Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Milk Thistle
Beauty Bar, 3/30

Milk Thistle has two pretty charismatic, loud singers. You can hear the words they're saying even when the band is going at full power. That puts them two up on many locals. They also have some plus songs. They're not conventionally structured but they're rehearsed and the members of the band are on the same page. At their best moments, both guitars and bass chip away with layered rhythms while the drummer steers confidently. Their sound is quite current, well-defined, and they've left themselves room to move around in it. They have double-time grooves and ballad feels to break from their midtempo comfort zone.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend you go see them... yet. I think I like their songs and I definitely like their singers, but picking out the original qualities of their music requires superhuman effort at this point. That's because the band doesn't really have the slightest idea how to set up their equipment to play outside of the confines of their practice space. Popping bass on their first song had me on the verge of walking out. Only close visual examination proved that their guitar players were in fact working distinct, separate parts, because as far as sound went it was an unpleasant buzzing wave of nasty indistinct midrange. Their drummer plays tom-heavy, and pretty well, but he got drowned out in the mess. For their bassist I have a useful (stolen) piece of advice: there's no money above the fifth fret. Treble-kicking bass is fine -- if it's not just driving into a three-way pileup with two mid-heavy guitars.

When you play with two rhythm guitarists, like Milk Thistle, you have to find a way to differentiate the sounds of the two. Similar guitars, similar settings, similar amps and you're going to step all over each other. If you strain, you can make out the excellent ideas these guys are developing, but you have to be really inclined to give them a chance.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The New Loud

Quiet Company
Eastside Yoga, 3/20

Named Austin's 4th best new band (in their fourth year of existence), Quiet Company clearly know what they're on about. They have a will to succeed... you can tell because it takes five minutes for their MySpace page to load completely. In terms of placing themselves right in the sweet spot as far as what people expect of current radio-friendly indie, they've filled out every form completely. Their singer has the voice of a 14-year-old, which helps make their thematically tiresome lyrics sound less processed. Their songs are well-crafted. I appreciate the way that they use harmony vocals extensively and in a varied fashion -- not the same sort of arrangement every time.

They're a fine live band, particularly doing a good job of upping the intensity of the instruments without totally obscuring the vocals. But I would never in a million years buy one of their records, because there is nothing even remotely original about their songwriting. If you're reading this, you've heard it all before. Quiet Company lacks any potential whatsoever to surprise. When their singer switches from piano to guitar, they still sound exactly the same. The lyrics are decently formed in small doses, but ultimately their songs are indistinguishable from each other, lacking big central hooks or any kind of telltale dynamics. They're aggressively pleasant -- which is not a good thing if you're ambitious.

For their show at Eastside Yoga, a benefit for Music for the City, they put their best foot forward by leading off with a song that showcased a guest horn section (trumpet and trombone) splendidly. I got excited. Unfortunately, for the rest of the songs the horn players mostly bobbed up and down, instruments silent, while the two guitar-bass-drums band worked their single groove into a nice wide rut. Then they finished things off (for me, anyway, I leave when bands play terrible covers) with a dreadfully within-the-lines reading of a hugely overexposed song ("Monkey Gone to Heaven"). Couldn't they have at least worked out a horn part for the knee-jerk Pixies cover? Would that have been so hard?

These guys are talented musicians and melody composers. But their band as presently composed is way too much of a okay thing. Where are the slow songs? Where are the fast songs? Where are the lyrics about something besides being self-interested, overindulged white romantics? If they used the horn players full-time, at least you could describe them as "Death Cab for Cutie with horns" (as I have). But they don't use the horn players full-time. So what's left to make them distinctive, their outfits?

Not that it's strictly relevant here, but I always wonder how many Death Cab for Cutie fans are aware of the Bonzo Dog Band. Do they know who Neil Innes is? Are they fascinated by the weird connection to Monty Python? Or is that just me? Probably just me. When does a dream begin?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Night and the Sea

The Night, The Eastern Sea
Annie's West, 3/19

Two Austin bands at different stages of their development, I enjoyed myself immensely watching both The Night and The Eastern Sea back on Friday night. The Night, as discussed some Demo Sweats previously, have a heavy Joy Division jones. When I first listened to their recordings, I didn't think they were entirely without merit. They've picked a difficult style to play in effectively, and although not original their early songs were intelligently written. They had chorus hooks and lyrics that related to the music well, enhancing the feeling of wee-hours mixed exhaustion and elation that's key to this lean, speedy style. As a live band they're a few steps further along the path than I expected they would be. First of all, they're really solidly together as a band. Zafer Hamza is exceptionally good at playing the bass (with his fingers!) and singing at the same time. He doesn't just pound the rhythm, but he often provides the principal melodies while keeping meter too. Drummer Nick Welp deserves praise for both his technique and his willingness to play very simply but for just the right moments. In getting to hear a whole set's worth of music, I started to hear some different, non-Mancunian influences creeping in, particularly in Troy Hooper's guitar playing. Not a lot of fingerpicking on Joy Division's records. They should nurture those seeds to be sure.

The Eastern Sea don't need to worry so much about originality. Their songwriter Matt Hines just has it -- I'm pretty sure he gets appreciably cooler every time I see him in person. As a band the Sea follow his lead, with a confident sense of their ability to change styles, volume levels, and intensity. Their two EP's get deeper with every listen, not so much because of an overabundance of instruments but because the choices each one makes are so right on. Augmented on stage with horns and violins, I was eager to see what they'd do. At this point regretfully they're not making as much out of the extra players as they could, relying on them more for single-tone drones to add mass rather than new rhythms and tunes. Perhaps my standards for them are too high. In any event, the show was memorable for seeing the group make their best effort to maintain their high energy on a stage that was cozy for five.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Recurring Dream

The Fever Dreams
The Music Gym, 3/20

I'm skipping way ahead chronologically; there are five other bands that I saw before the Fever Dreams late Saturday night for whom I have thoughts to share. But allow me to indulge in a bit of personal reflection. Earlier this evening, I began writing a post trying to explain why it is exactly that I'm driven to digest so much obscure local music when I do have enough remaining freelance connections that I could with a little effort get myself into "name" shows for free. I couldn't seem to find a way of doing it, on my first attempt, that didn't overemphasize two of my less endearing personality quirks: I'm pathologically cheap, and gigantic groups of people make me uncomfortable.

So I stared at a weak title and a bunch of blank space for a while, put on the first side of Pet Sounds, and decided that if I wasn't going to get any writing done tonight I should at least go see some more bands. (I definitely wasn't going to address the situation with the dishes in the sink, which have been festering all week.) Then, while I was crammed into an east side sweatbox pulsating to the waveforms of the Fever Dreams, I finally found my entry point. Why support undiscovered bands at the expense of the already recognized? Put aside the fact that nowadays, unspeakably awful music becomes hugely popular all the time. I believe that the state of the music consumed by most young teenagers at the age when they first become passionate about what they listen to is as bad as it's ever been, but I don't mean to argue that at this time.

Even you believe that rock music is no better or worse than it's ever been, and that those bands who become widely discussed and written about for the most part deserve the attention, there's another reason why you should have a least a handful of local developing bands that you support to your utmost. I should have thought of it before, but watching the Fever Dreams it came upon me all at once. If you attach yourself to a promising young band and watch them grow and change, the chances are good that every time you see them they will be better than the last time you did so. If they can keep their lineup steady, dedicate themselves to practicing as much as it takes to stay tight, and write new stuff constantly with an ear to challenging themselves and their audience, every time you see them it'll be the best show of theirs you've ever seen. And that's pretty great, right? And certainly not true for the vast majority of established bands. It's all downhill once you've passed your peak, to quote a Nick Lowe song (about a forgotten silent movie star who was eaten by her dachshund).

OK, please excuse my meandering notions on critical theory. It's been a long week for all of us. Let's give the Fever Dreams their due. I wrote about them for one of my very first Austin live reviews, back when I was still living in Williamson County and didn't even know that the Texas Colorado River is not the same as the Colorado Colorado River. In the intervening months we all have grown more comfortable with our surroundings. The Dreams have a (somewhat) new drummer with a totally different style than their old one, and they're hard at work on a new record. Partly due to the drummer, and my increased familiarity with their music, they sounded less jammy and more acutely structured tonight. Their music has always reminded me of the sea change in music between the very late 60's and the very early 70's. In that time experimentalism for its own sake began to give way to a more codified, canonical way of composing and discussing rock and roll. A good single example might be the Soft Machine, who started out as a totally frazzled psychedelic prog band and trickled gradually into jazz fusion.

The Fever Dreams take a perfectionist approach to their songs, which is necessary given how dramatic the changes in their new stuff are. "The Bartender Song" kicks off with an appropriately Tom Waits-like reel then morphs into what sounds like Interpol waltzing. Another tune stomps in 5/4 until it gives way to a section where different instruments play in separate time signatures. Barry Huttox's ability to define each change clearly with a firm rhythmic hand (and almost melodic flourishes, with his many different toms and small cymbals) increases the feeling of strong organization. Proper guitar and keyboard solos are near absent from the band's sound now; very precisely layered instrumental breaks with guitar and bass parts that lock together like Jenga blocks are the rule.

In their efforts to make their new songs really new songs, the Dreams are opening up their influences. The swinging Huttox lets them abandon rock underpinnings entirely if they feel like it, but they also have a driving-but-chiming gear now that sounds like the more sophisticated variety of modern indie-guitar rock. Harold King's vocals are a hard sell -- he's a bit flat and he lacks the range to really compete with any of the melodic instruments. But he's screaming and emoting more on these new songs, and while it's not musically perfect the more he puts into it the more compelling it is. It's kind of fascinating, and maybe a little poignant, that such a multiply talented musician (he's superior on both keyboards and guitar) can't do anything about his singing voice. When he's on, though, the raw quality of his singing ties the highly cerebral elements of the band back into more elemental, basic rock building blocks. If you require pristine vocals to enjoy a band, look elsewhere. But I find the struggle between King's skills as a composer and instrumentalist and his limitations as a singer compelling -- and relatable.

Sure, they might be bigger if they had a Cedric Bixler-Zavala to act as a mouthpiece, lightning rod, and focal point. But they sure wouldn't be the same band with anyone else singing, and just in the few months since the last time I saw them King has gotten better at projecting and emoting. Me, I like underdogs. That's my hangup.

Friday, March 19, 2010

If We Can Land a Man on the Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart

Miles Kurosky
Waterloo Records, 3/20

One of the more epic titles I've ever used for a post, but my favorite Beulah song. Besides "Emma Blowgun's Last Stand," which their long-dormant songwriter Miles Kurosky obligingly revived for the end of his afternoon set. Kurosky had enough musicians in tow to stab at "Blowgun's" extended, layering intro, though sadly no tablas, but besides that sunny marvel of a song there weren't a lot of highs to the set. I can't pass judgement on his new record, The Desert of Shallow Effects, because I haven't heard it, but it wasn't the ideal setting for a guy partial to wringing every ounce of melodic potential out of a 10- or 11-piece band.

Guitar-heavy and not equipped for a wide range of melodies from a spare percussionist and a weak keyboard player, the band didn't sell the new material very strongly. Kurosky himself, only recently out of forced retirement, was not in good voice. The health problems that have kept him out of commission continue to affect his body, if not his resolve. Given his situation it is a pleasure to see that Kurosky is still writing upbeat, cheery music with intelligence and sophistication. His guitar playing is still lean and effective, and even if his voice didn't let him nail them all his sublime sense for melody seems in good order. One of the most likable things about Beulah was the way that Kurosky always made his limited voice sound like a brilliant instrument with just the right choices of melody; but part of the effect was due to the way he had a small army reinforcing him.

Kurosky misses the support in another way. The band he's towing along now doesn't seem engaged on the same level. Miles wasn't a big performer the many times I saw Beulah in San Francisco; but Bill Swan and many of the other guys were, and they had a mob mentality going that grew exponentially the more people they could cram on stage. They were poppy and orchestrated and raucous. It would be nice to see Kurosky's health improve to the degree that he could match those heights again. For now he's trafficking in pleasant and there's a lot more competition in that field.

Holy City

New Jerusalem
Annie's West, 3/18

There's an entire other evening of cool bands I have to go help carry the PA in for tonight, hopefully after catching Miles Kurosky at Waterloo. Quickly, before I lose track, I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed seeing New Jerusalem last night. I covered them for a Demo Sweat not so long ago and I liked their neo-folk tones very much. I did think they were a little too consonant for their own good. As a live band they correct for that, and that's why they had a clot of people collecting on the street outside of the open-air patio where they were playing.

They split the difference between modern folk and populist bar country, with the very lovely harmonies of their recordings intact but also an unexpected, and most welcome, blood-and-whiskey lead guitar. And a harp! Tasty clean-channel country-western electric guitar AND a harp, with no waiting! Without a drummer, their upright bass player did a sweet job of propelling the group and also adding sneaky hints of melody. They're still a little loose, but they put on a good show.

Later in the evening, while my bandmates and I were loading our stuff into four cars (possibly we could have done a more efficient job, but we did have to bring two entire PA setups), the Fall of Troy were playing in a tent right on the alley. I got to hear pretty much their whole set while I was humping speakers. And it was good.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Full Throttle

Creekside Lounge, 3/17

It would be hard not to notice that our usual haunts in downtown in Austin are less accessible and (slightly) more covered in garbage than usual this week. I have no interest in immersing myself in the feeding frenzy. Even if there weren't other demands on my time this week, I have philosophical issues with music festivals in general. To me giving a band your full attention is an active exercise, and there's only so much time in a day you can spend really concentrating on new music before your active-listening muscles become worn out. I'm also averse to crowds, profoundly broke, and sharing a vehicle with someone who works a difficult and irregular schedule. And I'm playing four shows in three days myself this weekend.

The moral of the story? With no money and little time Anna C. and I are still finding ways to put ourselves in front of amazing bands, almost every night -- just like we do every week of the year in Austin. In a perfect world I'd be getting to see more of my favorite local bands this week, but a whole bunch of them are playing at the Pepper Lane shows on Thursday and Friday, and starting next week it should be possible to park closer than 20 blocks away from the rock district once again.

Just once, for the sake of having done so, Anna and I went out with no plan to wander around downtown last night. We set manageable goals: she wanted to drink a beer in front of a band, and I wanted to find something cool to write about the next day. Avoiding lines at all costs, we followed my mostly infallible music ear into the Creekside Lounge, where Lozen were taking no prisoners. A sort of post-riot grrl duo with near-metallic power, the pair from Spokane use fuzz bass, slamming drums, and an intriguing variety of vocal approaches from both members. Sometimes they sing sweetly, and sometimes they howl in an unholy, unsettling but singularly feminine fashion that (for obvious reasons) you don't hear a lot of in the genre my friend Sebastian lovingly calls "dude-rock." Totally unexpected but very awesome.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Release the Hounds

Lean Hounds
The Parlor Hyde Park, 3/17

Haunting Oboe Music were one of the first Austin bands we embraced as locals -- I was a friend of theirs on MySpace before we even came down out of the mountains, and their simple red-on-white button was one of the first to go on the strap of Anna C.'s handbag in Texas. The group had a number of rare traits that made them fascinating to listen to, and to write about. They used modern music technology in a creative and intelligent way. They wrote songs that had ambitious and unpredictable structures aplenty, but also had giant chewy choruses and stay-in-your-head harmonies. They challenged themselves to write and record at a furious pace, forcing themselves to be inventive and keeping their listeners beguiled.

In a selfish way, I'm glad that the Haunting Oboes have passed, because they will always be a band that other writers got to before me. I can now claim to have been on the scent of the Lean Hounds from the beginning; as I attended their first show this afternoon. It was even close enough to where I live that I was able to walk home afterwards, squinting in the sunlight and thinking of all the new interesting things I will be able to write about this new band now and in the future.

As their name suggests, the Lean Hounds are pointedly sparer than HOM, which all three Hounds participated in before their recent divorce. They use a baseline of electronic beats as the impetus for some rock instrument performances that have unusual rhythmic feel, like their predecessors (and another band playing the same venue later this evening, Joan of Arc). Lean Hounds distinguished themselves even their first show as a separate entity. Their music was more controlled, as a rule, and at times even peaceful. Their best song centered around a peak where Ian Hunt picked out a slow, pretty guitar line with only the barest of accompaniment from bass and drums.

At this point they sharply lack the kind of big rock moments Haunting Oboe Music never backed away from, with vocals that are largely decorative and too many intervals where all three musicians are staring down at equipment beneath them while a recording plays at the audience. It's their prerogative to be a different kind of a band, so long as they keep things interesting. I wasn't bored at all for their first show. I love their drumming in general and the way the stripped-down lineup makes the entry of each guitar and bass part important. The Oboes could be hard to process -- I'm only now realizing how terrific their recorded output is, now that they're gone -- but the Lean Hounds have the potential to present the same sort of moods with an economy and collective purpose unique to a trio. Isn't cool that there can still be guitar-bass-drums power trios where you can still be surprised by the live instruments' role in the music?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Low Ceiling

Pataphysics, Grandchildren, Follow That Bird!
Club 1808, 3/16

An unfinished room where one band sets up behind you while the other one plays in front: it's the season. Pataphysics are a band I've been aware of vaguely for some time but haven't seen until just now. They're entertaining, with a surprisingly tight and in-the-groove sound that mixes surf, Stones, and a sort of Adult Swim sense of humor. I like the goofy faces their frontman pulls (he's got a silly sort of Robert Pollard persona, with a a hint of John Waters high camp), and the way the melodies underlying the weird noises the keyboard player produces are quite solid ones. Their guitar player and bass player sort of lock in together and let the keys play off of them, which works well, and the vocal harmonies are spot-on given the eccentricities of the lead singer. Their songs have good hooks, and they mix the tempos up.

Grandchildren of Philadelphia must like Tortoise a whole lot; their use of multiple drummers and layers of coffee-percolator keyboards and samples is one sign but they also have a similar languid melodic vocabulary. They mix it up with stage energy and vocals, although the singing is kind of secondary to the drums which are right up front in their stage setup and their volume levels. Cool to see a band where three different guys play drums (well, and differently from each other!) all in the same song. I think they'd be more interesting if the vocals were a little louder and there was more traditional song structure in with all the agreeable (but by now post-rock textbook) arranged jamming. Their ability to set up quickly an array of instruments that included trumpet, trombone, two keyboards, two drum kits, two keyboards, two guitars, and bass and play a set that included loops, samples, and between-song transitions impressed me.

Follow That Bird! are growing Austin favorites and they deserve to be, although they seem to be going through some adjustments as they get used to life as a trio. They're definitely a louder band now but with a primitive monitor setup in the Club 1808 annex they lost the thread between rhythm and guitars at times, as enormous cymbals simply ate up all the less threatening sounds available to be heard. What they trade off in precision they're gaining in force, as Lauren Green's guitar playing gets gnarlier and the bass keeps the riffs echoing home. I like how their songwriting remains unpredictable even though the parts themselves are simple. They can play a three-chord change everybody knows and kill it in their own way, as the guitar chokes and spits up simple riffs and the drums race ahead like "Sister Ray."


Megafauna, Dudes Die
Red 7, 3/11

The first time I saw Megafauna they were playing in a room that didn't really have a ceiling high enough to contain their power. Checking them out a second time with a brawnier PA in effect, I have a new appreciation for their style. Dani Neff's songs have nonlinear structures and overlapping rhythms drawn from 90's post-rock, but delivered with a loud, nasty edge that's anything but introspective. Stereolab mingling with AC/DC? Indeed, why not? Add in a vocal approach that's part art-pop, part space jazz and the band has three recognizable threads that aren't normally heard in combination. They're original and fun to watch -- Neff looks as if someone should follow her around with a giant prop fan so that every time she picks up a guitar her hair can blow out behind her. Their songs are confident enough to take long detours through quiet sections before exploding in blood-curdling, burning-flesh guitar solos.

I don't think the band is reaching its potential, though. Though bassist Will Krause has the technical skills to match Neff, as a band they seem like they have too many thumbs and too few fingers. Krause and Neff spend a lot of time working separate syncopated riffs, and more often than not it seems as if they are at cross purposes. The bass spends way too much time playing in its high register, stepping on the toes of the guitar. When the guitar solos come in, it doesn't seem like everyone has the same agenda. Krause's slapping and chords are impressive but when they obscure rather than enhance the drive of the songs they're doing more harm than good. Megafauna definitely want to use Neff's songs and her daredevil guitar playing as their calling card. To get that over effectively, the bass should concentrate on reinforcing the songs' existing rhythms rather than adding several confusing new ones to the debate.

The peculiarly named Dudes Die have a musical signature -- their guitarist and drummer harmonize very nicely over politely strummed postpunk jangle. It's not a bad sound, but they arrive at it too easily -- all of their songs explore the same sort of tempo, the intervals of the harmonies never change, structurally they're quite predictable. Seemingly every song ends with a section where they reprise the basic chords while growing progressively sloppier. They could use a bass player, as the melodic additions from their keyboard player/second guitarist were often jarringly late. They mostly need to find ways of getting away from their formula for long enough that when they do get into their comfort zone, it seems welcome rather than annoying. Also, they shouldn't have their guitarist try to play drums on stage, because he isn't any good at it all. Just because your drummer can play guitar a little, that doesn't mean you can or should switch places with him!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Team Spirit

We're in This Thing Together
Rich Restaino & The Obits

Rich Restaino & The Obits were one of the first bands I ever listened to for a Demo Sweat. They're still one of my favorites, with the willfully anachronistic love of vocal harmony and sophisticated arrangements we share. As many nice things as I've written about the band in the past, before having the chance to really inhabit their new CD We're in This Thing Together I believe I've sold them short. I recognized Restaino from the first as a disciplined songwriter whose central late-70's influences gave him an unfashionable, two-level approach: big, wide melodies, simple rock changes, and sugary vocal hooks for people listening on AM radio through crackling car speakers; unfathomable depths of backing vocals and additional instrumentation for those who like to spin LP's with headphones on. Most people don't listen to records any longer, and hardly anybody music on AM radio, so there's a appealingly perverse charm to the style.

The early, tentpole tracks on This Thing Together continue in the vein I've come to expect from Rich & The Obits. Opener "Spirit of the Law" and "Susie" are songwriter-pop a la Joe Jackson with the backing vocals and embellishments tracing basic classic rock structures. "Best Friend" despite its melodica lead-in shows the truth of the album's title -- for music more about the sum of its many parts than any one performer, every ingredient in the mix must click. The patly obvious story and choruses to "Best Friend" are below Restaino's standard.

As the album matures, a different picture of the band emerges. As The Obits start sharing around lead vocals and including material by members besides the leader and friends, they develop a distinct character of their own. Those of you who are music fans but without much experience playing in bands may not appreciate how much the cult of personality comes into play with a rock group way before the screaming hordes and the champagne dreams. Before you can even play a show, you have convince other people to play with you. You have to teach songs, you have to schedule practices and enforce attendance at them, and you have to keep everybody feeling involved and happy at the same time. Doing this with a four-piece band is difficult. An eight-piece band? Ridiculous. With their guest horn players The Obits are fielding enough musicians to go five-on-five. Restaino must be doing something right.

Vocalist Sara Shansky's "Turn Key" is a smoky, smartly distinct use of the band's three-part flapper harmonies. And if it's not the most memorable song in existence, guitarist Hunt Wellborn's "Too Slow" is notable for a truly inspired howl of a lead vocal. "Save It for the B-Side" might be the highlight of the record, at least from a rock writer's perspective -- its lyrics condemn hack-y pop singles. Other than just making room for other people's songs, We're in This Thing Together as it spreads out and dabbles in new styles in its back half seems to really draw on the strengths and talents of everyone in the expanded band. They move past playing current rock (with unusually old-fashioned influences) to really burying themselves in early pop history, from Chuck Berry to the Andrews Sisters. "Friendly Traveller" has a beautiful, peaceful chromatic horn line that suits it lyrical themes just so. "The Staying Kind" digs in doo-wop like Billy Joel at his most digestible. "Sallie Mae" is a simple acoustic duet that sells its very blunt subject with a convincingly truthful performance from its singers.

Bassist Alexei Sefchick, who also co-produces with Restaino, gives things a commanding, Jamerson-acolyte bounce. The mix, which tries to strike a balance between making everything clearly audible and also being a fair approximation of what the band really sounds like, does so at the expense of the drums and the rhythm guitar. To document a gargantuan band within the limitations of digital formats is so difficult that bands of this type have completely fallen out of fashion since CD's eclipsed LP's. I admire them for trying, and I forgive the slightly cool, practiced feel that comes of getting all these many crucial elements stacked up right. I'm intrigued more than ever to see them live to see if they have a fire to match their high creative level.

Tonight at 6 Rich Restaino & The Obits are appearing in-studio on KOOP 91.7's Writing on the Air program. That's less than an hour from now as I'm writing this Wednesday, but if you miss it live the old shows go up as podcasts on the Writing on the Air page. The program usually has prose writers talking about their work, but to increase the degree of difficulty the producers are having in the whole darn band. They're going to be talking about their music in addition to playing it, so it may be of particular interest. From the evidence on their record there must be a wealth of good storytellers in this band.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Demo Sweat #12

Because it's that time of year, I'm opening up the column to obscure attention-seekers the world over this month. If you're going to be playing in Austin in March, no matter how remote or undisclosed the location may be, I'll write about you. Just send me a link.

Changing the "rules" a little bit for Demo Sweat this time out made it a more pleasurable experience than it sometimes can be. Having the will to pack into a van and travel long miles for your music doesn't automatically make you better at it, but it does speak to your seriousness. In contrast to some of the barely-formed demos and proto-bands I often review, the out-of-towners I'm featuring today have an inkling of the audiences they want and what devices they can employ to keep them entertained and involved. Whether you do it at the coffee place down the street or traverse the continent, you have to play live at some point. You have to look in the listeners' eyes and see them not paying attention firsthand.

I'm not complaining about the rough stuff. I really like listening to music at every stage of its development. I think it's really hard to appreciate what separates polished, professional, original bands if you don't spend some time listening to the mistakes bands that are (as yet) none of those make. As a musician it's important to keep working on playing the simple stuff even after you've mastered more complicated maneuvers. As a listener, it's valuable to spend some quality time imagining what a new band could be rather than reviewing what an established band already is.

Out of Alaska and almost certainly pleased to be sojourning in Texas for all of March, Both Feet are a duo that sound like a full band. What's more, they can sound like more than one band. They're based around frostbite-defying slide guitar licks and drums that use the toms well to fill in for the lack of bass, but beyond their Morphine-Skynyrd central hybrid they can shift to harder rock or reggae feels. Cool vocals, and I admire the subtle, song-focused way that guitar effects are used in a not overpowering fashion to thicken the sound. Guitar-drums duos that can play one style effectively are rare enough; one that can effectively change costumes like Both Feet even more so. They have recurring gigs at Kahuna's in Austin and The Tap Room in Cedar Park all the way through the end of March; and they're at Blu downtown on St. Patrick's Day.

Manhattan Murder Mystery, who are from LA, have a bit of fashionably ironic garage echo to them. But they're less premeditated and more rococo than bands from their strange land often are and as much as they have the confidence to twist around styles they're also unafraid to outright suck when the needs of the song call for it. "Merry Christmas, Wesley Willis" is a tribute to the late Chicago eccentric that cleverly manages to pay homage to his agonizing style without really sounding much like it. Although they occasionally try too hard to be quirky (and the occasional harmonica playing is truly awful), even in garage fidelity their intellectualized twitchy drive recalls Lou Reed, The Cramps, some obvious Arcade Fire when they slow the tempos down. They're ramshackle but continuously interesting. They play Austin six times between March 17th and March 20th.

Mykheal Moon first came to my attention as a member of the Sigma Six, a band from space (via San Antonio) that I admire. As a solo artist, Moon's stuff doesn't have the obscuring benefit of the Six's wall of sound. His vocals are a little off-putting in a stark demo setting, although I like the Syd Barrett sort of way he comes slightly unhooked from the instruments. His pitch mistakes sound better absorbed in the cloud, but I like his singing for the most part either way. You can see why his band is good, but these pieces here are too rough to be presented as completed work. There's a lot of single-section guitar pieces, although even the simplest changes are adorned with some interesting and original rhythms. Totally worth listening to, but check the band stuff first.

A lot of my readership will turn against Ronnie Caywood just because he's country (Anna C., always one to put things in perspective: "This sounds like the kind of music people make parodies of") but if one can listen past the solemn, band-in-a-can pedal steel and fiddle parts there's some unmistakable authentic soul emanating from Caywood's lead guitar and especially his deep, shivery vocals. "My Elusive Dreams" is a hokey guy-gal ballad duet that completely wins you over -- the John n' June ad libs at the end are hysterical. "I'd Have Played Here for a Dime" demonstrates well Caywood's ability to write original lyrics in a pointedly fusty genre. His selection of tunes has some range, in its own way, with swing, blues, and folk all represented. With a bar band and a few drinks in them, I imagine Caywood tearing it up. The over-mannered presentation here is the only drawback.

The John Orr Franklin Band sound like one of those bands that gets its music picked to be played in the background of obnoxious guitar-store radio ads. Don't condemn them for being arena cheese, since the instrumental performances are worthy and the well-blended vocals from all four players show savvy. Condemn them instead for song titles like "True 2 U" and grating verse guitar parts. If leader Franklin is skilled enough to play the leads I hear on these recordings, why are so many of the guitar parts so lame? Because playing the guitar well and writing well for the guitar are not the same thing. The Sore Losers are very average old-school punk (Social Distortion seems a big influence) with snazzy bass and lead guitar counterbalanced by boring rhythm guitar, unvaried drumming, and a vocalist without much charisma. I wish they gave the lead guitar more to do than standard-issue intros and solos. They also seem oddly lacking in energy for punk rockers... maybe they need to play faster, or more dramatically, but they had a more lulling effect than anything else on me and that's not likely their intention.

Michael Pierce is one of those guitarists who entertains himself by plugging into a loop pedal and stacking lots of simple, interlocking four-note melodies on top of a repeating three chords. There's no point whatsoever to this music other than aggrandizing its maker, who most likely needs to spend more time playing with other human people -- his recordings with a bassist and drummer as The MAD Trio sound precisely identical to his solo loop things. There's no development or tension or interplay, no point, you know, to this musical wallpaper. The difference between being a hobbyist and an artist? A hobbyist plays because they like the sound of their playing. An artist plays because they have something valuable about themselves to communicate through their playing. Please note the difference, as does Cosmic Jaguar. One of those only-in-Texas phenomenons, the Jag is a freaky free-noise one-man electronic percussion storm who also claims to be a Mayan shaman and has complex numerological derivations for all of his compositions. Whether this makes any sense at all to me or you is immaterial, because the Jaguar clearly believes in it, and his music has a seductive, bizarre, music-of-the-spheres energy to it, if you can find the right wavelength to which to attune. You can't dance to it without difficulty but it's bright and busy and has a mystical underlying order to it. And it's totally not boring.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sofa, So Good

Amplified Heat, The Couch
Hole in the Wall, 3/7

Since it's right in our neighborhood, more or less, it beats me why Anna C. and I took so long to take in a show at the Hole in the Wall. Might be the parking situation. Not nearly as little as the name implies, the joint brings in local bands of note for free or cheap seven nights a week. If I were new on the scene most anywhere else I'm sure I would have been there several times already. But the range of alternatives here is stupefying (even in the few calendar months remaining without major music festivals). The two things I ask of a rock club are not playing games with the cover charge and putting together lineups with bands that complement one another. (In Austin you must ask yourself "What would Trophy's do?" and then do the complete opposite.) The Hole didn't try to shake us down for money for a show advertised as free and they supported the stripped-down power blues of Amplified Heat with other bands that made sense. That sends them soaring up the list when it comes to my personal power rankings of local clubs. We'll be back again soon, I trust. They have cool shows with The Black Drumset and the Cocker Spaniels coming up.

Amplified Heat, with their seven-foot amp stacks and three-Ortiz lineup, were one of my favorite close encounters of Free Week 2010. Their twist on the blues (overdriven to brutal effect and juiced by fleet, skull-crushing drumming) worked well without too many curveballs, but I'm excited and interested to hear that their new material is drifting away from the Cream-Hendrix template. By mixing up the midtempo grooves with upbeat, nearly hardcore thrash beatings, they're providing their riff-rock base with a nice, unsettling contrast in style. The "I Got a Right" mashing suits their boot-stomping rhythm section, particularly Gian Ortiz's molasses-thick bass. With the possibility afloat that the drums and bass are going to knock you flat at a moment's notice, Jim Ortiz's textbook Strat speed-fuzz solos gain intensity. I also liked Gian's increased vocal presence. Neither he nor Jim is exactly Rod Stewart but their scraped-tonsil braying definitely finds strength in numbers. The sheer quantity of 12-bar boogie bands in the area through no fault of their own diminishes Amplified Heat's mastery of the form. Hearing them now coming over as an unholy alliance between Blue Cheer and Minor Threat, they're more likely to appreciated on their own merits. With great rock power comes the responsibility to push the envelope, to grow and change.

Not to be overly harsh on the The Couch, of San Marcos, but I certainly don't feel as if they are putting effort equal to their abilities into their music. Their singer/guitarist is lazily talented; he has an enviable voice and real skill on his instrument but in this band he's not making the most out of either. The songs are two- and three-chord bores with no stops or changes; the drums ride the same groove song after song. Plugged into an odious mechanical device that removes all tonal quality whatsoever from his instrument, the bass player bounces back and forth sluggishly between the same two notes for the entire set. The guitar and drums are tight-sounding, but the songs aren't finished, and rather than developing his riffs or taking chances with solos the guitar player moves from one good idea to another unrelated one without any thought towards momentum. Rather than a set of songs it seemed like 25 random guitar fingering exercises performed in arbitrary order with planned, but unstructured changes. They need to throw out all their material (and probably get a better bass player) and start over, because whatever it is they're doing now, it isn't working.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Radio, Radio

Bear in a Box [EP]
FM Campers

The FM Campers are offering their first EP for free. All bands should do this. Your first concern as a young band should be making as many people aware of your existence as possible. Once you make a record, you should try and get rid of every copy you print as soon as possible. Giving them away really speeds this process, and hurries you on to making a second record, which is almost always more rewarding. As a rule EP's seem to make a better first impression than full-lengths -- they're just the right length for three or four explorations of your basic sound accompanied by one or two wacky departures.

Bear in a Box certainly sounds like an early artifact. The drums and guitars are not well-captured. The live drums are very effective and a big part of keeping the music's sense of progression, but as thin as they are in the mix it takes some careful listening to separate out their function. In the heavy final section of "E Turner" the guitars aren't nearly massive enough to meet the Mogwai-like level of sonics the Campers are shooting for. We've (for some time now) arrived at the point where random free-time keyboard hums aren't necessarily original; the cyclo-Mellotron hook that opens "Turner" is straight out of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart." While I appreciate the imaginative melodies at work, and the lyrics where they can be interpreted seem a plus, the vocals are at times annoying. Swooping into a thin falsetto, a more practiced hand at the sort of loudness-mad kitchen sink production that's the style of college radio nowadays could use echo, choice overdubs, and inspired double-tracking to make this weakness a big strength.

Though they make these rookie mistakes and others, there has to be something to the fact that I listened to Bear in a Box three times in a row without getting bored or irritated. The cottage-Eno synths and post-OK Computer anthem rock FM Campers trace are anything but original as of this moment in rock history, but melodies matter most, and those they have. They're not opening up new sonic territory but they make the most of the available explored spaces. With the keyboard melodies beeping in staccato, they can sound like U2 with the keys standing in for the wall of effects-pedal guitars. But on the spare, assembled-from-junk parts "Everyone" they sound like a mascara-smeared emo frontman sitting in (for some reason) with Tom Waits' band -- at least until the 80's synth-rock double-time drums enter. In short they don't let the theatrical tendencies of their vocals stand in the way of their noisy experimental inclinations, or vice versa. It's unusual to hear a new band that's comfortable being obnoxious and ingratiating.

FM Campers play Thursday, March 11 at Red 7 with Megafauna, who set the gold standard in Austin for attractive female singers with scary good guitar chops.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stuck at 16

Time to Begin
Love at 20

If you can allow yourself to get wrapped entirely in style and ignore substance, there are moments of Time to Begin that scream crossover potential. The nicely executed "So Bad," with its dance bass and disco hi-hats, has a sound that's modern and sounds like a real rock band. The earnestly rocking quintet has big ambitions, but is prepared to meet them with arrangements that are stylish and detailed. They have wider influences, but in a nutshell they're trying to combine the urgency and hook-friendliness of latter-day emo with the structural sophistication and widened chops of the 90's rock that spawned it. Love at 20 have a good idea of how to make songs dramatic within themselves, constructing them so there's lots of give and take between instruments and the big, signature soaring parts earn their place. They also do a good job of varying styles across songs, ranging from harder rockers to a dance-conscious side to big ol' power ballads.

They seem to take themselves rather seriously. Besides romantic subjects, the major song preoccupation on Time to Begin is the business of fame, not something Love at 20 really have to worry about applying to their own lives as of yet. Sometimes it helps to write some songs about smaller topics, or at least include more specific details. The lyrics on this record are broad to the point of being terrible. Love at 20 sound a lot like Weezer, even more so when they're trying not to do so, and the comparison isn't flattering. This band sounds more like the post-reunion, autopilot-pop Weezer of the green album onwards, only they don't have any sense of humor about themselves or the generous hooks needed to redeem their extreme seriousness. The last several songs on Time to Begin, from the maddeningly vague industry commentary "Time to Begin" through the Lifetime Original Movie romance of "Hearts and Fire" and "Things to Come," utterly undo whatever good works the rocking first half may have held. The lyrics are dreadful, and the music is aimed right for the junior-high dance floor. Were I considering marriage to the author of "Things to Come," I think I'd be too embarrassed to go through with it.

They're not powerful enough musically to tackle these topics head-on, and the lyrics lack the sophistication to mock themselves or at least add an original perspective. It's much harder to appreciate the qualities of the rhythm section, the unpredictable use of backing vocals, and the touches of guitar effects and keyboard when the central focus is so unintentionally silly. Of course, you're only 20 once, and there's a certain equally unself-conscious audience on whom this sort of stuff impacts like a angst-seeking missile. The music is much developed beyond any of their immediate competitors. To really shine equal thought must go into making the words match better.