube. Austin music: It's totally as good and as magical and as powerful as everyone says, but not for any of the reasons you'd think.

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