Friday, October 30, 2009

Quiet Dancing

Calliope Musicals, School of Liars
Headhunter's, 10/28

There's been a lot of public discussion about ethics in blogging lately. There's this threatening-sounding disclosure law that almost makes me feel guilty getting comped for $5 shows. So let's err on the side of caution and mention that Matt, guitar player for Calliope Musicals, is a partner of mine in another musical venture.

That shouldn't stop me, I don't believe, from giving deserved attention to his other band. Calliope Musicals make a brand of folk music so comfortable that sounds like it should come on a record in an already-worn sleeve; their songs are simple but their own. What makes them particularly interesting is a slightly unconventional rhythm section (upright bass, cajon, and vibraphone) that fulfills its role quite beautifully. This talented trio of Paul Benton, Caleb Jones, and Craig Finkelstein comes over like a tight jazz bassist, drummer, and pianist, giving the songs a mighty skeleton and driving pulse. If anything, the guitarists could play less to let the effectiveness of the back line shine through. Matt Roth and Carrie Fussell strum the same chords in unison a little too often. I didn't have much use for their "I Will Survive" cover, which seemed to assume the unusual instruments by themselves made up for a not-particularly-imaginative arrangement of a wizened chestnut of a song. Their originals, however, show promise. Lots more harmonies and way less guitar strumming and they'll really be playing my tune.

Over in the other room, I was happy to catch a handful of songs by A School of Liars, about whom I wrote recently. I wish I could have heard even more. Live they have a punk rock urgency to them their recordings lack and their lead guitarist has lovely tone and an approach that adds to the songs rather than duplicating the vocal melodies. They're quite tight as a quartet with good two-part harmonies. Still wish their songs were a little less conventionally structured, and the repetition in the lyrics could be cut down. But they're another local act with a spark, worthy of your time and attention.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What A Drag It Is Getting Old

Straylight Run
Emo's, 10/27

You can tell the members of Straylight Run are serious about being perceived as grown-up musicians. It's the beards! Stripped down to a trio lineup the band are more direct and tougher than their slightly creamy recordings. John Nolan puts his emphasis on delivering his vocals just right and keeps his guitar and piano contributions spare. That lets Will Noon and Shaun Cooper really carry the freight on drums and bass. "I'm Through With the Past" is earnest and obvious in its recorded incarnation; but reduced to vocals, bass power chords, and a lean drumbeat, it moves in an entirely different way.

It's a good thing that the band is interested in using many different sounds on its records, but live they have a bare-essentials approach that both makes the wordy emoting of Nolan's lyrics sound more at home and reveals that the band's promise lies in the basic building blocks. To carry off a song like "The Perfect Ending" solo at the piano as Nolan did to close the evening you have to choose your melodies and chords with precision. They may be missing the main idea at times in the studio, but on stage Straylight Run have all they need to get their message across.

More Mutating, Please

How Y'All Doin..?..
Mutant Press

Mutant Press leader Mr. Yummy is clearly a confident guy. You don't write yourself your own anthem without being able to back it up. Yummy isn't totally without justification. Clever changes like the diminished-chord chorus of "Touching Tongues" show some musical savvy; the band's overall hybrid of tinny keyboards and butt-rock guitars is not displeasing. There's a lot of good melodies to be found on this disc, and it places ("Tippin & Toolin") they really come together with good choruses and clever guitar. For a whole 16 tracks though, Mutant Press need more from the rhythm section than canned drums and looped-sounding bass riffs. The longer jams as on "You Name Is Mud" are leaden with undeveloped rhythms, and a brace of randomly chosen and flatly performed covers stretches out How Y'All Doin..?.. long past its natural ending point.

The more focused, lyric-based songs work better with the cookie-cutter drum machine sound. "G.B.J." with its Beach Boys allusion is an effective three-minute dance song. The use of dropped-in samples here and there is sometimes more interesting than the instruments proper. The vocal production style, with its multi-tracked leads, makes Mr. Yummy sound pretty cool. The sensibility that layers discount synths much bigger in the mix than guitar shredding bits is a good one. Ultimately though there's not enough rhythmic variety here for a whole 16-track album. The drum machines really grind you down when they're this continuous and unvaried. What could be cool extended guitar passages on "N.Y.C." and "Dancing in the Margin of Error" get done in by the lack of supporting development from the drums and bass.

Mutant Press credits four musicians in their sleeve notes, so it's entirely possible that live they're a less claustrophobic listen. Find out November 1st at the Parlor, or the 12th at Headhunter's.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Such Great Heights

You Can't Take It with You
As Tall As Lions

With Thom Yorke as their Lou Reed and the outer boroughs subbing in for the Bowery, laptop-guitar bands are just the thing in old New York these days. I'm not absorbed enough in the sound to judge how original As Tall As Lions are, but You Can't Take It with You is a varied and full-bodied record with interesting and unexpected musical combinations.

While modern rock anthems like "Circles" and "In Case of Rapture" form the core of their sound, the Long Island quartet sidesteps expectations by continuing to explore new directions as the album matures. The last several songs form the strongest stretch on the CD. "Sleepyhead" is lush but restrained, reminiscent of Lambchop's best work. "The Narrows" dabbles in cool jazz on its way to a welcome 70's Philly soul vibe. "We's Been Waitin'" mixes campy piano with a disturbingly filtered vocal, electric organ, and handclaps -- its bent but sincere approach might well please Mike Patton's fans. "Is This Tomorrow?" nods to hip-hop; "Lost My Mind" is spare and filled with reverb, longing, and suspended chords.

The more conventional tracks aren't as exciting. As Tall As Lions show a willingness to use programmed beats and loops as an integral part of their songwriting process, rather than simply grafting beeps and blips over completed pieces. That approach has its good elements and its bad side. When they just load everything they can do together at once -- whole choirs of backing voices, chugging Arcade Fire guitars, extraneous electronic overdubs -- they could be anybody. They lack the sense of theme and purpose that moved so many Grizzly Bear records. At the other extreme, they're simply not very interesting when they try to make purely electronic, ambient music. "Duermete" builds after a trumpet-embellished intro to a natural conclusion, stops, and then half-heartedly hums for an unnecessary two minutes of its eight-minute length. "Lost My Mind" would end the album on just the right searching, unresolved note, except it crossfades into some more synth humming and then a random coda that sounds like the work of a completely different band. Sometimes too much is just enough.

As Tall As Lions play at Stubb's (indoors) tomorrow night, Wednesday the 28th.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Fine Line Really Between Clever and Stupid

About Time [EP]
Straylight Run

Perhaps many will have made up their minds about Straylight Run well in advance of hearing any of their music, due to their core's former association with Taking Back Sunday. That band never made much of an impact on me positive or negative -- I can't remember anything about any of their songs, although I'm sure I must have heard a few. Doing some quick research into their recent activity indicates a group that (for what it's worth) remains skilled at maintaining their brand presence and sound authentically despite constant lineup changes.

Straylight Run, on the other hand, don't sound the same now as they did when they started out, even though the roster is stable. A fair analogy for this ongoing project of Sunday founders John Nolan and Shaun Cooper is what Blake Schwarzenbach did transitioning from Jawbreaker to Jets to Brazil. Straylight Run are moodier, more varied in tempo, and much more harmony-conscious that the group Nolan and Cooper departed. At times when they add layered vocal parts and piano pokes to simple, guitar-chugging choruses, they can sound pretty mersh and pretty terrible. "I'm Through with the Past," with its clumsy repeating hook, sounds like The Fray or somebody. But at the very least they've evolved past their parent band in the ability to use different dynamics from song to song.

When the band lays back a bit and lets the rhythm section apply its aggressive instincts to a piano center that's less right on the beat, the results are solid. "Don't Count Me Out" sounds like a live band approaching a Depeche Mode or Human League kind of dance sound. The pumping bass gives the song a different shape than the rhythm guitar-heavy template of standard emo. "The Great Compromise" is more of a rock song, but with strong harmonies changing the shape of the leads during the verses and lots more backing vocals on the cool, well-written choruses. Then there's a big breakdown and false ending with barrelhouse piano and slamming drums, very nice.

I appreciate the range displayed on the four-song EP, with no song really intruding on the territory of another. A rewrite of "Compromise" might have been better than the lame "Mile After Mile," though; with its bludgeoning acoustic strums and broad lyric it sounds like subpar Mellencamp (from his John Cougar period). Though it remains to be seen whether they lean more towards their good instincts or their bad habits as a live band, some of the recorded evidence suggests that Straylight Run are finding a path in the post-emo era that's neither nonmusical nor boring.

Straylight Run play tomorrow, Tuesday the 27th, at Emo's.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Demo Sweat #5

It's either a day late or a week early. Frankly, I haven't decided quite yet how often I should do these. Bands, as always, I'm looking for as many Austin-based projects as possible for each of these demo columns. The e-mail address to contact me, if you'd like to be reviewed, is I write about everything, but I don't promise to be nice.

White guys trying to rap is just always going to sound a little square, a little tiny bit lame. This can however be overcome by self-awareness, humor, and sheer talent. Motionside aren't brilliant lyricists by any means, but they have a developing sound that shows good songwriting instincts. "My Marie" isn't an original title or sentiment for a song, but listen to the way the verses set up a story and the chorus delivers its payoff. Strong backing vocals further define the band's own style and is another good device for keeping the songs fresh. Incorporating hip-hop influences in the right spirit can be very liberating for a band with rock instruments. The use of violin on "Make It Right" and "Thank You Mother" shows a totally different band than their more standard rockers. Their lyrics need more development, but they're getting there.

By contrast One World (R)evolution Band are trite and repetitive. They're better when they show a bit of humor, as on "Get Your Green On," which is about eating your vegetables, but their serious songs are far too lyrically sophomoric to effect the kind of mass action to which their grandiose band name alludes. Their emphasis on riffs as opposed to just chord changes is nice, but their note-for-note cover of "Guerilla Radio" invites unflattering comparisons with their originals. Why don't their own songs have good lyrics, cool arrangements, or semi-competent bass playing?

The irreverent country tunes of Andrew Anderson benefit greatly from tremendous lead guitar, banjo, mandolin, and backing vocals from gifted sideman J.R. Harris. Anderson's no slouch himself, with his rapid-fire delivery and funny, original lyrics. "Damn It Man" has a thoughtful arrangement with lots of left turns and a nifty instrumental section where a deft lead guitar in one channel duels with a woozy one in the other. "Necessary Casualties" is an impassioned antiwar song with every lyric chosen for maximum effect. "Once Met a Girl" plays an obvious-seeming premise into a memorable personal twist, as Anderson muses that his wild past means he "don't have the right" to woo his one true love. A School of Liars draw upon similar red-dirt inspirations but are not as far along in their development cycle. Jon Keenan has some good instincts and a voice that sounds remarkably like Chris Stamey's (almost certainly a coincidence), but his band's songs offer no surprises past the first verses. Keenan is too good of a lyricist to settle for repeating a title over and over again instead of writing real choruses, and to stick with arrangements this drab. Shows promise, but not ready to graduate.

The Night need to tread carefully not to imitate Joy Division too closely, as they do on "Caught in the Radio," which is essentially a rewrite of "Transmission." When they blend things a little better, their mixture of twee guitar and keyboard hooks and goth-like vocals is pretty good. "Twisted" has a killer line at its heart: "I might die from this high, but it turns me on!" At times their bassist doubles the guitar a little too closely, limiting the trio's power. Not sure if it's deliberate or budget-enforced, but the lo-fi sound of the drums helps to further separate them from their obvious early-80's antecedents. The awful recording quality of The Badnotes' material doesn't hide the wit and skill of their drummer, who likes to sneak goofy touches like cowbell into the double- and triple-time thumping. Nor does the funnel sound mask the fact that the band's songs are two- and three-chord snoozes and the lead and backing vocals are out of key.

The Emerging Future are a good example of how to keep "songs" fresh in the electronic/experimental genre. These combinations of samples and programming don't have verses and choruses or bridges in the traditional sense, but what they do manage admirably is changing the sound picture in such a way that the listener's relationship to the central repeating figures (in this case usually world music vocals) never stays precisely the same. "Iblis" pulls this off with shifting beats, while "Shaaki Ka Ghana" disrupts itself with ambient noises and rumblings. "Deresolution" deftly drops in synth patches over sampled tablas, which shows real musical skill. "The Emerging Future" shows a deeper understanding of the various eastern music styles central to the project by introducing the chords on western-sounding keys first, then dropping in the chanted sample later. The Emerging Future are bridging different kinds of music from all over the world, but The Wonderland Avenue have yet to figure out how communication among people in the same band is supposed to go. Their bassist and drummer don't seem to feel much if any pull to play along to what the guitarists are doing, which doesn't help the overall feel that most of their compositions are intros waiting for the actual song to come along.

We Will Fight Them on the Beaches

There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill

There's no way to describe how There Is No Enemy differs from the last Built to Spill record in a capsule. Nor does it compare with any of their earlier records in a straight-line fashion. Doug Martsch has been killing himself to make their albums unique since There's Nothing Wrong with Love, and since they've made so many terrific records now it has to be getting more and more difficult each time out. Since their second record, really only one Built to Spill album (2001's Ancient Melodies of the Future) has been less than excellent. And that album might have been made simply to get out of a record contract.

As it happens, BTS didn't get dropped from Warner Brothers, although they have returned to working at a pace that suits Martsch's perfectionist tendencies more kindly. They've only made two albums in eight years, but what albums! You in Reverse could have been compared facetiously to the dense, complex Perfect from Now On, but only by someone who wasn't listening terribly closely. The record did have less obvious hooks and odder song structures than the norm, but its stripped-down production presented the closest representation of the band as they sound live since the indie days. There Is No Enemy has more immediate hooks and singable lines, like Keep It Like a Secret, but it's not as simple as all that.

This is the most densely orchestrated music Martsch has yet issued under the Built to Spill banner, with horns, cello, pedal steel guitar, and now at least three guitarists on every song. Guitarists Brett Netson and Jim Roth have been recording and touring with the band for ages now, but this is the first time the full five-man lineup (Martsch, Netson, Roth, bassist Brett Nelson, and invaluable drummer Scott Plouf) have all gotten band member credits. Whether that long overdue change was due to confusion between Nelson and Netson's names or ominous major-label legal interference is beyond me. In any event, since the difficult recording process of Perfect from Now On songwriter/arranger Martsch has been very careful to use separate guitar players rather than overdubs when he hears multiple parts in his head; as a result the band has stayed at a standard of quality in their releases and their live performances that's pretty much unmatched in the wide world of modern indie.

The production, by Martsch and Pulsar Dave Trumfio, is low on frills and high on clarity. That allows every instrument to be heard clearly, even when there's nine or ten musicians contributing to a track. The inclination here is to let every player do their own thing, from all three highly distinctive guitarists to notable guests like Sam Coomes, Paul Leary, and Roger Joseph Manning Jr. That it doesn't get cluttered or busy is due mostly to Martsch's enormous talent as an arranger and some of his most generously melodic songs in years. You in Reverse was a groove record, if a great one; There Is No Enemy finds Martsch in a more extroverted mood, with things to say and big hooks to carry his words.

"Nowhere Lullaby" is the most outright country-flavored thing the band has ever done, while "Pat" surges with a punk directness (in the lyrics, too) Martsch hasn't much used since his Treepeople days. Although his most notable work combines lo-fi and dance influences (think lots of compression), Trumfio turns out to be a most sympathetic producer here. Only the processed rhythm guitar backing to "Good Ol' Boredom" much bears his stamp. Otherwise the songs are presented in a democratic fashion that allows new ideas (the pedal steel and horn charts) to rub peaceably against the sort of tangled guitar licks that have defined Built to Spill since Ultimate Alternative Wavers. Only "Done," which sounds like a remix of the last album's "Saturday," sounds like it has more instruments than it needs.

Perhaps anticipating the habits of overly analytical record critics, Martsch has placed his epics at the end of the running order here rather than beginning with them as he did the last time out. "Tomorrow" is one of the less-adorned songs on There Is No Enemy, the band jamming things out as they've always done, while "Things Fall Apart" cleverly transitions a horn fanfare into a wah-soaked guitar lead. Abrupt structural changes in the style of Perfect from Now On are less prevalent here than more logical song development. Those who found the subtle You in Reverse a little repetitive or droning will probably enjoy There Is No Enemy more, as Martsch's sometimes-neglected ear for melodic development is back in force on this one.

It's hard to put in context with all their other records, since it doesn't compare directly with any one of them. Final judgement will have to be reserved until I can get my hands on the vinyl. But There Is No Enemy makes it clear that Doug Martsch and his band don't need anyone to tell them what they should sound like or how often they should put out albums. They're doing just fine.

Built to Spill play tonight, Saturday the 24th, at Stubb's.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Rock That Works

Waterloo Records, 10/19

I've been moving all week long, and parts of my computer have been at opposite ends of Austin for most of it. You'll excuse me for writing about a show I attended on Monday, an eternity ago in blog time, I pray. Wiretree are eminently worthy of attention however belated, and I have to get back in the swing of things somehow.

This quartet, who have just released their second record Luck, were recommended highly to me by a number of other musicians when I first began exploring the scene in my new city. I keep a little scrap of paper with a bunch of scrawled band names in my back pocket and it's usually my practice to follow up on these leads on the web as soon as it's convenient. But Wiretree came so highly praised that I decided to do everything I could to avoid their digital recordings until such time as I could see them live.

Streaming music has its uses, but there are lots of places you can hide in 1's and 0's that don't apply onstage. A truly great songwriter's work isn't done until he (or she) has found a way to present those tunes in their best light with a full band. Kevin Peroni's work with Wiretree is rapidly approaching greatness, based on how his band sounds. There's elements of pop/rock from all over in Wiretree's sound. Their precise arrangements recall the Byrds at times; Peroni's vocals can echo those of The Shins' James Mercer; the band's slightly fussy quality reminds of the dB's. But Peroni and company are quickly pushing past the point where they're just a collection of influences, because the strong central vision shared by all of those bands is clearly at work in Wiretree as well.

This is a band that simply doesn't repeat itself. Introducing one song as a callback to the first record is hardly necessary, because the sense of progression in Wiretree's music is so easy to hear. That early tune uses simpler chords but tricky rhythms while the material from Luck adds precisely composed melodies from both guitar players. In Peroni's compositions the band never goes for more than eight bars without something changing dramatically; in the rare instances that the guitars don't change to something new and interesting the drums will pick up the slack. The basslines aren't busy but they're never duplicating something the guitars are taking care of already. In short this is music that's completed, the work of a composer who sweats over every detail in the manner of a sculptor or novelist. For those remaining few local music fans who are listening closely, this is a gift.

In Wiretree's music everything is subject to the needs of the song. Peroni is an amazing keyboard player, as it happens, with some eye-popping jazz chops. But he uses the instrument sparingly, because not every tune requires it. When he does take a solo, it's not the notes he plays that stick with the listener but rather the way he takes care to finish and switch back to guitar so that Joshua Kaplan can begin his lead figure with the proper backing in place. Luck, though lovely, lacks the impact of the stage show, partly because it's a little too stingy with the instrumental sections but mostly because it's more of a solo record than a document of a band playing. That will be the next challenge for an Austin group that's more than prepared for it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Older Gods

Monument to No One
Headhunter's, 10/14

Here's another one of these little object lessons upon which I do so dearly love to lecture. Monument to No One are putting the work in, and I don't just mean when it comes to their songs, which are varied and interesting. I see people wearing their t-shirts at shows. Sure, some of them might be members of the band, but it still counts. I see their stickers in men's rooms. I came out of the Sunny Day Real Estate show and there was their drummer, handing out free CD's and getting the word out about his band. The extra effort that they have made to make people aware of the music they are creating makes a difference. Nothing comes for free, unless you're some kind of preternatural native genius, and if there's any of those playing free shows in Austin on Wednesday nights I haven't yet encountered them.

If I wasn't so impressed by MTNO's efforts to do their utmost for their band, I might have left their show last night early. A broken string and a busted pedal, on the first song, slowed their momentum and left their stage sound treble-heavy and ear-piercing for their next several songs post-restringing. Drummer Dan Skarbek kept things together during this difficult period with solid time (much better than on the self-released CD), even though the muddy sound left the bass inaudible and Eli Slate struggling with his vocals. Because they work hard and they know what they ought to sound like, Monument to No One kept it together and by the time they hit their signature tune, "Planetary," they were downright killing it. The way that they can bury their guitars in overlapping tides of effects then snap back into consonance on cue is impressive. Slate and Steve Anderson back to back churning out harmonized leads is a rock spectacle out of all proportion with Headhunter's tiny stage space.

The degree to which their sound has matured even since the recording of their CD is impressive. Skarbek and bassist Mike McKinnon are carving out their own place in the songs, and when the whole band really gets together -- or pulls out just for a second so both guitars can go "screee!" -- it's exciting to hear and fun to watch. They still have some work to do finding a way to keep their music both loud and audible. This is powerful stuff and it should be presented at high volume. But some thought needs to be put into how the guitars are amplified and equalized so that when the bass ventures upward the audience isn't totally buried in layers of midrange. Likewise, Skarbek's drumming, which has good meter and a slightly Nick Mason-like behind-the-beat style, would have more impact were there more space in the sound field for his cymbal work to ring out clearly. Slate's vocals sound better when he's singing confidently from his chest rather than straining in his head voice; again I think that's more of an issue that stems from the sound mix.

By the time they closed things out they seemed like a different band than the one that had jammed awkwardly while Anderson changed strings on his SG. They were moving around, rocking out, finally showing some outward confidence. You like to see constant forward progression in developing bands and that was this set in a nutshell. Good work, guys.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dead Plants

Rosemary's Garden
Rosemary's Garden

It's a big wide world of music out there, and what separates what gets heard from what goes unnoticed isn't usually whether there's any underlying quality. Most of the time, it's whether somebody is around to pay for it or not. All credit to those bands who live in flophouses and sleep on people's floors for years because they believe in their art. You guys send me your demos and I'll see about getting you some fans, or at least a shower.

I don't know who paid for Michael-Louis de Terre's debut as Rosemary's Garden, but I'm pretty sure the investment was money down the drain. These tedious 14 songs are pretty obviously the first 14 songs de Terre has ever written, as they all feature square chord changes (every one right on the bar), arrangements that might as well be a synthesizer demo, and embarrassingly poor lyrics. Every song is much the same as the last, but "Adelaide" is a good microcosm of the whole -- there's an initially promising riff, a few decent lines in de Terre's pleasantly weary, Tom Petty-like voice, but then it doesn't change or go anywhere for what seems like forever. The singer sings the same line over and over again, the drums and bass plod squarely through the grand total of two parts, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Nothing else on the record is any different. Not one of the songs has even the slightest hint of dynamic changes. "I Can't Understand" rips off Beethoven, for a bit of a break from the norm. Mostly it's self-indulgent, self-impressed garbage with as little imagination as the song titles: "Flower Song," "I Belong to You," "Garden Song," "Scary Song," "River Song." Rosemary's Garden can come up with a good melody or hook every once in a while, but the songs that have them are almost worse than the flat ones, since de Terre inevitably repeats the same one or two patterns again and again until what initial shine the song's idea might have had is worn down to dust.

“I represent the new, emerging, independent, multifaceted artist,” the auteur boasts hollowly on his MySpace page. “I am the epitome of an artist who can produce music, package and sell a product, create a brand, book a tour and hire a publicist… all without a label of any kind.” Well, that's great that you have money. That doesn't make you an artist of any kind.

Rosemary's Garden play at Momo's Saturday, October 24th and the Saxon Pub Sunday the 25th.

Dark World/Light World

A Premonition [EP]
Amanda Lepre

Lately arrived in Austin and looking to expand her musical universe (not unlike myself), Amanda Lepre is one of the most promising locals I've yet uncovered in my Demo Sweat column. There are a lot of gifted songwriters and a lot of good singers in Central Texas, but often the two skills seem to be mutually exclusive. Lepre, who's got a powerful alto and also sings dazzling high harmonies on A Premonition, is a rarity. She's got a great voice, which is something you simply can't acquire, but as a songwriter and guitarist she shows a real commitment to supporting her gift with hard work and careful consideration.

For a mostly acoustic demo (a few tracks have slight synth touches, it sounds like), A Premonition avoids repetition. Through just the right balance of guitar and harmony vocal overdubs, the songs are full enough to stand on their own and highly suggestible of what they might sound like with a full band. Lepre's arrangements have recognizable choruses, but they also have tightly composed instrumental sections that build on the rhythms of the vocal parts while adding new melodic ideas. Her background as a video gamer is reflected on the chugging, clipped rhythm figure to "Undying Hero," which sounds reminiscent of the overworld music from Final Fantasy VI, and the way longer, single-line guitar melodies wind their ways through the bottom of many of the mixes here. There's touches of progressive rock ("Wrath on the Styx") and some lovely classical guitar harmonics (the middle section of "Break").

The best thing about A Premonition is the lyrical approach. While this is intense, personal, cathartic music, Lepre ultimately arrives at positive messages in her songs. These are not stories of despair and surrender, but rather of lessons learned through conflict and pride in one's ability to survive: "My world is collapsing, but I will not drown." It's okay to express doubt in one's music, but profiting off of self-pity is no career path in any art form. Amanda Lepre seems to have found a lot of strength through facing her demons in song, and deserves to connect with listeners who will benefit from sharing in her victories.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Struggle Continues

Among the Oak & Ash
Among the Oak & Ash

Whether it's Springsteen doing Seeger or the misleadingly-dubbed Monsters of Folk crafting an album-long conceptual tribute to the Traveling Wilburys, making the old sound new again has become a reliable way to improve one's critical responses. Often one's sales figures, as well. It would be mean-spirited to suggest that this collaboration between Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr stems from anything other than a true artistic connection between the two songwriters, and in particular a shared affection for the very early 20th century roots music from which the bulk of Among the Oak & Ash's material is drawn.

Starr and Joplin succeed here, broadly, because these interpretations of traditional songs are not static. They're treating "folk" in its proper sense as music of any era that belongs to everybody, and as such the touches of the Velvet Underground, The Smiths, and Uncle Tupelo that snake through the album sound of a piece with the spiritual and protest lyrics. Starr sings "The Water Is Wide" with a lovely modern skepticism, and Joplin's impoverished a capella take on "Pretty Saro" is hugely affecting. What's more moving in the iTunes era than a singer who can't afford a backing band? The deliberate anachronisms on Among the Oak & Ash make all the difference, particularly in the rhythm section. The electric bass often adds dark, edgy coloring; the occasional disruptive hit of percussion reminds you that this source music is still alive with possibility.

The last third of the record sags a bit. "High, Low & Wide," the only original credited to the duo on the record, sounds forced as an effort to write a song in the same style as the source material. It borrows too much imagery from songs we've just heard. Likewise, the cover of "Bigmouth Strikes Again" really wrecks the atmosphere; the subtle touches of 80's and later influences on the new arrangements of the older material made their point well enough. A flat karaoke version of a song that's been done to death hangs on a lantern on the theme and undermines much of the more subtle work done earlier.

Joplin's "Joseph Hillström 1879-1915" is more interesting, although it doesn't sound at all of a piece with the material from the main body of the album. This history lesson in song form should educate listeners about the life of the pioneering protest singer/Wobbly Joe Hill, and Joplin and Starr have cleverly arranged and presented it in the repetitive, accessible style that was Hill's great gift to 20th century music.

Josh Joplin and Garrison Starr bring Among the Oak & Ash to Austin's Parish Room Tuesday, October 20th.

Thickets of Fuzz

Sheer Khan & The Space Case, Tornahdo
Plush, 10/12

Sheer Khan & The Space Case, as noted before, have an admirable commitment to making music that casts off the chains of genre boundary. They're not worried about sounding like, or looking like, anybody besides themselves, and that's their chief strength. As a live act, though, they're burying their main idea in layers and layers of harsh-sounding, unnecessary guitar effects. Overkill wah, eardrum-assaulting tremolo, even totally unnecessary bass distortion that costs the rhythm section its shape. Pedals are tools, not an end in and of themselves. I usually see unimaginative players utilizing big chains of them to cover up for the fact that they're playing some basic strings of chords repetitively. That's not the case here, at all. From watching their voicings and hearing their all-too-brief pre-deluge intros, I could tell that the Sheer Khan guitarists were on to some really cool ideas. Too bad the avalanche of pedals made listening to them actually unpleasant at times. Possibly a contributing factor to the overuse of effects, their drummer has limited feel and only two volumes -- loud and not playing.

Tornahdo have no similar presentation problems. They're a rare example of a band who has their sound together, plenty of chops, and plays well-arranged songs where the group builds to changes and executes stops and starts together. However, I found them very difficult to get into. They're one of those bands where everyone plays as much as they possibly can, as fast as they possibly can, all the time. The intervals where anyone would lay back and play rhythm long enough for a groove to develop were few and far between; the skilled but fill-incontinent drummer was the worst offender. It's a shame because I'm pretty sure both their guitar player and their keys guy are dope. Recommended however for big fans of coffee, the Mars Volta, and jazz-fusion LP's played at 45.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Never Saw 'Em Coming

Dear and the Headlights, Kinch
Emo's, 10/9

I've become a rising fan of Dear and the Headlights' recorded output somewhat despite myself. The band has a certain air of nonchalance that's either refreshing... or lazy. The way they've given their records long, goofy names; the band name itself. One of their t-shirts for this tour bears the legend "looking less pale after all of these damn summer festivals." Band lore implies that Dear began as a group of drinking and jamming buddies who were hauled into the studio by a producer friend who couldn't believe they didn't realize how good they were. They've won a decent fanbase (although evidently not one in Oklahoma) as one of the best, if certainly not the only, secretly classic rock bands that emo kids embrace. But the appeal of their records to most will hinge on their great singer.

Bands with great vocalists can be less than motivated sometimes -- often they just put him or her up front and go through the paces. Who needs to sweat out arrangements when your frontman sounds like an amplified trumpet? Perhaps it's the festivals, and certainly a lot of the credit belongs to the dramatic drumming of Mark Kulvinskas, but Dear and the Headlights utterly elevate their game when it comes to their live show. Mostly it's the excitement of the songs: they're good, and singer Ian Metzger is, as I mentioned, great, and the band grasps intuitively that to best present them on stage they have to exaggerate the highs and lows. Their records don't lack for drama, but on stage every song -- really every one -- has big crescendos, false endings, sections where everyone save Metzger and a single accompanying musician drop out. Kulvinskas will bust out with a few bars of everything-falls-apart-and-more drum mania, slamming toms, cymbals, and wood block, and then he'll be back to shaking sleigh bells and lightly tapping his hi-hat a moment later.

Close attention has been paid here, because although every song has its moments, it's never the same idea or the same player getting the spotlight. Here there might be an electric piano being pounded in ways its makers never intended, there there might be a 70's disco-soul bassline popping out into prominence. Metzger and his powerful vocals and momentum-providing rhythm guitar are going to catch people's attention regardless, but all praise is due to the group as a collective for getting all four of the other guys engaged and involved. As a result they have a vibe on stage that's contagious -- they're the kind of band where if somebody's laying out for more than a few bars, they grab a tambourine or start clapping their hands or slapping something, not because the music needs it, but because they're having way too much fun to stand still.

I couldn't help but wonder if the dynamic, floppy-haired duo fronting Kinch were brothers; they are not. (They are cousins.) In any event 75% band penetration of black-rimmed glasses and a real live keyboard front and center set an appropriate if somewhat limiting first impression of the band. Their songwriting is friendly and fun, with lyrics and melodies that get into the ear and remain there, and they have lots of little touches that make their power pop-derived sound their own. Brian Coughlin plays some psychedelic slide on his SG, an all-too-uncommon indie rock device. Drummer Jake Malone is fun to watch because he's lefty but plays with a standard righthanded setup; that means he doesn't cross his hands when he's playing the hi-hat and his fill logic is unusual and cool because of it. This very well-written profile from the Phoenix New Times explains how leader Andrew Junker had written 100 songs or more by the time Kinch made their first record. Yep, that's how it's done. He got started writing a song for a school project, too. That strikes a chord with me, as I wrote an entire album-length song cycle about "Macbeth" for an English class in 10th grade. Enough about me, though. Kinch's entire first album is available for free download here; I can't think of any reason why you wouldn't take advantage of that.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Demo Sweat #4

It's Friday... must be time to sweat.

Evoleno, judging from the name, could be a dual tribute to Sonic Youth and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Rather they're most agreeable Caribbean-tinged rock, with songs that break up the grooves just enough with jazz and rock departures (and even a bass solo on "Play It Cool"). Guitarist Justin Tucker has a rhythmically solid style that allows for a lot of improvisation while keeping things moving. The hand percussion and laid-back backing vocals give them a nice beach-party energy. Their songs are only repetitive when that's the whole point of the song ("Couch Potato").

Like many hundreds of other very young female-fronted bands, We Paint the Town have been mightily impressed by the work (and the SoundScan numbers) of Paramore. They should try listening to some other stuff, because they share a lot of the annoying tics of their inspirations, like identical-sounding songs with no interesting guitar or bass parts and lyrics that have a few good lines here and there ("You're in trouble when your favorite sad songs aren't doing a thing") but ultimately make no narrative sense. The new wave coda to "Grease" shows some life, and I like the oddly Heart-like harmonies where they pop up, but this band is as unfinished at this point as their MySpace page.

Amber Lucille has a nice voice and a crack band -- the moody slide guitars and male harmonies are boss -- but her songs are terrible, three-chord wonders with painfully unoriginal lyrics. Check out "Refinery Lights" from her page, though, because it's by an outside songwriter and shows off the singer and the band in a much kinder light. Jay Wolf doesn't even have the voice going for him. His vocals are obnoxious and nasal and his songs are similarly intellectually bankrupt "Americana." Wolf and Lucille both should spend some time studying at the feet of Steve Power, a well-traveled writer with some evil blues harp tone and fabulously original songs and vocal delivery. "Run for the Border," a little paranoia blues about a Michigan militiaman seeing the FBI around every corner is one standout; the surprisingly personal "DiMaggio" is another.

Sinistra are one of those modern "heavy" bands where easy guitar parts are played through a lot of distortion and the drummer and the (barely audible) bassist make noise artlessly somewhat in unison. The vocals are sometimes melodic, sometimes screamed, but never sincere, and the duet with the female vocalist ("Move On") is such an inept attempt at a "crossover" that it's kind of charming. Awake at Dawn are more charmless still, they're not even a band really, just a wrenching vocalist and a guitar player with too much equipment amusing themselves out of all relation to one another and the plodding programmed drums. Slightly more tolerable, if only due to the yeoman's work of skilled and I hope well-compensated studio musicians, is Brian Pounds. Pounds has utterly nothing to offer the world thus far as a singer, songwriter, or guitarist; his stuff sounds like elevator music.

By contrast Nathan Payne's music is initially discomfiting, but I'm fairly certain after multiple listens that he's some kind of a genius, if maybe a slightly scary one. It takes a ballsy songwriter indeed to begin a song by cribbing a line from a Bob Dylan song, but Payne does it and pulls it off ("American Infidel"). He's got multiple deliveries, but his most haunting is a kind of contralto yodel that sticks in your mind, particularly combined with Payne's potent lyrics. "Six Dollar Tux" sounds like Calexico jamming with Chris Isaak while Howe Gelb does live sound manipulation to keep the singer's voice from staying in the right relationship to key. In a word, awesome.

Dave McCullough is a local guitar player and teacher whose solo instrumentals (performed I believe with bass pedals) reflect the long experience of a man utterly at peace with his world and his instrument... not a note wasted. Cabrini Green is one of those electronic artists who gets it, who recognizes the freedom granted from constructing music out of samples, treatments, found sounds, and live performances and approaches his compositions as if recombining and sharing a lifetime's worth of music-listening. It's hard to tell what's sampled and what's live and what's both in Cabrini Green's music, and that's exactly the idea. So is the constant shifting of center and style. El Ritual Del Gallo Loco, a one-man featuring live rock instruments, electronic programming, and samples, has another exciting postmodern blend working. Their music is not unlike driving along the border listening to several competing radio stations on the same frequency flicker in and out of prominence: Nine Inch Nails, William Orbit, Mexican pop and folk, the Spanish-language edition of The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld... I wish my radio sounded like that.

Finally, Twilight Hotel got their start in Winnipeg but are now boasting an Austin address. What is it about Austin than Canadians like so much? We have no moose and very little hockey. In any event, this duo should fit right in here. "Americana" seems like the wrong label ("Canadiana?") not only in a literal sense, but also because their music doesn't sit properly in any one genre. The arrangements follow the songs. "Viva La Vinyl" sounds like 50's R&R, "Highway Prayer" gospel, "Slumber Queen" Tex/Mex. Great male and female vocals, vintage equipment employed in exactly the right production context, snappy lyrics. It would be cheesy to say "check in," right?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

White Light White Heat

Isle of White, The Riot Scene
Beerland, 10/8

I'm growing to really dig Beerland. It's casual but no-B.S., if the sound is bad it's the band's own damn fault, and they have easily accessible water. The brick wall behind the stage is excellent for projecting drum sound, and they usually have "King of the Hill" reruns on the TV's. What else do you need?

Last night it was back again to check out the live set of Isle of White, a power-pop quartet whose EP bears the distinction of having been subjected to my first local review as a genuine local. Their songs are strong, with clever lyrics, persistent melodies, and varied and occasionally outright surprising arrangements. As a live act, they're still working out some kinks. Daniel Stone's vocals are strong and audible, but the guitars are often muddy. Their bassist sounds better on stage than he did on the record, but there's still an awful lot of four-in-a-bar dullness, and mistakes if you're listening closely enough. I do like seeing him step out a bit more in some of the band's dramatic, extended arrangements, but not to the extent that the bottom falls out of the mix -- one of the guitarists needs to pick up for him there. (Also: Bassists in general, learn and embrace your seconds, thirds, and sixths. Knock off that pentatonic stuff, that's for guitar players.)

Isle of White are tight, even when the guitars are less clear than they should be, thanks to strong drumming and a solid knowledge of the material from all four guys. The stage harmonies at this point are kind of a disaster -- maybe they should leave those bits out until they've got the guitars reined in to the degree that the backing singers can hear what they're doing. I like the way the songs never go verse to chorus and back again, but not every song has to be epic. One breakdown with snazzy guitar chopping on the upbeats is cool, but the impact is diminished when it's recycled for another tune. I really like the alternating leads from the two guitarists, but a lot of the instrumental breaks could be half as long as they are now with little loss of momentum. Both White and Dusty Doering do some cool, unexpected things at times, from harmonized leads to whole-step key shifts to major-to-minor modulation. Less fuzz would help this be more evident to everyone.

Only caught a few songs by The Riot Scene but really dug what I heard, particularly their drummer's calisthenics pounding tom-and-snare combinations. Like the way their singer/guitarist uses palm-muting cleverly to mix up the rhythms during the slow parts and even lays out here and there, relying on the bassist to keep the pulse. Nice variety of stage presence styles, with the bassist and singer getting down and the skilled lead guitarist staying hidden underneath his watch cap, almost motionless. I like the way the bassist's screaming alternates with the lead singer's slightly more melodic approach, and the skewed-but-effective way they harmonize (after a fashion). Cool band, must see them again.

Story of the Ghost

The Days Between
Glafiro & Solid Ghost

As I mentioned in a Demo Sweat a few weeks ago, the first thing you have to absorb while listening to Glafiro & Solid Ghost is Ariel's miles-deep electric bass. The Days Between uses lead guitar and piano overdubs sparingly, allowing the record's focus to remain on the interplay between the bass, Alex Salinas's steady drumming, and Glafiro's rhythm guitar and bedroom-whisper vocals. The minimal approach suits the band on their debut because there's no cheating with regards to arrangements. These songs are completed works with peaks, valleys, and climaxes. "All of You" has a storming intro and outro section that represents well how the trio mix Latin and American folk influences with savvy modern rock.

"Disguise" is a tale of sexual obsession with an insistent snare drum and more body-moving bass. I like the way the whole band moves in concert towards musical orgasm during the instrumental break, but the way Glafiro sings "desire, desire, desire, desire" at the end is a little bit too on the nose. The more leisurely "Aleksandra" adds acoustic guitar to the mix and presents one of the best lead vocals on The Days Between. "Lines on the Road" doesn't offer much in the way of lyrical originality, but the chorus has a great melody and I love Salinas's rim shots and Glafiro's piano contributions.

The minimal instrumentation for most of The Days Between's tracks is its greatest strength. Glafiro doesn't repeat himself rhythmically, which allows the drummer and bass player to give each song its own personality. As excellent a representation this record is of their live sound, more instrumental touches the next time out could help Solid Ghost deliver the goods more strongly. I really like Glafiro's lead guitar flourishes where he chooses to add them, and the bolero and salsa rhythms cry out for some horn charts here and there. Organ or keyboards might help to strengthen the foundation a bit too, as all these players have instincts that leave a lot of space in the arrangements.

The biggest thing standing in the way of Glafiro & Solid Ghost finding a larger audience is the lyrics, which despite a few well-turned phrases ("All of You") tend to be a touch predictable and bland. The originality of their musical approach deserves better, but it's a lot easier to develop your lyrics than it is to build a trio sound this tight and beguiling.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thinking Pink

Sunny Day Real Estate
La Zona Rosa, 10/7

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the last time the proper Sunny Day Real Estate lineup mounted the boards. Three-quarters of the group reunited on two occasions, for two records under the original moniker without bassist Nate Mendel and one as The Fire Theft without guitarist Dan Hoerner. None of those records were very good. How It Feels to Be Something On and The Rising Tide marginalized Hoerner as a vocalist and writer while Jeremy Enigk attempted to integrate his new spiritual and musical interests into the core sound, not something that worked particularly well either in theory or in practice. The Fire Theft was shocking in its total lack of songs (save "Sinatra"), awkward orchestrations, and the dominance of guest guitar player Billy Dolan, who gave the antiseptic record's instrumentals its only bits of life.

What the current SDRE reunion tour reveals is that only all four players together can really make the music pop. Brilliant drummer William Goldsmith needs Mendel to make sense out of his disinterest in playing straight 4/4, ever. Enigk needs Hoerner's nonchalance to balance out his own tendency towards preachy pretentiousness. The guitarists need the complete rhythm section to support them, as neither is much of a pyrotechnic player on their own. Earlier tours without Mendel proved that the reputation of their influential debut Diary holds up just fine even with a mediocre ringer butchering the basslines. (Their lifeless contract-obligating live album, also.) The occasion for this regrouping is the reissue of both Diary and LP2 by Sub Pop, but it's the profile of the latter that will benefit most from its songs finally making it to the stage supported by all four of their composers.

Perhaps because they broke up without touring behind it, LP2 has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. The lyrics were never finished, and those that were audible range from the inscrutably poetic to complete gibberish. A generation of increasingly terrible bands have through secondhand sources picked up on the naked emoting and simple, circling two- and three-note guitar leads of Diary. Fewer, but better bands paid close enough attention to realize that the real secret to that album's massive impact was the imaginative and forceful playing of Goldsmith and Mendel. Almost no one has put the work in to decipher LP2, with its constantly shifting time signatures, upside-down dynamics (oh my, that lead bass on "Waffle"), and combination of totally ornamental vocals and dazzlingly articulate guitars.

Seeing the band reunited, it's clear that Sunny Day Real Estate were never even remotely emo. What they were, or at least what they were headed towards before Mendel's departure spoiled their momentum, was progressive hardcore. "8" wasn't so titled because it was a sequel to the first album's "7," but because it's in an 8/8 time signature (two measures of three, one of two). That song didn't make the setlist this time, sadly, but enough of LP2 did to warm the heart of the most embittered prog rock true believer. Hoerner's only playing two chords for all of "J'Nuh," but Mendel and Goldsmith completely reshape the foundation under him while Enigk simply froths. If Fugazi got really into the "Apocalypse 9/8" section from Genesis's "Supper's Ready" instead of dub reggae, they might have sounded like this.

It's terrific to hear them playing a new song this tour, and one that picks up as if they're on tour in support of LP2 (and entirely ignoring the worthless Rising Tide). The new tune has strong, assertive vocals from both guitarists (no breakup-anticipating mumbling) but the same constantly shifting rhythms that made LP2 so unique. Sunny Day Real Estate never went back down that road again, sadly, as Enigk became preoccupied with other concerns, Hoerner seemed to check out creatively, and Mendel disappeared to cash his paychecks from Dave Grohl. Were they to emerge next year with a new record, perhaps they could inspire a whole new subgenre in the 2010's that won't suck nearly as much as the one they can be partially held responsible for in the 90's.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Evidence That the Good Band Names Are All Taken

Drunk Like Bible Times
Dear and the Headlights

I really enjoyed Small Steps, Heavy Hooves, the first album by Phoenix's Dear and the Headlights. The only CD I received the whole time I was doing my Nude as the News column that I kept listening to after reviewing, that debut made the band seem like a bunch of old guys playing classic rock-inspired music after a solid night's drinking. On Drunk Like Bible Times, they're still putting them away, but some time touring with current buzz acts has added some more modern elements to their sound. "Wiletta" has some towering Greenwood guitar atmospherics at its climax. "I Know" is one of several songs on the album with blipping production details underneath the surface of guitar, bass, keys, and drums. Their somewhat charming habit of recycling famous titles for originals has been maintained -- here's "Parallel Lines," in fact a rather pretty acoustic ballad, and "Try," another ramshackle break from the album's electric full-group sound.

They've experienced some turnover in the last year -- founding guitarist Joel Marquard was replaced by keyboardist/bassist Robert Cissell before the recording of Drunk Like Bible Times, and bassist/keys Chuckie Duff left earlier this year. Despite the shakeups, Drunk sounds like a natural progression from the first record. The songs are rooted in similar 70's rock territory, with lead guitar and keys that rotate in support and color roles. The most exciting advance from Small Steps is Ian Metzger's growth as a frontman. He always had a powerful voice and a fine feel for lyrics, but lots of touring behind the first record seems to have improved his showmanship and given him many different ideas about how to approach his delivery. "Carl Solomon Blues" features barely contained, almost hardcore-tinged high-register wailing, "If Not for My Glasses" confessional musing in his head voice, "Saintly Rows (Oh Oh)" further refinement of his slower-burning operatic style, "Bad News" a tough melody just executed beautifully.

If Small Steps, Heavy Hooves showed a band figuring out that they sounded pretty terrific just playing together, Bible Times shows Dear and the Headlights learning to emphasize their strengths. There's not much meandering, but P.J. Waxman's guitars and Cissell and Duff's keys shadow the vocal melodies at just the right points. The added confidence in the studio helps them set different moods for each of the tunes, and a campaign of minor refinements to their debut's sound is a better fit for this band's group concept than a series of radical experiments.

Dear and the Headlights play Emo's inside stage on Friday the 9th.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Making Friends with the Buddies

Quadralith EP
Falcon Buddies

Wasn't sure what to make of the CD-R that arrived in the mail earlier this week with "FALCON BUDDIES- QUADRALITH" scrawled on it. Could be anything, from the band name -- backpacker rap, cartoon pop supergroup, trucker rock. In fact what the Falcon Buddies are producing is music that is distinctly their own. There are recognizable elements -- Rick Wakeman synth washes, Jeff Parker's glassy clean-channel guitar tone, sophisticated vocal sections that draw on Burt Bacharach and the Dan -- but the Buddies synthesize these reference points and numerous others into a heady mix that places them right at the top of the Austin progressive scene.

There's a trick to approaching improvisational music in the studio that many wrestle with for entire careers. Quadralith has its share of jamming passages, but the songs aren't overlong (only one tops five minutes) and the Falcons understand that more than four or eight bars of extended jamming over the same chord progression is seldom merited on a record. Rather, they show their range with songs that change feel frequently and never seem like showcases for guitar solos or vocal spotlights. Lyrically, they can traffic in the surrealism of the Thinking Fellers ("Bone Dance") but they can also craft a sharp narrative that dovetails with the mood of the music ("Free Parking"). At times the musicianship of all four players threatens to make the mix a little too busy; but it happens very seldom thanks to the assuredness of their excellent, articulate drummer. And their sense of humor is another saving grace -- I love the jazz combo-style off-mic babbling and caterwauling in the first section of "Bone Dance."

As it should for a band of this kind, Quadralith feels like the distillation of numerous live performances shaped into the definitive capsule version of each of these five tunes. The songs all twist and turn, but it's always clear when one is over and the next has begun. I can think of many other bands with as many ideas and disparate influences as the Falcon Buddies, but very few with the musical skill to present them all in this economical -- and flat-out listenable -- a package.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I Paid My $0

Broken Social Scene, The Generationals, Corto Maltese
Seaholm Power Plant, 10/2

Even though it wasn't officially connected to the festival of corporate has-beens taking place elsewhere in Austin this weekend, I had my reservations about the "free show" at Seaholm on Friday night. Things advertised as free are seldom so in actual practice and no gathering with this many greedy sponsors attached to its fliers could possibly be absent a profit motive. It was as you would expect, a cage for hipsters with no ins and outs, no outside food or drink, and $2 water. It was pretty lovely in Central Texas last night, a cool evening with a ring around the full moon and a cold front moving in for rain today, but if it had been hotter, things could have gotten ugly. I know it's very difficult to avoid taking advantage of Austin's leisure class and their overflowing wallets, but as supposed defenders of independent ethics, should know better.

It could have been worse. Despite my misgivings, the free wristbands that allowed entry to this fete were indeed free, not "free with purchase" or similar such doublespeak. Bringing a slimmed-down iteration of Broken Social Scene to such a picturesque venue and not charging for it beyond the expected massive surcharge on watered-down drinks has to rank as a net positive. Other than Corto Maltese, of course. Of all the local bands in this town dense with musical talent, why these jokers? Broken Social Scene are a band that depend very highly on a carefully-balanced sound field. During Corto's opening set, I was terrified that we'd showed up three hours early for what would end up an unlistenable evening of muddy amplifier hum.

Fortunately no, the problem was not with the venue nor the sound system provided. The problem was that Corto Maltese are a horrible band. Their singer has a good voice, although he screws up his own songs rather a lot (and then draws attention to it in an obnoxious and unprofessional manner). That is exactly all they have going for them. Their drummer has no imagination and can't keep time during the slower tunes. Their second guitar player and bassist add absolutely nothing to the songs, which are dull and repetitive. Their keyboard player too merely pounds eighth notes along with the rest of the band. When he picked up a guitar midway through the set, the band had no less than four guitarists (if you count bass) all playing the same part in unison. No dynamics, no counterpoint, just muddy strumming of witless compositions. At one point the singer tried to add some color with a finger-tapping section, but he executed it so badly that people in the crowd laughed at him. Their efforts at backing vocals were hideously poor.

There's a reason that most serious musicians in Austin are ambivalent, if not openly hostile, to the two major corporate outside-music festivals the city plays host to each year. The selection of Corto Maltese for the only slot given to a local act at this high-profile gig is it. Who picked these bums? They weren't at all ready for it, and the crowd were bored by their antics. When their singer tried to get some fist-pumps going, maybe 20 people out of 1,000 paid him any heed. Your gigantic evil corporate sponsors don't listen and don't care about the music you love, so they act arbitrarily and figure if they put a band in front of you and tell you it's good, you will like it (and buy a t-shirt). The music fans of Austin bear equal responsibility for such travesties, because by and large, they don't listen real closely either. They text-message and commiserate over $8 mixed drinks. We're approaching the end days when bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! (who Corto Maltese are perhaps slightly better than) are popular. At least Corto, showing their true colors as incompetent louts, neglected to even mention their name while they were on stage, thus blowing what will most likely be the biggest show they will ever play. They belong playing second of four bands at Beerland on a Wednesday night; I hope they go back there and we never cross paths again.

Having my opinion of WOXY's take on Austin music lowered to about its practical nadir, I had no expectations whatsoever of Louisiana's Generationals, the second supporting act. They exceeded those expectations! I wouldn't say any of the four youngsters had flaming musical chops of any kind, but being able to play your instrument really well isn't at all required to play beautifully as a band. The Generationals were so much better than Corto Maltese in every imaginable way. Their drummer kept time. They didn't choke their arrangements with so many massed rhythm guitars that the words to the songs couldn't be heard. Instead, they delivered wall-to-wall melodies in a fun, unassuming fashion and kept toes tapping and voices humming for their whole set. Their songs consist of very simple parts played on drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, and sometimes melodica, but every part is picked for a reason, and the Generationals get how to build and deliver a tune for maximum effect. Rather than just tugging away on their guitars with no feel or syncopation, they delivered well-crafted band performances that flattered everybody playing. A surprising choice for a big outdoor show given their quiet volume level and twee sensibilities, but they met the challenge. I'd see them again.

Broken Social Scene arrived with a somewhat diminished lineup, being occupied in Chicago with the construction of their next record when this invitation to play in Austin arrived. Kevin Drew apologized for bringing "only" a ten-piece band! The absence of diminutive demigoddess Leslie Feist probably disappointed the largest percentage of those in attendance, but I was more concerned about whether the band's secret weapon, muscular drummer Justin Peroff, would turn up. Indeed he was there, and as such Broken Social Scene sounded no less majestic than they did when I saw them last at the Boulder Theater shortly after the release of their self-titled third record. When a band uses as many instruments, and particularly guitars, as does BSS, a drummer with an uncanny sense of time and rare power is needed to keep all of the overlapping rhythms harnessed to a collective purpose. Peroff is that kind of drummer, and although the lack of female vocalists kept the Scene harnessed to only two or three of their normally unlimited range of moods, the songs that they were able to perform sounded agreeably massive.

Drew and bassist/guitarist Brendan Canning are the only really permanent members of the band. Each has begun a solo recording career in earnest since the release of their last album under the group banner, and it's nice to see that they're working now in closer collaboration than ever. Canning was singing more than the last time I saw them, including a lead vocal for one verse and strong harmonies on the new "Texaco Bitches." The new material seems to have a more extroverted approach, with assertive lead vocals and more standard verse/chorus structure that the often electronica-influenced Broken Social Scene of You Forgot It in People and the self-titled album. They've had a truly unique career arc, beginning as an atmospheric instrumental band (their somewhat overlooked debut Feel Good Lost is absolutely wonderful and maybe still my favorite record of theirs) and slowly working backwards to traditional song forms. This along with their commitment to teamwork, mania for adding members (an Explosions in the Sky ringer came on board for last night's rendition of "KC Accidental"), and overall humility is the singularly Canadian core of Broken Social Scene's wide appeal.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Demo Sweat #3

Sheer Khan and the Space Case, like many bands, purport to break down musical boundaries and blend a schizophrenic range of influences into a group sound that itself defies genre labels. Unlike a lot of folks making similar claims, from the basis of their early recordings it sounds like they have the tools to do it. "Reflect" starts as ambient world music and slips into Built to Spill-ish consonant indie rock; "Down with the Sound" unexpectedly intros with a Skynyrd chord progression then slides over into third-wave ska. Elsewhere, there's plenty of Stooges wah guitar and Sublime-ated clean-channel offbeat rhythm voicings. A few of the less developed tunes seem to be built around the use of a guitar effect rather than a proper melody, and both the drummer and the bass player seem uncomfortable at times, lagging behind the guitarists' rapid feel changes. To truly commit yourself to playing chameleon rock like Ween do so well everybody in the band has to be willing to play against their instincts at times.

By contrast The Lennings are operating in well-worn territory, doing another variation on that Phil Spector-ized mono AM radio folk-rock thing that will be familiar to listeners of the Microphones, the Walkmen, and so forth. Whether that music succeeds or not is entirely down to songwriting, and the Lennings have some excellent ideas at times. "I'll Make a Scene" is the musical equivalent of driving during a lovely sunset with the windows fogged over, complete with a breakdown in the middle equivalent to going through a tunnel. The extra details in their arrangements and tiny bits of electronic wash in the background make all the difference. "You're the One That I Want," with its rote chord progression and obvious lyrics, is proof by negative example of how important the little extra touches are to the "post-folk" genre. The absolutely lovely "Floyd," on the other hand, has a funneled intro and a never-quite-fully-developed drum part that throw its relatively simple main body into sharp relief.

Here is an interesting one: Eugene Grant is a character created by comedian and songwriter Kevin Scott. The vaguely Colbertian Grant is a conservative capitalist running for unspecified office; his video clips have a light touch but a grasp of the issues that is not in the least shallow. "Eugene"'s acid-tinged political messages mix puppetry, satire, and simple but infectious programmed songs that Scott sings in character. It's not wholly a musical project, but this imaginative low-budget way of presenting thought-provoking, creative work with a meaningful point of view is instructive for lazy, purposeless artists in all mediums. You don't have to share Scott's politics to appreciate his humor, although learning that he originates from Brooklyn and is relocating to Austin next month will likely tip you off as to where his true sympathies lie.

I like the dense guitar riffing and gutsy shouted vocals of Shogun Shakedown, but their rhythm section has a lot of work left to do to give them songs as opposed to a sound... love the song titles, at least. I've been in Texas about a month now and I think I've heard no less than six different original songs about smoking pot with Willie Nelson... Monty Branham have written another one of them. Their lyrical content might be run-of-the-mill, but the lead vocals are distinctive and extroverted in a way I wish all these indie-folk kids appreciated more. I like the dueling acoustic and electric licks, but the backing band is pretty generic and sloppy. Taber Maine, another recent transplant, this time from Ohio, has a more direct connection back to the "poor white people's blues" of pre-WWII country music. A really original singing voice and homey touches like whistling wires new life into these old blues changes, and even in a minimalist setting Maine has a true songwriter's ear for arrangements, pulling out from his picking at just the right times. When I first read him described as "old folk from Ohio" I thought of course of Will Oldham's great "Ohio River Boat Song." Echoes of Oldham's rare gift for dramatically inauthentic mountain music resound in Taber Maine's project. Don't overlook this guy.

I Dreamed I Dream

Fever Dreams, Low Red Land, Red Leaves
Beerland, 10/1

Sometimes it's hard to tell from lo-fi online sketches whether a band is any good or not. And sometimes it's all you need. Austin's Fever Dreams have yet to receive any major press notices, but it's certainly not for lack of musical muscle. The quartet have drilled their material to precision, and they can take flights of improvisational fancy or dial into brief allusions to 70's mainstream psychedelic warhorses ("Breathe in the Air" for a few bars, or "Achilles Last Stand") in the way jazz players tip their caps to great melodies past. It's never less than original and it's never boring because the four players are listening hard to each other, and when the electric bass jumps up to play high-register stuff, the guitarist comps; or when the guitar player plays with single-coil delay tone the bassist and keyboardist stay at home. There's a not-at-all fine line between making glorious noise and making a racket. The Fever Dreams were never for a moment on the bad side of that line.

What's more, it was a bit of an unusual show for the boys. Their current drummer was out of town so an alum filled in. That meant it was a bit of a flashback show for the Fever Dreams, covering material they'd been working on leading up to their first record; a second one is nearing completion now. You would have had to hear them say so to know, because they were massively tight in this configuration and didn't lack for stage presence or wit. (I liked the drummer's proclivity for playing beats on the wall behind the stage in addition to on his proper drums.) See them again and it'll be totally different. I will.

Low Red Land, visiting from the Bay Area, cleared the floor quickly. Overloud, with two singers who sang in unison (badly) rather than in harmony and a sequence of songs all of which alternated between two three-stringed guitar chords played with the same syncopation-less "strum as fast as you can" attack, they would have passed for one of the most useless local bands I've yet seen in Austin, were they not in fact on tour. Their bass player could play really fast with his fingers, but only one thing, and their drummer's leaden kicks suggested a rather limited musical imagination despite acceptable meter. When they did stop the annoying two-chord thing for all of one song, you wished that they hadn't, because you could hear the "singing" more clearly and it was quite awful. Also, when they slowed down (again for just that one song) it became clear that the drummer wasn't all comfortable playing in any other tempo, rushing things obviously and adding further unpleasantness to the overall din.

Red Leaves, locals, have at least figured out the harmony thing, but otherwise it was more eardrum abuse. Drummer who can play a lot of stuff, but only at one tempo and one (too loud) volume? Yep. Guitar player/singer who doesn't listen and stabs half-chords at random while wailing? Yes, there's one of those. Barely competent bass player who plays one-in-bar figures (nearly always late) while moving around a lot to hide the fact that he doesn't really know what he's doing? Indeed. And to top it off, a female baritone guitarist/regular guitarist with zero chops plunking away completely out of sync from the rest of the band and creating the overall impression of some hipster jokers who stole a real band's equipment and hijacked their Friday night club booking. There's a lot of this unrehearsed junk going on here in Austin and I've no patience for it.

I'm not going to write a full review of Haunting Oboe Music, who headlined, because schedule demands enforced my departure from Beerland only two songs into their very late set. (With a certain music festival occurring during daylight hours, this gig had a 10:00 PM scheduled first act.) That's certainly not enough time to absorb the full range of a six-piece group with five singers and furiously chaotic tunes that interpolate falsetto harmonies, Hart-Kreutzmann drum duels, jazzy lead guitar flourishes, and heaven knows what else after those first two songs. This particular club might not have been the best venue for first prolonged exposure to this unusual combo, as the small stage led to cramped musicians and sound mix problems galore. I will say that they clearly don't suck, not like certain other performers on the evening, and I will make it a priority to see them again. There's got to be something to a band where both drummers, the keyboard player, and the bass player all sing a lead vocal before either of the guitarists steps up.