Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Your Band Is Not Good

It's Not a Question, Baby
Go Action Team

I always listen to stuff all the way through at least twice before reviewing it. First impressions are dangerous; it's always a good idea to double-check and make sure you're totally certain a record is good before you say so. It's also wise, though burdensome, to make sure there's nothing at all redeeming about a CD before you rip it to pieces. I could have written everything I'm about to write about Go Action Team a week ago, but I couldn't bring myself to listen to their ten-song CD again for this long. It's just that tedious.

I did find one nice thing to say, though, so let's go ahead and lead with that: Their drummer has decent meter. It may well come from the fact that he plays exactly the same beat on every song (half time on the hi-hat, kick on the one, double kick on the three), but at least he does so confidently and competently. That's about the nicest thing you can say about It's Not a Question, Baby, a witless collection of lousy songwriting, shoddy lyrics, rote structures, inaccurate harmonies, and lazy musicianship. Go Action Team rhyme "all right" with "tonight" on at least three of the songs, and there's nary a line on the whole record that doesn't sound pilfered. "Before/much more," "too late/can't wait," "stay/million miles away," you get the idea.

The abysmal lyrics by themselves aren't enough to condemn the band, but they're an indicative of a musical approach that takes the easy path every time. The songs all have basically the same melody. There's no rhythmic variation for more than half of the tunes, with the trio chugging eighth notes in unison and changing chords in the same places every time. When there's a guitar solo, Scott Collier usually just plays the same notes of the chords he's been playing in the verses, only higher up and with an effect on them. For exactly two bars of "Tonight," the guitar does something different, and "So Long" and "Blood Red Letter" have good solos. Other than that, there's nothing even remotely interesting or listenable for all of 10 songs. On the rare occasion the band ventures into syncopated rhythm, you realize why they do it so rarely, because bassist Mike Combs can't keep up. His playing is laggy and muddy-sounding (although the latter is probably a blessing). He's only replicating what Collier is doing anyway, which makes it odd than most of the time he can't even play his single-note parts correctly.

Add the brain-dead lyrics to the repetitive, amateur playing and repeated exposure to this music could cause permanent hearing damage. Entirely by accident, "Round 2" sums the up the entire experience more succinctly than I ever could: "We're back where we started/Has anything changed at all?" Nope, you're still playing the same chords in the same rhythm, badly, while singing lyrics that sound incompletely translated from a different language. I'm done with Go Action Team now, and I think I need a shower. Or at least to listen to Weezer's Pinkerton and hear simple heavy-guitar pop music executed the correct way, with original lyrics, a rhythm section that has something to contribute, lots of changes, memorable melodies, harmonies that are actually in harmony, and lead guitar playing which will appeal to the non-lobotomized. In short, the antithesis of this self-impressed, static garbage.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Austin Free Week
A dive bar near you

I'm not the settling type. Since I've been old enough to go to shows by myself, I've had mailing addresses in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, Houston, Boulder, and now Austin. If I'd moved here sooner, perhaps I wouldn't have pulled up roots so many times. Here's what separates my latest adopted home from the others: Anywhere else, the slow touring calendar at the very beginning of January would be something about which to complain. In all of the other college towns in which I've lived (and I've lived in a few), culture simply shuts down from Thanksgiving to MLK Day. But in these parts, where the critical mass of underappreciated local bands presents both crisis and opportunity, measures have been taken. At just the time of year when the weather and the sparse selection of roadshows could serve as ample excuse to be sluggish about updating one's Austin music blog, here comes Free Week.

"Free Week" is a bit of a misnomer, since the parade of no-cover local shows lasts by my count ten entire days, the 1st of January through the 10th. The "free" part, as best as I can ascertain, is for real. And that's what really counts, for we unemployed writers who have been reduced to busking Patsy Cline songs up and down the drag so we can afford to buy our girlfriends Xmas beer. (If you see a very tall, very skinny guitar player wearing a Chicago Bears knit cap singing "I Fall to Pieces," tip liberally.)

I haven't seen a full comprehensive schedule for the "week" of shows at Emo's, Mohawk, Red 7, Beerland, Club Deville, and elsewhere yet, but a little research never hurt anyone. Here's a list of what I know to be on the table thus far, with some links and some picks.

Friday, January 1
Red 7 (inside): Azatat, Boomset, Cali Zack & n/a, Kill City, Mutual Trust, Crew 54

Pick your genre: Red 7 has a diverse hip-hop lineup and a flattening mix of metal and hardcore, Mohawk is delivering the country goods, and the Emo's outside lineup has moody psychedelic folk to suit the probably cloudy weather. The Crooks are definitely worth seeing but the most tempting lineup is the garage pop menu inside at Emo's, headlined by the fine Ugly Beats, who have by far the most lovely album artwork in Austin. These things matter.

Saturday, January 2
Emo's (inside): Ghost Knife, The Ape-Shits, Manikin, Serious Tracers, The Vitamins
Mohawk (outside): Lions, Vinhomudeh, Eagle Claw
Mohawk (inside): In Dudero, PJ and the Bear, The December Boys
Red 7 (outside): The Young, Pillow Queens, Cruddy, MVSCLZ
Beerland: Flametrick Subs

Morbid curiosity might lead one to the Nirvana tribute show at Mohawk (which offers the added incentive of Lions, a band you're not going to get many more chances to see for free), but Emo's has an inside-outside theme night that Nuggets fans will see as irresistible. You've got the polished, justifiably buzzed-about Harlem taking the outdoor stage (along with the scuzzier tone and lovably obnoxious vocals of Woven Bones) and then inside you've got a variety of those bands that sound like they left their sanity back in the garden with Syd Barrett. Minds will warp! Also, a good opportunity to test whether it's literally true that fuzz guitars warm human bodies. It's curious how many garage acts we have in what's really a carport town, no?

Sunday, January 3
Emo's (inside): Booher & the Turkeyz, Frank Smith, Prayer for Animals, Crooks, Western Ghost House
Club Deville: Sally Crewe, TBA

There's some good stuff on early at Emo's, but you can see polite, consonant country-rock any old time in this town (including most of the other days of Free Week). The late show at Red 7 is a lot wilder and a lot more interesting, headlined by the unique spazz-fusion of Tornahdo and featuring a number of other art-damaged improvisational bands that with prolonged exposure ought to make listeners consider taking the bus home rather than driving.

Monday, January 4
Mohawk (inside): Baron Grod, TBA

Nothing too exciting Monday. This will be a good night to stay home and recharge the batteries.

Tuesday, January 5

A rare opportunity to see some traditional "indie rock"-type acts at metal haven Red 7, even if several of the groups -- Lemuria, The Commissure, Orchestra of Antlers -- are touring bands. They must be really excited about Austin in January to come all this way to play a no-cover show. The can't-miss act for Tuesday has got to be the Obsolete Machines, whose dream/goth/techno-rock grabs you and won't let go.

Wednesday, January 6
Club Deville: Honky, Vinhomudeh, Mobley

Austin's uncommonly high band-to-citizen ratio can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes it's cool that you can book 10 bands all of whom sound like the same 13th Floor Elevators album track at one club for one night, but often the ear craves variety. The Wednesday Red 7 show might be the best of all Free Week when it comes to offering bands that complement each other without necessarily sounding all that much alike. You've got The Gary, who sound pleasantly like Eleventh Dream Day, Frantic Clam's glam-rock, the 80's postpunk/90's lo-fi Midgetmen, and the utterly unclassifiable Opposite Day, one of the most purely pleasurable rock and roll bands anywhere. Not to be overlooked, La Snacks top the bill with their easygoing, melody-laden approach and one of the most immediately likable lead singers in the county. A fantastic show at twice the price. Which would still be free.

Thursday, January 7
Mohawk (outside): Brazos, TV Torso, Great Nostalgic
Red 7 (inside): Get Action DJ's
Stubb's (inside): The White Hotel, White Dress, Jessi Torrisi

Lots of bands double- and triple-dipping during this undeclared festival, but that's all right, it's hard to complain that you're taxing your fans' pocketbooks when the shows are no-cover. If ever you had any interest in seeing Smoke & Feathers, well, you'll have no excuse not to have done so after this January. Thursday night is an action-packed evening but I find myself drawn to Emo's again for Haunting Oboe Music (if you like drummers, you've got to see this band), some similarly-minded psych-rock acts, and the palate-cleansing inclusion of The Eastern Sea and their great, wide-eyed songwriting. [I didn't find out they were playing until a few days after the original post, but Wiretree are one of my favorite Austin bands and they should be seen as well.]

Friday, January 8
Emo's (outside): The Crack Pipes, The Golden Boys, The Royal Butchers, Follow That Bird!
Red 7 (inside): DJ Sambo
Stubb's (inside): Jesse Woods

Some interesting choices Friday. The Emo's indoor show has a few bands that do an amazing job getting their name out there and engaging the community. Club Deville offers a chance to see whether Corto Maltese have improved any since the last time I saw them (doubtful). Red 7 has a wall-to-wall bill of those relentlessly puritanical punk bands where one and exactly one member per group has the standard mohawk haircut. This gorgeous show flyer has me sold on the Mohawk indoor lineup. Beautiful work there by Bland Design, which I assume means Christian Bland.

Saturday, January 9
Emo's (inside): The Hex Dispensers, The Sinks, The Altars, Shanghai River
Red 7 (inside): Shitty Carwash, Eagle Claw, White Rhino, Markov, Thieves
Stubb's (inside): Leatherbag, The Pons, Danny Malone

Who did you miss during the week? You'll have the opportunity on Saturday to make up whichever great show you most regret missing. Watch Out for Rockets have some of the best song titles in town, but for me it just wouldn't seem right to not attend at least one show at Beerland, my favorite joint in Austin. I love the three band names for that gig, don't you?

Sunday, January 10
Emo's (outside): A Giant Dog, Bad Sports, Cause for Applause, Elvis
Emo's (inside): Red X Red M, Woodgrain, Eagle Claw, ODEZCO, Expensive Shit
Red 7 (early show): Set Aflame, Bonnie Blue, Let the Dead, TBA

Seems like we're coming full circle here -- Woolgather and A Giant Dog were two of the very first Austin bands that I listened to when I was still living in Colorado and contemplating moving down here to seek my fortune. They represent well the contrasting poles of rock in Central Texas, one stylish and modern and the other comfy and retro. I don't think it will surprise anyone that I tend to side with those with old-school sensibilities. I've been wanting to see A Giant Dog for ages but I've been too cheap and too poor to make it happen. No longer!

Thanks to my sources: Showlist Austin, Emo's, Stubb's, Beerland, Red 7, and Mohawk. The Parish Room hasn't posted the lineup for the 10th yet but as of 1/1 I've updated the listings with their shows from the 6th through the 9th. The Beauty Bar is supposed to have free bands and DJ's all week but their calendar is nowhere to be found, no one answers the phone when you call them, and they haven't updated their voicemail message since ACL. (Thanks to Kurt from Tornahdo/Squidbucket for the tip on the Friday 1/8 show there.) I've pretty much given up on trying to go to shows at the Beauty since it's pretty clear they have no interest whatsoever in putting any effort behind gigs for local bands. There's also a joint called Encore that I have seen on some bands' pages. I'm having trouble finding any more information about it. 'Nites has their own take on Free Week up, here's a blurb from Austinist, and here's the page of the folks who started it all, Transmission Entertainment.

If you are a band or a club that's participating in a show I've somehow overlooked, please let me know (so long as it's free). And if any club has an empty spot and wants to have me come and perform my rock opera in its entirety, I'm available.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Partial Birth

Reality Memory Sensation [EP]
The Fetus Tree

Michael Mullings, the Austin songwriter/guitarist/experimental musician who records as The Fetus Tree, sent me a package in the mail with quite a bit to digest. Three CD's worth, one summarizing his early work, another with his most recent completed release, and a third including some early mixes of his unfinished next opus. This is an excellent opportunity as a reviewer. Normally one has to extrapolate from a single recording what a musician's roots are, and what direction they're heading next. I was able to listen to Reality Memory Sensation, take some notes, and see whether my assumptions about The Fetus Tree's development process were correct. Then I was able to put on the preview of the next record and see whether the progress I wanted to hear based on the EP was taking place or not.

Mullings is an intriguing artist, one whose music is equal parts IDM and guitar-based folk. Reality Memory Sensation gives each element of his sound a track of its own and then attempts to combine streams for its closer, "Sensation," which weds a circular electric guitar figure with programmed disruptions. Without the electronic additions, his guitar-based songwriting is a little dreary, with little in the way of melodic advancement and gloomy vocals. The collection of earlier recordings he sent along shows why The Fetus Tree needed to move past a totally guitar-centered identity -- other than the atypically upbeat "Magic," the tracks are colorless and droning. The electronic composition "Ocean <-> Sky" contrasts oddly with the guitar/vocal numbers.

Along with the first EP track, "Reality," Fetus Tree's electronic stuff does have a weakness in common with their singer/songwriter tunes. They're not nearly extroverted enough. "Reality" has a lot of development and changing rhythmic and melodic pedals, but the patches selected are well within the normal range of expectations for modern-day electronic music. You won't hear anything that shocks you, and the melodies are almost too politely mixed low and employed for fleeting moments. The music could stand to be much prettier, or much more obnoxious, or both, but it definitely needs to take risks one way or the other.

Combining approaches seems the natural answer for The Fetus Tree to hit upon a sound that's both memorable and original. "Sensation," the last track on the EP, shows both how this could work and the pitfalls involved. It's far and away the most interesting piece Mullings has completed thus far, with its odd, longing guitar melody and unsettling programmed bass tones, but it also has technical problems. The guitar performance and the delay effect applied to it aren't lined up properly with the electronic elements, and that really undermines the lulling, hypnotic effect that the track ought to have. As odd as it is that the bulk of his early releases switch back and forth from one style to the other, you can see why The Fetus Tree didn't jump into a hybrid approach right off the bat. It's a lot easier to theorize about than practically execute.

The tracks from Audio Sketches Vol. 1, the next Fetus Tree project, show things continuing to cohere. The programmed elements are more of a vital cog to the songs than incidental noise, the live instruments and vocals sound in closer touch with the beats (although still not perfect), and unexpectedly Mullings is beginning to develop more attitude and personality in his vocals. That's a most welcome development. I look forward to hearing the completed new record.

Oh, one more thing: I don't like the band name at all. It's tacky and politically confrontational in a way that doesn't match up with the project's music in any way, shape, or form. "Fetus Tree" makes me think of a Megadeth album cover or something. There's probably a way to label the elements of genesis, creation, and rebirth present in this music that doesn't call to mind images of people firebombing Planned Parenthood.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to Austin, Now Get Out

Here's some free advice for aspiring local musicians, in the spirit of this season of giving. Get out of town!

I'm not saying you're not welcome here, although those of you who don't work hard on your songs, think you're above practicing, and begin drinking in earnest four hours before your set begins should definitely consider relocating to some place where the competition is less fierce. But for those of you who have put the time in on creating a setlist you're proud of and a recording that represents you well, it's time to go play in other cities!

It's certainly possible to play five or more shows in Austin every month, with the high concentration of clubs that offer live music in town. But it's a terrible idea. For the first several months of your existence, you're going to be counting on a core audience of friends, co-workers, and relatives to fill up those empty rooms. With the unbelievable amount of entertainment options available in Austin any given night of the week, just about nobody is going to show up at your concert dates out of the blue and give you their full attention. (The only person in this entire city who does that is me, and there is only one Western Homes.) You're going to be testing your girlfriends' patience fairly quickly if you expect them to show up in mostly empty bars twice a week to hear the same eight songs.

Restricting your "home" shows to about once a month (or even better, once every six weeks) makes it much easier to concentrate on promoting a single concert. If you tell an acquaintance that you're playing Wednesday at Headhunter's, Tuesday at Beerland, Thursday at the Hole in the Wall and so on, they're likely not to come to any of those shows. If you're playing locally too often, there's no incentive for anyone to come to one particular show, since they can always just catch the next one. More often than not, they won't come see you at all. But if you tell them your last show was in November and your next show is January 15th, they're far more likely to make a point of attending. Keep local shows scarce! You devalue your band by playing constantly, and loading in and out six times a month for shows that are attended by no one is demoralizing. Spreading out your Austin appearances also gives you more time to prepare for each show. Give your fans a reason to come see you a second time! The next time you play, five or six weeks later, have a bunch of new songs in the setlist.

You don't want to overload your calendar with local shows. But you do want to keep playing live as often as you can. There's an element of adrenaline that separates playing live from practice. Playing two or three tight shows can bring a band along faster than two months of casual rehearsals. Since it's a bad idea to play all the time in Austin, you need to get in the van. Central Texas is a fantastic incubator for developing original bands because there are major population centers in practically every direction. What's more, the markets for original music in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston are not as diverse nor as oversupplied as the one here in the capital.

You don't want to undergo a weekend trip within Texas without some planning. First of all, don't travel until you have stuff to sell. You need T-shirts and CD's to hawk if you're going to make your gas money back. It also increases your chances of playing to receptive crowds if you spend some time finding out-of-town bands who complement your own group's style. As tough as it is making headway in Austin for bands who live here, imagine how intimidating it is for outsiders. Set up a show on your home turf for a band from New Orleans or the Metroplex, then have them book you a show on theirs.

There's an amazing system of grassroots websites that didn't exist a few years ago that can help you to find bands and venues all around the country ( and even places to sleep for free ( If your band handles itself professionally, makes sure to take enough merchandise, and is any good at all, you should break even right away and once you start returning for second and third visits, turn profits. If on the other hand the idea of sleeping on strange floors and driving all day unnerves you, you should probably select a different line of work.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Way of the Beat

Every Hour [EP]

Towards the bottom of the detailed mix for the waltz "Lover's Pride," a female computer voice complains, "I'm not likely to be impressed by the same thing over and over again." It sounds familiar, like the parser from one of those point-and-click adventure games popular on the PC in the early 90's. It could be a comment on the topic of the song, but it could also serve as a summary of Ukemi's approach on each of these six tracks.

The quintet uses folk-rock instrumentation -- acoustic guitar, upright bass, violin, piano, and drums -- but they pack a wallop. Their potency isn't due to dramatic volume shifts or flamboyant parts from any of the players, but rather the lovely arrangements. Each splash cymbal hit to be heard here is chosen with purpose. Ukemi's signature is an ability to collectively pirouette from nervous, twitchy rhythms in the verses of their songs to a more soothing standard rock ballad beat when the choruses arrive. "Halfway" is the best example. The release that the anthemic chorus brings is built up by the unsettled feel of the main verse riff, led by a darting bassline. When the bass and drums stop playing against the beat and settle in for the chorus, John Jung's narrator seems to have found soaring peace, if but for a moment.

The use of tension and release in this music -- and the way that the more subtle elements of the production, like the many overlaying harmonies in the chorus sections and the additional percussion employed during many of the more polyrhythmic bits -- makes Every Hour perhaps the preeminent headphones listen among local releases I've sampled this year. Even in the big melodic passages there's a duality in the calm, cool notes of Julie Wang's violin and Jung's fragile, wavering vocals. There's also a larger structure at work in the track order. The way the unresolving "Every Hour" bridges directly into the beat-happy "Ferris Wheel" seems particularly suite-like.

With its lean rhythm sound, detailed mix, and frank, sometimes unsettling lyrics, Every Hour stands out even among Austin's cluttered field for its originality and vitality. One of the best of 2009, and not a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Back to '79

There was never any time better than the late 1970's to be a singer/songwriter. The successful scorched-earth campaign of punk got rid of the unrealistic expectations for young songwriters to all be musical prodigies. The arresting rhythms of African and Caribbean music were beginning to be listened to seriously outside of ghettos. Most importantly, the heavyweights of this era were not so far removed from the golden era of 60's rock to understand the importance of harmony.

This last detail is an overlooked one. Since all musical trends are cyclical, it shouldn't be at all surprising that there's a wealth of bands trying self-consciously traffic in a new wave style nowadays. It's disappointing that most of these bands only take the simple chord changes and catchy melodies. A few of the sharper ones (Franz Ferdinand, Vampire Weekend) have managed to get the rhythms right. But hardly anybody is paying attention to harmony these days, which is unforgivable. Thoughtfully constructed harmonies give sprightly major-key songs sophistication and depth. They provide shading, allowing some dark colors in with all the brightness.

The new single from Austin's Rich Restaino and The Obits, "Susie," demonstrates that harmony isn't entirely dead and buried. The bouncy melody and a confident, full-sounding lead vocal make it clear that this is a pop song first and foremost -- not to mention the chipper piano ostinatos. But clever choices in the female backing vocals, and Alexei Sefchick's fleet, vaguely ominous bassline, lend the song an element of melancholy that's most welcome. Restaino's lyric, regarding a young headbanger who has nothing to say to her mother until she finds herself with a kid of her own, benefits from the intelligence of the arrangement. His vocals sound improved from their earlier recordings, smoother and more expressive. The band sound in top form, too, with the lead guitar really picking its spots well.

Restaino is a true polymath: writer, reader, thinker, teacher, rocker. We're lucky to have him here in Austin. Go support him and the Obits and hear some more of their new material when they play tonight, December 10th, at the Nomad Bar.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Demo Sweat #8

I usually really enjoy putting these columns together, because I lived for a long time in a kind of musical wasteland. It's a constant pleasure to me how diverse, unpredictable, and fertile Austin's music scene is. And as I begin to travel more within the state, everywhere I go in Texas I find much the same thing, and I wonder why it took me so long to settle down here. Diverse people with varying interests making music in unexpected combinations -- that's why Texas played such a significant part in the music of the 20th century and will continue to loom large in the 21st. Not to mention the fact that the music fans here are friendly, unpretentious, and a lot more open-minded than I was raised to believe in northern cities. They do tend to freak out disproportionately about "cold" weather, but it's hard to get chesty about this when you're simply overjoyed about not having to shovel your car out of three feet of snow and ice each morning.

That being said, this was a rough week for Demo Sweat. The ugly, little-recognized downside to the quantity and diversity of Austin's musician class is that there are a lot of lazy, unmotivated self-styled superstars clogging our dive bars. These people are utterly unprepared to take criticism of their work in the right light, because they don't know how to think critically -- if they did, their music wouldn't suck beyond the telling of it. They're unable to separate their pride in creation from the ability to judge what is or isn't an original work, and they keep sending me the same song over and over again. It has three or four chords, no changes, a facile melody built around a 1-3-5 tritone, the same 1-AND-2-AND-3-AND-4-AND non-rhythm of a guitar being strummed up and down mindlessly the whole way through, and lyrics that are obviously paraphrased from the work of real songwriters.

I wish I could help these people, but I can't. Their parents (who pay their rent, car payments, XBox Live subscriptions) believe in them, and the producers and session musicians their folks paid to record their songs told them they have "what it takes." You kids: You don't have what it takes. You suck. Stop sending me this song! I hate it more than a Bright Eyes/Sufjan Stevens/Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros package tour.

This week's winners by default are Will Robinson and the Danger. Their early recordings are no great shakes -- the guitar and bass parts feel detached from the stiff electronic loops -- but at least in "Mercury" and "I Am a Sultan" they've created some actual songs, with original melodies, rhythmic changes, and lyrics that weren't written in two minutes. Mike McNeil needs to work on moderating his habit of directly impersonating the nasal-drip vocal style of Ben Gibbard... and his lyrical style as well. The instruments, though, show real life. The bass, rhythm guitar, drums, and keyboards all serve separate (and correct) functions in the mix and the songs have considered, not-boring structure. I wish "Mercury" had a rocking peak at some point, but "I Am a Sultan" is a pretty good song.

So much for the only band I even remotely enjoyed this time out. Quickly: Horse Opera are 100% unoriginal robot country with blatantly formulaic songs and lyrics and atonal vocal harmonies. Megan Blue is a blues singer who needs counting lessons; her vocals are always lagging behind the band and that eliminates whatever charm her tone and phrasing might create. Nutmud of San Marcos might have a handful of good ideas -- their bass-driven sound is all right and I like the way they use little vocal samples to create mood -- but their drummer is hideously bad, losing time every section and molesting the ears with fills that sound like random noise. The Love It Band are extremely pleased with their style, which mixes transparently rudimentary GarageBand programming with bad guitar playing and abusively repetitive vocals. Unfortunately they have only one song that has more than one chord progression and not even a single interesting vocal idea. Even with falsetto, and I usually love falsetto! They are apparently moving from Massachusetts to find fame and fortune here; they should turn around and go back.

Raised by Pandas are sort of charming in the sense that anyone who's ever written a song on the guitar will recognize their "originals." But I wrote these six "songs" myself when I was 12 and I'm kind of past that now. Disciples of Sound have a vibe that's currently pretty distinctive -- they mix Sabbath heft with old-school blues, all with a 90's grunge compression. Unfortunately their singer is copying Chris Cornell so obviously that it makes them seem way less original than they really are, since Soundgarden didn't use the blues so overtly. Unfortunately, the minstrel job makes it impossible to recommend them. Too bad, because the songs that have riffs instead of just long guitar solos are not too shabby.

I'm not even going to write about Mike Clifford, because he didn't even bother to take two seconds to make sure he wrote his website name down properly when he e-mailed -- he sent me a bad link. I could obviously Google him, but I don't see why I should go to the trouble when he sent me a message with no text and a broken URL. You reap what you sow, Mike. Jordan Cody's brand of commercial country is produced in the least interesting way imaginable, but the songwriting is halfway decent. I would give her more time here if it wasn't terribly unclear at her site whose work it is you're listening to. She writes in her bio about becoming a professional demo singer. If she didn't in fact write these songs, that's the exact right career for her, because she's got nothing going on otherwise. Well, OK, looks.

Finally, I'm really getting the knives out for Dandelion Wino. If you see the name of these jokers on a marquee along Red River, run in the other direction. Or call the bar to protest. There's nothing particularly bad (or particularly good) about their masturbatory no-change jamming -- the guitar soloing is decent, the bass and drums are a little out of sync (mostly because the guitar player isn't listening to them), you've heard worse. But dig this hypocritical, self-righteous excerpt from their bio: "Because musicians and listeners are free from the constraints of the past, music is now essentially worthless.... A good record could take its listener on a sensory journey -- with auditory bliss 20 minutes per side. The ears had to go along with and accept the album for what it was: a cohesive artistic statement put together by a group of likeminded individuals...."

OK, so far I agree. But it continues: "Today, these joys are overlooked by an impatient, unforgiving breed of listeners only interested in 30 second sound bytes [sic] of the latest radio hit. Dandelion Wino is the antithesis to this prevailing attitude towards today’s music."

No, you aren't. Dicking around for 7 minutes on I-iii-IV-V is not a "cohesive artistic statement." It's the pathetic self-expression of musicians so arrogant and slothful as to expend absolutely no effort on creating worthwhile material. There's nothing wrong with jamming, but it has to stem from somewhere. Instrumental or otherwise, the jam bands that have made music that will endure (from the Dead to Phish to Miles Davis) have started with a foundation of intricately composed songs that set the mood and the narrative path for the improvisational sections. Smoke some more pot, you lazy a-holes.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Screaming the Blues

The Red 100s
Bill's Records (Dallas), 12/5

Raul, guitar player for The Red 100s, has this stage move where he flicks his head back a little, hits a downstroke with particular emphasis, and spins to his right on the balls of his feet so effortlessly that it seems as if he's floating. Weaker men have studied years to affect this sort of thing. You couldn't steal it if you tried.

The Red 100s have a natural fury that's more than the sum of their parts. When Raul's bandmate Robbie switches from guitar to bass, they lose some of their power. Partly it's because a more conventional power trio lineup makes their roots (Cream, Hendrix, Led Zep, Blue Cheer) more obvious. Mainly it's because their best songs -- the pummeling "Bellhop Swing" and "Set Me Free" -- are blues stripped of all excesses save monstrous, precisely delivered riffs and punishing force. When they're playing as a two-guitar and drums trio, there's a no-notes-wasted intensity that's lost in the more traditional soloing-over-rhythm section feel of their bass-guitar-drums tunes.

The reason they sound so original and compelling in their two-guitar alignment is also what makes them modern, what makes their interpretation of the blues an exciting and fresh one. Both guitar players are right on the beat, cranking out simple syncopated changes with clockwork efficiency. Contained, equally precise drumming completes the effect. When they build up into a full-barreled neo-Sabbath thrash then pull back into riffing, it's like walking out of a 100% humidity day in Houston into a well-insulated house with central air. Audiences will be drenched with sweat and grateful of it.

Not every one of the young band's songs is a winner. After they played their two triumphs right up front, the rest of the setlist was a bit of a disappointment (save a rhythmically faithful but intensified "Wipeout," a cover choice that really suited their style and approach). The vocals, by drummer Kyle S., fit in just right when they're needed but they could use them even more sparingly than they already do. As they continue to develop their material, the emphasis has to stay on what they do best -- rapid and frequent feel changes, short and controlled solos from both guitarists, minimal arrangements centered on those massive riffs -- and avoid extended jamming without rhythm changes.

Some people try their whole lives to put their own signature on the blues. With that riff from "Set Me Free," the Red 100s have staked their claim. Only other advice I can offer is that they should probably stop smoking their namesakes. Cigarettes are bad for you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Even on a Bad Night

Andrew Anderson
Beerland, 12/2

Although the club was colder than the inside of a keg and the band was unrehearsed, even a show Andrew Anderson would probably like to forget made me admire his music even more. Opening with a different arrangement of one of his nerviest songs, "Necessary Casualties," solo with a mandolin was a gutsy way to begin. Despite the Arctic climate and a backing group he hadn't seen for six weeks, the rest of the set was entertaining in a rough and ready way. Even with a group not totally on the cues, Anderson's songs have a natural structure to them that all but force the band into shape. What's more, the enthusiasm all the musicians shared -- particularly his bassist's cheerful harmonies -- was contagious.

You can make the best out of a bad night, or you can grin and bear it. Keeping his frustration limited to a few blood-curdling screams, Anderson kept it together for "Once Met a Girl," a creatively re-harmonized take on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and during a mid-set solo break, the stark and affecting "Hemingway." Good country ought to be a little rough and road-weary, and I enjoyed the show immensely for all its rough patches. By the time things wound down with the uncompromising-but-accessible "Damn It Man," even the sheepish drummer and lead guitarist had been won over by the strength of the material. It can only get better from here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Honest Day's Work

Long Way
Pete Minda

Solidly written and performed "adult contemporary" music is difficult to create, and it's equally difficult to pinpoint what separates good work in this field from the unimaginative and impersonal material that gluts it. It's hard work doing uncool well, which is why James Taylor is still packing theaters even though critics and hip musicians refuse to recognize his influence. Also Chicago and Steely Dan.

Austin's Pete Minda doesn't knock every track on Long Way out of the park, but he makes a lot of solid contact. His songwriting is band-conscious, using the rhythm section and added touches like the accordion of "Memory to Me" to distinguish the tunes from each other. There's a foundation of acoustic strumming in the mix, but it doesn't dominate and importantly it doesn't push every song into the same kind of feel. Lead guitar parts diversify the tracks and play off of the vocals nicely.

Lyrically Long Way has some fine moments and some missed opportunities. The chorus hook to "Thing About Love" ("the incidents of late tell me I don't know a thing about love") is clumsy in just the right way -- the charm of the song is the way the singer doesn't use another's words to make his point. "There's Never Been Any Peace" sometimes sacrifices the clarity of the melody in its onrush of words, but Minda has some solid points to make. Sometimes he tends to lose focus, as a few songs have second verses that don't entirely flow logically, as if he cribbed some ideas from an entirely different lyric. "She's Not the Little Girl" has a resonant theme and a lovely duet part, but the words are too unspecific to really cut to the heart the way they should.

The strongly arranged main body of the record is well-complemented by the final track, a solo acoustic take of the fine "Kansas City Coming Home" that displays that Minda is highly skilled at maintaining the drama of his full-band performances in a solo setting. The way he adapts his vocal style, very understated through most of the record, to really sell "Kansas City" is representative of his subtle but refined skills. Long Way isn't currently stylish, but heartfelt and honest never go entirely out of style either.