Friday, August 27, 2010

Gigantic Animals

Larger Than Human

Whatever else you might want to say about them, Megafauna are original. I can't think of another band local or otherwise that combines these particular alien strands of influences in such a confident and distinctive way. The trio hybridizes 70's guitar heroics, late-80's funk-metal, and 90's "post-rock," with rough, gut-busting Angus Young guitar solos, dreadlock-shaking deep and heavy polyrhythms from the drums and bass, plus spacey, slow, warbled vocals that recall Björk more strongly than anything else. It's an odd concoction, a most peculiar contrast between traditionally macho chops-based metal posturing and more indirect, abstract emotions. Larger Than Human is a flawed document of a really interesting band, with some hypnotic aspects and some frustrating weaknesses.

The CD sounds great; it does a smart job of making a band who can be difficult to follow live sound together, streamlined, and contained... to the extent that Dani Neff's guitar and Will Krause's bass even can be contained. As a live band Megafauna can sometimes get lost in their own technical aptitude, sounding like three people wailing independently rather than a group. There's none of that business on the CD. Starting with the sharply documented sound of Cameron Page's drumming, the tracks here are crafted to maximize the impact of the big guitar riffs that are Megafauna's primary draw.

It can be difficult even for really experienced bands to grasp the differences in requirements on your playing from a live date to a recording session. The strong structure and sharp, direct performances on Larger Than Human suggest that Megafauna really get it. The varied production is also a plus. Rockers like "No Humans" and "Monsters Sleeping" are given straightforward trio arrangements with minimal overdubs, while "Silver Lining" has a haunted acoustic guitar break. The genre-bending "Warm House," which pivots from jazz ballad to cut-time hardcore beatdown, has a layered headphone sound with buzzing and whirring keyboards peeking out from the back of the mix, giving way to uneasy string sounds as the track develops.

Given the ambition on display, it's interesting that none of the tracks overstays its welcome. For a band with some scary improvisational talent, Megafauna never overindulge themselves with long instrumental sections that don't change. They keep things moving along. The solos, when they do come, are impressive without being 100% perfect... they have a rough edge to them that's really welcome. Neff can shred with the best of them but it's moments like the fraught, single bending notes at the climax to "Speck" that communicate the most emotionally.

I always try and give every CD that I review (at least) three formal, full-attention end-to-end listens. It's not always easy. A lot of them aren't worth listening to once. I had an unusual experience with Larger Than Human, though, which speaks to its unique status. The first time through the record, I was really impressed by how well the band had broken down its live sound for the purposes of recording. I kept hearing memorable riffs from their live show busting out in stripped-down, max-efficiency form, and it made me giddy. But my second listen to the album seemed to bring out the many similarities from one track to the next, instead of further revealing the songs' distinctiveness. Neff has a tic about singing the same vocal intervals, in very similar rhythms, in figure after figure. This doesn't bother me as much as it does some other people with whom I have attended Megafauna shows. Singers, and people who listen to vocal melodies first and foremost, are going to have issues with Larger Than Human.

Getting too fixated on the lack of vocal variety would be a mistake, though. On my third much-delayed listen to the record I tried to put the singing out of my head and really concentrate on the guitar core of their songwriting. Because they switch reference points so quickly, and because their proficient trio playing is so distinctive, I think it's easy to overlook how broad a range of sounds Megafauna use. Larger Than Human has songs that can be described as pop, in their own way, along with rockers, mood pieces, and experiments. "Wiretappers" is flat-out punk rock; "Canada" swipes at Skynyrd boogie up until the clip-clopping cowbell waltz beat turns it into a warped barn dance. "Butter Cookie" combines a slick college-rock guitar hook with odd-meter prog surges. The extreme variety of the band's tone and rhythm choices can be overlooked, unfortunately, due to the way the vocals fail to display as many ideas. (I'm speaking only to the vocal melodies, by the way... the lyrics are really good, with unsettling science fantasy oddness prevailing.)

It's hard to strike the right tone, writing about Larger Than Human. It's a wide-ranging, great-sounding set with one big soft spot that gets overexposed at its length. Held to an EP release the best five or six of these tracks might make a better case for Megafauna than does the long-player; at 13 songs their weaknesses start to become glaring. But I don't want to give the idea that their one Achilles' heel, as obvious and ultimately annoying as it becomes, completely overwhelms the good elements of the band. They're as original as they come instrumentally, and they come armed with superior ability and a better-than-average idea of how to present themselves and vary their mix of influences. A new approach to composing vocal melodies would make their second album amazing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Son of Kid

The J. Wesley Haynes Trio
Hot Tracks!!!, 8/18

Music writing like the music business has changed so dramatically in the past decade that it's foolish to make early generalizations. I don't think it's premature to say though that what drives many bloggers is access. From the somewhat exasperated attitudes of the promoters, door guys, and record store owners I encounter it seems obvious that the blogger class, if resigned to not being compensated directly for their work, believes passionately that they should never have to pay to get into anything.

This attitude concerns me a bit and I try to place myself above it. If all the really great music writers can get into anything, then who is left to write about all the cool and worthwhile shows that anybody can get in to? I wonder. Every now and then, though, as a direct consequence of doing my little writing thing I get to experience something special that makes me feel all warm with importance. Importance, and mooched beers.

Last week I got to go to Hot Tracks!!! for a private event that was a real privilege. The talented arrangers and improvisers of the J. Wesley Haynes Trio were recording their album-length interpretation of Kid A, live to tape and video. In a single unbroken take! Getting to see the studio itself was a treat for a close follower of Austin music. Rising local star Danny Malone is a co-owner and some choice CD's have been born there (The Gary's boss-sounding Logan, for example). It's a cozy and deliberately old-fashioned space with a reel-to-reel machine and a relaxing exposed-brick, lamplit ambiance. I may sound ridiculous claiming I can hear the difference it makes when musicians record all together, at once, in a room as opposed to part by part, over the course of many weeks and with many of the musicians never making eye contact with one another. But I can. I'm not kidding. I see too many local bands as it is who play live like they are totally unfamiliar with one another and their individual parts.

Not so much Wesley Haynes (Rhodes), Willy Jones (string bass), and Matthew Shepherd (drums), whose trio playing is dominated by sympathetic, spare cooperation. Each player leaves something out for someone else in the team to pick up. Good improvisational music requires risk-taking in addition to disciplined groove -- when I first encountered these guys live I observed that as they tied on multiple sets through the course of a long evening, they got stronger, slipperier, and more hypnotic as they progressed. As they got looser, they got odder and rougher in the best senses. Seeing them play their Radiohead tribute in the studio was a different beast. Very contained, they kept solos to a minimum and concentrated on presenting their own arrangement interpretations of some most distinctive and difficult themes.

I'm pleased to have an opportunity here where I can't help but discuss Radiohead. They're the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing modern guitar bands. It's hard to name a big-dreaming local rock act that isn't influenced by them. In critic-speak the Radiohead influence has come to mean one element in particular, the use of laptop or programmed beats and loops. That isn't really fair to the beatified Brits themselves, or the bands trying to climb on their shoulders. Listening to this mostly-acoustic, jazz-affiliated outfit take on the Kid A tunes with no post-1970's technology at all allowed my mind to wander freely over all of the many other original things about Radiohead that all of these mediocre local dream-pop acts (with drummers shackled cruelly to click tracks) overlook. Sudden changes in time signature, tempo, and tone that disrupt without breaking song logic. Long, seemingly anchorless melodies that develop over time into the central pillar of a tune. Guitar and keyboard parts that cue off of prepared electronic noise to inspire new rhythms.

So here's Jones bowing the melody to "Idioteque" with an odd, stately dignity, as Shepherd swipes at glass bottles of different sizes, an organic way of referring to -- without necessarily regurgitating -- the album version's mechanized clanks. Here's Haynes approaching the full bells-and-whistles force of "National Anthem" by laying out, coming in very lightly, and then just adding mass as the drums and bass build momentum. Bells, gauzy chords, and stillness define their "Motion Picture Soundtrack." The songs on Radiohead's source material that leaned most on production effects, JWHT plays extremely closely -- "Kid A" and "Treefingers" turn out to have sturdy, memorable, immediate melodies with their cold surfaces removed. Songs with more pop structure on the LP, like "Morning Bell" or "Everything in Its Right Place," the band play a little more open-ended.

It's a reined-in, studio kind of performance as opposed to the all-hanging-out after-hours vibe of their live show at its red-eyed peak. The band's transitions are together, although they feel their way through a few of the tougher tempo changes. You can imagine them stretching out some of the tunes and further putting their mark on the performances, like the way Jones teases the "National Anthem" bassline a few times while Haynes is still working through the wind-up toy chords of "Kid A." I'm glad this is just a starting point for J. Wesley Haynes Trio. Whether it ends up an official release or a bootleg, their Kid A adoption is a creative way of getting more of the attention they deserve. It'll be interesting to see what they do next. They do some choice Pixies covers live.

I'm really into the idea of bands that find ways of keeping the idea of the album alive... with live shows. It's counterintuitive, but with listeners' music collection habits -- and attention spans -- as broken up as they are nowadays, what other time do you have other than the live show when an audience is going to pay attention to you for the whole length of an album? It takes a lot of work to make even a single cover your own, adapting it to your band's instrumentation and style and including enough of the original's memorable aspects to keep it recognizable and enjoyable. I would start a rock and roll cover band that does entire albums -- one album, every show, a different one each time -- in a second if I knew enough musicians crazy and hardworking enough to do it. Keep an eye out for the J. Wesley Haynes Trio, who will be playing their Kid A piece out at venues all over Austin this fall. If they start packing them in, maybe it'll start a citywide trend.

What albums would you like to see covered all the way through? Off the top of my head... Marquee Moon, Exile on Main Street, Revolver, Slanted and Enchanted, Paul's Boutique, Bee Thousand, Pet Sounds, Spiderland, This Years Model.... What would be a cooler way to do a show like that, have one fixed band and have them try and figure out how to bring a different style to each tune or do an all-star show and give each group a different track assignment? That would be a good party, right? Musicians in Austin have be ambitious and crazy and a little ridiculous to be heard. I'm pleased to pass on news of the efforts of those that succeed.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Phasers on Funky

What Is Nerdwave?
World Racketeering Squad

I haven't done a CD review in a long time. Good thing I have a stack of them here to work on. I still need to spend some more time with the new Megafauna, which is too expansive to summarize quickly. I will say that they're one of the most original bands in Austin and the record (Larger Than Human) sounds great. I've enjoyed seeing them live and I have a new appreciation for how they are wiring some far-flung references into a highly creative sound, listening to them documented on disc so sharply. You should go see them Saturday at Hole in the Wall, with Transmography and the Hi-Tones among others. Three bucks, free before nine. Will get an in-depth review up soon.

The World Racketeering Squad are a band about whom I wrote one of my very first local reviews a year or so ago. It's amazing how much they have grown since then, but a good attitude and excess brainpower will do that for a band. Their debut full-length What Is Nerdwave? comes out officially a month from today. WRS are good role models for local bands. They're sharp dudes and they put a lot of thought into all the aspects of being a band. Check out this blog written by guitarist Isaac Priestley about the importance of command structure in the rock group. It's thoughtful stuff.

What Is Nerdwave? gives me a good chance to respond in a positive way to some criticism of my own work, which is that I only give good reviews to people who are exceptional or at least pro-level at their instruments. There's a difference, I argue, between playing the guitar well and writing good songs on the guitar. I don't mean to imply that the World Racketeering Squad are bad musicians. Isaac is in fact a very good guitar player, drummer Bruce Chandler keeps the beat steady and harmonizes strikingly well, and bassist Reed Oliver is expressive and ingratiating as principal lead singer. They're not pretty, trendy, or polished enough to ever be world-famous. But as far as meeting their goals of writing songs they can be proud of and putting on entertaining rock shows for their growing ranks of fans, they're getting it done. So can you.

The tunes on What Is Nerdwave? tell stories. The band uses its knack for good, sticky chorus hooks and supports it by writing lyrics that increase the expectation and hence the payoffs for the choruses. They also make their 80's-rock inspirations their own by injecting the Racketeers' personal obsessions and quirks, from the technosexual weirdness of "Electromagnetic Pulse" to the fanfic romance "Summer" (as in Summer Glau). The smart construction of the songwriting enhances the modest pleasures of their playing. A few songs really pop out: "I'm Not Dead" is fast, goofy fun and "Looking for Lorelai" is expertly conceived power pop.

World Racketeering Squad fall victim at times to the same mistakes as most young bands. Over-repetition is their biggest weakness. "Needful Things" has a silly recorder lick that works perfectly, but gets played four or more times in a row at three separate places in the song. Not necessary. "Summer" has a shift from bossa nova to guitar-slinger slow ride that would hammer harder if both sections were half as long. The hook for "Awesome" gets dragged out so many times it soon becomes anything but. And "You Are the Dream" tries to close Nerdwave off in stadium-rock glory but needs a more subtle approach than just one overtaxed flanger.

If you enjoy 80's pop, science fiction, and computer programmers who rock, this is something you should look into. The band's enterprising spirit shows through in the variety of release options for the CD. You can get just the disc, various expanded versions with cool extras, or the "Absolute Ultimate Racketeer Glory Edition." If you spring for this most exclusive package the band will write a custom song on a topic of your choosing. This is a great idea (not wholly original, but no matter) and I much prefer the idea of giving fans lots of choices to asking for a handout on Kickstarter.

Also: Local music fan John Waycuilis has started a group for supporters of the Austin scene. He's set up a Top 25 chart that loves local bands and is a good place to view posters for shows in town. Bands with shows to promote should take notice.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Those Daily Tranquilizers

FreshMillions, Love at 20, SuperLiteBike
The Parish, 8/14

We don't get to see laser light spectaculars very often, going as we do only to local shows. It was a nice change of pace to see a gig Saturday with some production values. The intense competition between all the bands here might be rough on musicians, but it's wonderful for music fans. Back in Boulder we would have had to pay thirty or forty bucks to see lasers and smoke machines!

I didn't know a thing about SuperLiteBike going in but they really impressed me. Their disco-demolition modern rock style, pitched somewhere in between the extreme dourness of Interpol and the utter ridiculousness of the Killers, isn't exactly my cup of tea. But as I hope some of you may have picked up on by now, I don't judge Austin bands based on whether they listen to the exact same records as I do at home. SuperLiteBike put on a dynamic, quick-moving show, hardly pausing between songs and showing the full range of possibilities available within their style. They continued to surprise me with new ideas I never would have expected from them after their first two songs, all the way to the end of the set. Trumpet melodies? Fingerstyle guitar? Latin-flavored percussion rumblings? They had a lot going on, and tied it all together with persistent strong harmonies and vigorous movement from their floppy-haired frontman.

SuperLiteBike songs are very much bass-driven, with the guitarist filling in the gaps. His use of effects was really creative, more geared towards making strange percussive noises than trying to make boring melodies sound interesting. Their drummer had really good volume control, saving his full blast power only for when it was needed. They were able to hold audience attention even when very quiet, and they took advantage of this with songs that often stripped down to one or two naked parts. I was surprised to find out after their set that they were a five-piece until quite recently, with a keyboard player added. Maybe that was why I liked them so much! A lot of bands over-layer their music to the point where the main ideas are lost. By keeping it spartan the SuperLiteBikers kept things progressing and left the really fine singing combination of their bassist and frontman prominent in the mix. I dig them -- and I don't think they should hire another keyboard player. Upon reading that their debut Away We Go is a full-fledged concept album, my enthusiasm for SuperLiteBike grew even more. I'm excited to hear more from this band!

Love at 20 were a different case altogether. Intelligently packaged and marketed (their decision to give away their LP Time to Begin for free online was brilliant and has already paid dividends), they're certainly among that breed of local bands who believe that if you want to be treated like professionals you should act that way from the outset. Their confidence was the chief strength of that album, which took in the wide variety of influences that any career band must. From club bangers to winsome Weezer-ish guitar pop to power ballads to wedding songs, they were certainly not going to be accused of having too narrow a range. In my review my main quibble was with the lyrics, which weren't anywhere near as worldly as the music attempted to be. Shouldn't be as much of a problem live, right? Well, no, but bad lyrics were the least of Love at 20's problems on stage.

The album had songs in a number of different styles, some of which succeeded more than others. Live, they only seemed to have one real song ("So Bad," a come-hither winner) and then a bunch of dirges that didn't vary from each other and didn't reflect upon the band at all well. Their keyboard player, utterly motionless, disappeared literally and figuratively behind the frontman. The drummer was stubbornly, mechanically loud -- maybe instead of wearing ornate ear protection he should just play softer. And the two guitar players sawed away in unison and drowned out the keys, vocals, bass, and all else. Love at 20 entreated people to dance, but since none of their songs (except "So Bad") feature any syncopation, there's not a whole lot there for crowds to move to. Time to go back to the drawing board and write some new songs that won't isolate "So Bad" so plainly. And move the keyboard player out front (anybody who sings often should be fully visible) and get some Red Bull into her. Is this a rock show or a wake?

FreshMillions are one of those cool new bands where there's no real way to tell from listening to the record exactly how it is they do what they do. I love when musicians challenge my ear in that way. They're also singularly devoted to the funk, for an experimental instrumental rock-tronic group. They succeeded where Love at 20 failed in getting butts to move, mostly because their music demands it, and additionally since they grooved pretty hard themselves. In a sense they're like reverse karaoke, a guitar-bass-drums rhythm section that plays in "support" of a simple melodic loop or sample on each song. It's hard to find an easy comparison. Maybe the Beastie Boys in their lounge-instrumental guise, only with really solid chops. Or the hardest-to-find, most tape-manipulated, disturbing Prince B-sides ever.

The no-frontman ideal serves their writing well, although I wonder if they wouldn't be even more undeniable with a singing and dancing focal point. As a trio they do their best to raise the roof, although everyone's got their hands pretty full working guitars, keyboards, and pedals all together. Their vocoders can wear on you by the third or fourth use. The one song with proper vocals they performed, "Control Freak," showed why they don't sing that often... it sounded goonish and frat-y, like 3 Oh! 3 or somebody. Their drummer Dan also plays with Monument to No One and I was impressed by his ability to play in a totally different style, with entirely different responsibilities. He's a hell of a musician, and brought space-rock gravitas to some of FreshMillions' less frenzied moments. They sure didn't sound like Pink Floyd on their record! They repeatedly would introduce a funky, funky bassline, then have it drop out, then bring it back -- making the listener realize how much they missed it. Love this technique. They got more compulsive and sweaty the later the hour got. Even though I was tired and a little disoriented I went from head-nodding to foot-shuffling to full-on body-flailing by their last song. Party jams!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Loud Sound Low Roof

Shells, Lafayette, Wine and Revolution
Cheer Up Charlie's, 8/7

I don't know if I agree with the logic behind these shows that put three bands with similar influences and even similar-looking members together. I want some variety when I go out, and I don't want to wind up splitting hairs or getting hung up in the little differences between bands. Sometimes I get less excited than I could about a given band because they were preceded by less effective versions of the same thing.

So let's start with Shells, who played last of these three bands but were definitely the best/furthest along. I liked the brusque but effective fuzz on their bass and their drummer's pared-down but still varied kit and playing. Their guitarist has some real blues chops but he kept his solos more about emotion than lots of notes, showing just enough technique to make his point but keeping the lead guitar bits short and sweet. Their best tunes built around country, soul, and swing rhythms, given real volume and force and with a soulful vocal approach too. They had a few boring droning ones but they knew how to keep their full turned-to-11 roar in reserve except for where they needed it most, and they put on a good show too. The bassist was rocking out from head to toe the whole time, and they really blew it out for the extended big finish for the last song, smashing into one another and tearing the drums apart. I love that sort of stuff -- their rock and roll attitude pushed them over from OK to pretty good in my mind.

I loved Lafayette's online recordings but they weren't the well-oiled machine those tunes made them out to be. They didn't really adjust their volume downwards for the small room and it made the vocals, their best quality, rather hard to hear. I also didn't like as many of their other songs as I expected to based on the three solid demos. It might have been the writing or it might have been too much volume. Wine & Revolution led off with a few songs that really got the night started well, showing a good knack for the dual rhythm guitar style of The Feelies or The Clash. They had two guys chugging along pretty hardcore, but seldom in unison. Their bassist did a good job of picking up some of the slack melodically -- in fact, I quite liked the bassists for all three of the bands. The vocals were effective in that kind of hollering, Nuggets sort of style. They could have been a little clearer, too, although Wine & Revolution didn't sound as muffled as Lafayette. Their problem was more that all their stuff kind of follows the same template and even though their arrangements are pretty smart I felt like I had seen all of their moves well before the last song arrived.

Shells were definitely the find of the evening. I'd see them again in a minute. The other two bands have some work left to do, mostly finding ways of putting more variety into the setlist. Within their songs, and from one tune to the next.

Are You Not Info-Tained?

I have three more features and a news column to bang out for the 'zine before my deadline on Monday. No problem. I just need to take a break from writing for a second here so the last paragraphs to all of these pieces aren't about rainbow-colored elephants and one-world government conspiracy theories. Why not take a break from writing... to write about all the shows I went to this week? It must be done. Just because I have a project in the works doesn't mean the parade of excellent local shows has slowed down in Austin even a little.

The Cocker Spaniels hit Red 7 on Wednesday, and Sean did his best to make it a spectacle. I love the guy like a brother, but I was still afraid to approach him before his set began... that's how intensely focused he looked. The man is driven to rock. I've been putting off going to see one of his live shows for a while, not because I didn't think it would be good, but because I knew exactly what to expect... crazy dancing, a few guitar cameos, in-your-face audience engagement. Sean composes and performs the parts for nearly every instrument on his recordings, and at a live show he plays his backing tracks on an iPod while selling his lyrics as hard as he can with a full-body, full-venue performance. He gets in people's faces and forces them to deal with him, and it's pretty metal! He has such infectious, positive energy that almost everybody he dances up on ends up smiling and grooving with him, although there was one priceless moment when a girl all but fled in the other direction after he put his moves on her.

C. Spaniels put on a heck of a show as a one-man act, don't get me wrong. I know Sean doesn't want to hear it, but both Anna and I feel like he'd have more impact with a band behind him. With all of its crazy far-flung influences his music is still rock at its core, and it seems weird for the ultimate frontman to be flinging himself into the crowd and leaving a big stage empty behind him. Playing to a tape downplays the Spaniels' top-drawer musicianship and emphasizes the novelty aspect. There's also a disconnect between the party-time dancing of the fast numbers and the motionless formality of the solo guitar songs. I want the rock and the funk and the dancing and the flashy lead guitars all at once! At least when Cocker Spaniels are playing a big rock stage with loud rock bands. That's my opinion. I know it irritates Sean when I say this (and I know he's about to launch a huge solo tour), but he's one of my best friends who plays music in Austin, and if I can't be honest to my friends, what am I really doing here?

Part of the argument Sean makes on his Tumblr against expanding the C. Spaniels lineup is that not just any musicians can play compositions of this complexity. I agree with him there, but he may be underestimating the talent pool available in our fair city. He also says that it wouldn't affect the difficulty he has getting fans of other bands at shows to pay attention to his sets. There I disagree: Everybody looks for different things in bands, and having a team broadens your appeal both passively ("That singer kind of weirds me out, but look at the cool instrument their bass player has, I wonder what they will sound like") and actively (more teammates to go around being friendly and selling the performance inside the venue and out before it begins). The most touchy argument Sean has about keeping his music's live presentation the way it is is that the songs are really personal to him. There I see his point. He puts more truth and honesty into his writing than most. It really is direct personal expression in a way that nearly all songwriters are too self-conscious to ever approach. Bandmates with the wrong attitude could drown out or obscure his message, and that's the last thing that I want to see happen. My take is that there are a lot of really talented technical players in town who have nothing in particular to say, and that keeps them from finding the audience they need if they're going to make a living at their art. They might be grateful for the opportunity to work under somebody with real vision. I'm just saying!

OK, having navigated those choppy waters, let's move on. Vanished Clan are an instrumental rock trio with good pedigree (drummer Marc Henry is a beast) and thoughtful, well-composed songs that don't hammer the same riffs into oblivion but move through many distinct and interesting parts. I have been listening to their recordings for a week or so and wondering why I wasn't more excited about them. I love guitar-led "post" bands like 5ive Style and Don Caballero and I could tell right away that Vanished Clan had three really good players working together. Why then did I feel curiously unmoved by them? Went to see them Thursday at the Dirty Dog and I think I have a better idea now. Although the playing is great and the writing is not boring, what they're lacking for is more than one mood. Their tunes have dynamics, but not enough variance in color... they are either rocking out, or waiting to rock out.

My knee-jerk prescription would be to add another instrumental voice, but that could mean any number of things. They don't even necessarily need a fourth member or an additional instrument. They just need to work some poignant melodies in with all the agreeable rhythms. The bassist mostly shadows the guitar, so maybe he could step out during the slow parts. Or maybe the guitar player could take chances with some more lead lines. They could have guitar and bass do stings and let the drums tell a story. Maybe they should do all those things. Whatever they do, they need some way of making their music communicate feelings. Now it's all about just the sound of them playing, and that's not enough even for a total music nerd like me.

World Racketeering Squad weren't the most technically proficient band I saw this week, but they put on the best show. That's what counts! Guitarist Isaac Priestley is really talented, and his playing provides the necessary ballast for their goofy but clever vocal melodies. The drums are simple but effective, and bassist/singer Reed Oliver does his best on his instrument even though he started learning to play after founding the band. You'd have to be listening very hard to notice their mistakes, however, because their songs are very strong. They really emphasize what's best about the band: their sense of humor, their camaraderie, and their attention to detail. Can you become a good songwriter merely by listening extremely closely to tons and tons of good songs? I believe that you can, and WRS are a perfect test case. They're confident enough of their own originality to introduce songs on stage by flagging their origins: 80's rock and jangle, with The Cure and The Smiths paramount but enough of a completist's bent to touch on the weirder and more ephemeral artifacts of the era as well. They have listened closely enough to know how to make songs that capture the sound but are original. And they know how to put on a show! They have snappy matching outfits! Everybody in the band takes a lead vocal. Isaac climbs on the monitors for his solos and Reed has the timing of his high leg kicks worked out just so. I have been listening to their album What Is Nerdwave? for a while now and have already grown to love the song "Electromagnetic Pulse," their opener Friday. The live show brought new weight to two other songs, "Summer" with its transition from laid-back bossa nova into arena rock fury and "I'm Not Dead" with its dopey but winning repeating chorus hook. To become advanced songwriters they need still to learn how to expose their best hooks more economically. But they are inspired amateurs, and the fact that they act like they own a stage counts for so much more. This band is living the dream! They write good songs and rock the heck out on stage while playing them for their friends. As far as I'm concerned that makes them stars.

You Might Think We're Sharks are less developed and more self-conscious. But I want to encourage them to keep writing songs and playing shows, because the lack of completed arrangements didn't disguise a real talent for vocal melodies operating somewhere underneath the often too-busy guitars. Their first song had me gritting my teeth, as it featured two guitarists chopping up-and-down chords in unison in that very special way you all know I hate. But I hung in there, partly because their boy-girl harmonies are beautiful and partly because Isaac Racketeer is their bassist. As the set went on I felt like I was hearing the first songs frontman Daniel had ever written... but I could hear him learning something with every tune. They sort of lost me with two long rote ones at the very end, but in between they showed a real grasp of trying different rhythm patterns. Basic ones, to be sure, but there's a huge difference between a simple rhythm and no rhythm at all. Even the less sharply developed sections were made much stronger by a good band -- drums and lead guitar, in particular, elevated the material and the harmonies were consistently lovely. They have work left to do. Other than the quietest parts, it was easy to forget they had a keyboard player at all, and they need to bring the changes on more quickly in general. Their best song led with just bass, drums, and singing, so that when the guitars did come in it seemed like they were following the vocals rather than the other way around. Best three words of advice I can give: less is more!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Prime Rib

Sweetmeat, White Rhino, Big Rock Candy Mountain
US Art Authority, 7/31

July was a good month for the USAA, no? My appreciation for the joint has increased exponentially since the outdoor Body Wash, where we finally figured out there was a sweet patio outdoors. Anna and I had been stuck milling around in the parking lot between bands the first several times we went there. I don't what is about us psychologically that we're afraid to explore the full run of all the clubs at which we attend shows. We went to the Hole in the Wall four or five times before we even knew it had a whole outdoor bar area equal in size to the indoors floor space. The upstairs at Headhunters eluded us for months. You haven't truly bonded with a music venue until you've figured out where the kids sneak off to to smoke pot.

Sweetmeat are the real deal! A swanky party band made up of master-class players from Opposite Day and Invincible Czars, I hope they'll forgive me for waiting this long to go see them. For most of the good independent bands in Austin I walk away from a show thinking of one or two things in particular that the group does well and others should study. Sweetmeat do everything well. Their arrangements are top-shelf, keeping simple grooves fascinating by using every possible combination of instruments on stage. And then some -- add beatboxing to the seemingly endless repertoire of Opposite Day's gifted Sam Arnold. Since they're a dance band at heart, they replace the hairpin eclecticism of their two parent bands with songs that display their nonpareil musicianship in separate but equally valid ways. Fronted by a fire-and-ice duo of lady singers, Sweetmeat have stage presence to melt hearts. Gina Holton pairs her playfully suggestive lyrics with confidently physical body language, and Leila Henley provides wry harmonies and the most expressive pair of eyebrows in the business. Oh, and she blows a mean sax as well.

Czar Josh Robins is a scary-good guitarist -- during sound check, I was envious of his ability to comp with the jazz trio playing in the other room by ear -- but like bassist Greg Yancey and drummer Tommy Holton he's graciously playing a support role in Sweetmeat, contributing handclaps and spare keyboard parts when that's what is required. Josh, Greg, Leila, and Sam all get the opportunities to showcase their soloing chops in Sweetmeat but the focus remains always on making hips shake. They played very late Saturday, but exhaustion could not keep Anna C. and I from dancing exuberantly to their music. You'd have to be unconscious not to move to this band.

White Rhino would probably prefer if I waited to see them again before writing up a live show. While the lineup of bands booked by Megafauna's Will Krause was very good, the event's sponsor didn't do a terribly good job keeping things moving. The bands were rushed to set up, and the sound wasn't as good as at many of the other shows I have attended at the same venue. Even though they sounded muffled, I could still hear White Rhino well enough to know that I wasn't blowing smoke when I reviewed their EP Heroin Thunder. They're a fashion-blind, lovably crusty motorcycle rock band with wit and hooks. Their singer Michael Anthony Gibson even has a hilarious little hand gesture worked out for the memorable "wipe the powder from your nose" line from "Burn My Candle." They look and act the part of unreformed scuzz rockers, down to their choices of instruments... Thunderbird bass, shiny Les Paul... correct. The strongest material was definitely the stuff from the EP, but there was one other tune I quite liked. I'll see them again.

The full lineup made showing up early rewarding. Real Book Fake Book played first and were again strong. Squidbucket were less of an unified force than usual with a fill-in drummer but made the best of the opportunity, and even the chaotic Tornahdo seem to have developed more of an individual identity since last I saw them. But Big Rock Candy Mountain, of New Orleans, really sucked the air out of the room right in the middle of the show. I wasn't going to write anything about them at all, but then their guitar player had a little equipment-hurling hissy fit after equipment problems stopped them for the third and final time in their set. There's a lesson to be drawn from these jokers. You should learn not to suck before you start going out of town to play your music. Frustration and poverty will result otherwise.

Big Rock were a train wreck even when all of their pointless guitar effects were plugged in. What efforts the keyboardist and singer made to give their tunes melody and personality were sabotaged by an obnoxiously loud and inaccurate drummer, a mistake-prone bassist, and the guitarist's self-aggrandizing interest in playing parts that showed off his investments in equipment instead of in any way serving the songs. Don't bring that mess in Austin. They took way too long to set up and break down, which was terribly unfair to the bands playing after them. Sweetmeat were more graceful than I myself might have been about playing after one in the morning to a greatly diminished crowd. They deserved the opportunity to win new fans that BRCM blew so badly.

Bold-faced type: As I've been alluding to here and talking about constantly on my Twitter feed, there's going to be a print edition of Big Western Flavor, debuting at the end of this month! I'm excited and filled with ideas for the possibilities this new venture will offer. In addition to CD and show reviews from the site there will be a bunch of exclusive content in the 'zine, which will be free and will be available all over Austin. While this blog focuses on one man's opinions of local original music, good, bad, and indifferent, the magazine as we've conceived it has a different slant. It's going to be all about the things Austin bands do to build a community around their music. I want anybody who's in a band to be able to read it and think of things they could do to further their own projects, whether or not they sound anything remotely like the music featured. I've been conducting interviews nearly every day for two weeks and I'm pumped about the lineup: The Gary, The Sour Notes, La Snacks, Freshmillions, Neiliyo, Rich Restaino & The Obits, For Hours and Ours, The Cocker Spaniels. Plus local music news and poetry from Thax Douglas!

Speaking of community involvement, I could really use some help from BWF readers. If you're in a band or work at a local studio and have tips for use in the news and notes column, send them in. If you have a record or tour on the horizon, we want to know! The news section is going to be reporting, not criticism, so even bands I may have ripped in the past should get on board. (Those eternal optimists in The Midgetmen know what's up.) Also, if you represent a local business that would be interested in buying dirt-cheap advertising space in a free publication that's going to be on the floors of music stores, guitar shops, coffeehouses, venues, and the like all over Austin, we should really talk. Persuading your boss to buy an ad in the Big Western 'zine will not guarantee privileged coverage for your band... but it couldn't hurt. E-mail and put "news item" or "ad inquiry" in the subject line as needed.

Free shows this week: It's five bucks more than free but I just found out about a show at Elysium Thursday night with Focus Group and cellist Randall Holt. Highly recommended! On Saturday you've got Lafayette with Wild Harem and Wine & Revolution at Cheer Up Charlie's. That one is confirmed free. Another no-cover show Friday at Rockin Tomato (3003 S. Lamar): World Racketeering Squad (really enjoying the pre-release copy of their What Is Nerdwave? out next month) and You Might Think We're Sharks.