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.

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