Saturday, July 31, 2010

Demo Sweat #16

I listen to and write about everything people send me (with the exception of the various out-of-town things clueless PR "professionals" spam me evidently without ever reading the site). This is time-consuming. I usually try and give everything three listens, a few days apart so my moods balance out. Then I write what I think. That's how it works. I'm not going out of my way to be mean, I'm just trying to give my complete and honest opinion. If you only like music writing that reinforces what you already think about bands you already have heard about, there are plenty of blogs that do that. How are developing locals supposed to improve if no one with a well-honed ear ever tells them what they could be doing better? If your band can't land shows anywhere except the darkest, smelliest, worst-promoting bars in Austin, it might well be because the bookers at the cool places are thinking the same things about your crappy music as I do. They're not going to take the time to explain it to you, though, they have better things to do. Not me! For better or worse this is my life's mission. Remember: There's no such thing as bad publicity.

Vastness Plane is the solo banner for Dieter Geisler (ex-Falcon Buddies), and like a lot of one-man electro-acoustic affairs, the songs on Tone Drum Letter Head lack meaningful structure. They're a lot of middle without a whole lot of beginnings or ends, and that makes the album more of a slog than it could be. But this is better than your garden-variety laptop music, as Vastness Plane aren't totally without hooks and have something of an original synthesis of styles. "Teeter" has a really cool pitch-bent central keyboard sound. "Meet Fruition" sounds spartan and ambient until the vocals kick in. Then it sounds like a Matmos reboot of a song in the 30's theatrical pop style -- I was thinking of Kurt Weill, but maybe Dieter's German name predisposed me to do so! The idea for this fusion is more interesting than the actual finished product, however, since the vocals are... well, no way around it, they're terrible, not often in key and recorded in a thin, echo-less single-tracked manner that makes them sound odd up against the rich keyboard and guitar sounds. The instrumental tracks aren't quite finished, they have their moments but bolder shifts and bigger peaks are wanted. "Toms & The Toms" seems like it's getting there but just when it should burst open more annoying vocals come in instead. Pity, I really liked his old band... perhaps he should form another, or at the very least work with a more practiced singer.

The Pole Vaulting Amoebas, Michigan-based colleagues of D.B. Rouse, are an interesting case. I quite like them musically -- their folk tunes have fine original melodies, acoustic and lead guitars are nice-sounding and well-employed, and their grubby efforts at lo-fi rap really work. Lead vocals are lived-in and snappy, and the dude can flow as well. The catch is that they're trying to be a comedy act, and their songs are not funny. What they are is hateful, particularly towards women, and their over-the-top vulgarity is more Bob Saget than Eminem. The Amoebas seem satisfied that just choosing a loopy subject for a song is funny on its own. Singing "autoerotic asphyxiation" repeatedly on "The Fine Line" gives away the howlingly obvious punchline two choruses before it even arrives, and the titles for "The Email my Girlfriend Wrote Morgan Freeman Last Night" and "Common Street Trash" spoil those weak jokes before they even begin. You really ought not to repeat choruses word-for-word three or four times on every song on a comedy record. I feel like these guys would be better served employing their talents for a different project, because they can sing, play, and harmonize really well.

Coming back to Austin, Lafayette are a real find. As I wrote of Guns of Navarone, it's OK to be another entry into an overexposed genre if you're clearly superior at it. For Lafayette it's Dinosaur Jr.-style sigh-and-fuzz garage rock. Their harmonies are a blast, and "Snow King" in particular has a killer melody and some great one-liners in the lyrics. Each of the three songs on their page is very strong. I only wish that there were more of them, because I am curious as to what their range might be beyond agreeable, medium-paced rockers. They play Cheer Up Charlie's on August 7th so perhaps I won't have to wait that long to find out.

Paper Threat are a band I've already seen live -- maybe the only local band I caught and liked all year that I neglected to write about, since it was at the very tail end of that March thing and my brain was fried. When I discovered them at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse it was their versatility that stood out. Their bassist doubles as the controller for their prominent electronic element, and their guitar player is also a slick trombonist! The first two songs on their demo have good lyrics and strike the balance well between beats and live instruments, but they're undone by very similar main vocal melodies. "North," which edges over into full-blown livetronica, is stronger, with great-sounding drums. The combination of the very human singing and the booming, assembly-line clank of the percussion sells the band's message very plainly. "Arrows," with its New Orleans jazz trombone and big breakin' drums, is the last song and the best.

Andrew Stone is a very talented player. His vocals are emotive and his rough-and-ready slide guitar playing unique. As a songwriter, though, Stone hasn't worked out when not to play. His vocals never let up, and his guitar parts repeat that gridlocked eighth-note mushiness all rookie writers go through before the revelation hits them that less is more. "Raindrops" just has no rhythm at all, just a rush of chords and words. There's more to "Children in the Garden," but until Stone learns that you don't have to sing the payoff to every tune upwards of sixteen times to make your point, he's going to have trouble making headway in the same-y singer-songwriter capital of the universe. Free advice: Save your big parts for the climaxes rather than going all out from beginning to end, and woodshed your songs until each one sounds like its own creation rather than another variation on the same half-baked theme.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Let's All Get Wet

Bang Bang Theodores, A Giant Dog, ELVIS, Pataphysics
US Art Authority, 7/24

The Body Wash turned out to be a really memorable, laid-back event. I'm trying hard these days to get into the spirit of things instead of observing from the margins, so I even took my shirt off and enjoyed a good scrubdown. This will probably be your last chance for a while to see so much of my blinding paleness exposed to the sun. Sorry if you missed it. Anna C. was bold enough to go to the show in a sparkly bikini and a lot of the bands played in their bathing suits as well. The least I could do was unbutton my Hawaiian shirt and bat at a sudsy beach ball as it passed overhead.

The best thing about the show, apart from the uniform high quality of the acts involved, was the communal spirit. Most of the members of all the bands were hanging out and watching the music from beginning to end. As Pataphysics concluded the festivities, we observed folks from A Giant Dog furiously texting to set up a house party so they could play again that night. (We thought about going but then, in a move that contrasts our late-20's exhaustion against their limitless early-20's energy, went home and promptly fell asleep.)

I had a rough week of worrying about the increasing number of people who are going to totally misinterpret my criticism as the blog expands into print form. It felt great to hear from Austin musicians I respect that bands in these parts should be held to a higher standard. Andrew, guitarist/writer for A Giant Dog and a really thoughtful guy, has a fire in his eyes I recognize as we bemoan the low standard of songwriting in the regional indie scene. "It's Austin. It's the music town!" Dustin of ELVIS, still sweaty from the stage and succinctly between drags: "Write the truth."

Truth is every single one of these four bands is terrific and each in their own way does something specific to stand out among the limitless competition in the music town. The Bang Bang Theodores divide themselves from the punk-pop power trio rabble with vocal melodies of obvious quality and arrangements that give the songs nice peaks and valleys. Most in the style go full guns blazing from the intro to the big finish, seldom an approach that keeps a whole set list interesting. The Theodores didn't lose me for a second and it didn't hurt that they also rocked out pretty hard on stage, climbing on their equipment and shimmying nonstop. A Giant Dog seem to be at all the cool parties, but that might be a chicken-and-egg thing. Singer Sabrina is the visual focal point (and elegant indeed did she look in her old-fashioned one-piece) but the boys in the band know how to get down, too. They played this show with a guest drummer from the Bad Lovers, which was an interesting contrast from the Calliope Musicals show on Friday. Bad Lover Caleb has a different style than A Giant Dog's usual timekeeper Orville, with more and faster drumrolls, but the difference was more of a subtle thing to appreciate than a jarring change in approach. That's because A Giant Dog's style (like X if they listened to more 60's A-sides) is firmly established with songs and strong riffs that set the tone.

I had heard hushed rumors about ELVIS but didn't know what to expect from the reality. They really blew me away. Surprisingly catchy for a No Wave/performance art-influenced band, they have real songs and good ones. Their frontman likes to play the provacateur, humping the stage and fondling his barely-clothed self with Iggy/Holly Johnson reckless abandon. He's really good at it -- literally straddling the line between entertainment and discomfort, capping the post-Madonna materialism of "Double Your Wardrobe" by rhyming "record collection" with "erection" and pausing to lay big wet kisses on all his bandmates, boys and girl. This is a stage act good enough to get over by itself were the band just kind of chugging in unison in the background, but they're quite a lot more than that. The guitar playing complements the singing with different kinds of calculated obnoxiousness -- sheets of out-of-time, delayed-to-oblivion noise that build in tandem with the lyrics on one tune, then another that cheerfully plagiarizes Link Wray's "Rumble" (in a self-aware, artistic way) before grinding into another movement. Their drummer has chops and although the bass playing is frequently just one note... it's always the right note.

It's been a long time, too long, since last we saw Pataphysics. That was in the rush of late March, too, when it was hard to take a moment to process all of the different new music. Let me state more authoritatively that they write some of the very best songs in Austin. "Girl, You Make Me Feel Like a Weirdo" is genius. They have a wonderful performer for a frontman -- I'd really like to see him face off against Robert from La Snacks, possibly with David Bowie in attendance -- and each of the players feeds off his central energy in a different way, from their bassist's stoic cool to the guitar and keyboard players' sudden random dance outbursts. Their drummer has a film-skipping-frames, freeze-and-lunge way of playing that suits the band's new wave inspirations and makes him really fun to observe doing his thing. I wish he were evident on more of their recordings, because his ideas in particular make the live version of Pataphysics rather more fun than the online one.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Quiet Company, Calliope Musicals
Threadgill's, 7/23

I'm still not sure if I am a Quiet Company fan or not. What I can say for certain is that I am a fan of their song "Jezebel," which is a power ballad Skid Row or Slaughter would be proud to have written. And I don't mean that at all in a sarcastic way. I'm literal about everything, including my affection for monster ballads. When I was first starting to develop music tastes of my own in the very late 1980's, Mr. Big and Tesla made two of my favorite cassettes. It's not easy to write a song with an aching melody broad enough for the ladies and a driving power-chord climax behind which everyone can unite to pump fists. "Jezebel" is an amazing track and I kind of want the band to make a video for it set in an aircraft hangar, dressed in spandex and adding a gong to their drum setup simply for effect.

I'm glad that I've kept following the band even after the negative impression the first show of theirs I caught left me. There's more layers to Quiet Company than I first thought, and that goes a long way towards explaining their mounting popularity. At this weekend's show they proved to be less literal-minded still, setting up behind cutesy light-up letters spelling out "L-O-V-E" and then carpet-bombing through a set that past "Jezebel" and a few singles was macho enough for a biker rally. After beginning to hear some more of their range as composers on the Songs for Staying In EP it was curious to hear them head for the opposite pole, throttling their instruments and screaming as much as singing.

It's easy for a writer to focus in on their romantic side since the intentions of those songs are so clear. You can hate on "How Do You Do It" for being saccharine, but you can't say that it doesn't have a point to make. For their more questing, spiritual material Quiet Company are more willing to try unexpected bursts of ugliness in with all the melodies. That's good. There is certainly more to them than a Death Cab fan poking piano chords on the downbeats. As I understand them better I still have questions. Now that I have a bit more of an appreciation for their writing beyond love songs, I'm confused about how all the parts fit together.

Their singer Taylor howls in their most confrontational, self-doubting moments. But then a moment later he's all sweetness and light. I'm uncomfortable with the answers to these wrenching questions being found in such lightweight, "ba-da-ba" singing moments. (And I'm genuinely sick of frontmen who complain on stage about not wanting to come and play shows to appreciative, cheering, lyrics-memorizing fans.) "Jezebel" is different; its narrator accepts that easy answers aren't arriving but still yearns for a world where they might. Quiet Company's "light" songs are kind of childish; their "heavy" songs are so adolescent they need zit cream. "Jezebel" is the only fully adult one I've heard them do so far. I will be listening for more.

Calliope Musicals are a band with an identity crisis. The principals, vocalist Carrie Fussell and guitarist Matt Roth, don't seem to have a strong sense of what audience they're aiming for or how they need to present their songs to best serve them. I've seen them three times and although the material each time out was similar it could have been three entirely different bands. Once they were a dotty hippie-indie act, then coffeehouse folk, and now with a loud pocket drummer and bassist they sound like big ol' state fair country-rock entertainers. Of their various incarnations this one seems the most natural and crowd-pleasing for Calliope. Carrie is a good performer, with a glorious voice, and in the open air with a powerful sound behind her I was really moved hearing her just open up and let rip.

But if the band is going to let the rhythm section dictate the arrangements to this extent they have to make adjustments in the frontline. I really feel for the plight of vibes player Craig Finkelstein. His role in the band has changed constantly and it's not hard to guess why his playing seems completely at odds with the whole group now that they've gone and zig-zagged another time. With the lineup they have now he should be playing mostly as a second melodic voice behind the lead vocals, but he's still kind of plinking away at random through no fault of his own. He had to fill the role of both bassist and drummer for a time and now he's supposed to give up doing both all at once. Roth's rhythm guitar playing and second vocals don't really feel appropriate to the new drum and bass sound either. The band sounds brawny and populist where Matt's writing calls for quirky and off-center.

Free shows this week: Our new friends in The Sour Notes are at Hole in the Wall again on Wednesday and they're playing with Milk Thistle, who I wouldn't mind seeing again... pretty much any place in town is going to have better sound than the Beauty Bar, where I saw them the first time. White Dress are on that show as well and they come highly recommended. Also Wednesday Honey Thief are at the Parlor (North Loop). New instrumental rock trio Vanished Clan play the same joint Friday. And Entropy play the Carousel Lounge Wednesday.

Saturday at the Starving Art Studios, 2324 E. Cesar Chavez, is the grand opening of Iggi's Texatarian, a veggie food trailer. It starts at five, will have free beer, and the following bands are appearing: Stunts, Wine and Revolution, Mira Loma and the Bad Vibes, Mermaid Blonde, Coma in Algiers, Wild Harem, and The Zoltars.

Saturday night at the USAA is the Austin Bazaar Music Fest. This is a terrific lineup for any weekend show, let alone a free one: Real Book Fake Book, White Rhino, Sweetmeat, Tornahdo, and (Kurt Rightler playing double duty!) Squidbucket.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Book Learnin'

Literature, Randall Holt
Trailer Space, 7/20

Another winner of a show at Trailer Space. I have been wanting to see Literature since first I sampled their online wares, but kept just missing them. I was starting to feel guilty about it. But see them I did and I thought they were really strong. Not sure yet whether the Strokes have earned a place in permanent cultural memory (Transformers notwithstanding), but if we owe them anything it's that they've brought lead guitar back into fashion in indie rock after the late 90's wore out the welcome of trios and bands where both guitar players played the same parts together. Literature are quite original enough to earn merit as their own band, with a very sharp grasp of how song parts fit together and just the right sense for how many dramatic changes are too many. Both their guitarists are good at their main roles, and they're smart enough to switch places from time to time. Occasional second lead vocals, too, which is another welcome way of adding variety too many bands overlook. Their drummer and bass player were loose, but effective. They have an affection for placing vocal hooks on top of musical moments where everything but the kick drum drops out, and I love it.

Wasn't sure what to expect of Randall Holt, a solo cello player, but I am most glad I stayed to see all of his set. He undersells himself with the display of "DEAD CAT CELLO" on his amp. I'll admit my bias against one-man effects-assisted projects as opposed to bands. I'm a rock and roll guy. I prefer combinations of musicians, as esoteric as their choices of instrumentation might wander. Holt, however, makes music that's quite beautiful and distinctive. He doesn't improvise randomly into his loop pedal but rather executes compositions that build and crest with purpose. Each one of his pieces was entertaining on its own and quite distinct from his others. I hope to see him play again.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Free Design

For Hours and Ours, Prawn, The Inbeds
21st Street Co-Op, 7/17

Last weekend felt intensely like a time travel experience for your narrator, as the social agenda for each evening moved through present, past, and future in turn. Friday night was a pretty typical one for me these days, seeing cool local bands at a dive bar for a $5 cover and splitting a PBR with Anna C. Saturday we went to a cooperative near the UT campus to see For Hours and Ours, and it was a flashback that just kept going. I lived in the co-op system at UC Berkeley for several years, and the makeshift stage and DIY architecture at the 21st Street Co-Op felt more than familiar.

As a rock & roll historian I'm an essentially conservative person, valuing continuity over constant change. It was soothing to see that the aimless Texas college kids of the 2010's live and behave in almost precisely the same way that their counterparts in late-90's Northern California did in their time. The major differences are that cigarette smoking is less ubiquitous (thankfully) and adherence to mobile phones has sharply increased. This does not seem to have improved communication skills any. I tried to ask one enthusiastic young would-be critic in a The Gary t-shirt what his other favorite local bands were, as we lost patience with the Inbeds at the same point during their set. He seemed disappointed that both Anna and I were indeed quite familiar with the music of Silkworm, and had no further insights or recommendations to offer.

I suppose I take for granted how different the musical landscape is for those under 21 in Austin. It goes some way towards explaining the outpouring of movement and support for the mediocre first two bands at the co-op party. The Leaf Routines, an ad hoc assembly of members of touring band Prawn and friends, assailed the senses with a whorl of open-tuned guitar chords and imperceptibly varied screaming. Fun for those involved, I guess, but it somewhat diminished the impact when Prawn themselves took the stage two acts later with a more refined presentation of the same band concept. Locals The Inbeds began strongly with a half-assed but amusing rap cover and then a nicely lunging original tune that boasted some really fresh emo-rockabilly lead guitar playing. Then for every song after that they got faster, sloppier, and more unpleasant.

For Hours and Ours are several stages ahead in their development. Their songs were sharply recognizable even from drum hooks, chanted vocals from the entranced crowd, and snippets of trumpet melody. Unfortunately these were just about the only things that could be consistently heard during their set as a rowdy audience poured up on to the stage and trampled over the band's guitar and bass patchcords. It was momentarily exciting to see people swinging from the exposed ceiling rafters, but ultimately the show was spoiled by the insistence of a few entitled jerks to put the spotlight wholly on themselves instead of the band's music.

It's hard to critique FHAO fairly given that their guitars weren't plugged in for the bulk of the show. I will see them again. I don't go to see a lot of hardcore or postpunk acts because I don't care for live music that promotes violence and aggression without solutions. For Hours and Hours are the exact opposite of that. It was reminiscent of Fugazi the way trumpeter Brendan stopped songs to encourage listeners not to hurt each other... speaking of continuity. The irony is bitter indeed that selfish behavior derailed a band whose message is unflaggingly inclusive and optimistic.

I can remember going to and playing in countless similarly chaotic shows in my college days. Sunday night, though, I had an experience that put me back on the more purposeful path I try to adhere to nowadays. I know I've written about Zorch a ton lately, but there's a good reason for that. This blog is supposed to be all about Austin bands finding creative, community-based methods of getting their work heard, and there's no one I'm aware of doing it better than Zac and Sam. This weekend local musicians, recording engineers, artists, and filmmakers all gathered in the front yard of their southside HQ to get crazy with stencils and spray paint. At the end of the night, the band had 250 unique works of art to wrap around their demo and sell to Canadians at a tidy profit. Creating merchandise in this manner isn't just cheaper than ordering digipaks out of a catalog. It also strengthens the connection between band and fans. You can do everything alone... but why would you?

The week in free shows: I've been meaning to see Literature for some time now. Tonight (Tuesday) may finally be the night. They are at Trailer Space, with Planets also appearing. That's all I have this week in the free category, but I'm excited for this show at the U.S. Art Authority on Saturday with A Giant Dog and Pataphysics. It's six bucks... if you wear a bathing suit. Sounds like Eeyore's Birthday except indoors and with lively garage bands instead of tedious reggae. I have a ridiculous straw hat I plan to wear.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Music for Adults

The Sour Notes, Zorch, The Great Nostalgic
The Hole in the Wall, 7/16

As I wrote out of the smoking crater that was Austin in late March, the best thing about supporting developing bands is that every time you see them, it's likely to be the best show they've ever played. For bands with as many points in their favor as Zorch and The Sour Notes, it's worth seeing them several times just to absorb all of their good ideas. I can't even mention the coolest thing that Zorch did for their show Saturday night -- my own group has something similar planned and if I tell all of you, then everybody will want to do it. You will have to go out and see Zorch yourselves.

Luckily I have many other observations to share about this value-packed Friday night lineup. First of all, the juxtaposition in styles between these two very original bands illustrated a valuable larger lesson. I often observe bands stressing out about how they ought to label themselves and what that requires of the other acts with whom they share bills. This is self-defeating on a few levels. If you're creating something worthwhile, there shouldn't be an easy label for your music, and there shouldn't be many or indeed any Austin bands doing precisely the same thing. If you plan to build an audience in a town with tastes as diffuse as this one, you should mix up your pitches. The Sour Notes are nominally a pop group but they use enough loops and drones to appeal to dance and electronic listeners. Zorch dip their toes into everything from Muzak to jazz fusion, but with enough big hooks and broad melodies to make them a born party band. The two bands might not fit under the same banner heading in your iTunes but they're both good and that's what matters most.

Seeing the Sour Notes for the second time this month only increased my appreciation for how they take well-written source material and kick it up another notch for the stage. Their drummer's busy, complex but not overdone responses to the guitar rhythms give them an engaging drive. He also plays breakbeats on the cajon more naturally than I've ever seen anyone else do. I hope I didn't ruffle any feathers by calling the Notes' music "adult." I meant that it was sophisticated, not that they sound like the Eagles or anything. Although my parents would probably quite enjoy their music. I'm just digging myself a deeper and deeper hole here.

Clearer, comprehensible vocals were the biggest change for Zorch since I saw them last and I'm really pleased about the development. Being bizarre and unclassifiable puts extra pressure on them to find clever ways of engaging the audience and it's inspiring how prepared they are for the challenge. They're good performers -- no motionless, eyes-averted frowning here -- and they seed their songs with hugely catchy moments that keep the crowd dancing more or less in time even when the music goes into sections that hold three time signatures simultaneously. You know your star is in the ascendant when you announce a song called "Crying During Circumcision Is a Shame to the Whole Village" and people start cheering, because they have the CD and they know that a barrage of dubstep death-jazz is on the way.

The Great Nostalgic followed Zorch and I felt a little bad for them. They're not terrible, merely average, but after two of the most interesting acts in town their bland songwriting and monotonous lead vocals fell victim to unfairly heightened expectations. I am glad that I stuck around to hear the bulk of their set, trying to listen on their own merits. They're not without good ideas. Their drummer is imaginative and rubber-limbed, some of the chord voicings from the guitarist/singer were pretty novel, and I liked the way their bassist used a fuzz effect to play the equivalent of a lead guitar figure on one song. But their tunes are all variations on the same theme, the guitarist's blocky strumming gets old rapidly, and the addition of harmonies from the bass player and keyboardist only served to reinforce how limp all their vocal melodies were. They've been a band long enough to gussy up their iffy songs with a good amount of dramatic pauses and buildups, but the core rhythmic and melodic ideas are just not that interesting. And they sounded crummy -- the bass and keyboards were poorly equalized and the guitar setup didn't suit its player's sound. They're not the worst band I've ever seen but for the Austin scene they're just not good enough to compete for your attention.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The Coast of Nebraska, The Pulse Electric
Varsity Bar, 7/10

I'm not trying to be mean when I write negative reviews. Most of the time. There are a few things bands can do that provoke me like a red flag to a bull, although the majority of those triggers are completely extramusical. I'm a really obsessive detailed music listener with a trained ear and enough formal theory knowledge to get myself in trouble. I assume no one else is going to tell all these fledgling bands what they need to do to get better, so I nitpick with gusto and hope the artists that are serious about improving will take what I have to say in the right spirit. Or not. If you're serious about being an original writer or musician, you need to inure yourself to criticism. If you are uncomfortable about the idea of people having independent and unexpected responses to your band, don't play shows and don't record. Once it's out there there's nothing you can really do to control how your music will be received.

Sometimes I have step back and ask myself what it is that I hope to accomplish with a review. I have a tendency to really start swinging the axe when a band sucks particularly, in the hopes of impressing upon readers in other bands how to avoid that fate. There's dumb stuff that young bands often do that crosses all genre boundaries. A lot of raw talent in Austin doesn't have the time or the inclination to go see as many bands in the same stage of development as they need to do, and they somehow avoid learning seemingly basic stuff for a long time. There's no replacement for going to lots of shows. If you're in a local band and you ever want to shed the "local" tag, you must go see other developing acts. All the damn time. Go see a show tonight. But hopefully if you read some of my musings it'll give a stronger idea of what to listen for.

The Coast of Nebraska have a handful of songs that are already really good, some more compositions with good ideas that require fleshing out, and some boring strummy things they should dustbin. Pavement is their strongest reference point, but their sharply defined, disciplined changes speak to a valuable apprenticeship in 60's pop. Watching them play for only the second time in Austin, I formed the usual laundry list of rookie mistakes -- tune the guitar after, not before, you put the capo on; learn the names of the other bands if you plan to thank them; never ever talk into the microphone about how your equipment isn't working. Then I started to think about how I could go on about pitch mistakes in the singing and a hundred other little things but I realized watching Anna C. bob her head and tap her hands on the table to the Coast's music that I was again losing the orchard for the cherries.

We went to see the band because I thought there was a real spark in some of their online recordings and writ large, seeing them live only reinforced that. Strong original melodies and oddly loping, catchy guitar parts at their best moments make them engaging to watch even in their current incomplete form. They really need a bassist and another instrumental voice -- lead guitar, keyboards, maybe trumpet -- and Matt Bell's limitations as a singer might become an asset with the judicious addition of harmony vocals. It's rough finishing a band in Austin when you move here with only some of the necessary parts. As it turns out, bassists who sing harmony do not arrive here in a 1:1 ratio with lead singer/guitarist/songwriters.

So if a lot of what doesn't work about the Coast of Nebraska right now is due to the band not having a full lineup in place, I wouldn't be doing them much of a favor by dissuading folks to join them, going on and on about all the other little things they could do better. What I should be doing is recruiting for them. If you like 90's indie (in Austin who doesn't?) and want to join up with a band that has a better idea than most of how to carve out their own identity within that range of influences, inquire here. It's worth adding that as a drums-and-guitar duo, CoN could get away with playing really sloppy but they don't take that shortcut. Their songs are arranged and the drum parts are well-matched to the riffs. They've done most of the work for you, bass players. Help them out and I can almost promise you I'll praise you by name in this space.

I don't have have nearly as much to say about The Pulse Electric. They have a bass player already, one who doesn't play all that well but does put on a good spectacle with his energy-inefficient full-body flailing at the instrument. Their keyboard player has one of the more practiced totally vacant stage expressions I've seen lately, but she may have been nervous since her parents were at the show. All the guys in the band have very specific haircuts which probably have names I don't know. They really wanted people to dance, but with everyone thrashing away right on the beat, there wasn't any push-pull tension in the music to allow folks to do so. They might have been tight, or that might just have been their drummer playing so loud that all the other instruments became background noise.

After waiting nearly half an hour for We Aim to Try to set up, we left without hearing them play a note. You know how I was talking about those red flags? If you're a duo that takes more time to set up than the 15-piece Mother Falcon, that's a red flag. Watching their drummer attempt to find a way to snake a microphone somehow through the nearly 360 degrees of extraneous, ostentatious technology surrounding him and filling the entire Varsity Bar stage was funny for a second, then just kind of insulting. You can't buy bandmates at Guitar Center. I did spend some time listening to their music online after we got home; bashing a band without listening to a note is a little extreme even for me. They're OK I guess... another Explosions in the Sky wannabe in a town that doesn't need any more of 'em. But I didn't hear anything in any of their online recordings that justified dragging out a drum rig Neil Peart might view as excessive.

Shows this week: Wednesday night at Space 12 the Cocker Spaniels are playing with Legs Against Arms; that's a free show. Thursday Survive are at Cheer Up Charlie's, also free. I found out about that gig because I met one of Survive's members Sunday at Switched On, the vintage keyboard store on the east side. I'm curious to hear the music of anybody analog enough to work at that joint! Not free but cheap at twice the price (which is five dollars), Zorch and The Sour Notes are at the Hole in the Wall on Friday night. Absolutely no way I'm missing that one!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


The Sour Notes, Mother Falcon
U.S. Art Authority, 7/8

Venues in Austin are a curious thing. Some places I never feel quite at home. Beerland has great sound and they book smart, but the crowds there are so self-conscious -- even in the sweltering heat, all the boys wear skinny jeans. At the Hole in the Wall I sometimes feel as if everyone else there is a regular and I'm an interloper. Watching a band alone inside at the Beauty Bar while 30 people sit outside smoking cigarettes and waiting for the DJ to come on is disheartening.

Then there are some places in town where it's almost impossible not to have a good time, meet some cool people, and be glad you went even if the bands weren't very good. What's needed for a joint to click like this must be different for everyone. I'm hardly a metalhead, but I love Headhunters... it's hard to take yourself seriously anywhere there's tiki torches. The Triple Crown has a particular accepting vibe of its own -- like San Marcos has its fair share of weirdos same as Austin, only not so many that they can afford to be snobby and start subgroups. And I just love Trailer Space to death. Drinking in the parking lot reminds me of high school. One day I want to have a record store of my own just like it, with free shows all the time. (Only the floor will be swept more often.)

I've never been in the Spiderhouse proper, but its annex (the U.S. Art Authority) is climbing up my personal charts. Particularly after the event on Thursday, which combined an opportunity to see the highly-regarded Sour Notes with an art show thrown by Toy Joy. I can't draw a straight line, but I love art -- I studied art history in addition to regular history in college, believing quaintly that having a grounding in aesthetic theory might be a valuable thing for a music critic to have. (Little did I know music writing was destined to rapidly devolve into tabloid gossip, free verse, and blogs that cut and paste their text content directly from press releases.) I don't really travel in the wine and cheese circles these days so I don't get to go to galleries nearly as often as I would like. It was nice to get a little middlebrow culture in with my usual diet of rock and roll and buck-fifty beers.

This was a particularly accessible and area-appropriate show that blurred the line between fine art and nerdy "collectibles." Right up my alley -- my apartment looks less like the 40-Year-Old Virgin's now that I live with my girlfriend, but I still have a variety of Willow Rosenberg action figures in their original packaging on display in our bedroom. Along with the paintings and sculptures there were stuffed animals, custom bowling pins, comic book covers, and funky collage. Two artists' work I enjoyed particularly -- Brian Byrne-Soria's lovingly constructed "Paranormal Research Kit" with real bottle of garlic and helpful field guide and Raquel Schleimer's subversive yarn creatures with their absurdist, Beanie Baby-satirizing biographical detail cards.

Also cute and brightly colored, the Sour Notes proved more than worthy of the strong recommendations given me of their music from multiple sources. Right after the show I wrote that they were "simple yet varied," but upon further reflection I don't think that's the right choice of words. Shredding they ain't, but this is adult songwriting of rare quality, three- and four-minute songs that don't go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-chorus but move from one cool new part to the next. In a scene where many declare their intentions to go pop but then neglect to include any melodies the Sour Notes toss them out carelessly enough to make it seem easy. It's hard to believe that two-fifths of the lineup is brand new, but such is the power of Jared Boulanger's tunes.

It's a fine operation getting new band members to fold in this seamlessly to a sound that's already pretty well established (three albums and counting), but to all appearances Boulanger gets what's essential in his songs and lets his bandmates be creative and enhance them. They're a stronger live band than studio act, and what I've heard of their records isn't shabby. Their drummer can hit hard or barely play at all, and their new keyboard player is a vivacious performer and a lovely singer. Their use of loop pedals and samplers is tasteful and always in the best interest of the songs, and I loved that they had the confidence to close their set with the quietest selection of the night. They took a song that's heavily electronic on record and rendered it convincingly with melodica, shaker, cajon, acoustic guitar, and accordion. They had the audience's attention, and they deserved it. Loved watching middle school-aged kids getting their Sour Notes CD's signed -- I wish local bands had more opportunities to play all-ages events. Bless those parents who get their offspring supporting developing artists when they're young!

It was fun to watch Mother Falcon set up but their music was, perhaps not unexpectedly, rather disappointing. We've touched on the problem of totally democratic rock bands before. With this many people (15 at this show by my count), who's going to shout over all the others and tell them it's time for a freaking second part already? Not when there's still two entire sections waiting for their spotlights. It's odd to me that a group of music majors doesn't recognize that doing I-V-IV-IV for five minutes straight is boring, no matter how many embellishments come over the top. And the singing... it never occurred to me that this might be a problem until I saw it in person. Lots of people in Mother Falcon sing lead, taking turns, and they're sitting and standing all over the place. You hear a voice, and you start looking around for where it's coming from. Is it the cello? No... is it the accordion? No, not him... is there another guy behind the bassoon player? I found it weirdly unsettling searching for who was doing the damn singing instead of relaxing and listening to the music. They're unique as one of those only-in-Austin musical spectacles but I don't think they're coherent enough to qualify as a band you might become a fan of and buy records by.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Maker's Mark

This Quiet

There are some catchy drum parts on This Quiet. Excellently recorded and performed with verve, moments like the cymbal pings on the 3's in "Jaws of Life"'s chorus speak to the experience of the post-hardcore lifers who constitute the relatively new Markov. Fast and energetic music doesn't have to place its emphasis on melody to attract and hold the attention of listeners. But if rhythm is your driving principle, you have to pull out all the stops available. Literal stops -- the most effective live bands in this style, from the (early) Dismemberment Plan to Fugazi to Jawbox, knew how to use silence and spacing judiciously. If anything the nervous, hasty tunes on the ten-track mini-LP hit red lights a bit too often. There's so many pauses for effect that it's not always clear when a song has ended and the next one has begun.

On the plus side This Quiet's polished production does well to fill the songs with distinguishing details. Subliminal samples from TV news suit the agitated persona of the lead singer. Backing vocals pop up in unexpected places and in unforeseen forms; there's standard aggressive soccer-chorus hollering but you're just as likely to hear genuine harmony. Smart choices like the single-microphone sound of the drums at the beginning of "Girls and Eyes" make the album more fun to dig into than your standard self-released debut.

The meat and potatoes of This Quiet is in the interaction between the spitting, slashing guitars and the well-caffeinated drums. Together they find smart places to back off -- if only for a second -- and keep songs like "Debaters" more fresh than formula. It's not until halfway through that breathing room begins to emerge for the bass to do much more than keep up. The title track features sparely arranged verses where the guitar finally lays back a little and it's a welcome change. The other departures on the CD are less successful, but I appreciate the band's commitment to exploring broader vistas. "Futile," which features actual tuneful singing up until its very tail end, is more interesting than good. "Red Ocean"'s droning half-throttle sections and gargling basso vocals make you wish Markov would just get back to delivering the electric shocks.

As for the lyrical content, intelligent writing is sometimes undercut by gratuitous F-bombs... something that rather goes with the territory. When they go for a specific target, as in the self-explanatory "Divine Credit," Markov is at their most effective, the band's energy combining with the political thrust of the words. The vocals have fine variety in their delivery, although not every adopted voice works properly.

This Quiet is an example of a record that's made stronger by its weak tracks. As an introduction to the band, it presents musicians who aren't afraid to fail in the pursuit of originality. Markov's attempts to get out of lockstep and be themselves don't all work, but they cast the songs that do in a better light.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Out of State

Anna C. and I are in Chicago visiting family for the holiday. We miss Austin. We went to go see Passion Pit at the Taste of Chicago Sunday and the hipsters of Illinois aren't nearly as adorable as those of Central Texas. (Also, Passion Pit are terrible. There's nothing even remotely original about their music, their singer's voice is obnoxious, and the drummer is just a prop -- he's just miming along to a programmed beat. Lame.) We're flying back home tonight and it couldn't come any sooner.

So given all the bad music (and lousy baseball) in Chicago I'm particularly excited to study the show calendar back where we belong this week. We just missed Alejandro Escovedo at Taste; he plays at Waterloo Wednesday afternoon. I assume people in Austin already are aware of Escovedo but I feel like I've been taking his presence in town for granted; every time I saw him in San Francisco it was memorable.

Planets are playing Trailer Space with a bunch of others on Thursday. We went early to the Follow That Bird! show at Beerland last week so we could see them; their online classified ads for a female lead guitarist attracted Anna's attention. To be honest we were sort of looking forward to making fun of them. Their recordings are amusingly amateurish. But they were not bad at all live, and with practice could even be good. They're extremely snappy dressers, for what it's worth.

It might not be free (it's on the east side at some place I've never heard of, so it's surely not expensive), but you should know Bottle Service are playing at the Iron Gate Lounge on Saturday night. They're a sweaty good time and proof positive that good songwriting requires little to no instrumental proficiency.

See you at shows.