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.


  1. HAHAHAHA! I am glad you are doing this. Austin has lots of great music and lots of crap. Although, all bands and musicians should take criticism with a grain of salt, they should take this post as a learning lesson. Especialy the never ending parade of out of state talentless bands moving here to make it. Most of these people really dont know what they are getting into. I hope you continue to do this blog.

  2. I was hoping the first review I saw wouldn't have been so harsh on our band bio. But, that's alright. I want to mention that I completelely agree about how improvisations are best when juxtaposed with intricately composed pieces of music. I just want to reasure the author of this review that we're working on it. We play the legnthy unchanging improvisations beause they're fun and we don't have much written material yet. And we're stubbron enough to jam around town because it's Austin. Anyone can play anywhere so jamming around is fun. But we ARE writing. I am offended by the pot somking lazy a'hole comment because we are working on exactly what we are being criticized about. We're a very young band just working out the kinks, making up songs as best we can, and this has deffinatly given me food for thought for sure. And, really it's quite exciting seeing a review about my band. Good or bad we've made enough of an impact to be written about. And that's what I like to see. Also I don't know if this is unclassy to post a comment on a review of my own band but, it's not like we're big enough for it to matter. And I'm not about to be called a lazy a-hole without saying something about it.