Friday, January 1, 2010

Demo Sweat #9

Number nine... number nine... number nine....

Adler sound like one of those laptop folk bands at first listen, but closer examination reveals that the skipping, clicking beats and snaps that give their light acoustic guitars captivating weight are actual snaps and clicks. By pounding on suitcases and clapping their hands (and recording and mixing it cleverly) they give "Just in Time" a skittering, shuffling beat that suits the minimal guitar accompaniment and sweet, practiced male-female harmonies beautifully. The way the pair harmonize is quite lovely, particularly the way that they'll switch roles with ease on occasion -- Matt Adler will take the high part just for a note or two and Sarah Adler the low. When they use more traditional strumming guitars and less busy percussion ("Maybe Someday") they're less interesting but at least all of their songs are economical and well-arranged.

Hummut-Tabal, on the other end of the spectrum, are black metal with unholy force and no compromises. Their drummer and his double-kicks sometimes go a little too fast, losing coherence with the guitars and howling vocals, but there's something innately impressive about a band that has to slow down in order to be described as playing thrash. Their guitar playing and writing has a proper embrace of traditional metal chops, with the use of varying modes and precise interlocking scales. They also have little regard for sounding fashionable or purist, which makes them genuinely interesting to listen to in addition to merely marveling at their raw speed. "Nemesis Triumphant" has a keyboard part that wouldn't sound out of place on a Europe record in addition to its pummeling blastbeats. Their specialty is overlaying slower, moodier guitar figures over drums that continue to binge and plunder, but at times they groove and for a moment I swear I heard a disco beat. Their vocalist does a good job of maintaining the same evil screech over music that comes in a surprising variety of styles, tying their range of stuff together nicely. If you're one of those misguided people who just doesn't like metal there's nothing here that's going to convert you, but it's nice to know that we have bands doing the Baltic style justice right here in Central Texas.

Doug Zimmerman's very simple-sounding tunes are more than they appear. Zimmerman puts a ton of thought into every song, choosing each line for specific effect and structuring his verses around choruses that deliver effective payoffs. He's a better lyricist than a guitar player, but even though his chords and rhythms are simple, his attention to detail carries over to his guitar parts. Each song has its own distinct strumming pattern and a surprising change location or two. The devastating "Written in Stone" tells the true story of the loss of Zimmerman's wife and child in a car accident. From that description it seems like it could be difficult to even listen to, but the forceful, confident way Zimmerman sings the words shows how the experience of communicating his pain and loss through his music has made him stronger. It's counterintuitive, but to listen to the song is to share in Doug's healing process. His strength made me feel a more powerful connection to what I believe to be possible through music, and that's really what creating art is all about. He's a perceptive guy with a lot to say. "Strong and Silent Man" is a thoughtful reflection on traditional gender roles that suits Zimmerman's unadorned vocal style well.

I've been doing this for long enough now that I'm starting to recognize the names of some of the best sidemen in Austin, and for some of these names I know before I even listen to the music that I'm in for something good. Seeing that bassist Alex Sefchick, also of Rich Restaino's group, was involved with the Jim Halfpenny Band, I knew it was going to be all right. The highlight up on Halfpenny's page now is a Christmas song, believe it or not. If you can stomach one more having survived the season please check out "Christmas on Main Street," a sardonic and modern holiday tune with a cute sleighbell accompaniment. Halfpenny's signature trait is a conversational vocal style that seems half-improvised, only when the backing vocals chime in everything lines up perfectly. It's emblematic of his music as a whole, adult alternative that works very hard to sound casual and unforced. I can't say I care for the lite-jazz soprano sax overdub on "The Roadway," but I do really like the rhythms of the JHB's songs as a whole. The bass has a habit of occasionally doubling a lead guitar line for emphasis that sounds sweet. Halfpenny only has one kind of approach, which is a bit of a drag -- the song "Walkabout" would be a lot more interesting if it found a way to sound even remotely Australian musically, rather than just sounding like AAA (adult album alternative, like all his songs) with lyrics that mention digeridoos and the Outback.

Willy and the Surroundings are a crack bar band whose gifted lead guitarist benefits all the more from tight songs that keep the solos short and expressive. Their basic sound is 60's electrified rock/blues like Dylan's pre-motorcycle accident bands, but they do a fine job of moving around and trying out all of the possibilities within that space, from the almost-Stooges fuzz of "My Woman's Angry" and the keyboard-driven ballad "Forgive and Forget." Izzy Cox has a commanding, jazzy vocal style with fine pitch and attitude to spare. Her musical idiom, electrified rockabilly with a bit of New Orleans horn flavoring, suits her mad scatting and lyrical preoccupations with murder and death nicely. Once you've heard one of her songs, you've pretty much heard them all, but it's better to do one thing really well than a whole lot of styles badly. The Victoria Pennock Band deserve some kudos for trafficking in the sort of arena-ready, no-subtleties 80's overdriven guitar cheese that no one even remotely hip has acknowledged since 1991, but their songwriting is nonexistent and the eponymous lead singer is flat a whole lot of the time.

Another all-in-the-family duo like Adler, A Likely Few have some lovely vocals and lead guitar flourishes. "Road," their best song, represents a nicely-recorded demo with some well-employed touches like shaker and additional background harmonies from the sweet-voiced Tiana Purvis. Their songwriting needs a lot of tightening -- like a lot of these folk acts nowadays, A Likely Few should think hard about stretching out the same chord progressions for more than eight bars at a time. It gets dreary. I'd like to hear more of Aaron Sekula's support vocals as well. The Beat Dolls have a recognizable pop-punk/ska sound that resembles No Doubt before they became all compromised. Perhaps with the emphasis on close female harmonies the Dance Hall Crashers would be a better comparison. In any event, I like the band performances on their demo quite a bit. The bass is busy, melodic, and active, the lead guitar adds another dimension, and the vocals are well-written and well-performed. I'd like to hear sharper divisions from the rhythm section between the languid ska-feel parts and the louder sections, but this is a band with a good idea of what they want to sound like and enough original touches (the guitars get rowdier than either of their obvious inspirations) to keep them from coming across as copycats.

Wozzeck are a really promising jam band who understand what it takes to make improvisational music that isn't tedious, self-indulgent, or endlessly circular. The marvelous "Fractal," a 15-minute suite that seems half that long, exhibits all of the different tricks they have to keep their music fresh and challenging. It begins as an atmospheric Bitches Brew-style haze, but with the unexpected addition of charmingly wobbly vocals they begin to undermine listener expectations right from the beginning. Then they work their way through an intricately composed link into another section in a completely different style. When they next go into a jam, the rhythm section follows the lead guitar closely as it uses specific cues to change the feel and build towards the next change. They can lose the plot at times, as they do during the heavy jam that ends the song, but with multiple lead singers, the incorporation of close-written figures, and the orchestrated major shifts in feel, they have a number of ways to completely pull the rug out from under the listener. The vocal harmonies, when they appear, are a total mess, not very becoming of a band with this level of musicianship. "Terrariffia," which is more intricately composed and moves through a number of different feels with wildly varying vocals, shows they're actually less interesting when they keep their music (relatively) concise. The suspense involved in the long jams, where things could totally fall apart or snap entirely together at a moment's notice, is an important element of their music. I also really like that for the one unstructured live improvisation they've put on their MySpace, only an excerpt is included. That shows an awareness of the basic duality of jamming: Every minute is never going to be good. The idea is just to reach for an eight-count or two one passage where everything crystallizes, all of the separate instruments suddenly combine as if by telepathy, and an entirely new level of music is reached. It takes a massive amount of preparation to arrive at that sort of synthesis, but Wozzeck's early recordings suggest that they're unafraid of such an undertaking.

I was pleased to get an e-mail from Hallucinado in advance of this column. Not because their music is any good -- it isn't -- but because they're a "band" that has been in my thoughts often since I relocated to Texas. If you read the Austin Craigslist musicians' listings -- and I'm assuming most of this page's readership does -- then you've almost certainly seen one of their postings. Every three or four days for at least four months, these guys put up an ad looking for a bass player. The first time I listened to them I was still living in Boulder. Here it is, 2010 already, and they're still looking. Even though they got started in Austin before I even lived here, since the first time I read one of their ads I've joined two bands, quit one other one, auditioned for countless others, played multiple shows, gone on one weekend mini-tour (which made a profit), and recorded a demo. Hallucinado is... still looking for a bass player. Why does no one want to play with them? It's not a mystery. Guitarist/vocalist Mark St. Clair is a halfway decent singer and he might one day develop into a songwriter, as his songs don't lack for initially promising hooks and ideas. But (as they brag in every misguided ad) all of these tunes were recorded with no rehearsal and they sound like it. There's no structure, no points of emphasis, no possibility for tension nor release. The drummer just bangs around on one beat for a few bars, then switches at random. And they've got a zillion "songs," all of which sound exactly the same. Stop recording! Pick one idea and work on it! Practice it until it sounds good, and the drummer knows where the changes are and has developed parts that are distinct for each section. Stop dragging on the same chord progression for six minutes and be real musicians, you losers! If you want to drink beer and jam, that's your business, but don't go presenting yourself as a real band in a city that's got five starving, hardworking genuine musicians for every city block. At least.

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