Thursday, February 4, 2010

Demo Sweat #11

This week's Demo Sweat fueled by my already-legendary homemade southwestern eggrolls and about nine cups of chai.

The Sigma Six traffic in a sort of radiant, technicolor psychedelic that's likely to make you see colors when you close your eyes... or provide the soundtrack to a chemical-fueled excursion where you see them with your eyes open. There's nearly as many bands chasing third-eye vision in this manner in the area as there are "alt-country" acts, but this collective hovers (in their spaceship) above the norm. Just under the surface of the whirling noises that dominate their songs are well-performed drums and guitars. The vocals are effective at carrying the mood and subliminally melodic. "Ship Malfunction" serves as a theme song, explaining how their flying saucer improbably arrived in San Antonio, and "Spiders in the Sky" is infuriatingly catchy in its own out-of-left-field way. They're deeply versed in the late-60's style that is their biggest influence but they're not laboriously replicating it.

New Jerusalem can be extraordinarily beautiful at moments thanks to their modern folk style, where not a single instrument or vocal part is wasted -- they wrap you in melodies from all directions. Very intelligent design is at work in "San Francisco" and "Love Overruled," where darker backing vocals contrast the bright leads and bass pulses lurk beneath the gentle acoustic instruments. Their effectiveness is somewhat diminished by a lack of forward progress in both songs. They end as they begin and there's not a lot of harmonic movement along the way. A little tiny drop of dissonance or the odd sped-up tempo would be most welcome. Very, very few modern minimalists this side of Iron and Wine can hold your attention indefinitely.

It may seem vague still to some of my readers, but I think I know what I mean when I say I'm looking first and foremost for good songwriting. Every Demo Sweat brings with it a certain number of negative examples. Jace Smith often introduces his songs with slick guitar playing, but when the compositions proper begin, anonymous rigid strumming is the rule. Lyrically and vocally the fellow is like off-white wallpaper. Rhoades D'Ablo has (somehow) coaxed some big names to help him record his tunes -- he conspicuously misspells the name of Kyuss's Brant Bjork on his MySpace page. The brawny performances of these all-star guests in no way disguises the barely-there songs and endless succession of plagiarized lyrics. Just plugging standard blues changes into distortion pedals isn't original; nor are the thin, anonymous lead vocals. And how can you possibly expect that your audience isn't going to recognize references to "the crossroads" and "the only hell your mama raised?" Those were clich├ęs 50 years ago, Rhoades. The River Stone Band doesn't have any full originals on their page. I would skip them entirely, but I can't ignore this heinous quote: "There are many others that call themselves blues…. RSB is truly the only one that can say… we know the blues… we lived the blues… we are the blues." Really? The only one? How does slavishly imitating the style of another personally communicate one's own experience of the blues? It simply cannot, and I highly doubt any of these musicians were sharecroppers. Nothing turns off the critical listener more than meaningless pissing contests over authenticity. Nothing is authentic! Everything is permissible! Write a new song, for heaven's sake!

Justin Rayfield is a talented singer who is still working out his strengths and weaknesses. His low-pitched voice is remarkably able to reach and sustain higher notes -- giving his music a resemblance to Our Lady Peace, were they from Texas instead of Canada. Rayfield's powerful instrument gives his acoustic-driven songs unexpected intensity, as on the massive chorus to "Fall." He has a lot of room for improvement. The band on his recordings is rhythmically unreliable, and blocky strumming dominates. Another melodic instrument of some sort would really help to color the songs, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, whatever. On ballads, such as "Like Nothing," Rayfield can't go full-throttle with his vocals and the arrangements lack another element to lend some arc. His lyrics are also so-so, pairing some good ideas with some disappointing follow-through. "Be Ready for an Answer" is a very clever idea for a hook to a song (and don't you hate it when people ask you how you're doing and cut you off before have a chance to say anything besides "fine?") but the verse lyrics fail the promise of the main idea.

Band 1420, whose moniker makes them sound more like a Red Army unit than an Americana act, have likable, woolly lead vocals as a calling card. But the recordings online have such a staggering divide between two entirely different styles that it's hard to tell exactly what they want to be. The more produced tracks (over-produced, in fact) sound like 80's Grateful Dead, with cheesy backing vocals and limp nu-jazz guitar noodling. "I'd Say," a gentler but driving acoustic tune, and its similarly organic partner "City Lights" are very nice. "Never Near (Misery)" and "Way You Do," though, are middle-of-the-road nightmares. Everything except the vocals sounds manufactured rather than performed. Phoenix Down (love the "Final Fantasy" reference) are never going to be blogger superheroes, since their earnest modern-rock style has more in common with Nickelback than Animal Collective. But Phoenix Down aren't atrocious at all -- both guitar players play melodic and interesting figures, rather than locking into boring "lead-rhythm" roles, and their songs have nice arrangements and powerful vocals. The complete lack of anything resembling irony will keep them out of the cool bars, but they have more variety than many one-note indie acts. The very odd, most welcome "Time Is Never Wasted" shows a warped 80's dancefloor style that juxtaposes well against the wannabe arena rock of their other songs.

Moonticca & The Texas Clock have the original sound thing down pat, unless you remember Girls Against Boys fondly. But GvsB didn't have a female singer nor a propensity for venturing into thrash territory here and there. Milan Luna's vocals are the big selling point here, full of attitude and wit -- I admire the way she scats a lead part in the absence of a proper electric guitar on "Sometimes." The vocals, bass riffs, and drums often all operate on different rhythmic planes, which gives their music a depth fast and heavy music often lacks. The lyrics are somewhat weak, though, and just because there's no guitar doesn't mean the bass can't get into that four-on-the-floor strummy void on occasion ("Mind Game"). The songs that have defined riffs, "Matador" and "Sacred Place" particularly, are very solid.

Jackson is a very good lyricist but the affable, steady country-rock sound of most of his songs is way too much of an okay thing. He's not a powerful enough singer to overcome the lack of energy the band has, and although pleasant enough there's literally hundreds of people doing the exact same thing here in Austin. His sandpapery singing on "A Wiser Fool" is cool, but hardly memorable. On the straight-ahead, middle of the road "If It Were That Easy" he lacks the gusto to provide the attitude that the instrumental performances completely lack. "Hold On," though, is a breath of fresh air, and shows that Jackson might have a stronger future as a musical collagist. This brash riff-rocker sounds for all the world like a Billy Squier song, only with monster female-sung choruses a la "Gimme Shelter." The male vocals are gutsier and the hooks much brawnier than on his polite but dull adult-contemporary songs. The less subtle main body of the tune gives him more of a chance to show off his finely developed ear for little production details as well. As a bar bandleader, Jackson is a face in the crowd; as a sneaky-smart studio rocker he could be a lot more.

Addison Bennett is another guy who needs to watch whom he gets compared to -- his technically proficient but commercially slick tunes edge uncomfortably close to John Mayer territory. On the whole, it's best to avoid sounding like a smug tool if you're hoping to make waves in Austin. (Dallas might work, though.) I don't want to totally dismiss Bennett though, even if he does sound a little too Clear Channel-ready for his own good. He can do more than one thing, and the smart structure and chromatic changes of "Last Train" indicate a solid musical education. It might not be the best idea for him to sing in Spanish ("Mi Reina") but at least the backing track shows a real understanding of Latin rhythms. He's capable, but I wonder how self-aware he is -- flamboyant instructional-video guitar solos have no place in music of this type, and his wrongheaded emo effort "100 Years" is prefab and icky. He needs some bandmates to shoot down some of his dumber ideas, and more of an original aesthetic rather than just jumping from one currently marketable vibe to the next.

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