What to make of Casual Victim Pile, the Matador compilation that probably won't be the Repo Man of Central Texas scuzz-rock? I'm pleased it exists at all. In the digital-rights-management era, the professionally curated, narrative various-artists release is an endangered species. You could certainly find fault with the editorial slant of the record. My own experience of the Austin local scene is limited by the few months I've been in residence here. As such I don't feel entirely qualified to pass judgement. I haven't seen all of the bands on the compilation yet, although I'm getting there. At the very least I'm not going to write a "review" where I somehow avoid naming a single one of the individual artists.
Strictly on a knee-jerk, first-impression basis, my reservations are these: Judging by the cross-section of bands from the comp that I've seen in person, there's a heavy no wave influence at work in every single one of them. No wave is so particularly wrapped up in a specific time and place that isn't "Austin 2010" that it seems peculiar to apply that subtitle. The other thing that gives me pause is that Austin indie rock is quite notable for the diversity in background of its players and the Casual Victim Pile bands (again, the ones I've seen) don't entirely reflect this. Unless you count left-handed white female guitarists, which are themselves pretty scarce. I'm certainly not suggesting that Matador should have tried to encompass every style of music in the city. That would be absurd. Better to have a defined style for one to fine fault with than no organizing principles whatsoever.
The existence of the compilation also led to an evening at Beerland where every one of the bands was well worth seeing. I didn't care one bit for the Dikes of Holland's style, but nonetheless each of these bands was rehearsed, coherent, and possessed of an idea of their concept and how to vary from song to song within it. It's not that common to go see a five-band all-local bill in these parts and not see any groups that don't seem confused, unprofessional, or unprepared. I wish that more shows gave crowds strong incentives to arrive early and stay late. In that sense Casual Victim Pile has done right by "the scene."
In chronological order, then: The Persimmons play ridiculously fast and extremely enjoyable gutter rock. They play faster than they're really technically capable of doing, but that's sort of their style, and within the rush there's melody and contextually sophisticated chord changes. They do that switching-instruments thing, but in their case it serves a purpose, because they seem to start with everybody playing the instrument on which they're most comfortable and then begin rotating out of their field of competence. This is entertaining, and if they get progressively sloppier, their energy rises to compensate, so by the end they're getting over on nothing but thudding kick drum and overdrive. One thing that would make them a lot better is getting the vocals in line. Dissonant guitar and bass is charming; askew singing not as much. The Distant Seconds are a great deal more polished, certainly the most arrangement-conscious of the bands on Thursday's bill. I could tell that a lot of thought had been put into the changing rhythms and active basslines of their somewhat Spoon-ish songs but something was missing. It might have been just an overload of sounds in the same general pitch range, vocals, bass, guitar, and keyboards all kind of coming from the same place. They also might have just been too loud.
Kingdom of Suicide Lovers were more captivating in terms of the less conventional shapes of their songs and a good, engaging physical performance by guitarist Paul Streckfus. They sculpt white noise with purpose, never seeming self-indulgent. But I think they need a steadying force somewhere in the mix. Like Sonic Youth before Steve Shelley came on board and nudged them unassumingly in the direction of not sucking, or Blonde Redhead before they figured out how to use samplers constructively, there's too much free playing and not enough of a skeletal center. Whether Kelsey Wickliffe was playing bass, second guitar, or keyboard, all three band members seemed at times to be playing along to a song none of the audience could hear. If their drummer would play much more sparingly, or they added a conventionally grounded bassist, I think they'd reap great musical rewards. As of right now they're more interesting than good. I do like their call-and-response vocals quite a bit. Dikes of Holland don't need any more members -- in fact, they probably have about three more than they really require already. Every single member of the band, drummer, bassist, guitar, both singers, jackhammers the same beat in tortuous unison for every one of their songs. To their credit it's not always the same beat, but the glaring lack of counterpoint in their style is harsh indeed on delicate ears. Their atonal vocals, again locked in file with the single rhythm, are obnoxious as well. (Why bother with a female second singer if she's going to sing exactly the same part?) Musically they were the only band of the evening to really call back to the classic garage style that has thrived in Austin for so many years, but after just a few servings of their malicious drilling repetition the only thing I could appreciate was my driving desire to get far enough away from the stage that I couldn't hear them anymore.
Fortunately I was able to work my way back near to the front for Follow That Bird!, the most powerful act of the bill by a wide margin despite the fact that unlike the other acts they didn't play at an abuse-approaching volume level. With a drummer who has feel and restraint and a guitar player who darts rather than walloping, they don't drown out their strong vocals in a queasy overload of midrange. Their early recordings have a sheepish, lo-fi sloppiness but on stage and in part thanks to their solid new bass player they're very tight, commanding even. Part jangle, part angular post-punk, they should be one of the breakout bands of Casual Victim Pile along with Harlem. I will need to see them again sometime without my ears ringing.