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!