Friday, January 29, 2010

Chubby Rain

Magic Hero vs. Rock People, The Fireball Show
Headhunter's, 1/28

The last time I wrote about Magic Hero vs. Rock People, I observed how in its boundless ambition their debut album kind of lost sight of making the songs individually distinctive. Playing live was my prescription for improvement. Checking in with them last night, it was impressive how well they came over despite being on their third show ever. Their commitment to creating a spectacle is admirable -- they took the stage in robes and capes, distributed animal masks to the audience, and brought a slide projector. Not everything works perfectly yet. Their violin player couldn't get her instrument to work and sat this one out. But with all the bands in Austin who can barely be bothered to try (one of the other groups on the bill didn't even show up), always favor those who are way too ambitious over those who have no ambition at all.

Presentation is not to be overlooked, but the most important element to being a band is playing music. Magic Hero have a distinctive Nuggets sound, led by Farfisa organ and slow guitar droning. On their record they held themselves back somewhat with unchanging, somnambulant arrangements. Not so on stage. Greatly improved dynamics, with songs that reached big peaks and drums that built up and pulled out, made their tunes pop a great deal more in their live incarnations. High priest Donny Lang has a singing voice that grows on you slowly, but when he raises up into his dramatic upper register it cuts through the ominous midrange murk of the band in impressive fashion. I'd next like to see them find the bass player and guitarist more points to contribute melodically, but it was only their third show.

In the other room, The Fireball Show were demonstrating how to quickly grab a listener's attention and keep it. They sucked me in with a cover of "Way Down in the Hole," which is a Tom Waits tune and the theme song to "The Wire," only the greatest non-vampire slayer-related TV show ever. I really love that song -- I've been known to cover it from time to time myself -- but I wouldn't have been happy with a glorified karaoke rendition. The Fireball Show quickly proved their mettle with an arrangement that put their own spin on the tune, vocals that confidently reinterpreted the rhythm and melody, and different-sounding solos from both guitar players. That got me excited to hear some of their originals, and they didn't let down. The band hasn't picked a genre to constrain their creativity. There's elements of blues, border wave, indie rock, and jazz vocal scatting to them and they follow the songs forward rather than grinding everything down to fit into a single label designation. This confidence must stem in part from their dapper frontman, who works the mic assuredly during songs and between them. Looking forward to hearing more.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Look and Feel

Age of Revolution [EP]

Let's turn once again the time-honored rhetorical device of saying one nice thing about a record and then ripping it to shreds. Age of Revolution is really beautifully packaged. It comes in a cardstock sleeve that appears to be handpainted, a really nice delivery system for a CD reproduced on a budget. I wouldn't ever recommend their music, but I'd hire Knights to do album art in a second.

As for the tunes themselves, well, do you like Muse? If you like Muse, specifically their Black Holes and Revelations record, you will probably enjoy Age of Revolution, since every last element of this band's sound is precisely plagiarized from the self-important British trio. The keening high tenor vocals, uptempo minor-key guitar riffing, and metal-edged bass distortion of Knights are all lifted wholesale from this single source. In the interests of getting my facts straight for this review without actually having to listen to any more of either band, I sent a Knights clip to a trusted colleague. "The vocals are 110% Muse," Sebastian replies forcefully. "I cannot underscore that enough... the solo on "Excalibur" is a total rip off."

It's a pity that Knights don't have the wit or the imagination to draw from more than one inspiration (and that they're oblivious enough to name themselves after one of Muse's songs, even). They can play, and vocalist Nick Longoria has a magnificent instrument. But not only are they pathetically unoriginal, they're blindly following their idols to such a degree that they magnify every one of Muse's own weaknesses. To listen to a few minutes of any song by either band is exhausting because there's no recognition whatsoever of the meaning or value of subtlety. Every single line sounds like the climax of an entire album. Each section is buried in so many distracting effects, overperformed backing vocals, and effects-pedal onanism that the main ideas are obscured or lost entirely. Longoria's lyrics can't be heard clearly (which isn't that much of a loss) and the overload of production details sucks all of the emotion out of the instrumental and vocal performances alike.

Age of Revolution is overblown, juvenile, hollow, and cynical in the expectation that anyone who hears it will accept it as an original creation. The ridiculous thing is that without very much difficulty at all Knights could solve both of the major problems with their music. If only they could manage to find a way to incorporate some restraint at any point (stealing Radiohead's "Street Spirit" riff as does "Dragonfly" doesn't count, sorry) they'd both detach themselves from Muse and make their songs infinitely more palatable. As it is, listening to Knights is kind of like watching a porn compilation of all money shots, and equally as distasteful.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Playing in Traffic

Waterloo Records, 1/25

I had mixed feelings about going to see Spoon's free parking lot appearance, for one logistical reason and one aesthetic concern. Mostly I was worried about the scene being a total mess and becoming entangled in traffic and humanity to the degree that the entire exercise ended up being more headache than it was worth. Perhaps a lot of others felt the same way, because as it ended up the audience for the performance was just the right size. The security guys were laid back, the sound was way better than could have been expected, and parking wasn't a hassle at all. I don't know if a lot of other cities would have been mellow enough to let all of this come off without a hitch, so I feel grateful again for having moved here.

The other element of my reluctance is more controversial. As much as I admire Spoon's albums -- and they have practically no competition among current indie rock bands as far as the consistency of their recorded output is concerned -- I'm equally convinced of their ultimate incapability as a live band. There's a lot of different reasons for why they just can't get things ignited on stage. The bass players and keyboard players, as often as they rotate in and out, usually appear as if they are terrified of playing one note different from the way the song was originally recorded and being fired on the spot. Jim Eno's role is safer because he's required to provide nominal continuity, but also problematic because he's a lousy drummer who messes up the tempo kind of a lot. I rather suspect that his limitations in a peculiar way preserve his longevity in the group, since he wouldn't be able to try and improvise crazy stuff even if he wanted to do so. Because of Eno's unreliability, the band always follows the guitar rather than the drums, and that's kind of backwards unless you're Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

Britt Daniel is such a marvelous and thorough songwriter that every last part of his songs is planned down to the precise timing of his trademark amplifier hums. That's what makes their records reliably wonderful, the way that each piece is tweaked for perfection from the tiniest details on up, and at the same time each album has distinct overall goals and production hallmarks. But it also renders the band kind of an anachronism on stage. Daniel doesn't view his songs as eternal works in progress, ripe for reinvention each night. Once the record is finished, they're done, and that's how they're to be played forevermore. That's too bad, because it means there's a lot of songs that the band simply can't play well on stage because they can't replicate the instrumentation or the studio sound. It means there's a bunch of fantastic older songs that are just kind of gathering dust because the current incarnation hasn't considered the idea of drastically rearranging them to bring them in line with the way the band sounds now. (Bring back "No You're Not!")

Daniel also extends the idea of each song having a single definitive "correct" incarnation to the way he moves on stage -- he does the guitar raise at the same time every time out, moves around only when he feels he's supposed to do so, allows the backup players to interact only when the studio version has backing vocals, makes eye contact with the other guys only when they screw up. I can relate -- I feel a spiritual kinship to the man. I'm an introverted intellectual who's too tall and too skinny and whose head and neck jut out in front of the rest of my body too. For people who aren't natural performers, sticking rigidly to a proven template is a natural coping mechanism. But maniacal adherence to precedent is not very rock and roll. It also utterly guarantees that there will never be any pleasant surprises at a Spoon show, only workmanlike performances of great songs and several instances where the band loses step slightly and their autocratic leader glares inscrutably.

This particular show this week was a bit of a new experience, though, since I haven't heard any of Transference yet and I was able to hear the bulk of its songs for the first time when the band was playing them on stage. As many arguments as there are against Spoon's live approach, it can't be argued that the signal element in their greatness is their songs. "Got Nuffin'" and "Written in Reverse" and "Nobody Gets Me But You" and "Mystery Zone" all were immediately memorable and confirmed in my mind that Transference must indeed be another winner in an unbroken decade-long streak. And they played "You Got Yr Cherry Bomb," which has the best second verse of any song written in at least the last twenty years.

Nothing about what made me ambivalent about Spoon in concert before doesn't still apply. But given the price, the beautiful weather, the high concentration of smoking hot Austin hipster girls, and the generosity in the length of the band's set (they played for just about as long as they would have at a club gig) it's hard to say it wasn't worth having to wait in traffic for a couple of red lights. Recalling the crowd now, it seemed like people were more watching impassively than really feeling and moving to the music. The best rock band in Austin, whoever they are, would have had people dancing on the sidewalks and the medians. I'll always feel a little bittersweet about Spoon because as great as their songs are I don't think they're ever going to be capable of overcoming their big weakness. Maybe the same element that guarantees the quality of the songs prohibits the live sets from ever exploding. It doesn't really threaten their place in history. The Beatles quit playing live; XTC didn't tour at all for 20 years.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On the Table

I don't have a tremendous amount to say about the disorganized and barely rehearsed "Velvet Underground tribute" we left early on Friday night, and I'm still absorbing a stack of local CD's. I would like to share my thoughts on the new Spoon record, but I'm holding out until my girlfriend buys the vinyl. I did hear most of the new Vampire Weekend! Here's what I've been listening to this week.

Contra, Vampire Weekend A few songs in their new dance-club style register ("Giving Up the Gun"), but changing the instrumentation doesn't really mask the fact that all of their songs have exactly two parts. I like the songs that sound the most like the first record ("White Sky," also the name of a wonderful Archer Prewitt album of which Vampire Weekend are probably not aware) and I'm unclear as to why they would deliberately mute their bassist and their drummer in favor of clicking loops since by a wide margin those are the two best musicians in the band. It seems as if they were trying quite self-consciously to "expand" just enough to appease critics while maintaining their following. As far as post-millennial hype bands go, the model to follow is the Strokes' Room on Fire. The band sounds the same as on the first record, but brawnier and more polished; the songs are much stronger. To a certain extent Vampire Weekend went through a similar process before their proper debut, since their early online recordings were so widely scrutinized. I get why they were ready to move on, but listening to them try too hard is not fun. Contra resembles First Impressions of Earth a lot more than Room on Fire: low on energy, fussy, rather antiseptic.

Yessongs, Yes My relationship with Yes dates to a very specific and memorable weekend in Wyoming, of all places, when a van accident stranded me overnight with Missouri's So Many Dynamos. Their keyboard player was not at all interested in hearing me fulminate about the greatness of Genesis when my experience with Yes was so limited. There's a comparable 80's iceberg effect with both bands. Their most famous pop singles are not even remotely related to their artfully long-winded 70's album statements. I still favor Genesis's pop side, but after I found my way back to Colorado I acquired Close to the Edge and Fragile and The Yes Album and I've been listening to all of those pretty regularly for a few years now. One of the wonderful things about 70's progressive music is that it's never at all difficult to walk into a used record store, spend less than $10, and come out with the entire significant release history of a major band. And usually in pristine condition, as if they'd never been played! I wonder why. Were Steely Dan the 70's equivalent of the Buena Vista Social Club? Were their records accessories to be left around to be seen rather than listened to? One wonders. In any event there's no excuse not to have all of Yes's 70's studio albums since they populate dollar bins like no artist this side of Streisand. The ludicrously overblown triple-LP live Yessongs, though, is not for the uninitiated. In theory extended versions of the best material from the best three Yes records performed by their two best lineups should be thrilling, but Yessongs is just too much. Not every song needs multiple additional keyboard solos, and drum showcases are almost never interesting on record. The poor recording quality isn't that big of a problem (it kind of helps to underline how well the band gives each instrument its own space, especially Chris Squire's proto-Petersson muscle bass) but the meticulous layered vocal production style that became their signature isn't really possible on stage. As a result Yessongs to someone very familiar with the studio records sounds like a really technically skilled tribute band more so than the genuine article. The "Starship Trooper" jam (skip to the third record) is worth a dollar, though.

Communication Breaks, Track Star A San Francisco band that I went to see obsessively (at least 10 times) when I was in college, I was overjoyed to find Track Star's first LP waiting unassumingly in the "miscellaneous T" section at Backspin. Listening to Communication Breaks ten years on, it's easy to see why I went so crazy about these guys. They cross the Feelies with (really early) Tool! How great is that? The album shows additional dimension that their live shows didn't, with a number of shorter songs that try different rhythms and styles, and several that defy expectations by starting soft and then not getting incredibly loud. With two downtuned guitars and a clockwork marvel of a drummer (he never plays fills, ever) the band doesn't lose sight of their chief strength, which is songs like "Revenge Fantasy" that begin with delicate strumming and whispered vocals then explode into enraged, barely coherent volume abuse. Important detail that might be missed if you never saw them live: They have two lead singers who swap songs. They sound a lot alike in terms of their singing styles but turn out to have distinctive songwriting approaches. Communication Breaks is worth listening to enough to pick apart the differences.

Heaven Only Knows, Teddy Pendergrass I've been carting this album around for years without ever having listened to it -- one of my mom's students bought it for me at a garage sale. As an eighth grader during the 90's, I suppose he figured that as a record collector I would be happy to receive vinyl of any kind. Well, belatedly, I am, as Pendergrass passed away last week and I was able to celebrate his memory without getting out of bed. I've been listening to Stevie Wonder's Innervisions a lot lately and it seemed a tad incongruous how the standout tracks of this 1983 Pendergrass record ("Heaven Only Knows" and the splendidly titled "You and Me for Right Now") are soaked in the mid-70's Wonder style, all warm analog synths and nuanced live rhythm section performances. It illustrates how much music changed (for the worse) between 1973 and 1983 that the presence of these elements on Heaven Only Knows immediately betrays the album's mongrel origins. Pendergrass was in a life-threatening auto accident in 1982; this is the second of two odds-and-sods collections Philadelphia International Records squeezed out while he was recuperating to fulfill demand. Frankly an album of rejected 70's Pendergrass is preferable to first-choice 80's stuff, as that was the time when the music industry curiously decided to begin delegating the creation of "soul" music to computers. What's more, if you're so inclined you can go through track by track and try and guess in exactly which year it was recorded on the basis of the synth tones.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Angus Beef

Southern Grilled
Steve Syx & Syxgun

Although not precisely in my wheelhouse stylewise, I spent a lot of time listening to Southern Grilled. I really wanted to have precise things to say about what I find that's good about it, and the weaknesses I hear too. As a package it's well put-together and shows thought everywhere. The production is simple but crisp and never stingy; there are many guitar overdubs and each time every part is unique, composed, and necessary. The running order and the bits of studio chatter all combine to make it feel more album-like than is the standard for self-released CD's.

As for the music itself, there's a lot to like. Steve Syx & Syxgun are operating in an obvious blues-inspired territory that's well-represented in the region. But their songwriting is much sharper and more original than the rank and file. The lyrics are independent-minded and tackle different topics. The tunes are anchored in blues and southern rock, but the band has the good sense to let the guitar riffs direct the arrangements rather than following a standard 12-bar groove. Troy Frizzell's bass takes an involved supporting role and boosts Syx's riffs and songs with parts that supplement and diversify. These can be melodic and busy ("Best for Me"), upright-style walking ("Before I Go"), or driving and subliminal ("Like Tides"). In a power-trio lineup, it's common to hear the bass take a prominent role, but seldom do players mix up their tone and style so much. The drums, which seem to react to the guitars more than beating out their own path, would be more exciting if they were as assertive as the bass.

Although the record peters out at its close with a few numbers that show Syxgun low on ammunition -- the sluggish chords and melody of the outlaw ballad "Lightning in Vein" would draw my ridicule were it submitted for my demo column -- a solid first half presents the band's chief strengths well while shifting in styles sufficiently. "Best for Me" is a solid musical statement of purpose with a surprisingly moving theme. "Blue Beamer Blues," with words written by Ted Ollier, gives Syx the opportunity to sing as a very different sort of character. Syx sounds sly and road-tested on all his songs but chooses to inhabit this white-collar narrator with a thicker accent and more stylized delivery rhythm. The interesting, counterintuitive choice makes for Southern Grilled's best song. "What Happened" is an unexpected stab at English folk. The sudden acoustic side shows good instincts for surprise, but as the song sounds rather suspiciously like "Blackbird," hard to give full credit.

With too few exceptions (the rip-snorting outro to "Like Tides" comes to mind), the guitar solos on Southern Grilled aren't as rousing as they could be. His precise riffing, and the very tighly constructed solos on most of the songs, indicate that Syx is a guitarist with no lack for chops. It's not a bad idea that they're kept very short and contained on an album wisely limited to three- and four-minute songs, but a lot of the solos are rather predictable and circumspect. The rhythm section is doing enough to carry the shape, it'd be nice to hear the guitar venture outwards a bit more and incorporate some of the slightly bent timing that makes Syx's written riffing so effective.

Not an end-to-end winner, then, but a band name worth remembering.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Unknown Pleasures

Real Book Fake Book
Plush, 1/18

Truly polished, original bands with superior talent don't play free Monday night shows in most other cities. Loving Austin's oversupplied, cutthroat music market takes something of a leap in perspective -- it's certainly an environment where each band has to work for every listener it wins. New arrivals who feel particularly starved for immediate attention are doing themselves a disservice twice over by not drinking deep of the "competition." They can first benefit from gaining better intelligence about the clubs worth playing and how bands that are successful market and merchandise themselves. And perhaps more importantly, every musician needs to be inspired and challenged by other players constantly.

So there were several cool community elements to this show at Plush on Monday. It was cool to see Jason from Squidbucket out supporting a band that despite a very different sound has a similar appeal to anyone fascinated by musicians of genius technical ability. Giant Steps Productions, who book Mondays at Plush and other nights all over, are doing a fine job of creating a brand name that doubles as a seal of quality. I've been to several of their shows now and each time I've seen a lineup of bands constructed with foresight and marketing savvy. The bands seem genuinely excited to be playing together, as opposed to struggling to remember each others' names. And decent crowds seem to come early and stay late for these shows. With many of the clubs in the neighborhood putting less than full effort into their scheduling, it's good to be aware as a musician and as a music fan which bookers go the extra mile.

But then how about the band? I wish I could think of more ornate things to say about Real Book Fake Book since they had me utterly hooked even from across the street as we approached the club. But their music is so original and so commendably out of time (by which I mean that more so than nearly any other Austin original group, they sound like they could be from any place or any time after the mid-70's) that it's hard to find useful comparisons. Here is a band that presents absolutely nothing more than the essentials to get their point across, because any frills would simply obscure their main idea. Most bands need some external trappings to get audiences onto their wavelength. Sometimes it's just as important for the self-conception of the band to write lyrics, or wear costumes, or to employ smoke machines that make them feel more original and more powerful than they really are as it is to play well.

Real Book Fake Book are in the minority of bands in Austin and bands everywhere because they simply don't need any packaging of any kind. They're cool because they can play, beautifully, as a duo sounding more melodically and harmonically full than many acts with three times the personnel. Eric Reyes' keyboard playing is so fluent and assured that you don't have to be any kind of prog-rocker to simply bask in the sheer skill of the man. Many good Austin musicians of all kinds of genres incorporate elements of jazz, classical, and world into their rock and roll, but Reyes separates himself with the level of clarity of his playing. It's not easy to allude to Joe Zawinul, Bach, Kraftwerk, and Sergio Mendes all in a single original piece, but Reyes does so, one-handed, usually while playing a totally rhythmically independent bassline equally perfectly with the other hand. Yet the music isn't schizophrenic or introverted or inscrutable, it's something you can (and absolutely should) dance to frenetically.

You don't have to be a scholar to recognize all of the different threads with which Eric and drummer brother Mike are playing. One of the most fun things about the band is the way they make their inspirations plain. They play so well that they're clearly never copying. They hear different music and interpret it confidently. Their songs take in elements like spy movie soundtracks, surf rock, and a very particular vintage of 70's synthesizer instrumentals, but with a constant element of rapid development and efficiency (the drumming plays a major role here) that's part purist hardcore and part postmodern. Their name is misleading, in that they don't play jazz standards of the kind usually featured in Real Book products. But it does have a certain resonance with their style. Here are musicians of vast talent sharpening their approach by using only the bare essentials to make each song memorable and distinctive. Their songs require a little bit too much pure skill to ever make the rounds as standards -- no pickup band could ever do these themes justice. But what they do have going for them is a near-universal appeal. If you like to see good music played in varying but accessible styles by people who are exceptional at it, this is a band to see.

Friday, January 15, 2010


A Giant Dog
Emo's, 1/10

My bandmate and life-mate Anna C. is usually a silent partner in this undertaking, but as she always pays for gas, I figure she deserves a word in edgewise from time to time. A Giant Dog were a band we both really loved during Free Week but I think for different reasons. Rather than listing our differences at length I'll let Anna speak for herself:
I’ve been Westy’s sidekick throughout Free Week. Every other night or so, we’ve walked through the January-cold Red River district see these bands with extremely weird names play at the dives. Squidbucket impressed me, Amplified Heat made me want to dance, The Midgetmen made me fall asleep in my beer cup. Since I get off work at 9 and usually have to get to bed by 1:30 for work in the morning, I expect good, energizing music when I go out. A night spent on my feet listening to frat boys rip off the Pixies just makes me feel tired.
I was recovering from this live-music overload when Westy suggested I accompany him to A Giant Dog on Sunday night. I looked them up on Myspace. “They’ve got a chick singer!” The 30-second samples revealed a not-entirely unique post-punk band, with brassy front-lady vocals uncommon to the genre. A photo of the singer in a hot purple bra sealed the deal. “I’ll go!”
A Giant Dog played the outdoor stage at Emo’s. I immediately recognized the band’s local following: enthusiastic, beery young scenesters congregated before the stage and around the heat lamps. They hollered their approval as three young men shouldered their instruments, a fourth took his place at the drum stool, and the young woman left off carousing with audience members to take the mic. Waving a tall can of Pabst at us, she shimmied in a full-length black leotard and shook her red hair. She grinned and hollered, “I love being in my early to mid-twenties!” Man, those boys were kind of cute, but she was hot.
The band laid down their riffs. At first I had A Giant Dog’s style pegged as standard pop-punk/post-punk, the kind of stuff one hears on modern rock radio (and MTV, before they gave up music and started specializing in reality shows.) The two guitarists played blocky riffs in unison a lot of the time, and did not seem particularly skilled. The drummer, although he demonstrated a variety of rhythmic patterns capable of rallying a crowd, was not exceptional. However, the crowd at Emo’s loved them. Girls and guys in the front row shook gleefully, and even typically stoic types tapped their Converses in time.
Westy and I agree that variety within the bounds of pop-punk style is part of the band’s success as a live act. One song had a rollicking gospel beat (shades of early Gossip) and a “Hallelujah!” refrain. Others used a bar or two of syncopation in the beat. The last song was a slow steamy blues number, which at first I thought was a cover of “Venus in Furs” by the Velvet Underground. The singer brought girls up from the audience to gyrate onstage. A few boys joined them, and by the end of the show the stage reseambled a wild dance party.
A Giant Dog demonstrate that bands need not be extremely talented at their instruments to rock out and rally an audience. All one really needs is musical competence to play songs that don’t all sound exactly alike, and enough charisma to win the audience’s attention (and possibly libido.)
I couldn't have said it better myself, at least not with as few words. I will say that I think Anna underestimates the skill of the band's bassist, who is quite active and clever, and when their songs have two distinct guitar parts (too few of them do) they're trickier than they may at first appear. A Giant Dog play at Beerland tonight with The Gospel Truth, Bad Lovers, and Shapes Have Fangs.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Demo Sweat #10

Short roster this time out, but a lot of good stuff. You're beautiful, Austin.

Everyday Destruction are one of the good punk bands, gifted with vocal charisma and smart songs about less than obvious subjects. "Passafisticuffs" discusses the decision to be a lover and not a fighter with balance and consideration, sort of a Fat Wreck Chords take on the Flaming Lips' "Fight Test." I like their catchy gang choruses and the way they employ all of the instruments including bass and lead guitar for separate functions rather than banging away in unison. They owe an obvious debt to Rancid and by extension the Clash but you could do worse as influences go. Something Called Nothing don't have as polished a setlist yet but their somewhat slower, shinier sound uses the rhythm section well and has a nice basis in rhythmic riffs rather than mere chord changes. The drums and bass on their recordings don't sound exactly right either in tone or in timing, which saps their energy somewhat. They could use some more distinctive lyrics, and an increase in dynamic changes, as they continue growing as a band.

Tonya Tyner and I don't have a lot of interests in common, it seems from listening to her songs and reading about her influences, but she's a gifted musical communicator. It makes her talent all the more impressive given that she's easy to relate to even for a listener with a very different perspective. When she writes about the difficulties of being a single woman in her 30's on "I Keep Trying" her appealingly honest vocals, which are full of strength for one moment then weak as a whisper the next, really make it easy to feel what she's feeling. "Do you always drink so heavily?" she asks despairingly. Her recordings are low-key and simple, but extremely original -- the guitar playing and the lyrics both have an obvious spark. Her songs make points and they get to them quickly. Her more raucous numbers (like "Uh Huh") could use the backing of a band but I hope she finds a producer with whom to work who will treat her songs with the respect they deserve. A very light touch only is needed given the quality of Tyner's material even in demo form. The Austin/L.A. retro-blues singer Debra Watson deserves praise for her strong vocal style, which is both stylistically appropriate and natural, unforced and idiosyncratic. Unfortunately her material is rather straitjacketed by a rigid adherence to genre convention, including clunky, formulaic lyrics. The band performances on her page sound squared-off and generic, too much Hollywood and not nearly enough Texas.

Patrick Boothe has a much more currently stylish approach, but despite the state-of-the-art electronic backgrounds his piano-based songwriting has a bit of old-fashioned sophistication to it that's most welcome. The close harmonies that dominate his tunes are lovely and well-suited to the dark, slightly schizophrenic narratives predominant in the lyrics. The songs have good changes and hooks but could stand to be trimmed down somewhat. I appreciate how Boothe has both dance and ballad sides and maintains his presence as an artist in each. "I Wish You'd Just Hate Me Like Everybody" adds rock guitar to the mix in an unforced way. Its title, and the rampant self-involvement of Boothe's lyrics in general, suggests his need for at least a little ironic distance from his music. A little wit and self-deprecation go a long way. Or at least one song about someone besides yourself.

I'm not quite sure what it is Biff Productions are trying to sell, but they sent me a link to two bands... the White Undertakers are sloppy (the drums and bass are all over the place) and from the foggy production it's difficult to even suss out what kind of music they're trying to make. Is it country? That might be a pedal steel, but it also might be really crummy-sounding keyboard. Maybe it's Top 40. I don't know. Call North have a tighter band sound with clearer division between lead and backing vocals, but there doesn't seem to be any connection between the singers, the band, and the songs. These just sound like demos, and not particularly well-made ones. None of the songs are in the least memorable.

Finally, Ken Metcalf is a local steel player whose online recordings give a good overview of the different roles the instrument can play. On his collaborations with bands and songwriters Metcalf uses the pedal steel's traditional-sounding weepy sliding chords as color and mood enhancement. On the instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag," you can hear him stepping out and showing his range, playing single-line figures in addition to chords and varying from phrases with almost no vibrato to tons of it. The man knows his business.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Surface of Things

Bright Light Social Hour, Frontier Brothers
Parish Room, 1/9

For the most part I'm a person who is attracted to the new and the different, someone who seeks out the company and the tutelage of those who are unlike myself. But I have limits. The Parish Room is simply not my scene. It's the kind of place where people make sure their pants are clean before heading out to see bands. It's the kind of club frequented by folks who get their hair cut more often than once every six months. Where patrons assure that their drink selections match their outfits. It's the kind of place that touring bands whose publicity people promise me review tickets then recant after I've already written and published a preview appear. In short, don't be at all surprised if you hear nothing about the place from these parts from now until Free Week 2011.

At least the bands selected for Saturday night's Free Week event aesthetically matched the venue's emphasis on style over all else. The Frontier Brothers dress like Adam and the Ants and sound like the album tracks from Bowie's Let's Dance. Bright Light Social Hour have lovingly formed a marketable image around first impressions while investing little to no effort in minor details. Both bands were more crafted towards being briefly glanced at while walking to and from the bar than being carefully listened to from first song to last.

The Frontier Brothers are closer to evolving into a real band. Their combination of polished synth-rock and drawling Texas vocals is distinctive if not totally original and their songs tend towards having too many weird rhythmic twists and changes -- which is far, far better than none at all. They remind me of the Killers in the sense that they're slightly too far removed from the key-driven 80's music they love to realize which elements of it are worthwhile (1984 Van Halen, superstar Springsteen, Duran Duran) and which aren't (Van Hagar, Foreigner, all UK synth/haircut bands besides Duran Duran but especially Echo and the Bunnymen). I admire their keyboard player's musicality, incorporating chords and inversions that are more sophisticated than you normally hear from the vast majority of current bands that use keys. But his parts frequently don't mesh with the far more direct approaches of the bassist, drummer, and guitarist/singer, and there's a vast disconnect between their not-at-all stupid music and their hugely stupid lyrics ("I'm in love with a robot/I don't care if you're not"). If they stay together and find a way to elevate the intelligence level of their lyrics while blending the keyboards in more naturally (tip: try not to sound like "Love Walks In" at all costs) they'll be worth a second look. They have a lot of confidence and move well on stage.

Bright Light Social Hour have a similarly extroverted approach, but their stuff is 70's to the bone -- basically southern rock crossbred with disco. If their songwriting was of higher quality they'd pull it off, but what you have here is essentially warmed-over Zeppelin riffing mixed with lyrics of the "oh baby I need your love/need your love oh baby" variety. They're musically skilled, but everything about their performance seems calculated to distract from the root qualities of the songs that aren't there. They have three singers -- well, great, but not one of them has anything to say. They have very long intros and outros -- nifty, and I like the varied guitar styles, but what's the point of stretching everything out when the tunes are hollow at the center? They'd completely lost me after three songs, after which I tuned them out and started reflecting on the age-old question as to whether Led Zeppelin's unabashed thievery of Willie Dixon songs during their developmental years somehow justifies the enthusiasm with which musicians since have ripped off Jimmy Page. (How you doing, Jack White? Got any new ideas for your next side project? No? Didn't think so.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Terrors of the Deep

Beauty Bar, 1/8

Aging gracefully is all about accepting the things you cannot change and finding ways of working constructively within the constraints of reality. In a perfect world, the inspired Squidbucket would be one of the most admired bands in the city. It's difficult, but I accept that intense, roiling, precisely composed all-instrumental prog-metal music is going to be an uphill sell for most listeners. (When and if I get bigwesternflavor T-shirts printed up, one of them is going to have a picture of me scowling and beneath it the caption "LISTEN TO MORE RUSH.")

So rather than praising them for the specific things they do that set them apart in their chosen field, let me speak to Squidbucket with regards to the traits they have that musicians of any style from Christian to country would do well to imitate. It's harder to follow their ideas at times because they're such unconventional thinkers, but the main idea is very simple. You don't have to be an exquisitely talented player (although all three of the guys in Squidbucket are unreal) to absorb the lesson and apply it. Are you ready? Here it is: there is more than one groove.

In a week when I tried hard to measure the qualities of more than 20 different bands, the biggest thing that separated the ones that left me wanting more from the ones that bored me after three songs was the confidence to explore different rhythms and different feels. In a time when most musical judgments are arrived upon in 30 seconds or less and few listeners feel compelled to sample more than two or three tracks from any given band, I can appreciate why so many young groups are fearful of change. More emphasis is placed now on self-marketing than ever before, and it's easier to market what's readily identifiable. In order to make music a career, however, one has to develop confidence in their ability to shed influences, grow and change, surprise even the listeners who have all their records and sing along to every song. Your "sound" shouldn't rigidly be defined for all time by the first five songs you work up. Bands need faith in that the sound of their playing, their combination of instruments and voices, is what makes them distinctive.

There isn't necessarily any connection between musical experience and the ability to create more than one groove. There are a lot of drab acts in Austin, a town with no shortage of technically explosive players, who play the same boogie for hours upon end. Their chops are undeniable, but their performances are seldom interesting for any longer than five minutes. Squidbucket could probably jam on three chords for ten minutes at a time and it might even win them more fans than they have now, as gifted a bassist, drummer, and guitarist as they are. But that wouldn't be particularly interesting or challenging for the band, and the standards they set for their music are designed to push the musicians' boundaries.

But pushing boundaries can mean pulling back at times. Jason Erwin, Kurt Rightler, and Eric Brown are all experts at their respective instruments. If their songs were in a Guitar Hero game (and they should be), all of the charts would be at the far deep end of the difficulty pool, right there with Dragonforce and King Crimson. But each and every one of them is willing to lay back at points. Erwin and Rightler finger-tap and Brown plays polyrhythms with such might that at times they can sound like six people playing instead of three. But the guitar also plays easy chunky chords sometimes. The bass can be foundational. The drums get straightforward for a second, then suddenly Brown is playing twos against threes with every limb and battering the hi-hat with such speed that his arms become a blur.

But they're not the same thing all the time. Erwin can play electric like a classical guitar, shaping delicate and contained lines that deepen and subvert the feel of the heavier crunching parts when they inevitably arrive. Brown can play a jazz waltz and a tom-driven hydra-headed compound beat within the same song and have both sound like precisely the right choice at the time.

Because I listen very intently, count along constantly, and spend a lot of time practicing guitar, bass, and drums myself, I can get hung up on technical ability at times. Being a master of your chosen instrument (something I admit with no small regret I'll never be) definitely makes it easier to stand out as an original, since you've got a bigger bag of tricks and more control over putting your own signature on different old ideas. But what's most important isn't merely being technically skilled, it's using what skill you have to make every song special and different, personal and meaningful. Combine instrumental precision with an equal commitment to exploring new ideas and defying expectations, then you're really getting somewhere.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Transparent is OK

Yellow Fever, Haunting Oboe Music, The Eastern Sea
Emo's, 1/7

I've always viewed journalism as the history of the very recent past. When I consider a piece of music, I try and figure out why it sounds the way it does in the context of the music that has influenced it, the changes in the lives of the musicians since last they recorded, and events in the larger world that might have shaped their outlook. I believe this to be more useful than the personal-diary style of rock "criticism" that has proliferated in the modern era. Any individual has the right to react how they do to a certain band or song, but it doesn't necessarily have any connection to the realities that shaped the performance. For example, Joy Division are so musically singular that every time I listen to them I get downright gleeful. "Atmosphere" makes me positively giddy, and I actually consider Closer a pick-me-up record. But I certainly wouldn't begin a written piece surveying the band's work by saying "This band makes me so happy!" It would be misleading, to say the least. It's true, but it's not relevant to a third party who wants to know about the band, not the person writing about them.

My compulsion towards research biases me against bands who put jokey bios, or no information at all, on their websites and MySpace pages. And it follows that I have a great appreciation for groups that go out of their way to do interesting things, who challenge themselves in creative ways and invite deeper analysis by forcing themselves to grow and change. Haunting Oboe Music have not only created some great music by themselves, they've inspired great works of criticism by setting a higher standard for themselves and daring all those responding to equal their ambition and hard work. They were one of the first bands in the area I became aware of when I began making plans to move to Austin last summer, one of the first I went out to see, one of the first I went to go see a second time. I'll miss them, now that they're retiring their current name and lineup.

As for their performance Thursday, it was difficult not to view it without speculating as to the reasons for their demise. Most obviously, second drummer Anthony Johnson isn't in the lineup any longer. His absence was felt. As a five-piece HOM sound much more like a conventional post-Radiohead rock band. Ian Hunt, usually a guitar player, pitched in a bit on drums, but the frantic, live-IDM quality of the band with both Johnson and Nick Whitfield wasn't there. George Cain really dominated the lead vocals at this show, which wasn't the case when last I saw them. They seemed much more of an ensemble as a sextet. It's sad to see a good band weakened, on its last legs, but in a sense you could see how their sheer excess of options doomed them. The band's EP-a-month project succeeded as an end of itself, but they never quite found their way back to being a recognizable stage entity. There's so many great ideas on that yellow-sleeved "hits" CD that I never saw them even attempt live. And I have no idea how they would ever manage to take the next step and bring everything back together into a coherent album. By reforming under a new name with a new purpose, perhaps Cain and his cohorts will be able to take what worked best about Haunting Oboe Music and combine it with what the band always fatally lacked -- a sense of direction.

A band with something of the opposite problem, The Eastern Sea know what their end goal is -- a vehicle for the very, very fine songs of Matthew Philip Hines. Hines' instincts trend towards the minimalist and almost fragile, so as an electrified rock band the group is struggling still to figure out what they ought to sound like. Their quiet numbers sound much more convincing than their loud ones thus far, and they should feel comfortable enough not to use every instrument on every tune -- sometimes a song should just be guitar and vocals, and it's OK for the keyboard player and bassist to sway or clap. It's hard grafting a band onto what are basically folk songs and showing both restraint (if these guys come across as bombastic, they're doing something wrong) and sophistication. The added instrumentation has to bring new harmonies and melodies into the mix, but carefully as to not pull the compositions loose from their original moorings. It's promising that The Eastern Sea have some real energy on stage, especially their kinetic bass player Tomas Olano. Their music could come across as stuffy with the wrong presentation. They have kinks still to work out in the arrangements but they have the absolute right idea about how to present themselves, enthusiastic and unpretentious.

Yellow Fever are yet another one of those bands who add further weight to the argument that you should never, ever, make your musical judgements based on YouTube clips. I like their matching sweaters and their rickety, almost disintegrating equipment. I hate that they seem barely able to operate that equipment (it shouldn't take half an hour for a two-piece band to load in and prepare to play) and that they have no songs. Their singer has an intolerable habit of gutturally reinforcing their non-rhythms with toneless "eh eh eh eh eh" interjections. Their drummer tries his best to mix percussion elements with snare and kick to make their single-change songs more interesting, but there's not all that much you can do with that hateful two-chord staccato eighth note song three-quarters of the bands in Austin seem to claim as an original. Carrie Brownstein, you disappoint me.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Seven Nights to Roll

La Snacks, Midgetmen, Frantic Clam, Opposite Day
Red 7, 1/6

I've been humming Nick Lowe's 1985 rockabilly cover "7 Nights to Rock" a lot as my official Austin Free Week theme song. The Rose of England isn't Lowe's best work by a long shot (that's the one where he tragically brought in Huey Lewis to desecrate "I Knew the Bride") but I thought even more of the Basher and his ultimately successful struggle to remain relevant in middle age watching several young bands at Red 7 Wednesday night.

The particular challenge facing the artist in this particular niche -- in Lowe's time it was called "pub rock" -- is how to mature gracefully while continuing to legitimately produce music that sounds off-the-cuff, scruffy, not overly professional. Punk musicians faced the same difficulty, but were eventually able to develop a narrow, orthodox definition of their sound that prevented confusion (and also ensured that the only interesting punk music made since the very early 80's was generally disapproved of by its theoretical core audience). What was "pub rock" in 70's England was lumped in with the more nebulous "new wave" in the 1980's U.S. and retroactively became "indie rock," although that term didn't denote a particular sound rather than a business status until the mid-90's or so.

I rather prefer the anachronistic "pub rock" because it actually relates to what the music sounds like, rather than how it is sold. Lowe and Elvis Costello (initially) and Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury made excellent music to lift glasses to, kept simple enough that the boys in the band could join in the revels without being rendered incapable of playing their instruments. It was irreverent music, but associated informally with a long tradition that required populist touches. The melodies should be strong. The lyrics should be audible and tell stories to which the listener can relate. The songs should be simple, partially reconstructed at times from older folk ("folk" in this context meaning anything from Celtic string bands to the Rolling Stones) but not so obviously thieved that a rowdy and knowledgeable crowd will call you out for it. The tunes should mostly be fast, but there should be a slow one or two in the mix so that the couples in the audience can lurch unsteadily in each other's embrace towards the end of the set. In brief music that sounds simple but requires a craftsman's hand and much sweating of details to fully succeed.

For pub rockers now and then, the trick is to hide the seams. You want songs that are clever and original, but you don't want to seem like prog rockers or professionals while playing them. La Snacks, the best of the bands Wednesday night, have this approach perfected. Their songs are detailed and smartly constructed, but they don't play them elegantly. It's as if they were a nice piece of furniture carefully and professionally assembled, but then with just a few hinges and screws deliberately removed in strategic places to assure that the desk wobbles all over the place (but never collapses completely). This is hard to do. A lesser band would simply play it straight to the ranting of frontman Robert Segovia, but the guitar-bass-drums trio in La Snacks allows Segovia's particular gravity and his tendency to stretch out and emphasize lines in weird, not strictly musical places to pull their playing apart slightly. The effect of this is hard to describe. It's more cumulative than restricted to any single "wow" moment, but by the end of the set, I found my natural tendency to reduce and criticize utterly overwhelmed. I felt more like finding people and persuading them to listen to the band. Like a fan, and I hardly ever feel that way about new bands these days.

It's true that they have a couple of songs that don't change very much, but the chemistry between Segovia and the band is such that even their repetitive pieces have peaks and valleys, tension and release. They remind me of so many different bands that I love -- The Fall, Art Brut, Fugazi, Guided by Voices, even (oddly, but delightfully) Rage Against the Machine -- but they're defined by their songs, not their sound, so they're seldom imitating. They even played a slow one, with their drummer moving to keys and a clunky rhythm loop holding the beat down. It was one of my favorite songs of their whole set.

What's more, they have star power! I've largely given up on trying to take local bands to task for having no stage presence, because outside of the genres where it's still cool to look like you care about your own music (hip-hop and metal mostly) nobody has any. Nothing against their great records, but it's a sign of the times when Spoon are the dominant "indie rock" force in Austin -- every Spoon show I've attended has had all the energy on stage of a regional water reclamation committee meeting. La Snacks have a singer who has a stage persona and acts it out in force, wittily haranguing the crowd and singing his lyrics audibly -- almost as if he wanted people to listen to them! Segovia's songs have storylines, setups, and payoffs, and they also are dense with rock-nerd references if you care to go digging for them. (Which I do -- the tune that begins "I had a dream/crazy dream" is cribbing from Led Zep's "The Song Remains the Same.") La Snacks bring off these little nods with attitude and their own spin -- it's not plagiarism, it's commentary. It's yet another dimension than makes them a band I want to hear more and more of, rather than yet another that exhausts their range after two and half songs.

The other two acts on the bill who could be compared to La Snacks (excluding Opposite Day, who can't really be compared to anybody and we'll get to later) suffered by the contrast. Frantic Clam don't write lazy songs, but they have no vocal charisma whatsoever and their decision to perform two slavish note-for-note covers of well-known songs (New Order's "Ceremony" and the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer") was a fiasco. First of all, if you're going to play covers, play something that most of the people in the audience haven't probably learned to play themselves at some point or another. Second of all, don't copy every element of the original down to the drum patterns and the guitar tone. It's lame. After the first, I found myself listening for their influences in their originals with a sharper ear because the unimaginative, mechanical nature of their "Ceremony" made me question their musicianship. I enjoyed their first tune, and I liked some of their recordings, but after that lousy cover, all I could hear was how this song had a Pixies bassline and that song had Pavement-style guitar sound. Just when I was beginning to recover from the first boring cover, here comes their "Psycho Killer," so bloodlessly replicated from the original recording that by closing my eyes I could see the guitar note chart from Rock Band 2 scrolling in my head.

The Midgetmen don't face the same problem when it comes to originality. They have three singers and they're each quite distinct. The balance in their show between the three keeps things fresh to a certain degree. But what they do have is a huge imbalance in talent level, one that's weird to see in Austin where water usually finds its level -- OK players group with OK ones, shredders gravitate towards other shredders, musicians who suck keep each other warm and safe in shared denial. But The Midgetmen have one guitarist who's excellent, another guitarist who's not bad, and their bass player and the drummer are terrible, to the degree that they render every moment of the band's playing unpleasant to listen to. Drummers: If people in the audience begin to wince every time you start to play, you're playing too loud. If you feel like you need more attention, trying playing better instead of louder. Bass players: It's not your job to give your own independent interpretation of where you think a secondary emphasis in the song's rhythm might possibly be, if you were skilled enough to even play the part you think you're playing. Find the beat and stay on it.

In this company, Opposite Day stood out like colonists from an alien musical dimension. It was a peculiar bill for the trio, but I imagine Opposite Day have a lot of difficulty finding bands with whom they share musical territory. They're just different. Normally you see a lineup of bands and they're all using basically the same rhythms and the same chords, but Opposite Day simply aren't -- hence the name I suppose. They reflexively use time signature changes, long phrase lengths, jazz polyrhythms, unique chord voicings and bass scales. All of these are almost entirely absent from the rock music of the last 30 years. What's even more singular about them is that their core is in pop (as opposed to jazz or metal or prog) and their compositions actually have dazzling melodies and harmonies if you can train your brain to listen for them. They're fantastic, but I regretfully concede that you'd almost have to be a musician to follow or appreciate them in any meaningful way. I really admire the way they make their occasional heavy moments flow naturally from the less aggressive sections. It never seems done for effect, only as a natural progression in their impeccable group logic. I would love to hear them collaborate with a really gonzo lyricist, someone whose instincts for storytelling and wild ambitions with the written word matched their musical reach. Because what Opposite Day really need to do is get weirder, clearly.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Obsolete Novelties

Obsolete Machines, String
Mohawk, 1/5

I left this latest Free Week show with an unusual feeling: I wished that I had gotten the chance to see the first band play the second band's equipment. Is this odd? Of course, I'm an irredeemable gearhead. "See that Alesis keyboard? I want one of those," I told my girlfriend. She said, "Alesis is the name of the girl with the flower in her hair?" "No, Alesis is the name of the keyboard. I didn't notice the girl." That's where my mind is these days.

But see if you follow me here. String were excellent musicians, playing songs that mixed rock and electronic influences in clever ways. I liked that their songs had strong structures, with even the longer instrumental sections seeming to have arc and control. I really dug the way their drummer was able to moderate his volume level very precisely, backing off just a little bit when the vocals were meant to have the spotlight and placing emphasis in well-chosen spots. The way the dance element of their sound incorporated itself was in guitar and keyboard figures that grew more complex each time through a repeating section. They also used rhythm in a gripping and original way -- their last song had a baroque piano line thoroughly disguised by a vigorous and funky interpretation of waltz time by the drummer.

Their only problem (other than somewhat bland vocals) was the curse of too much stuff. They had too many computers and gizmos and guitars cluttering the stage and it led to muddy sound and long, awkward pauses between songs. Not necessary -- the core of their sound is one guitar, one keyboard, and live drums. Is the shortage of bass players in Austin so severe that we must resort to computer simulations? I'm against it, and I think String would have come across even better if they were freed from having to chain themselves to the rigid nature of canned beats on some of their songs. The most gripping moment of their set came when they stripped down to one guitar, drum kit, and then a second guy pounding on a tom with mallets. They also need a name change, because if you Google "string Austin band" you're going to get literally hundreds of responses that have nothing to do with this trio.

After the claustrophobic setup of String, their two-keyboard, pared-down drums look was initially refreshing, but Obsolete Machines are further proof that you can't tell anything from canned online sound clips. They've got an aesthetic suited for 30-second bursts, as their leader is a great singer (like Chris Martin fronting MGMT) and their brooding but stylish sound is quite of the moment. Unfortunately 30 seconds is exactly as long as they remain interesting. They have a well-honed sound but no substance. Their songs have no changes at all, merely repeating two-chord arpeggios that are broken up only by the drummer stopping and starting. (Not changing feels, as he has seemingly only the one.) There are some pretty figures that their singer plays, but by repeating them without interruption for the length of each composition they're reduced to drones.

It's all right for one person to do most of the heavy lifting in a band, but you don't want the support musicians to actively be making things worse. Obsolete Machines, in a possibly ironic reference to their band name, have two people puttering along behind the leader who serve only to distract. The drummer has mastery of one beat and his overly reverberating kicks are all over the place. The second keyboard player presses buttons at random and spins knobs around to produce psychedelic whining. This can be a cool effect when properly applied, but due to lack of musical savvy it ended up just creating screeching noises that didn't relate musically to the figures that the only real player in the band was producing. Even though their songs have the most basic chord movement and rhythms imaginable, the drummer and second keyboardist could have been completely absent and it wouldn't have affected the sound even a little. It might have made things better, in fact, since without the band lineup the Obsolete Machines would have had less excuse to stretch out their ponderous two-chord tunes for six, seven minutes each.

I'm really enjoying the opportunities these free week shows offer to burst hype bubbles like helium balloons.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tiny Men in Tight Pants

Emo's, 1/2

The most memorable thing visually about Harlem on stage is the giant drum. It's old and looks like it should be strapped to the back of a heavyset guy marching behind a sousaphone during halftime at the Rose Bowl. It's got to be 50% larger than the standard kick drums that most modern drummers use and it serves to make the members of the band look teeny by comparison. That's not a bad signature in snapshot, as there's an element of adolescence to Harlem's music (not in a bad way) that the giant bass drum makes literal. They look like happy kids playing adult-sized instruments. Then again while the colossal drum is effective as a prop, I could never hear the kicks clearly while they were playing. When they record, at least, I hope they use a regular one.

The threesome have some fine songs. They have a nice grasp of the way the bass has to work in a power trio, pumping out lines that sketch the basic melody and playing ahead of, not behind, the guitar. Their main drummer does a remarkable job of playing distinct and even memorable patterns for each song even with a stripped-down kit of one cymbal, one tom, hi-hat, snare, and that monster kick. The guitar playing really has the least to do with how the songs sound, which is as it should be -- their usual guitarist often strums the open strings one-handed, just to make noise. But it sounds good, because the drummer and especially the bassist are really holding down the grooves.

Their enthusiasm is another big selling point. I'm not a big fan of unison vocals most of the time, but I like the way that in their excitement they all slightly differ from each other when two or all three of them are shouting at the same time. It'd be nice if they could figure out how to harmonize here and there, since the songs are not limited to power chords and single-note melodies.

They made a questionable decision with a few songs left in the set. The guitar player and drummer swapped places and instruments for a few numbers, and it really sapped their momentum. It's not that the second drummer was terrible. He could play and he had rehearsed parts for the songs. It's just that he clearly wasn't as good as the guy who preceded him, and the songs didn't change any when they swapped roles. There was nothing the former drummer, now guitarist, was doing on guitar that the first player couldn't have done. They even played similar-sounding guitars through similar-sounding amps, begging the question as to why they went to all the trouble of hauling in two different guitar setups. They were still singing nearly every line together in unison, so it's not as if the drummer needed to get out from behind the drums to sing lead vocals. The songs were in the same style as before (they really only have one style, slightly fractured power pop with enough occasional rhythm shifts and riff sections to demonstrate their musicianship).

I'm not against bands running around changing instruments if it allows them to show a new element of their sound that they couldn't otherwise. Tortoise have three drummers, all of whom play many other things. John McEntire is jazz-trained and nuanced, with a resume including Gastr Del Sol and The Sea and Cake; John Herndon has a background in first hardcore bands and then the (marvelous) jam-funk-indie 5ive Style. Their styles are so completely different that you can easily pick out one from the other even on their records. McEntire whips at the snare lightly like a jazzman; Herndon's hits have a loud thwack. (And then Dan Bitney is a modern-day Mickey Hart, a gifted utility player whose talent lies in the ability to hear a second sub-pattern away from the main thread and perform to it, on bass or marimba or djembe in addition to second drumkit. Tortoise are so great. But I digress.)

Getting back to Harlem, finally, they didn't have the justification of a huge difference in style between drummers. Having their regular guitarist step behind the kit to play songs that sounded exactly the same as the ones before only wrecked their equilibrium, since his playing lacked the creativity and wild fills of his predecessor. The bass playing also got weaker after the shift, because the part-time drummer wasn't as steady and as a result the whole band dynamic kind of tilted over for the worse. Seemed like kind of an indulgent move on the whole, something that undermines the enthusiastic and friendly nature of their songs. They were also pretty unprofessional when it came to between-songs banter, and you should see what they posted on their Twitter after the gig.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Cool Heat & The Ugly Truth

The Ugly Beats, Amplified Heat
Emo's, 1/1

Nice to see a healthy crowd for the first night of Free Week at the club where the tradition began. Parking downtown was more like a Tuesday night than a Friday, but there was a crowded house all bundled up for Amplified Heat. Their highly overdriven blues raunch suits their name. I liked the way that each player in the trio had the precise right instrument setup for their playing style. Their bassist plays way up by the neck, so he's got an SG-style bass with only a neck pickup. The guitar player loves his Hendrix and Cream, so he's feeding a Strat into a massive array of vintage heads and cabs. And the drummer keeps his two crash cymbals way up high with his ride and tom way down low, lest he accidentally smash the delicate cymbals to bits with his ridiculous, full-bore annihilation of his skins. Forceful drumming is the band's secret weapon, and I really appreciated how the guitarist and bassist left a lot of space for the variety of huge, chaotic fills. I think they could put some more thought into how to construct a setlist for maximum effect, as they seemed to build to multiple peaks then continue grooving anticlimactically. They should start with tighter, contained pieces that have less wild guitar and drums then unwind as the show goes on. They also have a weakness when it comes to vocals. with hoarse shouting not really matching the intensity of the instruments. Their pure chops and ease playing together can't be denied, however.

The Ugly Beats on the other hand were a massive letdown. It's hardly unique to this era that a band can build a following solely on the basis of clever packaging, maintaining a outer style that draws in listeners who aren't educated or thoughtful enough to realize they have no substance whatsoever. The Beats' carefully selected outfits, meticulously designed record covers, and precisely chosen vintage equipment suggest that they're a throwback act, preying on the enthusiasm many music fans have for anything 60's. With the presence of a 12-string electric guitar on stage, I thought I could look forward to some Byrds-style pop-rock, laden with well-arranged instrumental hooks and diverse, captivating harmonies. No, not at all. The Ugly Beats don't play 60's music. They barely play music at all. The two guitars, bass, and organ all pound monotonous unison staccato notes into oblivion, and three vocalists shout slogans in no sort of melodic or harmonic relation to each other. Here's every Ugly Beats song: "Dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna BABY, dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna dunna BABY." No verses or choruses, just one boring part then another boring part. It's not that they can't play, it's just that all of their energies are going towards looking cool and none towards finding distinctive and original roles for all the instruments. Have the right vintage dress and the correct hair gel, what difference does it make if your music is amateur-hour? At least a little, since the mass of the Amplified Heat crowd was either gone or outside by the time we'd had enough. Frauds I say.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Demo Sweat #9

Number nine... number nine... number nine....

Adler sound like one of those laptop folk bands at first listen, but closer examination reveals that the skipping, clicking beats and snaps that give their light acoustic guitars captivating weight are actual snaps and clicks. By pounding on suitcases and clapping their hands (and recording and mixing it cleverly) they give "Just in Time" a skittering, shuffling beat that suits the minimal guitar accompaniment and sweet, practiced male-female harmonies beautifully. The way the pair harmonize is quite lovely, particularly the way that they'll switch roles with ease on occasion -- Matt Adler will take the high part just for a note or two and Sarah Adler the low. When they use more traditional strumming guitars and less busy percussion ("Maybe Someday") they're less interesting but at least all of their songs are economical and well-arranged.

Hummut-Tabal, on the other end of the spectrum, are black metal with unholy force and no compromises. Their drummer and his double-kicks sometimes go a little too fast, losing coherence with the guitars and howling vocals, but there's something innately impressive about a band that has to slow down in order to be described as playing thrash. Their guitar playing and writing has a proper embrace of traditional metal chops, with the use of varying modes and precise interlocking scales. They also have little regard for sounding fashionable or purist, which makes them genuinely interesting to listen to in addition to merely marveling at their raw speed. "Nemesis Triumphant" has a keyboard part that wouldn't sound out of place on a Europe record in addition to its pummeling blastbeats. Their specialty is overlaying slower, moodier guitar figures over drums that continue to binge and plunder, but at times they groove and for a moment I swear I heard a disco beat. Their vocalist does a good job of maintaining the same evil screech over music that comes in a surprising variety of styles, tying their range of stuff together nicely. If you're one of those misguided people who just doesn't like metal there's nothing here that's going to convert you, but it's nice to know that we have bands doing the Baltic style justice right here in Central Texas.

Doug Zimmerman's very simple-sounding tunes are more than they appear. Zimmerman puts a ton of thought into every song, choosing each line for specific effect and structuring his verses around choruses that deliver effective payoffs. He's a better lyricist than a guitar player, but even though his chords and rhythms are simple, his attention to detail carries over to his guitar parts. Each song has its own distinct strumming pattern and a surprising change location or two. The devastating "Written in Stone" tells the true story of the loss of Zimmerman's wife and child in a car accident. From that description it seems like it could be difficult to even listen to, but the forceful, confident way Zimmerman sings the words shows how the experience of communicating his pain and loss through his music has made him stronger. It's counterintuitive, but to listen to the song is to share in Doug's healing process. His strength made me feel a more powerful connection to what I believe to be possible through music, and that's really what creating art is all about. He's a perceptive guy with a lot to say. "Strong and Silent Man" is a thoughtful reflection on traditional gender roles that suits Zimmerman's unadorned vocal style well.

I've been doing this for long enough now that I'm starting to recognize the names of some of the best sidemen in Austin, and for some of these names I know before I even listen to the music that I'm in for something good. Seeing that bassist Alex Sefchick, also of Rich Restaino's group, was involved with the Jim Halfpenny Band, I knew it was going to be all right. The highlight up on Halfpenny's page now is a Christmas song, believe it or not. If you can stomach one more having survived the season please check out "Christmas on Main Street," a sardonic and modern holiday tune with a cute sleighbell accompaniment. Halfpenny's signature trait is a conversational vocal style that seems half-improvised, only when the backing vocals chime in everything lines up perfectly. It's emblematic of his music as a whole, adult alternative that works very hard to sound casual and unforced. I can't say I care for the lite-jazz soprano sax overdub on "The Roadway," but I do really like the rhythms of the JHB's songs as a whole. The bass has a habit of occasionally doubling a lead guitar line for emphasis that sounds sweet. Halfpenny only has one kind of approach, which is a bit of a drag -- the song "Walkabout" would be a lot more interesting if it found a way to sound even remotely Australian musically, rather than just sounding like AAA (adult album alternative, like all his songs) with lyrics that mention digeridoos and the Outback.

Willy and the Surroundings are a crack bar band whose gifted lead guitarist benefits all the more from tight songs that keep the solos short and expressive. Their basic sound is 60's electrified rock/blues like Dylan's pre-motorcycle accident bands, but they do a fine job of moving around and trying out all of the possibilities within that space, from the almost-Stooges fuzz of "My Woman's Angry" and the keyboard-driven ballad "Forgive and Forget." Izzy Cox has a commanding, jazzy vocal style with fine pitch and attitude to spare. Her musical idiom, electrified rockabilly with a bit of New Orleans horn flavoring, suits her mad scatting and lyrical preoccupations with murder and death nicely. Once you've heard one of her songs, you've pretty much heard them all, but it's better to do one thing really well than a whole lot of styles badly. The Victoria Pennock Band deserve some kudos for trafficking in the sort of arena-ready, no-subtleties 80's overdriven guitar cheese that no one even remotely hip has acknowledged since 1991, but their songwriting is nonexistent and the eponymous lead singer is flat a whole lot of the time.

Another all-in-the-family duo like Adler, A Likely Few have some lovely vocals and lead guitar flourishes. "Road," their best song, represents a nicely-recorded demo with some well-employed touches like shaker and additional background harmonies from the sweet-voiced Tiana Purvis. Their songwriting needs a lot of tightening -- like a lot of these folk acts nowadays, A Likely Few should think hard about stretching out the same chord progressions for more than eight bars at a time. It gets dreary. I'd like to hear more of Aaron Sekula's support vocals as well. The Beat Dolls have a recognizable pop-punk/ska sound that resembles No Doubt before they became all compromised. Perhaps with the emphasis on close female harmonies the Dance Hall Crashers would be a better comparison. In any event, I like the band performances on their demo quite a bit. The bass is busy, melodic, and active, the lead guitar adds another dimension, and the vocals are well-written and well-performed. I'd like to hear sharper divisions from the rhythm section between the languid ska-feel parts and the louder sections, but this is a band with a good idea of what they want to sound like and enough original touches (the guitars get rowdier than either of their obvious inspirations) to keep them from coming across as copycats.

Wozzeck are a really promising jam band who understand what it takes to make improvisational music that isn't tedious, self-indulgent, or endlessly circular. The marvelous "Fractal," a 15-minute suite that seems half that long, exhibits all of the different tricks they have to keep their music fresh and challenging. It begins as an atmospheric Bitches Brew-style haze, but with the unexpected addition of charmingly wobbly vocals they begin to undermine listener expectations right from the beginning. Then they work their way through an intricately composed link into another section in a completely different style. When they next go into a jam, the rhythm section follows the lead guitar closely as it uses specific cues to change the feel and build towards the next change. They can lose the plot at times, as they do during the heavy jam that ends the song, but with multiple lead singers, the incorporation of close-written figures, and the orchestrated major shifts in feel, they have a number of ways to completely pull the rug out from under the listener. The vocal harmonies, when they appear, are a total mess, not very becoming of a band with this level of musicianship. "Terrariffia," which is more intricately composed and moves through a number of different feels with wildly varying vocals, shows they're actually less interesting when they keep their music (relatively) concise. The suspense involved in the long jams, where things could totally fall apart or snap entirely together at a moment's notice, is an important element of their music. I also really like that for the one unstructured live improvisation they've put on their MySpace, only an excerpt is included. That shows an awareness of the basic duality of jamming: Every minute is never going to be good. The idea is just to reach for an eight-count or two one passage where everything crystallizes, all of the separate instruments suddenly combine as if by telepathy, and an entirely new level of music is reached. It takes a massive amount of preparation to arrive at that sort of synthesis, but Wozzeck's early recordings suggest that they're unafraid of such an undertaking.

I was pleased to get an e-mail from Hallucinado in advance of this column. Not because their music is any good -- it isn't -- but because they're a "band" that has been in my thoughts often since I relocated to Texas. If you read the Austin Craigslist musicians' listings -- and I'm assuming most of this page's readership does -- then you've almost certainly seen one of their postings. Every three or four days for at least four months, these guys put up an ad looking for a bass player. The first time I listened to them I was still living in Boulder. Here it is, 2010 already, and they're still looking. Even though they got started in Austin before I even lived here, since the first time I read one of their ads I've joined two bands, quit one other one, auditioned for countless others, played multiple shows, gone on one weekend mini-tour (which made a profit), and recorded a demo. Hallucinado is... still looking for a bass player. Why does no one want to play with them? It's not a mystery. Guitarist/vocalist Mark St. Clair is a halfway decent singer and he might one day develop into a songwriter, as his songs don't lack for initially promising hooks and ideas. But (as they brag in every misguided ad) all of these tunes were recorded with no rehearsal and they sound like it. There's no structure, no points of emphasis, no possibility for tension nor release. The drummer just bangs around on one beat for a few bars, then switches at random. And they've got a zillion "songs," all of which sound exactly the same. Stop recording! Pick one idea and work on it! Practice it until it sounds good, and the drummer knows where the changes are and has developed parts that are distinct for each section. Stop dragging on the same chord progression for six minutes and be real musicians, you losers! If you want to drink beer and jam, that's your business, but don't go presenting yourself as a real band in a city that's got five starving, hardworking genuine musicians for every city block. At least.