Friday, December 31, 2010

Free City, Part Two

Something weird is happening: I feel great. After being out of work for so long, even a temp gig shelving books at the university co-op feels immensely validating. Plus everybody else who works there, seemingly, is a musician. I was terrified all week that I wasn't going to be able to keep up with my new schedule and all of my plans for Free Week would go down the tubes. Quite the opposite! I'm energized! I'm feeling more confident than I have in ages, and if you though I was obnoxious before... well, just you wait! I was also overjoyed to see that somebody finally ripped my band in the comments section after I'd been fishing for it for like three straight months. With a legitimate factual argument! Even my haters are feeling my influence.

Look, I know exactly how hard it is to be in a good band. I've been trying since I was 12. No luck so far. I'm not critical because I think I have all the answers. It's because I know how much work is involved. A better understanding of that might lead to musicians in Austin working more closely together. Part of that is being honest to ourselves and each other about everything we can do to improve.

I'm going to keep updating both this and Part One as news of more shows trickles in. If you're playing somewhere this week and it's free... you know what to do.

Beauty Bar: A Sky Jet Black, Pink Sugar, Knifight, Young Girls
Beerland: Creamers, Cruddy, Reicide
Mohawk inside: One Hundred Flowers, Invisible Inks, Burgess Meredith, Golden Beach
Emo's inside: Woodgrain, We'll Go Machete, Watching the Moon, Come and Take It, Half Mile Fox Fur
Parish: STEREO IS A LIE, Motel Aviv, New Roman Times, Final Exam
Red 7: Crew 54, Riders Against the Storm, Kill City, The Means

Spot of Trailer Space Records wrote a few weeks ago that people should come see The Creamers at his place before they were playing Beerland three times every month. The man speaks truth. I should really buy something at his store now that I have a job; we've been going there for free music and spending no money for a whole year. In any event, they're a happy sloppy punk band with incredibly short songs and that indefinable chemistry that happens sometimes between musicians who aren't great at their instruments but have a shared love for what they're doing and no self-consciousness about it. We'll Go Machete, the more aggressive side of Paul from The Gary, aren't much for range but their intricately designed jackhammering layers of drums and guitar demonstrate ably that you can be forceful and sophisticated at the same time. STEREO IS A LIE have a fashionable yet elusive ability to be delicately pretty and really, really, really loud at the same time. I never forget to put their name in all caps! Would it be redundant to call an actual Englishman (leader Glynn Wedgewood) an Anglophile? Seems as if it would, but Manchester Invasion melodies and shoegaze volume levels have maintained their appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. I'd say more but I'm working on a feature on them for later in the month, stay tuned. Their debut LP Monolathe drops in February. Or how about some hip-hop? Crew 54 (out of Killeen, but with many Austin ties) have two strong-voiced MC's who mainly flow in tandem backed by a skilled live band who throw in funk, jazzy solos, and a touch of hard rock. Authentic rap that innovates on stage is uncommon. Seriously, why don't more rappers tour with pocket rhythm sections and really good horn soloists? Who would be against that?

However... Although I've been as hard on them as any band in Austin, I have nothing but best wishes for Love at 20... their leader Mike gets it when it comes to press (as in there's no such thing as the bad kind), and he promotes like he means it. I have seen them compared to Muse a lot recently, and I think that's weird... sure, the high, dramatic vocals (the band's best feature) I can see, but stylistically the rest of the band couldn't be further removed from Muse's harsh acid-metal guitar and bass shredding. They're more mainstream arena rock... Weezer, KoL. I wish people would learn to listen past the singer when it comes to making comparisons. I think Love at 20 need to move their focus away from polishing their recordings until they gleam and work on their live arrangements. I will keep tabs and let you know when they nail it down.

Barbarella: Day vs. Night, Bubbleface, The Bell Riots, Half Mile Fox Fur, The Gary
Beauty Bar: Neon Cobra, Snake Handler, Emily Warfield & The Cosmic Bats, paperthreat, Warplanes
Beerland: Easy Tiger, St. Philistine, The Bubbles, American Sharks
Emo's inside: A Giant Dog, Shapes Have Fangs, ELVIS, Rayon Beach, Fleshlights
Emo's outside: Quiet Company, The Boxing Lesson, Smoke & Feathers, My Education, Red Leaves
Mohawk inside: Vagabond Collective
Parish: Freshmillions, Focus Group, Sphynx
Red 7 outside: The Gary, Artificial Heart, The Midgetmen, Beautiful Supermachines, Blue Kabuki

Wow. I mean, wow. Forget about that one festival and that other festival. This is one of the single greatest menus of music I've ever seen available on a single night in Austin. Every single one of these shows would be worth going to. There's at least one band I adore playing each one except the Beerland show, and people have been pitching The Bubbles pretty hard to me. I've got to catch up with them. Not tonight, though, I have to be at Barbarella, where of course I've booked my first ever Austin show on an evening where there are ridiculously great bands playing everywhere else for free. It makes me feel inferior. Not quite as much as when Sam from Zorch, the best drummer I know, showed up at the first-ever Bell Riots show to watch me screw up all over the place, but pretty awful. So let's see. ELVIS are part no wave, part performance art, with a must-see frontman who's like a queer Iggy Pop. He marks his territory. paperthreat are a rapidly rising electro-rock-pop quartet whose diverse instrumentation is complemented by really original, smart lyrics and friendly, self-effacing stage presence. A Giant Dog are a sex-and-blues institution, the impossibly desirable and confident Sabrina Ellis rampaging about wearing next to nothing at all, belting with improbable force given her petite size, while her (also cute, in a boy way) bandmates dirty up old rockabilly and R&B grooves they ought to be too young to know about. In addition to being one of the most unfailingly entertaining live bands in town, A Giant Dog also does a great job scouting Austin bands and setting up good shows. Red Leaves got their lineup and their sound together this year and went from a band we disliked to one we're crazy about. Arty rock with a real creative drummer and bassist who never pop up in the obvious places, co-leaders David (dah-VEED) and Singer can both sing really movingly alone... but even more so when they harmonize. Quiet Company are a band I don't particularly enjoy seeing myself, but I recognize how hard they work giving their audiences a good time at their shows. If you're in a band in Austin you should pay attention to how they maintain a community among their listeners; there's nobody better at it. Freshmillions and Focus Group are both crazy rock-instruments-crossbred-with-samples bands, but in totally different styles. Freshmillions are digi-funk; Focus Group twitchy but driving post-fusion. They're both way better live than recorded (thus far) so get on that.

However... So I should probably warn you about my band. We're not very good yet. We might never be good. That's why we only play free shows and we apologize to our friends with delicious homemade snacks. Anna C. has never played in a band before, and neither has our keyboard player Mike. I put down the bass to learn drums because, well, I always wanted to be the drummer in a band. Also, whenever I try and play bass along with Anna playing guitar, I become impatient and demanding and obnoxious. I would rather she and I be on an equal footing than show off how good I am on bass. (Not that good.) You know how I talk about different goals for different bands often? Well, our goal is to have fun, learn from one another, support everyone's ideas (everybody in the band writes songs and sings at least a bit of lead), and make records that have crazy running prog-rock storylines about fantasy Communist superheroes and limb-stealing alien/government conspiracies. Are we tight? Hell no. Are we very good, by my standards? Not even close. Am I learning a lot and building important relationships and maybe easing into a little tiny bit less of a perfectionist control freak? Yes, I am! So go ahead and hate on my band. In order to hate us first you have to listen to us!

Free City Interlude: An Unauthorized Autobiography

I'm in the process of changing my approach to Big Western Flavor because my life circumstances have changed. For most of the past year, I've sat around mothballing while my saintly girlfriend worked to pay the bills. It was really nice having the luxury of two or three entire days to think about a piece, construct arguments in my head, fiddle around with multiple drafts, and edit out most or all of my self-indulgent personal digressions.

But I have to go fast and shoot from the hip now, because I'm working again, and re-reading the post from last night I realize that without that extra gestation time, my quick shifts from effusive praise to withering criticism seem a bit arbitrary... like I'm deliberately singling out bands for abuse. Not my intention. I read every mean comment and e-mail I get and try and weigh their arguments as best I can. I don't plan pulling my punches when it comes to describing the bands I see. If I'm not going to tell the whole story I might as well not write at all. But a well-stated recent challenge to my style made me think about whether I owed it to my readers to better explain who I am and why I think the way I do. I'm self-conscious about talking about myself constantly, but I'm not a private person. I don't take myself seriously enough to feel like the details of my life must be closely guarded. Maybe a little background will help folks to appreciate why it is I listen to music the way I do and why I feel so compelled to point out every flaw and imperfection.

All right, as quickly as I can possibly manage: For the last year and change I've been trying to write the blog from the perspective of a newspaper columnist. I used to do a "all submissions accepted" deal in the Daily Californian, some years ago, and my first big inspiration to write was the local demos feature in Illinois Entertainer. They would rip clueless people, and by reading critiques, listening for myself, and drawing my own conclusions, I learned to think critically about music myself. A journalist is supposed to cut their own narrative out of their writing to as great an extent as they can. I liked taking this stance on my blog for a long while partly as a defense mechanism, and partly because I'm sick of talking about myself after spending most of my 20's precisely working out all of my myriad personal issues.

I'm not angling for sympathy here (I have a neurological order that makes it socially acceptable for me to rip crummy bands on the Internet!), but despite my obvious talents I've made something of a hash of my life up to this point, and I'm aware of it. I have a long-held pattern of starting things with flying colors and then finishing a few months later in a withered heap, often with an accompanying trip to the mental hospital. The Daily Cal? I was a star writer as a freshman, the arts editor my sophomore year and fired before I was a junior. I wouldn't let anybody else write for my section because nobody met with my high standards; I did the entire thing, music, film, arts, and theater reviews, by myself each week. I was not really with the program when it came to the idea of the "student newspaper." A similar thing happened at the radio station in high school; I was a board member as a sophomore and then got kicked off entirely as a senior. At the time it seemed like the world was out to get me. After years of therapy and self-reflection, I get it now: I was a huge dick.

A few years ago after several diagnoses and medication regimens that made life no better, some professional or another decided I had Asperger's Syndrome. It's very rare to not be described as having a condition on the autism spectrum until your early 20's, but a combination of high intelligence and a severely indulgent upbringing kept me "passing" right up until the time when I was about to graduate from college and my subconscious terror about facing a real world I was in no way prepared for sent me into a two-week dissociative psychotic episode on the mean streets of Oakland. By the time I had worked all this stuff out, most of my connections in journalism were out of the business and nobody was willing to hire me given my spotty work history. I'm not 100% sure I agree with the diagnosis or not... the older and more self-aware I become, the more I feel like Asperger's pretty much describes every introspective, creative American male under the age of 25 or so. But I do have some particular tics. Some are quite beneficial -- my sense of hearing, as you may have surmised, is amazingly powerful, and I have the ability to recall precisely large chunks of conversations without taking notes. But I also make super weird facial expressions (they tell me). I've never quite figured out how to smile right, and apparently when I am lost in thought I make a face that seems utterly miserable, pained even, to others. (Which is actually kind of useful when it comes to meeting girls at parties.) I don't have the ability to compose myself at will, though, and I don't realize it when I making other people uncomfortable. It makes first impressions and job interviews in particular really challenging. And terrifying.

During a long period cooling in my heels in Colorado, I met Anna C. (at a Sleater-Kinney concert). She is the most awesome and giving person in the universe and also a ludicrously talented songwriter and guitar player. I was finally starting to feel confident about myself and I really wanted to play in a band with my best friend and partner. The high cost of living in Boulder started choking away our spirit so we moved to Austin to get a fresh start. I started writing about local music first because I perceived I was filling a void, and then because I had a vain hope it might help me to get some paying work in the field in which I belong.

I get it now, though -- journalism has changed too much in the past few years for someone as literal and bloody-minded as me to advance in it. With so much advertising gone to the Web, newspapers simply can't profit from objectivity any longer. They have become PR machines. The Chronicle would be stupid to hire me, because I would immediately start ripping Transmission and C3 and exposing bands whose parents paid for every good review on their MySpace. That's who I am. So if I'm not blogging in pursuit of work, what am I doing then? Let's call it public therapy. The reason I rip into all of these obnoxious, lazy, self-centered young musicians is because I totally see myself in all of them, and to keep making progress in my own personal development I have to remind myself constantly of the tool I used to be and would quickly go back to being if I didn't focus every day on how valuable the perspectives and support of other people are.

That's right, I'm going emo!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Free City, Part One

I know what you're wondering... is the post title an allusion to Sonic Youth, or Nelly and the St. Lunatics? The answer... is both.

This is it for Anna and me. Free Week is like Kwanzaa, the Super Bowl, and Martin Luther King's Birthday Observed all in a row, a whole seven days and change of warm fuzzy hats, club doors thrown open, and the whole of Austin local music rubbing its eyes (unused as we all are to natural light) and realizing for a cold fortnight or so that we're a community. It would be really nice if there was another comparable event in the summer... but until local bands start bringing in capacity crowds, you can't really blame local club owners for trying to run their businesses profitably. But for just the first few days in January, there's no bands touring and the university is on break. There's nobody left but we musicians and our loyal friends.

All right, I say this over and over again, so much so that I've made up a mantra-like chant of it: If you're in a local band, go to local shows. If there's any good Austin band that you've heard about before but haven't gotten around to seeing, go do it now. Even if you've had your head buried in the sand behind your practice space for eleven months, just pick a show at random or go to a club you like and see some bands. For gosh sakes. If you have a family or a real career and you play music for fun, that's one thing. But there are untold legions of pinheaded Austin guitar nerds who moved here to Make It Big who have never been to a show downtown that they didn't pay a steep service charge (or a scalper) to get into. Go out and learn something, you mooks!

And maybe meet some people. Anna and I had curry and a six-pack with many of The Sour Notes to celebrate their new 7" and their New Year's show recently. We've always gotten along like gangbusters with leader/guitarist Jared and bassist Amarah (we had Christmas dinner at their place) but I also appreciated the chance to get to know gently intense guitarist/utilityman Chris Page a bit better. Chris related an anecdote that night that has been ringing in my ears quite a lot recently. He talked about being in a music class in college and the professor asking for a show of hands. How many musicians would be happy playing covers of established genre hits their whole lives, if it meant they could make a living doing it? Ninety-seven percent of the class, according to Chris, had their hands raised. He and only two or three others demurred. Think about that. It takes a special kind of person to dedicate their lives to making music on their own terms. It usually involves sacrifice, back-breaking labor, and little to no financial reward. It can get lonely. That's just one more reason why people in local bands should seek out and support other Austin bands. Even if they don't make remotely the same kind of music as you, you probably have a ton in common with them.

It's not technically a part of Free Week, but the show at Cheer Up Charlies New Year's Eve doesn't cost anything and is jam-packed with Austin bands you need to see: Follow That Bird!, Mermaid BlondeNo Mas Bodas. Plus a unique Zorch-Cartright faceoff! I have absolutely no idea what to expect from that set... the regularity with which they completely defy my expectations is what makes Zorch my single favorite band in Austin right now. Another cool thing about this show is that the estimable Tiffanie Lanmon will be playing with both her bands (the Bird and the Blonde). You don't have to be a dude to be a capable guitarist slash bassist slash drummer. We need to work on teaching Anna the drums. Guys, when you see us New Year's Eve, tell Anna she should resolve to learn drums next year. (We could start her on bass, but when she tries to wield mine she tips over.) All this, and (show organizers) The Sour Notes release their seven-inch and launch a tour! Almost forgot: They're raffling off some cool stuff; RSVP at this link to have a chance to win if you go to the show.

Even if I just restrict my comments to the bands I have seen play before and enjoyed, this is going to take a while. But too many of these bands deserve props! I will go on at length, because I'm as much convincing myself to get in gear and go out every night as I am others. But it's totally contrary to my nature to write anything of this scale and not include some pointed criticism. I'm happy to be recognized for my enthusiasm and my energy, but I hang my hat on my honesty! If I wrote a whole post only praising Austin bands my reputation would be ruined. So I'm including some of the bands that I have seen before and don't wish to see again immediately, and telling you why. I'm not discouraging you from going to see those bands. Mine is only one perspective. If it makes you terribly angry that I gave my honest opinion about a band you love and you think I'm totally wrong, then make your own argument as to why! I might be harsh but at least I'm totally up front about why I like what I like. Maybe if your band pays real close attention and improves, I'll reverse field and recommend you next Free Week!

For me "supporting" doesn't meet "unambiguously praising everything." It means showing up and listening really intently and then being honest about what I hear. I wish more people felt the way I did.

Beauty Bar: Motel Aviv, Masonic, Lovies, Last Nighters
Beerland: Shells, Blue Kabuki, Killdeer, The Gary
Emo's: Crooks, Western Ghost House, Black Books
Mohawk outside: Hundred Visions, Lean Hounds, White White Lights, Watch Out for Rockets
Mohawk inside: Butcher Bear & Charlie, Til We're Blue or Destroy, The Laughing
Red 7 outside: Car Stereo (Wars), Parking, Gobi, Politics
Red 7 inside: Yuppie Pricks, The Distant Seconds, Mistress Stephanie and Her Melodic Cat, Jesus Christ Superfly, Blowhole
Scoot Inn: Vanished Clan, Opposite Day, Muchos Backflips!

Shells are a terrific laid-back trio with a talented lead guitarist and a sound that is bravely the opposite of what you'd expect from a current blues-influenced indie band, crisp, restrained, and sort of timeless. Blue Kabuki are a duo, girl guitarist/singer and drummer, who were one of the highlights of the Midgetmen's Neil Young hoot night for me. I haven't heard an original set by them yet, but I can't wait! Stripped back, with mean riffs and powerful vocals, Sleater-Kinney is a good comparison for them... only a more overtly classic rock S-K. The Gary are fantastic and even the Chronicle knows it, although I wish they'd chosen to recommend their other show Wednesday since I booked it. I don't care when you see them; go see The Gary. Dave Norwood's passion and intensity as a singer is something I have overlooked before since I admire their guitar-bass-drums combination so much; but so many people have told me they've been moved by watching Dave and The Gary play that I've started listening to them from a whole new perspective. His lyrics are great, too. Any other time of year the show at Scoot Inn would be a must for me. It's a new band that I have high hopes for in the cinematic instrumental post-hardcore Vanished Clan, an established veteran band that amazes me each and every time I see them in Opposite Day, and another Austin institution I somehow keep missing but need to see soon in Muchos Backflips!. I'm glad Opposite Day are playing during Free Week because I always feel like I should be doing more to spread the word about them. I think a lot of other writers have faced the same problem before me: How do you make a compelling argument for a band that really has no single obvious comparison point? Elvis Costello meets Primus? No... Richard Thompson meets Oingo Boingo? I'm stumped. They change meters and play bewildering figures like a prog band, but have many hooks and harmonies you don't need a calculator to appreciate. No matter what your tastes are, I defy you to watch Opposite Day and not come away astounded by their musicianship. Not only that, they've never let their ridiculous technical ability get in the way of songwriting -- "Safety First" is unforgettable -- and despite their long years of high effort and low rewards, they still maintain a palpable enthusiasm and good spirit when they're on stage. I guess I just convinced myself which show to go to Saturday. UPDATE: Sadly, Opposite Day are not in fact playing (see comments). I'm going to leave up everything I wrote though, and I might reprint it word for word the next time they play in Austin.

However... Unless you really like costumed men and distorting electronic beats, maybe skip Butcher Bear and Charlie. I've been jamming to a big stack of Butcher Bear-related material lately, and his new record Car Bomb is the bad apple in the bunch. I felt the same way at Fun Fun Fun Fest: as a producer/songwriter/force-of-nature, the big red guy needs a foil with a ton of charisma. Pretty but totally uninteresting singer Charlie isn't it. She makes absolutely no impression on their record, except for the part where she steals lyrics from the Gin Blossoms. She has no personality, nothing in particular to say, and totally fades into the background, which I don't think was the plan. The jams with guest rappers, and where Butcher Bear himself takes the spotlight with his lovably bizarre half-shouting, half-toasting style, all suggest that he's better off working with a wide variety of guests like he has in the past with Attack Formation. And Watch Out for Rockets are every bit as terrible in concert as their lazy, self-involved recordings suggest they would be. They just have no rhythmic sense at all, which is a shame because they do have good melodies. They should start over as a real band instead of one guy's four-track fantasies.

Beauty Bar: Sex Dragon, Not in the Face, Vitamins, Shitty Carwash
Beerland: The Lilies
Club Deville: She Sir, Candi & The Strangers
Emo's outside: Let the Dead, The Brigade, Falsetta, Set Aflame
Emo's inside: The Riot Scene, Say Hello to the Angels, Jesus Christ Superfly, The Blind Pets
Mohawk: Amplified Heat, The Hi-Tones, The Boxing Lesson, Black Forest Fire
Red 7 outside: Gods Are Ghosts, Fatback Circus, Obsolete Machines, Sheer Khan & The Space Case
Red 7 inside: White Rhino, Lights Go Out, Sideshow Tragedy, White Dress

Amplified Heat have had kind of a low profile lately, but they're another in a huge group of Austin bands who would have the key to the city by now if they lived nearly anywhere else. A searingly loud mixture of (mostly) Electric Church psychedelic blues and (just a little) punk attitude, they can wear sunglasses at night in January and pull it off. The Riot Scene are a taut local punk outfit with really good songs. I haven't seen them in a long time but I remember their guitarist/singer Jimmy and his talent for playing weird rhythms off of his vocal melodies using palm mutes quite clearly. Sheer Khan & The Space Case are a guitar effects-crazed hippie jam band. They're a good one, if you like that sort of thing. And White Rhino are a mighty, crusty, gas-guzzling 70's American muscle car of hard rock, with a sense of humor and a surprising depth of influences in their songwriting. I have yet to see them somewhere with great sound. Too bad they're playing inside and not outside.

However... I like the idea for Obsolete Machines' sound, but the last I saw them, they had yet to fill in the details. All their "songs" rode the same keyboard patterns for six or seven minutes, and the supporting cast around their supple-voiced frontman didn't bring much to the party. Thinking out loud, it may be time for me to check them out again, because they've had a lot of time to get better. White Dress are a band we've had recommended to us a few times. We were psyched to finally see them at Ditch the Fest Fest, but they left me totally empty and, surprisingly, Anna too. (She's coming along but still tends to give any band with a female guitar player extra slack.) Sometimes guitar and drum duos sound just fine, and sometimes they don't. In White Dress's case it might be a fit issue, because while their frontwoman's guitar playing is gnarled, busy, and interesting, as a whole they just kind of cancel one another out, and the vocals don't punch through like they theoretically should. This is another thing that totally could have improved through experience. Great, as if I didn't have enough bands I already like to see, now I'm starting a list of bands I don't like that I should watch again.

Beauty Bar: One Hundred Flowers, Deer Vibes, The Bubbles
Emo's outside: Pack of Wolves, Eagle Claw, Tia Carrera, Scorpion Child, High Watt Crucifixers, Black Earth
Emo's inside: Wild America, Tenement (Wisconsin), Women in Prison, Uppers, Serious Tracers
Mohawk: Hatred Surge, Shitty Carwash, Naw Dude, Night Siege
Red 7 outside: Sober Daze
Red 7 insideZest of YoreBike ProblemsDistance Runner, Medium Head Boy
U.S. Art Authority: Ringo Deathstarr, She Sir, Hidden Ritual

Eagle Claw are a good band, nice guys, and a classic story. Four musician dudes all met at their job and started a band together, playing what they felt like (instrumental but not that progressive metal, pretty much just cool riff after cool riff with not too much mucking around and everybody drilled to precision with their parts). Because they're good, and friends with seemingly everybody, they've gotten to play some bigger shows and they haven't taken the opportunities lightly. In contrast to the many musicians who arrive in Austin assuming that the world is going to be delivered to their door, these dudes put community first. I still have to take bassist Luther up on his offer to get together to watch MMA videos. Distance Runner are a band in the pop-conscious, but not formulaic style of rock I'd term "post-emo." The funny thing is, back when I was originally introduced to the idea of "emo," it meant bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Cap'n Jazz who were pretty structurally sophisticated. Then things devolved. Now we're back where we started. Distance Runner separate themselves with strong vocals and prominent use of keyboard... often the guitars follow the keys rather than the other way around, and that's cool to see in any style. UPDATE: Whoa, how did I miss this one, this is a goodie: Ringo Deathstarr and She Sir at the USAA. I try quite hard to listen to bands on their own merits, not judge them for choice of style... whether it's a popular one or unpopular. I haven't quite caught the nuances of She Sir's style yet, but when I saw them I could for sure hear that there was legitimate songwriting going on. Anna owes them a second chance after She Sir's Matthew Grusha (mildly) wrote and said that her lack of interest in his band versus Ringo Deathstarr might take different perspective were she to know that he was their previous bass player.

However... The loutish Hatred Surge are an example of the kind of band that turned me off from metal in the first place, loud and violent but with no tact or cunning. Effective heavy music has to use tension and release, put some quiet in with the loud, not just beat you over the head. When I was 12 I went to my first-ever rock concert at the World Music Theater in Tinley Park, Illinois. The band I was all fired up to see? Megadeth. And they might have been awesome, for all I know, but all I remember of the experience was being surrounded by gigantic tattooed drunken assholes who thought it was perfectly cool to shove a 12-year-old kid in the face. Just because you love "Hangar 18" doesn't mean you've signed up to get the crap kicked out of you by Berwyn's chapter of the Hells Angels. From 1990-92 I was all about metal, but that one show scared me away for nearly 20 years. (OK, that and the fact that right about that time Pantera showed up and killed metal's artistic development for the rest of the decade.) I love powerful music. But I hate senseless violence. If you're the sort of band that holds shows as an excuse for your friends to get wasted and punch each other, I am not your friend. I'm not saying that is Hatred Surge's intent (although look at their name). I'm just saying I am strongly conditioned to reject music that is all force, no shading. Also, Zest of Yore are one of a very few local bands that I'm pretty sure I have seen and yet remember absolutely nothing about. Punkers Bike Problems... their bassist/singer's snotty humor is great, their drummer sways back from side to side like a violent human metronome for every minute of every song, but I want to tell their guitar player it's OK to move. You're good! You can really play! Go ahead and rock out, man, the music is calling for it!

Wow, it's 1 AM and I am only on Monday. Do I have to get on a bike and ride to work at 8:15 tomorrow? As it so happens I do. Part Two will be up well in advance of Tuesday! Parting note: If Googling "[your band's name] band austin" doesn't bring up one of your links within the first two or three hits... you probably need to change it.

New Regime

J. Wesley Haynes Trio
Hole in the Wall, 12/29

Anna and I only managed to step in for a handful of songs by J. Wesley Haynes Trio tonight, but it was an important show for me to go to, and also to write about. I never want to pass up a chance to give these guys some attention. They're wonderful players, and I think they (with others) serve a specific role for developing music fans in Austin. You don't necessarily have to know the composers of "Eighty-One," or how to count in 5/4, to dig the kind of jazz they're playing. I think every music fan should listen to more jazz... appreciating it really involves a different level of concentration.

When I play "The Sims 3" and I have a little person in the Music Business career path, I'm always amused by how having them study music theory extensively makes them become irritable when another Sim puts pop music on the radio. You don't have to learn theory for your opinion to matter... but once you've learned how to listen in an educated way, nothing really quite sounds the same again. Anna C. gives me grief all the time for ruining her ability to enjoy all the riot grrl and nu-metal bands she admired as a teenager. You know me: I apologize for nothing.

It's cool to watch people instantly recognize a theme JWHT drop for indie kids -- like "Hey" by the Pixies -- and follow along as the band first states the familiar melodies, then embellishes and extemporizes around them. Although familiar with all the material I saw Wesley (keys), Willy (upright bass), and Matt (drums) play tonight (and their guest trumpet player), this show had a different vibe to it. The band was playing with some pretty involved computer projections behind them. I'm of two minds about using video when a band is playing. On one hand, I argue all the time that better shows require a visual element of some kind. It can be the band members moving, or backup dancers. One night at Bubbleface's noise residency we saw a "band" with two guys, one of whom did all the singing and playing while the other stood perfectly still wearing a silly costume. That was pretty great. But if a band is just doing video for lack of a better idea, it can distract from their music.

As an instrumental, improv group that's going to appeal to a lot of listeners with related interests in bright shiny objects, J. Wesley Haynes Trio can use the visuals. But it has to be the right stuff. Just showing the "Twin Peaks" credits when they do their version of the Angelo Badalamenti theme is a bit too on the nose. I wonder what the right visual signature is to match their marriage of timeless uptown cool and modern hipster irreverence. "Mad Men" episodes in 8-bit?

While we were walking back to our car we saw a very terrible singer/guitarist playing to an entirely empty Mellow Mushroom. Anna said she felt sorry for the guy. I wasn't so sure. You can never assume that people are just going to show up. Most musicians who end up playing for no one deserve it.

I'm going to try and write more frequent show posts in this style. It's part of an adjustment I have to make as my schedule goes from being completely open to somewhat less so. With Free Week coming up, there's no lack of awesome bands who deserve my attention and less good ones who might value my candor. Becoming a notorious local music writer on no budget was too easy. I'm ramping up the difficulty level for 2011! If I can ride Anna's bike 45 minutes to my temp job, work eight hours of physical labor, ride back, rehearse, see a band, wash the dishes, write a review, cook dinner, and pack a lunch for tomorrow while still fitting in five to six hours of sleep, the least you can do is try to make it to some more local shows. Perhaps Wednesday at Barbarella!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Years

I'm a nervous wreck right now. Since moving to Austin a year or so ago, I've been doing everything possible to avoid getting a "day job." Many years ago in Colorado, in better times, I worked as an editor and a freelance writer and made almost enough money to call it a living. When the bar band I was playing bass in started getting well-paying ski town gigs, I was really living the dream... paying my expenses through writing and music. That was an awesome couple of months. Anyway, I got laid off from my editing job. Got a job at Circuit City; they went out of business. Got a job delivering sandwiches; showed up for work one day and there was a handwritten cardboard sign in the window saying that the government had seized the property for failure to pay back taxes. It seemed like life in Colorado was trending inexorably downwards. So we moved.

For a year or so I did everything I possibly could to avoid getting a "paycheck" kind of job down here. I played bass in an orchestra production of The Sound of Music. I did some mostly boring archival editing for, which was nice work while it lasted. (And I got a credit for the rewrite I did of the Guided by Voices bio, which was exciting.) But mostly I've been a bum, baking and cooking and going to as many free shows as humanly possible. It's time for me to go to work now, but as a student of history my acute awareness of my own past makes me edgy. I don't respond well to outside control of my schedule and long, continuous periods of time in the presence of other people wears me down. I expect to do better in this new foray into the working world than my last few because I have a better attitude about it and I'm literally in a better place (Austin is so much better than Denver for me), but I still am prepared for my creativity and energy as a writer to go plunging downward. I'm less inclined to go out and seek beauty in the world when I'm tired and cranky.

I know I'm going to make myself go to shows and keep writing about Austin bands, though. I'm invested in it now. Despite my oddities and annoying traits I've been welcomed into a community here. I lived in a few cities and haven't found any other to be as welcoming. Perhaps I can only get along with music nerds. Either way, there's no place I'd rather be than in Austin 2010/2011. I could use some hope for the future at the moment, so rather than the knee-jerk "Best of 2010" year-end entry, here's some Austin music stuff I look forward to in 2011.

1Learning my history. There are a couple of really young local bands I like, but I have a clear bias towards experienced veterans. It has less to do with instrumental acumen than letting the idea of the band mature and develop. As in the case of La Snacks, nearly as old as The Midgetmen, not exactly tight but totally in control of their vision. Playing shows in Texas for a nearly a decade has to teach you something, particularly if you're still alive and sucking air as a band. La Snacks are representative of a lot of Austin bands in that they have their roots elsewhere in Texas (Beaumont) and continue to have links through their hometown, here and there. The more bands I talk to the more I realize that understanding music in Austin requires learning as well roots and family trees of bands in Houston, San Antonio, Denton, El Paso. The complex inner workings of Austin's music scene require for understanding consideration of a much wider and broader setting and timescale. Butcher Bear brought me a fistful of seven-inches and CD's from his (iN)Sect Records label a few weeks ago. Listening to the whole stack of it, from hardcore comp to the radical, theatrical four-track parodist Explosion Horse, I realized what I was experiencing was a museum exhibit of tastes. I didn't like every moment of every release, but I knew that a story was being told.

2. Booking more shows. I talk a lot about how bands should try and challenge their listeners with weird, interesting show lineups with lots of style juxtapositions. I'm going to do my best to put on some shows of my own in that spirit. Rather than focusing on picking bands that sound alike, I want local musicians to concentrate on figuring out which other acts take the jobs of booking and promoting seriously. We can all work together more closely and share the benefits. My first Big Western Flavor show is coming up during Free Week at Barbarella next Wednesday. You should come to it. I'm going to make homemade donuts.

3. New albums from The Gary, ZorchThe Eastern Sea, The Sour Notes, White Denim, many more. The greatest challenge facing most musicians here and everywhere else? Continuing to exist. Especially for young bands, entropy is a constant threat. There are plenty of players here willing to insist stubbornly otherwise, but keeping together a consistent lineup of musicians who benefit creatively from each other's presence is the surest -- and yet most seemingly difficult -- path to success. I'm always willing to listen to a band's second record with fresh ears, because nothing is harder than surviving your first one.

4. More music everywhere. Necessity drove us further and further off the beaten path to find bands to see this year, and I hope if we continue to go in that direction in 2011 this time it's by choice. House parties, record stores, co-op parties, parking lots, bridges... music is happening everywhere in Austin, not only during the festivals, and it's in unexpected places that you find unexpected bands.

5. METAL. Anna C. and I first noticed it happening at Fun Fun Fun Fest... we were first drifting, then walking briskly, then outright sprinting past the "indie" Orange Stage to get between the Blue Stage (hip-hop/dance) and the Black Stage (punk/metal). A few nights ago we went to Emo's to see Ume, Follow That Bird!, and Ringo Deathstarr. Local thrash outfit Powderburn were playing the other stage and we ended up watching and enjoying them way more than most of the standstill indoor bands. There's a reason metal and hardcore consistently maintain cult audiences no matter how in or out of style they are. Metal bands, even the shabbiest, know they're not supposed to stare at their feet and frown when they're rocking out. I've only dipped my toes into the metal and 'core scenes in Austin but what I've heard (Squidbucket, Eagle Claw, Markov) I've really liked. If we don't see more "indie rock" bands showing they care -- the way Pataphysics or A Giant Dog do -- we're just going to have to get black hair dye and Tool shirts and go to Red 7 all the time.

6. Continuing to not care about stupid expensive festivals. One of the best trends of 2010 that I would love to see repeated in 2011: local bands and promoters getting together to give fans really appealing alternatives during Those Festivals. Ditch the Fest Fest at Cheer Up Charlies was epic and in March the music got cooler the further away you got from the downtown area. I plan on spending even less time listening to pointless outsider "hype" music next year than I did this year. And so should you.

7. Seeing where music writing in Austin goes. I don't know if this one qualifies as something I'm "looking forward" to. I am more filled with morbid, self-interested anticipation. As matters stand right now, the nature and the function of the independent press in this city is not serving the needs of the creative community nor its potential audience. The handful of big-dollar local promoters exerts far too much control over the tone and the content of entertainment coverage in the local daily and weekly. Local music writers and bloggers alike are all engaged in a race upwards to see who can get into the flashiest and glitziest afterparties; hardly anyone save for few musician slash critics is much interested in seeing local music covered intelligently. However... it's almost too bad to continue the way it is. I hear too many horror stories from local bands about bloggers who scam their way onto guest lists only to completely ignore all but the headliners in their reports, writers who assert you'll have a good time at a local show when they haven't seen any of the bands in question and are only doing a favor for an L.A.-based "indie promoter" who got them in to see Sleigh Bells or whoever. It can't possibly get worse, can it? I hope to see soon, if not in the next year, some sort of new voice or voices. Not necessarily someone who thinks the same way as I do, but at least someone who has some sort of compassion for local bands and a willingness to view them as more than a stepping stone to fame and glamour. The press should work to discover exciting new music and put it in front of people, not merely promote those few bands that have the money to pay someone to make them do it. They have a college campus here in Austin, right? Somebody with an intact brain has to fall through the cracks of the journalism school once in a while.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Phoning It In

Show picks for the last week of 2010. 2011, and Austin Free Week, start on Saturday! Check back here later for as complete a listing of Free Week events as I can throw together. I can tell you right now that you should go to the show at Barbarella next Wednesday night (the 5th), because I booked it and The Gary and Day vs. Night and Half Mile Fox Fur and Bubbleface are all playing. And in the spirit of the week, there will be free cookies and cupcakes.

TUESDAY A Giant Dog at Beerland... always worth seeing.

WEDNESDAY Two free events mentioned earlier this month still apply: Bubbleface at Club 1808, J. Wesley Haynes Trio at Hole in the Wall.

THURSDAY No Mas Bodas at Chain Drive.

FRIDAY Why spend a fortune on your New Year's evening activities when you can go to Cheer Up Charlies and get free stuff? The Sour Notes, Zorch, Cartright, Missions, Mermaid Blonde, Tiny Tin Hearts, no cover, free food and giveaways, pretty awesome. Spend the night before Free Week at another free show and be thankful you're in Austin.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Gifts for Your Ears

December-January is my favorite time of year in Austin, because it's the slowest part of the national concert calendar. Not so many bands choose to launch tours in the dead of winter with the "holidays" looming. As a result, the local press outlets that normally ignore local music have no choice. Bubbleface, one of the weirdest bands in town, got a show recommendation from the Austinist last week. Granted, the writer got their name wrong, but still. It counts as progress to me.

I feel like this should go without saying, but I guess I need to mention explicitly that every band I recommend here is a band I have seen in person. It makes no sense to me that some bloggers happily assert that folks will have a good time going to see a band they've never actually witnessed. It's bizarre, but multiple times just in the past week musicians have told me that nobody else who's ever written about them has actually come to a show. That's so weird to me. Would you tell someone to go see a movie having only seen the preview?

This week is going to be a tough one for picks. I've only got one show for you. It's a good one, though, and it's free. The J. Wesley Haynes Trio play acoustic jazz in the mold of Miles Davis's great second quintet, throwing out conventions for rhythm and lead roles and concentrating on sympathetic group improvisation. Punk rock upright bassist Willy Jones and in-demand drummer Matt Shepherd get just as much of the spotlight as the Rhodes-playing nominal leader. Like Medeski Martin and Wood they put groove first and foremost, and their creative arrangements of themes drawn from rockers like Stephen Malkmus, the Pixies, and Radiohead is another reason why they should be a perfect gateway drug for music nerds who haven't caught the jazz bug yet. They're joined by the similarly-minded About:Blank at Hole in the Wall on Wednesday night.

Since it's a slow week for shows, let me fill in the leftover space with a few recent (and upcoming) releases in Austin music that you might want to note as last-minute gift ideas. The compelling and direct American songwriter Andrew Anderson has a beautifully packaged holiday EP that's way more than a seasonal cash-in. The way Andrew honestly sings "Home for the Holidays" shades the cheery lyrics with the doubt and desperation that are hallmarks of his own writing. He turns "Snoopy's Christmas" into a honky-tonk smoker that's perfect for December in Texas, and the original "Ideal Christmas List" is a sharply written plea for an end to oil-company insanity that demonstrates his rare gift for linking the political with the personal. The ambitious take on "Oh Holy Night," building from traditional folk to epic space rock, doesn't quite gel. But on the whole it's another triumph for the best real country singer around, and it's lovely to hear him working with talented (Boise-based) drummer and producer Luke Meade again. Christmas EP 2010 comes in a gorgeous screen-printed sleeve with a custom holiday ornament stamped with Anderson's logo and signature. I'm really proud to own one and I'll file it happily right next to the fine full-length As Long As This Thing's Flyin'.

The ultra-nerds of World Racketeering Squad and their sexy robot mascot are back with a quick but fun EP, Talking to the Radio, that builds upon the What Is Nerdwave? album that came out earlier this year. It's more of a consolidation than a step forward for the Squad, although the increased prominence and difficulty level of the vocal harmonies on this one show that they're not standing still. "She Thinks She's Got It (Going On)" is a very funny spin on their irrepressible jangle-rock style, and the efficient song lengths are welcome. The title track has some snappy 12-string guitar playing... although they could have cut down on repetitions of the chorus hook. I want them to get really ambitious for their next record. At the very least, they should wear capes.

We just gave the new 7" by The Sour Notes its first three spins. It's called "Hot Pink Flares" and it comes on... guess what, hot pink vinyl. As a teaser for their upcoming LP Last Looks, the A-side is beguiling... it's more aggressive than anything on It's Not Gonna Be Pretty, at least at first, with roaring guitars and a Jared Boulanger vocal that sounds almost pissed. But then it runs through a series of well-worked out links into a rigid waltz tempo and Kelly DeWitt steps in to sing in her lovely choirgirl voice. The dramatic changes make it like a three-act play, and you know how much I love songs that don't end up in the same place where they started. Cannot wait for this full-length. The B-side is a studio take on their new arrangement for the song "Psychological Thriller," which was electro-pop in its first incarnation. Retitled "Psych Thrill" and recast as an electro-acoustic number with accordion and DeWitt vocals, it sounds like an entirely new song. Packaged in a nifty screenprinted sleeve designed by Underbelly Printing of San Antonio, the single is another example of why a lot more people than just me think The Sour Notes make the best records in Austin. Like all of their releases, this isn't just a collection of songs... it has a specific point to make about where they are right now, where they will be in a few months when the new LP is finished, and their relationship to their earlier material. This is what you have to do if you want people to buy a record, not just download a few songs from it.

I'm going to be writing more about the Notes in a few days because I really want you all to come spend New Year's Eve at Cheer Up Charlies with Anna, me, and many of our very favorite local bands!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Block Party

Good Lazy System, Forever Changes
Dives of North Loop, 12/16

Our friend Ariel is one of those people who just belongs in bands. You can tell by the way he can't stand still while he's playing or even waiting to play, eyes full of anticipation and body crackling with potential energy. Every time we see him he talks about his latest project with the fervor of a politician campaigning. He's also one of the only people I know who reads everything I write. I hope it helps him in finding what he's looking for musically. Like a lot of young musicians I know, he tends to shift from band to band, instrument to instrument, sound to sound restlessly looking for the right fit. I would encourage him to continue working with his colleagues in Good Lazy System.

They're not awesome yet, but at their show Thursday at the North Loop Parlor the System demonstrated that they have the potential to grow into a good band. The mistakes they made are the ones nearly everybody makes at first. They took forever to set up and they goofed around way too much before starting the music proper (including an endless, sloppy opening cover that was bad enough to make me half consider leaving). They don't quite have mastery of their equipment yet. They had tuners, but they weren't quite sure how they worked. And they really need to spend some time working out the right EQ for their bass and two guitar amps. Although they were impressively tight for a three-month-old band, they didn't sound good at all... the bass sounded muddy, kick drum was completely inaudible, and the thin, trebly guitars lacked the bite they needed to give their rocking moments gut-punching force. The best prescription for this is to play lots more shows.

Getting instruments to sound right is elementary compared to writing good songs to play on them, and that's where I feel Good Lazy System have a leg up. Their sound has elements of late 80's-early 90's punk, particularly the upbeat-conscious, ska-influenced side of The Clash and its followers like Rancid or Op Ivy. That's blended with a bid of florid Manchester romanticism held over from singer/guitarist Ariel's last project, Consider Me Spilled. Despite the blend of punk and (Brit-) pop, they're not punk/pop. They tend to yell rather than sing when the tempos get fast, and their bassist balances the prettier singing with some rap-inflected hardcore hectoring.

I was impressed by how far they had come with their arrangements... the guitars didn't play in unison, and they varied the instrumental mix. Some local bands never figure out that doing stuff like pausing together, having the guitars and bass lay out in turn, and linking together changes with riffs or variations not only makes your music more interesting, but it also demonstrates to people who know how to listen that you've actually practiced and done the difficult, sometimes contentious group work of hashing out the details. That's why I have high hopes for Good Lazy System. They know how to work together, and how to creatively blend their different points of view. Next they maybe need a sound guy... and for the rest of the band to take a cue from Ariel's high activity level on stage. It was easy to tell that some members of the band were more comfortable being the center of attention than others. Ariel did a power slide, the "walk into the audience while soloing" move, and took off his jacket dramatically (for the ladies). On the other hand the second guitar player made only one facial expression the whole show, and that was during his sleigh bell solo... "Oh, no, now people are looking at me!"

Earlier in the day but just a few strides down the block Austin's own Love tribute Forever Changes played about half a set in front of the food trailer Counter Culture before the police arrived to tell them that, sorry, but playing in a parking lot on a weekday night half a block from a residential neighborhood is a bad idea. I guess I should go see them again since they didn't get to finish and they were playing without their usual second guitarist. I kind of liked them as a trio, though. I've written before about how the challenge for cover bands is pleasing hardcore fans of the original material while still having enough personal style to make the music their own. The garage-band approach to the famously orchestrated Love is a winning one, I think. I liked the way their singer/guitarist abstracted melodically packed instrumental breaks into winningly simple solos. The bass player's ability to carry the songs while the guitar player did his thing showed both dedication to the material on his part and the timeless quality of Arthur Lee's songs, which have simple changes but sophisticated structure. (Listening to Forever Changes reminded me more than anything of The Sour Notes. I'm going to have to ask Jared if he's a Love fan the next time I see him.)

Forever Changes has a great drummer, too. The drumming on 60's rock records is really challenging to approach if you grew up listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Drummers back then didn't have half a century's worth of rock texts to crib from, so they took cues from jazz, theater, easy listening, and elsewhere. Run-of-the-mill cover bands often get the guitars and the singing just right but end up sounding totally wrong because of the drummer. (I've never heard a single band in Austin get the Stones right because the drummers always play on the beat instead of behind it the way Charlie Watts does.) Forever Changes, although they could have picked a less obvious name, has both the creative spirit and the annoying details figured out to do Love justice. Obsessive fans (and to the best of my knowledge Love has no fans who aren't obsessive) will be well pleased.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Burnt-Out Holiday Lights (and Show Picks)

I don't celebrate any December holiday in particular. I enjoy mockingly referring to the 25th as "Loot Day" but my intensely Catholic family really hates this. Good thing I don't live anywhere near them. I do think it looks pretty when all the houses in a neighborhood have their lights up, and I tried to put ours up today. Three of the four strings of lights from last year are dead. We are too broke to afford new lights. We had a $20 Wal-Mart gift card that the grandmother of someone who used to live at this address sent, but we had to spend that on food. Anyway I just came back from looking at how pathetic our single string of lights is, and I am feeling all sorts of American male inferiority issues. I wish I had money for a gigantic animatronic Santa with eight tiny reindeer, interactive naughty-nice list, and real flying sleigh. Hopefully my low mood will not make the week's show picks of any less utility.

MONDAY I doubt very much that Michael Cera's vanity band Mister Heavenly is any better than the band Keanu Reeves played bass for, Dogstar, but awesome local tech-dance-funkers Freshmillions landed the opening slot for their gig at Scoot Inn. If you're not on the Freshmillions train already, get moving.

WEDNESDAY There aren't a lot of bands in Austin or anywhere with better songs than Pataphysics. And yet I feel like I overlook them a lot of the time when I get to listing off my favorite locals. I'm not sure why that is, exactly. I suspect they need to play more shows. They are doing so Wednesday at Emo's so that's good news for us both. If you go, listen to "Girl, You Make Me Feel Like a Weirdo" before doing so. Being able to sing along is a big part of their appeal. They combine sock-hop melodies with demented 8-bit era keyboard sounds, they have stage presence to burn, and every time I've seen 'em the other bands have been good too. For the experimental-minded, Bubbleface continues their December-long Wednesday run at Club 1808. It's always free, and I hear they have some cool guests this week.

THURSDAY One of the very first Austin bands to send me a CD for review was Glafiro & Solid Ghost, an intriguing mixture of soul, Latin, and modern rock who didn't stay alive quite long enough for me to ever see them play. That's a bummer, but at the Parlor (for free) this week you can see the component parts: bassist Ariel Sauceda is now with Good Lazy System, and frontman Glafiro Robert is playing joined by drummer Alex Salinas. Enough heckling might inspire a proper reunion.

FRIDAY The big Red River institutions both have appealing local shows this day: Mohawk's got The Eastern Sea, For Hours and Ours, and Pompeii; Emo's has Ringo Deathstarr and Follow That Bird!. Interesting, most likely not intentional cross-programming there. You've got a bunch of sensitive guy bands and then down the street, bands with female members that are pretty loud and fuzzy. I haven't seen The Eastern Sea since just before they left on their fall tour. I hope they are holding that lineup together as they work on their album. Turnover kept them from really clicking as a live band for me, even though I adore their EP's, right up until that last show. I think they've gotten their reps in now. For Hours and Ours, on the other hand, are a guaranteed good time. Their fans are crazy.

SATURDAY I'm impressed that eight-piece Rich Restaino & The Obits even existed in the first place. Busy people with schedules have to be hugely committed to make a rock band with pro arrangements and exquisitely sweet three-part vocal harmonies click. The band is taking some time off after their show Saturday at Rockin' Tomato. They are well worth discovering before they do. They link together new wave and classic rock effectively, and their shows have an infectious team feeling. Nearly everybody takes at least one lead vocal and with that many happy, engaged people on stage there's a party going before the audience even enters into it. UPDATE: Rockin' Tomato gig was cancelled. But you should still go see Rich play music somehow. I guess I owe you a replacement Saturday pick. Here's two: La Snacks at US Art Authority; many noise bands including Sex Bruises at Club 1808.

I'm always receptive to any feedback regarding omissions, factual errors, busted links, or outright fabrications. Have a merry week.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Late Recommendation

Andrew Anderson, a songwriter and live performer whose opinion I trust, recently sent me a very cool package: a holiday EP with a nifty homemade ornament stamped with his "flyer" logo! I love CD packaging that doubles as DIY art project.

I'm not big on writing about out-of-town bands, but I am big on taking the advice of Austin musicians who work hard and tour 'til they're weary. Andrew recommended the folk/theater/husband-wife Destroy Nate Allen contact me since they're in town at Headhunters this Sunday. I like free shows, and I'm a fan of the oldest, broadest tradition of folk music where everybody sings and claps along. They used to have folksingers at I.W.W. rallies. They'd elaborate on the union's views in their verses, and there would be many repeated choruses where all the workingmen would join in on a simple refrain/organizing slogan. I prefer that strain of folk to introspective fellows watching their beards grow. Nate Allen does seem to have a beard, though. Anderson too. But they're not watching them grow. The real new old folk has that hardcore/hip-hop attitude we've been discussing a lot... making people get involved, making it about people joining together instead of individual airings of grievance. A good attitude for all holidays.

If not considering your own hair cultivation projects this Sunday night, perhaps go see Destroy Nate Allen. For free.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Shows of Early December

Not an action-packed calendar early in the week as it gets cold but there's lots of bands playing this weekend that deserve mentions.

TUESDAY Anna C. and I saw The Creamers at a house party and they took longer to set up and break down than to play: maybe 12-15 minutes of body-moving 'core yelling in short bursts. I like 'em. They play Beerland. Keys-and-drums girl-boy Long Tangles play Cheer Up Charlies, free.

WEDNESDAY The sublime group chemistry and rock star tambourine playing of Bottle Service make them one of my favorite local garage-y, no-fi good-time bands. They play Beerland. Local static-plus-dance band Bubbleface are in residency at Club 1808 doing their weird thing and it's free.

FRIDAY Intrigued by this Club 1808 Misprint show that's the noise side projects of the noise side projects of some already-loud Austin bands. At Hole in the Wall there's Focus Group, movement-friendly post-rock/fusion/electro featuring local MPC guru Soundfounder and the elusive Sleep Good, dreamfriendly crafters of the nifty all-analog Skyclimber. I like this show!

SATURDAY Fresh off an off-the-cuff but nonetheless impassioned performance in the Midgetmen's Neil Young-a-thon, The Gary play with their nearest and dearest at Trailer Space. All-in-the-family bands Killdeer and We'll Go Machete are featured as well. Anna and I couldn't get enough of La Snacks in their brief Young slot; we went to see them the night after at a house party. We need more of The Gary in our lives as well, and a free show? Yes please. Watching Dave gamely bellow through Neil Young lyrics he had just learned I was reminded of how much I love The Gary and how I even I take them for granted. I don't see them live nearly often enough given that there's hardly anybody I enjoy hearing play more. Saturday gives you plenty of options later: White Denim at Emo's are worth a local-premium ticket price to see. Hundred Visions are worth showing up early enough to check out. Three off-the-wall originals join forces at Hole in the Wall. Tornahdo are mind-melted, heavy space music. Same description could sort of apply to Megafauna and Opposite Day, too. But in completely different ways. Each of these bands has its own demented vision, but another thing they all have in common is amazing bass players. Added: There's a free gig Saturday at Maggie Mae's on 6th Street. Stylish modern guitar band She Sir and the epic circling keyboard emotions of Obsolete Machines are featured.

SUNDAY Shells for free at Highball. I like the of-the-moment twist on the blues this real lean-playing trio has. The drummer uses very little kit and hits what he does have sparingly, the bass is perfect as skeleton, and the guitarist honors their spirit by laying back and not overindulging... though he certainly has talent enough to let it rip if he wanted. The Mole People are playing that show as well; Jared from the Sour Notes reports "they're always fun."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Demo Sweat #19

Every Austin band that writes me and asks gets fair consideration. I listen to every song, even if I hate it, three times all the way though at least. This takes a big chunk out of my time, but I really like doing it. I have trouble seeing things from others' perspective a lot of the time, but it isn't so hard for me to put myself in the shoes of a young musician desperate for attention. Hopefully I'm established enough now that people submitting realize I'm not in this to provide validation -- I'm trying to give advice that will help bands get better.

Before I get to the music today, a bit of general guidance. Assuming you are able to get a positive writeup from me or another blogger, how can you make the most of it? I'm reminded all the time that most listeners in town don't have quite my long memory and precise recall for local music. Even if I wrote something really nice about your band six months ago, that probably isn't going to help you if you're just getting around to playing a show this weekend. If you think you're ready for press coverage, you should have something you're promoting -- a record, a show, hopefully both -- and you should have a website or social media page all set up where people can find out more about you and, importantly, see that you are a going concern as a band.

It makes me deeply skeptical when I see on a band's MySpace page that they haven't updated since September and they haven't played a show in six months. (At this point, even that you're still using MySpace is a bad sign. Bandcamp and Soundcloud are better, and if your fans are on Facebook and/or Twitter, you should be too. Just tweeting something random every few days and making sure it's linked to your other pages will show that someone in the band still cares.) Whatever I might think of your execution or your choice of styles, I'm much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a band that is working hard at cultivating and maintaining connections with fans and other local bands, playing lots of shows, and posting or at least giving updates on the status of new recordings. I get asked for booking recommendations pretty regularly and I love giving obscure bands a boost when I can. But I can't help your band if it doesn't exist any more! Cue Al Green.

The organ/guitar/bass trio Bali Yaaah perches precariously on the dividing line between fuzz rock and dance, with well-integrated electronic beats standing in for a proper drummer. Different expectations for song structure between the two styles lead to an interesting effect where their songs with no changes (the unsettling, slowly creeping "Greytest") work better than the more garage-rock moments that do have them ("Stranger," which has a really great, weird, hockey rink-organ middle break but spends too much time wanking around to either side of it). When they're not wearing at your patience they strike a flattering balance between the "Run Run Run" Velvets and Wire-Joy Division-Suicide postpunk at its most architectural. The big central organ sounds of "Shoot It" wash out all else on first listen, but revisiting what seems like a simple loop reveals new details in the guitar playing, which is pleasantly not overburdened by effects and adds a subtle warmth the music needs. As an ensemble they do a good job building across long, seemingly repetitive sections. The way the vocals sit back slightly in the mix really helps with the feeling Bali Yaaah is trying to create... the fact that you can't quite make them out makes them more mysterious and seductive. They're hardly alone in this, but what they most lack is self-editing skill. All of their tracks push past five or six minutes, and while some of them merit it, I wonder if three-minute "single edit" versions of a few tunes mixed in might make visitors more likely to stick around and hear all they have to offer. Bali Yaaah are playing this Saturday at Club Deville and Saturday, January 8th at Beauty Bar.

Band of brothers The Magnificent Snails send along two preview tracks from their EP to be released this month, Baby Acid Trips. One I like substantially more than the other. The jazz-student drumming, clean-channel guitar chipping, watery bass, and subject matter of "Mean Girls" are so Vampire Weekend that they should just put on a polo shirt and sue a photographer. But "Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" is a winner, blending 60's pop with Spoon-y syncopations. The rhythmic main vocal hook is a real keeper, the best of many good moments by soulful lead whiner Russell Galis. I like the Snails' bass player's chops, but on both songs he has a tendency to lock in and follow the guitar player when he should be listening to the kick drum. This makes the songs sound less tight than they should given better-than-the-norm parts and arrangements, and could be a real problem live. There's a lot of weird emptiness where the guitar and bass are resting together when they should be playing off one another. They're kind of leaving the drummer hung out to dry. I'm sure they can work it out, they're family. Given their style, I think two-and-a-half-minute songs would offer a more advantageous ratio of buildup to payoff than five-minute ones.

I've discussed and harshly dissed Love at 20 a few times before... you have to give them some credit for being good enough sports to keep sending me their music. I think they have every right to feel like they've improved substantially on their debut Time to Begin with the new EP To Have and Have Not. The biggest problem with the debut was that it didn't sound even remotely like the work of a band at any point, with legion effects-heavy guitar overdubs standing in for anything resembling instrumental interaction. To Have and Have Not sounds substantially more like a rock band, albeit one that has been extremely processed and snapped to grids. They've learned how to take stuff out from time to time instead of always adding more, more, more. But their efforts at rock songs are still slow-developing, rhythmically bland, and emotionally flat. I suppose they are merely keeping in step with current trends, notably the antiseptic production style of their biggest influence, post-reunion Weezer. The cavernous-sounding, isolated big rock drum fills of "Gone to Hide" are more lifelike than anything on the debut, but I still haven't heard the very least bit of evidence that this band can set up their equipment in a room all at the same time together and rock out. "Gone to Hide" features a few edgy, driving breaks that I honestly didn't think Love at 20 was capable of executing. Lots more of that, at the beginnings of songs in particular as all of these tracks start the same way, and fewer dribbling ballads like the interminable "Our House," please. If the band could figure out a way to make its rock songs not just sit there limply, they might have something, because the other side of their split personality is working. Like the first record's "So Bad," EP closer "Never" is a better-than-decent dance track. Moreover, it's not a copy of Love at 20's previous high-water mark, it's a pretty good song on its own merits. The replacement of the wooden-sounding bass and drums from the previous songs with a really good club beat places more emphasis on Mike Groener's chief strength, vocal melodies. The fact that the most produced song on this EP is its highlight, just like the album that preceded it, doesn't do anything to dispel the sneaking suspicion I've always had that Love at 20 isn't that much of a band.

The Simple Machines list six members on their Facebook, and I don't know whether to believe it or not... their recordings sound more like the work of one or two people. If they genuinely used their full lineup while recording their self-titled EP, everybody deserves a lot of props for exercising heroic restraint. Really smooth, distinctive singing is the big calling card of "Cloud Cover," "Where I When I," and "Fun," which are all placed at various points on the continuum between Death Cab and the Postal Service... not exactly the broadest range of influences. Insultingly simplistic, programmed-sounding drums keep the vocal tracks from being terribly memorable, although the spare use of guitar and organ pokes at strategic points suggests a decent sense for arrangements. The electronic instrumental "Under Your Eyelid" is my favorite of the four songs, although it hardly sounds like the same band. A much busier and exotic rhythm loop backs a peaceful wave of synth. Why couldn't we hear some more original beats like that on the pop songs? I think their singer is strong enough to stand up to some more adventurous choices in the music.

Second opinions from Anna: She couldn't get over the Magnificent Snails' Vampire Weekend rip job either, although we both liked "Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!" She said Simple Machines sounded like "an unfunny Flight of the Conchords," and didn't share my enthusiasm for their ambient instrumental. She still holds a grudge against Love at 20 for boring her silly when we saw them live, and she hated their new stuff, although when I played her "Never" without telling her who it was she said she wouldn't mind dancing to it in a club. We really like that beat. Bali Yaaah! were the only band she expressed an interest in seeing live, so it's good they have shows coming up. There's no denying that they're repetitive, but for that particular style a certain amount of repetition is part of the effect.

Final note: After reading my first review Shmu asked me to perhaps revisit his LP going from back to front instead front to back. I followed those instructions, but I must report that I still didn't find it that interesting. I like the sounds on "Pool Party" but they don't go anywhere fast enough to suit these restless tastes. I vote for a Discipline/Communication megamix!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tonight's the Night

If you're in a band in Austin, how do you measure success? Is it about how many paying customers you can draw to a show? Do you go by press clippings, in town or otherwise? For many it's being able to make enough money to not have to work a day job, although by that standard just about everybody who plays original music here is a failure. For the most dedicated, being able to tour a few times a year, not bankrupt themselves, and still have a job and a home to return to is as good as it gets. Though a disturbingly high number of well-intentioned folks seem to feel as if the value of their music is directly connected to how much money they spend on it. I shudder to imagine a music scene where the only bands that get access to a larger audience are the ones who can afford hundreds of hours of Professional Studio Time (or to build their own studios), the services of mercenary PR spammers, or to rent lasers and smoke machines to make up for the lack of internal interesting things to look at during their concerts. On my bad days I suspect we are already more than halfway there.

I try to speak to as many local musicians as I possibly can. It doesn't surprise me any more, but it might be counterintuitive to some that the level of fulfillment people feel coming from their bands has little if any relation to their material success. Some guys in touring bands with big draws are miserable, ungrateful, and hostile (but not all of them). Some bands playing for five people at the Carousel Lounge are deliriously happy to just be making noise with their friends. Universally would-be Austin rock stars are a persecuted class -- recognition commensurate to the degree of passion and effort put in is a distant lottery-ticket dream, and hardly anybody this side of Kanye West ever becomes as famous as they believe they deserve to be. But like Kanye, we all shape our own reality. Whether your band's accomplishments fill you with the swell of pride or the rising bile of bitterness is entirely in your own hands. If you set goals for yourself that you can reasonably achieve, pursue them with gusto, and return your e-mails in a relatively timely fashion, you have every right to feel great about your band even if nobody else likes it.

Which brings us to The Midgetmen. If nothing else in eight-plus years of life the disheveled guitar rock quartet has given the rest of us in Austin with neither trust funds nor the burning desire to spend months at a time in our lives sleeping on strangers' floors a sturdy template for defining and achieving success on our own terms. The single hardest thing for a band to do is simply keep existing, and improbably the Midgetmen have soldiered on for more than eight years -- practically a decade -- with the same lineup. Their commitment to continue making records and playing shows through all this time while untold thousands of other bands formed, squabbled, and acrimoniously dissolved in Austin is extraordinary. It's something you can't take away from them, and it's something you've got to admire no matter what you might think of their music.

A big element of the Midgetmen's longevity is their sincere engagement with Austin's local music scene, spearheaded by bassist/charmer Marc Perlman. "Marc is a persuasive man," Dave from The Gary writes me. "I'm still trying to figure out how he got us to agree to play that Neil Young tribute this weekend." This particular event, which gathers together eleven significant Austin acts at the Parish to pay homage to the Canadian master, is only the latest in a long-running series of creative efforts on the part of Marc and the Midgetmen to make their shows stand out in a music environment that is choked with alternatives.

"We discovered after the first couple of years that the novelty wears out," Marc says. "Our friends like the Midgetmen because they're our friends. [Booking] bands that we like that don't sound like us made our friends happy." I've been operating this blog since day one on the theory that the best way to improve your own band's situation is by paying as much attention as you can to other local bands. The Midgetmen have been putting this theory into practice for years before I even hit town! "I'm shocked that more bands don't network," Marc says. We both lament the antisocial (yet widespread) behavior of bands in Austin who book shows, arrive right before their set time, pack in, play, pack out, and leave without listening to or even talking to any of the other musicians on the bill. "Get there before all the bands play" and watch everybody.

Finding a stream of other interesting local bands kept the Midgetmen's fan base entertained for a few years, but not forever. After returns from the strategy began to diminish, Marc and the band "started looking for new projects." But this NY night isn't just a device to give established listeners a reason to come see the band again. It's also another step in the Midgetmen's continuing effort to get themselves and some of their favorite other Austin bands notice from area music fans who might not normally pay attention to any of them, or local music in general. The lineup, and the venue, have been worked out carefully to appeal to both younger fans who are followers of the Austin scene and older listeners who will be attending due to their devotion to Neil Young. "It was originally going to be four or five bands," Marc explains, but after rounding up some of the more obvious choices "we decided to reach out to really weird bands. Not obvious bar rock, bands that no one would expect to cover Neil Young." Of the eleven-strong roster, the bands that have me most curious to hear their Young interpretations are The Sour Notes, La Snacks, and The Distant Seconds... younger bands who are two or three degrees of influence removed from Neil and could take his songs in unexpected directions. When in Rome are an all-star collection of hardened vets who have formed especially for this show. "Trey from The Gary insisted on being involved because he loves 'Powderfinger'," Marc says. (Well, that answers Dave's question.)

For the Midgetmen, the experience of learning their songs for the show was enlightening. Music lovers for generations have marveled at Neil Young's ability to create songs that are unmistakably his own using the simplest chord changes imaginable, "the four chords that have been used forever" in Marc's words. "It will be interesting to find out from the other bands whether they've had the same experience. Having to learn a few Neil Young songs forced everyone in the band to learn how those things translate."

Marc and I hang out, drink beer, and chat for some time about the music press in Austin; most of what we have to say even I'm not brave enough to share for public consumption. Suffice it to say that neither of us thinks the quantity and quality of coverage granted to local music measures up to the talent on display here. When the papers here catch up to a band, it's usually six months after everyone else. For the Neil Young show, Marc says quite pointedly that he tried to get bands "outside of mainstream attention. That was calculated.... There are plenty of bands that the Chronicle hates that I love." He feels, as I do, that the problem for local bands in Austin is not the fans. "People want to see local bands, but they are busy;" they don't have time to do all the legwork and research it takes to find the best local acts and the newspapers and radio stations aren't presenting them with the best options. A regular contributor to the local music review site Austin Sound, Marc takes music journalism almost as seriously as I do. We're not optimistic about the state of the art form. "Every year there's 'Top 20 albums' lists on every blog, and 15 of them are the same!"

The Neil Young tribute curated and hosted by the Midgetmen takes place this Friday, 12/3, at the Parish. The full lineup from first to last: The Distant Seconds, Blue Kabuki, Through the Trees, When in Rome, Whiskey Priest, The Pons, The Sour Notes, The Midgetmen, The Gary, La Snacks, Smoke & Feathers. Seven bucks will get you in and doors are at 8.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Kicking and Screaming

As usual, it's only taken me a full year to figure out that this project will be more successful if I concentrate on giving the readers what they want instead of just doing everything my way. I hope you SOB's enjoy your show picks.

MONDAY Punk of no particular era with good songs and an elastic rhythm section, The Bad Lovers are playing at The Grand on Airport Boulevard. A lot of bands in Austin love blaming the venue when they don't sound good, but these guys were built for dives. If you can sound awesome in a concrete box like Trailer Space or The Parlor, you must be doing something right. Gritty, mordantly funny folk troubadour D.B. Rouse is playing at Flipnotics, too.

THURSDAY I'm not the biggest fan of The Hi-Tones, but I heard a great rumor about them I simply can't resist passing on. I was told that this same group of guys has been playing together for a few years under different names. They play until they get a bad review, then they change styles and pick a new name. Their current incarnation as an insincere mod-pop revival has apparently gotten positive enough feedback for them to stick to it. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me given all I know about the "scene" here, where bands are often rewarded more for successfully emulating national trends than being creative. I saw the Hi-Tones play and thought it was monotonous. Anyway, go see them and make up your own mind. They're sharing a bill at the Continental with Megafauna, who are always worth seeing. They've got more than enough bizarre style shifts and weird time signatures to go around. Local rapper Zeale, a solid live performer with an impressively clear delivery, is at Parish. He's not really much for expanding on traditional hip-hop subject matter but he runs a party quite effectively. Follow That Bird! have grown a great deal from their no-fi origins. I think the word's already out on this trio but if you haven't seen them in a while, you might be surprised by how far Lauren Green's riffs and Tiffanie Lanmon's drumming have evolved after several months of steady gigging. They're at Red 7 with Milk Thistle.

FRIDAY The big show tonight is the Neil Young tribute at Parish. No fewer than 11 bands, most of which are good, are joining together for this blowout event organized by The Midgetmen. I really admire the effort that these guys are putting into finding new ways of connecting hardcore Austin music fans with underexposed local bands. They put a ton of thought into booking their shows and they really grasp the point I always am trying to make about bands in Austin taking it upon themselves to give listeners more than their money's worth. There's a lot more to say about this show, so I'm running a full story on it tomorrow, stay tuned. For now perhaps go listen to The Sour Notes, The Gary, and La Snacks, the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to Austin rock... I hope all of these bands win a ton of new fans this weekend. You should be among them, if you aren't already. Even if you don't know your Harvest from your Harvest Moon, I promise a good time. Also Friday we've got Royal Forest and The Lemurs for free at Lucky Lounge, a show so appealing I accidentally listed it last week. After seeing Royal Forest at Fun Fun Fun Fest I am rooting for their new name to become well-known enough that they will no longer have to put "formerly Loxsly" on all their show announcements. And talk about an embarrassment of riches! The Friday night indoor show at Emo's is pretty awesome, too: electro-dance to the edge of panic with Freshmillions and Zlam Dunk (CD release) plus the killer post-hardcore Markov and the trumpet-kissed, Kinsella-rock anthems of For Hours and Ours. Too much good stuff.

SATURDAY My dear friends World Racketeering Squad return to their favorite haunt, the Rockin' Tomato on South Lamar, celebrating the release of their latest EP Talking to the Radio with You Might Think We're Sharks in support. I've given WRS plenty of love; I am biased in their favor since few bands here love Brit-pop and science fiction with the same intensity as I do. But let me say something nice about the venue: The management at Rockin' Tomato cares more about making every show a great experience for the bands playing than most rock clubs in Austin. They're regularly making improvements to their soundboard and their stage setup, the staff is friendly and supportive, and the food is really good. All local bands should play there, if only for the opportunity to get some of their pizza and burgers for free.

SUNDAY Post-rock/art-pop/kitchen-sink act paperthreat jam for no cover at the One-2-One Bar, which is a new venue to me. It's on East 5th. Says here free pizza, which never hurts the cause any. I really like the diverse sounds of this band, who seem to just be coming into their own... they're powerful without being loud and dance-friendly without being repetitive. There are a lot of guitar bands in Austin trying to figure out how to bring their laptop beats up on stage without being clumsy about it. Most of them are failing, but paperthreat have it figured out. The fact that they have a real point of view in their songwriting helps a ton.

If you've got a recommendation for a show I passed over or are playing one yourself in the weeks to come, let me know!