Thursday, June 24, 2010


Before we lived in the place we live now, someone named David Gray was in residence. (Not the singer-songwriter.) I know this because we get his mail. Constantly. If it wasn't for all of the lovely free CD's bands in Austin send, from our box you'd think he still lived here and not me. Nothing that comes in the mail for David Gray is very useful. He was the sort of person who enjoyed filling out "bill me later" subscription cards for magazines in great quantity so he could get free gifts. For a while, when we first moved in, we got some of his "gifts" -- useless crap like beer cozies and fanny packs. That has trailed off, but we still get his magazines. Loads of 'em, from OK! to Parenting. I used to toss all of these directly into the recycling, but then Anna C. and I realized we could make awesome collages with all of the random free magazines piling up. That's a long, roundabout way of explaining why there's a Maxim on top of my toilet without tarnishing my feminist-slash-intellectual credentials.

Anyhow, glancing at this Maxim while I was trying to locate my Economist (the only magazine I in fact read as opposed to using as raw material for folk art projects) it struck me how much modern publishers seem to think men crave lists. Is all information easier to absorb when it follows bullet points? I prefer more structure in my writing -- which perhaps is why I'm no longer making any money from it.

And there we pick up the other thread that inspired me to write today. Some years ago, my parents persuaded me to choose journalism over music as a career choice. That was stupid of them. Over the past few years, not through any particular effort on my part, I've become less of an arts journalist who plays in bands for fun and way more of a musician who writes about the arts as a hobby. Kids: Drop out of college and learn to play bass. I really learned to play while I was in college, but I probably could have found another place to learn that didn't cost twenty-five thousand dollars a year.

Anyway, I have a gig this week playing in the orchestra for a community-theater production of The Sound of Music out by the lake. I grabbed a stack of CD's to listen to in the car ride out there last night and I realized there was an easy column lying right there. Of all the local discs that have come my way by hook or by crook since September, the ones I keep close at hand so I can play them again for myself and for friends make for a pretty short list. One that might even call for bullet points. A few of these are overdue reviews, and for bands I've written about more recently, I've just quoted lyrics to which I particularly enjoy hollering along.

The Eastern Sea Both of the EP's released so far by this amorphous collective (the three central guys are singer/guitarist Matt Hines, bassist Tomas Olano, and drummer Zach Duran) are exemplary, performed, arranged, and sequenced with care. The band's hazy, impressionist post-folk benefits from production that links each song into the next and drops parts in and out like a DJ. The artwork, design, and similar production hallmarks suggest that the two releases are of a piece, but the shorter EP II shows a ton of progress from its none-too-shabby predecessor, which is a little too restrained for its own good. The quieter pieces on the second EP, like the trademark "The Mountain," swing in a way the overwhelmingly placid first one never does. Plus there's the delightful "The Name," a rager of a fuzz-rocker that doesn't sound at all like an overextension of their style. If you're a band who plays mostly heavy rock songs, you probably already know that you need to work a ballad in there. But it works both ways. The Eastern Sea are a ballad band, but a rocker was necessary, and they deliver. (Even if it kind of has the same melody as Tenacious D's "Friendship.") Like a lot of the bands on this list, I absolutely love their lyrics. Hines has a sense of setting that's almost preternatural. His use of tiny, specific details makes the moments captured in the Sea's songs easy to relate to. With his beautiful singing voice, once you figure out what he's talking about, you're totally on his side.

Squidbucket Jason Erwin, the guitarist and founder of Squidbucket, is one of my favorite Austin musical minds. A lot of folks like to say that music is their life, but Jason has shaped his whole existence around pursuing his creative vision. His guitar playing speaks for itself, but he's also mastered the nuts and bolts of recording technology and when he's not playing, the work he does is music-related -- he owns a screenprinting concern and is a talented designer. His ability to see the many parts in the whole pays off on Squidbucket's record Celery City. There are a lot of bands in Austin made up of guys with scary good chops -- Erwin's bandmates Eric Brown and Kurt Rightler are each in at least one other. But not many of them can make their dexterity pay off on in the studio the way Squidbucket do. The first time I heard them, I was stunned by how developed their stuff was. It's technical and heavy but not at all hard to follow. The changes are rapid and bizarre yet make total sense. They groove, even. And they're willing to go way far afield from their obvious central influences -- this is progressive metal that actually progresses. When I spoke to Jason at length about how Squidbucket's music is created, I was struck by how he strongly he perceived his role as producer to be separate and distinct from that of guitarist or songwriter. Having reflected upon it more, that might be just what makes the band good. The ability to step back from the music and judge what works best for the whole band, as opposed to just the guitar, bass, or drums might be the rarest talent of all. Surely a whole lot of lesser bands here are starving for it.

The Gary "Now it's here. Now it's gone."

La Snacks I love these guys. This might be in part because singer Robert Segovia and I share many of the same central fixations -- European history, English syntax, Chicago sports, 90's indie bands who didn't tune their guitars very carefully. But my love centers most on how the brief but unshakable songs on Newfangled each drive home a valuable moral lesson. Songwriting wins! Guitar tone, how the cymbals are equalized, the precise vintage of your analog synthesizer, endless chains of noisy pedals... these make no difference. There is no equipment you can buy nor studio magic you can employ to make a bad song good. A good song, on the other hand, can stand up to a whole lot of abuse. The guys from Harlem take this beyond logical extremes; La Snacks seem to affect sloppiness more so than really drink too much to play well. The latter is more fun to watch, and assures that the pristine melodies of "Jackson '88" and its ilk remain relatively close to the way you remember them from the record.

Zorch "Giant surprise! We are lizards disguised, and we're controlling your lives with trilateral spies."

Haunting Oboe Music There needs to be a reunion! (Hey, it's not out of the question. There was a recent cryptic message on their MySpace and everything.) The center couldn't hold for this six-piece (later five-piece), who came up with a ridiculous, crazy, ambitious plan to record 12 EP's in a year, did it... and then couldn't figure out what the hell to do for an encore. The best stuff from this fevered period of activity can be found on a single CD with a yellow cover that the band was giving away at their final shows; this is the disc I have been recommending to other musicians more than any other since my arrival in Austin. I wish they'd fit the song titles somewhere on the sleeve, but other than that it's a big, bold line in the sand for home recorders everywhere. The Oboes sneer at convention, rapping on one track and dragging out the banjo for a Will Oldham salute just a handful of songs later. With the clamor of two drum sets and usually competing electronic percussion as well, nothing ever quite settles into a familiar shape. Yet there's monster choruses, memorable lyrics, and lots of harmonies (Lean Hounds, the half-Oboe act for whom I am still waiting to be half as good, miss these particularly) to keep you returning. You can see why they despaired trying to get even a fraction of this stuff prepared for the stage. The most conspicuous instrument for Haunting Oboe Music on CD is the mixing board. And given that this is a "greatest hits," there's still a fair bit of dribbly, arrangement-less wanking... I haven't made too much of an effort to seek out the rest of the music from the EP year that didn't make the sampler. Still, these guys are the gold standard until further notice. If you want to be a groundbreaking modern rock band in Austin, you need to be at least as weird as Haunting Oboe Music -- and work as hard as they did.

1 comment:

  1. I Love Squidbucket! And the listmaking is in magazines with a female demographic, too... weird...