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.

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