Monday, December 20, 2010

Gifts for Your Ears

December-January is my favorite time of year in Austin, because it's the slowest part of the national concert calendar. Not so many bands choose to launch tours in the dead of winter with the "holidays" looming. As a result, the local press outlets that normally ignore local music have no choice. Bubbleface, one of the weirdest bands in town, got a show recommendation from the Austinist last week. Granted, the writer got their name wrong, but still. It counts as progress to me.

I feel like this should go without saying, but I guess I need to mention explicitly that every band I recommend here is a band I have seen in person. It makes no sense to me that some bloggers happily assert that folks will have a good time going to see a band they've never actually witnessed. It's bizarre, but multiple times just in the past week musicians have told me that nobody else who's ever written about them has actually come to a show. That's so weird to me. Would you tell someone to go see a movie having only seen the preview?

This week is going to be a tough one for picks. I've only got one show for you. It's a good one, though, and it's free. The J. Wesley Haynes Trio play acoustic jazz in the mold of Miles Davis's great second quintet, throwing out conventions for rhythm and lead roles and concentrating on sympathetic group improvisation. Punk rock upright bassist Willy Jones and in-demand drummer Matt Shepherd get just as much of the spotlight as the Rhodes-playing nominal leader. Like Medeski Martin and Wood they put groove first and foremost, and their creative arrangements of themes drawn from rockers like Stephen Malkmus, the Pixies, and Radiohead is another reason why they should be a perfect gateway drug for music nerds who haven't caught the jazz bug yet. They're joined by the similarly-minded About:Blank at Hole in the Wall on Wednesday night.

Since it's a slow week for shows, let me fill in the leftover space with a few recent (and upcoming) releases in Austin music that you might want to note as last-minute gift ideas. The compelling and direct American songwriter Andrew Anderson has a beautifully packaged holiday EP that's way more than a seasonal cash-in. The way Andrew honestly sings "Home for the Holidays" shades the cheery lyrics with the doubt and desperation that are hallmarks of his own writing. He turns "Snoopy's Christmas" into a honky-tonk smoker that's perfect for December in Texas, and the original "Ideal Christmas List" is a sharply written plea for an end to oil-company insanity that demonstrates his rare gift for linking the political with the personal. The ambitious take on "Oh Holy Night," building from traditional folk to epic space rock, doesn't quite gel. But on the whole it's another triumph for the best real country singer around, and it's lovely to hear him working with talented (Boise-based) drummer and producer Luke Meade again. Christmas EP 2010 comes in a gorgeous screen-printed sleeve with a custom holiday ornament stamped with Anderson's logo and signature. I'm really proud to own one and I'll file it happily right next to the fine full-length As Long As This Thing's Flyin'.

The ultra-nerds of World Racketeering Squad and their sexy robot mascot are back with a quick but fun EP, Talking to the Radio, that builds upon the What Is Nerdwave? album that came out earlier this year. It's more of a consolidation than a step forward for the Squad, although the increased prominence and difficulty level of the vocal harmonies on this one show that they're not standing still. "She Thinks She's Got It (Going On)" is a very funny spin on their irrepressible jangle-rock style, and the efficient song lengths are welcome. The title track has some snappy 12-string guitar playing... although they could have cut down on repetitions of the chorus hook. I want them to get really ambitious for their next record. At the very least, they should wear capes.

We just gave the new 7" by The Sour Notes its first three spins. It's called "Hot Pink Flares" and it comes on... guess what, hot pink vinyl. As a teaser for their upcoming LP Last Looks, the A-side is beguiling... it's more aggressive than anything on It's Not Gonna Be Pretty, at least at first, with roaring guitars and a Jared Boulanger vocal that sounds almost pissed. But then it runs through a series of well-worked out links into a rigid waltz tempo and Kelly DeWitt steps in to sing in her lovely choirgirl voice. The dramatic changes make it like a three-act play, and you know how much I love songs that don't end up in the same place where they started. Cannot wait for this full-length. The B-side is a studio take on their new arrangement for the song "Psychological Thriller," which was electro-pop in its first incarnation. Retitled "Psych Thrill" and recast as an electro-acoustic number with accordion and DeWitt vocals, it sounds like an entirely new song. Packaged in a nifty screenprinted sleeve designed by Underbelly Printing of San Antonio, the single is another example of why a lot more people than just me think The Sour Notes make the best records in Austin. Like all of their releases, this isn't just a collection of songs... it has a specific point to make about where they are right now, where they will be in a few months when the new LP is finished, and their relationship to their earlier material. This is what you have to do if you want people to buy a record, not just download a few songs from it.

I'm going to be writing more about the Notes in a few days because I really want you all to come spend New Year's Eve at Cheer Up Charlies with Anna, me, and many of our very favorite local bands!

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