Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Your Band Is Not Good

It's Not a Question, Baby
Go Action Team

I always listen to stuff all the way through at least twice before reviewing it. First impressions are dangerous; it's always a good idea to double-check and make sure you're totally certain a record is good before you say so. It's also wise, though burdensome, to make sure there's nothing at all redeeming about a CD before you rip it to pieces. I could have written everything I'm about to write about Go Action Team a week ago, but I couldn't bring myself to listen to their ten-song CD again for this long. It's just that tedious.

I did find one nice thing to say, though, so let's go ahead and lead with that: Their drummer has decent meter. It may well come from the fact that he plays exactly the same beat on every song (half time on the hi-hat, kick on the one, double kick on the three), but at least he does so confidently and competently. That's about the nicest thing you can say about It's Not a Question, Baby, a witless collection of lousy songwriting, shoddy lyrics, rote structures, inaccurate harmonies, and lazy musicianship. Go Action Team rhyme "all right" with "tonight" on at least three of the songs, and there's nary a line on the whole record that doesn't sound pilfered. "Before/much more," "too late/can't wait," "stay/million miles away," you get the idea.

The abysmal lyrics by themselves aren't enough to condemn the band, but they're an indicative of a musical approach that takes the easy path every time. The songs all have basically the same melody. There's no rhythmic variation for more than half of the tunes, with the trio chugging eighth notes in unison and changing chords in the same places every time. When there's a guitar solo, Scott Collier usually just plays the same notes of the chords he's been playing in the verses, only higher up and with an effect on them. For exactly two bars of "Tonight," the guitar does something different, and "So Long" and "Blood Red Letter" have good solos. Other than that, there's nothing even remotely interesting or listenable for all of 10 songs. On the rare occasion the band ventures into syncopated rhythm, you realize why they do it so rarely, because bassist Mike Combs can't keep up. His playing is laggy and muddy-sounding (although the latter is probably a blessing). He's only replicating what Collier is doing anyway, which makes it odd than most of the time he can't even play his single-note parts correctly.

Add the brain-dead lyrics to the repetitive, amateur playing and repeated exposure to this music could cause permanent hearing damage. Entirely by accident, "Round 2" sums the up the entire experience more succinctly than I ever could: "We're back where we started/Has anything changed at all?" Nope, you're still playing the same chords in the same rhythm, badly, while singing lyrics that sound incompletely translated from a different language. I'm done with Go Action Team now, and I think I need a shower. Or at least to listen to Weezer's Pinkerton and hear simple heavy-guitar pop music executed the correct way, with original lyrics, a rhythm section that has something to contribute, lots of changes, memorable melodies, harmonies that are actually in harmony, and lead guitar playing which will appeal to the non-lobotomized. In short, the antithesis of this self-impressed, static garbage.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Austin Free Week
A dive bar near you

I'm not the settling type. Since I've been old enough to go to shows by myself, I've had mailing addresses in Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, Houston, Boulder, and now Austin. If I'd moved here sooner, perhaps I wouldn't have pulled up roots so many times. Here's what separates my latest adopted home from the others: Anywhere else, the slow touring calendar at the very beginning of January would be something about which to complain. In all of the other college towns in which I've lived (and I've lived in a few), culture simply shuts down from Thanksgiving to MLK Day. But in these parts, where the critical mass of underappreciated local bands presents both crisis and opportunity, measures have been taken. At just the time of year when the weather and the sparse selection of roadshows could serve as ample excuse to be sluggish about updating one's Austin music blog, here comes Free Week.

"Free Week" is a bit of a misnomer, since the parade of no-cover local shows lasts by my count ten entire days, the 1st of January through the 10th. The "free" part, as best as I can ascertain, is for real. And that's what really counts, for we unemployed writers who have been reduced to busking Patsy Cline songs up and down the drag so we can afford to buy our girlfriends Xmas beer. (If you see a very tall, very skinny guitar player wearing a Chicago Bears knit cap singing "I Fall to Pieces," tip liberally.)

I haven't seen a full comprehensive schedule for the "week" of shows at Emo's, Mohawk, Red 7, Beerland, Club Deville, and elsewhere yet, but a little research never hurt anyone. Here's a list of what I know to be on the table thus far, with some links and some picks.

Friday, January 1
Red 7 (inside): Azatat, Boomset, Cali Zack & n/a, Kill City, Mutual Trust, Crew 54

Pick your genre: Red 7 has a diverse hip-hop lineup and a flattening mix of metal and hardcore, Mohawk is delivering the country goods, and the Emo's outside lineup has moody psychedelic folk to suit the probably cloudy weather. The Crooks are definitely worth seeing but the most tempting lineup is the garage pop menu inside at Emo's, headlined by the fine Ugly Beats, who have by far the most lovely album artwork in Austin. These things matter.

Saturday, January 2
Emo's (inside): Ghost Knife, The Ape-Shits, Manikin, Serious Tracers, The Vitamins
Mohawk (outside): Lions, Vinhomudeh, Eagle Claw
Mohawk (inside): In Dudero, PJ and the Bear, The December Boys
Red 7 (outside): The Young, Pillow Queens, Cruddy, MVSCLZ
Beerland: Flametrick Subs

Morbid curiosity might lead one to the Nirvana tribute show at Mohawk (which offers the added incentive of Lions, a band you're not going to get many more chances to see for free), but Emo's has an inside-outside theme night that Nuggets fans will see as irresistible. You've got the polished, justifiably buzzed-about Harlem taking the outdoor stage (along with the scuzzier tone and lovably obnoxious vocals of Woven Bones) and then inside you've got a variety of those bands that sound like they left their sanity back in the garden with Syd Barrett. Minds will warp! Also, a good opportunity to test whether it's literally true that fuzz guitars warm human bodies. It's curious how many garage acts we have in what's really a carport town, no?

Sunday, January 3
Emo's (inside): Booher & the Turkeyz, Frank Smith, Prayer for Animals, Crooks, Western Ghost House
Club Deville: Sally Crewe, TBA

There's some good stuff on early at Emo's, but you can see polite, consonant country-rock any old time in this town (including most of the other days of Free Week). The late show at Red 7 is a lot wilder and a lot more interesting, headlined by the unique spazz-fusion of Tornahdo and featuring a number of other art-damaged improvisational bands that with prolonged exposure ought to make listeners consider taking the bus home rather than driving.

Monday, January 4
Mohawk (inside): Baron Grod, TBA

Nothing too exciting Monday. This will be a good night to stay home and recharge the batteries.

Tuesday, January 5

A rare opportunity to see some traditional "indie rock"-type acts at metal haven Red 7, even if several of the groups -- Lemuria, The Commissure, Orchestra of Antlers -- are touring bands. They must be really excited about Austin in January to come all this way to play a no-cover show. The can't-miss act for Tuesday has got to be the Obsolete Machines, whose dream/goth/techno-rock grabs you and won't let go.

Wednesday, January 6
Club Deville: Honky, Vinhomudeh, Mobley

Austin's uncommonly high band-to-citizen ratio can be a double-edged sword. Sometimes it's cool that you can book 10 bands all of whom sound like the same 13th Floor Elevators album track at one club for one night, but often the ear craves variety. The Wednesday Red 7 show might be the best of all Free Week when it comes to offering bands that complement each other without necessarily sounding all that much alike. You've got The Gary, who sound pleasantly like Eleventh Dream Day, Frantic Clam's glam-rock, the 80's postpunk/90's lo-fi Midgetmen, and the utterly unclassifiable Opposite Day, one of the most purely pleasurable rock and roll bands anywhere. Not to be overlooked, La Snacks top the bill with their easygoing, melody-laden approach and one of the most immediately likable lead singers in the county. A fantastic show at twice the price. Which would still be free.

Thursday, January 7
Mohawk (outside): Brazos, TV Torso, Great Nostalgic
Red 7 (inside): Get Action DJ's
Stubb's (inside): The White Hotel, White Dress, Jessi Torrisi

Lots of bands double- and triple-dipping during this undeclared festival, but that's all right, it's hard to complain that you're taxing your fans' pocketbooks when the shows are no-cover. If ever you had any interest in seeing Smoke & Feathers, well, you'll have no excuse not to have done so after this January. Thursday night is an action-packed evening but I find myself drawn to Emo's again for Haunting Oboe Music (if you like drummers, you've got to see this band), some similarly-minded psych-rock acts, and the palate-cleansing inclusion of The Eastern Sea and their great, wide-eyed songwriting. [I didn't find out they were playing until a few days after the original post, but Wiretree are one of my favorite Austin bands and they should be seen as well.]

Friday, January 8
Emo's (outside): The Crack Pipes, The Golden Boys, The Royal Butchers, Follow That Bird!
Red 7 (inside): DJ Sambo
Stubb's (inside): Jesse Woods

Some interesting choices Friday. The Emo's indoor show has a few bands that do an amazing job getting their name out there and engaging the community. Club Deville offers a chance to see whether Corto Maltese have improved any since the last time I saw them (doubtful). Red 7 has a wall-to-wall bill of those relentlessly puritanical punk bands where one and exactly one member per group has the standard mohawk haircut. This gorgeous show flyer has me sold on the Mohawk indoor lineup. Beautiful work there by Bland Design, which I assume means Christian Bland.

Saturday, January 9
Emo's (inside): The Hex Dispensers, The Sinks, The Altars, Shanghai River
Red 7 (inside): Shitty Carwash, Eagle Claw, White Rhino, Markov, Thieves
Stubb's (inside): Leatherbag, The Pons, Danny Malone

Who did you miss during the week? You'll have the opportunity on Saturday to make up whichever great show you most regret missing. Watch Out for Rockets have some of the best song titles in town, but for me it just wouldn't seem right to not attend at least one show at Beerland, my favorite joint in Austin. I love the three band names for that gig, don't you?

Sunday, January 10
Emo's (outside): A Giant Dog, Bad Sports, Cause for Applause, Elvis
Emo's (inside): Red X Red M, Woodgrain, Eagle Claw, ODEZCO, Expensive Shit
Red 7 (early show): Set Aflame, Bonnie Blue, Let the Dead, TBA

Seems like we're coming full circle here -- Woolgather and A Giant Dog were two of the very first Austin bands that I listened to when I was still living in Colorado and contemplating moving down here to seek my fortune. They represent well the contrasting poles of rock in Central Texas, one stylish and modern and the other comfy and retro. I don't think it will surprise anyone that I tend to side with those with old-school sensibilities. I've been wanting to see A Giant Dog for ages but I've been too cheap and too poor to make it happen. No longer!

Thanks to my sources: Showlist Austin, Emo's, Stubb's, Beerland, Red 7, and Mohawk. The Parish Room hasn't posted the lineup for the 10th yet but as of 1/1 I've updated the listings with their shows from the 6th through the 9th. The Beauty Bar is supposed to have free bands and DJ's all week but their calendar is nowhere to be found, no one answers the phone when you call them, and they haven't updated their voicemail message since ACL. (Thanks to Kurt from Tornahdo/Squidbucket for the tip on the Friday 1/8 show there.) I've pretty much given up on trying to go to shows at the Beauty since it's pretty clear they have no interest whatsoever in putting any effort behind gigs for local bands. There's also a joint called Encore that I have seen on some bands' pages. I'm having trouble finding any more information about it. 'Nites has their own take on Free Week up, here's a blurb from Austinist, and here's the page of the folks who started it all, Transmission Entertainment.

If you are a band or a club that's participating in a show I've somehow overlooked, please let me know (so long as it's free). And if any club has an empty spot and wants to have me come and perform my rock opera in its entirety, I'm available.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Partial Birth

Reality Memory Sensation [EP]
The Fetus Tree

Michael Mullings, the Austin songwriter/guitarist/experimental musician who records as The Fetus Tree, sent me a package in the mail with quite a bit to digest. Three CD's worth, one summarizing his early work, another with his most recent completed release, and a third including some early mixes of his unfinished next opus. This is an excellent opportunity as a reviewer. Normally one has to extrapolate from a single recording what a musician's roots are, and what direction they're heading next. I was able to listen to Reality Memory Sensation, take some notes, and see whether my assumptions about The Fetus Tree's development process were correct. Then I was able to put on the preview of the next record and see whether the progress I wanted to hear based on the EP was taking place or not.

Mullings is an intriguing artist, one whose music is equal parts IDM and guitar-based folk. Reality Memory Sensation gives each element of his sound a track of its own and then attempts to combine streams for its closer, "Sensation," which weds a circular electric guitar figure with programmed disruptions. Without the electronic additions, his guitar-based songwriting is a little dreary, with little in the way of melodic advancement and gloomy vocals. The collection of earlier recordings he sent along shows why The Fetus Tree needed to move past a totally guitar-centered identity -- other than the atypically upbeat "Magic," the tracks are colorless and droning. The electronic composition "Ocean <-> Sky" contrasts oddly with the guitar/vocal numbers.

Along with the first EP track, "Reality," Fetus Tree's electronic stuff does have a weakness in common with their singer/songwriter tunes. They're not nearly extroverted enough. "Reality" has a lot of development and changing rhythmic and melodic pedals, but the patches selected are well within the normal range of expectations for modern-day electronic music. You won't hear anything that shocks you, and the melodies are almost too politely mixed low and employed for fleeting moments. The music could stand to be much prettier, or much more obnoxious, or both, but it definitely needs to take risks one way or the other.

Combining approaches seems the natural answer for The Fetus Tree to hit upon a sound that's both memorable and original. "Sensation," the last track on the EP, shows both how this could work and the pitfalls involved. It's far and away the most interesting piece Mullings has completed thus far, with its odd, longing guitar melody and unsettling programmed bass tones, but it also has technical problems. The guitar performance and the delay effect applied to it aren't lined up properly with the electronic elements, and that really undermines the lulling, hypnotic effect that the track ought to have. As odd as it is that the bulk of his early releases switch back and forth from one style to the other, you can see why The Fetus Tree didn't jump into a hybrid approach right off the bat. It's a lot easier to theorize about than practically execute.

The tracks from Audio Sketches Vol. 1, the next Fetus Tree project, show things continuing to cohere. The programmed elements are more of a vital cog to the songs than incidental noise, the live instruments and vocals sound in closer touch with the beats (although still not perfect), and unexpectedly Mullings is beginning to develop more attitude and personality in his vocals. That's a most welcome development. I look forward to hearing the completed new record.

Oh, one more thing: I don't like the band name at all. It's tacky and politically confrontational in a way that doesn't match up with the project's music in any way, shape, or form. "Fetus Tree" makes me think of a Megadeth album cover or something. There's probably a way to label the elements of genesis, creation, and rebirth present in this music that doesn't call to mind images of people firebombing Planned Parenthood.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to Austin, Now Get Out

Here's some free advice for aspiring local musicians, in the spirit of this season of giving. Get out of town!

I'm not saying you're not welcome here, although those of you who don't work hard on your songs, think you're above practicing, and begin drinking in earnest four hours before your set begins should definitely consider relocating to some place where the competition is less fierce. But for those of you who have put the time in on creating a setlist you're proud of and a recording that represents you well, it's time to go play in other cities!

It's certainly possible to play five or more shows in Austin every month, with the high concentration of clubs that offer live music in town. But it's a terrible idea. For the first several months of your existence, you're going to be counting on a core audience of friends, co-workers, and relatives to fill up those empty rooms. With the unbelievable amount of entertainment options available in Austin any given night of the week, just about nobody is going to show up at your concert dates out of the blue and give you their full attention. (The only person in this entire city who does that is me, and there is only one Western Homes.) You're going to be testing your girlfriends' patience fairly quickly if you expect them to show up in mostly empty bars twice a week to hear the same eight songs.

Restricting your "home" shows to about once a month (or even better, once every six weeks) makes it much easier to concentrate on promoting a single concert. If you tell an acquaintance that you're playing Wednesday at Headhunter's, Tuesday at Beerland, Thursday at the Hole in the Wall and so on, they're likely not to come to any of those shows. If you're playing locally too often, there's no incentive for anyone to come to one particular show, since they can always just catch the next one. More often than not, they won't come see you at all. But if you tell them your last show was in November and your next show is January 15th, they're far more likely to make a point of attending. Keep local shows scarce! You devalue your band by playing constantly, and loading in and out six times a month for shows that are attended by no one is demoralizing. Spreading out your Austin appearances also gives you more time to prepare for each show. Give your fans a reason to come see you a second time! The next time you play, five or six weeks later, have a bunch of new songs in the setlist.

You don't want to overload your calendar with local shows. But you do want to keep playing live as often as you can. There's an element of adrenaline that separates playing live from practice. Playing two or three tight shows can bring a band along faster than two months of casual rehearsals. Since it's a bad idea to play all the time in Austin, you need to get in the van. Central Texas is a fantastic incubator for developing original bands because there are major population centers in practically every direction. What's more, the markets for original music in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston are not as diverse nor as oversupplied as the one here in the capital.

You don't want to undergo a weekend trip within Texas without some planning. First of all, don't travel until you have stuff to sell. You need T-shirts and CD's to hawk if you're going to make your gas money back. It also increases your chances of playing to receptive crowds if you spend some time finding out-of-town bands who complement your own group's style. As tough as it is making headway in Austin for bands who live here, imagine how intimidating it is for outsiders. Set up a show on your home turf for a band from New Orleans or the Metroplex, then have them book you a show on theirs.

There's an amazing system of grassroots websites that didn't exist a few years ago that can help you to find bands and venues all around the country ( and even places to sleep for free ( If your band handles itself professionally, makes sure to take enough merchandise, and is any good at all, you should break even right away and once you start returning for second and third visits, turn profits. If on the other hand the idea of sleeping on strange floors and driving all day unnerves you, you should probably select a different line of work.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Way of the Beat

Every Hour [EP]

Towards the bottom of the detailed mix for the waltz "Lover's Pride," a female computer voice complains, "I'm not likely to be impressed by the same thing over and over again." It sounds familiar, like the parser from one of those point-and-click adventure games popular on the PC in the early 90's. It could be a comment on the topic of the song, but it could also serve as a summary of Ukemi's approach on each of these six tracks.

The quintet uses folk-rock instrumentation -- acoustic guitar, upright bass, violin, piano, and drums -- but they pack a wallop. Their potency isn't due to dramatic volume shifts or flamboyant parts from any of the players, but rather the lovely arrangements. Each splash cymbal hit to be heard here is chosen with purpose. Ukemi's signature is an ability to collectively pirouette from nervous, twitchy rhythms in the verses of their songs to a more soothing standard rock ballad beat when the choruses arrive. "Halfway" is the best example. The release that the anthemic chorus brings is built up by the unsettled feel of the main verse riff, led by a darting bassline. When the bass and drums stop playing against the beat and settle in for the chorus, John Jung's narrator seems to have found soaring peace, if but for a moment.

The use of tension and release in this music -- and the way that the more subtle elements of the production, like the many overlaying harmonies in the chorus sections and the additional percussion employed during many of the more polyrhythmic bits -- makes Every Hour perhaps the preeminent headphones listen among local releases I've sampled this year. Even in the big melodic passages there's a duality in the calm, cool notes of Julie Wang's violin and Jung's fragile, wavering vocals. There's also a larger structure at work in the track order. The way the unresolving "Every Hour" bridges directly into the beat-happy "Ferris Wheel" seems particularly suite-like.

With its lean rhythm sound, detailed mix, and frank, sometimes unsettling lyrics, Every Hour stands out even among Austin's cluttered field for its originality and vitality. One of the best of 2009, and not a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Back to '79

There was never any time better than the late 1970's to be a singer/songwriter. The successful scorched-earth campaign of punk got rid of the unrealistic expectations for young songwriters to all be musical prodigies. The arresting rhythms of African and Caribbean music were beginning to be listened to seriously outside of ghettos. Most importantly, the heavyweights of this era were not so far removed from the golden era of 60's rock to understand the importance of harmony.

This last detail is an overlooked one. Since all musical trends are cyclical, it shouldn't be at all surprising that there's a wealth of bands trying self-consciously traffic in a new wave style nowadays. It's disappointing that most of these bands only take the simple chord changes and catchy melodies. A few of the sharper ones (Franz Ferdinand, Vampire Weekend) have managed to get the rhythms right. But hardly anybody is paying attention to harmony these days, which is unforgivable. Thoughtfully constructed harmonies give sprightly major-key songs sophistication and depth. They provide shading, allowing some dark colors in with all the brightness.

The new single from Austin's Rich Restaino and The Obits, "Susie," demonstrates that harmony isn't entirely dead and buried. The bouncy melody and a confident, full-sounding lead vocal make it clear that this is a pop song first and foremost -- not to mention the chipper piano ostinatos. But clever choices in the female backing vocals, and Alexei Sefchick's fleet, vaguely ominous bassline, lend the song an element of melancholy that's most welcome. Restaino's lyric, regarding a young headbanger who has nothing to say to her mother until she finds herself with a kid of her own, benefits from the intelligence of the arrangement. His vocals sound improved from their earlier recordings, smoother and more expressive. The band sound in top form, too, with the lead guitar really picking its spots well.

Restaino is a true polymath: writer, reader, thinker, teacher, rocker. We're lucky to have him here in Austin. Go support him and the Obits and hear some more of their new material when they play tonight, December 10th, at the Nomad Bar.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Demo Sweat #8

I usually really enjoy putting these columns together, because I lived for a long time in a kind of musical wasteland. It's a constant pleasure to me how diverse, unpredictable, and fertile Austin's music scene is. And as I begin to travel more within the state, everywhere I go in Texas I find much the same thing, and I wonder why it took me so long to settle down here. Diverse people with varying interests making music in unexpected combinations -- that's why Texas played such a significant part in the music of the 20th century and will continue to loom large in the 21st. Not to mention the fact that the music fans here are friendly, unpretentious, and a lot more open-minded than I was raised to believe in northern cities. They do tend to freak out disproportionately about "cold" weather, but it's hard to get chesty about this when you're simply overjoyed about not having to shovel your car out of three feet of snow and ice each morning.

That being said, this was a rough week for Demo Sweat. The ugly, little-recognized downside to the quantity and diversity of Austin's musician class is that there are a lot of lazy, unmotivated self-styled superstars clogging our dive bars. These people are utterly unprepared to take criticism of their work in the right light, because they don't know how to think critically -- if they did, their music wouldn't suck beyond the telling of it. They're unable to separate their pride in creation from the ability to judge what is or isn't an original work, and they keep sending me the same song over and over again. It has three or four chords, no changes, a facile melody built around a 1-3-5 tritone, the same 1-AND-2-AND-3-AND-4-AND non-rhythm of a guitar being strummed up and down mindlessly the whole way through, and lyrics that are obviously paraphrased from the work of real songwriters.

I wish I could help these people, but I can't. Their parents (who pay their rent, car payments, XBox Live subscriptions) believe in them, and the producers and session musicians their folks paid to record their songs told them they have "what it takes." You kids: You don't have what it takes. You suck. Stop sending me this song! I hate it more than a Bright Eyes/Sufjan Stevens/Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros package tour.

This week's winners by default are Will Robinson and the Danger. Their early recordings are no great shakes -- the guitar and bass parts feel detached from the stiff electronic loops -- but at least in "Mercury" and "I Am a Sultan" they've created some actual songs, with original melodies, rhythmic changes, and lyrics that weren't written in two minutes. Mike McNeil needs to work on moderating his habit of directly impersonating the nasal-drip vocal style of Ben Gibbard... and his lyrical style as well. The instruments, though, show real life. The bass, rhythm guitar, drums, and keyboards all serve separate (and correct) functions in the mix and the songs have considered, not-boring structure. I wish "Mercury" had a rocking peak at some point, but "I Am a Sultan" is a pretty good song.

So much for the only band I even remotely enjoyed this time out. Quickly: Horse Opera are 100% unoriginal robot country with blatantly formulaic songs and lyrics and atonal vocal harmonies. Megan Blue is a blues singer who needs counting lessons; her vocals are always lagging behind the band and that eliminates whatever charm her tone and phrasing might create. Nutmud of San Marcos might have a handful of good ideas -- their bass-driven sound is all right and I like the way they use little vocal samples to create mood -- but their drummer is hideously bad, losing time every section and molesting the ears with fills that sound like random noise. The Love It Band are extremely pleased with their style, which mixes transparently rudimentary GarageBand programming with bad guitar playing and abusively repetitive vocals. Unfortunately they have only one song that has more than one chord progression and not even a single interesting vocal idea. Even with falsetto, and I usually love falsetto! They are apparently moving from Massachusetts to find fame and fortune here; they should turn around and go back.

Raised by Pandas are sort of charming in the sense that anyone who's ever written a song on the guitar will recognize their "originals." But I wrote these six "songs" myself when I was 12 and I'm kind of past that now. Disciples of Sound have a vibe that's currently pretty distinctive -- they mix Sabbath heft with old-school blues, all with a 90's grunge compression. Unfortunately their singer is copying Chris Cornell so obviously that it makes them seem way less original than they really are, since Soundgarden didn't use the blues so overtly. Unfortunately, the minstrel job makes it impossible to recommend them. Too bad, because the songs that have riffs instead of just long guitar solos are not too shabby.

I'm not even going to write about Mike Clifford, because he didn't even bother to take two seconds to make sure he wrote his website name down properly when he e-mailed -- he sent me a bad link. I could obviously Google him, but I don't see why I should go to the trouble when he sent me a message with no text and a broken URL. You reap what you sow, Mike. Jordan Cody's brand of commercial country is produced in the least interesting way imaginable, but the songwriting is halfway decent. I would give her more time here if it wasn't terribly unclear at her site whose work it is you're listening to. She writes in her bio about becoming a professional demo singer. If she didn't in fact write these songs, that's the exact right career for her, because she's got nothing going on otherwise. Well, OK, looks.

Finally, I'm really getting the knives out for Dandelion Wino. If you see the name of these jokers on a marquee along Red River, run in the other direction. Or call the bar to protest. There's nothing particularly bad (or particularly good) about their masturbatory no-change jamming -- the guitar soloing is decent, the bass and drums are a little out of sync (mostly because the guitar player isn't listening to them), you've heard worse. But dig this hypocritical, self-righteous excerpt from their bio: "Because musicians and listeners are free from the constraints of the past, music is now essentially worthless.... A good record could take its listener on a sensory journey -- with auditory bliss 20 minutes per side. The ears had to go along with and accept the album for what it was: a cohesive artistic statement put together by a group of likeminded individuals...."

OK, so far I agree. But it continues: "Today, these joys are overlooked by an impatient, unforgiving breed of listeners only interested in 30 second sound bytes [sic] of the latest radio hit. Dandelion Wino is the antithesis to this prevailing attitude towards today’s music."

No, you aren't. Dicking around for 7 minutes on I-iii-IV-V is not a "cohesive artistic statement." It's the pathetic self-expression of musicians so arrogant and slothful as to expend absolutely no effort on creating worthwhile material. There's nothing wrong with jamming, but it has to stem from somewhere. Instrumental or otherwise, the jam bands that have made music that will endure (from the Dead to Phish to Miles Davis) have started with a foundation of intricately composed songs that set the mood and the narrative path for the improvisational sections. Smoke some more pot, you lazy a-holes.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Screaming the Blues

The Red 100s
Bill's Records (Dallas), 12/5

Raul, guitar player for The Red 100s, has this stage move where he flicks his head back a little, hits a downstroke with particular emphasis, and spins to his right on the balls of his feet so effortlessly that it seems as if he's floating. Weaker men have studied years to affect this sort of thing. You couldn't steal it if you tried.

The Red 100s have a natural fury that's more than the sum of their parts. When Raul's bandmate Robbie switches from guitar to bass, they lose some of their power. Partly it's because a more conventional power trio lineup makes their roots (Cream, Hendrix, Led Zep, Blue Cheer) more obvious. Mainly it's because their best songs -- the pummeling "Bellhop Swing" and "Set Me Free" -- are blues stripped of all excesses save monstrous, precisely delivered riffs and punishing force. When they're playing as a two-guitar and drums trio, there's a no-notes-wasted intensity that's lost in the more traditional soloing-over-rhythm section feel of their bass-guitar-drums tunes.

The reason they sound so original and compelling in their two-guitar alignment is also what makes them modern, what makes their interpretation of the blues an exciting and fresh one. Both guitar players are right on the beat, cranking out simple syncopated changes with clockwork efficiency. Contained, equally precise drumming completes the effect. When they build up into a full-barreled neo-Sabbath thrash then pull back into riffing, it's like walking out of a 100% humidity day in Houston into a well-insulated house with central air. Audiences will be drenched with sweat and grateful of it.

Not every one of the young band's songs is a winner. After they played their two triumphs right up front, the rest of the setlist was a bit of a disappointment (save a rhythmically faithful but intensified "Wipeout," a cover choice that really suited their style and approach). The vocals, by drummer Kyle S., fit in just right when they're needed but they could use them even more sparingly than they already do. As they continue to develop their material, the emphasis has to stay on what they do best -- rapid and frequent feel changes, short and controlled solos from both guitarists, minimal arrangements centered on those massive riffs -- and avoid extended jamming without rhythm changes.

Some people try their whole lives to put their own signature on the blues. With that riff from "Set Me Free," the Red 100s have staked their claim. Only other advice I can offer is that they should probably stop smoking their namesakes. Cigarettes are bad for you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Even on a Bad Night

Andrew Anderson
Beerland, 12/2

Although the club was colder than the inside of a keg and the band was unrehearsed, even a show Andrew Anderson would probably like to forget made me admire his music even more. Opening with a different arrangement of one of his nerviest songs, "Necessary Casualties," solo with a mandolin was a gutsy way to begin. Despite the Arctic climate and a backing group he hadn't seen for six weeks, the rest of the set was entertaining in a rough and ready way. Even with a group not totally on the cues, Anderson's songs have a natural structure to them that all but force the band into shape. What's more, the enthusiasm all the musicians shared -- particularly his bassist's cheerful harmonies -- was contagious.

You can make the best out of a bad night, or you can grin and bear it. Keeping his frustration limited to a few blood-curdling screams, Anderson kept it together for "Once Met a Girl," a creatively re-harmonized take on "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and during a mid-set solo break, the stark and affecting "Hemingway." Good country ought to be a little rough and road-weary, and I enjoyed the show immensely for all its rough patches. By the time things wound down with the uncompromising-but-accessible "Damn It Man," even the sheepish drummer and lead guitarist had been won over by the strength of the material. It can only get better from here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Honest Day's Work

Long Way
Pete Minda

Solidly written and performed "adult contemporary" music is difficult to create, and it's equally difficult to pinpoint what separates good work in this field from the unimaginative and impersonal material that gluts it. It's hard work doing uncool well, which is why James Taylor is still packing theaters even though critics and hip musicians refuse to recognize his influence. Also Chicago and Steely Dan.

Austin's Pete Minda doesn't knock every track on Long Way out of the park, but he makes a lot of solid contact. His songwriting is band-conscious, using the rhythm section and added touches like the accordion of "Memory to Me" to distinguish the tunes from each other. There's a foundation of acoustic strumming in the mix, but it doesn't dominate and importantly it doesn't push every song into the same kind of feel. Lead guitar parts diversify the tracks and play off of the vocals nicely.

Lyrically Long Way has some fine moments and some missed opportunities. The chorus hook to "Thing About Love" ("the incidents of late tell me I don't know a thing about love") is clumsy in just the right way -- the charm of the song is the way the singer doesn't use another's words to make his point. "There's Never Been Any Peace" sometimes sacrifices the clarity of the melody in its onrush of words, but Minda has some solid points to make. Sometimes he tends to lose focus, as a few songs have second verses that don't entirely flow logically, as if he cribbed some ideas from an entirely different lyric. "She's Not the Little Girl" has a resonant theme and a lovely duet part, but the words are too unspecific to really cut to the heart the way they should.

The strongly arranged main body of the record is well-complemented by the final track, a solo acoustic take of the fine "Kansas City Coming Home" that displays that Minda is highly skilled at maintaining the drama of his full-band performances in a solo setting. The way he adapts his vocal style, very understated through most of the record, to really sell "Kansas City" is representative of his subtle but refined skills. Long Way isn't currently stylish, but heartfelt and honest never go entirely out of style either.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mystery Trip

Magic Hero vs. Rock People
Magic Hero vs. Rock People

Normally I give local records two or three spins before I write about them. It doesn't usually take any more than that to find a few high points, a few suggestions for improvement, and reach a reasonable conclusion. My time is limited and if I don't spend a certain amount of time each week listening to 70's British rock on vinyl I get cranky and ill-disposed to say anything nice about music at all.

I've had this Magic Hero vs. Rock People CD for almost a month now and I keep trying to listen to it all the way through and then write a definitive review. I usually make it all the way to the end (and it's a monster, 20 tracks) without any idea of what to say. A lot of thought and effort went into this record. The instrumentation is dense and varied, but beautifully recorded. Whether it's old keyboards, string instruments, or mouth percussion, you can always tell what the sounds are even while the overall mix is quite deliberately blended and hazy. The vocals are equally well-rendered, but in a subtle way. It's only the presence of one song not sung by leader Donny Lang, the tone-deaf "Selfless Nameless Vanity," that proves by negative example how cool the singing is otherwise. This sort of layered production deserves multiple listens and careful analysis. There's bits of studio chatter, sampled speeches, tape-manipulated sections, and none of it seems accidental.

However the record isn't as much fun to get lost in the depths of as it could be, because the songs are melodically rote and rhythmically all identical to each other. With a few exceptions -- the surf instrumental "Rocketing Rhythms II" is peppy and the twee "The Only Road You're Gonna Find" would be a breakout track if it wasn't buried 19 songs into the sequence. Even though they're well crafted with waves of violin and movie-soundtrack organ and thoughtful lyrics, there's about eight too many songs like "One-Way Woman" and "Only a Wizard in the Wind" that have the same drab approach. There's also no variations in arrangements -- the songs begin and end with all the same sounds, with nothing added or removed. The songs aren't distinct from each other because rhythmically they're all alike, with little melody coming from the vocals or the overdubs, and they aren't distinctive within themselves because there's never any changes. Verse, chorus, verse, chorus, outro, every time.

Lang has the restraint to not end every song with a lengthy jam over the verse chords. Some of the shorter material (opener "After the Game") is among the most appealing, because the riffs don't outstay their welcome. There's some talent and a lot of fine musicianship buried in the clouds of sound here, but it's a lot easier to record variations on the same song 15 times than write 4 or 5 totally distinct compositions. Having crafted themselves a sound that's worthwhile and their own, Magic Hero vs. Rock People next have to fill it in with stronger songs that can stand on their own, without the Technicolor production. Playing live shows and shaping their next release for 7" vinyl, as they're now doing, should help. Theirs is a fight worth waging.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Demo Sweat #7

My big discovery this time out is D.B. Rouse, lately arrived in Central Texas from Wisconsin by way of Carnival Cruise Lines. Rouse's bio, and his songs, make him seem like the kind of guy you'd want to listen to tell stories for hours. He's lived all over the place and done interesting things, from working in a rural pawnshop to singing in a shipboard lounge. He can write terrific tunes from his own experience ("Valentine's Day at the Pawn Shop" is a tale of desperation in decaying flyover America worthy of Flannery O'Connor) but he's too curious and too talented to only ply that style. He also writes protest songs ("Clean King Coal") and in character ("Every Orchard," "Mischief on Mind"). Though the bulk of his stuff is guitar and vocal, Rouse can wring more variety out of a single melodica overdub than most songwriters can from a whole band, and he pulls in surprises like choirs and boogie-woogie piano ("Brewery City") to further diversify the sound. With all the amazing songwriters I'm unearthing through this column who have just moved to Austin to seek their musical fortunes, I should probably think about starting my own Monsters of Folk. D.B., Taber Maine, what do you say?

I wanted to say nice things about Consider Me Spilled, since their singer Ariel is a great musician and a friend, but I can't in good conscience praise a band that draws their inspiration wholly from a single source. The chorus-heavy, jangly guitars, the slightly dance-inflected bass and drums, a high male voice singing somewhat overwritten lyrics that are simultaneously disgusted by and obsessed with romantic love... they sound like a Smiths cover band from an alternate universe where the Smiths made several more albums with fewer good songs on them in the 90's. Tyler Clark has more influences but hasn't figured out how to blend them enough to make a sound that's his own. His "The Devil and Robert Johnson" sounds almost exactly like "Ballad of a Thin Man," and the lyrics highlight his other main problem -- he can't write them. Instead he steals bits and pieces from other people's songs. This might be less obvious if he didn't have the hubris to try retelling one of the most well-known legends in 20th-century music history. They even made a "Metalocalypse" about it! Even if Clark was able to somehow write an original song about the crossroads (and he isn't), there's no way it's going to improve upon the other 200 famous ones. Musically Clark's not at all bad. The vocals are fine and the production on his songs is clear and professional, not polished to the degree that it sucks all the grit out of the tunes. But go to any Austin open mic any night of the week and you'll hear five country singers all bleating out variations of the same lyrics.

The Dead Lotus Society know at least a little bit about crafting beauty out of ugliness. Their singer, Hyatt Killer, has a hair-raising multi-octave voice that makes the contradictory concept of female doom vocals seem natural. Unfortunately, their drummer is limited and not able to play fast enough for proper grind, and their guitar player is unskilled. Doesn't matter how much distortion you throw on it or how low you tune the thing, I can still tell when your "solos" are just noise. Learn some scales! At least the Lotus people are trying to make metal that's scary. Betrayed By Sorrow define their sound as "hard rock you can understand," but what that really means is that they're bending over backwards as far as possible to not offend any potential record labels. Anyone with two or three lessons under their belts could play their simplistic guitar parts, and the vocals sound like Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood. What's the point of hard rock no one disapproves of? As everyone knows, Van Halen were great with the self-aware, deliberately sexist cartoon machismo of David Lee Roth and terrible ever after. Sev7sky, of San Antonio, have a similar disconnect between appearance and content. Their tracks aren't as well-produced as Sorrow's, with a distorted low end on the bass and guitars that sounds terrible, and stiff, disconnected drums that might as well be programmed for all they bring to the table. Yeah, I'm sure there's an audience for this brand of castrated mullet-rock, as there was for Metallica's misbegotten Bob Rock period, but who wants that audience?

Want to hear an example of a local metal/hard rock band that I think is really bringing the goods? Look no further than Squidbucket. The instrumental trio is incredibly gifted musically, as any band hoping to follow honorably in the footsteps of Primus and Tool must be. But they're also really good songwriters. All of their online recordings are different from each other, and they have a knack for pulling out surprises even past the six-minute mark in their long, meticulously arranged songs. With its bass-tapping intro, "Captain Schmegal's March" begins as a Les Claypool tribute. But it doesn't stay there for long, as maniacal drums and pinpoint guitars take it through a murkier but still hook-laden underwater nightmare. They shift meters with practiced ease, but they're not prog just for the sake of it. These are some excellent but truly weird musicians who genuinely think in 7/4 and 8/8. If you missed Mastodon, you'll want to be there when Squidbucket play Plush Monday November 30th.

Speak in Verse have a Connecticut address but an Austin connection, as singer Donavon Cavanaugh hangs out here while he's not in school. Cavanaugh and second singer Travis Schwartz have good singing voices, but not much else about Speak in Verse's sound is particularly interesting. The bass playing is incompetent, pounding roots out of time, the guitar parts are largely forgettable, and the songwriting is cookie-cutter emo. Even the way the two vocalists interact is totally formulaic. Why all these five-minute songs when the compositions have one or at most two different chord progressions? I like their drummer's double-kick work, at the very least. They should go back to the drawing board and draw a lot more from hardcore, because the little heavy bits that begin and end a few of the tunes are better than the drab main sections. Also not from around here but worth a mention since his music is distinctive and cool is Crazy Mountain Billies, actually one dude from Montana. The one-man lineup works for his brand of bluegrass; instead of monotonous jamming his songs overflow with real melodies on multiple instruments. His unique vocals also are worthy of praise.

The Generals are yet another Americana act but one with some elements that set them apart. They're much more focused on group groove than backing up a guitar-strumming singer. Although not great in volume, they have a propulsive sound that suits the unassuming lead vocals and tasty slides. When a second voice comes in on harmony, they're pretty special. I also like the way that the vocals sound copied incorrectly from classic folksongs. Check out these titles -- "Lazrus and the Tent Revival," instead of "Lazarus," "Wallbash Valley" instead of "Wabash." No way of telling whether that's intentional or not, but it reflects the way that unlike some others the Generals reclaim old ideas as their own rather than merely recycling them. They're at Kick Butt Coffee's Airport Road location on November 30th.

Mo McMorrow's tiny schoolgirl voice isn't powerful enough to be heard even over a very modest rhythm section. She's not getting much out of the one she has on her online clips, since the recording quality of the drums sounds downright awful and the basslines are boring. When she goes in a more overt folk direction, as on "This Field of Mine," the results are better, but I wish her songs had more -- indeed, any -- dynamic changes. I do admire her lyrics. The Nish Initiative has some decent ideas as far as songwriting goes ("Free to Slave" has a nifty little guitar riff) but I found their recordings painful to listen to. I don't think many other listeners will be able to last even long enough to appreciate the decent variety and fairly good developing writing. That's because Jake Nishimura's vocals are woefully poor -- out of key, out of rhythm, a mess as far as enunciation and phrasing go. A singing voice is an instrument, one that requires perhaps even more practice and self-discipline to hone than a guitar. Roscat is a one-man band with little to no proper musicianship, but a ton of imagination and creativity on display. These extremely primitive recordings might not boast much in the way of completed songs -- more single-part sketches, few longer than two minutes -- but they capture the excitement of someone just starting to make their own music and realizing they might be good at it. Roscat moves from simple cheap keyboard ditties to simple cheap guitar ditties, but the way both sides have a hazy, loopy, but hopeful shared quality indicates there's a real native musical vision at work here. The warped vocal effects and half-accidental rhythms are infectious in their own way (like early Ween without the chops). If not complex, his playing has better meter than a lot of so-called pros do. His page claims he's working on a concept album about Vietnam. Sounds just crazy enough to work.

Finally, Ukemi don't need any pointers from me. This is a finished band with a distinctive sound and sweet songs. They struck me at first as a kind of Asian-American Frames. Julie Wang's violin playing reconnects the group's alternative rock sound to Far Eastern melodies in the same way Colm Mac Con Iomaire's fiddle tethers Glen Hansard's songs back to their Emerald Isle roots. John Jung's unrestrained vocal approach is another thing the two bands have in common. Just updating the Frames would be almost enough to win my approval -- the fact that Hansard's Swell Season side project is more successful than his long-running rock band in the States is a continuous annoyance to me -- but Ukemi also have elements of ska and Latin rhythms at times that further serve to make them distinct. Online you don't really get the full effect of Scott Yates' upright bass, so make a note to go see them December 5th at Lambert's. That's a CD release show for a record I hope I'll get to review soon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Spell Check

Saxon Pub, 11/18

You have to respond to the enterprising spirit of a band that puts an ad up offering free show admission to musicians and critics. Local bands are like innumerable grains of sand in Austin, but few are self-aware enough to realize that they need the listening ears of those beyond their significant others and drinking buddies to reach the mythical Next Level. Ouachita don't require anyone to tell them how to play -- the six musicians in the band are at a proficiency level far beyond the average bar band. Drummer David Pennington, in particular, is a gas to watch and hear. I hear a lot of call for "pocket" players these days, but Pennington is proof positive of the fact that a superior drummer is loose-limbed enough to provide lots of color with his right hand while still keeping unflagging time on the snare and kick. Bassist Sonny White has a complementary active but anchored attack. Drew deFrance is a monster lead guitarist, and although he doesn't solo often, Jonah Kane-West's Hammond and piano playing is marvelous.

Ouachita's take on blue-eyed soul isn't monochromatic. They can recall Stax/Chess for one song, the JB's for the next, and then with Hank Bragg's tenor riffing, Springsteen/Clemons. Though varied in style, the bulk of their songs are pretty similar structurally -- introductory solo, first verse, chorus, solo over verse chords, second verse, chorus, and so on. Often the best thing about their songs is the endings. I don't mean that in a sarcastic way. Rather than trailing off, most of their tunes have composed codas. They might deliberately slow the tempo into a big finishing flourish, reharmonize a section repeated earlier, or all play together an arranged melody. Their unison playing is really interesting, since deFrance has a guitar tone that's quite saxophone-like in its sustain and vibrato. When he and Bragg attack a figure together, it sounds like micro-Phil Spector.

Despite the excellent musicianship, there's only so much you can do with repeating solos over standard, major-chord blues changes. Despite deFrance's creative and pyrotechnic playing, their set was a little heavy on boogie, with four players (keys, bass, drums, and rhythm guitarist Kurt McMahan) repeating very simple vamps while Bragg and deFrance exchanged licks. Later in the set when they stretched out more and worked in some group improvisation, they got much more compelling. Letting the drummer and bass player step out more is never a bad idea with players this skilled and sympathetic. McMahan's guitar, in particular, became more of an integral part of the sound when he was playing off of the backline. Since Kane-West comps a lot of the time, a lot of McMahan's rhythm guitar playing isn't really necessary, at least when he's just strumming chords. He might consider putting the guitar down some of the time. This also might help with the band's stage presence, since other than the singer everyone kind of remains rooted to the floor in one spot. On a few tunes McMahan plays counter-riffs off of deFrance's wicked leads; Ouachita sounds leaner and more purposeful then.

Cutting out some of the unnecessary rhythm guitar would also help mask the fact that structurally the songs are not real complicated. White and deFrance do amazing things turning very simple chord changes into original compositions; having an extra guitar just going from G to D much of the time doesn't add anything to the very full sound of the six-piece band. McMahan would also be freed up to play more electric harmonica, and as far as I'm concerned there's no such thing as too much electric harmonica. With deFrance's riffing, Bragg's sax interjections, and especially those occasional composed sections, there's nothing wrong with the songs being based around simple changes. It fits the band's style, and with the addition of a few more turnarounds, they'd have everything they need musically.

I would like to hear some more distinctive lyrics. McMahan's got a strong soulman's voice and he works a crowd well -- some of his best bits were his improvised encouragements to the band and audience. The way the group's songs build to choruses, I wish sometimes the lyrical hooks they were arriving at were more original and memorable. That's all quibbling -- a more pertinent concern is how they're going to get people to find their music with a name I still can't spell correctly after typing it at least a dozen times. Ouachita? I think that's right. In any event they're playing the best joints in town -- the Saxon, Momo's (Friday the 27th) -- because they're a vastly superior bar band. Thanks for the invite, guys.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Breathing Lessons

Take a Deeep Breath
Cabe Lindsay

With its refreshingly extroverted and positive lyrics, this LP from Montana-to-Austin songwriter Cabe Lindsay has a warm, personal touch that's usually absent from releases in the electro-acoustic style. The compositions mix live instrumentation and programming in unassuming fashion. Although live drums and laptop beats alternate on the songs, the record has an overall confident style that gives it flow. The songs, and not the changing instrumentation, are what leave the greatest impression. It's with the vocals that Lindsay experiments most, reinforcing his justified faith in the strength of these songs. He can bring in a female singer ("A Diamond Met a Pearl") or experiment with harmony ("Potter") or vocal effects ("Be Here Now") and all the tunes remain recognizably his own.

What's most invigorating about Take a Deeep Breath are the lyrics. Lindsay's interests in faraway vistas and Eastern philosophy are typical for the style, but his use of humor ("Be Well Bee") and his excellent storytelling are anything but. "Dead Body Falls Naked Off Cliff" has a ripped-from-the-headlines subject like Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo's Strange But True album but the witty rhyme scheme and tongue-in-cheek elements of the lyric mean the song actually improves on the great title. Nathan Zavalney's sympathetic mix intelligently seats the vocals in such a way that they enhance the stories Lindsay is trying to tell, as on "She Opted for Scuba Diving" and especially "Potter," where the singing takes form like the work of the subject would. The combination of Lindsay's unpredictable and original lyrical images and the stylish, modern production enhances both elements.

There are a few tunes that are more production experiments than full-fledged songs, and the extended instrumental sections are aimless in a way the stories never seem. With a few exceptions ("Travel in Your Mind to Mexico" is gorgeous) the vocal melodies are a little bland; there's a lot of simple tri-tones that the skilled layering of harmony and production doesn't entirely redeem. In sum, though, Take a Deeep Breath is a one-man project that strikes a rare balance between varied instrumentation and song styles and a strong, recognizable, and original creative pulse that runs through all the tracks.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Good Brain Places

Much about my new home city is still mysterious to me. I'm still not completely sure of where it is I live without printed directions. But it doesn't take more than a few months in Austin to conclude that the place is bubbling over with frustrated musicians, intensely creative freethinkers with much to express and too few close listeners to appreciate them. For every agitated group of unknown noisemakers, there's a full club's worth of jaded hipsters who think they've heard everything but don't know the names of any local acts -- they only go out to see DJ's. In this Austin is exactly like Chicago, San Francisco, Denver, and everywhere else.

One thing that sets this town apart is that by sheer mass, there exist enough weird musicians for a scene to coalesce without much if any audience becoming involved. All around Austin there are little clots of bands who support each other, book shows together, and commiserate at house parties and dive bars over how misunderstood they are. These collectives share band members, record labels, living space, influences; unlike a lot of less fortunate places they seldom if ever all sound alike. One of the signal pleasures of browsing the Austinnitus Audio Series archives is the lack of correlation between musician credits and style of track.

This several-year anthology of improvised, experimental, and "difficult" musics is not for the faint of heart. While some of the pieces offered are soothing and consonant (the New Music Co-op's "Untitled," Alien Time Ensemble's "Sympathetic Drive" featuring Mike Matthews' lovely tenor playing, E.C.F.A.'s rousing Ornette/Borbetomagus sax honk jams) many others are minimalist drones. Appreciating music this free of traditional harmonic and structural constraint is totally subjective, which is kind of the point. I couldn't tell you why Frequency Curtain's "Axi-OHM" is an excellent, fascinating experimental piece while Bright Duplex's "Dangerous Celebrities" sounds like somebody puttering around in the garage sorting tools aimlessly for ten minutes; that's just one person's independent reaction to these recordings. Likewise, the repetition and loop choices of Moray Eeels' "Jobsworth" sounded unsettling and haunting to my ears; another listener could well find it slapdash.

What's important to take away from this generous collection of Texas experimentalism isn't whether there's anything from which you can hum the tune. (I found most of it to be pretty enjoyable although I've been listening to Gastr Del Sol and Glenn Branca since I was 12; I was/am a weird kid.) There's two things that make the "difficult" and "challenging" branches of independent music important for informed fans to absorb. First is the community spirit at work here. There's a lot of good local bands writing pop songs who have trouble filling a club; this fiercely pure brand of DIY experimental is almost by definition made for its musicians first and foremost. In order to have an audience or even band members enough to execute some of their more cinematic ideas, Austinnitus-affiliated artists must support each other tirelessly and passionately. That's a valuable concept to appreciate for narrow-minded guitar-slingers everywhere.

What's really exciting about living somewhere with a thriving, categorization-defying alternative to the alternative is the boundaries being trampled and what that means for music consumers. The Austinnitus page scrupulously credits players and instruments for every track shared, but scanning these listings won't necessarily help predict what the music will sound like. Listening to some of the larger ensemble pieces is an active exercise even for trained ears. Is that a sample, a bowed instrument, a guitar effect? What is recording and what is performance? It may not be possible to come up with the right answer on one's own, but what's important and vital in this project isn't closed-ended answers to questions. It's the continuing process between music and musician, composer and composition, listener and recording, that calls into question very basic assumptions about what is and isn't a finished piece of music and what if any response is expected from it. The chief enemy of the artist in any discipline is complacency; the creators and curators trampling on the perceived boundaries of any art form are performing a valuable service by constantly expanding the limits of what is possible.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Looking for a Place to Get To

As Long as This Thing's Flyin'
Andrew Anderson

There's a glut of country/folk artists in present-day Austin. You know it, I know it. I happen to love country music. I've always liked the old stuff (or new traditionalists like Freakwater, Richard Buckner, Giant Sand, and so forth) but my appreciation for the polished commercial version of Nashville music has risen in the past few years from an odd source. I'm a big "American Idol" fan (we'll talk about that more in January), and the country-themed weeks and the contestants who attempt to brand themselves in that genre are a nice break from all of the tepid Top 40 tunes. Modern commercial country can be pretty broad and creamy, but for whatever reason it's remained a discipline where professional songwriters (as opposed to singer/composers) dominate and that means that even if the songs are formulaic at least they're complete, with choruses that flow logically out of the verses, structures that build to climax, and instrumental hooks in addition to vocal ones. For years I used to say the only kind of music I really had no use for was modern radio-friendly country and I don't feel that way at all any more. Keeping an open mind is important as a musician and as a music listener. You could learn a valuable lesson anywhere. And Nickel Creek's Pavement cover is better than the original. There, I said it.

I don't think I have to go out of my way to explain my appreciation for Andrew Anderson's As Long as Thing's Flyin'. On a facetious level, the record has the trappings of current country-rock. Lyrically there's a predominance of mentions for sin and whiskey, and the acoustic guitar changes are what you would expect. But Anderson and his extremely talented bandmates, drummer Luke Meade and and multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Harris, have gone out of their way to complete a record that's full of personal expression and memorable, individualist touches. Even the packaging is better than the norm: Rather than a jewelbox with a piece of paper inside, Flyin' comes in a really lovely cardstock case with elegant screenprinted artwork. CD's have been rendered a mere delivery system for digital content, to be ripped and discarded, but here the artist has created something worth keeping. The simple but iconic inner sleeve design and the band photographs all work together to give another perspective on the music on the disc.

The songs, like the sleeve, are simple at first glance. Anderson is an instinctive songwriter with a direct lyrical and musical approach. His most distinguishing tendency as a singer is to not let the constraints of meter interfere with his ideas; he moves rhyme schemes and rhythms around in cool ways. While his songs aren't packed wall-to-wall with weird changes, there's more harmonic movement than is usual for work in this style. What really separates As Long as This Thing's Flyin' is the arrangements, for which Meade and Harris deserve equal credit. Meade engineered the record in addition to drumming on it, co-producing with the rest of the band, and Flyin' really sounds like a professional, finished album. There are different production approaches to introduce songs (the scratchy, back-porch quality to "The One I Left Behind" at its opening) and clever transitions (a raunchy pick slide bridges "Wait Darlin'" and "Hell on Earth"). Meade also has a style on the drums that's unusually aggressive for country-rock, but never too loud, distracting, or inappropriate. His ability to play busy, heavy fills and then zip back into a shuffling backbeat is one of the many subtle elements that makes the album distinctive.

Harris is a one-man wrecking crew, playing proficient and reliably tasteful parts on electric guitar, banjo, and dobro. He's clearly a prodigy, but what really sets him apart is his ability to moderate his attack to leave Anderson's vocals their proper space in the mix. "Wait Darlin'" has an amazing dry lead guitar riff that gives way to a related but gentler banjo lick when the vocals come in; that's only one example of how Harris harnesses his tremendous talent to make Anderson's songs come across more strongly. The trio work together beautifully. Meade is equally willing to lay back and provide just a shaker or a lone kick drum if that's what best suits the song.

At 14 tracks As Long as This Thing's Flyin' starts to retrace its own steps in the back end. There are some nice cello additions here and there, but the group does tend to stay in one mood for each piece and the stronger songs are crowded towards the front of the running order. That means a few later pieces come over like weaker developmental versions of what we've already heard. They would benefit from having a real bass player, too; Anderson and Harris's efforts at the instrument sound like the competent work of good musicians but don't give the extra shape and texture of a true bassist born -- there's a lot of root notes just doubling the guitars. I think Anderson and his group have the imagination and the skill to broaden their sound in both directions. Meade's rock chops could allow them to sound convincing on heavier electric numbers, but there's also a knowledge of old-world modes at work here that suggests they could try some more overtly folk sounds and pull it off. From the basis of Harris's cello arrangements, I'd love to hear what he could create with a full-blown string quartet. Lyrically, Anderson is much stronger when he's clearly drawing from personal experience ("Once Met a Girl," "Old Dusty Trail") than when he's trying to sing in someone else's shoes (the slightly awkward "Send the Bastard Running"). What's important is that he's writing songs about different subjects and from different perspectives, something that will keep his material consistently improving. With Meade and Harris in the fold, he's got to keep his game up to meet the challenge of providing songs worthy enough for players this good and this smart.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Demo Sweat #6

There's no immediate danger of running out of listening material for these things, it appears.

Matthew Bryan's dedication to Radiohead's music is pretty impressive. Unfortunately it means the more you listen to his recordings the less original he seems. Bryan has gone so far as dividing himself between two distinct musical identities: one is solo vocals accompanied by guitar and sounds like early Radiohead with vocals indebted to Thom Yorke's solo stuff; the other is flat-out Eraser electronica with occasional guitar interjections that sound like recent vintage Greenwood. It's not easy to write songs in this style, with odd phrase lengths, unusual guitar and vocal harmonies, and subtle structure. "Grumped" might sound exactly like something from the How Am I Driving? EP but if it was a Radiohead song, it'd be a pretty good one. Otherwise the electronic songs are pretty lame; the beats aren't well-programmed and the rigidity enforced by the loops narrows what Bryan can do singing and on guitar. He overcompensates for the repetitive, blocky grooves with totally random breaks that don't seem at all related to the main sections. His solo guitar stuff is better, particularly "King of the Jungle," the first thing of his I listened to and I think the best thing he's done so far. When he slows things down and relies on his electric guitar playing, which is skilled and has a lot of separate bass and treble parts, his debt to Thom Yorke is less obvious. On his moodier pieces, his Yorke-like fondness for eerie falsetto ninths sounds more like his own style and less of a tribute. He's got an unbelievable voice, by the way, which is one reason I'm giving him so much space here -- "World War III Is Coming" sounds like "Motion Picture Soundtrack" sung by a resurrected Tim ("NOT JEFF") Buckley. Bryan slides up into pitch naturally and his little changes in intonation and emphasis are so good you forgive him for songs that sometimes last longer than need be. Amazing musician, but he needs to open himself up to a lot more influences. And play with some other people -- something tells me his ideal role is as the singer of a rock band with some electronic influences. Like you-know-who.

Josh Caldwell is a songwriter with a lot more stylistic range. He can dial up a new wave beat ("With You") or a nu-metal pastiche with proficient ease, and musically his tunes are well-arranged with good central hooks and active, varied lead guitar, piano, and drums. Lyrically he poses me with a bit of a problem. How do I write about Christian artists in this column? Do I cover them at all? I'm a rigid, humorless atheist -- I actively write songs trying to convince people not to believe in gods. I think it's not fair to Josh's abilities to write him off because I don't agree with his message. As a church worship leader, he's presented with the challenge of delivering a deeply personal message to an extremely varied audience. The way he switches genres with ease speaks to his preparedness for this job. But as far as his lyrics go, well, if you're going to write a religious song and expect my full endorsement, you better sell me pretty hard. I think the concept of an afterlife is demeaning to what we can accomplish in this one, but for the length of Death Cab for Cutie's "I Will Follow You into the Dark," Atheismo preserve me, I believe. That's how great a song it is. Caldwell's lyrics don't have any personal connection between writer and subject; they're just variations on the same tired memes that if you went to church every week as a kid (which I sure did) you've heard a million times before. You know the "South Park" episode with Cartman's Christian band, Faith Plus One? That's what I'm reminded of here, which is a shame because the music is excellent. I'm perfectly willing to give Christian artists the same objective hearing I would anybody else, but the lyrics better be up there with Slow Train Coming if you're really going to move me.

You don't have to be a phenomenal musician to be a good songwriter, but if you choose to present your music solo with just your own guitar accompaniment, you owe it to yourself not to suck at the guitar. Laura Imhoff has an unreal singing voice and an immediately recognizable talent for turning her personal observations into arresting, poetic lyrics, but her terrible, noisy acoustic guitar strangling destroys any effort at sustaining a mood. Oscillating at random between two half chords (or less: "Come My Child" is like six droning minutes of G#) limits what Imhoff can do vocally and all the random blue notes and dropped rhythms distract from her melodies and storytelling. Take some lessons, practice way more, or hire a real guitarist. In a different genre, but similarly limited by unskilled guitar playing is Ray PD. There's some feeling and some messages behind his songs, but the pounding, leaden strumming of block chords with little variation and no feel makes them physically unpleasant to listen to. The stops and starts and mistakes in Chris Edwards' songs could be interpreted as stylistic choices if he would stick to playing by himself, but his recordings feature banjo and percussion overdubs that don't even remotely move in rhythmic relation to the guitar and vocals. I wanted to like a folksinger whose MySpace page name alludes to Spinal Tap, but all I found was an amateur desperately in need of a metronome. Or a drummer, which are sometimes cheaper.

Dale Perry on the other hand can play. His live duo recordings with harmonica player Jimi Lee, all available in high-quality format at Perry's website, rip with distinctive and varied blues riffing. Perry has a loose, part improvised style, but rooted in songs that are well-written and original. It's hard to write a new blues song -- the chords are pretty much dictated by the style -- but Perry plays hybrid lead and rhythm parts on his instrument that are unique to each composition. What's more, the lyrics are recognizably in a traditional blues idiom, but they're not copied from old songs. Perry is taking his own experiences and communicating about them in a specific style. Really neat stuff, and the gruff, oil-soaked vocals drip with soul.

Sometimes to get the basic idea of a song across a songwriter has to use shortcuts like drum machines and samplers. Sometimes recordings of this nature are genius, but often I wonder if they wouldn't be better served working out a really distinctive single guitar or piano part. Bluesriff Brown's best tune is the simplest, "Far Away," and his singing voice is better than San Antonio's self-deprecating Brown gives himself credit for. When he starts messing with multitrack recordings, the basic shapes of the songs are either obscured or lost entirely in overly loud rhythm strumming or out-of-time drum machine. The overdubs ruin his natural feel playing alone, he probably would benefit from playing with others. I think his tune "The Mantle" has the wrong title; a "mantle" is a cape but Brown is singing about a "mantel," a kind of furniture. Larry Roszkowiak could be similarly dismissed for his songs' out-of-sync programmed backing, but even though they're not quite square to the beat the drum and bass patterns show the right musical knowledge. The main point here is the songs themselves, which show practiced wit in telling stories that build up to humorous choruses. Roszkowiak's specialty is funny tunes about male/female relationships. "Drive the Distance" is the standout, with a clever hook and main idea. The basic concept wears thin over two other similar but less good songs. Larry might want to try taking on some new topics, and adopting a pen name if he ever wishes to see his name in parenthesis on a record sleeve. Dreamland Days is a one-man band and not just a stockpile of demos, I think, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell. Jason Smith is adept at getting his programmed parts and his live instruments to line up properly, but he just doesn't have very many interesting ideas. He's a fine technician and producer, but although well-played his project utterly lacks for memorable guitar or vocal parts. His singing is pretty dull too -- not bad, just not distinctive or memorable in any specific way. Sometimes the lyrics are predictable and sometimes they're just bad ("Sugarlips").

I'm a traditionalist myself -- I would prefer not to even listen to music on my computer, let alone make it with one-- but it's hard to argue that the future of music is in hybrid electronic projects like De Rol Le'. Why do I say that? Well, I can listen to a rock band and pick apart how they do what they do -- those are drums, that's a piano, that's a bass. When it comes to ambient projects like this, there's really no dividing live performances from samples, patches, sequenced material, DJing... the important thing in this genre is the finished product, not the means of its creation. Raising challenging questions of what is and isn't an original creation is the task of all artists, musical or otherwise. The music of De Rol Le' is certainly atmospheric, but it's not unmusical -- there's an ear at work here for odd intersecting rhythms and overtones that is practiced. I like how the songs tend to be on the short side, staying just long enough to create a distinct impression and then ending before the repeating elements start becoming a point of themselves. Magic Hero vs Rock People, who are part proper band, part Negativland-style found sound installation, and part art project, are certainly doing their best to challenge expectations and engage conscious thought on the part of their listeners. However, musically their proper songs are kind of dull, with hazy production not obscuring songs that recycle lyrics too much, guitar progressions that are bland and obvious, and unimaginative keyboard riffs that move around the guitars in the same way every song. The sample-heavy stuff too seems to be an excuse to release unfocused jamming as completed songs. That said, the way their stuff is sewn together shows real thought and talent; even the kind of weak folk songs have weird intros and crossfades. I think I might enjoy them more over the course of an album where the parts suggest some larger whole rather than experiencing them piecemeal through online sound clips. The Drew Fish Band doesn't have the defense of being high-concept like Magic Hero, they're just another dime-a-dozen Austin Americana band where the acoustic guitarist blithely strums block chords and the fiddle player lazily saws the root note of all those chords simultaneously. Fish has a cool voice, but the songs and lyrics are blah.

Finally Richmond's Gospel Doll only has two songs up but they're both pretty excellent pep pills of coiled hardcore energy. They're a bass-drums duo but Tava Terroir puts a lot of guitar players to shame with lead lines on the bass that are melodic and rhythmically solid. Terroir and drummer Dan Hassay lose their place a few times on these early recordings, but more often than not they follow each other nicely with drums that take an active part in developing the songs with breakdowns and blastbeats. Love Terroir's unholy caterwauling, too. "Vice Squad Blues" has a really different-sounding intro and outro that show some excellent potential range for this minimalist pair. Long instrumental sections aren't really their strong suit, as they tend to kind of reveal the limitations inherent in the duo lineup, but they have more than enough ideas to fill in good songs. More recordings soon, it says on their page. I hope so.