Thursday, May 27, 2010


On a Weekend [EP]
For Hours and Ours

Like many of their youthful, idealistic hardcore forebears, you have to take For Hours and Ours' good with their bad. Let's go back to the 80's: Minor Threat were so dogmatic that their band concept required their own obsolescence (as soon as they could actually play, they had to break up). Black Flag released so much material they devalued themselves. The Descendents couldn't keep their singer from pursuing a real life. Being young and angry is exhausting.

This Austin quintet is more concerned with personal ethics than geopolitics, but the flame burns bright on On a Weekend. The targets of righteous fury here are the band's peers who choose to squander their downtime on shallow pursuits, and even more so other artists who claim to be dedicated to higher goals but don't invest time and energy worthy to their talents. The villain of On a Weekend is entropy. Our young heroes have individually fought off this demon through long years of practice on their respective instruments and have now banded together to use their powers for change. This is a positive band concept, and it's reflected in the music. For Hours and Ours are a pretty loud rock group but they're not afraid to be melodic, even cheerful. This I support. I also admire that they have some newer influences and not ones that are strictly genre-bound -- lyrics here borrow cadences from both American Football and Kanye West. They pressed their record on vinyl, bless their hearts, and that gives them both DIY credibility and the best-sounding format for their sound.

There is a bit of a downside to all of this sense of community and goodwill. The band name is one issue. It's a nice message, but it's also confusing! (Can you expect to be a top search result for "For Hours and Ours," "For Ours and Hours," "For Ours and Ours," and "For Hours and Hours?") That's a minor quibble. More troubling, the songs of On a Weekend aren't as strong as they could be because there's too much groupthink at work. It's not impossible to do the "we all write together" band and make it pay off, but it takes at least one person with a sharply critical ear and a sense of the whole. For Hours and Ours' straight-line writing approach is way too visible. There are a lot of confident parts that click, but there are a lot of sections that murkily follow out of their lead-ins without enough new ideas, half-changes as it were.

There isn't a song on the EP that doesn't have a great hook (save the needless Broken Social Scene-aping drone "We Took a Deep Breath and Swallowed the Stars") but the best moments are misused. The sweetest part of "Dirty Beige" is a syncopated guitar riff that should appear more often than it does but gets lost in a series of only mildly related changes. "A Chant Song" has the opposite problem, trampling one melody to death through repetitions by vocals and multiple instruments. "On a Weekend" begins with a glassy five-note guitar figure that's downright stirring but the rest of the song seems like a weakly concocted excuse for its use.

The use of vocals throughout the record is problematic. It sounds like all of the instrumental parts were written, rehearsed, executed, and then the vocals were dropped in at the last minute. They feel out of sync, they're often competing with the lead guitar where they shouldn't be, and Mike Kinsella needs a co-writing credit for at least one of the songs on the first side. The use of multiple singers is nice, and it's hard not to admire the unexpected way the ska influence on their music crops up not in the trumpet playing but rather the singing. But the vocal performances feel grafted on. They're not performed confidently or mixed up high enough to grab your attention, and for a band with as much to say as For Hours and Ours, that shouldn't be.

There are a lot of little details I like about this album, guitar counter-riffs and snappily syncopated drum parts, but most people listen to music top down. It's tough for good musicians, embedded in the minutiae, to recognize this at times. If you're going to try and write catchy stuff, you have to bring the best bits forward, and structure the rest of the songs around their delivery. For Hours and Ours have a melodic sense that's way out of proportion for their genre and age bracket. Making it click fully will involve some more time investment. I understand that it takes them a really long time to write songs, which is another weakness to the truly democratic approach. I hope their strong sense of community spirit will keep them together long enough to develop their style.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Princess in Another Castle

The Descendants of Erdrick
Genuine Joe Coffeehouse, 5/22

When I listened to the But Thou Must EP, I pegged Descendants of Erdrick as a "traditionalist" video game cover band -- that is to say, one where the rock instruments follow the melodies from the original 8- and 16-bit compositions very closely. The artistry in these interpretations stemmed from the way the guitarists brought their own tone and style, and the way the quintet knit separate pieces from a given game into their own medleys.

As a live band, they go a little further afield, and that's nice to see. As they've filled out a setlist they've obviously grown more comfortable with what they sound like as a band, and they've given guitarist Mike Villalobos plenty of spotlights for his awe-inspiring technical playing. Their approach to the music from Street Fighter goes beyond the metal influence on the original Japanese game and puts a smashing western groove under it. With precisely stacked, harmonizing figures coming from flute and two guitars, they reconnect the dots between conservatory classical, modern pop, and film music that golden age video game composers drew so boldly.

I don't think we'll ever see a rock band dedicated to covering the music of video games past the early 90's. Descendants of Erdrick don't go past the Super NES era. Several factors combined to make the old style uniquely impactful on a generation of indoor children. The limited voices available on the primitive Nintendo synthesizer chip forced the composers to be very creative, and the small amount of memory on each game cartridge led to many kids hearing the same melodies for hundreds of hours, sometimes the same one for almost a whole day at a time. (Or more, if you were a really obsessive type and your parents were too occupied to make you take breaks.) People don't play games in the same way any longer, and titles come out in digital formats that allow CD-quality audio or better of proper studio-recorded orchestras. Much more money and time is invested in game soundtracks nowadays... and yet, with all of the full-motion video and spoken dialogue and headsets to chat with competitors online, no one listens quite the way we did back in the day. There's a particular sense memory associated with hearing the same droning yet ingratiating theme over and over again for weeks, sleep-deprived and doggedly performing repetitive simple tasks... like choosing "ATTACK SLIME" from a text menu.

It's a little early to begin mourning the death of classic video game music, however, as you might be able to tell from the sizable and diverse crowd out on a Saturday afternoon to see Descendants of Erdrick. An important step that many otherwise exemplary musicians skip is assuring that there's an audience for the music they want to make, and then making that audience aware of their existence. For a brand-new band, D of E have crowds full of people wearing their T-shirts, after a fashion -- lots of people at the Genuine Joe show elected to attend in their favorite NES-themed garb. The group needs to avoid making the same obvious jokes at every show -- the laughter was polite, but forced, since everyone in this crowd has heard and repeated these same one-liners hundreds of times. But as the middle school-aged kid talking animatedly to bassist Chris Taylor after the show made clear, you don't have to remember playing Super Mario Brothers in 1985 to know this music. The best game music has entered the pop culture lexicon in an inexorable way. The Legend of Zelda, Mario Brothers, and Final Fantasy series all have certain motifs that have been used in every new sequel since I was the age that kid is now.

All right, enough about game music. Since I seek mostly to cover original songwriting emerging out of Austin, what makes Descendants of Erdrick relevant to my blog's self-appointed mission? They might be very good musicians and a super cool show to see, but they're still a cover band. I'll tell you why I think they set a good example for people who really want to get their own songs heard. It's all about finding an audience! D of E may be playing others' compositions for a crowd that's interested in the material more so than the musicians, but they have made a choice of project that sets them apart from the hordes of weekend warriors mangling "Pride and Joy" and "Feelin' Alright" up and down 6th Street. The Descendants have picked a cover project that exhibits their musicianship with universally recognizable songs that still present a very high degree of difficulty. They've recognized a niche existing in Austin that they can fill -- despite being a cluster for gaming and tech industry, the Live Music Capital lacked a proper video game tribute band before now. And rather than copy the approach of bands that have done the same thing in other cities, they've used their talents to create a sound that's already won them a booking at the Classic Gaming Convention in Las Vegas this summer.

Hopefully at least a few of the pale folk they will wow in Vegas will ask after the bandmates' other projects, as I did. Guitarist Amanda Lepre, as I have before written, is a sharp songwriter who links the modal melodies of her video game influences to similar elements from folk, metal, and prog rock. And bassist Taylor, as I am just now learning, is a restless soul who gave me a list of no less than six other bands with which he is currently active. Also a blogger, Taylor plays in Lepre's band plus seemingly any other that will have him. Of most interest to me was the simple guitar-bass-and-vocal demos on his solo site, which show a smart musician and good lyricist heavily influenced by the Mountain Goats gradually developing an original style. Chris's rhythms and chord changes are instantly recognizable ones, but he knows this and adds wrinkles by writing words that undermine or contradict the emotions we associate from memory with the simple, bright music. Listen to "Robots Are Great," which sounds rather a mash-up between "Every Sperm Is Sacred" and Flight of the Conchords. "Five Songs," which namechecks MySpace gratuitously, might be a little too meta for its own good (and it's dated, too -- it needs a sequel about Soundcloud) but at least it evidences a songwriter who has dedicated real thought to the question of writing lyrics that will be of interest to anyone besides himself.

Going forward I think what I will appreciate most about Descendants of Erdrick is how they introduced me to the musical world of Taylor (who makes me feel like a slacker for only playing in two bands) and increased my appreciation for the writing of Amanda Lepre. I imagine that's what the band members hope for most -- although making a lot of scratch selling merch to rapturous engineers should help forward their individual passion projects as well. Other ambitious Austin musicians weighing the idea of starting a "money-spinning" band should observe their example. Will it demonstrate your strengths as a player and a performer? Will it attract fans who might conceivably be interested in your original music as well? Most importantly, does it fill a demand that's not already being met in this city of 10,001 bands? I need to do some more legwork, obviously, before I put together my Genesis tribute.

Friday, May 21, 2010


The Gary
Carousel Lounge, 5/20

I've been listening to The Gary's EP Chub and recommending them to people since January. Part of my enthusiasm for their music stems from the way that from the first I heard them as spiritual successors to the insanely great Silkworm, with their overdriven, drilling basslines and morose vocals. Silkworm were a band that should have been together for a lifetime and would have been were it not for the tragic passing of drummer Michael Dahlquist. Since his death I have felt their absence intensely -- they were a band I started listening to when I was about 13 and they kept putting out great records reliably every two or three years. Part of what made Silkworm so wonderful was the sense that there was nothing short of death that would stop them. They moved around the country together, from Montana to Seattle to Chicago, with everyone picking up stakes any time a bandmate's personal life or career tested their resolve. They played for each other, and the remarkable consistency of their recorded output reflected it.

Not that The Gary are a tribute act. Dave Norwood's expertly formed lyrics and utterly original style on the bass mark them as worthy heirs to the bar-band roar of Crazy Horse as filtered through the no-frills economy of 90's indie rock. With Norwood's unholy, pin-your-ears-back-against-your-head bass tone and Trey Pool's soulfully restrained foil guitar, they could jam for hours on end and it wouldn't be boring. But they never seek to promote their musicianship above their songs, and it seems like writing and recording at a brisk pace has filled their catalog with material enough to play distinct and satisfying sets each time out. Other than their virtual theme song "I May Have a Drink" most of the tunes they played Thursday were unfamiliar to me, but the set absolutely flew by -- I couldn't believe it when they announced their last tune. I wanted another hour, or two.

Given The Gary's sound and generally retro sensibilities I never expected going into the show that I would see them do something I have never seen before. But Norwood actually uses a capo on an electric bass, which isn't something I would have ever considered. Aren't bass strings too thick for that? Evidently not! Dave's style is deceptive... it can sound chugging or droning, and it's mostly simple, but every figure has just a little link or turnaround that identifies it unmistakably as his own work. He wails away with Dee Dee Ramone-esque fury on The Gary's rockers, but on their moody pieces he has a circular arpeggio style that structurally resembles fingerpicked nylon-string guitar playing, only translated to a massive-sounding, mercilessly amplified electric bass tone. I can't stress enough how hard it is to play bass this densely and yet clearly. Norwood has figured out exactly his style and Pool and drummer Paul Warner fill the spaces around him with sympathy. It's not just gearhead geekiness that makes this combination cool. Norwood's bass playing isn't random or imitative but rather intelligently designed so that his singing voice, which is miles deep, has a precise space to be heard even when the band is laying rubber. He doesn't have to shout himself hoarse for his excellent lyrics to be understood.

The Carousel Lounge might not have been the perfect place to see The Gary for the first time. It's not the kind of joint that has a dedicated sound guy or a complete set of drum microphones. To get the right tones for their instruments, Norwood needs his amp cranked, and Pool prefers a cleaner, crisper middle-volume from his tubes. I wish the drums and guitar had been running through the PA so that the bass didn't somewhat overwhelm them. But that's a minor quibble. It's very hard for me to shut off my critical thinking mode when I go to see a live band, and I can think of only a handful of examples of local shows where I stopped nitpicking and gave myself over to enjoying the music. One of them was the Free Week gig where I first saw La Snacks -- perhaps not coincidentally the same show where I helped myself to a copy of Chub. I missed The Gary that time out because Anna C. really needed a burger. I won't be leaving any shows at which they're playing again.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bruised Leather

Hey Day

I was excited to get an opportunity to review the new record by Leatherbag, because they've come up in more than one conversation as one of Austin's better "singer/songwriter"-type bands. Sadly, Hey Day is pointless naptime music. All I know for sure now is that I've had more than one conversation with Austin residents who don't have the slightest clue what good songwriting actually constitutes.

There's a lot more to putting a song together than picking how long to strum each guitar chord and then writing lyrics. The "compositions" on Hey Day are totally interchangeable, as if leader Randy Reynolds just told the band to do whatever they felt like. The drums, bass, and lead guitar plod anonymously; good luck finding a single memorable hook of any kind anywhere on this yawner. The few places where the arrangements show any kind of imagination are either artificial constructs (the false ending to "Go To Sleep") or just failures (the tedious full minute of guitar scale practice that intros "Forever Blue").

The total lack of self-awareness that plagues the band extends to the vocal melodies, which are non-existent. By the end of the record I was singing Jeff Tweedy stuff to myself over Leatherbag's generic accompaniment just have to something to hold on to. I suppose what people mean nowadays when they say "good singer-songwriter" is "dude with pleasant voice and OK lyrics," with both of which Reynolds does come equipped. The obvious, but incorrect, comparison would be Bob Dylan, but to me he sounds like an even sleepier Mark Knopfler, except without Knopfler's guitar playing to provide some sort of listener engagement.

There's three different classes of lyricists. The first kind simply plagiarize; the second kind take established forms and manage to reorganize them just well enough to qualify as original; the third and rarest kind follow their own muse. Reynolds is almost always in the second category and he falls back towards the first far more often than he ever glimpses the third. "Senseless Irony," which has the closest thing to a real chorus on Hey Day and seems to actually shake the rhythm section out of their coma for three minutes, undermines its album highlight status with a groaning, insight-free "music scene" lyric.

This isn't the worst local album I'll hear this year by far. The band is together and the lead guitar is occasionally head-nodding; I'll bet they acquit themselves fairly well live for a band with basically no songs. But boy, does Hey Day hurt my opinion of local tastes. Austin can do way, way better than this and if you don't recognize that you're not listening hard enough.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Demo Sweat #14

Being overpopulated with musicians doesn't make Austin a bad place to launch a band. You just have to be all the more confident that you're better at what you do than most else doing it. That goes double if you're country-rock/"red dirt"/Texas music. Guns of Navarone are that good. Their EP has three songs on it, and after one listen I knew the chorus hook to each by heart. The lead vocals are original and friendly, the harmonies are terrific, and the lead guitar parts are vital and thoughtfully composed to flatter the singing. "Winnipeg, Manitoba" has their best chorus and not-obvious structure, helped along by a rhythm section that knows how to build the intensity within each change. About the only thing not to like about their recordings is the awful harmonica playing on "You Used to Be" -- why do so many otherwise good musicians think they can just pick up a harmonica and know how to play it?

Ryan Young has the technical ability to record a big band well and the organizational capacity to get all of these musicians into a studio and have them perform their proper function, but as an artist he just has nothing to say, and it makes his album White Citrus rather like photos of a party that the listener wasn't invited to attend. On many tracks Young forces overdubbed "Oh yeah!" vocal ad libs over mailed-in guitar solos as if to try and impose some energy and group spirit on the thing. It doesn't work. When the most memorable song on your solo opus is a witless pot anthem called "I Got Me a Pickle" (really), it may be time to seek musical collaborators with broader vision. Young wants to flip from soft-rock to funk within the space of a single song. His willingness to mix influences is good, but his personality is too fuzzy to get away with it. The backing musicians haven't had the opportunity to see how this all works by playing the material on stage, so the parts don't build up to the surprise changes. The should-be signature swings sound edited, constructed, and fake. More important than learning how to shift styles, though, is having a reason to do so. To connect with an audience music has to have a point past "I'm a musician!"

Real Book Fake Book's new demo is a good showcase for the virtuoso keyboard playing of Eric Reyes, but it sells them a bit short as a band because the drums aren't well-captured and the overall sound is a little tinny. Live this band has some real rock power, and this sounds more like the demo mode on a Radio Shack keyboard. The fuzz on Reyes' left-hand parts and the force of his bandmate's drumming need to come together on the ideal Real Book Fake Book home version. Shogun Shakedown, making their second column appearance, have gotten a heck of a lot better since the last time I covered them. A new bass player who lists Keith Richards and Ween's Dave Dreiwitz among his influences may have something to do with that. "The Visitor," by the looks of things the newest of their recordings, is a real triumph. It's metal-heavy with slow Southern riffing -- Corrosion of Conformity, maybe -- but that's just to start. "Visitor" seems to have as many ideas as the rest of their songs combined, with a guitar solo over a new bass part and several rhythmic changes. More like that one!

Valley of the Mariner and Ready the Messenger each only have one song up on their pages. That makes it hard to think of things to say about them, since the first thing I listen for is the ability to maintain your band's personality while exploring beyond one strict style. The former is pretty derivative blues-rock tailor-made for bars, with unrestrained drums and lots of stops and starts. I don't care for the singer one bit. The latter is metallic post-hardcore with unusually intelligible vocals. Good instrumental breakdown in "Slipstream Submission," which gets sparer instead of spazzing out. Jane Doe Eyes are a punk band, which means they're quite limited in available styles to begin with. Good for them that they try both a poppier mode ("Ethyl," kind of Screeching Weasel-esque) and a darker side. Their darker side, though, sounds an awful lot like Screeching Weasel still and less like A.F.I. or whatever they're trying for. They have enough going on rhythmically and melodically to rank as average-plus.

Red Legend are interesting but underdeveloped; for every section where their hazy dance-rock connects there's two or three where the keyboards, programmed drums, and guitar seem at total cross purposes. "The Hackles," for its verses, and pretty much all of "Gone Oblong" capture very cool grooves. Their best feature is their guitar playing so they should get some more members and rock out. Tom Gun are equally novice when it comes to recording; the guitars and vocals on their demos are all over the place timing-wise. They are not without a certain native charm, however. "Sweet Sophie" doesn't seem like a finished song but for its main part the quirky bass and upbeat-poking guitars work a nice warped spell. "A Bit Tougher to Budge" is similarly fragmented but I like the deep vocals. Keep practicing!

Fried Pies have some flashy lead instrumentation but no songwriting whatsoever to speak of; all of their songs use either two chords or four chords in the same pattern and rhythm. The most peculiar monologue that begins "Bitter & Sweet" is the only really interesting thing about any of their recordings. The rapping that fronts One Step Program is so ridiculously bad that I couldn't take them seriously enough to consider the rest of their music on its own merits, whatever they may be. I think you should watch this video, though. It speaks for itself.

The Shy Bunch are another band who are boldly going where many have gone before, writing mopey love songs to unaggressive electronic backing. Opera-influenced female vocals appear too infrequently on their EP, which mostly offers well-performed but shallowly conceived three-note melodies sung by leader Andrew Espinola. "Inside," which has a snappy acoustic rhythm, has the most pulse. They need to take more chances both with their vocal melodies and their subject matter, and to bring in some more players to help them with their originality issues and their songs' general lack of forward progress.

The Coast of Nebraska could play with the Shy Bunch, although they boast some older (and better) influences. Dig the Brighten the Corners-referencing band name. Best thing about this duo is their variety of material; they have rockers and disco ballads and seem generally unconfined by self-imposed genre restrictions. Worst thing is the vocals, which are gloomy and affected; they don't suit the material and they tend to draw all the songs together in the listener's mind. "Friar Fry Her," which welds half of a Gomez lick to the tail end of a Pavement one, demonstrates best their wiry guitar-driven persona. Simpler fare like "Marigold" sounds the best in the drum-machine, home-demo style of these recordings. What I'd really like to hear is a full band to give their more obscure ideas air, and perhaps more of an emphasis on harmonies. They seem an instrumental voice short, and could go in many interesting directions there given the open spaces their songs take care to leave and the wealth of players here in town.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Weekend: Lousy With Rocking

I don't usually go much in for the show preview, because I don't see much utility in the things myself. I don't need a reproduced picture of a flyer and an embedded link to know if a bill is any good or not. People always ask me, "How do you find about shows?" To me that's a weird question. How can you live in Austin and not find out about shows? I try to talk to as many musicians as I can and listen to as much as I can and remember the name of any band that's new to me. Sometimes I take notes, theoretically there's a calendar somewhere I should be writing dates down on, but mostly I wing it. You can do that here. That's why I moved to Austin.

As a rule I never listen to music that's posted on blogs. It never sounds good, it causes my eight-year-old computer to make grinding noises, and it irritates me to no end that most music blogs simply post pictures and links and consider this to pass as new content. State an opinion! Criticize! Further the debate! In this light I'm pleased to pass on a link to Red River Noise, a new collaborative venture between a number of Austin journalists that nobly seeks to inject some objectivity and some professionalism to the monumental task of documenting Austin's new music scene. I'm glad it exists.

Anyway, shows. There are three colossal events that are newsworthy this weekend and I don't want to seem asleep at the switch by not recognizing so. First of all, the show at Encore tonight is like a single-night primer on what's buzz in Austin indie rock. Quiet Company are releasing their new EP, which really won me over; I am intrigued to see whether they can bring the increased maturity and complexity of their new material to the live setting. The Eastern Sea get better and more ambitious every single time I see them, and they know how to work a stage. STEREO IS A LIE are one of the first Austin bands I caught after moving here and still one of the best. They have an unusually effective combination of singer and band, and for an incredibly loud group they're admirably subtle and seductive. And I haven't even mentioned the headliners, Black and White Years, as yet unheard by me but with a pretty impressive CV. All this and the Rocketboys. That's quite a show for ten bucks.

If your tastes edge towards the hotter, sweatier, synth-ier side you have the alternative Friday of Fresh Millions, holding a CD release show of their own over at the Scoot Inn. The fashionable and bizarre No Mas Bodas are in support and Focus Group top the bill. Focus Group are releasing an EP, too... there's something about Austin's music calendar that distracts bands' focus in the late winter so that new releases end up all coming out in a chunk in the summer. This is a free show!

Finally, Saturday night is a special one for the wiseacres in the Midgetmen, who celebrate eight years as a band (the same four guys the whole time, by the way, which is outright miraculous) with a two-stage blowout at Mohawk. I'm bemused that this band has been around for eight years without necessarily getting any better. We saw them during free week and Anna C. and I got in a very contentious argument because I wouldn't let her leave when they started playing. In my review I implied their bassist and drummer couldn't play their instruments. I suppose that you don't have to make the goal of your band continuous improvement. The Midgetmen by their own admission are more focused on getting free drink tickets, and in that spirit they will be distributing complimentary PBR's at certain surprise points during the festivities. Other than the hopes of free domestic beer, why go to this show? Well, some of the other bands on the lineup are fab: The Gary, La Snacks, Ringo Deathstarr, The Mercers. What's more, at the close of the night the Midgetmen are planning on inviting pretty much everybody they know in Austin who plays an instrument up on stage with them to make the biggest, most hideous racket possible. I can't imagine a more effective summation of their core values of community, alcoholism, and atrocious dissonance. If you were ever going to see the Midgetmen, this is the time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Face Time

Sissy Face
The Parlor North Loop, 5/4

Having given their previous incarnation Consider Me Spilled a right panning that may or may not have led directly to their singer quitting, I feel a little responsible for the fate of the remaining New Romantics of Sissy Face. I went out to their show last night with a rare feeling of restraint: if they sounded good in their new configuration, I would say so. Otherwise I just wouldn't write anything about them at all. I'm not somebody who often feels compelled to self-censor, but generally I have a policy of not writing about a band a second time unless they've given me reason to reconsider my initial opinion.

I had a good feeling about Sissy Face (even though their new name makes me cringe). The trouble with their first recordings was that they drew too heavily from a single source, rather amplifying their unlikable qualities and not giving the players breathing space to create their own styles. They've chosen an elegantly simple way of retreating from the hand-wringing white-guy solipsism that used to overwhelm them -- they've brought in a lady singer. This choice gives the band a different personality by default, but their new vocalist also has a cool, slow delivery that shifts the band's emphasis downward from the head to the hips. Partly as a natural reaction to the singer and partly due to the drummer, guitarist, and bassist's increased connection, they're much more of a dance band than before. I'd like to see them go even further that way. Their songs when the drums play busy and divided and the bass and guitar bisect the angles are 100% better than their inert ballads.

They're very young and it takes a generous ear to project what they could be once they get the reps in to sound tight (the singer is not at all ready to play guitar on stage, but she shouldn't stop practicing) but they have some intriguing pieces. Their guitar parts are composed, as a rule, with no lazy strumming and multiple distinctive patterns in each song. When they change parts within a song, it's obvious and often surprising because of the well-thought-out guitar foundations. The bass player is skilled and in possession of an excellent ear. The drums are at their best when they pick a weird fast groove and lock into it, but further practice should raise the interaction level between three pretty good players.

Until they've finished establishing an identity of their own, Sissy Face should absolutely avoid Smiths covers. It was nice to hear their singer enunciating clearly and in time, qualities that were lacking in their unfinished originals, but their "This Charming Man" only served to make their remaining songs sound less vital and unique. If completed and performed with confidence, I think they have the elements they need to write memorable songs. Portishead combined with the Stone Roses? No way that's not going to be cool, right?

They're on their way to becoming a good band, which wasn't the case before (no slight to their former singer, who's a friend and a good musician -- it simply wasn't the right fit). That makes me happy. I want everybody who's in a band to get better, and I want everybody who isn't in a band to start one.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Threadbare Essential

Nathan Payne
The Parlor North Loop, 5/3

"This is the first song from a record I made on my friend's four-track when I was living out of my car in California," Nathan Payne introduces. "I was really looking for the cheapest format possible." The sort of musicians who REQUIRE PRO GEAR in their classified ads wouldn't know what to make of Payne, who might be the single best lyricist sucking air in Central Texas right now. They'd take one look at his beater acoustic, rusted harmonica, and the tambourine he straps to his left foot in lieu of a backup band and run sobbing back to Guitar Center.

Pretty regularly now, I get these professional-looking media printouts and mass-produced CD's in the mail from "artists" whose only real asset is their abundance of equipment. The for-hire biographies always make a big deal about their home studios, but they never seem to address who paid for all that stuff. Payne, who runs a record label out of his taxicab and performs even to a tiny crowd with an infernal, inspired energy, is the underfunded, underexposed flipside to the strange magnetism Austin effects on musicians from everywhere else. He looks like a New Yorker, sings many of his songs about California, and traces his ultimate origins to Rockford, Illinois. His songs are so fixated on torched bridges and detonated relationships that I worry this nomad will be moving on again. Hold up! Austin needs more like him, although that statement downplays just how rare a talent he is.

Payne's songs are richly strewn with lyrics so great you'll shake your head for not having thought of them yourself: "molten Christmas lights," interstate highway tattooed on the eyes, couches crashed on one too many times, relationships dragged to the breaking point and beyond. Despite the darkness of his subjects, Payne performs with busker friendliness, pausing his verses to add commentary and acknowledging friends and strangers in the audience. His terrific, original singing voice does a lot to keep the material balanced. While his sneaky-good guitar playing is rambling-man folk, he has a perfectly imperfect weirdo baritone delivery that makes him seem like the lost frontman of a forgotten early-80's MTV band. He sort of sounds like John Linnell doing an impersonation of John Flansburgh, with the former's very, very deep pitch and the latter's yodel-like warble. New wave and "Americana" didn't cross paths a lot (there's Camper Van Beethoven and... that's all I got), so the juxtaposition of influences is daring.

A lot of music writing in this decentralized era is just the airing of competing tastes; I don't think there's anything I can really do to make you sit and listen to Squidbucket or The Invincible Czars if that's not your cup of tea. But if you like lyrics at all, if you've ever tried to write a song yourself, or especially if you're one of those exceptionally well-funded musicians who has never lived in a car and keeps sending me stupid songs about how much you like to smoke weed, take some time to listen to what Nathan Payne is doing.