Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mystery Trip

Magic Hero vs. Rock People
Magic Hero vs. Rock People

Normally I give local records two or three spins before I write about them. It doesn't usually take any more than that to find a few high points, a few suggestions for improvement, and reach a reasonable conclusion. My time is limited and if I don't spend a certain amount of time each week listening to 70's British rock on vinyl I get cranky and ill-disposed to say anything nice about music at all.

I've had this Magic Hero vs. Rock People CD for almost a month now and I keep trying to listen to it all the way through and then write a definitive review. I usually make it all the way to the end (and it's a monster, 20 tracks) without any idea of what to say. A lot of thought and effort went into this record. The instrumentation is dense and varied, but beautifully recorded. Whether it's old keyboards, string instruments, or mouth percussion, you can always tell what the sounds are even while the overall mix is quite deliberately blended and hazy. The vocals are equally well-rendered, but in a subtle way. It's only the presence of one song not sung by leader Donny Lang, the tone-deaf "Selfless Nameless Vanity," that proves by negative example how cool the singing is otherwise. This sort of layered production deserves multiple listens and careful analysis. There's bits of studio chatter, sampled speeches, tape-manipulated sections, and none of it seems accidental.

However the record isn't as much fun to get lost in the depths of as it could be, because the songs are melodically rote and rhythmically all identical to each other. With a few exceptions -- the surf instrumental "Rocketing Rhythms II" is peppy and the twee "The Only Road You're Gonna Find" would be a breakout track if it wasn't buried 19 songs into the sequence. Even though they're well crafted with waves of violin and movie-soundtrack organ and thoughtful lyrics, there's about eight too many songs like "One-Way Woman" and "Only a Wizard in the Wind" that have the same drab approach. There's also no variations in arrangements -- the songs begin and end with all the same sounds, with nothing added or removed. The songs aren't distinct from each other because rhythmically they're all alike, with little melody coming from the vocals or the overdubs, and they aren't distinctive within themselves because there's never any changes. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, outro, every time.

Lang has the restraint to not end every song with a lengthy jam over the verse chords. Some of the shorter material (opener "After the Game") is among the most appealing, because the riffs don't outstay their welcome. There's some talent and a lot of fine musicianship buried in the clouds of sound here, but it's a lot easier to record variations on the same song 15 times than write 4 or 5 totally distinct compositions. Having crafted themselves a sound that's worthwhile and their own, Magic Hero vs. Rock People next have to fill it in with stronger songs that can stand on their own, without the Technicolor production. Playing live shows and shaping their next release for 7" vinyl, as they're now doing, should help. Theirs is a fight worth waging.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Demo Sweat #7

My big discovery this time out is D.B. Rouse, lately arrived in Central Texas from Wisconsin by way of Carnival Cruise Lines. Rouse's bio, and his songs, make him seem like the kind of guy you'd want to listen to tell stories for hours. He's lived all over the place and done interesting things, from working in a rural pawnshop to singing in a shipboard lounge. He can write terrific tunes from his own experience ("Valentine's Day at the Pawn Shop" is a tale of desperation in decaying flyover America worthy of Flannery O'Connor) but he's too curious and too talented to only ply that style. He also writes protest songs ("Clean King Coal") and in character ("Every Orchard," "Mischief on Mind"). Though the bulk of his stuff is guitar and vocal, Rouse can wring more variety out of a single melodica overdub than most songwriters can from a whole band, and he pulls in surprises like choirs and boogie-woogie piano ("Brewery City") to further diversify the sound. With all the amazing songwriters I'm unearthing through this column who have just moved to Austin to seek their musical fortunes, I should probably think about starting my own Monsters of Folk. D.B., Taber Maine, what do you say?

I wanted to say nice things about Consider Me Spilled, since their singer Ariel is a great musician and a friend, but I can't in good conscience praise a band that draws their inspiration wholly from a single source. The chorus-heavy, jangly guitars, the slightly dance-inflected bass and drums, a high male voice singing somewhat overwritten lyrics that are simultaneously disgusted by and obsessed with romantic love... they sound like a Smiths cover band from an alternate universe where the Smiths made several more albums with fewer good songs on them in the 90's. Tyler Clark has more influences but hasn't figured out how to blend them enough to make a sound that's his own. His "The Devil and Robert Johnson" sounds almost exactly like "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the lyrics highlight his other main problem -- he can't write them. Instead he steals bits and pieces from other people's songs. This might be less obvious if he didn't have the hubris to try retelling one of the most well-known legends in 20th-century music history. They even made a "Metalocalypse" about it! Even if Clark was able to somehow write an original song about the crossroads (and he isn't), there's no way it's going to improve upon the other 200 famous ones. Musically Clark's not at all bad. The vocals are fine and the production on his songs is clear and professional, not polished to the degree that it sucks all the grit out of the tunes. But go to any Austin open mic any night of the week and you'll hear five country singers all bleating out variations of the same lyrics.

The Dead Lotus Society know at least a little bit about crafting beauty out of ugliness. Their singer, Hyatt Killer, has a hair-raising multi-octave voice that makes the contradictory concept of female doom vocals seem natural. Unfortunately, their drummer is limited and not able to play fast enough for proper grind, and their guitar player is unskilled. Doesn't matter how much distortion you throw on it or how low you tune the thing, I can still tell when your "solos" are just noise. Learn some scales! At least the Lotus people are trying to make metal that's scary. Betrayed By Sorrow define their sound as "hard rock you can understand," but what that really means is that they're bending over backwards as far as possible to not offend any potential record labels. Anyone with two or three lessons under their belts could play their simplistic guitar parts, and the vocals sound like Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood. What's the point of hard rock no one disapproves of? As everyone knows, Van Halen were great with the self-aware, deliberately sexist cartoon machismo of David Lee Roth and terrible ever after. Sev7sky, of San Antonio, have a similar disconnect between appearance and content. Their tracks aren't as well-produced as Sorrow's, with a distorted low end on the bass and guitars that sounds terrible, and stiff, disconnected drums that might as well be programmed for all they bring to the table. Yeah, I'm sure there's an audience for this brand of castrated mullet-rock, as there was for Metallica's misbegotten Bob Rock period, but who wants that audience?

Want to hear an example of a local metal/hard rock band that I think is really bringing the goods? Look no further than Squidbucket. The instrumental trio is incredibly gifted musically, as any band hoping to follow honorably in the footsteps of Primus and Tool must be. But they're also really good songwriters. All of their online recordings are different from each other, and they have a knack for pulling out surprises even past the six-minute mark in their long, meticulously arranged songs. With its bass-tapping intro, "Captain Schmegal's March" begins as a Les Claypool tribute. But it doesn't stay there for long, as maniacal drums and pinpoint guitars take it through a murkier but still hook-laden underwater nightmare. They shift meters with practiced ease, but they're not prog just for the sake of it. These are some excellent but truly weird musicians who genuinely think in 7/4 and 8/8. If you missed Mastodon, you'll want to be there when Squidbucket play Plush Monday November 30th.

Speak in Verse have a Connecticut address but an Austin connection, as singer Donavon Cavanaugh hangs out here while he's not in school. Cavanaugh and second singer Travis Schwartz have good singing voices, but not much else about Speak in Verse's sound is particularly interesting. The bass playing is incompetent, pounding roots out of time, the guitar parts are largely forgettable, and the songwriting is cookie-cutter emo. Even the way the two vocalists interact is totally formulaic. Why all these five-minute songs when the compositions have one or at most two different chord progressions? I like their drummer's double-kick work, at the very least. They should go back to the drawing board and draw a lot more from hardcore, because the little heavy bits that begin and end a few of the tunes are better than the drab main sections. Also not from around here but worth a mention since his music is distinctive and cool is Crazy Mountain Billies, actually one dude from Montana. The one-man lineup works for his brand of bluegrass; instead of monotonous jamming his songs overflow with real melodies on multiple instruments. His unique vocals also are worthy of praise.

The Generals are yet another Americana act but one with some elements that set them apart. They're much more focused on group groove than backing up a guitar-strumming singer. Although not great in volume, they have a propulsive sound that suits the unassuming lead vocals and tasty slides. When a second voice comes in on harmony, they're pretty special. I also like the way that the vocals sound copied incorrectly from classic folksongs. Check out these titles -- "Lazrus and the Tent Revival," instead of "Lazarus," "Wallbash Valley" instead of "Wabash." No way of telling whether that's intentional or not, but it reflects the way that unlike some others the Generals reclaim old ideas as their own rather than merely recycling them. They're at Kick Butt Coffee's Airport Road location on November 30th.

Mo McMorrow's tiny schoolgirl voice isn't powerful enough to be heard even over a very modest rhythm section. She's not getting much out of the one she has on her online clips, since the recording quality of the drums sounds downright awful and the basslines are boring. When she goes in a more overt folk direction, as on "This Field of Mine," the results are better, but I wish her songs had more -- indeed, any -- dynamic changes. I do admire her lyrics. The Nish Initiative has some decent ideas as far as songwriting goes ("Free to Slave" has a nifty little guitar riff) but I found their recordings painful to listen to. I don't think many other listeners will be able to last even long enough to appreciate the decent variety and fairly good developing writing. That's because Jake Nishimura's vocals are woefully poor -- out of key, out of rhythm, a mess as far as enunciation and phrasing go. A singing voice is an instrument, one that requires perhaps even more practice and self-discipline to hone than a guitar. Roscat is a one-man band with little to no proper musicianship, but a ton of imagination and creativity on display. These extremely primitive recordings might not boast much in the way of completed songs -- more single-part sketches, few longer than two minutes -- but they capture the excitement of someone just starting to make their own music and realizing they might be good at it. Roscat moves from simple cheap keyboard ditties to simple cheap guitar ditties, but the way both sides have a hazy, loopy, but hopeful shared quality indicates there's a real native musical vision at work here. The warped vocal effects and half-accidental rhythms are infectious in their own way (like early Ween without the chops). If not complex, his playing has better meter than a lot of so-called pros do. His page claims he's working on a concept album about Vietnam. Sounds just crazy enough to work.

Finally, Ukemi don't need any pointers from me. This is a finished band with a distinctive sound and sweet songs. They struck me at first as a kind of Asian-American Frames. Julie Wang's violin playing reconnects the group's alternative rock sound to Far Eastern melodies in the same way Colm Mac Con Iomaire's fiddle tethers Glen Hansard's songs back to their Emerald Isle roots. John Jung's unrestrained vocal approach is another thing the two bands have in common. Just updating the Frames would be almost enough to win my approval -- the fact that Hansard's Swell Season side project is more successful than his long-running rock band in the States is a continuous annoyance to me -- but Ukemi also have elements of ska and Latin rhythms at times that further serve to make them distinct. Online you don't really get the full effect of Scott Yates' upright bass, so make a note to go see them December 5th at Lambert's. That's a CD release show for a record I hope I'll get to review soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Spell Check

Saxon Pub, 11/18

You have to respond to the enterprising spirit of a band that puts an ad up offering free show admission to musicians and critics. Local bands are like innumerable grains of sand in Austin, but few are self-aware enough to realize that they need the listening ears of those beyond their significant others and drinking buddies to reach the mythical Next Level. Ouachita don't require anyone to tell them how to play -- the six musicians in the band are at a proficiency level far beyond the average bar band. Drummer David Pennington, in particular, is a gas to watch and hear. I hear a lot of call for "pocket" players these days, but Pennington is proof positive of the fact that a superior drummer is loose-limbed enough to provide lots of color with his right hand while still keeping unflagging time on the snare and kick. Bassist Sonny White has a complementary active but anchored attack. Drew deFrance is a monster lead guitarist, and although he doesn't solo often, Jonah Kane-West's Hammond and piano playing is marvelous.

Ouachita's take on blue-eyed soul isn't monochromatic. They can recall Stax/Chess for one song, the JB's for the next, and then with Hank Bragg's tenor riffing, Springsteen/Clemons. Though varied in style, the bulk of their songs are pretty similar structurally -- introductory solo, first verse, chorus, solo over verse chords, second verse, chorus, and so on. Often the best thing about their songs is the endings. I don't mean that in a sarcastic way. Rather than trailing off, most of their tunes have composed codas. They might deliberately slow the tempo into a big finishing flourish, reharmonize a section repeated earlier, or all play together an arranged melody. Their unison playing is really interesting, since deFrance has a guitar tone that's quite saxophone-like in its sustain and vibrato. When he and Bragg attack a figure together, it sounds like micro-Phil Spector.

Despite the excellent musicianship, there's only so much you can do with repeating solos over standard, major-chord blues changes. Despite deFrance's creative and pyrotechnic playing, their set was a little heavy on boogie, with four players (keys, bass, drums, and rhythm guitarist Kurt McMahan) repeating very simple vamps while Bragg and deFrance exchanged licks. Later in the set when they stretched out more and worked in some group improvisation, they got much more compelling. Letting the drummer and bass player step out more is never a bad idea with players this skilled and sympathetic. McMahan's guitar, in particular, became more of an integral part of the sound when he was playing off of the backline. Since Kane-West comps a lot of the time, a lot of McMahan's rhythm guitar playing isn't really necessary, at least when he's just strumming chords. He might consider putting the guitar down some of the time. This also might help with the band's stage presence, since other than the singer everyone kind of remains rooted to the floor in one spot. On a few tunes McMahan plays counter-riffs off of deFrance's wicked leads; Ouachita sounds leaner and more purposeful then.

Cutting out some of the unnecessary rhythm guitar would also help mask the fact that structurally the songs are not real complicated. White and deFrance do amazing things turning very simple chord changes into original compositions; having an extra guitar just going from G to D much of the time doesn't add anything to the very full sound of the six-piece band. McMahan would also be freed up to play more electric harmonica, and as far as I'm concerned there's no such thing as too much electric harmonica. With deFrance's riffing, Bragg's sax interjections, and especially those occasional composed sections, there's nothing wrong with the songs being based around simple changes. It fits the band's style, and with the addition of a few more turnarounds, they'd have everything they need musically.

I would like to hear some more distinctive lyrics. McMahan's got a strong soulman's voice and he works a crowd well -- some of his best bits were his improvised encouragements to the band and audience. The way the group's songs build to choruses, I wish sometimes the lyrical hooks they were arriving at were more original and memorable. That's all quibbling -- a more pertinent concern is how they're going to get people to find their music with a name I still can't spell correctly after typing it at least a dozen times. Ouachita? I think that's right. In any event they're playing the best joints in town -- the Saxon, Momo's (Friday the 27th) -- because they're a vastly superior bar band. Thanks for the invite, guys.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breathing Lessons

Take a Deeep Breath
Cabe Lindsay

With its refreshingly extroverted and positive lyrics, this LP from Montana-to-Austin songwriter Cabe Lindsay has a warm, personal touch that's usually absent from releases in the electro-acoustic style. The compositions mix live instrumentation and programming in unassuming fashion. Although live drums and laptop beats alternate on the songs, the record has an overall confident style that gives it flow. The songs, and not the changing instrumentation, are what leave the greatest impression. It's with the vocals that Lindsay experiments most, reinforcing his justified faith in the strength of these songs. He can bring in a female singer ("A Diamond Met a Pearl") or experiment with harmony ("Potter") or vocal effects ("Be Here Now") and all the tunes remain recognizably his own.

What's most invigorating about Take a Deeep Breath are the lyrics. Lindsay's interests in faraway vistas and Eastern philosophy are typical for the style, but his use of humor ("Be Well Bee") and his excellent storytelling are anything but. "Dead Body Falls Naked Off Cliff" has a ripped-from-the-headlines subject like Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo's Strange But True album but the witty rhyme scheme and tongue-in-cheek elements of the lyric mean the song actually improves on the great title. Nathan Zavalney's sympathetic mix intelligently seats the vocals in such a way that they enhance the stories Lindsay is trying to tell, as on "She Opted for Scuba Diving" and especially "Potter," where the singing takes form like the work of the subject would. The combination of Lindsay's unpredictable and original lyrical images and the stylish, modern production enhances both elements.

There are a few tunes that are more production experiments than full-fledged songs, and the extended instrumental sections are aimless in a way the stories never seem. With a few exceptions ("Travel in Your Mind to Mexico" is gorgeous) the vocal melodies are a little bland; there's a lot of simple tri-tones that the skilled layering of harmony and production doesn't entirely redeem. In sum, though, Take a Deeep Breath is a one-man project that strikes a rare balance between varied instrumentation and song styles and a strong, recognizable, and original creative pulse that runs through all the tracks.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good Brain Places

Much about my new home city is still mysterious to me. I'm still not completely sure of where it is I live without printed directions. But it doesn't take more than a few months in Austin to conclude that the place is bubbling over with frustrated musicians, intensely creative freethinkers with much to express and too few close listeners to appreciate them. For every agitated group of unknown noisemakers, there's a full club's worth of jaded hipsters who think they've heard everything but don't know the names of any local acts -- they only go out to see DJ's. In this Austin is exactly like Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, and everywhere else.

One thing that sets this town apart is that by sheer mass, there exist enough weird musicians for a scene to coalesce without much if any audience becoming involved. All around Austin there are little clots of bands who support each other, book shows together, and commiserate at house parties and dive bars over how misunderstood they are. These collectives share band members, record labels, living space, influences; unlike a lot of less fortunate places they seldom if ever all sound alike. One of the signal pleasures of browsing the Austinnitus Audio Series archives is the lack of correlation between musician credits and style of track.

This several-year anthology of improvised, experimental, and "difficult" musics is not for the faint of heart. While some of the pieces offered are soothing and consonant (the New Music Co-op's "Untitled," Alien Time Ensemble's "Sympathetic Drive" featuring Mike Matthews' lovely tenor playing, E.C.F.A.'s rousing Ornette/Borbetomagus sax honk jams) many others are minimalist drones. Appreciating music this free of traditional harmonic and structural constraint is totally subjective, which is kind of the point. I couldn't tell you why Frequency Curtain's "Axi-OHM" is an excellent, fascinating experimental piece while Bright Duplex's "Dangerous Celebrities" sounds like somebody puttering around in the garage sorting tools aimlessly for ten minutes; that's just one person's independent reaction to these recordings. Likewise, the repetition and loop choices of Moray Eeels' "Jobsworth" sounded unsettling and haunting to my ears; another listener could well find it slapdash.

What's important to take away from this generous collection of Texas experimentalism isn't whether there's anything from which you can hum the tune. (I found most of it to be pretty enjoyable although I've been listening to Gastr Del Sol and Glenn Branca since I was 12; I was/am a weird kid.) There's two things that make the "difficult" and "challenging" branches of independent music important for informed fans to absorb. First is the community spirit at work here. There's a lot of good local bands writing pop songs who have trouble filling a club; this fiercely pure brand of DIY experimental is almost by definition made for its musicians first and foremost. In order to have an audience or even band members enough to execute some of their more cinematic ideas, Austinnitus-affiliated artists must support each other tirelessly and passionately. That's a valuable concept to appreciate for narrow-minded guitar-slingers everywhere.

What's really exciting about living somewhere with a thriving, categorization-defying alternative to the alternative is the boundaries being trampled and what that means for music consumers. The Austinnitus page scrupulously credits players and instruments for every track shared, but scanning these listings won't necessarily help predict what the music will sound like. Listening to some of the larger ensemble pieces is an active exercise even for trained ears. Is that a sample, a bowed instrument, a guitar effect? What is recording and what is performance? It may not be possible to come up with the right answer on one's own, but what's important and vital in this project isn't closed-ended answers to questions. It's the continuing process between music and musician, composer and composition, listener and recording, that calls into question very basic assumptions about what is and isn't a finished piece of music and what if any response is expected from it. The chief enemy of the artist in any discipline is complacency; the creators and curators trampling on the perceived boundaries of any art form are performing a valuable service by constantly expanding the limits of what is possible.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Looking for a Place to Get To

As Long as This Thing's Flyin'
Andrew Anderson

There's a glut of country/folk artists in present-day Austin. You know it, I know it. I happen to love country music. I've always liked the old stuff (or new traditionalists like Freakwater, Richard Buckner, Giant Sand, and so forth) but my appreciation for the polished commercial version of Nashville music has risen in the past few years from an odd source. I'm a big "American Idol" fan (we'll talk about that more in January), and the country-themed weeks and the contestants who attempt to brand themselves in that genre are a nice break from all of the tepid Top 40 tunes. Modern commercial country can be pretty broad and creamy, but for whatever reason it's remained a discipline where professional songwriters (as opposed to singer/composers) dominate and that means that even if the songs are formulaic at least they're complete, with choruses that flow logically out of the verses, structures that build to climax, and instrumental hooks in addition to vocal ones. For years I used to say the only kind of music I really had no use for was modern radio-friendly country and I don't feel that way at all any more. Keeping an open mind is important as a musician and as a music listener. You could learn a valuable lesson anywhere. And Nickel Creek's Pavement cover is better than the original. There, I said it.

I don't think I have to go out of my way to explain my appreciation for Andrew Anderson's As Long as Thing's Flyin'. On a facetious level, the record has the trappings of current country-rock. Lyrically there's a predominance of mentions for sin and whiskey, and the acoustic guitar changes are what you would expect. But Anderson and his extremely talented bandmates, drummer Luke Meade and and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Harris, have gone out of their way to complete a record that's full of personal expression and memorable, individualist touches. Even the packaging is better than the norm: Rather than a jewelbox with a piece of paper inside, Flyin' comes in a really lovely cardstock case with elegant screenprinted artwork. CD's have been rendered a mere delivery system for digital content, to be ripped and discarded, but here the artist has created something worth keeping. The simple but iconic inner sleeve design and the band photographs all work together to give another perspective on the music on the disc.

The songs, like the sleeve, are simple at first glance. Anderson is an instinctive songwriter with a direct lyrical and musical approach. His most distinguishing tendency as a singer is to not let the constraints of meter interfere with his ideas; he moves rhyme schemes and rhythms around in cool ways. While his songs aren't packed wall-to-wall with weird changes, there's more harmonic movement than is usual for work in this style. What really separates As Long as This Thing's Flyin' is the arrangements, for which Meade and Harris deserve equal credit. Meade engineered the record in addition to drumming on it, co-producing with the rest of the band, and Flyin' really sounds like a professional, finished album. There are different production approaches to introduce songs (the scratchy, back-porch quality to "The One I Left Behind" at its opening) and clever transitions (a raunchy pick slide bridges "Wait Darlin'" and "Hell on Earth"). Meade also has a style on the drums that's unusually aggressive for country-rock, but never too loud, distracting, or inappropriate. His ability to play busy, heavy fills and then zip back into a shuffling backbeat is one of the many subtle elements that makes the album distinctive.

Harris is a one-man wrecking crew, playing proficient and reliably tasteful parts on electric guitar, banjo, and dobro. He's clearly a prodigy, but what really sets him apart is his ability to moderate his attack to leave Anderson's vocals their proper space in the mix. "Wait Darlin'" has an amazing dry lead guitar riff that gives way to a related but gentler banjo lick when the vocals come in; that's only one example of how Harris harnesses his tremendous talent to make Anderson's songs come across more strongly. The trio work together beautifully. Meade is equally willing to lay back and provide just a shaker or a lone kick drum if that's what best suits the song.

At 14 tracks As Long as This Thing's Flyin' starts to retrace its own steps in the back end. There are some nice cello additions here and there, but the group does tend to stay in one mood for each piece and the stronger songs are crowded towards the front of the running order. That means a few later pieces come over like weaker developmental versions of what we've already heard. They would benefit from having a real bass player, too; Anderson and Harris's efforts at the instrument sound like the competent work of good musicians but don't give the extra shape and texture of a true bassist born -- there's a lot of root notes just doubling the guitars. I think Anderson and his group have the imagination and the skill to broaden their sound in both directions. Meade's rock chops could allow them to sound convincing on heavier electric numbers, but there's also a knowledge of old-world modes at work here that suggests they could try some more overtly folk sounds and pull it off. From the basis of Harris's cello arrangements, I'd love to hear what he could create with a full-blown string quartet. Lyrically, Anderson is much stronger when he's clearly drawing from personal experience ("Once Met a Girl," "Old Dusty Trail") than when he's trying to sing in someone else's shoes (the slightly awkward "Send the Bastard Running"). What's important is that he's writing songs about different subjects and from different perspectives, something that will keep his material consistently improving. With Meade and Harris in the fold, he's got to keep his game up to meet the challenge of providing songs worthy enough for players this good and this smart.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Demo Sweat #6

There's no immediate danger of running out of listening material for these things, it appears.

Matthew Bryan's dedication to Radiohead's music is pretty impressive. Unfortunately it means the more you listen to his recordings the less original he seems. Bryan has gone so far as dividing himself between two distinct musical identities: one is solo vocals accompanied by guitar and sounds like early Radiohead with vocals indebted to Thom Yorke's solo stuff; the other is flat-out Eraser electronica with occasional guitar interjections that sound like recent vintage Greenwood. It's not easy to write songs in this style, with odd phrase lengths, unusual guitar and vocal harmonies, and subtle structure. "Grumped" might sound exactly like something from the How Am I Driving? EP but if it was a Radiohead song, it'd be a pretty good one. Otherwise the electronic songs are pretty lame; the beats aren't well-programmed and the rigidity enforced by the loops narrows what Bryan can do singing and on guitar. He overcompensates for the repetitive, blocky grooves with totally random breaks that don't seem at all related to the main sections. His solo guitar stuff is better, particularly "King of the Jungle," the first thing of his I listened to and I think the best thing he's done so far. When he slows things down and relies on his electric guitar playing, which is skilled and has a lot of separate bass and treble parts, his debt to Thom Yorke is less obvious. On his moodier pieces, his Yorke-like fondness for eerie falsetto ninths sounds more like his own style and less of a tribute. He's got an unbelievable voice, by the way, which is one reason I'm giving him so much space here -- "World War III Is Coming" sounds like "Motion Picture Soundtrack" sung by a resurrected Tim ("NOT JEFF") Buckley. Bryan slides up into pitch naturally and his little changes in intonation and emphasis are so good you forgive him for songs that sometimes last longer than need be. Amazing musician, but he needs to open himself up to a lot more influences. And play with some other people -- something tells me his ideal role is as the singer of a rock band with some electronic influences. Like you-know-who.

Josh Caldwell is a songwriter with a lot more stylistic range. He can dial up a new wave beat ("With You") or a nu-metal pastiche with proficient ease, and musically his tunes are well-arranged with good central hooks and active, varied lead guitar, piano, and drums. Lyrically he poses me with a bit of a problem. How do I write about Christian artists in this column? Do I cover them at all? I'm a rigid, humorless atheist -- I actively write songs trying to convince people not to believe in gods. I think it's not fair to Josh's abilities to write him off because I don't agree with his message. As a church worship leader, he's presented with the challenge of delivering a deeply personal message to an extremely varied audience. The way he switches genres with ease speaks to his preparedness for this job. But as far as his lyrics go, well, if you're going to write a religious song and expect my full endorsement, you better sell me pretty hard. I think the concept of an afterlife is demeaning to what we can accomplish in this one, but for the length of Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You into the Dark," Atheismo preserve me, I believe. That's how great a song it is. Caldwell's lyrics don't have any personal connection between writer and subject; they're just variations on the same tired memes that if you went to church every week as a kid (which I sure did) you've heard a million times before. You know the "South Park" episode with Cartman's Christian band, Faith Plus One? That's what I'm reminded of here, which is a shame because the music is excellent. I'm perfectly willing to give Christian artists the same objective hearing I would anybody else, but the lyrics better be up there with Slow Train Coming if you're really going to move me.

You don't have to be a phenomenal musician to be a good songwriter, but if you choose to present your music solo with just your own guitar accompaniment, you owe it to yourself not to suck at the guitar. Laura Imhoff has an unreal singing voice and an immediately recognizable talent for turning her personal observations into arresting, poetic lyrics, but her terrible, noisy acoustic guitar strangling destroys any effort at sustaining a mood. Oscillating at random between two half chords (or less: "Come My Child" is like six droning minutes of G#) limits what Imhoff can do vocally and all the random blue notes and dropped rhythms distract from her melodies and storytelling. Take some lessons, practice way more, or hire a real guitarist. In a different genre, but similarly limited by unskilled guitar playing is Ray PD. There's some feeling and some messages behind his songs, but the pounding, leaden strumming of block chords with little variation and no feel makes them physically unpleasant to listen to. The stops and starts and mistakes in Chris Edwards' songs could be interpreted as stylistic choices if he would stick to playing by himself, but his recordings feature banjo and percussion overdubs that don't even remotely move in rhythmic relation to the guitar and vocals. I wanted to like a folksinger whose MySpace page name alludes to Spinal Tap, but all I found was an amateur desperately in need of a metronome. Or a drummer, which are sometimes cheaper.

Dale Perry on the other hand can play. His live duo recordings with harmonica player Jimi Lee, all available in high-quality format at Perry's website, rip with distinctive and varied blues riffing. Perry has a loose, part improvised style, but rooted in songs that are well-written and original. It's hard to write a new blues song -- the chords are pretty much dictated by the style -- but Perry plays hybrid lead and rhythm parts on his instrument that are unique to each composition. What's more, the lyrics are recognizably in a traditional blues idiom, but they're not copied from old songs. Perry is taking his own experiences and communicating about them in a specific style. Really neat stuff, and the gruff, oil-soaked vocals drip with soul.

Sometimes to get the basic idea of a song across a songwriter has to use shortcuts like drum machines and samplers. Sometimes recordings of this nature are genius, but often I wonder if they wouldn't be better served working out a really distinctive single guitar or piano part. Bluesriff Brown's best tune is the simplest, "Far Away," and his singing voice is better than San Antonio's self-deprecating Brown gives himself credit for. When he starts messing with multitrack recordings, the basic shapes of the songs are either obscured or lost entirely in overly loud rhythm strumming or out-of-time drum machine. The overdubs ruin his natural feel playing alone, he probably would benefit from playing with others. I think his tune "The Mantle" has the wrong title; a "mantle" is a cape but Brown is singing about a "mantel," a kind of furniture. Larry Roszkowiak could be similarly dismissed for his songs' out-of-sync programmed backing, but even though they're not quite square to the beat the drum and bass patterns show the right musical knowledge. The main point here is the songs themselves, which show practiced wit in telling stories that build up to humorous choruses. Roszkowiak's specialty is funny tunes about male/female relationships. "Drive the Distance" is the standout, with a clever hook and main idea. The basic concept wears thin over two other similar but less good songs. Larry might want to try taking on some new topics, and adopting a pen name if he ever wishes to see his name in parenthesis on a record sleeve. Dreamland Days is a one-man band and not just a stockpile of demos, I think, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell. Jason Smith is adept at getting his programmed parts and his live instruments to line up properly, but he just doesn't have very many interesting ideas. He's a fine technician and producer, but although well-played his project utterly lacks for memorable guitar or vocal parts. His singing is pretty dull too -- not bad, just not distinctive or memorable in any specific way. Sometimes the lyrics are predictable and sometimes they're just bad ("Sugarlips").

I'm a traditionalist myself -- I would prefer not to even listen to music on my computer, let alone make it with one-- but it's hard to argue that the future of music is in hybrid electronic projects like De Rol Le'. Why do I say that? Well, I can listen to a rock band and pick apart how they do what they do -- those are drums, that's a piano, that's a bass. When it comes to ambient projects like this, there's really no dividing live performances from samples, patches, sequenced material, DJing... the important thing in this genre is the finished product, not the means of its creation. Raising challenging questions of what is and isn't an original creation is the task of all artists, musical or otherwise. The music of De Rol Le' is certainly atmospheric, but it's not unmusical -- there's an ear at work here for odd intersecting rhythms and overtones that is practiced. I like how the songs tend to be on the short side, staying just long enough to create a distinct impression and then ending before the repeating elements start becoming a point of themselves. Magic Hero vs Rock People, who are part proper band, part Negativland-style found sound installation, and part art project, are certainly doing their best to challenge expectations and engage conscious thought on the part of their listeners. However, musically their proper songs are kind of dull, with hazy production not obscuring songs that recycle lyrics too much, guitar progressions that are bland and obvious, and unimaginative keyboard riffs that move around the guitars in the same way every song. The sample-heavy stuff too seems to be an excuse to release unfocused jamming as completed songs. That said, the way their stuff is sewn together shows real thought and talent; even the kind of weak folk songs have weird intros and crossfades. I think I might enjoy them more over the course of an album where the parts suggest some larger whole rather than experiencing them piecemeal through online sound clips. The Drew Fish Band doesn't have the defense of being high-concept like Magic Hero, they're just another dime-a-dozen Austin Americana band where the acoustic guitarist blithely strums block chords and the fiddle player lazily saws the root note of all those chords simultaneously. Fish has a cool voice, but the songs and lyrics are blah.

Finally Richmond's Gospel Doll only has two songs up but they're both pretty excellent pep pills of coiled hardcore energy. They're a bass-drums duo but Tava Terroir puts a lot of guitar players to shame with lead lines on the bass that are melodic and rhythmically solid. Terroir and drummer Dan Hassay lose their place a few times on these early recordings, but more often than not they follow each other nicely with drums that take an active part in developing the songs with breakdowns and blastbeats. Love Terroir's unholy caterwauling, too. "Vice Squad Blues" has a really different-sounding intro and outro that show some excellent potential range for this minimalist pair. Long instrumental sections aren't really their strong suit, as they tend to kind of reveal the limitations inherent in the duo lineup, but they have more than enough ideas to fill in good songs. More recordings soon, it says on their page. I hope so.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Splendid Time Guaranteed

Nano Whitman
Lambert's, 10/30

I really liked Nano Whitman's EP, enough that I probably would have liked him plenty playing as a solo artist. However, Friday's gig was the pianist/guitarist/songwriter's first with a full band in some time, and that made it a real treat. Rare indeed is the songwriter who feeds off the energy of his partners on stage which such grace and giving spirit. Whitman's band played some pretty obvious covers, but not as a showcase for the leader, but rather as a chance for his talented harmony singer to step out a few times. Instead of a contemptuous star submitting an accepted classic for audience approval, the Whitman band's "Hallelujah" and "Whiter Shade of Pale" sounded like close friends sharing the power great songs can have together.

But it was the originals that I came for, and they're what ought to earn Whitman a wider audience. Songs like "28" have some very personal lyrics, blunt even, but it's a sign of Whitman's self-assurance that he performs them strongly, looking out into the crowd with his eyes open. The extra drive given by his bassist and (particularly) drummer Ed Miles gave the songs a minimalist, to-the-point approach that blew away the EP's more studied vibe. Whitman has a wonderful voice, but one that's best suited to a quiet backing so he doesn't need to strain to be heard. His rhythm section grasped this and performed in a really solid but restrained style which left them the ability to pop up for emphasis when necessary and kept every word of Whitman's intelligently written tunes audible.

The best thing about the show and the performer is the spirit of community Whitman engenders seemingly everywhere he goes. The more people on stage, the more energy and happiness seemed to exude from the bandleader. For his last song, members of other bands on the bill came up to add vocals, guitar, and harmonica and Whitman was positively glowing as he hooted and stomped. Indeed, what good is the best song in the world if there's no one with whom to share it?

Pretty Good Racket

More Needful Things [EP]
World Racketeering Squad

Although the chord changes are simple and the drums and bass rudimentary, there's a ton of smarts and wit distributed across this EP's three songs. "Panic" has an obvious Buzzocks/Ramones guitar riff and beat, but the fake British singing and stealth country lead guitar make it infectious and original. Then World Racketeering Squad go on to do entirely different things on the next two tracks.

"Needful Things" has a hilarious, and awesome, recorder overdub. The darker "Electromagnetic Pulse" explores later and slower influences, but with a repeating background vocal that adds a light side and gives the song a subversively catchy element.

Jangling Manchester guitars, punk power chords, and "ba da ba" choruses have been combined before, but not usually with this witty and irreverent a touch. Really digging it.