Thursday, January 21, 2010

Angus Beef

Southern Grilled
Steve Syx & Syxgun

Although not precisely in my wheelhouse stylewise, I spent a lot of time listening to Southern Grilled. I really wanted to have precise things to say about what I find that's good about it, and the weaknesses I hear too. As a package it's well put-together and shows thought everywhere. The production is simple but crisp and never stingy; there are many guitar overdubs and each time every part is unique, composed, and necessary. The running order and the bits of studio chatter all combine to make it feel more album-like than is the standard for self-released CD's.

As for the music itself, there's a lot to like. Steve Syx & Syxgun are operating in an obvious blues-inspired territory that's well-represented in the region. But their songwriting is much sharper and more original than the rank and file. The lyrics are independent-minded and tackle different topics. The tunes are anchored in blues and southern rock, but the band has the good sense to let the guitar riffs direct the arrangements rather than following a standard 12-bar groove. Troy Frizzell's bass takes an involved supporting role and boosts Syx's riffs and songs with parts that supplement and diversify. These can be melodic and busy ("Best for Me"), upright-style walking ("Before I Go"), or driving and subliminal ("Like Tides"). In a power-trio lineup, it's common to hear the bass take a prominent role, but seldom do players mix up their tone and style so much. The drums, which seem to react to the guitars more than beating out their own path, would be more exciting if they were as assertive as the bass.

Although the record peters out at its close with a few numbers that show Syxgun low on ammunition -- the sluggish chords and melody of the outlaw ballad "Lightning in Vein" would draw my ridicule were it submitted for my demo column -- a solid first half presents the band's chief strengths well while shifting in styles sufficiently. "Best for Me" is a solid musical statement of purpose with a surprisingly moving theme. "Blue Beamer Blues," with words written by Ted Ollier, gives Syx the opportunity to sing as a very different sort of character. Syx sounds sly and road-tested on all his songs but chooses to inhabit this white-collar narrator with a thicker accent and more stylized delivery rhythm. The interesting, counterintuitive choice makes for Southern Grilled's best song. "What Happened" is an unexpected stab at English folk. The sudden acoustic side shows good instincts for surprise, but as the song sounds rather suspiciously like "Blackbird," hard to give full credit.

With too few exceptions (the rip-snorting outro to "Like Tides" comes to mind), the guitar solos on Southern Grilled aren't as rousing as they could be. His precise riffing, and the very tighly constructed solos on most of the songs, indicate that Syx is a guitarist with no lack for chops. It's not a bad idea that they're kept very short and contained on an album wisely limited to three- and four-minute songs, but a lot of the solos are rather predictable and circumspect. The rhythm section is doing enough to carry the shape, it'd be nice to hear the guitar venture outwards a bit more and incorporate some of the slightly bent timing that makes Syx's written riffing so effective.

Not an end-to-end winner, then, but a band name worth remembering.

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