The Music Gym, 3/20
I'm skipping way ahead chronologically; there are five other bands that I saw before the Fever Dreams late Saturday night for whom I have thoughts to share. But allow me to indulge in a bit of personal reflection. Earlier this evening, I began writing a post trying to explain why it is exactly that I'm driven to digest so much obscure local music when I do have enough remaining freelance connections that I could with a little effort get myself into "name" shows for free. I couldn't seem to find a way of doing it, on my first attempt, that didn't overemphasize two of my less endearing personality quirks: I'm pathologically cheap, and gigantic groups of people make me uncomfortable.
So I stared at a weak title and a bunch of blank space for a while, put on the first side of Pet Sounds, and decided that if I wasn't going to get any writing done tonight I should at least go see some more bands. (I definitely wasn't going to address the situation with the dishes in the sink, which have been festering all week.) Then, while I was crammed into an east side sweatbox pulsating to the waveforms of the Fever Dreams, I finally found my entry point. Why support undiscovered bands at the expense of the already recognized? Put aside the fact that nowadays, unspeakably awful music becomes hugely popular all the time. I believe that the state of the music consumed by most young teenagers at the age when they first become passionate about what they listen to is as bad as it's ever been, but I don't mean to argue that at this time.
Even you believe that rock music is no better or worse than it's ever been, and that those bands who become widely discussed and written about for the most part deserve the attention, there's another reason why you should have a least a handful of local developing bands that you support to your utmost. I should have thought of it before, but watching the Fever Dreams it came upon me all at once. If you attach yourself to a promising young band and watch them grow and change, the chances are good that every time you see them they will be better than the last time you did so. If they can keep their lineup steady, dedicate themselves to practicing as much as it takes to stay tight, and write new stuff constantly with an ear to challenging themselves and their audience, every time you see them it'll be the best show of theirs you've ever seen. And that's pretty great, right? And certainly not true for the vast majority of established bands. It's all downhill once you've passed your peak, to quote a Nick Lowe song (about a forgotten silent movie star who was eaten by her dachshund).
OK, please excuse my meandering notions on critical theory. It's been a long week for all of us. Let's give the Fever Dreams their due. I wrote about them for one of my very first Austin live reviews, back when I was still living in Williamson County and didn't even know that the Texas Colorado River is not the same as the Colorado Colorado River. In the intervening months we all have grown more comfortable with our surroundings. The Dreams have a (somewhat) new drummer with a totally different style than their old one, and they're hard at work on a new record. Partly due to the drummer, and my increased familiarity with their music, they sounded less jammy and more acutely structured tonight. Their music has always reminded me of the sea change in music between the very late 60's and the very early 70's. In that time experimentalism for its own sake began to give way to a more codified, canonical way of composing and discussing rock and roll. A good single example might be the Soft Machine, who started out as a totally frazzled psychedelic prog band and trickled gradually into jazz fusion.
The Fever Dreams take a perfectionist approach to their songs, which is necessary given how dramatic the changes in their new stuff are. "The Bartender Song" kicks off with an appropriately Tom Waits-like reel then morphs into what sounds like Interpol waltzing. Another tune stomps in 5/4 until it gives way to a section where different instruments play in separate time signatures. Barry Huttox's ability to define each change clearly with a firm rhythmic hand (and almost melodic flourishes, with his many different toms and small cymbals) increases the feeling of strong organization. Proper guitar and keyboard solos are near absent from the band's sound now; very precisely layered instrumental breaks with guitar and bass parts that lock together like Jenga blocks are the rule.
In their efforts to make their new songs really new songs, the Dreams are opening up their influences. The swinging Huttox lets them abandon rock underpinnings entirely if they feel like it, but they also have a driving-but-chiming gear now that sounds like the more sophisticated variety of modern indie-guitar rock. Harold King's vocals are a hard sell -- he's a bit flat and he lacks the range to really compete with any of the melodic instruments. But he's screaming and emoting more on these new songs, and while it's not musically perfect the more he puts into it the more compelling it is. It's kind of fascinating, and maybe a little poignant, that such a multiply talented musician (he's superior on both keyboards and guitar) can't do anything about his singing voice. When he's on, though, the raw quality of his singing ties the highly cerebral elements of the band back into more elemental, basic rock building blocks. If you require pristine vocals to enjoy a band, look elsewhere. But I find the struggle between King's skills as a composer and instrumentalist and his limitations as a singer compelling -- and relatable.
Sure, they might be bigger if they had a Cedric Bixler-Zavala to act as a mouthpiece, lightning rod, and focal point. But they sure wouldn't be the same band with anyone else singing, and just in the few months since the last time I saw them King has gotten better at projecting and emoting. Me, I like underdogs. That's my hangup.